1. “Chug-A-Lug” (1962)
The Beach Boys first hit the charts singing about three subjects: surfing, cars, and girls. (Especially, in the very early days, surfing and cars.) The group debuted with the independently released 1961 single “Surfin’,” then followed it up with their first smash in 1962, the double-sided hit “Surfin’ Safari” and “409.” Given a shot at recording a full album, they tried to apply their boisterous embrace to other all-American pursuits. The full-length debut Surfin’ Safari featured eponymous tributes to a cuckoo clock and county fairs. “Chug-A-Lug” finds Mike Love taking lead vocals to sing the praises of his favorite soda, while name-checking the passions of other Beach Boys and their friends. “Gary,” presumably co-writer Gary Usher, “likes a girl’s tight black pants,” while Wilson brothers Brian and Dennis are drawn to music and cars, respectively. Not Love, though. He wants root beer. (Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug.)
2. “Ten Little Indians” (1962)
As of 1962, Brian Wilson had begun to emerge as the group’s resident genius, and he wanted to release “Chug-A-Lug” as the group’s second major-label 45. He was overruled, and The Beach Boys instead released “Ten Little Indians,” which reworks the children’s rhyme in the group’s early style, cataloging all the gifts offered to a “squaw,” who rejects them in favor of her guy just being himself. It’s short (a minute and a half) and sweet, in spite of the beautifully harmonized, stereotypical war whoops, but it died on the charts. Maybe the public would have liked the root-beer song better?
3. “The Baker Man” (1963)
Unreleased for years, this Brian Wilson composition sounds like an attempt to cash in on the era’s dance-craze singles. But while it’s no sillier in theory than, say, “(Do The) The Mashed Potatoes,” it’s hard to imagine a crowd pounding the floor to the chorus: “Paddy cake, paddy cake, baker’s man.”
4. “Farmer’s Daughter” (1963)
The Beach Boys famously sang the praises of “Midwest farmers’ daughters” in “California Girls,” but that wasn’t the group’s first nod to the feminine charms of the heartland. Included on the group’s second album, Surfin’ U.S.A., “Farmer’s Daughter” tells the story of a drifter who needs a place to stay and offers to help a farmer’s daughter out around the farm in return for food and lodging. It has the makings of a dirty joke, but it never turns into one, in part because the swelling, Wilson-led vocals just sound too innocent to acknowledge anything as messy as sex.
5. “‘Cassius Love Vs. Sonny Wilson” (1964)
Presented as a peek into a “typical Beach Boys practice session,” this track pads out the first side of the 1964 album Shut Down Volume 2. Wilson and Love blow vocals and tease each other, Love comparing Wilson to “Mickey Mouse with a sore throat” and so on. It’s all in good fun, but also incredibly tedious. (And Love still ends up sounding like an asshole.) Apparently the boys liked playing comedians: A sequel followed on the next album, All Summer Long, in the form of “Our Favorite Recording Sessions.”
6. “Salt Lake City” (1965)
The Beach Boys released three albums in 1965, starting with Today!, an assured, mature collection on which they took some of the same instrumental and thematic moves forward that their rival/inspiration/Top 40 usurper The Beatles had begun to make across the Atlantic. Lyrically, the group’s next album, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), marked a return to celebratory songs, and a retreat from the adult themes of “Please Let Me Wonder” and “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man).” But the group’s old obsessions seemed not to interest them so much, so instead of woodies and boards, we get a tribute to Utah’s capital, where the “kids talk so cool” and there’s even an amusement park called the Lagoon. And speaking of amusement parks…
7. “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” (1965)
From the same album, “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” name-checks a bunch of famous amusement parks, from Palisades to Disneyland. Lyrically, it’s about as substantive as cotton candy—which also gets a shout-out—but like “Salt Lake City,” it finds Wilson toying with inventive instrumentation. He wasn’t working on the scale of “California Girls,” also found on the album, but he still gave even throwaway compositions like these a lot of care and eccentric touches. More would be on the way the next year with the arrival of the 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. But first: a party.
8. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1965)
One of the group’s strangest albums closed out a busy 1965. Beach Boys’ Party! ostensibly recorded the group having a casual, stripped-down hootenanny. The casualness was real—friends provided the party sounds—but the session still took place in a studio, no matter what the album art suggested. “Barbara Ann” became a hit, and the whole album is fun, but it’s still a little disorienting to hear the group singing Beatles songs like “Tell Me Why” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” with irreverent exuberance. And it’s really strange hearing them tackle Bob Dylan’s generation-gap anthem, a hit while the group seemed like it’d be singing about fun and sun forever. Clearly the times were changing.
9. “Vegetables” (1967)
The triumph of Pet Sounds and the aborted release of its could-have-been-a-masterpiece follow-up Smile following Wilson’s breakdown has been told and retold too many times to repeat here. But it’s worth considering how strange some of Smile’s songs must have sounded as they trickled out in different versions over the course of several albums, removed from the original version’s “teenage symphony to God” conceptual framework. Still, “Vegetables” would sound weird in just about any context. Hearing the good-times group sing about romantic disillusionment was weird enough. But now… carrots? (None other than a visiting Paul McCartney provides the percussive chewing noises.)
10. “Anna Lee, The Healer” (1968)
A funny thing happened to The Beach Boys after the Smile debacle. (Well, a lot of funny things happened, but let’s focus on one.) After initially distrusting Wilson’s more ambitious direction, the other members started to imitate it as Wilson’s post-breakdown contributions became more sporadic and their own interests started to embrace the counterculture enthusiasms of the era. Under the influence of sometime Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Love became a convert to Transcendental Meditation, and he wasn’t afraid to share his new enthusiasm on subsequent Beach Boys albums, beginning with Friends, which included “Transcendental Meditation” and “Anna Lee, The Healer.” The latter immortalized Anneliese Braun, a TM healer who, based on lines like “cures people with her hands / I’m just one of her many fans / You’d love to feel those healing hands,” sounds pretty amazing. If she’s the one who convinced Love to dress in flowing robes for photo sessions and tour with the Maharishi as an opening act, however, maybe she should have stuck to healing.
11. “Never Learn Not To Love” (1969)
While Love found solace in TM, Wilson’s drummer brother Dennis befriended another charismatic leader: Charles Manson. Their brief, tumultuous friendship included a songwriting collaboration when Dennis turned a Manson tune called “Cease To Exist” into “Never Learn Not To Love.” Dennis went on to write some of the group’s most interesting songs of the 1970s and release a great solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue. Manson, meanwhile, went on to inspire his followers to murder in order to stoke a race war he thought had been prophesied by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” making lines like “submission is a gift given to another” seem pretty creepy in retrospect.
12. “Loop-De-Loop (Flip Flop Flyin’ In An Aeroplane)” (circa 1969)
As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, The Beach Boys left Capitol for Reprise and began releasing albums under the Brother Records imprint. The group’s commercial fortunes had been dimming for years, and the switch offered the chance for a fresh start. The run of albums the group released beginning with Sunflower in 1970 didn’t do much to alter its chart success, but it did lead to a period of renewed creativity. Brian Wilson inched back into the group and other members stepped up, with Carl and Dennis Wilson emerging as significant songwriters (albeit songwriters deeply indebted to Brian). The Brother-era albums are the most stylistically diverse of the band’s career, featuring everything from the retrofitted Leiber/Stoller rock of “Student Demonstration Time” to soulful efforts like the Bruce Johnston-fronted “Tears In The Morning” and “Sail On, Sailor,” sung by Johnston’s South African replacement, Blondie Chaplin. But the goofy “Loop-De-Loop (Flip Flop Flyin’ In An Aeroplane)”—which repeats the title ad nauseum, perhaps trying to simulate airsickness—remained in the vault and unfinished until the late ’90s, perhaps deemed even too oddball for the standards of the time. And we’re talking about times odd enough to include…
13. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” (1971)
Co-written by Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley—a mysterious figure who assumed management duties for the group in the early ’70s and pushed the music in a more socially conscious direction—“A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is exactly what its title suggests. “One day I was full of life / My sap was rich and I was strong,” the tree thinks. But it has problems, too, namely pollution: “Trees like me weren’t meant to live / if all this earth can give is pollution.” And who’s the slightly raspy vocalist giving the tree life? None other than Rieley himself.
14. “Mt. Vernon And Fairway (Theme)” (1973)
Rieley was also behind the decision to move the band to Amsterdam to record the album that would become Holland. Intended by Wilson to be that album’s centerpiece, “Mt. Vernon And Fairway (Theme)” was left off the album proper and included as a separate EP. Why? Give it a listen. Even with narration—by Rieley again—the story about a magic radio makes no sense, and the music, which Wilson left unfinished as he moved away from the band again, doesn’t offer much compensation.
15. “Johnny Carson” (1977)
Most of the 1977 album Love You could be filed under “peculiar.” Much-hyped at the time as the return of a fully operational Wilson, it’s a weird, tuneful, heartfelt collection of songs seemingly about whatever happened to be on Wilson’s mind the day he wrote them. With “Johnny Carson,” that happened to be Carson and his many skills as the host of The Tonight Show. “When guests are dull he fills up the slack,” Wilson sings in the drug-damaged voice heard throughout the album. But it isn’t all golden being the king of late-night: “The network makes him break his back.”
16. “Problem Child” (1990)
By 1990, The Beach Boys were more brand than band, animated more by momentum and Love’s desire to keep some version of the group going than by any artistic ambition. You can find connections between “Problem Child” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but you might break something in the attempt. And, yes, that’s John Stamos playing drums. His spotlight moment was just around the corner.
17. “Forever” (1992)
The years passed, membership changed, Dennis Wilson died, Brian Wilson drifted into and out of the care of a Svengali therapist, yet The Beach Boys soldiered on, even scoring a fluke hit in 1988 with the dire “Kokomo” from the Cocktail soundtrack. 1992 wasn’t quite the end of the line for Beach Boys albums—there was still the collaborating-with-country-stars collection Stars And Stripes Vol. 1 ahead—but it was close to it. Summer In Paradise sidelined or excluded all members but Love, and it stiffed on the charts. It also closed with a dire, airless remake of the wonderful Dennis-penned 1970 song “Forever” as rendered by Dennis’ late-period replacement: John Stamos, who filmed a video for a slightly different version credited to his fictional Full House band, Jesse And The Rippers. But really, by this stage, The Beach Boys didn’t sound much like The Beach Boys anyway. So why call them by their own name?