Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rock Solid: Beach Boys

"If you only own one album by The Beach Boys it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Far be it from me to propagate the same old story of rock history. The established Beach Boys narrative would have you believe that 1966's Pet Sounds is not only the band's clear masterpiece, but also one of the best albums ever recorded. Mojo, the British music magazine, in fact, named it "the greatest album ever made." Rolling Stone placed it at number 2 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Beatle Paul McCartney has declared Pet Sounds his favorite record and said, "I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album." But would you believe that it's NOT The Beach Boys' Rock Solid?

Nope, that honor goes to Pet Sounds' 1965 predecessor, Today! Both albums received full 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide. On Amazon.com, however, Pet Sounds sits at a 4.5, Today! at a 5. The former had 72% of reviewers giving it perfect marks, the latter 81%.

I can guess what you're going to say next, that I'm letting one critic and a minority of fans override the majority opinion. And I see that, especially since my own preferences lean toward complete adoration of Pet Sounds (I even own a box set of the recording sessions). But, out of academic curiosity and a sense of fairness, let's entertain the notion that Today! could be Pet Sounds' superior. In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to do a Dr. Jack Ramsay style breakdown (with apologies to Dr. Jack and Bill Simmons, from whom I stole this format.)

THE CRITICS
All Music Guide's Richie Unterberger says Today! is "the first Beach Boys album that is strong almost from start to finish." He praises the record's "sophisticated themes" but complains that the album's version of Help Me Rhonda! is an older, inferior one. Rolling Stone placed Today! at #270 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, calling head Beach Boy Brian Wilson a "genius" and claiming, "the haunting She Knows Me Too Well hits as deep as anything on Pet Sounds."

Speaking of that, Unterberger opens his Pet Sounds review with the following sentence: "The best Beach Boys album, and one of the best of the 1960s." He goes on to lavish praise on every facet of the record: the melodies, production, composition, vocal performances, lyrical themes, spirituality, and influence. In his 1972 Rolling Stone review of Pet Sounds (better late then never) Stephen Davis has the benefit of hindsight. He writes, "This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn't change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain." His conclusion is as follows: "It is by far the best album Brian has yet delivered."

Edge: Pet Sounds


THE FANS
Today! may have a host of 5 star reviews, but nearly every review mentions it in comparison to Pet Sounds. Witness:
  • "Many Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fanatics rank Today! as their second favorite album after Pet Sounds, and who could argue with such an assessment?" (Anonymous)
  • "After Pet Sounds, I believe that The Beach Boys' Today! is their greatest album." (J.Thomas)
  • "I agree with the general consensus that Today! is the Beach Boys' best album after Pet Sounds."
  • "I don't know how many people agree with me on this, but I really enjoy this CD at least as much as Pet Sounds." (R. Stauffer)
But will anyone make a convincing case for it actually being better than Pet Sounds? Z. Higlefort starts off promisingly. "In many ways," he writes of Today!, "This is the quintessential Beach Boys album because it covers both the extroverted, good timin', rock n' roll spirit of the band taken to new heights on side one, plus, more importantly, the introverted, maturing, genius heart of Brian with the string of sophisticated ballads on side two." It's the best argument I've heard in favor of Today!, because Pet Sounds doesn't contain the fun, loose aspect of The Beach Boys' sound. However, Higlefort ends his review thusly: "An unforgettable album, and second only to Pet Sounds, in my opinion."

Usually those Amazon.com reviewers who are prone to hyperbole (which is to say 99.44% of them) are content to name an album a personal best by the artist. In the case of Pet Sounds, fans weren't content to limit themselves to the Beach Boys catalog. Consider:
  • "The Beach Boys created brilliance. Those who do not get it are not listening or do not understand the history of music." (All Powerful Wizard of Oz)
  • "It is the best album ever recorded." (Luke Wienecke)
  • "It it NOT possible to find a better musical masterpiece..." (Radio Jeff)
  • "Quite possibly the greatest moment in popular music history." (Lambi)
  • "It really is the greatest popular recording to date." (Bob Penn, who sees hope for the future, which I like)
The appropriately-named Saintsmen says of Pet Sounds, "If Heaven had music, this would be Earth's attempt to copy it." And Anastasia Smith opines: "It is essential for anyone who has ears, as well as anyone willing to explore sounds that reach the same level of depth and complexity that the emotional lyrics convey" (I'm very interested in how that second group explores sounds without actually having ears, but I digress). As if that weren't enough, Eidolon ties it up with a bow for us. He says, "the truth is that Brian Wilson's gorgeous Pet Sounds is by far the finest Beach Boys album ever produced. "

Edge: Pet Sounds


THE HITS BY THE NUMBERS
Today! had four charting singles. Do You Wanna Dance went to #12, When I Grow Up To Be a Man actually hit #9, and Dance, Dance, Dance got as high as #8. Help Me Rhonda was a #1 hit, but the version that's on the album isn't the version that topped the chart. It's a different mix, with less baritone vocal and no guitar solo. So I won't count it. That gives Today!'s hits a 10 average.

Pet Sounds had three charting singles. The mournful Caroline No got to #32, the traditional Sloop John B was a #3 hit, and wistful opener Wouldn't It Be Nice made it to #8. That's a 14 average.

Edge: Today!


THE HITS BY THE QUALITY
Of course chart performance doesn't necessarily speak to quality. Do You Wanna Dance and Dance, Dance, Dance are both fun and well-constructed, but are ultimately fluff. On the other hand When I Grow Up (To Be a Man) is actually pretty deep, man. It's framed as a teenager's musings on what he'll be like as he ages, wondering about his future wife, if his kids will think he's cool, if he'll keep his sense of humor, or still like new music. There's excitement there, but a clear fear of mortality as well, especially in the outro and the repeated line "won't last forever / it's kinda sad."

Speaking of growing up, Wouldn't It Be Nice is about a young couple yearning for the freedom of adulthood, mainly the simple pleasure of waking up with the one you love. It's a great love song. Caroline No is the exact opposite, a fascinating elegy for a failing relationship. Exactly why things have gone wrong is unclear, but it appears to have something to do with the fact that the titular Caroline has cut her hair short. Finally, Sloop John B is a new arrangement of a classic maritime folk tune. It's enjoyable, but lightweight.

In the end, both albums have hits that offer a mix of fluff and depth, each with a different balance; it just depends on which you value more.

Edge: tie


THE NON HITS
Today! contains some killer tracks that never were never released as singles. Namely, the sublime Pet Sounds-presaging She Knows Me Too Well and Please Let Me Wonder. Other songs, like the remake of The Crystals' Then He Kissed Me (Then I Kissed Her), Good To My Baby, and I'm So Young move things along, but don't necessarily stand out. The only truly weak moment is the closing interview segment Bull Session with Big Daddy, wherein we learn little more than the band likes Europe and hamburgers.

Pet Sounds is considered such a great album because it's a true album: Songs meant to be heard (both musically and thematically) as one suite, not as individual singles. So it's amazing that not only does it work as a whole, but that nearly every song is able to stand on its own as well. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), and That's Not Me are all perfect examples. And then of course there's God Only Knows, the gold standard of love songs (despite the confusing opening line "I may not always love you" which is immediately negated by "but long as there are stars above you / you'll never need to doubt it"). The only true drawback to Pet Sounds is the instrumentals. They work well in context, but I'm not necessarily excited to have them come up on my iPod shuffle.

Edge: Pet Sounds


COVER ART
Today!'s cover features a classic '50s influenced design, with the brown top and bottom bars, and the song titles listed. The photo of the Boys by a swimming pool is pretty goofy. Consider the identical sweaters of different colors, the awkward positioning (are their feet dangling in the water, or are they on a long innertube?), the squinty eyes, and the leering smiles.

Pet Sounds' cover is equally well-designed and equally goofy (but perhaps intentionally so). The color bar and song titles remain, but in a wonderful green and yellow combination and an eye-catching font. The picture of the boys feeding goats may match the album's title, but it's absurdly incongruous with the serious and high-minded music contained within. But, it is memorable, and has become iconic despite itself.

Edge: Pet Sounds


ALBUM CHARTS and SALES
This depends on whether you look at it as a 100 meter dash or a marathon. Initially Today! was the better performer, reaching #4 on the U.S. Billboard album chart. Pet Sounds was a relative disappointment upon its release, only making it to #10 on the same chart. However, total sales tell a different story. Pet Sounds has since gone Platinum (1,000,000 sales), while Today! is still only certified Gold (500,000 sales). Consider also that Pet Sounds has seen multiple re-releases in various formats, while Today! was out-of-print for awhile and was released most recently on CD as a two-fer with Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!).

Edge: Pet Sounds


FINAL VERDICT
Though Today! gave a valiant fight, the winner is clearly Pet Sounds by a final score of 6 to 2. And all is right with the world again. However, Today! is not a bad place to go if you'd like more Beach Boys beyond their masterpiece. I'd also highly recommend Sunflower (1970) and Surf's Up (1971). And of course Brian Wilson's finally-finished Smile (2005) is also essential (in fact, had it been finished by the whole band as originally planned, it might have been a serious contender in this very spot).

Author's Note: These are reviews #260 and 261.

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