The Most Essential Beck Albums
Story by: Morgan Enos
More than any artist this side of John Lennon, Beck understands the vital role of nonsense in music. “There’s power in [songs] being non-profound, throwaway,” he explained to The Guardian in 2017. “They can exist beyond the artist, beyond the genre, beyond the era. They float.”
“People talk about comedy being harder to pull off than drama,” he mused to The New Yorker two years later. “How do you make something levitate?”
Beck’s greatest albums are both comedic and dramatic, sailing over previous notions of common sense. On 1996’s Odelay, he rifled through the junk-drawer of music’s past and assembled futuristic pop from its disused pieces. His devastating 2002 breakup album, Sea Change, and its atmospheric 2014 companion, Morning Phase, exude the feeling of gliding above a cloud cover. On his 2019 album, Hyperspace, he identified the vaporous space between pop’s past and present with the aid of Pharrell Williams.
If Beck’s wildly divergent discography might make one feel alone in the new pollution, Discogs is here to cast a lifeline. Here’s our guide to getting into Beck.
The Angeleno son of a bluegrass musician father and a mother who hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, Beck quit school in the ninth grade and busked Mississippi John Hurt songs on city buses. “Some drunk would start yelling at me, calling me Axl Rose,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. So he took a different tack and freestyled over the chords: “I’d start singing about Axl Rose and the levee and bus passes and strychnine, mixing the whole thing up.”
At 17, he bought a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to New York “It was the whole cliché,” he told Rolling Stone. “[I] went on a fucking bus. I had, like, $8 in my pocket like a total idiot with a guitar and nothing else.” Beck soaked up the East Village anti-folk scene and rode home a year later. While opening acts broke down their gear at L.A. clubs, he clambered onstage with his acoustic guitar. “I would always sing my goofy stuff because everybody was drunk, and I’d only have two minutes,” he said. “That was my whole shot.”
His shot paid off in 1990 when Bong Load Records’ founder Tom Rothrock happened to be part of Beck’s captive audience. “I went to Jabberjaw in L.A. one summer day, and in between bands this guy bum-rushed the stage with a jazzercise sticker on his acoustic guitar,” Rothrock told Billboard in 2019. “I was blown away.” After making his way to the towheaded stage-crasher and discovering he loved Leadbelly as much as Public Enemy, he and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Karl Stephenson asked to work with him, and the four of them brought “Loser” to life.
Beck resented the “slacker” image that “Loser” pinned on him, despite it being a titanic MTV hit. “I never had any slack,” he told Rolling Stone. “A year ago, I was living in a shed behind a house with a bunch of rats, next to an alley downtown.” But the album it belonged to, 1994’s Mellow Gold, became a platinum hit, setting the stage for decades of alt-rock classics like 1996’s Odelay. In 2014, he completed his arc from a shed tenant to a household name when Morning Phase won him a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Where to Start
When “Loser” hit mainstream culture, Beck felt the new audience he accrued didn’t comprehend his craft. “It totally disturbed me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1997. “It didn’t seem like people understood what I was doing. It was like, ‘Is this guy for real? Is he making music that’s worthy or valuable?’ I felt like I was constantly having to prove myself.”
What he needed was a cohesive, classic album. 1994’s Mellow Gold, which kicks off with “Loser,” had all the ingredients for greatness scattered on the table, but they didn’t add up to a front-to-back experience. Luckily, he found facilitators E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo, a.k.a. the Dust Brothers, who had produced visionary sample-based albums like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Tone-Lōc’s Lōc-ed After Dark.
Beck had been pigeonholed as a one-hit-wonder, so the pressure was off. “It was great to make a record with nobody looking over our shoulders, nobody anticipating what we were going to do, so we were freed up,” E.Z. Mike told MusicRadar in 2011. “Even the record company was like, ‘Yeah, cool. Let us know when it’s done.’”
Left to their own devices, the three plundered old records. Several ideas were plucked from Them’s 1966 record Them Again; the surf-tinged “Devils Haircut” featured a borrowed riff from “I Can Only Give You Everything” and the gorgeous ballad “Jack-Ass” sampled their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The club-ready “Where It’s At” — the one that contains his unofficial slogan “Got two turntables and a microphone!” — was hung on a sample from a middle-school sex-ed record.
Despite its kooky range of source material, Odelay flows from beginning to end, its livewire experimentation tempered by endless post-production on primitive software. “When we met Beck, it was like kids messing around in a playground playing with popsicle sticks or whatever to create something with no agenda,” E.Z. Mike told KEXP in 2015.
Sampling law might have been a worthwhile agenda to heed, but if they did, Odelay would be unrecognizable. Nearly 25 years after its release, Odelay still provides hours of entertainment and remains the first Beck album one should spring for.
“A party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics” is how Beck described his final album of the 1990s. If this description elicits Raditude-shaped nightmares, think again. Midnite Vultures is a parody of disco-era lechery pulled off so well that it became one of Beck’s greatest achievements.
Despite being 10 years old when the 1970s ended, Beck is a scholar of the decade. The biblically horny Midnite Vultures is lousy with wah-wah effects, blaxploitation horns, and stuttering clavinets. The funk-band format fed the artist’s absurdist muse; “Beck would present us with a new song literally every day,” keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. of Jellyfish told Spin in 1999. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
“This point in time seems more power-oriented. Power workout, power diet, power body parts, power relationships, power steering, Power Rangers,” Beck noted to Spin. Likewise, the sex-crazed suburbanites of Midnite Vultures get botox injections, flirt at department stores, and hook up in the backseats of convertibles. “I’m mixing business with leather!” he crows on two different songs.
Every second of Midnite Vultures is saturated with sound — a fretless bass moan, a swanky Vegas fanfare, a Prince-like falsetto. It all filthily crescendos with “Debra,” in which the sight of a JCPenney employee sends Beck into hormonal conniptions. (The song was left off Odelay for being — get this — too goofy.)
A gossamer singer-songwriter record, Morning Phase hardly seems like it was made on the same planet as Midnite Vultures, let alone by the same artist. “The record’s pretty slow. I think at one point we realized there was nothing faster than 60 [beats per minute],” Beck told NPR in 2014. “That’s really slow.”
Morning Phase was a belated continuation of Sea Change, his acclaimed first crack at a sophisticated singer-songwriter record. Soon after that record, he sketched out a sequel on a series of tapes only to have them stolen from a venue. “That was really heartbreaking to me,” he told The Quietus in 2014, and he shunned acoustic guitars for years, returning to hip-hop and electronic influences for the remainder of the decade.
When the time was right, Beck returned to Morning Phase with a number of the Sea Change musicians, including guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and drummer Joey Waronker. A spinal injury that had reduced his voice to a whisper on 2008’s Modern Guilt had cleared up. “These songs were about … how things do get better,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I get to shout and yell. I’m like, ‘Thank you!’”
His voice rejuvenated, Beck enters the album sounding like a god. “Woke up this morning,” he booms with hushed majesty, the “ing” leaving a vapor trail of reverb. Acoustic-based songs like “Say Goodbye,” “Blue Moon,” and “Blackbird Chain” feel weighty and metamorphic a la George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
Everyone knows that sequels can be shaky propositions, but Morning Phase is mightier and more moving than its predecessor. It won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015, beating Ed Sheeran + and Beyoncé’s self-titled album.
During the gold rush for post-Nirvana alternative freaks, DGC Records made an unorthodox deal with Beck — he could make Mellow Gold any way he wanted, and even put out indie releases on the side. So he expanded the junkyard aesthetic of “Loser” to the length of an album.
“The whole concept of Mellow Gold is that it’s like a satanic K-Tel record that’s been found in a trash dumpster,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 1994. “A few people have molested it and slept with it and half-swallowed it before spitting it out. Someone played poker with it, someone tried to smoke it. Then the record was taken to Morocco and covered with hummus and tabouli.”
After you-know-what-single kicks it off, a pitch-shifted voice reports on “Pay No Mind (Snoozer): “This is song two on the album, This is the album right here. Burn the album.” Indeed, the remainder of Mellow Gold feels like a charred coda to “Loser,” leaving the innards of that song on the operating table for all to see.
Despite a few tracks that really work, like “Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)”, “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” and “Nitemare Hippy Girl,” Mellow Gold mostly sounds like Beavis and Butt-Head cacophonously flipping through channels.
That said, Mellow Gold works as a scuzzier version of what Beck achieved on Odelay. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, may this analog odyssey serve you well.
After the Odelay tour, Beck was eager to revisit songs that had fallen behind the stove. “I scared up a bunch of songs I had sitting around,” he told Rolling Stone in 1998. “I had a lot of songs that were a little more contemplative, quiet, and folky. Some of them I tried to record for Odelay, and they just didn’t pan out.”
Bare and spacious with an unobtrusive tint of psychedelia and bossa nova, Mutations was a refreshing break from Beck’s caffeinated previous work. It also marks the beginning of his long, fruitful partnership with Nigel Godrich, who had produced Radiohead’s OK Computer the previous year.
“Nigel was supposed to go on vacation … then he suddenly called and said ‘I’ll blow it off. I have 14 days. We’ll just go in and do it,’” Beck recalled. “We decided we’d do a song a day, record and mix. No looking back. No doctoring anything. And it turned out to be the album as you hear it.”
Without screeching turntables or gang-vocals fighting for attention, “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” “Canceled Check,” and “Sing It Again” are like a welcome blast of air conditioning. Despite the lack of a striking single at its core, Mutations is lovely both on its own terms and as a harbinger of Sea Change.
Beck had just broken up with his girlfriend when he made Sea Change. So had Nigel Godrich. “He was really devastated and heartbroken, too,” Beck told The Guardian in 2017. “We were making the record together in that sense.”
Three years prior, the songwriter learned that fashion designer Leigh Limon, who he’d dated for nine years, was cheating on him. To process the event, he wrote 12 bereft songs in the vein of Hank Williams or Nick Drake, shelved them for a time, then decided to put them out.
“They’re honest and simple songs and they’re trying to capture a universal experience that anybody goes through,” Beck told MTV at the time. “It’s taking something sad and trying to turn it into something that’s hopeful at the end.”
The first thing Godrich noted during the sessions: Beck’s voice had become a force of nature. “Before we recorded, we listened to Mutations, and his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse. His range has dropped,” he told Time in 2002. “Now when he opens his mouth, a canyonesque vibration comes out.”
This newfound sonorousness sells tracks like “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “It’s All in Your Mind” (which was originally recorded for 1994’s One Foot in the Grave), and “Lost Cause,” all statements of romantic sorrow graspable by anyone with a pulse.
The Deep End
Mississippi John Hurt is a crucial part of Beck’s mythos. “I’d never heard anything like that,” Beck told Rolling Stone of discovering the singer-songwriter early on. “This wasn’t some hippie guy fingerpicking in the ’70s, singing about rainbows. This was the real stuff.” He spent half a year in his bedroom working out Hurt’s fingerpicking patterns.
One Foot in the Grave doesn’t contain any songs by the Southern bluesman, but his presence still looms large. Recorded prior to Mellow Gold and released after that album blew up, the lo-fi folk album mixes originals (“Sleeping Bag,” “Hollow Log”) with spirituals (“Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods,” which borrows elements from “You’ve Gotta Move”), and blues standards (Skip James’ “He’s a Mighty Good Leader”).
Beck recorded the album in Calvin Johnson’s basement studio Dub Narcotic with members of Built to Spill, Love as Laughter, and the Presidents of the United States of America as his band. “I always think of One Foot in the Grave as a pencil sketch,” he told CMJ New Music Monthly in 1998, a description that still holds, but it’s valuable as a display of the artist’s raw talent sans bells and whistles.
Beck spent his teenage years in an El Salvadoran neighborhood just outside of Koreatown. When he attempted to learn Spanish, “They’d just be crying, in hysterics,” he told The New Yorker of his classmates, who teased him with a Chicano slang word meaning “white boy.” “‘Oh my god, who is this guero?’ So I just shut up.”
In 2005, Beck released Guero, a revisitation of the Odelay vibe featuring the Dust Brothers. The sorta-title-track “Qué Onda Guero” (or ‘What’s up, white boy?’) features sights he grew up with — prayer candles, mango ladies, men sleeping outdoors wearing Burger King crowns. “My reality of L.A. was quite different from Baywatch,” he said. “It was just the world that I knew.”
Despite a handful of strong songs like “Girl,” “Hell Yes,” and “Scarecrow,” and guest appearances from Jack White and Petra Haden, Guero only partially captures the magic of Odelay. (Not being able to sample anything with impunity may have contributed to this.) But if you’re craving a part-two to that album in the way that Morning Phase connects to Sea Change, it’ll do in a pinch.
Unfortunately, few Beck albums post-Guero hold a candle to his early work; 2006’s The Information is too sterile, 2008’s Modern Guilt is too listless, and 2017’s Colors sounds like a dozen other electro-pop albums by other artists. For Hyperspace, he chose to take a different tack.
“I really tried to be less ambitious on the production on these songs — to let them be simple and let them breathe,” he told NME in 2019. “Pharrell is a master minimalist. On production I’m a bit of a maximalist — I’m known to have 140 tracks of things trying to coexist and try to be heard at the same time.”
Where Colors tried too hard to be part of the modern pop landscape and ended up a tad bloated, Hyperspace’s empty spaces serve as a relief. And guests like Sky Ferriera (“Die Waiting”) and Coldplay’s Chris Martin (“Stratosphere”) save things from getting too samey. “A lot of my albums, there aren’t many guests,” Beck said. “I’m in there 12 hours a day just trudging through this production, so it’s a great joy to bring people I know into my music.”
Hyperspace was created during another breakup, this time, his divorce from Marissa Ribisi, his wife of 15 years. Despite a despondent tune or two like “Uneventful Days” and “Dark Places,” this traumatic event didn’t seem to affect the songwriting process.
“I started to fall into this structure that each song was a different person, a portrait of a person in a mood of life,” he told The Independent in 2019. “Each person in the songs was trying to find some way in their life to grapple with the world, their lives, and their past.”
With Hyperspace, Beck seems primed to continue as a prestige artist into the 2020s — one day, he’s an acoustic troubadour, another day, he’s a robot-funk prankster.
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