As you might’ve heard, Beck won a Grammy for Album Of The Year about a week and a half ago, for his early 2014 release Morning Phase. I don’t know if your Twitter feed looked anything like mine, but let’s say people were less than supportive of this decision — because, of course, Beck beat Beyoncé, who had released that surprise self-titled album that everyone thought deserved to win. Beck’s win, for a beautiful album that was nevertheless pretty far from his career peak, became the subject of attacks on the Grammys’ conservatism. And, oh yeah, Kanye almost crashed the stage, goofed on himself and his infamous Taylor Swift stage crash, then said he was actually serious in an interview after the ceremony and that “Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.” This turned into a whole thing, naturally: people calling Kanye an asshole for downplaying Beck’s own artistic merits, people saying Kanye was right and should’ve crashed the stage, some people coming to Beck’s defense, occasionally in ways like this.
Kanye eventually took back his comments to some degree, everybody got to be an artist, happy ending, etc., etc. The weird wrinkle to this whole Grammys saga is that, in online conversation and in Kanye’s comment, Beck’s positioned as the safe, rockist’s choice. And, honestly, he’s seemed to be aging in that direction. Not to say it’s a bad look. Beck’s 44 now. Earnest psychedelia and acoustic-based music is probably a better direction for him to pursue than any further attempts to revisit the grab-bag freneticism of something like Odelay. But forgotten in the whole mess were pretty much all the other aspects of Beck’s evolution. Beck has been a restlessly adventurous artist for most of his career in a way that was part ahead of its time, and part why some people consider him a genius.
When people talk about Beck, the idea of “collage” comes up a lot. (More on this when we get to Odelay.) They’re talking about his predominant approach as a musician, whether within specific songs or in the stylistic leaps from album to album. It’s also sort of fitting on a personal level, considering the man himself is this weird collection of things. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, was involved in a few Andy Warhol movies. His childhood was split between a rooming house in a not-so-great neighborhood in ’70s L.A., a stint with his minister grandfather in Kansas, another stint with his grandfather Al Hansen, who was, as it turns out, a collage artist and member of the Fluxus movement. (It’s not hard to conceive of how Beck might’ve soaked up some of Fluxus’ characteristics — which people term “anti-art” and “neodadaism” sometimes — and incorporated it into his own work later.) By his teens he was back in L.A., drawn to country and blues guitar as much as hip hop, soaking up the Latin music in his neighborhood, too. It makes sense that the Beck that would emerge would be an artist that seemed equally adept at channeling a seemingly endless series of characteristics. He grew up exposed to everything, consuming everything, building up a frame of reference dense enough to lead to the music we now know.
With most artists we write about in this feature, there might be two or three albums vying for top honors. The thing about Beck is that something like half (or maybe even more) of his albums could arguably be considered his best. He’s adopted so many vibes and sounds, and different listeners find their ways to different versions of his music that speak to them. There are those that try reclaim Midnite Vultures from history as Beck’s masterpiece, others who prefer the grandiosity and gravity of Sea Change’s emotive weight, and probably even those who would ride for One Foot In The Grave as the man’s finest work. Fair warning: I lean, easily, in favor of Serious Beck. I like his more straight-faced or dramatic works more than I like the hijinks and irony of some of his other stuff. That being said, there’s no question that this is one of the richest, most varied and rewarding discographies of the last two decades. What follows is a countdown of the whole thing. Quick note: we decided Guerolito, a collection of remixes and odds and ends, and Song Reader, where a bunch of other musicians play songs Beck wrote, didn’t qualify for this list.
Start the Countdown here.