Sunday, July 17, 2022

Plenty of Wonderful Music: The Beach Boys, "Sounds of Summer—The Very Best of the Beach Boys"

When I was growing up, my family had a cassette—and perhaps album—of the 1966 Best of the Beach Boys collection, and I played the heck out of it. Truth be told, as far as best-of collections go for the Beach Boys, you could probably start and stop with that and 1967’s The Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 2. Just be done there and focus on the albums that pique your interest. 

Despite Anthony DeCurtis’s interesting essay in the liner notes for this more recent collection, the tracks selected for this wander a little wider into the territory of more recent cheese, occasionally spoiling the moments—the sun-drenched dream and collective myth of southern California—that perhaps only the Beach Boys can create. Regardless, there are still plenty of songs about cars, dancing, girls, rock ‘n’ roll, surfing, and the challenges of growing up.

Here’s a breakdown indicating the albums from which the songs are drawn to give you a sense of what eras are covered by the collection:

  • Surfin’ Safari, 1962: “Surfin’ Safari”

  • Be True to Your School single, 1963: “Be True to Your School”

  • Surfer Girl, 1963: “In My Room,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “Surfer Girl”

  • Surfin’ U.S.A., 1963: “Shut Down” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”

  • All Summer Long, 1964: “I Get Around”

  • Shut Down, Vol. 2, 1964: “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Fun, Fun Fun”

  • Beach Boys’ Party!, 1965: “Barbara Ann”

  • The Beach Boys Today!, 1965: “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Do You Wanna Dance?,” and “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)”

  • Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965: “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda”

  • Pet Sounds, 1966: “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”

  • Smiley Smile, 1967: “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”

  • Wild Honey, 1967: “Darlin’” and “Wild Honey”

  • 20/20, 1969: “Do It Again” and “I Can Hear Music”

  • 15 Big Ones, 1976: “Rock and Roll Music”

  • M.I.U. Album, 1978: “Come Go with Me”

  • L.A. (Light Album), 1979: “Good Timin’”

  • The Beach Boys, 1985: “Getcha Back”

  • Cocktail Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1988: “Kokomo”

Unfortunately, the songs aren’t included in order of release, so there are some real clunkers interspersed with otherwise excellent songs, making the back half of the collection particularly uneven. For the most part, however, the collection focuses on recordings up to the end of the 1960s, which is a good thing. 

Even though “Wild Honey” isn’t a bad song, you could probably cut things off with the tracks from Smiley Smile, the actually released, simplified version of the then-unfinished Smile. (That ill-fated project marked Brian Wilson’s stepping back from controlling the band.) Most of the songs recorded and released after that might not be worth the plastic used to make this CD. When the Beach Boys became a nostalgic novelty act, even when they started covering oldies more often, something was lost. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any Beach Boys song not written, co-written, or arranged by Wilson is suspect.

There’s still plenty of wonderful music here. The single “Be True to Your School” is delightfully, hormonally crazed. “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl” remain two of my favorite Beach Boys songs; “In My Room” is the only one Wilson co-wrote with Gary Usher on this collection. Even though it’s a cover of a song by the Regents, “Barbara Ann,” taken from the faux-live Beach Boys’ Party! offers a fun, infectious energy. And “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” both from Smiley Smile, are amazing, indicating where Wilson’s songwriting could and would go—and where the band and its fans could have followed him, had they been willing.

In fact, “Heroes and Villains” might be the best and most interesting song on this collection. As the lead single to 1967’s Smiley Smile, the song was reportedly received with confusion and disappointment. At the time, that reaction might have made sense; the song is a departure. But looking back and listening now, aware of what the next five-plus decades of music and culture would bring, it remains a ground-breaking and intriguing piece. Wilson was experimenting with the harmony of human voices, and with the recording studio as instruments of their own.

This year, this best-of collection was reissued to mark the 60th anniversary of the band’s first recordings. That reissue adds another mind-boggling 50 tracks, including many songs—about half of the 50—from the 1970s and 1980s. Regardless of which era is your favorite, may the songs of the Beach Boys take you to Huntington Beach, Malibu, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point in search of sun, sand, and a sentimental consideration of an American dream that might be lost forever.

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