For those who know only the uptempo beach music, the fact that the group even recorded anything else can come as a surprise. For those who have heard Pet Sounds, oftentimes the music might as well have ended there. But for those who judge each Beach Boys album on it's own merits, going through their discography is an exciting adventure where the genius of Brian and at times other members struggles to stand out against group infighting that threatens to bring out the worst of everyone. Beyond the sixties, the group can hardly be called consistent. Which makes it even more fun to go through their work and see what hit the mark. With no further ado, THE BEACH BOYS:
Surfin Safari (1962): This one has the Beach Boys' first two singles: "Surfin" and "Surfin' Safari", only the latter of which is particularly good. "Surfin" was the first song they ever recorded and while it certainly had pure novelty appeal at the time, it does not stand up against the Boys' later work. Similarly, most of the songs here like "County Fair", "Ten Little Indians" and "Cuckoo Clock" are novelty songs and filler, far more filler than on later releases. The two great songs here are "Surfin' Safari" and "409" which almost save the album. Anyone can skip this album and just listen to those two and be none the worse for it. Though "Safari" hints at Brian's later genius he clearly hadn't matured as a songwriter at 20 (haha I'm 20). Mostly pretty bad.
Surfin' USA (1963): This sophomore attempt is miles ahead of their first one. Perhaps an OCEAN ahead. Yes, this one is more focused on surfing, not Indians or fairs or clocks. There's even a cover of Dick Dale's "Misirlou". The eponymous single is a cover of a Chuck Berry song with new lyrics, played beautifully with a killer organ solo by Brian. But for me the highlight here is "Farmer's Daughter", with a slower tempo which shows us the beginnings of what's to come on Surfer Girl with an absolutely beautiful choirboy delivery against a perfectly bouncy surf groove. The rest of the tracks hold their own for the most part and this is a great starting point for this band.
Surfer Girl (1963): The band's first masterpiece. Here the speedier surf rockers are set nicely against smooth ballads like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room", the latter of which deserves a spot on Pet Sounds as much as anything, as Brian's first exploration of adolescent stress and loneliness. But even "Hawaii" is as well done as a surfing song can be with the backing vocals designed perfectly for each part. "Catch A Wave" is similarly well-crafted. It's at the level of their later output even if it's not their best album. Though if surfing really IS your bag, baby, this may be the best album you'll ever come accross. The only thing that stops it from being a 10 is the instrumental "Boogie Woodie" which while not terrible is an unnecessary distraction from the other tracks.
Little Deuce Coupe (1963): Three albums in one year. Yes, they were that prolific, creating music faster than anyone today. However, the creative juices might have been wearing off as for perhaps the only time the band reused FOUR songs including "409" and "Shut Down". This makes some sense as the concept for the album was to create some sort of compilation of the songs the band had made about cars, with new material recorded as well. "409" is the only good car song the band ever made besides "This Car of Mine" from the next record, and the new material especially fails to impress. The only great on the album is "Be True to Your School" which is a lovely if kitschy earworm. Even that isn't really unskippable and the car theme really relegates the whole thing to a dead end of an idea that never went anywhere (thank god they never released another car album). I'd say don't come back to this until you've heard every other Beach Boys song, every one of which is undoubtedly more worthy of your time.
Shut Down, Volume 2 (1964): No, I'm not reviewing Volume 1 here. Shut Down, Volume 1 was a compilation album from Capitol Records which featured that song. So it's possible Murray Wilson, the band's then-manager, father to three of them and infamous arsehole suggested this name 8 months after to capitalize on that record's success. He also caused David Marks to quit the band, Marks being a friend and member to the boys I didn't mention earlier because he quit in '64. Thanks Murray. To get to the actual album, there are two great tracks here, "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Don't Worry Baby" and the rest is pure filler. OBVIOUS filler. "Denny's Drums" is a drum solo track that my friend Mridul and I used to mock often for it's inclusion here. There are skits, there are covers, and there are instrumentals like the eponymous track which doesn't do anything to stand out. "The Warmth of the Sun" is good but crosses the line from heavenly to sleepy. The obvious recommendation to make here is to skip everything but the songs I mentioned and maybe "This Car of Mine". But it is almost worth listening to the whole thing for the filler, most of which isn't bad and some of which is just funny that they included it. Like the song "Fun, Fun, Fun", suggests, this album is good for some if you're in the right mood.
All Summer Long (1964): The Boys were well-established at this point, and there may have been a bit of coasting involved here. On material they'd definitely covered before like "Little Honda" and "Girls on the Beach", they're clearly trying and even producing some of the better material about those topics, but it's easy to imagine Brian playing these songs, many of which Mike Love helped contribute, and starting to get tired of these types of tracks. But Love does flourish with this material, which he clearly had an aptitude for, with his solo contributions like "All Summer Long" being fun and pretty if a little shallow even for an early Beach Boys song. Carl does actually prove himself on "Carl's Big Chance", showing he could crank out a neat solo even if the opportunities to do so were rare. There is one track here, "Our Favorite Recording Sessions", which consists of sessions where the boys messed up or goofed around in a cute wholesome way. I can imagine teen girl fans of the time finding it charming but not too much of the charm survives. Similarly, the charming nature of this album is a little worn at this point and it's the first one without any true highlights to pull it out of the recesses of their catalog. "Little Honda" is nice but only performs well in the chorus. You might find something to hold on to here, but that's more of a testament to your tenacity than the band's.