Since 1993, U.S. legend Beck has been providing music with some of the greatest albums of this generation. Talk is afoot of a new record – the single Wow suggests he is on fine form – and causing people to become rather excited. When that will arrive – if this year or next? – it is a perfect time to reflect on Beck’s back catalogue. The Metropolist takes a look at the albums of one of music’s true innovators – deciding the underwhelming from the works of genius.
#12 – Golden Feelings (1993)
The debut offering from Beck was a showcase for his roots in the anti-folk scene and was a minor release. Golden Feelings was initially available on cassette-only and Sonic Enemy re-mastered the album and re-released it on C.D. in mid-1999. Beck’s displeasure with that decision forced them to stop printing: it is difficult getting hold of the album in anything other than cassette format. In spite of its minor promotion and limited availability; critics noted how interesting, different and experimental the album was. Humourous, characterful and colourful: Beck making his impressions and personality know right from the start. Not a bad album but one that is unlikely to be mentioned or lauded by many listeners.
#11 – Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994)
Like Golden Feelings: another album that many would be unaware of. The second independent release from Beck; it was released in 1994 – only a week before his major-label release, Mellow Gold. Like its predecessor: it shows strong folk leanings and largely consists home-made recordings and some studio cuts – a few live offerings alongside them. Even this early; Beck was showing the dare and cross-splicing that was to fully realise in Odelay. Sound collages, field recordings and an anti-commercial aesthetic meant it gained a few reviews but largely passed under the radar. Beck was in particular fine and inspired form in 1994 – releasing three albums this year – and would go on to create bigger and better records. Stereopathetic Soulmanure is an interesting footnote from a musician that was showing promising signs – he would go on to create much finer records shortly after the release of Stereopathetic Soulmanure.
#10 – The Information (2006)
The seventh official studio album from Beck was produced and mixed by Nigel Godrich and was a darker, nervier effort than previous work. During this time; Beck was working on the groovier, looser Guero – an album that would surpass The Information in terms of its scope, accessibility and quality. That said, The Information picked up positive reviews and featured highly on critical lists. Perhaps not pushing his music in new directions – rederivation of his past work – the darker tones did resonate with many people. The Information addressed issues unfolding in the world and its sound nodded to 1960s pop sounds with more driven, political messages. The album is a more mature and settled work – compared with albums like Odelay – but has plenty of standout moments and memorable inversions to please die-hard and casual fans alike.
#9 – One Foot in the Grave (1994)
Beck’s third intendant release saw him hit the kind of form that would define his finest L.P.s. One Foot in the Grave never charted but did get into the minds of critics and strengthened his reputation and name. The natural jumping-off-point for Odelay: the importance of One Foot in the Grave cannot be understated and ignored. If eclectic-style albums such as Mellow Gold – the year that saw him bring out three albums – then One Foot in the Grave is more folk-based and restrained. Recorded prior to the release of Mellow Gold: it was not actually released until that album was greeted by critical approval. Bringing in the production and songwriting talents of Calvin Johnson together (founder of K Records); the entire album was actually recorded in Calvin’s basement. A minor success but a vital album in Beck’s development and burgeoning artistry: one that curious listeners should definitely seek out.
#8 – Modern Guilt (2008)
Modern Guilt saw Beck straying away from the cross-genre invention of his earliest albums and embrace something more paranoid and self-inspection. Whilst some accused it of being a vanity project and not up to Beck’s usual standards: the musician was looking at the modern world around him and asking questions. If some were left cold by Modern Guilt; it was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the 51st Grammy Awards – losing out to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Beck’s eight official studio album is his shortest to date (thirty-three minutes) and beings contributions by Cat Power to the record. Some wonderful moments can be found on the album. Despite its paranoid and governments-out-to-reduce-the-population claims of Chemtrails; the song moulds The Beatles and My Bloody Valentine; the ambience builds gradually and Beck’s voice is high-pitched and eerie. Dangermouse’s production talents help emphasise the cascading drums and turn the song into something epic. Gamma Ray has a surf-rock flavour yet its lyrics address the state of the modern world. A balance of apocalyptic tones – the song refers to biologically hazardous energy emitted by radiative decay – and uplifted vocals make the song a standout.
#7 – Guero (2005)
Debuting on the Top 200 at number two and number fifteen in the U.K.: to this date, it is Beck’s highest-charting album. Returning to the styles and quirkiness of Odelay: Guero runs through Latino grooves and blues grit; Brazilian influences and kaleidoscopic visions. Dust Brothers aid in production duties and ensure first single E-Pro and follow-up Girl lodge in the memory instantly. Bits of Mutations make their way into the album and many critics saw Guero as an easier listen compared to Midnite Vultures and Sea Change. If those albums mixed genres with little authority or deep commitment; perhaps the production guidance of Dust Brothers and Tony Hoffers means the wide-ranging ambitions hang together with more conviction. Beck, on Guero, was not trying to be the man he was back in 1996 – Guero is a more mature and realistic sound from a human aware he is growing older. Lovelorn, aching songs like Missing sit effortlessly with the head-pounding robotic jam of Hell Yes; the meaty bass heroics of Jack White on Go It Alone and the hip-swivelling anthem, Black Tambourine.
#6 – Mellow Gold (1994)
Marked as the first official studio album – the third overall – was the major label debut from Beck. After the shock surprise (acclaim) of Loser; a lot of attention came Beck’s way and critics drooled over his fusions of rock, hip-hop and folk – with psychedelic and country elements thrown in for good measure. Mellow Gold has no ambitions for commercial success and ‘fitting in’. As such, the album went on to sell impressively and delighted most critics. Some noticed nothing quite scaled the heights of Loser but there was plenty of manic-depressive, split-personality innovation to keep the hardest of critics happy. Pay No Mind is one of the most poignant of Beck’s early work and was compared with Bob Dylan; Soul Suckin Jerk gives a fingers-up to The Man and is Beck in swaggering, defiant mood. A few sharp, short shocks – Mutherfuker and Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs – are brutal and memorable whereas Blackhole is a majestic and stunning revelation.
#5 – Sea Change (2002)
2002’s Sea Change was recorded over a two-month period at Ocean Way Studios, Los Angeles. Nigel Godrich took on production responsibility and Sea Change investigates heartbreak and desolation; loss and loneliness. A lot of Beck’s 21st-century work has been darker, more haunted and anxious than his freewheelin’, relatively carefree albums of the 1990s. Gone was the irony and obliqueness to be replaced by something serious, focused and personal. Beck’s split from his long-term girlfriend certainly influenced the album and the album’s title not only marks a change of styles/musical focus but a personal shift – the hero more heartbroken and confused. As a result; Beck’s vocals are raw and naked. More nuanced and striking than any of his previous albums: much more masculine and revealing than Beck has ever been. Godrich adds some key components to the album. From the backwards-tape hum during Lost Cause or the stunning keyboards of Nothing I Haven’t Seen – one of the album’s unsung heroes. Touches of Pink Floyd and The Beatles can be heard on Sea Change – Sunday Sun is The Beatles turned up to eleven – ghost-like pianos and twisted guitars; all manner of distortion and chaos. Beck is deflated and resigned throughout (Sea Change) but created an album that came from the heart – one that gets firmly into the soul.
#4 – Midnite Vultures (1999)
By the late-‘90s, Beck was firmly in the bosom of critical acclaim and enjoying a period of fertility and success. Midnite Vultures continues the same experimental course as Odelay but was not as well-received as Odelay. Beck, throughout the album, presented an array of sounds and genres – banjos and electronic effects together with blues guitars and soulful undertones. If narrower in scope to Odelay; Midnite Vultures is a less complicated and more immediate record than Odelay. Perhaps (Midnite Vulture’s) songs lacked depth and soul – a little distant and detached to dig deep – the sheer excitement, authority and quality cannot be faulted. Some numbers (Hollywood Freaks for instance) came off a little jokey; some were put off and objected to Beck playing a hipster joker. Dense production and consistently catchy elevates the album beyond such concerns. Funky, sassy and confident throughout – one of the most impressive albums from his early career. Sexx Laws is the obvious standout but Midnite Vultures is such a busy and detailed album – there is something in there for everyone.
#3 – Morning Phase (2014)
Acting as a companion piece to Sea Change – albeit one that spans a twelve-year period – several of the musicians who featured on Sea Change appeared on Morning Phase. Of course, Morning Phase is a stronger and more compelling work than Sea Change. Nominated for five Grammy Awards – it won Album of the Year; Beat Engineered Album, Non-Classical and Best Rock Album – it bodes well for Beck’s as-yet-unnamed thirteenth album. Morning Phase deals with tougher emotions and hard subject matter but contains plenty of warmth and beauty. Exceptional musicianship and fewer filler tracks than Sea Change: showing how much Beck has developed as an artist (since then). Downtempo, immersive and entrancing throughout – the finest work from Beck since, debatably, Mutations and Odelay. Following the experimentations, wild ambitions and energy of previous L.P.s Guero and Modern Guilt; this was a calmed and deep work that not only showed Beck was as effective when slowed and contemplative (than wild and restless) but how consistent he is. Some twenty-one years after his first album; Beck proved he is still one of music’s true stalwarts and icons.
#2 – Mutations (1998)
Mutations was the first real exploration of Beck’s true innovations and eclecticism. In a time where other artists were sampling to create broad palettes and genre-crossing music: Beck was sample-free and following on from Odelay’s extraordinary template. Like Odelay, Mutations draws bossa nova, psychedelia and country without sounding unnatural and forced. Recorded across two weeks and more comforting and melody-heavy than Odelay – Nigel Godrich with production and shaping the record. Nobody’s Fault but My Own threads sitars and strings together in a dreamy and stunning number. “When the moon is a counterfeit/better find the one that fits/Better find the one that lights the way for you” is, perhaps, the most memorable lyrical snippet from Mutations and emboldens Beck’s gift for wordplay. If Odelay was a colourful and high-octane (for the most part) album: Mutations is its more emotive and touching sister. Classic psychedelic folk and rock nods back to the ‘60s – Lazy Flies is a dizzying, twirling example of the psychotropic wonder to be found – and puts dead horses and sulphur shadows together in an astonishing number. If not Beck’s absolute apex (see below) it showed it was not deterred and pressured by the expectations following…
#1 – Odelay (1996)
There could be no question as to Beck’s defining album. Only his second official studio album – the fifth overall – singles Where It’s At, Devil’s Haircut and The New Pollution define the sides and characteristics of Odelay. Going on to sell over two million copies in the U.S. alone – the first album from Beck to enter the U.K. charts (reaching number seventeen). In 2008, Odelay was reissued as a two-disc set and showed how meaningful and stunning the album is – some twenty years after its release. Often cited as one of the ‘90s’ best albums: Beck had transitioned from an awkward potential one-hit wonder (Loser) to a true musical heavyweight. Dust Brothers came in as producers – and would later work with him on Guero – and are partly responsible for the sheer breadth of sounds and samples to be found on the album. Rivalling sample-heavy classics like Paul’s Boutique: critics hailing Beck as a rock-chameleon whose country-fried licks, jive-turkey raps and sample dexterity (The Frogs to Tchaikovksy no less). Not only was the music variation and consistency there: the sheer humour and smile-inducing world-play is a joy. Sissyneck finds him with a “stolen wife” and will-writing on a three-dollar bill; Where It’s At and its “good drum break” – an unimpeachable king-of-albums from the first note to the final ember.