- Investigating musical genius by listening to the Beach Boys a lot
By Holden Karnofsky 5 min read

Investigating musical genius by listening to the Beach Boys a lot

Critics think the Beach Boys created the greatest music of the century. I set out on a quest to hear what they're hearing.
Investigating musical genius by listening to the Beach Boys a lot

I posted some later content on this piece - responding to reader takes - here.

My Where’s Today’s Beethoven analysis involved finding a lot of “most critically acclaimed music/TV/film/books” lists, and charting patterns in them. While doing this, something I was very surprised to learn was that some of the Beach Boys’s music is incredibly acclaimed, respected, and thought of as genius.

In particular, their 1966 album Pet Sounds is the #1 most acclaimed album of all time, and their followup single Good Vibrations is the the 4th-most acclaimed song of all time. As the Wikipedia pages show, this isn’t some fluke of the rankings, e.g.:

Promoted there as "the most progressive pop album ever", Pet Sounds garnered recognition for its ambitious production, sophisticated music, and emotional lyric content. It is considered to be among the most influential albums in music history …

Pet Sounds revolutionized the field of music production and the role of producers within the music industry, introduced novel approaches to orchestration, chord voicings, and structural harmonies, and furthered the cultural legitimization of popular music, a greater public appreciation for albums, the use of recording studios as an instrument, and the development of psychedelic music and progressive/art rock ...

It has topped several critics' and musicians' polls for the best album of all time, including those published by NME, Mojo, Uncut, and The Times. In 2004, it was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress

Pet Sounds is evaluated as "one of the most innovative recordings in rock" and as the work that "elevated Brian Wilson from talented bandleader to studio genius".[118] Music historian Luis Sanchez viewed the album as "the score to a film about what rock music doesn't have to be …"

After learning this, I tried listening to Pet Sounds several times, and was not able to figure out what the hoopla is about. It sounds like a cheesy pop album.

I was unable to connect the experience of listening to Wouldn't It Be Nice to this statement: “it was out to eclipse ... previous sonic soap operas, to transform the subject's sappy sentiments with a God-like grace so that the song would become a veritable pocket symphony." (The term “pocket symphony” seems to come up a surprising amount for Beach Boys songs that have, as far as I can tell, 3 or so themes like most pop songs.)

God Only Knows is by far my favorite track on the album, but “often praised as one of the greatest songs ever written”? Hmm.

After struggling with this for a while, I had a stroke of inspiration. I decided to listen to all of the Beach Boys albums in order.1 (The things I do to understand the world better! Here’s my playlist if you want to try it.)

And indeed, after ~4 hours of the simplest, sappiest music imaginable, I could sort of hear Pet Sounds as something comparatively deeper and richer - more challenging, more complex, more contemplative, more cohesive.2 In particular, a lot of the cheesy-seeming instrumental arrangements now sounded like some badly needed variety; maybe the at-the-time version of this reaction would’ve been “What creative instrumentation, it’s like a symphony!”

So maybe Pet Sounds was a remarkable new sound at the time?

But, I think, only if you had a really fanatical commitment to only listening to the poppiest of pop music. Pet Sounds came out more than a year after legendary jazz album A Love Supreme! I don't want to get carried away about what my subjective taste says, but … even if A Love Supreme isn’t your cup of tea, I’d guess you’ll think it’s a great deal more complex, cohesive, impressive, and interesting in just about every way (other than the lack of prominent "studio effects") than Pet Sounds. And it's not even clearly less accessible - looks like they sold a similar number of copies?3

A Love Supreme is ranked well below Pet Sounds on the Acclaimed Music aggregated list, as well as on the Rolling Stone list. Reading what the critics say about Pet Sounds, after listening to both works, is quite a trip - it reminds me of reading a parent's description of their child's art, with the most generous possible interpretation of the "genius" of every humdrum thing in there.

This feels roughly as close as I’m going to get to a smoking gun that rock music critics are living in a strange, strange world. If that's right, I think we also have to question whether classical music critics - and our own minds - are playing similar strange tricks on us when they assert with such conviction that Beethoven's music is unparalleled.

Or maybe I’m the one hearing (or failing to hear) things? I would love to hear from any readers who could give me any idea of what kind of headspace I’d have to inhabit to find Pet Sounds more impressive, enjoyable, or [any positive adjective]4 than A Love Supreme!

I posted some later content on this piece - responding to reader takes - here.

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  1. While working on other things. I did not “just sit and listen” to all five hours of this. 

  2. I definitely could’ve been imagining it. 

  3. Pet Sounds: “total sales were estimated at around 500,000 units.” A Love Supreme: “By 1970, it had sold about 500,000 copies.” These aren’t necessarily the same time frame, but I’m taking it as evidence that they’re in the ballpark.  

  4. To be clear, I think some Beach Boys music is at least more “easy to enjoy” or “accessible” than A Love Supreme, even if it’s not as complex or interesting. But Pet Sounds doesn’t seem to accomplish either - it’s weird and slow by Beach Boys standards, and as noted above, didn’t sell better (at least probably not by much) than A Love Supreme, despite coming from a much more popular band.

    FWIW my favorite Beach Boys album is Beach Boys Party!, a really weird album that is mostly covers (of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and others) with a chattering crowd dubbed over it, kind of like a live performance at a party, but just … super weird. I think it revolutionized music.