Beck

Beck boasts one of the most interesting, most schizophrenic discographies of any contemporary artist this side of David Bowie. Like Bowie, Beck has built a career on restlessness and reinvention, trouncing expectations impishly, almost recklessly. While rock-critic hindsight usually reveals this long-con approach as the thing that separates stars from legends, contenders from trendsetters (or, say, Warren Zevon from Bob Dylan), it also almost guarantees, with each new release, the increasing alienation of entire portions of a fanbase. Fans of Beck’s ramshackle, stoned folk as heard on Golden Feelings and One Foot In The Grave might not appreciate big-budget brouhahas like the Beastie Boys-pastiche of Odelay or the winking lasciviousness of Midnite Vultures. Fans of weepy, wistful, and meticulously arranged classics like Mutations and Sea Change might not cotton to the wild and noisy Stereopathetic Soulmanure, the impenetrable A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight, or the Tropicalia kitsch of Guero.

I’ve gone back and reexamined every Beck album to attempt a fair (but still highly subjective) list of his greatest songs. Capturing the essence of such an exotic persona in 10 songs was no easy task. Beck’s discography is a constellation of styles, moods, and modes, his career a series of lopsided gestures rife with as much dabbling and diablerie as genius. There are also two more albums in his discography than there are entries on this list, so though many songs were considered, almost as many were discarded out of necessity. If a great Beck song sounded too much like another, slightly superior song in the oeuvre, it was discarded (sorry, “Beercan”). Some of your favorites will be missing from this list — I sympathize. Some of mine are, too. Spatial restraints forced me to neglect “Totally Confused,” “Fume,” “Rowboat,” “Nausea,” “Gamma Ray,” “Girl Dreams,” “Mexico” and “In A Cold Ass Fashion,” all tunes that would certainly make my personal Best of Beck mix, given a CDR’s 80 minute capacity. In other words, disagree all you want, but don’t be cruel.

10. “Bogusflow” (from DGC Rarities Vol. 1, 1994)

Surrealist soothsaying disguised as a coffeehouse trifle, “Bogusflow” appears on the ubiquitous ’90s compilation DGC Rarities, which also features classics by Hole, Sonic Youth, and Teenage Fanclub. With just a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Beck hoarsely evokes the talking blues of Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott while name-checking both the Clash and Public Enemy. Though Beck allows himself a hearty guffaw following a line about people in “new age bionic jogging suits,” the absurd lyrics might also be read as a polemic on the futility and ineffectualness of the burgeoning grunge scene — and what better place to offer such a critique than on a grunge-showcasing DGC compilation? It could also be that the lyrics are merely a mosaic of some random shit that sounded good together, but the magic of “Bogusflow” is that it doesn’t matter. You can hear the influence of this tune in everything from the slacker mysticism of late-period Todd Snider to Adam Green’s bug-eyed, alien aloofness.

9. “Asshole” (from One Foot In The Grave, 1994)

Covered by none other than Tom Petty, who knows a good song when he hears it, this song from the terrific One Foot In The Grave album finds Beck playing it relatively straight — sort of. Upon first listen, “Asshole” is just another in a long line of man-eater songs, from “Cathy’s Clown” to “Layla.” But unlike those songs, the protagonist of “Asshole” literally sounds like the sort of person likely to get dicked around. The execution of the song is indie-sloppy, capturing the kind of first-take magic that would all but disappear from Beck’s discography as soon as the world started paying attention. The bass never strays from hesitant-sounding root notes, minimal percussion alternates between a shaker (verse) and a tambourine (chorus), and a background vocal can’t decide if it’s a harmony part or merely a double of the melody. Few artists make imperfection sound this perfect.

8. “Strange Apparition” (from The Information, 2006)

When word got out that producer Nigel Godrich — something of a King Midas of ’90s alternative rock — was slated to produce Beck’s 10th album The Information, fans were likely expecting the third part of a trilogy of reflective, Godrich-produced albums that also included Mutations and Sea Change. But The Information — cluttered, clamorous, and frustrating — is as stubborn an about-face from the careful, dreamy pensiveness of those albums as Beck could have released. But along with single “Nausea” (a snarling punk tune masquerading as a Beastie Boys outtake), “Strange Apparition” is Beck at his sharpest and most vivacious, here using tack piano and an almost satirical-sounding classic-rock drawl to ape the Stones circa “Gimme Shelter,” complete with a breakdown for a bridge and hooting background vocals. In retrospect, it’s strange this one didn’t blow up bigger, presaging as it does the Bob Seger-isms Kid Rock would hit paydirt with just two years later.

7. “Chemtrails” (from Modern Guilt, 2008)

This oddly melancholic downer of a single from Modern Guilt splits the difference between the moodiness of Pink Floyd and the grandiosity of late-period Mercury Rev. Danger Mouse’s appropriately woozy, seasick production is the perfect match for Beck’s fey, eerie falsetto, while caffeinated drum fills and juddering bass keep things from becoming too heavy-lidded. Nothing is suppressed in Beck’s sonic universe; no sound, however incompatible-seeming, is discriminated against. Sometimes this indulgent approach makes for uneasy pastiche, and this lackluster album is full of such missteps, but “Chemtrails” is a clear highlight, as well as one of the most oddly affecting songs of Beck’s career.

6. “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” (from Mutations, 1998)

Sure, if you strip away all the fancy production gloss and ear candy from “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” you’re basically left with a pretty good Oasis song. But this languorous highlight of the Nigel Godrich-produced Mutations, bolstered by a bed of synthesizers and buzzing sitar, is Beck’s most meritous stab at psychedelia. Seeming to borrow the production template from Mellow Gold slow-burners like “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997″ and “Steal My Body Home,” “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” adds dollops of studio sparkle and pop sheen, rendering it Beck’s very own “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” This is what the Beta Band thought they sounded like.

5. “Sleeping Bag” (from One Foot In The Grave, 1994)

An easy, rolling country number, “Sleeping Bag” is one of the best of Beck’s early “serious” numbers (see also: Stereopathetic Soulmanure’s “Rowboat,” which would be covered by Johnny Cash in 1996). There is a distant, faraway quality to the song that compels, with its fuzzy slide guitar, opiate Byrds-y shuffle, and ham-fisted rhythm guitar — Beck has rarely sounded so endearingly “indie.” The minimal, ramshackle nature of “Sleeping Bag” recalls country folk outsiders from Peter Grudzien all the way up to Luke Roberts, but the lyrics, which find a place within the seemingly mundane details of a friendly bonfire to compare the world to a holiday in an ashtray, are pure Beck.

4. “Devil’s Haircut” (from Odelay, 1996)

“Devil’s Haircut” is the best of the three singles from Odelay, the album that propelled Beck from an undercover indie-rock arriviste to bonafide pop megastar. The production here would open the doors for ’90s royalty like Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy, giving their particular brand of electronic mishmash the clout to contend with the likes of Collective Soul and U2 in the charts. For all its ubiquity, “Devil’s Haircut” remains remarkably true to the Beck of Stereopathetic Soulmanure, in approach if not in execution. Elliptical lyrics (“stealing kisses from the leprous faces”) and MPC-worthy beats are crossed with enough sonic curveballs and sound effects to delight any drooling stoner. The song also captures a cultural moment in which an obsession with psychedelic ’60s kitsch was rapidly approaching critical mass (the first installment in the Austin Powers franchise would rear its shagadelic head less than a year later), propelling Beck to a timely mainstream florescence. If the success of Mellow Gold had all the makings of a fluke, Odelay hushed the naysayers, and, in many ways, represents the apex and culmination of Beck’s art.

3. “Loser” (from Mellow Gold, 1994)

Unless you hung out at Seattle’s OK Hotel on open mic nights in the early ’90s, or were on the mailing list for Bong Load Records (don’t lie — you weren’t), chances are, “Loser” was your introduction to Beck. It’s a fitting initiation to Beck’s multifarious universe, containing as it does most of the elements necessary for understanding his singular m.o.: nonsensical lyrics, a predilection for ’beats,’ an affinity for bluesy guitar textures and audio collage, comical self-effacement. In fact, the only characters from Beck’s cavalcade of personas missing from “Loser” are the sadsack of Sea Change and the cherub-playboy of Midnite Vultures. “Loser” is also one of the strangest songs to ever chart on Billboard. Sampling Johnny Jenkins’s cover of the Dr. John classic “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” and dialogue from the movie Kill The Moonlight, the song opens with the immortal lyrics “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey” and gets even weirder from there — this album sold how many copies? The unlikely success of “Loser” led to a lucrative deal with DGC, and the rest is history. Beck is reportedly not fond of the song.

2. “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” (from Mellow Gold, 1994)

As a teenager, I witnessed Beck perform this song on MTV’s 120 Minutes, and it blew my mind. Introduced by a visibly amused Thurston Moore, the still-obscure future king of the slackers sat on a stool looking for all the world like the personification of a pair of oversized novelty sunglasses. Improvising new lyrics for the occasion (“Tonight the city is totally lame / Everything is uptight and perky“) and concluding the song with a dissonant, spontaneous coda that made Jandek look like Mark Knopfler, Beck appeared drugged, shell-shocked, and completely unprofessional throughout the performance. During the subsequent interview segment, Thurston inquires about the origins of Beck’s moniker, and Beck answers by removing his boot and hurling it across the MTV soundtage. This left a big impression on me, and “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” has been one of my favorite Beck songs ever since. The version of the song that appears on Mellow Gold is Beck at his free-associating, Dylanesque best, introducing a world of giant insects, overflowing toilets, and dildos big enough to crush the sun. Scatological? Maybe. But “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” as a thinly-veiled critique of the industry that would absorb him (“The sales climb high through the garbage pail sky,” “I sleep in slime, I just got signed”) is evidence that Beck’s irreverent, rapier wit wasn’t far removed from a certain contemporary’s similarly transparent condemnations of corporate rock.

1. “Lost Cause” (from Sea Change, 2002)

“Lost Cause” is the embodiment of self-expression manifested as great art. Like “All In Your Mind,” this song of heartbreak and resignation is one of Sea Change’s finest moments, and a highlight of Beck’s discography. Even Nigel Godrich’s typically fussy production serves the song nobly — synthesizers mimic cold breezes, digital drums skate backwards and clip abruptly, and a twinkling xylophone accents each chord change like a nervous co-pilot. In a previous Stereogum piece on Beck, I said “Sea Change quite literally sounds like a million dollars. The reverb on Beck’s voice alone –- rich and full-bodied -– sounds as if it has been worked-over for weeks.” When Beck sings that he’s “tired of fighting,” you hear the fatigue. When he sings “this town is crazy, nobody cares,” his delivery, intimate with surrender, makes the sentiment all the more pitiable. You can have the Francophilic affectations, the postmodern genre-traipsing, and the dada-derived microphone technique — I’ll take Beck the songwriter any day. On the evidence of “Lost Cause,” it’s what he does best.

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Comments (145)
  1. Nothing from “Song Reader”?!?!?! This is bullshit!

    • On a more serious note, and I know this will probably be unpopular, I actually love Midnite Vultures and I’m sad nothing made the cut. Sexx Laws? Get Real Paid? Peaches & Cream? Milk & Honey? All great songs!

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      • In my little corner of Beck fans, Debra’s clearly in the top 2 or 3 songs he ever wrote. It’s true that the record version can’t hold with any of its live performances, but it deserves a space here.

      • Word. Who cares if it’s unpopular? Midnite Vultures is definitely my favorite Beck album. So underappreciated. It was a fuckin party and sorry to say but it’s been downhill ever since. Sea Change is a downer. Debra?!

        • Yeah I love Midnight Vultures. I didn’t entirely get it at the time but once I got a bit older I realized what a great piece of work it was – one last monster party album for the 20th Century. More than being coy or sarcastic or ironic that’s what the album is about to me. I think it was a mostly sincere tribute to Prince & hip-hop that just didn’t take itself too seriously.

  2. I agree with Asshole. That’s all though. No Ramshackle? Come on!

  3. 1. Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997 (Mellow Gold)
    2. O Maria (Mutations)
    3. Asshole (One Foot in the Grave)
    4. Lord Only Knows (Odelay)
    5. Get Real Paid (Midnite Vultures)

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  5. I mean, the dude has a ton of songs, so I wasn’t expecting to be terribly satisfied. “Lost Cause” isn’t my favorite, but it’s a great song, from my favorite album of his. And I feel like if you have to choose a big Beck single, “Where It’s At” is a lot more fun than “Loser.”

  6. man, there’s no way around it, this list is going to bring the anger.

    • i was shaking with rage when i was scrolling down and didnt see anything from sea change. crisis averted…its not so much that i love beck…i like beck a lot…but i love vicodin, so i get some pretty unnecessary mood swings. i am way off topic. i think what im saying jim, is that i agree with you and i dont know who james jackson toth is but we have some different ideas about beck.

  7. goooooooood list. real good. thanks for including Chemtrails! i feel like no one ever talks about that album in general.

  8. For me, it’s all about “Jackass.”

  9. Something always missing, always someone missing something <_<

  10. Need more than one from Sea Change. The big Beck fans I know all revere that album, as do I. A great non-album cut I’d include would be Deadweight.

  11. Deadweight should be up there

  12. I prefer the rare b-side “Scientology is the One True Religion”

  13. “Dark Star” would have been my pick from The Information. That or “Cellphone’s Dead.”

  14. Pay No Mind is an inspired choice, definitely one of the best Beck songs ever. Burn the album!

    But this list is notable in its lack of Debra.

  15. I really loved “Volcano” off Modern Guilty. I loved that whole album.

  16. No “Where It’s At” ?????

  17. needs more Odelay love, im thinking Sissyneck or Hotwax

  18. Where’s it at?

  19. Glad to see Strange Apparition get some love, The Information is criminally underrated.

    • Completely agree. People often give me crap for putting that up there as one of my favs from him. I love the hell outta that thing. Think I’m In Love deserves a nod.

  20. Beck deserves at least a top 30.

  21. no thanks

  22. This post sponsored by Spotify

  23. The more I think about it, the more sure I become that Beck was THE artist of the 90s.

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  25. soul suckin’ jerk,

  26. “Sea Change” sounds like a very good record if you haven’t yet heard “The Boatman’s Call”. Then, it’s like… Oh, now I get it. Yeah, I’d like to have made that record too. Then it’s hard to enjoy, even “The Golden Age”, which is objectively a very good song.

    The problem with Beck is when he makes records that sound original and interesting, he does the dumb nonsense-lyric gimmick, which gets in the way.

  27. mtv makes me want to smoke crack

  28. Hmm, one song from Odelay (his best album, sorry Sea Change fans), none from Midnite Vultures. This injustice shall not stand.
    I hate getting downvoted because, blah, life’s too short, but I just. don’t. really. like. Sea Change. It’s Beck at his most monochromatic and while it is lovely, it lacks the vibrancy that I loved in his earlier albums.

  29. Too many good Beck songs.

    “Derelict” has been a long time favorite of mine.

  30. I expected to be ENRAAAAGED by this list but it’s not bad. And Beck’s a strange one. Not likely to be a common consensus on the best Beck songs.

  31. “The production here would open the doors for ’90s royalty like Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy, giving their particular brand of electronic mishmash the clout to contend with the likes of Collective Soul and U2 in the charts.”

    While they weren’t doing it that well, U2 was trying very hard to make “electronic mishmash” in the ’90s. Achtung Baby didn’t have a ton but was great, Zooropa in ’93 had a lot and was okay, and then Pop came out in ’97 and had the most and was bad. The point is, they shouldn’t be identified with Collective Soul and they weren’t on the charts.

  32. I still don’t think Guero gets the respect it deserves. It’s endlessly replayable, which Beck albums generally aren’t for me. Shit like “Missing”, “Hell Yes”, and “E-Pro” are some of his best songs to me. And then there’s dealing with absolutely nothing from Midnite Vultures making this list. Yes, I saw your post earlier about not liking the album, but no “Debra” or “Mixed Bizness” is gross blasphemy. Hell, I’d go as far as to say that “Sexx Laws” is the essential Beck single. Only for the banjo jam.

  33. Yikes! I rarely chime in on these lists because I either agree with the placement or respect the ‘Gum’s decisions. Definitely still approve of this list, but I’m really surprised that not a single song overlaps between this list and my own. For what it’s worth, here are my Beck favs, in semi-order that I just made up now:

    10. Ramona
    9. Ghettochip Malfunction
    8. Girl
    7. Beautiful Way
    6. Profanity Prayers
    5. Bonfire Blondes
    4. Sexx Laws
    3. The New Pollution
    2. Youthless
    1. Think I’m in Love

  34. Seriously people…..Debra.

  35. i don’t see her much since she started with horses. No, I don’t see her much since she started to ride.

  36. I just went through his entire discography to see if I could make my own list… can’t do it. At least not right now on demand. I could do it with enough time to sit and listen through everything again, remembering all the hidden gems I’ve forgotten over the years.

    Funny thing about this list, I don’t hate it, because I like most of those songs. But the only one I can say for sure that would be on my own is ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’.

  37. Here’s the thing about ‘Midnite Vultures’; if you grew up listening to any kind of old soul or funk music, or more importantly, Prince, that record makes a lot of sense and occasionally touches on brilliance. But if you didn’t, it really doesn’t fit anywhere else in Beck’s catalog and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Personally, I DID grow up a huge Prince fan AND listened to a lot of old soul and funk records, so ‘Midnite Vultures’ put a huge smile on my face when I bought it.

    • I completely agree. MV has a tongue-in-cheek brilliance to it, and I think Beck was completely aware of that appeal. I was reading some old interviews where he even cites R. Kelley as influencing him on that album. I personally love Midnight Vultures.
      Wonder if Justin Timberlake liked Midnight Vultures.

      • I have to disagree – I’m a huge fan of Prince and funk music in general, so I think I got where he was coming from. But Midnite Vultures was mostly a big let-down for me. It sounded like it was fussed over endlessly, and not in a good way. I do love Hollywood Freaks though, and Debra’s truly awesome.

        Here are a few other non-LP tracks I love –

        Deadweight
        Salt In The Wound
        Halo Of Gold
        Clock
        Inside Out
        Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime
        The Vagabond (with Air)

        Also, if you love “Sea Change”‘, track down “Ship In A Bottle”, a track he left off the album cause it sounded too Elton John-ish, or something.

    • sexx laws. the author was careful to note that Beck has more records than spots on a Top 10 list. ok fine. but maybe the next time this problem arises, the author should go batshit crazy and number their paper 1-12 or whatever number of record the artist has, before starting the list – not to make sure every record is represented, but to at least leave the possibility there so that left-field, brilliant records don’t get hosed. SEXX LAWS.

  38. next do most creative beck album cover! i would pick the information –

    because of the stickers!!!! lol obvs.

    • Midnite vultures for the neon crotch grab n pink pleather.

    • first you gotta make the cover for his album, now you gotta actually play the music yourself to even hear the album. what’s next? a Beck tour where you have to perform the songs and he watches from the audience? maybe you have to compose the whole album and Beck gets to stick his name on it?? (btw, this is all in jest)

      i’d be curious to hear the results from a survey sent to many current bands & artists as to their opinions of the sheet music album. i’m hoping the record actually was recorded and this is just a temporary experiment to see what people come up with. if so, great idea! if not, it’s his choice and far be it from me to tell someone/anyone what medium by which to deliver their art, but record your own fucking record please. i don’t go to a restaurant to cook my own dinner.

  39. OK…. I gave it a try. More than ten and in no particular order. But if I could only have these Beck songs on a compilation or something, I’d be pretty damn happy. It would be longer if I had gone through all the singles, vinyl and really obscure stuff. This is just from the albums proper, and there’s nothing from the last two because (ashamedly) I haven’t listened to them enough to have favorites.

    Fuckin’ With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)
    Steal My Body Home
    Sweet Sunshine
    Hollow Log
    It’s All In Your Mind
    Devil’s Haircut
    Derelict
    Readymade
    Nobody’s Fault But My Own
    Dead Melodies
    Get Real Paid
    Broken Train
    Already Dead
    Broken Drum
    Emergency Exit

    • Whoa, what an interesting list. I dig it. It wouldn’t be mine, but it has some of his really interesting deep cuts. Get Real Paid is hilarious/disorienting/addicting.

      • Thanks. Yeah, as soon as I hit Submit Comment I thought to myself, “self, are those really the BEST Beck songs, or just your favorites?” Obviously, it’s the latter. But that’s what the original article is, too. It’s the author’s favorite Beck songs. I think some of his choices are great, but I don’t think there wold ever be 100% agreement that those are Beck’s ten best songs. I started getting into some of the more obscure b-sides, early stuff, comp and soundtrack stuff after I posted as well and found a few other songs that might knock off some of those on the list. Beck just has too many songs of varying styles to make a simple, “these are his best” list.

        Yeah, I dig the woozy, disorienting Beck songs. I noticed that last night when I was making the list.

        Also, I entered a YouTube timesuck vortex last night and really listened to the last couple albums. I’m going to have to agree that Chemtrails is a really great song.

        Also, honorable mention to Beck’s cover of ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’ from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack. He didn’t write it, but damn that’s a fine cover.

        • I think it should always be favorite to you. The only way to make an accuarate “best” with so much subjectivity is to compile a consensus opinion. I never bother with “Best” vs “Favorite” in my own personal lists.

  40. “Earthquake Weather” is one of the greats.

  41. beck’s quite possibly my favorite musician of the past twenty years or so, with blur, lcd soundsysyem and the roots. I dig this list. It’s kind of impossible to narrow such a diverse catalog down to 10 without disappointing people. Really, someone’s picks say more about who’s writing it than about the music itself.

    • Good point. Especially with an artist like Beck. Each album (sometimes each song on an album) shifts genres so drastically it’s no wonder Beck lists would be so diverse. That’s why he’s the shizz.

  42. I wasn’t really surprised by the predominance of lo-fi/folk-ish songs and the omission of Vultures/Guero songs on this list since I’ve read the name of the author…also known as the singer/songwriter/musician Wooden Wand.

  43. No one has mentioned Lonesome Tears (from Sea Change) yet. It’s underappreciated perfection!

  44. “Surrealist soothsaying disguised as a coffeehouse trifle, “Bogusflow” appears on the ubiquitous ’90s compilation DGC Rarities, which also features classics by Hole, Sonic Youth, and Teenage Fanclub.”

    You forgot Counting Crows…Einstein on the Beach is the jam!

  45. Gotta rep for Midnite Vultures as well, especially “Mixed Bizness” or “Nicotine & Gravy” or, yeah, “Debra.” But it speaks to Beck’s consistent quality that I didn’t even mind this list completely overlooking that record.

  46. What about the beat at the end of Novacane?? :)

  47. One of my favorite Space Ghost episodes is when he interviews Beck.

    Classic.

  48. New Pollution
    Jack-Ass
    Cold Brains
    Beer Can

    Beck is so good, I appreciate more than usual this list was hard. I think Devil’s Haircut would be the easiest to switch out for one of the other Odelay cuts. But happy to see “Nobody’s Fault But my Own”. Maybe consider the entire rest of Sea Change? Love the strings on “Paper Tiger”.

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