The Case for “God Only Knows” as the Best Pop Song Ever Written
Hear me out.
Every list that has ever existed as the “100 Greatest Pop or Rock this-or-that” of all time runs on the fuel of subjectivity and personal opinion. I get that. Rolling Stone released a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2011 and there are a dozen other similar lists out there, and by their very nature, they are subjective. If there were accurate quantitative means by which to rank music, the lists would all be identical.
However — all these lists get the top song wrong. Subjective or not.
The Rolling Stone list has God Only Knows at #25, behind such pablum as “Hound Dog” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s number 21 here, a list that seems almost like a spoof, (“When Doves Cry”? Really?) and 20 here. You get the point. Most greatest-of lists log the song in somewhere in the top 30.
I disagree. “God Only Knows” is a perfect song. It is rich in creative virtuosity, lyrical achievement, and its ground-breaking arrangement. It works on broad-brush levels and at a macro level for the nuance enthusiast. I will lay out my arguments herein.
To begin with, we look at the key signature. The song is in the key of “E.” However, it almost never resolves to the root tonic, except for at the conclusion of the titular line at the end of the first and second chorus. Why is that a big deal?
It is a big deal because it immediately informs the listener that the melodic roadmap will be a very untraveled path — one of creative experimentation and mastery and not just your everyday 12-bar blues construction. “Hound Dog” by contrast, starts on the tonic and spends most of its time there. Yawn.
The entire verse’s chord structure is a virtual middle-finger to the expectation of cadence, tonality, and inversions. Inverted chords with the 5th in the base abound, the tension between what is being played and the actual key signature remains unrequited, yet there is a destination if the listener will wait.
It is at the close of the chorus that we finally end up with an E major, and the listener can breathe before the next twist arrives.
That twist comes in the form of the bass line into the second verse. When Carl Wilson sings “God only knows what I’d be without you” the chord changes are A — E/G# — F#m7 — E. Resolution.
At this point, the piano and bass need to climb back up to A, and Brian makes an interesting musical choice here — a G-natural in the bass rather than a G#.
The entire verse’s chord structure is a virtual middle-finger to the expectation of cadence, tonality, and inversions.
This stands out as a vivid musical choice. It’s simple yet bold — any other composer would have climbed up through G# because that’s the default, the easy choice. But Wilson drops it to a natural to set up for the D/A to start verse two.
D/A is already outside the key signature, so in effect, you have a modulation contained neatly within that single G-natural. Brilliant.
Lyrically, and melodically, the song is haunting. The lead vocal, sung by Brian’s younger brother Carl, follows the melody deftly along an atypical tonal scale, which presents as both impossible yet straightforward to sing. As the chords shift from an E/B to a C-diminished and Carl sings “You never need to doubt it…” the melody is at once vocally gymnastic yet simple, a feat that could only be achieved by his gentle approach and tenor range.
The story of full-surrender love is chock full of cliffhangers, to-wit:
“I may not always love you,” the first line of the song, seems simple enough until you realize the writer has set up an impossible-to-knock-down set of pins in the following line, “ But long as there are stars above you.”
Ah yes — I’ll only love you as long as there are stars, so, forever.
Verse two takes it to another level still:
“If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would livin’ do me”
Yes — life would go on, but what would be the point?
Finally, the orchestration. The album “Pet Sounds,” from which this song came, was quite literally Brian Wilson’s answer to Rubber Soul. The Beatles’ album which had been released in 1965 contained a multitude of cutting-edge arrangements, vocal harmonies (“Drive My Car”) and instrumentation (sitar on “Norwegian Wood” to name a few).
As a result, Wilson wanted to take it up a notch. The result was “Pet Sounds,” and the tour-de-force of that album was “God Only Knows.” Instrumentally, Wilson crafted a blend of standard rhythm section instruments along with harpsichord, sleigh bells, strings, french horn, orange-juice cups, taped strings on a thumb-tacked piano, all of which provided the substrate to Wilson’s vocal line.
The instrumentation feels far away. Sparse in many places but building to a vocally-layered, all-in round as the song fades out. The thin and echoey passages punctuate the desperation of the lyrics. There is nothing in-your-face about the music bed, it just is — and is remarkable.
The icing on the musical cake are the various licks and riffs that cause the listener to perk up and say, “Damn — that was sweet” and are too numerous to mention. Noteworthy, however, are Hal Blaine’s snare triplets every other measure on the fade out, and Bill Green and Jim Horn’s heavily reverbed flute lines in the third verse.
Think those are just filler? Hell no. Those licks are the sweetener that adds to the cocktail to cause it to rise to a level of perfection.
The instrumentation was Brian at his zenith, extracting from each musician the timbre and phrasing for every note, a 22-year-old mad-scientist maestro taking the notes from his head to 2-inch tape.
There is a master’s thesis worth of commentary to support my contention but alas, not enough room or time to lay them all out. I’ve not even talked about the orchestral B-section, the temporary time spent in the four-chord key coming out of it, the masterful return to the key signature after that, and so much more.
It can’t be outdone. Your lists are meaningless.