Boxed sets can be tricky endeavors. Some (like the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly and See and Joy Division’s Heart and Soul) compile the complete works of bands that never had mainstream success during their day, in order for newcomers to completely grasp that band’s work. Others are thinly veiled attempts to get big fans of the band to buy the same product twice (the Eagles, Led Zeppelin). U.S. Singles Collection: The Capitol Years (1962-1965), a new set collecting the singles of the Beach Boys, is something stranger: A box that will only appeal to the most ardent of fans, the kind of fans who wish CDs were treated like 45s and feel that you can never have too many copies of “Help Me Rhonda,” including instrumental-only takes.
U.S. Singles Collection collects the Beach Boys’ first 15 singles for Capitol (minus “Barbara Ann,” and anything off Pet Sounds) and a smattering of rarities (mostly stereo mixes or instrumentals of said singles), and puts them all on their own individually packaged disc. At 16 discs (the singles plus a “bonus” single), this collection tries to return to an era when singles were preferred over LPs and before iTunes made CD singles completely irrelevant and cumbersome.
U.S. Singles Collection traces Brian Wilson’s trek from pop wunderkind to pop genius, leaving out that whole watermelon-fast, mental-breakdown stuff, and most of the singles will be instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up with a radio in their house. “Surfin’ Safari,” the band’s first Capitol single, backed with “409,” establishes the precedent for all that follows. The Beach Boys perfectly captured what it was like to be a teen in the pre-hippie 1960s America on those two songs; the automobile had opened up dating and socializing, making it perhaps the biggest lust object for teenagers, and surfing was the equivalent of whatever counterculture activity is hot right now (I think Twittering).
The biggest thing to be learned from U.S. Singles Collection is that contrary to what Pet Sounds and the 2004 greatest-hits comp Sounds of Summer have told you, the Beach boys also made a lot of terrible songs. From the vaguely racially insensitive “Ten Little Indians,” the “ain’t the fair great” “County Fair,” their pair of bad Christmas songs (“The Man with All the Toys” and “Little Saint Nick”), the very strange recording of the “Lord’s Prayer” in four-part harmonies, and the god-awful “Little Honda,” it’s hard to believe it’s the same band capable of such genre (and generation) defining hits like “Surfin’ USA.”
This collection does little to hide these imperfections (in fact, one whole disc is devoted to “Little Saint Nick” and “The Lord’s Prayer”), which makes Sounds of Summer seem like a truly indispensible collection of Beach Boys hits, not this 16-disc monstrosity.
At this point, the Beach Boys aren’t even a band anymore — they’re a cultural symbol of America. And their songs aren’t just pop masterworks — they’re ingrained on the American psyche. Who among us doesn’t know the lyrics to “Surfin’ USA, ” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Help Me Rhonda,” or “California Girls”? And that’s why this set (retail price $110) isn’t for the casual Beach Boy fan. If you want a huge box full of four-song CDs, this is the perfect set for you. The rest of us will keep our regular old one-disc greatest hits collection.