With a brand new album out, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” and a string of reunion performances — including one at the ever-growing Bonnaroo Music Festival — the Beach Boys seem to be making their way back into the public eye. But for those of you new to the Beach Boys’ whole collection of studio albums, it can be quite daunting. They journey from bubble gum surf pop to an assortment of drug-induced psychoses and nervous breakdowns to an unwavering commitment to commercialism in the 1980s. All the fun stuff.
Formed in 1961 by the Wilson brothers — Brian, Dennis and Carl — their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine, the Beach Boys found early success with hit singles like 1963’s “Surfin’ USA” and “I Get Around” the following year. But it was with the release of “Pet Sounds” in 1966 that they achieved critical acclaim.
That said, here is a completely subjective list of some of the possible albums to start with (in chronological order):
1) “Pet Sounds” (1966)
This album is considered the single greatest work the Beach Boys ever produced. There’s no need to cite quotes, because you can look just about anywhere and someone will be praising it, from Paul McCartney to Rolling Stone Magazine. The harmonies, the catchy melodies and the strange sound effects resemble an early ’60s girl group like The Ronettes transported somewhere in the distant future, only with six guys from California, whose cheery pop belies themes of isolation and loneliness.
2) “Smiley Smile” (1967)
After “Pet Sounds,” Beach Boys one-man brain trust Brian Wilson headed into the studio with massive amounts of LSD and an unbridled desire to craft the greatest pop masterpiece ever attempted. Naturally, with all that ambition and all of those drugs, he went a little crazy, and the project known as “Smile” collapsed. Most of the songs ended up on this studio release, though, including “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains.” It’s pop music at its most adventurous.
3) “Surf’s Up” (1971)
The title song, another leftover from “Smile,” is a watershed moment in melody. As is “Til I Die,” a Brian Wilson-penned piece contemplating the vastness of the universe and the prospect of death, with chords he created out of geometric patterns he saw as he sat at the piano. But the somber tone here is not indicative of the playful, eclectic album “Surf’s Up” is elsewhere, with songs like “Don’t Go Near The Water” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree.” The titles speak for themselves.
4) “Holland” (1973)
Trying to reinvigorate themselves, the Beach Boys headed to the Netherlands to record this album, with Carl Wilson as the de facto leader. What resulted was a homesickness-inspired tribute to California and a warning about the perils of imperialism. The former, the three-part “California Saga,” is a forgotten gem. The opening track, “Big Sur,” is arguably the finest song Mike Love ever wrote.
5) “Love You” (1977)
After repeated bouts of depression and drug abuse throughout the ’70s, Brian Wilson had returned to the group full-time by the recording of “Love You,” even writing all 14 tracks — though three were co-written. It’s a notably divisive album, with some seeing it as the last truly great Beach Boys album and others as the beginning of the end. It’s certainly unique within the canon, featuring prominent synthesizers and unexpectedly wry songs like “Johnny Carson” and “Solar System.” It’s part Bowie, part Lou Reed, and it’s impossible to tell when it’s serious and when it’s being ironic. Well worth listening to, but you may want to save this one for later.