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Brian Wilson Songs: Exploring the Beach Boy’s Legacy of Perfectly Crafted Pop

See why he's music's ultimate troubled genius

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The Beach Boys sit at the summit of ’60s music, with iconic hits ranging from upbeat pop anthems to gorgeously emotional ballads. Brian Wilson, who formed the band with his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin, Mike Love, and their friend, Al Jardine, in 1961, was the creative force behind many of their greatest songs — and the one who pushed them into more experimental territory as the decade progressed.

A life of tragedy

Unfortunately, every Beach Boys fan knows that for all their upbeat songs, the group has been marred by many tragedies. Brian and his brothers suffered abuse at the hands of their father growing up, and both Dennis and Carl passed away far too young — Dennis died by drowning in 1983 at just 39, while Carl died of lung cancer in 1998 at 51. There’s also been much tension over the years due to Love‘s ongoing disputes with his bandmates.

MUST-READ: The Beach Boys Members: See the Band Then and Now

Brian Wilson‘s personal life has never been easy — he long struggled with mental illness and addiction, and in the ’70s and ’80s, he fell victim to a manipulative and controlling psychologist.

He then met Melinda Ledbetter, a car saleswoman who he married in 1995, and credited her with saving his life. Sadly, she died earlier this year, and shortly after it was announced that Wilson has dementia and is now under a conservatorship.

10 of the best Brian Wilson songs

At 81, Wilson is a true survivor who has gone through far more adversity than any one person should, and through it all he’s been the very definition of the tortured artistic genius, creating beautiful music while fighting all kinds of personal demons. Here’s a look at the stories behind 10 Brian Wilson songs that best showcase his potent lyrics and evocative production.

Brian Wilson of the rock and roll band "The Beach Boys" directs from the control room while recording the album "Pet Sounds" in 1966
Brian Wilson during the recording of Pet Sounds in 1966Getty

1. “In My Room” (1963)

In the early ’60s, the Beach Boys were known for their sunny surf-pop hits, but “In My Room,” which spent 11 weeks on the Billboard charts, is a tender ballad that’s all about staying in.

The song makes lovely use of the band’s signature harmonies, and Wilson’s lyrics about retreating to his room perfectly exemplify his reclusive nature, while feeling deeply relatable to anyone who’s ever needed to spend some time away from the chaos of the outside world.

2. “Don’t Worry Baby” (1964)

Love songs don’t get sweeter than “Don’t Worry Baby.” Wilson has called it one of his favorite Beach Boys songs, and he took inspiration from another ’60s hit, “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Wilson fell in love with the 1963 song, and sought to create his own version of it — and both songs stand out as the best of their era.

MUST-READ: Songs by the Ronettes: 9 of the Ultimate ’60s Girl Group’s Greatest Hits

In an American Songwriter interview, Wilson described “Don’t Worry Baby” as a “very simple and beautiful song,” saying, “It’s a really heart and soul song, I really did feel that in my heart.” 60 (!) years after it was released, listeners can still feel it in their hearts too.

3. “Caroline, No” (1966)

“Caroline, No” was released as the first solo Brian Wilson song in 1966, and then appeared as the closing track on the legendary Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The melancholy lyrics and creative instrumentation — including harpsichord, vibraphone, a tambourine hit with a wood block and a water jug hit with a mallet — is classic Wilson.

Reflecting on the song decades later, he called it his “crown achievement for a ballad” which acted as an expression of his feminine side.

4. “God Only Knows” (1966)

“God Only Knows” is a layered, complex song filled with orchestral splendor. Wilson claimed he wrote it in just 45 minutes, and said it came to him like a vision of everything he ever hoped to convey in a single song.

From the opening lyric, “I may not always love you,” it’s clear that this isn’t your typical love song, and its powerful romantic drama has made it one of the most beloved Brian Wilson songs. In fact, none other than Paul McCartney called it one of his favorite songs of all time!

5. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (1966)

“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” has to be one of the most vulnerable pop songs ever recorded, and it encapsulates Wilson’s outsider sensibility.

The chorus, with its repeated lyric “Sometimes I feel very sad” is deeply poignant in its simplicity, and the ambiguity of not knowing whether he means he’s behind the times or ahead of them makes the song particularly haunting.

6. “Good Vibrations” (1966) Brian Wilson songs

“Good Vibrations” was a turning point for Wilson, as he jumped headfirst into studio experimentation, taking the reins to translate visions into music like never before.

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While Wilson had already written and composed many classic songs by this point, and dabbled in experimentation, here he went all-out, bringing countless musicians into the studio to unleash all kinds of strange sounds, recording over 90 hours of tape and racking up tens of thousands of dollars in expenses all for one song. The risk-taking was well worth it, and Wilson achieved his dream of creating a pop song as symphony.

7. “Heroes and Villains” (1967) Brian Wilson songs

“Heroes and Villains” is another one of the Brian Wilson songs built on wild recording studio experimentation. The song went through dozens of different versions in the studio, and was inspired by country music and California history.

Many critics have said that the struggle of recording “Heroes and Villains” threw Wilson into mental turmoil, and the album it was originally supposed to appear on, Smile, was notoriously unfinished for years, until Wilson released Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004. While making the song was a painful process, it still possesses a sense of whimsy and wonder.

8. “Surf’s Up” (1971) Brian Wilson songs

“Surf’s Up” may have surf in the title, but it’s worlds away from the Beach Boys’ classic surf songs. In fact, the song isn’t about surfing at all — instead it’s a journey of spiritual awakening that takes many twists and turns.

In an interview, Wilson said he wrote the song “really spontaneously,” which makes its philosophical depths all the more impressive.

9. “‘Til I Die” (1971) Brian Wilson songs

“‘Til I Die” just might be Wilson’s most existential song. With lyrics like “I’m a leaf on a windy day/Pretty soon, I’ll be blown away” he does nothing less than contemplate the vast, unknowable nature of the world, mixing subject matter that philosophers have puzzled over for centuries with soaring harmonies.

In an interview, Wilson said the song was “written to try and tell people how small I felt.” He may have felt small, but the song packs a huge emotional punch.

10. “Love and Mercy” (1988)

“Love and Mercy,” the first single from Wilson’s debut solo album, is a moving, simple plea for bringing more positivity into the world. After breaking free from abuse and fighting many a personal battle, the song became Wilson’s anthem, and it served as the title for the 2014 biopic about his extraordinary life.

The song was a staple of Wilson’s live shows, and he called it “probably the most spiritual song I’ve ever written” — after all, we could all use a little more love and mercy in our lives.


Read on for more about ’60s icons:

Nancy Sinatra Songs: 10 of Her Grooviest ’60s Pop Classics

60 Years of Beatlemania: 10 Fab Beatles Moments From 1964

The Temptations Songs: 11 Irresistible Tracks, Ranked

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