It struck me that it might be fun to assemble a list of 70 songs that Brian Wilson wrote/sang and share this list as a possible fan's guide to Brian Wilson. Since he's 70 years old today, 70 songs seems like a good number.
These songs aren't in any specific order (so it isn't a ranking of favorites ... there's gold all the way through). These are just 70 songs that really illustrate the artistry, the value and awesomeness of Brian Wilson. These are not necessarily his best songs, nor are they necessarily all my favorites ... but they are all amazing entries into a 50-year career.
I won't go into a ton of depth on each song. I'll just give a couple sentences each that are the first impressions that leap to my mind. I'm doing this all off the cuff, no lists and without listening to the material. These are just the 70 that hit me strongest at the time I decided to write things down. Here goes:
1. Good Vibrations
- One of the greatest singles of all time, and a No. 1 record to boot. Who hasn't heard this classic 1966 song? Absolute perfection, and it helped The Beach Boys pass The Beatles on a year-end readers poll in England.
2. Surfer Girl
- Brian claims this is the first song he ever wrote. What a great way to begin! Familiar to the Disney staple "When You Wish Upon a Star," this song is gorgeous in its simplicity. The harmonies are just perfect.
3. Love and Mercy
- Something of an anthem in Brian Wilson's discography, he's used the song to close most of the concerts he's given since 1999. It's very Brian, very much from the soul. A modest hit in 1988, it was obscured by "Kokomo," a song he had no part of. But "Love and Mercy" deserves to shine.
4. Surf's Up
- Perhaps the most brilliant and beautiful song in a brilliant and beautiful collection, "Surf's Up" is so perfectly wistful and evocative, and sung so magnificently that it was given the No. 1 slot of best Beach Boys songs by Mojo magazine. I agree.
5. Wouldn't It Be Nice
- The first track on the magnificent "Pet Sounds," and a hell of a great song all around. It's both upbeat and introspective, the perfect encapsulation of teenage energy and self-doubt, hope and longing. And it's so dynamic! Whew.
6. Heroes and Villains
- The cenerpiece of the "SMiLE" album, and the intended follow-up to "Good Vibrations." That's a lot of weight for one song, but "Heroes and Villains" is brilliant enough and powerful enough to make it work. Lots of pieces, interwoven, forming a masterpiece.
7. Southern California
- A sweet ode to the past, and to his fallen brothers, Brian conjures such atmosphere in this track from the "That Lucky Old Sun" album. Despite all the drama, all the pain and the drugs, Brian claims that he's glad it happened to him ... as it all had up sides, too. Perfect.
- You can't talk about The Beach Boys' leader and not bring up car songs. This may be the best of the lot, too. Everything about the track is fun, and it really cooks. Brian worked with Roger Christian on the song, but he added the "I've got the pink slip, daddy" hook on his own.
9. Surfin' USA
- Just as you can't ignore car songs, you can't ignore surfing songs. This is a rocker that continues to please in the live setting. It may be a rewrite of a Chuck Berry riff, but the sound and vibe are all Beach Boys. Brian knew how to take Berry's song and add harmonies to create a classic.
10. Here Comes the Night
- The original "Wild Honey" track cooks, with a great Brian vocal and a solid R&B feel. The Beach Boys could really turn in some cool licks and hot vocals, and this song really puts that on display. Avoid the 1978 disco remake, however.
11. Sloop John B
- One of the absolute best Beach Boys songs, in terms of arrangements. Everything about this song works, and the section where the instrumental bed drops out and it's all vocals ... dynamite. The vocal weaving of Brian and Mike really sets off the song.
- Another "Wild Honey" standout, and a monster of a song. Everything in this song is fantastic. Brian's arrangement, the propulsive feeling of the track, Carl Wilson's vocal ... This should have been a bigger hit. It was always a delight in the live setting.
13. Melt Away
- The singing, the bells and the overall arrangement make this song sound like a 1960s hit with a 1980s production. From his solo debut album, "Melt Away" proved Brian hadn't lost any of his production magic or musical prowess.
14. That's Why God Made the Radio
- The first single from the new Beach Boys album, this song makes the voices the stars. Harmonies galore, and what a feeling. Some of the lyrics are a bit snicker worthy, but that's a proud tradition in Beach Boys songs. Everything about the song feels right.
15. Your Imagination
- The "Imagination" album was produced by Joe Thomas, who helped The Beach Boys with the new album. The song glories in the thrills and power of the past, while also signalling that Brian wasn't quite ready to give up on the game. A perfect driving song, and catchy as heck.
- The drum work on this "Pet Sounds" track kicks and kicks and just never lets go. Brian's vocal is strong, and there's just so much testosterone involved. But it's also just a little vulnerable, as one has to wonder why she wasn't with Brian's character in the first place. A knockout.
17. Kiss Me Baby
- One of the very best vocal arrangements The Beach Boys ever did. If I ever sat down to do a Top 10 favorite Beach Boys songs, this one would rank very, very highly. Track the vocal parts, and listen to Brian's high part. Perfection never sounded so good.
18. The Night Was So Young
- 1977's "Love You" album had a lot of rough spots and incomplete sounding productions. This song was one of the more polished tracks, and it's as moving and beautiful as anything The Beach Boys had done in 10 years. The way the vocals are handed off while retaining the emotion? Magic.
19. Good Timin'
- A late Seventies "return to form," in that the harmonies are pitch perfect and the overall song impression is so warm and comfortable. The lyrics are pretty dang good, too. A minor hit, but a great song nonetheless.
- Before "Pet Sounds" came this song. With its abrupt silences, the track was hard on radio listeners in 1965. But check out that production! Check out the vocals! Those lyrics are pretty great, too. One of the great should-have-been-a-big-hit songs.
21. I Get Around
- The Beach Boys' first No. 1 hit, and all around the time of Beatlemania too. That backing track is more complicated than you might think, and there's nothing timid in those vocals. A great, confident song that stands the test of time (even if the lyrics have dated just a bit).
22. The Waltz
- The 2004 solo album "Gettin' In Over My Head" doesn't have a ton of great tracks, and the album got lost in the shuffle when the other 2004 album "Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE" was issued. But this track combines humor, odd instruments and fun vocals for a daffy and cool song.
23. Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl
- One of the standout tracks on 2008's "That Lucky Old Sun" album, the track makes an obvious nod to "Surfer Girl." The vocals are assured and soothing, and the pledge of love and the soaring construction merge into a touching song.
24. California Girls
- From that classic intro all the way to the fade, every note is perfectly in place and the song is an earworm. Brian would sometimes refer to this song as the anthem of The Beach Boys' career, and that seems about as suiting a way to address it as any. The perfect Beach Boys song.
25. Sail On Sailor
- Even when he was out of it and couldn't be coerced into the studio to come up with material for the guys, The Beach Boys still managed to get remarkable tracks out of Brian. "Sail On Sailor" is one of those jewels, and it appeared on their overlooked-yet-marvelous "Holland" album.
26. Catch a Wave
- What a groove! And it has a harp! The way the vocals climb and fall, it's like the listener is riding a wave with the band. A triumph of production, and a timeless classic all in one. Ooh wah ooh wah. There are just so many great bits to this song.
27. When I Grow Up (to be a Man)
- Mike Love came up with some killer lyrics that really bring the emotional impact of this song to the foreground. The song is all the more impressive when you realize that it's The Beach Boys themselves who are playing the instrumentation. No Wrecking Crew here. A highlight on 1965's "Today!" album.
28. Let Him Run Wild
- Carl Wilson saw where Brian's music was going, and thus he saw "Pet Sounds" coming. The inventive backing track, the complex vocals and the personal lyrics were already shown off on past Beach Boys songs, but "Let Him Run Wild" kicked it up a gear into a whole new level of song making.
- The final track on "Pet Sounds," and the first single released that would bear Brian Wilson's credit (it wasn't released as a Beach Boys single), "Caroline, No" has an echoed production and a palpable emotional ache that really sent off the album in a moving way.
30. Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight
- Perhaps the most perfectly realized track on the 1988 solo debut, "Dreams" has everything and the kitchen sink thrown into the production. It almost sounds like a Christmas song at the start, but then it kicks into a whole different angle. Strong vocals and hooks galore. A wonder of a song.
31. Let Us Go On This Way
- A rough roar and a stomping beat gives way to a harmonized group vocal that really sets off the "Love You" album. Once you get over the initial shock that this is somehow THE BEACH BOYS, it becomes a heck of a thrill of a song.
32. Help Me, Rhonda
- The second version of the song (the first sported a "Ronda" spelling and a harmonica riff) was the group's second No. 1 smash. Al Jardine's vocals highlight a stellar production, as Brian manages to pull off a cool R&B track with summer vocals on top.
33. South American
- The lyrics may be a bit dated (though I'm sure plenty of guys would still enjoy having lunch with Cameron Diaz), but the sound and excitement of the track rock. This song sounds in the same vein as "Kokomo," and this Jimmy Buffett co-write adds a bit of shine to the "Imagination" album.
- The catchiest, most upbeat, most pleasing track on the new Beach Boys album? Perhaps. That's certainly my take. The ukelele, the drums, the hand claps ... Yeah, man. This is how The Beach Boys SHOULD sound at 70. They've still got it, and IT sounds so good.
35. What Love Can Do
- This song, written with Burt Bacharach, has a bit of a softness and earnestness to it ... The production wouldn't sound too out of place on "Pet Sounds," and the lyrical matter would slot in nicely too. Pretty impressive for a track from 2009.
36. In My Room
- The vocal blend of the Wilson brothers and Love and Jardine has never been so important, or so perfect, as it is with this track. How can anyone hear this song and not feel transported? The need here, the comfort found in a special place ... That's universal. That's human experience. Great song.
37. She Knows Me Too Well
- Another song that really hits the heart of things, and sets the stage for "Pet Sounds." Brian sculpts a great mood and offers some vocal touches that are so note perfect ... but it's Mike Love's bass that really nails this song down. Talk about a mood song ...
- The walking sound effects might sound just a bit comedic, but it sets off a percussive flair throughout the song that really hits a groove. And Brian's "squawks" are cooler than any sax fill would have provided. Another great track from his 1988 solo debut.
39. Soul Searchin'
- The 1995 Beach Boys recording of this song is really fantastic ... but it was never officially released. When Brian released "Gettin' In Over My Head" in 2004, he resurrected Carl's lead vocal and created a new backing track. It's still a great song, and Carl's vocals are the stars.
40. Funky Pretty
- How many vocal parts can you cram into a song? I'm pretty sure Brian must have broken some kind of record for a song of this length, as the tag itself has so many moving parts. The lyrics don't always mean anything, but then ... that means everything. It's a fun song with so much soul.
41. Going Home
- A great rocker from "That Lucky Old Sun" that lets Brian sing more in a bass register, and that really hits a golden oldies rock and roll feel. But the lyrics are anything but nostalgic. He even gives you the key to every song, folks. Groovy!
- One good rocker deserves another. Brian says this was a bit of an homage to The Rolling Stones. While it may not necessarily sound like any Stones song in particular, it has a feel (especially in live versions) that totally captures that rock and roll spirit.
- Tack it up, tack it up, buddy ... Whew. Another classic car song, and just listen to the way that track is built. It almost feels like you're driving because there's a certain speed that is just imbued in this track. No one did car songs better than Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys.
44. Don't Worry Baby
- Are there more perfect harmony vocals than those The Beach Boys committed to tape? This has some of the most beautiful vocal performances the group ever did, and Brian's falsetto is a killer. You get such an emotional thrill that it's easy to forget that this is a car song (check the lyrics).
45. From There to Back Again46. Pacific Coast Highway
47. Summer's Gone
- These three songs form a closing suite at the end of the new Beach Boys album. The mood is certainly more subdued, the lyrics more introspective, and a lot of thought is put into the past ... and those who have passed away. Absolutely a moving trilogy of songs, and a perfect ending to their latest (last?) album.
48. Midnights Another Day
- Anyone who doubted Brian's ability to deliver another stunner had to have been amazed by this track. The lyric "all these people / make me feel so alone" penned by bandmate Scott Bennett so perfectly fits Brian Wilson, and the mood is so intimate and personal. A "new" (2008) classic.
49. 'Til I Die
- The way those notes cascade, the withdrawn and dark mood, the imagery ... This song is a painting, and is proof of Brian's ability to write lyrics that fit the mood so well. A downer? Well, perhaps. But the vocal patterns throughout are inspiring.
50. God Only Knows
- A classic in every sense, and beloved by just about every Beach Boys fan on earth. Paul McCartney calls it the greatest pop song ever written. Who can argue that? The dude would know. Carl Wilson's vocal sob throughout is just spellbinding. And that vocal tag at the end? Awesome.
- The very height of experimentation, with different production styles, musical styles and vocal approaches incorporated into one of the most complex and challenging pieces of the "SMiLE" project. Check out the Dennis Wilson vocal "Truck Drivin' Man" that's buried within. That's almost rap, folks.
52. Happy Days
- Brian resurrected an early Seventies nugget called "My Solution," wrapped in another unreleased track called "Thank You" (or "Brian"), and added some childrens chimes music and morse code. The song weaves into a personal insight to Brian's life and his outlook. It's pretty bold and interesting.
53. Fun, Fun, Fun
- That guitar lick sounds like pure Chuck Berry, but the rest of the song is all summer. The finger waving, the girl who lies to her dad, the library ... I mean, c'mon, this is a story song! And what a story song. Teenage rebellion never sounded so fun.
54. The First Time
- When Brian released his first live album, "Live at the Roxy," he unearthed a couple of never-before-released songs. The best of these was "The First Time." Such a great mood and such a tight performance, with all the vocal splendor you'd expect. The master was clearly far from out of ideas.
55. Add Some Music to Your Day
- This gentle piece may not have the most profound lyrics, but it has so much soul. And the vocal work is among the best the group blend conjured at this era. Who needed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at this point. The Beach Boys had it covered.
- When Brian "abandoned" the production race following "SMiLE" and its meltdown, he hadn't cashed in all his chips. He still was able to build complex songs that were fairly short, with different interlocking vocals. Such is the genius of Brian Wilson ... simple complexity. Ahhh, Redwood.
- When Brian tackled two unfinished George Gershwin pieces, he created two songs that combined the very best of Wilson and Gershwin to make stunning pieces. "Nothing But Love" was the more neglected of the two, but its arrangement and structure are pretty amazing. His voice is strong, too.
58. This Whole World
- How many times do the chords change? Notice the melody shifts? And what about those vocals? "Sunflower" had an embarrassment of riches, but this Brian Wilson classic is proof positive that he still had all the skill at his fingertips ... as long as he felt like actually using it.
- An unusual arrangement, with drum dropouts and vocal volleyball. It's an arresting performance, as it stirs darker waters in a tale of a girl who chose a different guy. What went wrong? Certainly, nothing that comes to my ears.
- Yet another highlight from "That Lucky Old Sun," and a few instrumental flourishes that remind me of "The Little Girl I Once Knew." It's a great vocal from Brian, with an arrangement that builds and builds with a whole lot of kissin' and huggin'.
- The original Beach Boys recording of this song demonstrates the instrument arrangement genius that Brian brought to the table. The 2004 release shows his ability to capture a melody with vocals. This was a killer track in 1966, and it became a monumental track in 2004. This is some "SMiLE" magic.
62. Busy Doin' Nothin'
- Even when Brian has nothing to say, he can still craft a pleasing song. A tale of a daily routine where he has nothing but a phone call (and eventually a letter) on his plate. But it's delivered so delightfully, and the production is such a groovy bossa nova. Fun for fun's sake.
- A groovy "Pet Sounds" track that almost sounds like it is harpsichord driven, but instead it's a piano that had its strings plucked with a nail. The vocal keeps climbing higher and higher, and the feeling is so spiritual that I find myself sometimes haunted by the melody.
- Check out the drum pattern on this song, and how the vocals cut in around it. This club's the very best! And with those voices, and with these sounds, you had to believe it. Maybe not the greatest lyrics, but has any song so perfectly captured that high school feeling of group invincibility?
65. Dance, Dance, Dance
- I love the guitar work, I love the vocals ... and god help me, I actually do feel like dancing when I hear this song. Brian's wail across the top while the rest of the group delivers is such a wallop. The radio does the trick? Oh, most definitely.
66. Wild Honey
- A song with a wailing Theremin that isn't "Good Vibrations" or "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and has all the groove of the best R&B? You betcha. Talk about soul. Brian's track attacks the ear, and Carl's voice does the rest. Whew.
- Brian Wilson is a hell of a vocal arranger. He's done some of the best singing ever recorded. But he's won one Grammy, and it was for this "Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE" instrumental. Different in parts from the original 1966 version, this track lacks nothing in the way of menace, power or mystique.
68. Please Let Me Wonder
- A great group performance on vocals, and such a pleading lyric ... When The Beach Boys hit that tender spot in your soul, they can massage it and make it feel like their voices are your voice. This is the kind of song you have to sing along with.
- A song that suits its own title. The harpsichord track, the interlocking vocal parts, the intriguing lyrics, the haunting arrangement ... "SMiLE" was and is a lot of things, and that's because of the variety of music within the project. "Wonderful" is one of the many great pieces.
70. Rio Grande
- In 1988, a lot of fans were blown away by this song. Why? Because it proved Brian could still do music in the "SMiLE" vein. There are a lot of different parts here, and they weave together. "The river's deep and the river's so wide," with that drum beat behind it? Wow.
It would be easy to keep going with this list. I've already left off gems like "Cool Cool Water," "Little St. Nick," "Back Home," "You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone," "Do It Again," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," "Rock and Roll Music," "You're Still a Mystery" and dozens more. And I left off a lot of the silly but awesome ones (like "Mona," "Honkin' Down the Highway," "Market Place," etc.) But this sampling of 70 songs more than illustrates the genius that is Brian Wilson, from The Beach Boys to his solo years. The music here is classic, immortal, undeniably rich and moving and brilliant.
What songs do you think best demonstrate Brian Wilson as an artist, singer, producer or human being? What thoughts do you have on my selections? What should be added, or removed? Lay those thoughts on me!