When The Beach Boys charted their first hit, “Surfin’,” Barack Obama was in diapers, the Beatles’ drummer was Pete Best, most Americans had never heard of Vietnam, and the most popular television show in the United States was Wagon Train. So it’s been awhile.
There are several sections to the band’s career: the hit-laden surf, sun, and girls years (1962-1965), the Brian Wilson’s a genius years (1965-1967), and the Brian’s on drugs/unavailable, so we have to get new material where we can get it (everything after, with occasional Brian resurgences). Most of the greatest hits sets now focus on the first two periods (with the exception of 1988’s “Kokomo,” to which Brian contributed nothing), but that wasn’t always the case, so buyer beware.
So while the group has had 24 top 20 hits in the United States, “Good Vibrations,” their huge #1 hit in 1966 (less than five years after “Surfin’”) was the 16th – and two of the remaining eight were a medley of their hits (during the early ‘80s medley craze) and a “Wipe Out” remake with the flash-in-the-pan rap act The Fat Boys. (It’s not likely you’ll find either of those on any hits sets – I know the medley is totally out of print, for example.)
Please also note that, Capitol Records (the Boys’ home for most of their careers – they did spend time with Reprise and Columbia under their Brother Records imprint, but all of that material has gone back to Capitol over time) is now owned by Universal Music Group, the Joe Stalin of the Big Three record conglomerates. (Of the remaining two, Warner Music Group [Warner Brothers, Elektra/Asylum, Atlantic, and Reprise] and Sony Music [Columbia, Epic, RCA, Arista] are either Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; I haven’t decided which is which.) So there will probably be more Beach Boys greatest hits sets than the overload we already have, and the quality may vary. Actually, that’s already starting to happen.
And an amusing note: there are two versions of “Help Me, Rhonda” floating around – one was from The Beach Boys Today! In 1965, with a slightly different title (“Help Me, Ronda”) and a different (and lousier) mix. Brian Wilson kept fiddling with it, rerecorded the whole thing, changed the title, and created a classic. Some of the anthologies mistakenly have used the “H”-free version. Make sure you’ve got the good one.
Finally, do know I have all of the Boys’ studio albums released between 1962 and 1974, so the only “hits” set I have on CD is the 1990 box set Good Vibrations. That said, I can pretty much tell from the track listings what to get and what to avoid.
In the meantime, this seems as good a choice as any:
30 songs on a single disk, which was very kind of Capitol Records (as you’ll see, they weren’t always so benevolent). The only top 20 hit missing, aside from the two mentioned above, is “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” which peaked at #20. There are downloads that might be a better buy, but on disk itself, you won’t get more bang for your buck ($10.91 at Amazon as of this second).
And, since I promised there were thousands of best-ofs from the band, here they are. I’m only included best-ofs that were released on CD at some point in the United States, otherwise this would be an Endless Blog Post. All links go to the Wikipedia entry.
Best of the Beach Boys, Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 2, Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 3 – released in consecutive years between 1966 and 1968 by Capitol, none over 30 minutes, and with some overlap between them. I know Volume 3 was never released on CD, and I don’t think Volume 2 was either. But Amazon still claims to have one copy of Volume 1 on disk, so if you’re an absolute completist…
Endless Summer (1974) – I think everybody had a copy of this on vinyl after it first came out in 1974, because almost all of the band’s studio albums were out of print at that point. I still have mine, with the poster. It nails most of the hits between 1962 and 1965. That said, it’s a) confusing (all of the songs are from before ”Good Vibrations,” but the cover art shows the six Boys the way they looked in the ‘70s with lots of facial hair), and b) a total rip-off (the 20 songs on the two-album set clock in at less than 48 minutes, which means they could have fit the whole thing on one album). Still available on Amazon if you want to spend 53 dollars. The one-disk CD version tacks on “Good Vibrations,” for what it’s worth.
Spirit of America (1975) – One more cash grab by Capitol, and this one doesn’t have “Good Vibrations” on it either. This leans more heavily on car songs and “Americana” material (remember, this was released a year before the Bicentennial). Oddly, this is available on Amazon for $7.99 for a single disk (although not for download), and for that price it’s a reasonable (albeit odd) sampler. Again, mostly from the early 1960s, although the 1969 single “Break Away” (a great flop single) is included. (The band wasn’t on Capitol by that point and had little control over what the label did with their back catalogue; they released a greatest hits set culled from their album releases from 1966 onward – so “Good Vibrations” was there, but “Break Away,” as a standalone single, made it here. That album, Good Vibrations – Best of The Beach Boys, never made it to CD.)
Ten Years of Harmony (1981) – Out of print now (although it did make it to compact disk), but a huge bunch of songs from the post-Capitol Records era. Since there weren’t many actual, you know, hits during that time period, this may be for collectors only, but it’s got enough oddities to make it worth searching for.
Made in the U.S.A. (1986) – the first hits set to mix Capitol and post-Capitol hits, this is actually a pretty good sampler. Amazon still claims to have some CD copies gathering dust someplace in their warehouse, if you really want to spend 25 dollars on it.
Good Vibrations – Thirty Years of The Beach Boys (1993) – whoever was running Capitol’s reissue program in the early 1990s has it all over their 1970s counterparts. All of the band’s studio albums (along with a couple of mediocre live albums and the useless Party and Stack o’ Tracks – the latter was instrumental versions of their classics with the vocals imperfectly wiped off) were rereleased on CD in 1990 with two albums per CD, and bonus tracks as they fit. Plus, this super five-disk box set was released, with every familiar song you could possibly want (with the possible exception of “Let Him Run Wild,” in deference to Brian Wilson, who hates the recording), plus a whole disk of unreleased takes and almost every important track from the then-mysterious Smile sessions. Way too much for the casual listener, but essential for serious fans. It’s now over a hundred dollars for the physical box set on Amazon, but less than half that to download, which comes to less than 37 cents per track. Try to find a used copy; the accompanying liner notes are useful, too.
The Greatest Hits – Volume 1: 20 Good Vibrations (1995) – this sold a lot of copies in the States and the track listing is reasonably solid, but why buy a 20-song one-disk set when you can get 30? Amazon still has it around on disk, but not for download.
Endless Harmony Soundtrack (1998) – outtakes, alternate versions, etc. , so it’s not really a greatest hits set. And since I have the aforementioned box set with similar (although not identical) material, I don’t have it either. Still in print and available for download, so somebody must like it.
The Capitol Years (1999) – a 4-CD box with no rarities; this may have been offered only through record clubs or Reader’s Digest (although it’s on Capitol, so it should be legit). Out of print, and skippable.
The Greatest Hits – Volume 2: 20 More Good Vibrations (1999) – assorted hits that didn’t rate being included on the first volume four years before. I wonder how many people bought this based on the title only to discover “Good Vibrations,” despite the disk’s title, isn’t on it. (Gee, thanks Capitol!) Out of print.
Greatest Hits Volume Three: Best of the Brother Years 1970–1986 (2000) – and if you thought Volume 2 was skippable, this one’s even worse. Two Top 20 hits, both remakes of oldies (“Rock & Roll Music” and “Come Go With Me”), and all but two are on the Good Vibrations box set. Does not include “Kokomo.” (On the other hand, it also doesn’t include their misguided foray into disco, the 1979 remake of “Here Comes the Night.”) But it’s still in print and you can download it – pinch me!
Hawthorne, CA (2001) – like Endless Harmony Soundtrack, alternate takes, studio chatter, and assorted stuff for the uberfan, but not a hits set. Still available for download and on CD at Amazon if you’re so inclined.
Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson (2002) – since Capitol apparently had found an unquenchable market for Beach Boys reissues by this point, it was nice of them to let Brian compile one. Hardly their best (half the track selection is from the late 1960s and early 1970s, a fallow time for them commercially), but if they’re Brian’s favorites, so be it. Contains one new recording, “California Feelin’,” written around 1974 but never recorded by the band; it’s done here by Brian and a bunch of session guys. A reasonable download at $8.49.
The Warmth of the Sun (2007) – another “here’s what we couldn’t fit on the first one” disk; in this case since the first one was The Sounds of Summer, you’re getting a lot of familiar non-hit tracks.
The Original U.S. Singles Collection: The Capitol Years 1962-1965 (2008) – another one for the diehards, since this has both mono and stereo versions of most songs (Brian Wilson is deaf in one ear, so he generally preferred mono). Overpriced for the casual fan.
Summer Love Songs (2009) – oh heck, you can listen to them all year ‘round. The only rarity is a Dennis Wilson song, “Fallin’ in Love” (Dennis had his moments in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a songwriter, before falling prey to drugs).
50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits (2012) – released during their 50th anniversary tour (you might remember this one; Brian, Al Jardine, and the long-missing David Marks rejoined Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, only to have Love boot the other three back out the second the tour ended). If you’re willing to spend the money, this covers all the bases, although it’s a little more expensive than Sounds of the Summer. Greatest Hits is an unnecessary 20-song single-disk abbreviated version.
Made in California (2013) – yet another box set, with different rarities and alternate takes than the Good Vibrations box set. I’ll pick one up if I see it cheap, which given it goes for $100 on Amazon seems unlikely.
I’m not linking to Icon (2013) or The Beach Boys: Millennium Collection – 20th Century Masters (2014), because they only prove my earlier point about Universal Music Group being a bunch of money-grubbing jerks. Both of these exist only to be purchased at truck stops in parts of the country where radio stations don’t come in. They’re cheap, but so damn short (certainly less than 30 minutes apiece) and are nearly identical (Icon has “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Be True to Your School” while Millennium Collection has “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the other nine tracks are the same on both). Avoid, avoid, avoid.
I have a one-disk best-of in my car, but I don’t have the track listing handy – I’ll edit this entry sometime to add it.