The Long-Form Fiction of John Steinbeck, from Worst to Best

I’ve read all of John Steinbeck’s fiction, which is, at least for me, a rarity in a prolific author (the only other author of several books I’ve read all or nearly all of is Graham Greene). His quality varied widely, but he was an excellent storyteller, with a good eye for Americana and putting a jagged twist of melencholy or satire in his stories. At his worst, he was self-indulgent and preachy, but at his best, he captured the spirit of an era and of a social class (among white people and particularly white men; with very few exceptions, his female and especially his minority characters are weak. Chinese immigrants he does pretty well, Mexicans and californios somewhat less well, Native Americans not well at all, and black people are conspicuously absent from his stories). Since it’s one of the few things I know well, I figured I’d rate his books, since rating things from worst to best seems to be the Thing To Do nowadays, and it was fun when I did it for the Beach Boys. A word on selection criteria: anything cohesive and longer than a short story, and intended as fiction, is in. That includes The Red Pony and The Pearl, even though they’re both shorter than a typical novel and the former is even typically tucked into the back of modern editions of The Long Valley. In terms of separating anthologies from cohesive works, I identify The Long Valley as a short-story anthology, as it obviously is, but break somewhat from consensus in regarding The Pastures of Heaven as a single cohesive work rather than a collection of short stories with a shared cast (I would feel the same way about, say, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio). Also, while the general consensus is that Travels With Charley is heavily fictionalized, it was neither presented as, nor meant to be consumed as, a work of narrative fiction and, in my estimation, doesn’t belong in this list. So, with those caveats, here’s my ordering (which I’m afraid has few real surprises in it; I’m not going to make an impassioned plea that, say, Burning Bright or The Wayward Bus is far better than all those books you non-fanatics have read).

18. Cup of Gold

His first work, and it shows. He tries to sneak in some useful discourse on the nature of desire but at the end of the day it’s just a tale of adventure. I returned to it to make sure I was being fair for this list, and it’s less trivial than I remember but it still reads a bit flat and less effective than his mature works.

17. Sweet Thursday

Steinbeck’s only sequel, and a good cautionary tale against sequels. Where Cannery Row had a brilliant realism and gave Monterey a sense of place through its characters, Sweet Thursday veers into self-indulgent jokery and an ill-conceived romance plot. It’s like Steinbeck decided to cram all the Monterey stories he couldn’t fit easily into Cannery Row into another work and overlay it with broad winks at the audience. The second-string material here might make an OK read if you absolutely adored Cannery Row and desperately want to follow the stories of the characters further, but, y’know, books end where they do for a reason.

16. The Pearl

Heavily moralistic; where Cup of Gold had too much story and not enough theme, The Pearl is the other way around, beating you over the head with its cautionary tale. The nightmarish view of colonialism and racial class oppression is a theme he’d find useful elsewhere, but here there’s an unhealthy layer of noble-savage messaging about contentment.

15. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

It’s a bit unfair to judge Steinbeck by this one, as it was published posthumously, unfinished, and probably abandoned by the author himself as an unnecessary and inferior work. There is very little good or bad to say about it, really: it’s a competent but hardly dazzling retelling of the story of King Arthur, based mostly on Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Steinbeck himself had previously adapted some of the structure and style of the Arthurian mythos (of which he was a huge fan) into Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, so not only is this not the best adaptation of the tale of King Arthur around, it’s not even the best adaptation written by John Steinbeck.

14. Burning Bright

Credit where it’s due: Steinbeck showed a game willingness to work outside his comfort zone. Burning Bright began life as a stageplay sketch, and thus the small cast, the abrupt change of scenery and circumstance, and the stylized presentation of the characters. It’s an experiment, but not, I would say, a terrifically successful one: the characters are too flat, too stilted, and the three separate vignettes in completely different contexts mostly just jar the reader out of any sense of immersion.

13. The Short Reign of Pippin IV

Well, it’s a straight-up comedy, and also a delivery vehicle for some of Steinbeck’s musings about governments, power, and what is to be done with it. By and large America, and especially California, is where Steinbeck draws his best stories, and the further you get from the Salinas Valley, the worse they get; that said, his sketch of a France-that-never-was is an interesting one, and the social satire and the fundamentally madcap comedy make a somewhat unhappy pairing, as if Steinbeck wanted to say something vicious but couldn’t bring himself to commit to a truly cruel satire.

12. The Winter of Our Discontent

The last-published of Steinbeck’s novels (not counting the posthumous publication of King Arthur, see above). It’s pretty mediocre and, as in The Pearl, the theme rather overtakes the narrative, with preachiness about integrity and wealth in America in the place of any real plot. The nature of capitalism and how it pits the disenfranchised against each other is a theme Steinbeck returned to a great deal, particularly in the stories of migrant workers in the Depression, but here it has less of a sense of urgency, and the protagonist’s hypocrisy, instead of seeming like a fearsome dilemma when the starving and desperate do it, just makes him unlikable.

11. To a God Unknown

Some honesty, here: when I ranked these, I didn’t even reread most of these books. I wrote down a few memories of them and put them in order on gut feeling as to how well they resonated with me, and then I expanded those notes out into an explanation. My notes on To a God Unknown were pretty fragmentary; I remembered it being rife with nature symbolism and a kind of disturbing loneliness and not much else, so even though I had a good sense of where I ranked it, I knew I was going to have to reread it in order to say anything intelligent about it. It’s better than I remember but still not exactly transcendent. It’s a work with a lot to sink your teeth into from a gender-presentation standpoint, to say the least: nature is very heavily imbued with masculine and feminine qualities (in a way which is more than a little dodgy: the masculine symbol is nurturing and protective and unambiguaously good such that disaster strikes when it is destroyed; the feminine symbol is ambivalent and scary, imbued with extraordinary power but a moral complexity which delivers both awe and terror). The duality of genders is one among far too many dualities explored: wildness and civilization, Christianity and paganism, natives and immigrants. There’s a lot of symbolic weight but it’s spread so thinly that none of it feels like it’s explored in an illuminating way.

10. The Wayward Bus

This is the sort of thing Steinbeck is good at, bouncing characters with radically different views and desires off of each other. The titular bus houses an ensemble cast who work at cross-purposes and make uncomfortable self-discoveries. It lacks the prose flair of his better works, but it’s a competent execution of a narrative which makes use of his strengths instead of fumbling into his weaknesses.

9. The Red Pony

A short work; like The Pearl it falls short of novel length, and it’s divided into four shorter vignettes yet. There’s a central theme of disillusionment and the maturation which is intertwined with it, and each individual story delivers a good solid punch at the end, a powerful image of how Jody learns a little more about the limitations of the world and those who live in it. This is a short enough work to not wear out its welcome, because one can, indeed, have too much of a good thing. Some editions of The Red Pony have the short story “Junius Maltby” after the four tales from Jody’s childhood, but I’m not including that story in the merits of this work, because it’s clearly a different tale and one which originally appeared earlier in The Pastures of Heaven.

8. Tortilla Flat

The central characters are all Mexicans, Indians, or otherwise enmeshed in the complicated racial caste system of Mexico and Alta California. They’re portrayed as somewhat buffoonish and speak in the elaborate crafted English of people who are not entirely comfortable with the language, and coming from a white writer there’s an uncomfortable sense of racial mockery which sits a lot less well than the similar buffoonery of a white cast in Cannery Row. Move past that and it’s not too bad; they’re all lovable rogues in their way, and the tragic flaw to which they succumb isn’t presented with any particular racial slant (as mentioned above, it’s cribbed to some degree off of Arthurian mythos).

7. The Pastures of Heaven

As mentioned in the prologue, the inclusion of this in a list of “long-form fiction” is a bit debatable, because like The Long Valley, it is a book of individual largely self-contained stories; unlike The Long Valley, those stories share a setting and a cast of characters, and characters and plot development from any given one of them provides context for the others; it’s often described as a “short story cycle” or “composite novel”, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Like the Anderson collection, it derives its strength from the development of individual characters who make up a community; like Anderson, Steinbeck’s characters are mild grotesques, consumed by obsessions. This is a lot of words to say that this book is more or less “Winesburg, but in California”, but I’d also tack on “and not quite as good”. It’s a solid work, but there’s a reason Sherwood Anderson is remembered pretty much for one thing and the things Steinbeck is mostly remembered for aren’t The Pastures of Heaven.

6. In Dubious Battle

A story of Communist agitation and the marginal existence of crop pickers in California during the depression. It suffers badly by comparison to The Grapes of Wrath, which covers the same issues with a broader focus and less preachiness. He’s working in his comfort zone and does a good job of it, but this book isn’t essential in large part because a different book of his does the same thing so very much better. If The Grapes of Wrath didn’t exist, then In Dubious Battle would place considerably higher because it would then be Steinbeck’s most politically aware work.

5. The Moon is Down

I’ve said several times that Steinbeck novels get worse the further they get from California. The Salinas Valley was his comfort zone, and the further he got from there, the worse they got. But I have a soft spot for The Moon is Down, and one which is probably not shared by most aficionados of his work, so this is the closest I’ll get to a “wild card”. As my opening sentence indicates, this one is not set in Californa, but it engages in a parabolic “soft-focus” where the actual geography and history are referenced obliquely. However obliquely it is presented, however, it’s pretty obviously inspired specifically by Nordic resistance (most likely Norwegian in particular) to Nazi occupation. It’s mannered and moralistic. Every individual aspect of it seems to draw from Steinbeck’s worst foibles, and yet, somehow, it feels right and comes together beautifully. I really can’t explain placing it so highly except on pure gut feeling.

4. Cannery Row

This one can mostly be considered most easily in comparison to Tortilla Flat. Like that work, Cannery Row centers around a group of indolent, lovable rogues, but in most respects Cannery Row finds better things to do with them. They’re white, so the racially dangerous tones of Tortilla Flat aren’t present; the Arthurian framing is relaxed, which allows the story to be more enjoyable, and most importantly, it develops a strong sense of place. Cannery Row was (and is, although it’s become very touristy) of course a real place, a strip along the waterfront of Monterey, and Steinbeck successfully evokes the atmosphere and even the particulars of the society there (Doc and his lab are a very thinly fictionalized version of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts and Pacific Biological Laboratories; more well-disguised versions of Ricketts inspired pretty much every medical doctor in Steinbeck’s work). The grounding in reality of a time and place, and the less mannered presentation of the characters, makes for a stronger piece which duplicates the successes of Tortilla Flat.

3. Of Mice and Men

This is the most frequently read work of Steinbeck’s, I think, because it’s really popular on high-school curricula. It’s not very long, it has straightforward characters and themes, and it doesn’t have enough sex or communism to upset parents. It lends itself easily to symbolic interpretation, and generations of students have written more or less the same essay identifying Candy’s dog with Lenny.  At this point any dedicated contrarian would run the book down as a facile crowd-pleaser which, because of its easy inclusion on school curricula, can’t possibly be challenging or of literary merit. And yet, it actually is a very good book. There’s a range of well-drawn characters who come across as human to the extent that you feel Steinbeck knew people like them (including one of Steinbeck’s vanishingly rare Black characters), and a sense of the time and place of Depression migrant workers with less of a political slant than Steinbeck used elsewhere. It’s simplistic with the contours of a parable, but it doesn’t feel sketched the way Steinbeck’s explicitly parabolic works are.

2. The Grapes of Wrath

The great political novel of the Depression, well regarded and justly so. It covers a wide range of humanity, focusing on a particular family but frequently paralleling their struggle to the greater dysfunction in the world, seeing man’s inhumanity to man not only in the abuses of the big landowners, but in the crabs-in-a-bucket scheming displayed by grifters and cons up and down the social scale. It’s sympathetic to communism in the same way that many of his works focusing on migrant workers are, but it doesn’t maintain the manifesto-like obsession of In Dubious Battle.

1. East of Eden

Part autobiography, part morality play, and all in all an effective creation of a time and place. That this ranks above The Grapes of Wrath in my own ranking mostly derives from a personal preference for individualized moral tales over considerations of the political and social; they’re both excellent works with quite different emphasis. One sticking point to me is that it is really not great at all in the way it portrays women: there’s a vicious Madonna-whore dichotomy with the latter made pretty much explicit in Cathy (and on the other end of the spectrum Abra, for all her protestation against being the epitome of perfection, is portrayed as essentially a saint). In racial matters it does better, shedding light on the complex distinctions of class among the mostly white cast, the Irish immigrant Samuel, and the second-generation Chinese-American Lee (although, taken through a racial lens, the absence of Chicano, Native, or Black characters is a bit conspicuous; all three ethnicities were certainly present in central California, and the first fairly numerous; Steinbeck included plenty of Chicano characters in other works, so it’s not as if he typically ignored their existence).

Beach Boys albums, from best to worst

     So I was a huge Beach Boys fan back in the day. I’m still a fan, just not a superfan. But I unearthed some old vinyl I didn’t realize I still had, and I now have a record player, so I’m playing Beach Boys albums. And some of them are really good, better than I remember! And some of them are crap, just like I remember. So I’m letting you know what not to miss, and what to avoid like the plague, starting from the top down. For purposes of this list, I’m considering only works released under the name of the Beach Boys as a whole rather than specific members (no Pacific Ocean Blue, for instance), and original studio works instead of live/compilation albums (which includes Party!, the claims on the cover to the contrary). Also, the existence/tracklisting/correct version of Smile is such a terrible can of worms that it can’t in good faith be included on a list like this.

Pet Sounds

A lot of lists go from worst to best to build up the suspense. I’m not doing that because the best Beach Boys album is not actually very contentious at all. This usually isn’t the case for prolific bands, as far as I can tell. Ask a bunch of well-informed fans of, say, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or Steely Dan or Rush what their best album is, and you can probably kick off a spirited argument where everyone has some good points. Bring up the Beach Boys, and unless you’ve got some dedicated contrarians in the group (or people who believe that there is a specific album called Smile that exists), everyone’s going to go with Pet Sounds. Why? Well, one reason is the weight of prior opinion: Pet Sounds is frequently named not only as the best Beach Boys album, but the best album, period. That’s a hard consensus to go against. But another good reason is that it’s really hard to argue another Beach Boys album is great throughout. Prior to Pet Sounds, their songs ranged from trifling to excellent, but there were trifles scattered through pretty much every album. After Pet Sounds, their style had matured but was prone to really, really terrible misfires on even their good works. Pet Sounds is basically their only album that achieved a high level of craft throughout.

And, really, what can I say that hasn’t been said better by others to sing its praises? It’s a really good album. It’s worth a listen.

What are the essentials? Look, just listen to the whole damn thing. It’s worth 36 minutes of your life, really, and you’ll be better for it. I mean, if you absolutely must take a whistle-stop tour, then, fine, I’ll assume you’ve already heard “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” on the radio and recommend the less overfamiliar “Let’s Go Away For A While”, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the title track, and “Caroline, No”. But, seriously, it’s all worth a listen.

What should I skip for my own good? Were you not paying attention for the last few paragraphs? Nothing! OK, fine, if you have a version with bonus tracks, jump over “Hang On To Your Ego” because it’s just “I Know There’s An Answer” with different lyrics and Mike Love growling.

Fun fact: There’s a conversation going on in the background over the instrumental bridge of “Here Today”. You can distinctly hear Brian Wilson yell “Top!” at the beginning of the bridge (i.e. “this take is bad, let’s go back to the top”), then some chatter, and then, even louder, Brian yelling “Top please!”. Once you’ve heard it you can’t unhear it and now for me that bridge has this absolutely deafening conversation over it. And now I’ve ruined it for you too. Mwahaha! While I’m ruining this recording for you, there’s also a “she made me feel so bad” mixed into the second chorus one line too early (right after “well I’m not saying you won’t have a good love with her”).


As mentioned above, the late 60s and early 70s brought us a number of good albums scattered with terrible, terrible ideas. Holland has one of the better good-to-terrible ratios. Nothing’s completely cringeworthy, although the “California Saga” wears its welcome a little thin. There’s a lot to like, though, and this album shows some of the most diversity of style and sound the Beach Boys would ever exhibit. Practically everyone gets a turn at the wheel either creatively or in performance, and the Beach Boys lineup was extended at this point to the extent that some voices we didn’t get the chance to hear come to the fore: both Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin get credits, and Dennis Wilson is moving towards an ever more soulful style which isn’t fully developed here but still kicks this album into the big leagues.

Holland was distributed with the Mount Vernon and Fairway EP, which is typically just tacked onto the end of the CD version. It’s a bit up in the air as to whether Mount Vernon and Fairway is part of this album. If it is, it brings the overall quality down a bit: not because Mount Vernon is bad (it’s OK-ish, in its experimental, spoken-word-intensive way), but because the rest of Holland is so strong.

What are the essentials? “Sail On Sailor” gets thrown onto compilations occasionally, and for good reason: it’s a top-notch song, both compositionally and in performance. Blondie Chaplin’s vocals complement the style beautifully. “The Trader” is a well-imagined piece, a bit preachy but well-constructed. I like “Leaving This Town”, but I adore what Ricky and Blondie brought to the show and your mileage may vary on that.

What should I skip for my own good? Probably “The Beaks of Eagles” unless you’re a huge Robinson Jeffers fan. The “California Saga” is already a bit self-indulgent, and the other two songs from it are much better. I probably wouldn’t skip Mount Vernon and Fairway on spec: it’s weird, and it may not be your cup of tea, and it makes you feel slightly embarrassed for Brian Wilson, but it’s not actually bad.

Fun fact: The album was recorded in Utrecht, and that’s how it got it’s name.

The Beach Boys Today!

It’s honestly a tough call where to put this one vs. Shut Down Volume 2 (see below). At its very best, SDV2 shows better songcraft than Today! does, but the production values on Today! are higher, with a lot more instruments doing a lot more interesting things. The sound on a lot of songs here (particularly “Do You Wanna Dance?”) is consciously imitative of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, and it’s arranged and executed competently. This is also the first album with no songs conspicuously about cars or surfing, which indicates a powerful desire to be taken seriously artistically. The work shows conspicuous maturity in content and design. It doesn’t hang together as an album entirely, although there is a broad structural division between the poppy uptempo songs on the front and the reflective, contemplative numbers on the back.

What are the essentials? “Do You Wanna Dance?” is, as mentioned above, an easy-to-listen-to song which has a lot going on under the surface. It’s actually a cover, but it’s arranged extraordinarily. “Please Let Me Wonder” is the strongest song from side 2 and is a prime example of a different take on the same sound.

What should I skip for my own good? “Bull Session with the ‘Big Daddy'” is an interview and is pure filler. Most of the others are worth a listen and I wouldn’t skip any of them on spec. “In the Back of My Mind” is a love-it-or-hate-it experiment and it might not work for you.

Fun fact: There are three different fully-produced versions of the song whose title starts with the two words “Help Me”. “Help Me, Ronda” is on this album and features the distinctive ukelele open and fading in and out on the chorus; “Help Me, Rhonda”, released as a single, lacks those aspects. There was a third version, which I call “Help Me, R3onda” (with a hat tip to Tom Lehrer — the 3 is silent, you see) which has interesting bits of falsetto on the chorus. “Ronda” is probably my favorite, though.


A good argument could be made for putting Sunflower a bit higher; like Holland it has several good songs and very few missteps; unlike Holland it’s fairly stylistically uniform but, to my ears, a bit maudlin. It’s got lush harmonies, though, and it shows some of the strongest production values from the period when Brian Wilson was withdrawing from active involvement in the band. Carl Wilson in particular stepped up on the production and authorship front, and Dennis Wilson shows the first few of what would in the end prove to be some of the strongest songs of the late Beach Boys catalog.

What are the essentials? “This Whole World” and “Forever” are easily the best two songs on the album. If you want more of a sense of how Dennis Wilson progressed musically, “Slip On Through” is excellent; “It’s About Time” is not quite as good but still solid.

What should I skip for my own good? “Got to Know the Woman” is Dennis trying for something hard-rock, and it doesn’t really work. If you’re allergic to goofily embarrassing, skip “At My Window”; if you have no tolerance for the maudlin, give “Tears in the Morning” a miss.

Fun fact: There were enough rejected songs from Sunflower to make a whole separate album. Bits and pieces trickled out as singles or rerelease bonus tracks, but if you ever find a bootleg called Landlocked, it’s chock-full of unreleased songs from this era.

Shut Down Volume 2

If you asked experts when the Beach Boys really started becoming artistically groundbreaking, you’d probably get one of three answers: either this album, the 1965 followup Beach Boys Today!, or of course the iconic Pet Sounds. There are intervening albums between these but they mostly don’t represent the kind of leap in musical growth that these three do. There is a lot of creative vocal work here, and  clever arrangement. “The Warmth of the Sun” alone would probably be enough to mark this album as an artistic inflection point.

What are the essentials? “The Warmth of the Sun” is widely regarded as the breakout work from this album, with good reason: unusual melodic structure simmering with tension, high production values. “Don’t Worry Baby” is close behind in terms of quality. “Keep an Eye on Summer” features strong solo vocals by Brian (which is nothing to sneeze at, on an album showcasing vocals as much as this one does). 

What should I skip for my own good? In spite of being an album with a lot of deep, extraordinary work, there’s some completely missable material here too. I have no respect for the goofy studio-banter and comedy bits, so you know that “‘Cassius’ Love vs. ‘Sonny’ Wilson” is on the chopping block (and what dumb asshole put it right before “Warmth of the Sun”? Way not to set a mood). “Denny’s Drums” is, eh, a drum solo, and how good can those really get? “Pom Pom Play Girl” is kinda absurd and you aren’t missing anything if you skip it. “In the Parking Lot” is marginal technically but that vocal bit which opens and closes the song might save it.

Fun fact: What, you might ask, was Shut Down Volume 1?  The Beach Boys never had an album by that name, although of course “Shut Down” was a song on the album Surfin’ U.S.A.. There was an album called simply Shut Down, though, and it was a Capitol Records compilation featuring the Beach Boys’ title track.

Carl and the Passions: So Tough

I have a soft spot in my heart for the songs from the early 70s: somehow I think of C&tP and Holland as forming a distinct era in the Beach Boys’ development, one that had moved past the pure experimentalism of the Smile-to-Surf’s Up period, and before the grim slide into nostalgia that marked 15 Big Ones and points beyond. So these albums get a nice bump in my rankings for just being from a sort of golden autumnal period, in my mind. But, as the order seen here suggests, C&tP is considerably weaker than Holland. The misfires are a lot worse, and the high points a lot lower.

What are the essentials? “Marcella” has the best production values, a strong rock sound, and some experimental vocal effects. “All This is That” has fantastic vocals. I’m very fond of the Fataar/Chaplin contribution to the Beach Boys, so “Here She Comes” and “Hold On Dear Brother” make my list. 

What should I skip for my own good? “He Come Down” has Mike Love taking himself all too seriously and trying to emulate gospel, which is good for a laugh but maybe not for anything else. “Make It Good” doesn’t quite work for me, although your mileage may vary; it has that intense raw emotionality a lot of Dennis Wilson songs have, and for my money it goes a mite too far.

Fun fact: The title to this album was an odd throwback to the Beach Boys’s earliest days: before the release of their hit single “Surfin'”, the Beach Boys had played under a number of different monikers, including Kenny and the Cadets, the Pendletones, and, as the placement of this fun fact implies, Carl and the Passions.

Smiley Smile

When Smile went down in flames, what was left of it was astily compiled into this oddity. It’s rocky and weird, blending naïve, innocent goofiness with dark, oppressive sounds. Almost all of the songs, coming from a germ of Smile design, are creative and surprising in some way, and definitely this album is the one which most will shock the unwary listener. It definitely transcends the normal, although not always doing so in a way that’s wholly good. With the notable exception of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, the production is sparse, the songs stripped down to their central essence.

What are the essentials? “Good Vibrations” is well recognized as a classic with good reason. “Heroes and Villains” is kind of the central nexus around which Smile was built. Of the other stuff, a lot of it would be compulsory if you want to dig deeply into Smile but otherwise it’s kind of bare-bones. Intriguing but not mandatory.

What should I skip for my own good? “Gettin’ Hungry” is tonally and structurally a mismatch with the rest of the album. “She’s Goin’ Bald” is marginal (the goofiness kind of overtakes the craft).

Fun fact: Carl Wilson once said, “In Fort Worth, Texas there is a drug clinic which takes people off the streets and helps them get over bad LSD trips. They don’t use any traditional medical treatment whatsoever. All they do is play the patient our Smiley Smile album and apparently this acts as a soothing remedy which relaxes them and helps them to recover completely from their trip.” This seems extraordinarily unlikely; Smiley Smile certainly could synergize well with a trip but it also seems like it could work very, very badly.


Friends feels a bit of a trifle. It’s this confection of good-natured silliness. The music is bright and poppy, the lyrics insipid and mundane. But there’s a lot going for it which gives it an honored place on this list. For one thing, that uniformity of feel gives it a sense of being a cohesive whole, an album rather than a bunch of songs. For another, within that easy-going framework, there are a lot of pieces which transcend pure pop: there are waltzes, a splash of bossa nova, a short, prayerful invocation. These really work. If they’d stopped it one track earlier, it’d be even better.

What are the essentials? “Meant for You” is less than a minute and gives good quality-to-time ratio. “Little Bird” injects some darkness into the mellow and presages where Dennis Wilson’s work was heading. “Be Here in the Mornin'” and “Busy Doin’ Nothing” are joyfully goofy but structurally interesting.

What should I skip for my own good? “Transcendental Meditation” doesn’t fit stylistically and isn’t very good, and it’s at the end of the album so it’s super-easy to skip. Those who cringe at over-candid Brian Wilson goofiness should give “When a Man Needs a Woman” a miss. Mileage may vary on “Be Still”: it’s aiming for the soulful somber mood Dennis nailed in “Little Bird”, but I think it overshoots its mark.

Fun fact: “Passing By” at one point had lyrics, but not many of them. If you want to sing along, they’re “While walking down the avenue / I stopped to have a look at you / And then I saw / You were just passing by”.

All Summer Long

If you ask most people to name Beach Boys hits, you’ll probably hear about a few from All Summer Long. It’s the most consistently laden with that classic pre-’67 Beach Boys sound of their albums, and attaches solid production values to peppy, largely unexceptional songs. It does what it does tolerably well, doesn’t screw up egregiously, and has a few well-deserved hits.

What are the essentials? You’ve probably already heard a surprising number of songs from this one. “I Get Around” and the title track get regular play on oldies stations and the like. “Little Honda” and “Wendy” are maybe one tier down, with “Girls On the Beach” and “Don’t Back Down” a bit lower than those on the airplay rotation. They’re all good (as are most of the other tracks, really), but if you want artistically notable stuff, then I would note first and foremost the dark-horse vocal brilliance on the cover of the Mystics’ “Hushabye”, and that “All Summer Long” is a bit structurally interesting, using unconventional instrumentation with a xylophone way up front.

What should I skip for my own good? There’s no music on here that’s actually bad (if I had to name a least favorite song, it’d be either “Drive-In” or “Do You Remember”, so, sure, if you need a song to go here, those’ll do). But at this time the Beach Boys were padding out their albums with banter bits from their recording sessions, maybe to make them more relatable, and “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” is crap.

Fun fact: “The Girls on the Beach” ended up playing over the title of a beach party comedy film called, straightforwardly enough, The Girls on the Beach. Despite being named after a Beach Boys song, the Beach Boys themselves are relegated to background music and never mentioned by name as far as I can remember (although there’s a lovely scene with them playing “Lonely Sea”). They’re upstaged by the Crickets and Lesley Gore, and insultingly enough are also upstaged by the Beatles, who aren’t even in the film. 

Surfer Girl

The first several years of Beach Boys albums are a story of inspiration crawling out of mediocrity. Surfer Girl definitely transcends some of their early limitations, with the title track earning well-deserved respect as a slow, vocally lush song (despite still being at least ostensibly part of their fun-in-the-sun surf-obsessed image). “In My Room” also feels structurally deeper and wider than they had been in the habit of producing up until then. Many of the other sings on this album are trifles, perhaps a little lyrically embarrassing in their earnestness, but not bad for that. One interesting experimental aspect of this album is that it has a disproportionate number of songs which are thematic rearrangements of other tunes. Brian Wilson is on record citing “When You Wish Upon a Star” as a major inspiration for “Surfer Girl”, “South Bay Surfer” lifts its melody wholesale from Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks at Home” (a.k.a. “Suwanee River”), and “The Rocking Surfer” is based, idiosyncratically enough, on the Czech folk tune “Stodola Pumpa” (which was apparently a popular mid-60s SoCal ice-cream-truck jingle, which is why Brian Wilson would have known it).

What are the essentials? “In My Room” is the most original and transcendent song on this album. “Your Summer Dream” is lightly instrumented and features an excellent solo vocal by Brian.

What should I skip for my own good? “Surfers Rule” has the least to write home about and probably the most awkwardness of any song on this album.

Fun fact: Even as Brian Wilson’s instrumentation got more exotic, he tried to keep the Beach Boys a family affair. Eventually he would turn to studio musicians (most notably the group Hal Blaine later called “The Wrecking Crew”), but when he needed a harp for “In My Room”, he called on Mike Love’s sister Maureen, who is apparently a professional harpist still. It’s nice to know that one of the Love siblings can play an instrument. (Look, I’ve mostly held back on Mike Love snark in this thing. I deserve this potshot.)

Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)

After the visionary strength of Today!, the Beach Boys had a hard act to follow, and I’m afraid that Summer Days is mostly a reversion to form. The production is still occasionally sophisticated and rich, but the songs feel mostly like phoned-in trifles, short on emotional depth or really imaginative design. There are some exceptions, but this album suffers badly from comparison to its predecessor and to its successor Pet Sounds (technically, Beach Boys’ Party! is next up, but Party! is an idiosyncratic album by any standard).

What are the essentials? “Girl Don’t Tell Me” does a lot with a little. It’s simple but it has interesting instrumentation and structure. “Let Him Run Wild” and “You’re So Good to Me” likewise have a depth of instrumentation easily missed on a causul listen. For the lover of close-harmony vocals, “And Your Dream Comes True” is well worth-while

What should I skip for my own good? There’s some odd comic-novelty stuff that doesn’t gell at all. “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” and I’m Bugged at My Old Man” are really not upp to snuff at all.

Fun fact: Many have noted that “Girl Don’t Tell Me” and The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” are very, very similar, in melody and rhythm, right down to the guitar progression between the verses. The timing of the two songs’ development makes it very unlikely either of them influenced the other: they were being recorded at about the same time, and while the Beatles and Beach Boys were certainly in communication, they weren’t at this point sharing songs-in-progress with each other. It honestly seems like pure coincidence, despite the suspicious similarity.

Surfin’ U.S.A.

The Beach Boys hit their stride pretty quick, so by their second album they were cranking out pretty solid surf-rock without too much in the way of real embarrassments. They were overdubbing vocals for a much fuller sound than the sparse vocals on the previous Surfin’ Safari (see below). There are a fair number of covers on this one, and one “pseudo-cover”: the title track was close enough to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” that he got a writing credit. This album shows some definite experimentalism moving outside the groove of surf-rock as well, which absolutely lifts it a place or two.

What are the essentials? “Lonely Sea” shows how the songwriting duo of Brian Wilson and Gary Usher would really develop strength. Other slow songs like “Lana” and “Farmer’s Daughter” illustrate how their Four-Freshmanesque harmony and falsetto stylings were developing.

What should I skip for my own good? None of the songs on here are really all that bad. “Finders Keepers” might be the weakest.

Fun fact: Man, I have no fun fact for this album. It feels like there should be a good story, but the best story is mostly about how songwriting credit for the title track kept getting tangled up in litigation.

The “L.A.” Light Album

By the mid-to-late 70s the Beach Boys were starting to put out records that were more bad than good: trading on nostalgia, and usually doing so in a way which didn’t even present a very good facsimile of the target of that nostalgia. Before they slid irrevocably into that practice, however, they managed to get out one last, surprisingly good, gasp in the form of the Light Album. Most of what is good about L.A. is due to Dennis Wilson, who had discovered his voice as both a writer and a performer; the bad can be spread to a number of quarters, although a disproportionate quantity probably falls on Bruce Johnston, who produced the album and let some really bad ideas through (the worst of those ideas I am pretty sure was his idea).

What are the essentials? Things Dennis Wilson had a major hand in. Those would be “Angel Come Home”, “Love Surrounds Me”, and “Baby Blue”. His rough, bluesy vocals and soulful stylings are undeniably the high points of this album. “Good Timin'” is OK, too, but it’s nothing special.

What should I skip for my own good? No question, “Here Comes the Night”. It was a fairly mediocre song when it first appeared on Wild Honey, and it didn’t need the 10-minute Donna Summer disco treatment (I’m not sure anything needs the 10-minute Donna Summer disco treatment, really). “Sumahama” is not great either and it’s right before “Here Comes the Night” (if on opposite sides of the LP), so you might as well skip over it at the same time.

Fun fact: “Lady Lynda”, which is basically Al Jardine setting lyrics about how badly he wants to sleep with his wife to the tune of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, was later reworked into a song called “Lady Liberty” which opened by quoting Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”. Now, I’m not saying Al Jardine wants to fuck the Statue of Liberty, but I’m not saying he doesn’t, either.

Little Deuce Coupe

Most of the songs on Little Deuce Coupe are good. The problem is that a lot of them aren’t new. Four albums in, and the Beach Boys were already recycling hits? Bad look. They were discovering a new way to the hearts and minds of American youth, though. What do people associate the Beach Boys with? Surfing, summer, and cars. The last of those was a more universal draw than the first two. Surfing was, in spite of being a craze, never really actually something done by more than a tiny fraction of American teens (and a tiny fraction of the Beach Boys themselves, at that). But cars were a symbol for a lot of teens: of independence, of swagger, of success. The shift in subject matter represented a greater audience, and a thematic universality to the Beach Boys work, so to that extent an album all about cars really did represent a step forwards. In technical and artistic respects, though, this album’s a bit stagnant, not really doing anything they hadn’t done before.

What are the essentials? “Be True to Your School” earned its reputation as the major new hit on this album. It’s not extremely groundbreaking, but it’s a different sound than the Beach Boys ever had before, almost proto-punk (punk and garage bands have noted the adaptability of the song and have covered it; check out the Cynics’ take on it for an example). “A Young Man is Gone” isn’t an original song at all (it’s a lyrical rework of the Four Freshmen’s “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring”), but it’s a lovely bit of a cappella vocal work.

What should I skip for my own good? “Cherry Cherry Coupe”, I suppose. I certainly wouldn’t miss it if it was gone from the album. It’s lyrically clunky and the music is kinda plodding. Most of the other songs are at least moderately exciting.

Fun fact: The single version of “Be True to Your School” was somewhat worse for having cheerleading chants in between each verse (performed by Brian Wilson’s girlfriend Marilyn and her sisters), but somewhat mystifyingly also included several bars of “On, Wisconsin!” on the bridge. It’s not that anyone in the Beach Boys was a UWM fan, but that it was also the tune of “Onward Cougars”, the fight song of their home school, Hawthorne High.


This one’s kind of a mixed bag which never quite figures out what it’s doing. Genrewise it aims for “rock” instead of “pop” and hits its mark. In between the rock numbers it’s got some interesting experiments. Very little on it is absolutely earthshaking; the strongest two tracks were salvage from Smile, which were visionary but a vision from a different and earlier period of Beach Boys songcraft. It ranks this high because it never falls too far below mediocre to dire, but on the other hand it rarely rises far above mediocrity either. The one hit on the album, “Do It Again”, is a rather uninspiring nostalgia bit.

What are the essentials? “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence” are the obvious picks; they’d be classified as Smile reissues if one claims that there’s such an album as Smile. They’re great music but are not remotely a time capsule of the kind of thing the Beach Boys were putting together for 20/20. For that purpose, I’d say the essentials are some of the slower tracks on the album: Carl Wilson’s lush cover of “I Can Hear Music”, Dennis Wilson’s unnerving and dark “Be With Me”, the Friends-like “I Went to Sleep”, and a jaunty Brian Wilson waltz, “Time to Get Alone”.

What should I skip for my own good? “All I Want to Do” (not to be confused with the similarly named Dennis Wilson song on Sunflower) is an awkward and ill-conceived foray into hard rock. “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” is slightly more tolerable, but they’re probably the weakest material on the album.

Fun fact: In the leadup to producing this album, the Wilsons were actively involved in recruiting and developing new talent for Brother Records. Carl found and fostered a South African group called the Flames (later “The Flame”) who ended up providing much-needed bandmates for a decimated Beach Boys in the 70s, in the form of Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin. Brian put together a group called Redwood and gave them “Time to Get Alone” before the Beach Boys recorded it, but they couldn’t really get off the ground until they changed up their lineup, ditched Brian, and renamed themselves Three Dog Night. And Dennis Wilson’s protege, a singer/songwriter/guru whom you may have heard of named Charles Manson, wrote a song called “Cease to Exist”, which Dennis bought off of him, changed the lyrics and arrangement (which infuriated Manson), and put onto 20/20 as “Never Learn Not to Love”.

Surfin’ Safari

Their debut album! You can’t expect greatness but it made a pretty big splash. Splash being the operative word, because it depended to a large degree on the surfing songs which later became synonymous with the Beach Boys’ oeuvre. A lot of stuff on it is pretty good and listenable, if basically being fluff. There are a few authentically bad ideas on here but not enough to drag the album as a whole into dire territory.

What are the essentials? You could live a happy, fulfilled life without ever listening to any of these songs, really. You’ve probably heard “Surfin’ Safari” and “409”, and a lot of the other stuff on this album is like those but not as good.

What should I skip for my own good? The spoken-word bits in “County Fair” make it a bit painful to listen to. “Chug-A-Lug” is pretty self-indulgent, but if you can get past that sin it’s a pretty conventional Beach Boys song for this era. “Ten Little Indians” would have to get some serious side-eye for racial stereotyping today but taken as an artifact of its times it’s not particularly egregious.

Fun fact: None of the Beach Boys except Dennis Wilson could actually surf. They chose the subject matter for their first single (“Surfin'”, which leads off this album’s B side) because Dennis suggested it was a hot new trend.

That’s Why God Made the Radio

The Beach Boys spent 20 years in the penalty box for their sins of the 90s (and all of those albums, needless to say, are much lower on this list). 2012 saw them coming back together, including Brian Wilson, whose involvement has always been kind of chancy, and excluding his brothers, who were both dead. Could they recapture the old magic? The answer is a resounding “Kinda”. This album’s in no small part an exercise in unabashed nostalgia, which kinda limits its creativity, but it’s not terrible. They return to harmonies which served them well in the past and have avoided the technological and production pitfalls that plagued their 80s and 90s work. On the other hand, and there’s no nice way to say this, in the 21st century Brian Wilson’s voice is not nearly as sweet and melodically rich as it was a few decades earlier. Other than that there’s not much to say is authentically “off” about this album; some of the songs have a slick, slightly overproduced feel, but not as sterile as their previously overproduced works have been.

What are the essentials? “Think About the Days” and “Pacific Coast Highway” are short-and-sweet vocal-forward numbers, resembling songs like “Our Prayer” and “Meant For You” which punch above their weight class. “From There To Back Again” feels stylistically very Beach Boys without having too much of the character of a retread, so it threads the nostalgia needle very adroitly.

What should I skip for my own good? None of it’s so very dire, really. The nostalgia gets a bit soggy and overbearing in “Spring Vacation”, which has little else to recommend it, so I’d throw it out here.

Fun fact: Jon Bon Jovi helped write the final track. I dunno how, exactly, but he’s credited.

Wild Honey

The rudderless ship that was the post-Smile Beach Boys drifted into some weird ports for a little while. This album was a complete genre departure from their previous comfort zones of surf-rock and experimental pop, into, of all things, R&B. The most rocklike of their tracks from this period (“Darlin'”) was a success, but the rest was limp and uninspired for the most part. Props for trying something new, I guess.

What are the essentials? “Darlin'” was a hit because it was actually good. Both “I’d Love Just Once To See You” and “Let the Wind Blow” are stylistically reminiscent of Friends and as such are standout tracks on this album (the latter in particular). If you’re scavenging for Smile odds-and-ends, “Mama Says” is built on “Vegetables” fragments.

What should I skip for my own good? “How She Boogalooed It” is terrible. None of the other songs on this album are dire, though.

Fun fact: I picked this long-dormant project back up because Rolling Stone, in one of their typically contentious rankings of things, posted a list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, including three Beach Boys albums: Pet Sounds at #2 (not really a surprise), Today! at #466 (a fair judgment), and Wild Honey at #410 (a choice so inane that I basically had to go out and work on this ranking all over again just to explain how wrong they were).

Surf’s Up

One frustrating aspect of trying to get a handle on late-60s and early-70s Beach Boys is how uneven their output could be. After the sweet and mostly solid sounds of Sunflower, they then proceeded to pack Surf’s Up full of goofy, facile political numbers with fairly minimal songcraft. It would be an easy album to write off entirely, and then they sprinkled it with a few really fantastic songs, better than anything on Sunflower, and it becomes utterly impossible to review as a whole. Calling it “rocky” doesn’t even begin to cover it, because even ignoring the title track (which is a recycled Smile song, and adheres to a somewhat earlier and better standard of quality) and the transcendent “‘Til I Die”, there are songs which waver between brilliance and absurdity, like the quaveringly mystical hokum of “Feel Flows” and the anguished tunelessness of “A Day in the Life of a Tree”. It’s a very hard one to place, and much of the album is the sort of thing which might strike one listener as brilliant and another as stupid.

What are the essentials? The title track, of course, and “‘Til I Die”. “Long Promised Road” in a not-too-distant third. After that it gets into very polarizing material, among which “Feel Flows” is probably the most well-crafted.

What should I skip for my own good? “Student Demonstration Time” is terrible. “Lookin’ at Tomorrow” is not terrible but is utterly forgettable. Depending on your threshold for sympathetic embarrassment, you might want to give “Take a Load Off Your Feet” and “Don’t Go Near the Water” a miss, because they’re deeply goofy and will make you feel bad for Al Jardine, who had partial responsibility for both.

Fun fact: The cover of the album is inspired by the sculpture “End of the Trail”, currently housed in Oklahoma City.

The Beach Boys Love You

All Brian, all the time! Love You was essentially the first Brian Wilson solo album, although it was branded as a Beach Boys work. It was the first of a few terrible works Brian developed under the tender mercies of the infamous Dr. Eugene Landy. It’s not good, but it’s bad in ways which are interesting, because it ends up being exactly the kind of thing you’d expect a zonked-out Brian Wilson to produce given freedom to do so. “I wanna write a song about space.” “Uh, do you know anything about space?” “Nah, but I know mythology and how to rhyme words and can work out a few bars of synth music to put under it.” It ranges from goofily sweet work (“Airplane”, “I’ll Bet He’s Nice”) to unsettling, gear-slipped intensity (“Johnny Carson”, “I Wanna Pick You Up”).

What are the essentials? “The Night Was So Young” manages to minimize the use of the flatulent synths which mar most of the other songs. “Good Time” is probably the song with the best public reception. I actually like “Johnny Carson” for its sheer unsettlingness (see also the cover by ’80s band Das Damen).

What should I skip for my own good? “I Wanna Pick You Up” is creepy. And bad creepy, not like “Johnny Carson”, which is good creepy. Also, chances are pretty good at last one other song on this album will really not do it for you, but exactly which one probably depends on your tastes.

Fun fact: A good half-decade before the release of Love You, “Good Time” was recorded by American Spring, a brief-lived duo of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn and her sister Diane.

Beach Boys’ Party!

This one’s an odd duck. I could probably get away with leaving it off entirely, because it claims to be a live album, and it has the loose, one-take feel of a live album, but it really was recorded in multiple takes, with a lot of material spliced out. It’s easy to see it as an artistically bankrupt work (it’s mostly uninspired covers and goofy renditions of their own songs) cranked out for a quick buck and that wouldn’t be half wrong. But it’s certainly fun, and a lot of people like it for that. 

What are the essentials? You’ve already heard “Barbara Ann”, right? You’re fine then. I suppose you could listen to “Devoted to You” if you want a moment of them at least pretending to take this work seriously.

What should I skip for my own good? Eh, if you’re gonna listen to this album, you might as well listen all the way through. The banter and jokiness doesn’t really work for me, but if you’re in for a penny…

Fun fact: Oh, I don’t know if we can have fun facts for this album. The album’s having all too much fun as it is.

The Beach Boys (1985)

Self-titled albums are always confusing, so in the circles I moved in, this one was known as 1985. Not that we talked about it a whole lot; it’s an exercise in unredeemed mediocrity for the most part. “Getcha Back” rises a bit above the muck, but the technology on display (particularly synths and drum machines) kinda gave this album a “flattened”, homogenized feel. There are good vocals, mostly by Carl Wilson, but there’s not much else to say about this one.

What are the essentials? “Getcha Back” isn’t actually good, but it’s the most distinctively crafted work on this album. Listening to something with good Carl Wilson vocals is worthwhile too, probably “Passing Friend”, which was written for the Beach Boys by Culture Club.

What should I skip for my own good? So much of this music is just mediocre. None of it will make you wish for the sweet release of death or anything. “California Calling” uses some iconic bits from “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, which might make you sad because it reminds you you could be listening to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” instead.

Fun fact: C’mon, two sections ago I told you that Culture Club wrote a song for this foray into Squaresville. I’m not sure I have a more fun fact than that about this not-all-that-fun album.

15 Big Ones

The triumphant return of Brian Wilson to the helm was a complete letdown, and 15 Big Ones was the proof. Taking a break from his busy schedule of spending the entire decade in bed to produce this album, the legendary arranger and songcrafter delivered an album full of underproduced covers, which played to neither of his strengths. The entire exercise was a nostalgia-soaked disappointment, whose main virtue was that it effectively steeled the fans for several decades worth of nostalgia-soaked disappointments.

What are the essentials? You can almost believe you’re listening to a song off of Friends in “Had to Phone Ya”, which is a throwback to a better, sweeter, quirkier style. I dunno if anything else on this album is really worth the time and energy.

What should I skip for my own good? Did you want to hear a ponderous remake of “Chapel in Love”, featuring somewhat scratchy and weak vocals by Brian Wilson? Me neither. “Talk to Me/Talahassee Lassie” has an inept enough transition that I at first thought my recording was glitched somehow. “TM Song” is not extremely terribly crafted but it’s still a dumb song about transcendental meditation.

Fun fact: Are the “15 Big Ones” in question the 15 years of the Beach Boys’ existence this album commemorated, or the 15 songs on the album, or both? The world may never know. Unrelatedly, Daryl “the Captain” Dragon and Toni “Tenille” Tenille provided backing vocals for “Everyone’s In Love With You”.

The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

Ugh, Christmas albums are pretty much always cash-ins, and this one is no exception. Certainly it’s creatively in the doldrums, although “Little Saint Nick” is pretty much exactly what everyone expected from a Christmas song written by the Beach Boys. The other original songs on the albbum are pretty terrible. Their vocal-forward performances on side two of Christmas classics are a welcome respite from the mediocre original songs, although it’s a damn shame that Dennis is speaking over the lovely close harmonies on “Auld Lang Syne”.

What are the essentials? All the classics are well-performed if unexceptionally arranged, but I’d note as especially good “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. If you have a reissue with a bonus track of “Auld Lang Syne” without the Dennis Wilson voiceover, that’s fantastic too. 

What should I skip for my own good? All the original songs except “Little Saint Nick” are pretty dire. “Santa’s Beard” is probably the worst of the lot.

Fun fact: One quirky bonus track on reissues of this, whose existence has never been fully explained, is a song to the tune of “Drive-In” (from All Summer Long) with the lyrics from “Little Saint Nick”. It’s… not very good.

Keepin’ the Summer Alive

It is tempting to blame Bruce Johnston for everything bad about the Beach Boys. This would be unfair. Some of the credit has to go to Mike Love as well. That said, Bruce Johnston was the producer on some pretty terrible works in the late 70s and early 80s, and this album is among those things. It comes from the beginning of an era where the Beach Boys reached a depth of creative bankruptcy that meant there would be no more surprising, shining lights among the muck like we saw on the Light Album (the death of the most promising songcrafter and singer on L.A., Dennis Wilson, a few years after KTSA came out didn’t help).

What are the essentials? “Goin’ On” is fun, poppy, lively, and well-crafted. Not particularly inspired, but enjoyable enough to be worth a listen. It actually charted, so apparently the music-listening public agreed with me that it was the most listenable thing on this album.

What should I skip for my own good? Oh, good heavens, there’s so much. Special mention has to go to “Endless Harmony”, which is maudlin, self-indulgent, and, if you are so fortunate as to have the original CD pressing of this album, apparently remastered off of a copy of the vinyl which had previously been left on the dashboard of a car for a few days in summer in Arizona.

Fun fact: “When Girls Get Together” was a track upcycled from the Sunflower cutting-room floor; a version of it is standard on the Landlocked bootleg (see comments above on Sunflower).

M.I.U. Album

I’ve already mentioned that the late 70s output of the Beach Boys was pretty awful. M.I.U. was particularly bad in not really providing a single song worth listening to; usually they could pull sort of redeeming light out of the muck of their creative doldrums, but this album is unremittingly dull. It’s not even entertainingly bad; there are much worse, much more vicariously embarrassing works in the Beach Boys catalog than anything on M.I.U. (except maybe “Hey Little Tomboy”), so by pretty much any standard, this is near the bottom of the pack.

What are the essentials? Eh, if you insist on listening to a song off of every Beach Boys album, “Come Go With Me” is a tolerably good cover. “My Diane” has Dennis on lead and that’s at least moderately worthwhile. However, M.I.U. is remarkable in that there is probably not even a single song on it that you would listen to and then feel that you’ve come away any richer in experience than you arrived with.

What should I skip for my own good? “Hey Little Tomboy”. It’s embarrassing and creepy in equal measure with very little to redeem it. Between this one and “I Wanna Pick You Up” (off of Love You, see above), I’d argue every single preteen girl in the world has standing to take out a restraining order against Brian Wilson.

Fun fact: Several of the songs on M.I.U. were reworked for an abortive Christmas album which was never released because, as mentioned above, the songs were terrible (they got included in the Ultimate Christmas Beach Boys compilation a few years ago). M.I.U. had a cover of “Peggy Sue” on it, and that’s why the Beach Boys recorded a song to the tune of “Peggy Sue” with lyrics about Christmas.

Still Cruisin’

As I understand, the theme of this album was “music which has been featured in movies”. And they wanted it to be all original material, which was a bit of an ask because there wasn’t much demand for new Beach Boys songs to put into movies in the late ’80s. And that’s how this album ended up with three classics which had recently been used in films tacked lazily onto the end (as well as several songs not connected to films at all). All told, the Beach Boys only wrote three songs in the ’80s which anyone deigned to put into a movie. Two of them deservedly sank without a trace. The third was “Kokomo”, from the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, which was an enormous, unavoidable hit. That’s kind of all you really need to know about this album. There’s a lot of utterly forgettable pop broken up by embarrassing nostalgia pieces (a category I would probably expand to include “Wipe Out”, the peculiar Fat Boys collaboration).

What are the essentials? It would be cheating to say the three final tracks, which are classic recordings of established quality. “In My Car” is OK if you like that Wilson/Landy sound from the “Sweet Insanity” sessions; it heinously abuses synthesizers but at least it isn’t dull. If our criterion here is “not dull”, then I’d also include “Wipe Out” but bear in mind none of this stuff is actually good music as such things are usually judged.

What should I skip for my own good? Shit, if you’re listening to this album you might already be beyond any help I could provide. Here be monsters. Run as fast as you can, and don’t look back, or you’ll turn into a pillar of salt.

Fun fact: Notwithstanding the exotic name and the purported location “off the Florida Keys”, there are three places in the US called “Kokomo” of which two are decidedly mundane. One of them is in Hawaii, which at least has the right flavor; the other two are in Indiana and Arkansas.

Summer in Paradise

Oh, man It”s everything the Beach Boys ever did wrong in one place. Anemic covers? Let the 90s Beach Boys remind you how much better Sly and the Family Stone did “Hot Fun in the Summertime”. Drum machines? They’ve got you covered through the whole album. Overproduction? Just compare the remake of “Surfin'” to the original and you’ll learn that more is not necessarily better. Dumb songs about transcendental meditation? You’d think they’d be over it by this point, but they’re still wedging a bit of it into “Strange Things Happen”. Pretty much the only thing they didn’t do wrong was bringing a scratchy-voiced Brian Wilson on for vocals, although Mike Love’s voice hadn’t aged much better. This one managed to kill the Beach Boys’ creative ambitions for two whole decades.

What are the essentials? I’m not going to even try to pretend anything on this album will make you happier or more fulfilled for listening to it. I can usually come up with something nice to say, but, nope, really can’t come up with anything at all here.

What should I skip for my own good? The whole album. No joke.

Fun fact: This album and Still Cruisin’ are terrible enough that Capitol Records, which remastered and reissued the entire catalog in 2001 (which was a good thing; the Brother/Reprise releases, from Sunflower to 1985, were out of print for over a decade), left these two albums out of the project entirely, presumably to protect us from our own folly. Andrew G. Doe, who listened to every Beach Boys album three times as part of the writing process for The Complete Music of the Beach Boys, reported that undergoing this process for Summer in Paradise “has probably scarred me for life”.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L19: General Gao’s Chicken

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

The most iconic Chinese-American dish today, General Tso’s (or Gao’s, or Tao’s, or Zuo’s, or other variant orthographies, sometimes even simply called “General”) Chicken is also the most well-researched.

General Tso's Chicken

Here comes the General!

What exactly is this dish? A sweet, cornstarch-thickened sauce, heated up by dried chilis, smothers chunks of breaded, crispy fried chicken. Veggies are rare and relegated to the purpose of decorative accents (broccoli being the most common).

How authentically Chinese is it? I would think, to eat it, that it isn’t, of course. It’s sweet, not all that spicy, goopy… it feels very highly designed to American tastes. However, there’s a whole damn documentary tracing its origins (and peripherally the origins of Chinese-American cuisine as a whole), which makes a compelling argument that a dish of the same name and with similar construction hails from Taiwan. General Gao was a real person (左宗棠, typically Romanized as Zuo Zongtang), and a politically incredibly important one in 19th century China. There’s tons of stuff named after him in China, especially in his native Hunan Province and Xiang river valley; that a dish is named after him is somewhat unsurprising.

Is it any good? I might get shunned by the cool kids in Chinese-American food fancier circles, but I gotta say, it doesn’t hit my sweet spot. Or more to the point, it’s way too sweet to hit my spot. There are textural things in there which are good, like the crispy-fried chicken, with a crunchy shell but not with the heavy breading of, say, Sweet and Sour Chicken. I’m not sure a gloppy, cornstarch-thickened sauce goes great with the style, particularly as sweet as it is; it somewhat overwhelms the chicken’s good points with its aggressiveness and sheer volume. I might relent in this view if it were spicier, but it really isn’t, and it’s straight-up cloying. A thinner sauce with more zip and less sugar could preserve the essential elements of this dish and make it a lot better.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce, as mentioned above, is thick. This makes it easy to blend into the rice but something of a textural element on the rice in its own right; added to the fact that it’s so sugary I actually found it not nearly as satisfactory as a simple soy sauce would be but your mileage may vary on this.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L18: Chicken with Broccoli

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Right when we thought we were into named classics, we veer back into unimaginative brown-sauce creations which are, themselves, inferior remixes of other unimaginative brown-sauce creations. Since the dish is unimaginative, so is the review going to be (lifted largely from the review of L3: Beef with Broccoli).

Chicken with Broccoli

It’s just like beef with broccoli, but now with blander protein!

What exactly is this dish? Thin slices of chicken are stir-fried with broccoli in a fairly generic “brown sauce” which is mostly soy sauce with a bit of oyster sauce and ginger. Thinner constituents like wine and broth might also be present.

How authentically Chinese is it? There are apparently some quite similar Chinese dishes. The sauce is based on a few fairly standard constituents used in Chinese cooking, and a stir-fry of a meat with a single vegetable is a pretty straightforward style. The nearest progenitors to this dish in China, however, would tend to use considerably more ginger and, instead of the tightly-floreted broccoli crowns in vogue in the West, would use a blend of florets, stalks, and leafs from a more loose-headed brassica like rapini, broccolini, or gai lan.

Is it any good? I’ll duplicate the comments from a previous broccoli-in-brown-sauce dish below, but the elephant in the room of course is that there are three dishes which have more or less the same name and differ mostly on protein. Beef is the best, and the classic, and its flavor and texture just harmonizes well with broccoli. Chicken (which is what was in this particular incarnation) is probably the worst, because it’s bland and delivers little in terms of texture or flavor to counterpoint the broccoli. That said, this, like its more popular cousin, is basically Chinese-American by the numbers, hitting those salt-and-glutamate sweet spots that soy sauce gives and in a sauce which is basically inoffensive but interesting enough to enliven the proteins it’s on. The broccoli was cooked just enough to take off the textural and flavor elements of rawness without being defeated and wilted. I would wager the extent to which the broccoli is cooked in this dish is really what ends up separating a good takeout from a bad one; broccoli that is raw or overcooked can foul up this dish faster than any flaws in the sauce.

How does it complement the rice? It’s a good sauce but not one provided in great quantities; chicken with broccoli is a moderately “dry” dish but not as dry as the beef version, probably because chicken has a higher moisture content. There aren’t great sloshing bucketfuls of sauce around to put on the rice, but what there is suffices: it isn’t supposed to be stewy, and this has about the right level of sauciness.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L17: Hunan Chicken

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Continuing through the named classics, we come upon one that doesn’t have quite the cachet of Kung Pao or General Tso’s, but is still on most menus.

Hunan Chicken

Don’t be deceived by the visible red pepper flakes; this one’s really quite mild.

What exactly is this dish? Hunan Chicken is a dish with an ostensibly spicy, cornstarch-thickened sauce built on a base of soy and garlic and other brown-sauce base ingredients. Vegetables are plentiful, and typically include large chunks of green peppers, baby corn, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. It’s typically less spicy than Chicken with Garlic Sauce, spicier than Chicken with Mixed Vegetables, and has a thicker sauce than both, but clearly belongs to the same general class of dish.

How authentically Chinese is it? There is such a thing as Hunanese cuisine, of course. Hunan Province is in the southeast of China, and is notable, like Sichuan cuisine, for liberal use of spicy peppers, but it uses smoked meats more than Sichuan, and the characteristic numbing element of Sichuan peppercorns much less. The dishes also tend to be less dry, with stewing, braising, and hotpot taking the forefront over dry-frying as a cooking technique. How’s all this impact Hunan’s eponymous Chinese-American dish? Naturally, one can’t easily map it onto a classic traditional Hunanese dish, making its provenance rather dubious, and of course the timidity of Chinese-American food tends to mute its more distinctive elements: spiciness is typically kept way down (although this can vary), and this sauce makes no real use of a smoky or dry-cured flavor. I haven’t delved deeply, but I’d venture this variant of a basic brown-sauce stirfry was pioneered in the US, and that its primary defining feature (red pepper flakes, and a saucier presentation than is typical) reminded its creator of some features of Hunanese braised chicken, so they just gave it the name as a quick and dirty shorthand.

Is it any good? Eh, it’s OK. I’m always underwhelmed by supposedly spicy Chinese-American food, and this was no exception. On the chicken itself, the thickness of the sauce rendered it, to my eyes, inferior to the more nuanced approach of Chicken with Garlic Sauce’s thin sauce suitable for flavoring without becoming a textural element in its own right. It feels to me like it falls in a middle ground between several other, more successful implementations of similar dishes and I can’t think of a good reason to eat it in preference to those other dishes unless you really like the specific vegetable blend in Hunan Chicken.

How does it complement the rice? I will hedge on my judgment of cornstarch-intensive thick sauces enough to assert that they do interface with rice pretty well, forming a coating layer which enhances the rice more effectively, perhaps, than thinner sauces which cling less effectively. The sauce from this dish on the rice did feel more satisfactory and more effective than thinner brown sauces did.

IFComp 2018: Space Punk Moon Tour, by “J_J”

First game in the Comp! So excited!

Blurb: You are nineteen-year-old Tina Tessler: missing father, dead mother, and plagued by nightmares of things you can’t quite remember. You just won a ticket to see your favorite band. So, pack your bags and catch your space flight. You’re on your way to the Space Punk Moon Tour.

System: Quest 5.5

Well, the online system is sluggish, as promised, but I dn’t have much of a choice since building QSP from source under Linux is apparently an inscrutable mystery written mostly in Russian. Ignoring the particular klunkiness of the web-interface. I find the Quest system generally a bit frustrating, and it doesn’t seem robust enough to avoid guess-the-verb at times: taking the sleeping pills seemed impossible unless you used the exact phrasing in the game’s text, and in the kiosk buying tickets, for instance, “PUSH BUTTON” didn’t work when “PRESS START BUTTON” did. The game seems to be structured so as to not let me leave one setpiece until everything to be done there is done, which keeps one from getting stuck but encourages a fairly mechanical approach to the material. Particularly since so many of the obstructions are human, there’s a need to lawnmower my way through conversations. I got stuck trying to charm a ticket agent into giving me a cut-rate pet inspection, and then ran into a game crash. On replay I got to space and kept running into odd implementation bugs: “BUY CREDITS” didn’t work in the bathroom, although “BUY BATHROOM CREDITS” did, and I couldn’t figure out any way to actually put the secret keeper into the sink and didn’t get useful feedback. At this point between the janky online play and the frustrating parser I ended up giving up. It’s a pity, because it seems like there are relevant choices to be made (remembering to throw out recalled food, giving or not giving Sam’s phone number to TJ, etc.), but I didn’t get far enough for those things to really seem to have narrative influence.

Rating: 4

IFComp 2018 Intro post

It’s October, and time for the Twenty-Fourth Annual Interactive Fiction Competition! This year there are 77 entries (!), so even playing one a day wouldn’t suffice to finish by deadline; I’ll do what I can, though. Anyone can judge, and if you want to judge, you might not want to read my reviews until you’ve played a game for yourself. However, if you do want to follow my reviews, then the rough interpretation of my numeric ratings is below.

  • 1: Entirely inappropriate. For a game to receive a rating of “1”, it has to be completely inappropriate for entry into the IF Competition, either through drastic failure of scope or implementation, massive incompleteness, or not actually being IF at all. I wish I could claim this judgment was rare.
  • 2: Awful. Ratings of “2” are for games which, while ostensibly appropriate for the Comp, fail to rise to even a minimal level of craft. A game with massive underimplementation, poor writing, and uninspiring premise will receive a “2”. Also, any game which is intentionally annoying, unless the annoyance actually serves an artistically worthwhile goal, gets a “2” regardless of its craftsmanship.
  • 3: Highly flawed. A game with a “3” may well have a decent idea lurking in it, but is bogged down massively by writing and technical skills not up to scratch, by extremely buggy gameplay, or by poor design choices.
  • 4: Weak. A “4” shows evidence of coherent craft and design, but is plagued by one or more major problems in execution.
  • 5: Acceptable. A grade of “5” is a minimally acceptable game: writing is technically sound and there is a reasonable level of world-craft detail. Bugs, ideally, are peripheral and reasonably uncommon. Presumably a game with a “5” will have major imperfections, but not be actually incompetently written.
  • 6: Promising. Games with scores of “6” induce a modicum of respect, either through implementation depth, writing, or premise. These games have certain stand-out features showing promise on a revised version of the game.
  • 7: Well-crafted. A “7” suggests a game whose play proceeds smoothly and hitchlessly: writing is descriptive with a consistent style; implementation is deep enough to consider all reasonable actions, player’s goals are clear, and the story is moderately engaging. Bugs are, if present, rare or minor.
  • 8: Good. An “8” is a well-crafted game with some sort of surprise. Above and beyond the competent craft mentioned above, an “8” must have some realized ambition or hook that makes it either enjoyable or emotionally engaging to play.
  • 9: Excellent. To get a “9”, a game must possess a strong narrative style, a sufficiently clued and well-paced plot, minor bugs if any, high depth of implementation and richness of detail, interesting and well-constructed characters, and overall informed and consistent design. In other words, 9s are near-perfect.
  • 10:Extraordinary. A “10” is just a “9” which knocks my socks off. I realize this is completely subjective.

Other notable details about my judging protocol: when possible, I am playing on a Linux machine. I use the several gargoyle meta-interpreter binaries from version 2011.1b-1 for most standard IF file types, and using Chrome 65.0.3325.181 for web-interface games. I downloaded the full Comp package on October 7th and I use only that version for judging; I don’t download post-deadline bug fixes.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L16: Kung Po Chicken

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

This one’s one of those perennial classics, because we’re finally into the “named special dishes” end of the lunch menu.

Kung Po Chicken

Finally, something a bit spicy!

What exactly is this dish? Kung Po (or kung pao, as it’s usually written) chicken is a dish which open-endedly in Chinese-American cisine, is a spicy dish of diced chicken with peanuts. Pretty much every aspect of the dish except having chicken, spiciness, and peanuts seems to be moderately fluid. The sauce is usually reddish and has a certain caramelized character, with significant saltiness and light sweetness. Double Dragon’s Kung Po notably contains carrots (a fairly standard inclusion) and green pepper (a less common addition), and the chicken is stirfried (other variants have a somewhat crustier sear on the chicken. Nowhere is it very spicy, because fast-food Chinese isn’t, as a rule, but there’s a little kick of heat to it.

How authentically Chinese is it? There is absolutely a real Sichuan dish sharing its name. The Gongbao (宫保) was an imperial official rank of the Qing dynasty, and this particular dish is supposedly named after a notable holder of that rank, the governor Ding Baozhen (丁寶楨). This is all nineteenth-century lore, so it’s not exactly in the misty and mythical past. This dish’s “traditional” bonafides are thus actually quite well established and the prevalence of a dish by this name in China certainly justifies it as not a purely Chinese-American creation. That said, the version common in America and other places abroad diverges pretty sharply from the traditional Chinese preparation in its flavor profile. Chinese kung pao chicken is typically a lot spicier, and defined, like much of the cuisine of Sichuan, by the citrusy, anaesthetic flavor profile of Sichuan peppercorn.

Is it any good? I liked it well enough! There’s good textural interplay among the carrots, chicken, and peanuts, and even though it’s not very spicy, the lightly smoky sauce has enough fire in it to feel more interesting than the generality of options ff the menu. The green peppers are a somewhat dubious choice, I’ll admit, and I’m not sold on that, but otherwise it’s one of my favorite dishes so far.

How does it complement the rice? This sauce is thinner than the gloppy, cornstarch-intensive sauces but stretches to enhance a fair bit of the rice. It helps that it’s more flavorful than most sauces and thus a little of it goes further in giving fried rice a little bit of variety.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L15: Shrimp with Cashew Nuts

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Out of lo mein variants and into (slightly) original territory.

Shrimp with Cashew Nuts

Lotsa tiny crunchy things!

What exactly is this dish? As the name implies, this dish contains shrimp and cashews. It also contains a lot of over veggies diced pretty small: bits of carrot and celery, baby corn, and an occasional chunk of water chestnut. The sauce seems to be more or less a generic brown soy-and-ginger creation akin to that found on the other dishes which don’t specify a sauce (compare with, for instance, Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable).

How authentically Chinese is it? With these basic brown sauce presentations, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’re not at least plausible as simple home-cooked dishes: if you’ve got a wok and the usual array of Chinese sauces and spices, throwing a few veggies and proteins into a mild sauce is an idea so straightforward it hardly deserves to be dignified as a “dish” in its own right. But certainly all of the ingredients and techniques in this one are plausibly Chinese (although other iconic cashew-based shrimp dishes tend to be from other parts of East Asia: there are highly regarded Thai and Malaysian dishes with the same name in English and quite different flavors).

Is it any good? Eh, I’ve talked about brown-sauce preparations and there’s a certain sameyness to them, but this one stands out on a textural level. The meat itself has that snappy surface tension which, among stir-friable proteins, only shrimp has, and this plays well with the other elements which have a pleasing crunch to them. There’s no sense of mushy overdone blandness to this one on a tactile level: the individual components retain a great deal of individuality and make it a sensation rather distinct from the undifferentiated mass of stir-fries.

How does it complement the rice? It’s a fairly thin and not voluminous sauce: the ingredients in this don’t “sweat” as much as some other preparations do so it doesn’t quite stretch to flavor the rice much.

Exploring the Conspiracy, item L14c: Shrimp Lo Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Sick of lo mein yet? I konw I am! Shrimp lo mein is a lot like any other sort and the comments are mostly the same. But for a change of pace, I went to Double Dragon 2, the Germantown Square restaurant’s evil twin down south of campus. Rumor had it that DD2 was the institution responsible for Double Dragon’s signage disclaiming any affiliation with other restaurants of that name. Anyways, long story short, this is from a different place with a somewhat worse reputation, where the combos are a little pricier, and instead of coming with an egg roll, come with a soft drink and a crab rangoon.

Shrimp Lo Mein

In the interest of fully documenting the adventure to a new place, I put the crab rangoon up in the top center. The soft drink is not pictured.

What exactly is this dish? Small shrimp stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai.

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. This form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while shrimp certainly has a toothsome texture and a reasonably strong flavor, it also tends to be used more sparingly than other proteins and, in this particular setting, is swamped entirely by the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect. In considering this particular incarnation of the dish, it’s worthwhile noting the differences from the more familiar Double Dragon (1) presentation: the rangoon, to my eyes, is a less pleasing appetizer than an egg roll, but opinions may differ there; more substantively, the fried rice had bits of either raw or undercooked onion in it, which still had crunch and the sharp raw-onion flavor. In this particular pile of indifference, that sharp flavor and crunch was somewhat welcome, but it’s still a bit irregular and unnerving.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.