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Pop - Released September 27, 2004 | Nonesuch

The white whale of '60s record-making, the Beach Boys' aborted SMiLE album gradually gained a legend that not only inflated its rumored importance and complexity, but gave credence to an odd notion -- that completing it, then or ever, was impossible. In truth, SMiLE should have been released and forgotten, reissued and reappraised, and finally remastered for the digital era and ushered into the rock canon ever since Brian Wilson halted work on it in May 1967 (after an exhausting 85 recording sessions). Instead, it languished in the vaults and remained the perfect record -- perfect, of course, because it had never been finished. Reports that the recording of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" had caused a nearby building to burn down and whispers of "inappropriate music" gave it the character of a monster, one that cursed all those who approached it and claimed the heart and mind of its major participant. Wilson's love of "feels" -- short passages of cyclical music that could be overdubbed and rearranged countless times -- had made 1966's "Good Vibrations" the ultimate pocket symphony, but had also quickly spiralled into the instability that consumed him during its follow-up, "Heroes and Villains," projected to be the centerpiece of SMiLE. Happily, a new recording of SMiLE by Brian Wilson reveals the record as nothing more (or less) than a jaunty epic of psychedelic Americana, a rambling and discursive, playful and affectionate series of song cycles. Infectious and hummable, to be sure, and a remarkably unified, irresistible piece of pop music, but no musical watershed on par with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Wilson's masterpiece, Pet Sounds. For the first time ever, the program for SMiLE was compiled, after Brian Wilson first listened to the original recordings with his musical midwife, Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints (which has long functioned as Wilson's live backing band), and then worked them into a live show and album recording. The work that evolved divides into three sections: SMiLE begins with Americana, which takes the dream of continental expansion from the old Spanish town saga of "Heroes and Villains" to the landing at Plymouth Rock and, finally, the end of the frontier at Hawaii; it continues with a Cycle of Life that progresses from the virginal grace of "Wonderful" to the simultaneous peak and decline of the creative life on "Surf's Up"; and ends with an environmental cycle called The Elements, which includes "Vega-Tables," (Earth), "Wind Chimes" (Air), "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (Fire), and "In Blue Hawaii" (Water). Since Wilson himself was previously the most opposed to SMiLE appearing in any form, it's a considerable shock that this new recording justifies even half of the promise that fans had attached to it. Everything that Wilson and his band could control sounds nearly perfect. Every instrument, every note, and every intonation is nearly identical to the late-'60s tapes; one has to wonder whether vintage hand tools weren't acquired for "Workshop" and Paul McCartney wasn't flown in to add chewing noises to "Vega-Tables." (The players did, however, book time at one of Brian's old haunts, Sunset Sound, and utilized a '60s tube console to record their vocals.) No, the harmonies here aren't the Beach Boys' harmonies, and Brian's vocals aren't the vocals he was capable of 37 years ago, but they're excellent and (best of all) never distracting. Aside from the technical acumen on display, Wilson has also, amazingly, found a home -- the proper home -- for all of the brilliant instrumental snippets that lent the greatest part of the mystery to the unreleased SMiLE. Van Dyke Parks' new (or newly heard) lyrics fit into these compositions, and the work as a whole, like hand in glove. (The former instrumentals include "Barnyard"; "Holiday," which is here called "On a Holiday"; "Look," which is now "Song for Children"; and "I Love to Say Da-Da," which is now part of "In Blue Hawaii.") Most surprisingly, nearly all of this thematic unity was accomplished by merely reworking the original material already on tape, which proves that Wilson was never very far from finishing SMiLE in 1967. (It's very likely that the gulf was psychological; SMiLE had few supporters among Brian's closest friends and family.) Hopefully, Capitol is readying a SMiLE Sessions box set to release all of the vintage material, but it's clear that nothing they dig up from the vaults will be able to match the unity of this attractive recording. It's up to the standards of anyone who's ever scoured the bootlegs to create a SMiLE tape, and further, it beats them all, which is the highest compliment. So, if you've never been burdened with a friend's SMiLE tape before, count yourself lucky that Brian Wilson's is the first you'll hear. And if you have heard a few, prepare to listen to them much less religiously. © John Bush /TiVo
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Rock - Released April 6, 2015 | Capitol Records (CAP)

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That's Why God Made the Radio provided a bittersweet coda to the Beach Boys' career but the soothing sounds of the 2012 reunion didn't linger long before they were soured by the internal fighting endemic to the band. Mere weeks afterward, Mike Love announced Brian Wilson wouldn't join the Beach Boys for any dates after the summer 2012 tour, leaving Brian free to capitalize on the good press of That's Why God Made the Radio. He headed into the studio with guitarist Jeff Beck and producer Don Was in 2013 with the intention of cutting a full album but that collaboration quickly fell apart, leaving Wilson to re-team with his longtime collaborator Joe Thomas to turn these abandoned sessions into what turned out to be No Pier Pressure. Caught halfway between a back-to-basics move along the lines of TWGMTR and a star-studded extravaganza, No Pier Pressure is all sand, sun, and Saturday night nostalgia, a sensibility goosed by the addition of Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin -- the part of the Beach Boys camp that threw in their lot with Brian -- who help give their numbers ("What Ever Happened," "The Right Time," "Sail Away") a bit of the classicist AM pop sheen that made That's Why God Made the Radio so soothing. Elsewhere, the album relies on guest stars to give it a bit of showbiz sheen. She & Him breeze in to deliver some Caribbean camp on "On the Island," Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities gives Brian a dance club makeover on "Runaway Dancer," and Kacey Musgraves graces "Guess You Had to Be There." By the time Nate Ruess of Fun. shows up for "Saturday Night," a throwback that seems to belong the early-'80s soft rock glory days of Carole Bayer Sager and not American Graffiti (and is the better for it), No Pier Pressure seems a fusion of Wilson's classic sunshine instincts and modern Hollywood pop. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released June 5, 1998 | Giant

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Rock - Released September 27, 2005 | Arista

The format for single-artist Christmas albums has remained static nearly since the dawn of the LP: a popular artist reprises his sound of the moment in a Christmas setting, sometimes mixing sacred material with secular, but always generating a time capsule that rarely holds up to repeated listenings. The Beach Boys recorded one of the best rock Christmas records of all time, and contributed an even rarer thing than a good holiday album -- a new composition to add to the canon in "Little Saint Nick." Brian Wilson's first solo Christmas album (although he did attempt a second Beach Boys edition in the mid-'70s) was recorded with the same group that made his 2004 SMiLE LP, and it shows the influence of that record. The two new songs are intriguing because each pairs Wilson with a great rock lyricist. The first, "What I Really Want for Christmas," finds Bernie Taupin thrusting some fine sentiments into a very SMiLE-like melody. The other is the odd title "Christmasey," written with Jimmy Webb, a bright song with a kinetic power that makes it the highlight of the record. Surprisingly, Wilson doesn't shy away from the sacred material -- in fact, nearly half of the songs are hymns -- and sings multiple verses of "Hark the Herald Angels" and "O Holy Night" like he's reading straight from the hymnbook (except for the excellent new vocal arrangement he writes for the beginning and outro of the former). Wilson's oddly emphatic vocals don't quite suit the Christmas concept, but the arrangements and treatments are very good; the long instrument list and sound will be familiar to Beach Boys fans who have long since memorized the credits on Pet Sounds and SMiLE. Only two choices are puzzling: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" definitely doesn't benefit from a backbeat, and things get a bit confused on "The Man with All the Toys" when the band essays a single line from "O Come All Ye Faithful" ("let every heart prepare him room") and the listener starts wondering whether they're still talking about Santa Claus. One nice fillip for Beach Boys fans is how Wilson consciously swipes the beginning of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (long recognized as his favorite song) for the bonus track "On Christmas Day." © John Bush /TiVo
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Pop - Released March 15, 2005 | Rhino - Warner Records

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Humour/Spoken Word - Released May 1, 2017 | Lübbe Audio

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Pop - Released October 24, 2011 | Disney Pearl

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Just 15 months after Brian Wilson released his tribute to the music of George Gershwin, out popped another tribute album -- this one saluting the 75 years of original songs from the feature films of Walt Disney. Granted, this tribute is even more natural than Gershwin, since Wilson grew up just minutes away from Disneyland, and as a child of the '50s, had probably memorized perennials like "Whistle While You Work" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" before he ever considered writing songs about surfing. (Not to mention the fact that his Gershwin tribute actually came out on one of Disney's labels, as does this one.) Despite the natural feel of these songs as sung by Wilson and performed by his talented backing band, anyone who's paid attention to his solo career of the '90s and 2000s won't hear any surprises: there's the straight Phil Spector homage ("Kiss the Girl," from The Little Mermaid), several forced and hammy straight-ahead rockers (such as "You've Got a Friend in Me," written by Wilson's friend Randy Newman for Toy Story), and the occasional stroke of magic, like the could've-been-a-prime-Beach-Boys ballad "Baby Mine" (Dumbo) or the stunning harmonies that open "When You Wish Upon a Star" (Pinocchio). Fans of pop music or Wilson's special brand of production magic will especially enjoy the arrangements, like the marimbas and banjo playing on "The Bare Necessities," or the assortment of intriguing voicings from all manner of slightly exotic instruments (B-3, Moog, 12-string guitar and electric 12-string guitar, wooden flute, piccolo, musical saw, etc.). Wilson and fellow musical arranger Paul Von Mertens are at their best on the ballads, including "When You Wish Upon a Star," as well as the Mary Poppins chestnut "Stay Awake." © John Bush /TiVo
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International Pop - Released September 6, 2010 | Disney Pearl

During his five decades of music-making, Brian Wilson has added countless songs to the canon of great American pop music, but he hasn't recorded many by other composers. Still, his affection for the work of George Gershwin is long, and quite evident from this tribute album. In it, Wilson presents 11 classics from Gershwin's pen, and received the blessing of the Gershwin estate to finish two incomplete songs, "The Like in I Love You" and "Nothing But Love." As usual, Wilson's musical instincts are impeccable, and with a full orchestra lending additional weight to these songs, it's easily the best production on a Brian Wilson record since 2004's SMiLE. (It doesn't hurt that the lyrics as well as the music are tried and true; most of Wilson's solo output, and much of the Beach Boys' after 1967, has suffered from trite or tone-deaf lyrics.) Wilson is also in fine voice for his age, finding the pathos in "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" during a four-song medley, and even multi-tracking his vocals for the first time on the opener, a nearly a cappella version of "Rhapsody in Blue." "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" is done up, as an instrumental, in full Pet Sounds splendor (complete with bass harmonica), while "I Got Rhythm" is neatly transformed into an uptempo nugget to rank with "Surfin' U.S.A." or "Little Honda." Wilson's normal studio group is augmented here with an orchestra (the arrangements and orchestrations are by Wilson and Paul Von Mertens), and they stay in the background except when needed -- just one of the many fine touches to the entire production here. Granted, Wilson's bouncy take on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" is never going to compete with Ella Fitzgerald's (or even Julie London's), and "'S Wonderful" is nearly blanded out into easy listening oblivion, but nearly everything else here is loving, sincere, and worthy of hearing by fans of the Beach Boys or Broadway. © John Bush /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 1995 | Geffen

The idea of Brian Wilson sitting down and reinterpreting some of his old Beach Boys and solo songs sounds earth-shattering, but this LP, made in conjunction with the film of the same name, is just modest fun more than any great historic ruby. Without the help of his famous brothers and cousin, Wilson downsizes compositions such as Pet Sounds' "Caroline, No," 20/20's "Do It Again," (with his celebrity daughters of Wilson Phillips, Carnie and Wendy replicating the original harmonies), and Wild Honey's "Let the Wind Blow." This makes for enjoyable listening for any committed fan, and the best thing here, a new look at the 1964 single "Warmth of the Sun," even achieves a new, slower, more glum feel. Elsewhere, redos of "Love and Mercy" and "Melt Away" off Wilson's 1988 self-titled solo LP seem less steeped in over-nostalgia, breathing fresh life in them. But I Just Wasn't is no major revelation; much better to have seen the reclusive man perform these in person at two private October New York shows or, failing such an appearance, see him sing in the movie. © Jack Rabid /TiVo
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Pop - Released July 29, 2016 | BMG

Recorded during the tour for his 2015 solo LP, No Pier Pressure, Brian Wilson and Friends is a guest-heavy concert album and DVD set that draws on some of the star power from both that album and the Beach Boys reunions of the three preceding years. With over five decades of music to his credit, Wilson has plenty of material to choose from and he manages to honor his core catalog while throwing in a few surprises. The most apparent musical presence here is that of founding Beach Boy Al Jardine on rhythm guitar, harmonies, and, on a handful of cuts, lead vocals. As has been the case since his improbable legacy-restoring return to the stage in the late-'90s, Wilson's band remains top-notch, faithfully delivering tasteful renditions of Beach Boys classics in a way that latter-day touring versions of the group itself could never quite match. Longtime Wilson advocate and musical director Darian Sahanaja has played an enormous role returning some much-needed luster to this living legend, but even the tightest arrangements are merely tributes without the unmistakable presence of the singer that birthed them, and the addition of Jardine's distinctive vocal timbre adds a certain amount of authenticity to the proceedings. Also making a comeback are mid-period Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, whose contributions as full-time bandmembers can be heard on early-'70s highlights like "Marcella" and "Sail on Sailor," both of which get solid reworkings here. Elsewhere, trumpeter and composer Mark Isham makes a guest appearance on a pair of songs including an instrumental take on the Pet Sounds classic "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." The bulk of the other guests (She & Him, Kacey Musgraves, Nate Ruess, Sebü) get their due on the 26-song DVD half of this release with the CD portion focusing mostly on Wilson, his band, and the returning Beach Boys. Classics like "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," and "Sloop John B" have all been recorded live by Wilson's band before and the versions here are solid, if not essential. Deeper cuts like the early-'60s highlight "All Summer Long" and the unlikely inclusion of Mike Love's "California Saga" are noteworthy, as is the Jardine-sung single "The Right Time," which was one of the bright spots from Wilson's last studio effort. The main attraction of Brian Wilson and Friends, however, is the full set list of the DVD, which also includes bonus interviews with several of the featured friends. © Timothy Monger /TiVo
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Pop - Released November 14, 1995 | Rhino - Warner Records

Even the most ardent Beach Boys completist might have missed Orange Crate Art. Released in 1995, the album was a collection of songs written and produced by Van Dyke Parks with Brian Wilson multi-tracking the majority of both lead and backing vocals. It would be the most significant collaboration between the two massive talents since their work together on Wilson's long-obscured Beach Boys masterwork SMiLE 30 years earlier. Parks approached Wilson in 1992, and they spent the next three years slowly sculpting this album of wistful, pastel-hued odes to California. Wilson plays a largely surface role on Orange Crate Art, fleshing out some vocal arrangements but mainly serving as a mouthpiece for Parks' slippery, dreamy, and comical lyrics. Nowhere near as ambitious as SMiLE, Orange Crate Art is pleasant and less weighty, falling more in line with the off-beat quirks of post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys albums like Friends or Love You. The mid-'90s production doesn't hold up exceptionally well, with dated drum sounds and twinkly MIDI synth tones sometimes distracting from the songwriting. Recorded just a few years after a Wilson-free lineup of the Beach Boys scored a number one hit with their hokey island pop tune "Kokomo," there are hints of a similarly stifled faux-calypso style on Orange Crate Art's lesser songs. "Summer in Monterey" is tourist-trap schmaltz, and "San Francisco" is a confusing melee of canned hard rock clichés. The weakest songs sound customized for the soundtracks of early-'90s "made for TV" movies and theme park rides. Among the cornier moments, however, are some undeniably beautiful performances. The jubilant "Wings of a Dove" has the kind of flowing, elastic melody that Wilson's voice is perfect for. It's a soaring and lovely song, tapping into the innocence and wonder at the core of Wilson's artistry. "This Town Goes Down at Sunset" is a kindhearted portrait of small-town life, reveling in nostalgia and the idealized, simplistic view of the world that both Wilson and Parks often returned to in their music. While sometimes saccharine, Orange Crate Art is an interesting and often overlooked piece of Beach Boys history. © Fred Thomas /TiVo
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Pop - Released September 22, 2017 | Rhino - Warner Records

Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology is the first-ever compilation concentrating on Brian Wilson's solo career, and given that his discography is a bit unwieldy, it's not a surprise that Playback is a bit misshapen. Over the course of 18 tracks, Playback samples from nearly every record Wilson released between his eponymous 1988 solo debut and 2015's No Pier Pressure, adding two unreleased tracks -- the brand-new surf tune "Run James Run" and the nice, effervescent Andy Paley '90s collaboration "Some Sweet Day" -- for good measure. Wilson's difficult '90s in general are glossed over -- Orange Crate Art, his 1995 collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, isn't represented here, nor are any of his Don Was-produced Beach Boys covers from I Just Wasn't Made for These Times -- represented by two cuts from Imagination ("Cry," "Lay Down Burden"), which means this is anchored by the 1988 album and the flood of albums released after his touring comeback in the early 2000s. These live shows are represented by two selections from 2000's Live at the Roxy Theatre, and they sit alongside two cuts from his 2004 completion of SMiLE ("Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," both originally cut with the Beach Boys and the best-known things here by some margin) and a song apiece from his tributes to Gershwin and Disney, along with cuts from Gettin' in Over My Head (2004), That Lucky Old Sun (2008), and No Pier Pressure (2015). All of these cuts are presented in a sequence that quickly slides from logical -- "Love and Mercy," his best and, thanks to the 2015 biopic of the same name, best-known solo song opens up the proceedings, followed by the SMiLE material -- into a haphazard flow resembling a shuffle play. Instead of highlighting Wilson's musical consistency, this sequencing shows how he could succumb to bad production ideas of the day while remaining singularly obsessed with the past. In that sense, it's a representative collection because it offers gems as it rambles through a series of left-hand turns and is ultimately endearing, not frustrating. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released September 27, 2004 | Nonesuch

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Rock - Released January 1, 2008 | Capitol Records

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That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson's second major thematic work, isn't quite the third coming of SMiLE. Instead, it's an ode to the Southern California of the '50s and '60s that the Beach Boys constantly evoked, and although it's polished with the peak-era production style that Wilson made famous, most of the songs are wrapped around the overwrought pop/rock he's revisited again and again since his first major return to form, back in 1976. As a thematic topic, "That Lucky Old Sun" is ripe for integration into Brian Wilson's California myth-making. A Tin Pan Alley chestnut from the '40s, it contrasts the ease of the sun's transit each day with the hardship of human toil on earth, a sort of "Ol' Man River" set in the sky. (Even better is the fact that it's a professional songwriter's account of working-class life, which dovetails perfectly with the Beach Boys' mythic vision of Southern California and the illusionary aspects of Hollywood's brand of reality.) That Lucky Old Sun begins with Wilson briefly stating the theme and the intonation of a heavenly choir, but then barrels into the first song, "Morning Beat," a rocker with a set of adolescent rhymes (one example: "The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze/Turns up the volume and shows off its rays"). But wasn't this is supposed to be a collaboration with the great lyricist Van Dyke Parks? Actually, Parks contributes only to a set of spoken narratives, delivered emphatically by Wilson himself, that are interspersed throughout the album and attempt to advance the California panorama from Venice Beach to East L.A. to Hollywood -- as well as frequent stops along Brian Wilson's personal time line. ("How could I have got so low, I'm embarrassed to tell you so/I laid around this old place, I hardly ever washed my face.") That Lucky Old Sun rarely evokes the classic Beach Boys sound, but instead the driving '70s productions on latter-day Beach Boys albums like 15 Big Ones and Love You -- granted, with innumerable production touches that could only have come from the mind of Brian Wilson (ah, the clip-clop of wood blocks!). It's obvious that Wilson was at the center of some of the best and brightest productions of the '60s, but the added assumption about being at the center is that there are integral parts radiating outward. (In Wilson's case, those parts consisted of a superb harmony group with several great lead voices and the on-demand talents of an array of excellent musicians, plus copious engineers and studio technology.) Naturally, his solo career has positioned him at the forefront, which is a very different place than the center and one he's proved himself unwilling and unable to embrace fully. He needs not only talented collaborators but strong lead voices to place alongside his own; an apt comparison at Wilson's age is Burt Bacharach, who would hardly consider writing lyrics as well as music and singing every song on one of his albums. The lack of colleagues who could inform the result of this album -- the lack of Van Dyke Parks in a prominent role or a Carl Wilson or even a Mike Love -- is what makes That Lucky Old Sun assume a place below SMiLE in the pantheon of Brian Wilson's achievements. © John Bush /TiVo
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Pop - Released September 6, 2010 | EMI Catalogue

During his five decades of music-making, Brian Wilson has added countless songs to the canon of great American pop music, but he hasn't recorded many by other composers. Still, his affection for the work of George Gershwin is long, and quite evident from this tribute album. In it, Wilson presents 11 classics from Gershwin's pen, and received the blessing of the Gershwin estate to finish two incomplete songs, "The Like in I Love You" and "Nothing But Love." As usual, Wilson's musical instincts are impeccable, and with a full orchestra lending additional weight to these songs, it's easily the best production on a Brian Wilson record since 2004's SMiLE. (It doesn't hurt that the lyrics as well as the music are tried and true; most of Wilson's solo output, and much of the Beach Boys' after 1967, has suffered from trite or tone-deaf lyrics.) Wilson is also in fine voice for his age, finding the pathos in "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" during a four-song medley, and even multi-tracking his vocals for the first time on the opener, a nearly a cappella version of "Rhapsody in Blue." "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" is done up, as an instrumental, in full Pet Sounds splendor (complete with bass harmonica), while "I Got Rhythm" is neatly transformed into an uptempo nugget to rank with "Surfin' U.S.A." or "Little Honda." Wilson's normal studio group is augmented here with an orchestra (the arrangements and orchestrations are by Wilson and Paul Von Mertens), and they stay in the background except when needed -- just one of the many fine touches to the entire production here. Granted, Wilson's bouncy take on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" is never going to compete with Ella Fitzgerald's (or even Julie London's), and "'S Wonderful" is nearly blanded out into easy listening oblivion, but nearly everything else here is loving, sincere, and worthy of hearing by fans of the Beach Boys or Broadway. © John Bush /TiVo
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Rock - Released April 6, 2015 | Capitol Records (CAP)

That's Why God Made the Radio provided a bittersweet coda to the Beach Boys' career but the soothing sounds of the 2012 reunion didn't linger long before they were soured by the internal fighting endemic to the band. Mere weeks afterward, Mike Love announced Brian Wilson wouldn't join the Beach Boys for any dates after the summer 2012 tour, leaving Brian free to capitalize on the good press of That's Why God Made the Radio. He headed into the studio with guitarist Jeff Beck and producer Don Was in 2013 with the intention of cutting a full album but that collaboration quickly fell apart, leaving Wilson to re-team with his longtime collaborator Joe Thomas to turn these abandoned sessions into what turned out to be No Pier Pressure. Caught halfway between a back-to-basics move along the lines of TWGMTR and a star-studded extravaganza, No Pier Pressure is all sand, sun, and Saturday night nostalgia, a sensibility goosed by the addition of Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin -- the part of the Beach Boys camp that threw in their lot with Brian -- who help give their numbers ("What Ever Happened," "The Right Time," "Sail Away") a bit of the classicist AM pop sheen that made That's Why God Made the Radio so soothing. Elsewhere, the album relies on guest stars to give it a bit of showbiz sheen. She & Him breeze in to deliver some Caribbean camp on "On the Island," Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities gives Brian a dance club makeover on "Runaway Dancer," and Kacey Musgraves graces "Guess You Had to Be There." By the time Nate Ruess of Fun. shows up for "Saturday Night," a throwback that seems to belong the early-'80s soft rock glory days of Carole Bayer Sager and not American Graffiti (and is the better for it), No Pier Pressure seems a fusion of Wilson's classic sunshine instincts and modern Hollywood pop. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Rock - Released January 1, 2009 | Capitol Records

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Rock - Released January 1, 2008 | Capitol Records

That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson's second major thematic work, isn't quite the third coming of SMiLE. Instead, it's an ode to the Southern California of the '50s and '60s that the Beach Boys constantly evoked, and although it's polished with the peak-era production style that Wilson made famous, most of the songs are wrapped around the overwrought pop/rock he's revisited again and again since his first major return to form, back in 1976. As a thematic topic, "That Lucky Old Sun" is ripe for integration into Brian Wilson's California myth-making. A Tin Pan Alley chestnut from the '40s, it contrasts the ease of the sun's transit each day with the hardship of human toil on earth, a sort of "Ol' Man River" set in the sky. (Even better is the fact that it's a professional songwriter's account of working-class life, which dovetails perfectly with the Beach Boys' mythic vision of Southern California and the illusionary aspects of Hollywood's brand of reality.) That Lucky Old Sun begins with Wilson briefly stating the theme and the intonation of a heavenly choir, but then barrels into the first song, "Morning Beat," a rocker with a set of adolescent rhymes (one example: "The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze/Turns up the volume and shows off its rays"). But wasn't this is supposed to be a collaboration with the great lyricist Van Dyke Parks? Actually, Parks contributes only to a set of spoken narratives, delivered emphatically by Wilson himself, that are interspersed throughout the album and attempt to advance the California panorama from Venice Beach to East L.A. to Hollywood -- as well as frequent stops along Brian Wilson's personal time line. ("How could I have got so low, I'm embarrassed to tell you so/I laid around this old place, I hardly ever washed my face.") That Lucky Old Sun rarely evokes the classic Beach Boys sound, but instead the driving '70s productions on latter-day Beach Boys albums like 15 Big Ones and Love You -- granted, with innumerable production touches that could only have come from the mind of Brian Wilson (ah, the clip-clop of wood blocks!). It's obvious that Wilson was at the center of some of the best and brightest productions of the '60s, but the added assumption about being at the center is that there are integral parts radiating outward. (In Wilson's case, those parts consisted of a superb harmony group with several great lead voices and the on-demand talents of an array of excellent musicians, plus copious engineers and studio technology.) Naturally, his solo career has positioned him at the forefront, which is a very different place than the center and one he's proved himself unwilling and unable to embrace fully. He needs not only talented collaborators but strong lead voices to place alongside his own; an apt comparison at Wilson's age is Burt Bacharach, who would hardly consider writing lyrics as well as music and singing every song on one of his albums. The lack of colleagues who could inform the result of this album -- the lack of Van Dyke Parks in a prominent role or a Carl Wilson or even a Mike Love -- is what makes That Lucky Old Sun assume a place below SMiLE in the pantheon of Brian Wilson's achievements. © John Bush /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released November 1, 2005 | Arista

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Rock - Released March 31, 2015 | Capitol Records (CAP)

That's Why God Made the Radio provided a bittersweet coda to the Beach Boys' career but the soothing sounds of the 2012 reunion didn't linger long before they were soured by the internal fighting endemic to the band. Mere weeks afterward, Mike Love announced Brian Wilson wouldn't join the Beach Boys for any dates after the summer 2012 tour, leaving Brian free to capitalize on the good press of That's Why God Made the Radio. He headed into the studio with guitarist Jeff Beck and producer Don Was in 2013 with the intention of cutting a full album but that collaboration quickly fell apart, leaving Wilson to re-team with his longtime collaborator Joe Thomas to turn these abandoned sessions into what turned out to be No Pier Pressure. Caught halfway between a back-to-basics move along the lines of TWGMTR and a star-studded extravaganza, No Pier Pressure is all sand, sun, and Saturday night nostalgia, a sensibility goosed by the addition of Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin -- the part of the Beach Boys camp that threw in their lot with Brian -- who help give their numbers ("What Ever Happened," "The Right Time," "Sail Away") a bit of the classicist AM pop sheen that made That's Why God Made the Radio so soothing. Elsewhere, the album relies on guest stars to give it a bit of showbiz sheen. She & Him breeze in to deliver some Caribbean camp on "On the Island," Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities gives Brian a dance club makeover on "Runaway Dancer," and Kacey Musgraves graces "Guess You Had to Be There." By the time Nate Ruess of Fun. shows up for "Saturday Night," a throwback that seems to belong the early-'80s soft rock glory days of Carole Bayer Sager and not American Graffiti (and is the better for it), No Pier Pressure seems a fusion of Wilson's classic sunshine instincts and modern Hollywood pop. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo