Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
So when I started digging deeper into classic rock history, and heard Pet Sounds heralded as their finest work, part of the classic music canon that you simply had to own, something far more sophisticated than their early pop hits, I took a pass. I just associated the Beach Boys with the "Fun, Fun, Fun" era songs I'd grown up on, and couldn't get past that. I knew the album's bigger hits that post-dated Endless Summer from the radio -- "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," "God Only Knows" -- and thought they were great, but the idea of sitting down and listening to a Beach Boys album just didn't make my to-do list.
I finally relented when I got to law school. It was still fairly early in the CD era, and a new, digitally remastered edition of Pet Sounds had just rolled out, so I belatedly picked it up.
And was, of course, utterly blown away.
As a vocal work in the rock era, it simply has no equal. Yes, there were the hits I knew, and others I'd come to hear over time, and they were terrific. But it was the harmonies that floored me. And sure, that had been a feature of all their early hits as well; but on Pet Sounds, freed of the Chuck Berry riffs and the baggage of childhood pop music associations, set loose in the more delicate arrangements of Brian Wilson, they just jumped out of the speakers.
There's the brief a capella break about two-thirds through "Sloop," where all the instruments drop out and it's just those joyous, ethereal vocals, and it's like a religious epiphany. Or the coda of "You Still Believe In Me," the all-encompassing ah-ah-ahs that sound like they emanate from a massive cathedral. The cathartic closing of "I'm Waiting For The Day." And yes, of course, "God Only Knows," a song that I should absolutely be sick of given its massive cultural omnipresence (Big Love didn't help), but I can't get sick of because Carl Wilson seems to channel something so otherworldly.
The other thing that stands out is the percussion. Hal Blaine of Wrecking Crew fame (or whoever else happens to be playing) is just godly on this album. There is such restraint, beats missing where you'd expect them, showing up where they shouldn't be; it sounds unlike anything else in rock & roll. (It's that same Blaine restraint that makes Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy In New York" such a masterful work of perfection.)
Anyway, you know the album. Go play it again. Personally, while 60s fans may prefer the mono, I'm all about the stereo (that CD reissue had both versions), where you can slip on some headphones and just get absolutely lost in the music.
Here's the "Sloop John B" video: