Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Most Overrated Album Ever


Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve loved the Beach Boys. They were sort of ever present on the radio in New York in the late 70’s, especially on AM radio. I remember on the van ride to school I was in the third and fourth grade, WNBC 660 AM used to play them probably once every morning. And being a little boy who dreaded arriving at school each morning, the chorus of “Sloop John B” (“I wanna go home/why won’t they let me go home) got me; I'd sing it to myself under my breath, thinking that there was someone else out there in the world who knew how I felt.

I didn’t have any Beach Boys albums until I was about 12 and taped my brother’s copy of “Endless Summer.” To me, then and now, it’s pretty much a perfect album and perhaps the best of all greatest hits albums. When the Beach Boys started, singles were the medium of rock n’ roll, and albums were designed to be the singles plus filler to get you to spend more money (actually, that kind of sounds like today). “Endless Summer” is one perfect single after another – “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around,” the sublime “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” and in my opinion, the greatest of all Beach Boys’ songs, “Don’t Worry Baby.” If Brian Wilson is a genius (and I believe that he is), it’s not because of his production skills; it’s because he created a beautiful myth about Southern California life that resonated around the globe while being a total outsider from that culture. Chubby, insular, painfully shy, unathletic, physically and emotionally abused by his father and scarred beyond belief, the world that he wrote about must have been one he must have known he would never belong to, except in his fantasies. And he couldn't surf, either. (None of the Beach Boys could surf, with the exception of drummer Dennis Wilson.)

In the 80’s, when I was in my teens, I didn’t really know from Pet Sounds. I think I first got the record when I was 19. Whenever I saw a “Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time List,” Pet Sounds was never too high on the list. Sometime in the early 90’s, that all changed. Nowadays, if you look album lists, Pet Sounds will be either near or at the top. It’s absurd. Pet Sounds is perhaps the most overrated album ever. It’s a good album, with three incredible songs that are among their best; “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” “I Know There’s An Answer” almost reaches that level, as does “You Still Believe In Me.” But that’s it. It’s not that the remainder of the songs are poor, it’s just that they’re not all that incredible. Combining that with the somewhat baroque production, you’ve got a very good but very flawed album.

What accounts for the lionization of Pet Sounds? For starters, there’s the story of Brian Wilson, the tortured artiste who battled his own demons and his own band (Mike Love fought him all the way on it) in making the record. Then, after producing Pet Sounds, he finally cracked up, a victim of too many drugs and trying to top Sgt. Pepper. It’s the kind of stuff that myths are made of, and it’s an irresistible story line. Secondly, there are Wilson’s production skills – which have been blown all out of proportion. (Wilson’s true production moment of genius was “Good Vibrations.”) Brian Wilson was a great producer, but listening to Pet Sounds you hear the heavy influence of the true master producer of the era – Phil Spector. Wilson literally worshipped Spector and learned everything from him. Reading lots of the over the top rubbish about the production on Pet Sounds, where Spector’s name is barely ever mentioned, you come to realize that there are a lot of people in the world who no clue as to Spector’s influence on Wilson. (The Wrecking Crew, Spector’s house band, played on many Beach Boys’ songs). And finally, the record was a (relative) commercial failure at upon release. So then the narrative becomes the misunderstood genius that is underappreciated after he becomes a “serious artist.” If you were going to write a indie rock biblical fable, it doesn’t get any better than that.

I can rattle off about 30 albums from the 60’s alone that are superior to Pet Sounds – every Beatles album with the exception of Yellow Submarine and Please Please Me, most 60’s Dylan releases, about four Rolling Stones albums, classics by Creedence, the Band, the entire Otis Redding catalog, Aretha’s first four Atlantic full lengths, etc. (The absence of most soul records from the top echelon of the lists is endemic of the near-sightedness of most rock critics.)

I know lots of smart people that disagree with me on this one – vehemently. So you take your cred and Pet Sounds; I'm much happier with "California Girls" and "I Get Around."

30 comments:

NYCD Online said...

This is painful.

If you were looking to push buttons, mazeltov. (should that be capitalized?) But your comments are quite frankly, naive.

"Pet Sounds" may not even be the best Beach Boys album. (try listening to "Today" or "Holland.") But to cite "Sloop John B" as one of the three "incredible" songs on the record, and not even mention "Caroline, No" (one of the greatest songs ever written-period)"Don't Talk," or "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" is simply irresponsible.

I suppose Charlie Parker was a hack and Mother Teresa was just looking for attention.

Ben Lazar said...

No, Charlie Parker was a genius who revolutionized jazz in the 40's and 50's, and Mother Teresa was saintlike in her devotion to the poor.

And Pet Sounds is overrated.

Mazel Tov is two words.

Anonymous said...

Pet Sounds is the Ok Computer of it's era - and I don't mean that as a compliment.

Anonymous said...

I would say Pet Sounds is akin to Sgt Pepper's for me. Important on the level of how they affected music, but not the best Beach Boys or Beatles album.

Ben Lazar said...

I certainly agree that Pet Sounds has had an enormous influence on music. (I'm doubtful that it's had the same impact as Sgt. Pepper, but that's another in a long serious of fun and useless debates.)

I would ask this: Is Pet Sounds as important (on the level of how it affected music) as the first Velvet Underground record? My vote would be with VU. (Without that record, punk doesn't happen in the same way that it did, if at all.)

NYCD Online said...

First- Is it Radiohead's fault that they put out a pretty good record, arguably the best of their career, and the critics and Radiohead fans turned it into the greatest thing since the wheel? Overrated doesn't mean "bad" or even "mediocre." The verb "overrate," just means " to have a higher opinion of."

"Pet Sounds" may be overrated. As a matter of fact, it was only as recent as the mid 80's, when CDs were just taking off, that "Pet Sounds" started to get the hype as the "greatest record of all time." Why? Because you couldn't get it on CD. Then, Paul McCartney made his comments. And...well...here we are.

I don't necessarily disagree with the "overrated" tag. It is NOT my fave Beach Boys album, although it is #3. (Sgt. Pepper is #8 on my Beatles list, by the way) What I don't get is this: if you can rave about a Christina Aguilera CD on this very site and justify your comments by saying, "I'd rather listen to her than TV On The Radio," or anyone, for that matter. What's the point? We all know we can listen to and be moved by anything we choose. You like "Sloop John B" better than "Caroline, No." That's not a crime.

Neither is calling a record that is universally considered a masterpiece, "overrated." But, it is asking for commentary. And when you got some...see NYCD-ONLINE post #1-- your response was simply, "Well, Pet Sounds is overrated." That just doesn't seem like a good argument.

And I say that, with all due respect.

Ben Lazar said...

I write the blog entries to be the "argument" on their own. I didn't go into depth in responding to your first reply because the reasons why I feel it's overrated are in the post to begin with. As I wrote, I think it's a very good album, but not one that deserves to be mentioned amongst the "greatest rock albums of all time." If someone created a list of "the most influential albums of all time," and put Pet Sounds near the top of the list, I'd totally agree.

Regarding the Radiohead comment: It's not the band's responsibility that OK Computer got hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but for a lot of people, that record (or any classic record for that matter) is listened to in the context of how highly it's regarded. I personally never "got" Ok Computer, but I sure did learn to love Kid A.

NYCD Online said...

I think we should talk about Pet Sounds until 2012.

Ben Lazar said...

I think I need to come up with the next record that I can slag that will piss someone off. Maybe Jeff Buckley - I never liked him all that much.

Anonymous said...

The first VU record had much more influence on music than Pet Sounds did.
And Jeff Buckley is a good starting point. Or maybe Pavement......

Anonymous said...

I could really care less how much influence any particular record had on artists with more "street cred" or what the current trends in music are. Pet Sounds is on a completely different level in terms of musical sophistication and should never be compared to any three chord and literally tone deaf artist such as the Velvet Underground, Jeff Buckley, Joy Division, or even Pavement. Those bands have almost no understanding of melody and songwriting and they speak to a completely different demographic and intellect. That music is far more poetic than clever.

Anonymous said...

I can't think of a better Beach Boys album than Pet Sounds and I've got most of them.

Sure, they had a great string of singles that,as a body of work, probably surpasses Pet Sounds.

The same could be said of the Beatles, a better singles band than album band - Sgt Peppers is more overrated than Pet Sounds and not as good, period.

Same with the Kinks: best album Village Green, but had a string of singles that was stronger. The Stones, best album Exile, but their late sixties singles was arguably a more impressive body of work.

The whole arguemnt that PS is overated is okay in my book...Ibut as NYCD said, please don't try to rate Sloop John B and not mentionCaroline No. You really need to go back and listen to it again! And again and again..until you really get it!

Jeremy said...

I know I'm posting this like two years after it was written, but I just wanted to say: Amen!

Though I would place Please Please Me above Pet Sounds as well.

Anonymous said...

Amen brother.

I listened to Pet Sounds straight, I listened to Pet Sounds slightly intoxicated, I listened to Pet Sounds stoned and I listened to Pet Sounds drunk. Same effect every time. Just another Beach Boys album (all of which are overrated IMHO.)

Anonymous said...

I'll bet you eat your own poop.

Anonymous said...

I finally bought "Pet Sounds" after hearing ad nauseum that it was one of the greatest albums ever produced, inspired "Sgt. Peppers", etc.

Here's my personal take: It is a very innovative, well-produced and well-choreographed albums with a few very good songs ("Wouldn't It Be Nice", "God Only Knows", "Caroline No" and "I Know There's An Answer".)

Is it greater than "Sgt. Peppers"? Vocally - yes. (BB's harmonies are sublime, IMO.) Musically - maybe. Lyrically - not a chance in hell. (and "Peppers" doesn't even represent Lennon Mac's strongest songwriting.

For my money, Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" is far superior to both "Pet" and "Peppers". No exotic instruments, ostentatious innovations or "Wall of Sound" gimmickry. Just brilliant songwriting, ingenious creativity, masterful vocals, timeless themes and great musicianship.

Anonymous said...

"Caroline, No" 'one of the greatest songs ever written'. ?? Huh?? Seriously? Pet Sounds=overrated.

Anonymous said...

First off well said. I could go on forever in an attempt to further substantiate your claims. If you think Pet Sounds is really that ground breaking go listen to a Martin Denny album. Pet Sounds is not impressive, just an album from a band that is only unusual for the fact that they were so absolutely normal in a time of extreme musical experimentation.

The Fool said...

Sorry hipsters, Pet Sounds blows. Couple of ok singles. Mostly terrible lyrics forced into the melodies. Inane beach Boys barbershop quartet lite lite sound.

A contrarians dream.

Blow me. A waste of time.

Aran said...

I recently heard Pet Sounds for the first time. It reminds me of the first time I heard Kate Bush's "The Dreaming" in that it was so unusual sounding that I knew I needed to reserve judgement until I heard it many times over the course of years.

However, as I listen to it the lyrics on Pet Sounds are the hardest thing to get over. They just feel forced, and lack the poetic qualities of Lennon/McCartney, Dylan or even Kate Bush.

But, I have never been a fan of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, and find Brian Wilson's vocals to be a little tiresome. I know both of these are subjective opinions.

Aran said...

... And a few days later after listening to the album more, I am starting to love it a lot more.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that I was (and still am, actually) listening to Radiohead's OK Computer, and thinking how this must be the most overrated album of all time. Then I thought, no, it must be Pet Sounds, and my internet search led me here.

Pet Sounds is OVERproduced so much that Wilson forget to make the music interesting or entertaining...or even melodic. I agree totally with the assertion that it is the "story" behind the album. I've read the Brian Wilson autobiography twice, and was moved enough to really give Pet Sounds many chances, but it failed. I think it is a terrible album, with poor songs that can't hold a candle to Wilson's true masterpiece: Good Vibrations.

Joe Bloggs said...

Oh wow, I'm coming here pretty late to the party (7 years lol). This is an excellent article, and you are spot on about Phil Spector and Good Vibrations being the best thing Brian Wilson ever produced.

Anonymous said...

It's a horrid album that goes on and on and on. Every song is torture. There's one good song on it ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"). The rest are a bland mass of pretty much unlistenable crap. The melodies are tuneless, and so are the harmonies. The only Beach Boys album WORSE than "Pet Sounds" I can think of off the top of my head is the one with the stories -- where the "songs" are not sung but spoken like stories.

I'm not a music producer, I don't give a hoot about music production. I don't care who this album influenced. I'm a music listener who listens to music with her EARS. And "Pet Sounds" sounds like shit to me. It's the one Beach Boys album that HASN'T aged well at all. "Surfin' U.S.A", now THAT is a good Beach Boys album, as far as I'm concerned. The harmonies are slick as butter. The melodies are catchy. And it doesn't drag. Great early '60s California sound.

Anonymous said...

"Pet Sounds" came out in mid-'66, and Sgt. Pepper's wasn't released until 1967, dum-dum...

But I agree, Pet Sounds WAYYYY overrated.

S said...

Yes, Pet Sounds is highly overrated. So is Sgt. Peppers, but not as much so. It's not that Pet Sounds is _bad_, I mean, as a torture device, it would only be marginally more painful than a lot of contemporary pop music. But to put it at or near the top of all times is absurd in the extreme. Like other commenters have said, I've listened to it many times, in many different states of mind, I've given it its chance and then some. Brian Wilson, go home, you're drunk

MilitaryPugWife said...

While I appreciate Brian's genius and his contribution to music, I totally agree with you. Completely overrated. Good, but so much of this "best album of all time" drama lives around exactly as you said, Brian's story. It's sad that no one really could help him hone his creativity and he self medicated himself into a shell of what he was. Oh and Mike Love being a superior asshole for his entire lifetime.
"A lot of people in the world who have no clue as to Spectors influence" - THIS. 1000000x this.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, really hammers the key points from both a both musical and historical view.It's incredible just how overrated and overblown this release is and I also believe it is not nearly as influential as it's been written over the years.Production exceeds the music but who really gets excited about production when buying an album ? Not me. Wow ! The BB's did Vibrations, not another surf tune or car/girlfriend song !!! It must be a masterpiece ! A few nice tunes but overall nothing priceless. Wilson is vastly overrarted simply because of his self induced problems and his return where he mumbles from the corner of his mouth. Hey that piece of sh*t Smile also has some nut jobs screaming it's great. Drop this thing and pick up a Monkees greatest Hits or Four Seasons Hits. They are in the same ballpark.

Sorry to some but mentioning this in the same breath as Pepper's is lunacy, total ignorance. It takes zero effort to rattle off 50 Lp's that put this release to shame.

Anonymous said...

Saying Pet Sounds is genius is one of those things ignorant people say to try and sound smart.
I have no idea who first came up with the thought of PS being this amazing album but it has been regurgitated ad nauseam and as years go by and more dummies repeat it, makes it generally accepted by those who don't know better.
I am not saying it is a bad album nor that it isn't influential but it's basically 3 good songs (Wouldn't It Be Nice, Sloop John B, God Only Knows), the forgettable title song, dogs & trains at the end, and a bunch of the same ol' same ol' from the BBs in between.
I give it a B-

Anonymous said...

Pet Sounds in its entirety is the greatest body of modern musical work (excluding incomparable Jazz / classical works). This entire article and the comments sections is reprehensible and injudicious, I'm almost tempted to avoid responding. Pet Sounds and Smile (TSS and Smile 3971 fanmix) are unsurpassed works of chamber rock, in terms of their instrumentation, orchestral arrangements and complex compositions. Each track on both of Wilson's masterpieces cannot be treated as single pieces, but fractions that contribute to make a whole entity, though they are all great pieces of music in themselves. All you quite manifestly lack any sort of musical sensibility and are illiterates in that respect, your axiomatic bullshit is based on commercial trends and ill-informed popular opinion (which has proven to be misleading). The 'Pet Sounds' instrumental is directly influenced by Baxter and is a baroque-exotica track; Here Today has an instrumental break that is influenced by Bach; IJWMFTT has the first electro-theremin solo seen in 'popular music' and the classical string arrangements on Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) are from a musical standpoint, rather sophisticated. Each of the 13 tracks are unique, musically 'correct', inspired and unsurpassed in chamber rock. Wilson singlehandedly created the most elevated sub-genre in popular music, is a legit musical genius and misconceived by you undiscerning philistines.

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