You don’t need to be told that Pet Sounds is a great album. Side A opens with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and side B opens with “God Only Knows.” That alone is enough to cement it as one of music’s greatest works.
Its influence has sunk its claws so deep into music, it’s hard to even parse it anymore. The album, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today, is in the Library of Congress, and Rolling Stone named it the second best of all time. Paul McCartney called “God Only Knows” his favorite song of all-time, and Pet Sounds led pretty much directly to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An eclectic group of artists, including Thom Yorke, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, and Phillip Glass, have heaped praise upon and have been massively influenced by it. The New York Observer said of the record: “Pet Sounds proved that a pop group could make an album-length piece comparable with the greatest long-form works of Bernstein, Copland, Ives, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.” And its influence continues to bear fruit, basically inventing chamber pop, prog rock, psych rock, and art rock.
And oddly enough, there was no way to predict it. The Beach Boys’ first single, released in 1961, was “Surfin,” and their second single release was a split of “Surfin’ Safari” and “409.” This was who the Beach Boys were — they made bubblegum pop music with infectiously sweet harmonies. While they were the best at what they did, the music was indistinguishable from many acts of the day like Jan and Dean. If their early music were to be all we knew, the California group would have still had a fine career. However, the Beach Boys happened to feature a man named Brian Wilson, who dreamed of something grander. That’s why, through hell or high water, they released Pet Sounds, and the music industry changed forever.