On May 16th, 1966 Pet Sounds, the record that inspired Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and pretty much every other pop song for the next fifteen years was released. You should own this album because it is so great – even fifty years later – but if you don’t and you’re just getting started collecting music from the era or the band, here’s ten Essential Downloads from the Beach Boys to get you started.

409 (1962). There really isn’t much going on in this 12-bar rock & roll song, but the harmonies are there and there is glimpse of what was to come. In terms of the lyric, this is a great window to a time in the past that maybe sort of existed in the real world, but definitely existed in the minds and hearts of teenagers in pre-Beatles America. 

Surfin’ USA (1963). This is the song that broke the Beach Boys and for good reason. The harmonies are as good as anything they would go on to do, but listen to the interplay of the two rhythm guitars, particularly through the verses – simple yet perfect. Although credited at first to Brian Wilson, Chuck Berry was credited as a co-writer because of the obvious theft of the lick. Before long Chuck was removed through pressure from Murray Wilson, but we all know where the lick came from – and we’re cool with that.  

Shut Down (1963). Another extremely simple 12-bar rock & roll song, but it’s the vocal arrangement that we care about, except for maybe that hollow-body guitar through a Fender Twin lead in the middle. Listen for the “whoop” in the fade-out.   

Fun, Fun, Fun (1964). Pretty much the same exact song as Shut Down, this is the introduction of the Wrecking Crew to Beach Boys’ records which allowed Brian Wilson to spend more time arranging the rest of the band’s vocals. During the last half of the song, listen to the minor chords in the vocal harmonies and Brian’s masterful falsetto. There’s a lot going on in the vocals so you have to really get in there and listen.

I Get Around (1964). In 1994 Mike Love sued Brian Wilson to share the song-writing credit (and presumably the publishing) on this and other songs from the Beach Boys' catalog, but there is really only one person – ever – who could dream up this vocal arrangement. The vocals are as silky as you will ever hear but also pay attention to the left-hand organ line and the vibrato of the Leslie in between the verses. It’s the beginning of Brian Wilson becoming Brian Wilson.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice? (1966). The Pet Sounds opener, this track is a tour de force of sheer brilliance. Recorded with the Wrecking Crew (the Beach Boys sans Brian were on the road touring while Brain was creating in the studio) this track includes the regular rock & roll instruments plus concertina, bells, tympani, a de-tuned 12-string guitar, accordions, mandolins, electric bass and stand-up bass (a common recording method back then) and a full horn section. But listen to those harmonies! Carl Wilson’s voice displays all of the vulnerability and tear that would come to define his later tracks.

God Only Knows (1966). Wilson started his career copping from Berry and was soon copping from Bach. The first song with the word ‘God’ in the title to be played regularly on US radio not sung by Kate Smith and not called God Bless America, this track redefined the popular love song. The vocals and instrumentation are without peer from pretty much anytime during the rock and roll era. Pick a voice or an instrument and just key in on it for the duration of the song and you’ll be carried away. You’ll also need to listen to this song a dozen or so times back to back to get a grip on everything that's going on in it.

Don’t Worry Baby (1964). An ode to Ronni Spector’s Be My Baby, this is what happens when you mix street racing and the ability to produce amazing harmonies. Featuring Brian’s plaintiff lead vocal, the song itself is very simple, as is the arrangement, but this one is all about feel.   

Good Vibrations (1966). Wilson’s mother told him about how dogs pick up vibrations from people as to whether they were trustworthy or not. Wilson turned that tidbit into an ode to mid-Sixties LSD-inspired rock & roll. Harpsichord, the heaviest 16th note guitar line of the 1960s and a Theremin? Seriously Brian? If only that darned snare drum didn’t sound like a paper plate this would be the perfect song.  

California Girls (1965). I’ve been to California. This is exactly what it’s like – even fifty years after the Beach Boys told us it was like this. Ever hear The Beatles’ Back in the U.S.S.R.? It was a purposeful tip of the cap to this song. The final 20 seconds of this song is utter brilliance.

Sure these songs are part of our collective musical consciousness, but don’t let that stop you from digging in and enjoying their beauty and majesty. You just have to scratch through the over-saturation to get to the essence. Hit the record store when you’re ready to dive in, but in the meantime, these are 10 Essential Downloads to get you started.

Jack Sharkey for KEF