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.