1. “Girl Don’t Tell Me” (1965)
Carl’s first unaccompanied vocal can be found on 1964’s spotty Shut Down Vol. 2. “Pom-Pom Play Girl” is hardly the most memorable Beach Boys tune, and he makes such little impact on the track that the vocal is erroneously credited to brother Brian in the CD’s liner notes. So it’s little wonder why many fans believe his first showcase to be the sublime “Girl Don’t Tell Me” from 1965’s Summer Days… and Summer Nights!!. While Mike Love gets his own lines and the rest of The Boys harmonize on “Pom-Pom Play Girl”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me” allows Carl to have the spotlight all to himself. And what an incredible job he does capturing the romantic and erotic longing (swoon to the way he sings “Your shorts, mmmm, they sure fit you fine”) of a kid jilted by his summer fling. His pain is totally convincing, possibly because he was just a teen himself when he recorded it.
2. “God Only Knows” (1966)
Carl’s vocal on “God Only Knows” is so transcendently gorgeous that it is mind-boggling Brian Wilson didn’t have him sing more songs before it. Still, it is meaningful that Brian would have Carl sing many of his finest songs from this point on. Ethereal as Brian’s falsetto is, he tended to belt more when singing in his lower range. Carl maintained his delicacy remarkably when singing in the deeper tones “God Only Knows” required. It is a perfect match of a perfect song and a perfect voice.
3. “Good Vibrations” (1966)
Carl Wilson’s voice is haunting on “God Only Knows”. It’s downright haunted on “Good Vibrations”. Brian Wilson makes the transition from romantic beauty to psychedelic spookiness, and Carl was one of the few other Beach Boys to go along for the ride happily (Dennis was the other one). He effortlessly conveys the supernatural themes of “Good Vibrations” even after Mike love edited Brian’s original lyric to give it a more relatable boy/girl theme.
4. “Wind Chimes” (1966)
As light and airy as the vibes and bass it accompanies, Carl’s voice is positively spine tingling on “Wind Chimes”. This piece intended to play the “wind” role in Brian’s “Elements” suite in his SMiLE project didn’t see release during its own time. In its place was a less focused re-recording included on the Smiley Smile album (which Carl famously deemed “a bunt instead of a grand slam,” which SMiLE surely would have been). Fortunately, the original recording has since seen release on 1993’s 30 Years of Good Vibrations box set, and more recently on the absolutely essential SMiLE Sessions collection. Close your eyes, listen, feel a light breeze on your face when Carl expels his breathy vocal.
5. “Cabin Essence” (1966)
“Cabin Essence”, an epic tale of early Western “progress,” is one of the few SMiLE tracks Brian totally completed. As he did on “Good Vibrations”, Carl steps in to sing the multi-sectioned piece’s lightest passages. A voice of his twinkling delicacy was made to sing Van Dyke Parks’s evocative words (“Light the lamp and fire mellow… The constellations ebb and flow there”).
6. “Darlin’” (1967)
Carl was not just some celestial crooner. On the stunning R&B work out “Darlin’” from the underrated Wild Honey, he proves he can belt with the best of them. While some of his heartier vocals on the record (the title track, his cover of Steveie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”) strain a bit out of his range, his work on “Darlin’” is perfect: powerful without losing an iota of his trademark sensitivity. “Darlin’” is an upbeat soul number capable of bringing tears to eyes.
7. “Time to Get Alone” (1969)
“Time to Get Alone” is a waltz from the odds-and-ends disc 20/20 that pulls The Beach Boys from their familiar sand and surf setting to snowy ski slopes. Brian originally passed this deeply romantic number off on his friends Redwood (soon to achieve greater success as Three Dog Night). While their version shares its lovely backing track with The Beach Boys’ one, it is infinitely inferior for lack of Carl’s heart-stopping vocal.
8. “Long Promised Road” (1971)
By the end of the ‘60s, drugs and psychological problems essentially put Brian out of commission. Carl Wilson took it upon himself to become the band’s new team leader. Replacing a genius like Brian—and genius is an absurdly overused term in pop journalism, but in this case it applies—is neither an enviable nor a seemingly accomplishable task. Carl did the best he could, and 1971’s Surf’s Up ended up being the best Beach Boys record since Pet Sounds (or, at least, Friends). Though uneven, the record’s great tracks are so great they completely overshadow weaker ones like “Take a Load Off Your Feet” and “Student Demonstration Time”. The first truly great track on Surf’s Up is Carl’s “Long Promised Road”, a magnificently stirring statement of purpose. He vows to “hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me; knock down all the roadblocks stumbling me,” which can be read as his determination to keep his band working despite losing their long-time leader. His impassioned vocal delivers that determined message loud and clear.
9. “Surf’s Up” (1971)
The centerpiece of SMiLE was to be the mini-suite “Surf’s Up”. Brian didn’t finish recording the track he began in 1966, possibly because he ran into so many problems with Mike Love, who infamously complained about Van Dyke Parks’s poetic, inscrutable lyric. Carl knew The Beach Boys finally needed their grand slam in the face of Brian’s lessened role. He convinced the band to complete the track, Parks’s psychedelic lyric and all. Carl takes the vocal spotlight in the verses Brian possibly originally intended for himself. Later remixes of the song in which Carl’s 1971 vocal track is replaced with a 1966 vocal by Brian may be more historically accurate, but it lacks the haunting quality of the version on Surf’s Up. It remains the definitive version of what may be The Beach Boys’ greatest recording.
10. “The Trader” (1973)
The eco-friendly undertones of Surf’s Up become a full-fledged manifesto on 1973’s Holland. The Beach Boys’ green masterpiece is Carl and Jack Reiley’s “The Trader”. The track’s sweep and scope is incredible, picking up on the themes of development in Brian and Van Dyke Parks “Cabin Essence” and honing them into a sharp indictment of imperialism. Carl works himself up into a righteous froth. Then, suddenly, the track slows to silence. It resumes, quiet, hymn like. Gone is the soul shouter of “Darlin’” and “Long Promised Road”. In comes the beatific whisperer of “God Only Knows” and “Wind Chimes”, singing a paean to nature’s tranquility. Presenting the full range of Carl Wilson’s indescribably expressive voice, “The Trader” may be the ultimate example of his greatness.