Beck Albums From Worst To Best
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.
Golden Feelings (1993)
Golden Feelings is likely the most forgotten and least-known Beck record. Originally, it was a very limited cassette-only release in 1993; the label, Sonic Enemy re-issued it on CD in 1999, which Beck didn't like so that wound up being a really limited pressing, too. Like most of Beck's earliest releases, Golden Feelings comes off like a sloppy, distorted sketchbook of ideas and sounds that Beck would play with in a fuller way later on. (As it turns out, versions of "No Money No Honey" and "Mutherfukka," which would later show up on Sterepathetic Soulmanure andMellow Gold respectively with the latter rechristened "Mutherfuker," first appeared here.) For the moment, on these early albums, Beck had yet to shake the anti-folk approach he'd picked up during his brief stint in NYC. The material on Golden Feelings is sludgy, ugly, with Beck's voice often sounding like some weird low-pitched troll thing. The whole thing's in line with the performative, whacked-out nature of Beck's early career, and if that's your thing maybe Golden Feelings has some merit beyond being an odd, early glimpse at Beck that helps flesh out the narrative of his career. I'd be willing to guess, though, that for many Beck fans Golden Feelings never really rises up beyond being a piece of Beck career minutiae.
Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994)
Many of the things that could be said about Golden Feelings could also be said about Stereopathetic Soulmanure, the album Beck released via the label Flipside just a week before Geffen was set to release Mellow Gold in 1994. Comprised of lo-fi recordings and live performances scattered from 1988-1993, Stereopathetic feels like damage control from an artist who wasn't all that into the attention he was already receiving due to the success of "Loser." Like, "Hey, here's all this weird shit I'm actually about." Overall, it's a bit more listenable than Golden Feelings. Hidden in the shambolic mess of it all are a few straightforward country/folk songs that aren't too dissimilar from music Beck would write later. (One lingering distinction for Stereopathetic is that it has the song "Rowboat," which Johnny Cash would cover on Unchained, the second album in his career-renaissance American Recordings series.) Still, that relative listenability doesn't save Stereopathetic Soulmanure from being easily less engaging (and, at times, a great deal more annoying) than all the other remaining Beck albums, and it's mostly useful as a curiosity, a portrait spanning five years that sums up an early phase of Beck's career that some fans might not be totally aware of.
One Foot In The Grave (1994)
In the midst the success of "Loser" and the consequent, fervent major label competition to sign Beck in late 1993, he decamped to Olympia, Washington to work on music that would becomeOne Foot In The Grave. Like the release of Stereopathetic Soulmanure near Mellow Gold, there are elements of One Foot In The Grave that expose Beck's discomfort with pop success and his attempt to retain some bit of his lo-fi, indie roots. Or, if you have a more cynical view of '90s alt-rock icons and their relationship to mainstream stardom, One Foot is another of the '93/'94 releases that could scan as Beck's last round of bids to shore up his indie credibility before signing to the majors. (Not that anyone expected Mellow Gold as an album to become a sensation, or Odelay to follow that, but either way he was still taking a massive step further away from his more outsider beginnings.) A not insignificant fact: One Foot In The Grave was a collaboration with Calvin Johnson, an indie icon for fronting Beat Happening and founding K Records, which would release One Foot in mid-1994. There's a big difference with One Foot In The Grave, though. Where releasing something like Stereopathetic Soulmanure seemed like a self-conscious emptying of the vault, an attempt to short-circuit his own rising stardom with a bunch of sludgy demos, One Foot In The Grave is actually a very worthwhile entry into the Beck canon. This is one where people might make the contrarian argument that it's Beck's finest, and they might not seem too crazy. It's not radically disassociated from some of what Beck had put out there before -- a series of grainy, static-y blues and folk, just more focused stylistically and (comparatively) clearer sonically. But unlike with Golden Feelings and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, the songs aren't obscured by the type of (lack of) production that starts to come off as obnoxious. One Foot In The Grave is a strong record, lurking there as a pleasant surprise once you've dug past the obvious Beck entry points. This is where, already, we get into the territory where an album this good being ranked this low is a testament to the consistent heights of Beck's career.
Mellow Gold (1994)
What's weird about the fact that Beck has so many albums that could be argued to be his best is that he also has a handful of iconic ones that represent very dissimilar points in his career in terms of style, persona, and quality; out of any of them, Mellow Gold might be the most iconic of a specific era and the one that feels most distant from where his career would progress. Even if it has sounds of most of what would follow, the fact that "Loser" blew up like it did, and that Beck became associated with symbols of the '90s slacker imagery and ironic mindset, makes it feel like a relic of a particular era and a particular version of Beck that didn't ever quite exist again to this extent. Your allegiance to Mellow Gold probably varies on to what degree you prefer your Beck sardonic, scuzzy, and still sorta lo-fi. To that end, there are two things that weaken Mellow Gold as time passes. The first is that parts of this just haven't really aged well. It feels like that document of a specific time, but not necessarily the type that still feels very vital when you listen to it today. That feeds into the second hindrance: while Beck's aesthetic and lyrical hijinks flowered here and established what he was all about, the songs aren't always on the same level as say, the material that traversed similar territory on an album like Odelay. No question, "Loser" is a '90s classic and there's the gorgeous "Blackhole" or the weird charms of "Beercan," but a lot of the mucky, snarky experimentalism of Beck's earliest work is still present here. There are plenty of Beck fans for whom Mellow Gold is the start of it all, one of the man's classics -- and, yes, it's an important step in his career, but more and more I can't help but hear it as more of a transitional record between those early Beck days and the heights that he'd reach in subsequent years.
The Information (2006)
There are three Beck albums that sum up everything he is generally about in one package: Odelay, Guero, and The Information. Meaning, these are the expansive ones, the albums that hold some facet of pretty much every Beck characteristic, at least musically and in some ways tonally. These are the records where irony and earnestness sit alongside each other, in songs ranging from blues-folk to psychedelia to alt-rock to rap to stuff that amalgamates a bit of all of it at once. In terms of Guero and The Information, the relationship makes sense. When The Information was released in 2006, it seemed like a rapid-fire follow-up to 2005's Guero, when in reality the sessions for the two were interspersed between each other, with The Informationbeing a project that dated back to Beck's 2003 sessions with Nigel Godrich and continued between the two in annual meetings.
As an album in the grand scheme of Beck's career, a similar thing could be said for The Information as it could be for One Foot In The Grave: in a different discography, this would likely rank a little higher, but when pitted against Beck's other, more famous albums, The Information's standing suffers. In fact, I feel like this album's always kind of received a bad rap from fans and critics, despite garnering generally strong reviews, for reasons I don't entirely understand. Meaning, it often feels like this is the album people care about least about out of any of the albums Beck has released since he got really famous. Part of this seems rooted in that relationship between this album and Guero and Odelay: after years of surprising left turns, Beck offered up two albums in a row that actually sounded like the idea of Beck people had in their heads. It could start to feel like repetition, I guess. Thing is, The Information has some of what I'd argue are Beck's most quietly enduring songs -- these aren't necessarily the big famous ones off Odelay or Guero, but they're often more rewarding than they're given credit for. The Beggars Banquet-vibes of "Strange Apparition" and the melancholic psychedelia of "Soldier Jane" (and, in a more stoned form, "New Round") are all highlights, and wound up prefiguring 2008's very '60s-indebted Modern Guilt. "Think I'm In Love" is one of Beck's best straight-up pop (or love) songs. Meanwhile, "Cellphone's Dead" has no business working as well as it does, constantly switching between that spaced-out, percussive refrain section and synth-bass robo-funk verses in a way that's far cleaner and less nasty than a similar mash-up would've been executed on, say, Mellow Gold. Aside from the fact that it perhaps didn't linger as strongly as Beck's other records because it was, at that point, far less of a surprise, one of the only problems with The Information is that it's overlong and becomes uneven in its latter third. (Closing the album with "Movie Theme" instead of the pointless and tedious "The Horrible Fanfare" might've done wonders for its flow alone.) Personally, I'd take The Information over a few of the albums that follow on this list, but the fact remains that the album occupies a lower stature -- if in greatness/importance rather than quality -- amongst most of Beck's output.
Morning Phase (2014)
Before it arrived in February of last year, Morning Phase already came with a hefty story. Positioned as a sequel or sister album to Sea Change, Morning Phase was the first Beck album since Sea Change's 2002 release to take the same angle: A serious, introspective work of a predominantly acoustic nature, and with some of the same personnel as its predecessor. It was also the first Beck album since 2008's Modern Guilt, by far his biggest gap in a career that was very prolific up until 2008, so it landed high on anticipated albums lists like ours at the end of 2013. Despite widespread strong reviews, this baggage seemed to divide people. There appeared to be those for whom this narrative was perfect, those who loved the style and callback toSea Change. Others thought Morning Phase was a bit boring, and maybe even a bit cheap -- Beck cashing in on the power of this singular entry in his catalog to imbue this new release with an unearned sense of gravity. I'll admit, I was initially in the latter camp. As the year wore on, Beck's album didn't seem to make that much of an impact; it didn't take hold of 2014 the way Sun Kil Moon's Benji, the War On Drugs' Lost In The Dream, or Run The Jewels' second outing did. It popped up in respectful positions on some end of year lists, was completely absent on others, and inexplicably topped Mojo's. (Even Beck's own tweet thanking them seemed halfway shocked.) So, one would imagine, that's part of why Beck's Grammy win for Morning Phasesparked the kind of conversation and back and forth it did -- even for those critics who were longtime Beck fans, this was probably more of a minor Beck work that wound up beating a Beyonce album many saw as the obvious winner.
Even with my being pretty ambivalent about Beyonce, I'm not sure Morning Phase deserved an Album Of The Year Grammy, but I do have to say that the album has proven itself a far stronger, more gripping entry into Beck's catalog than I initially thought last year. One thing that actually bothers me about Beck from time to time is how all over the place his albums are; I know it seems bizarre to complain about that when we're talking about an artist who's known and celebrated for his gleeful collision of genres, but for me that also often results in albums being uneven quality-wise. I appreciate the Beck offerings like Morning Phase, that stick to one thing and do it exceedingly well. "Blue Moon," which first hit me as a very good single, has sneakily become one of my favorite Beck songs. "Waking Light" was always a stunning closer. Other gems have now sold me on Morning Phase's strength -- the droning sadness of "Wave," the Simon & Garfunkel-esque "Turn Away," the chime and coo of "Morning." Maybe Beck is aging out into more of a traditionalist, but, honestly, it's a really good look for him right now. I'm not sure I want to hear what a mid-40s Beck's version of Odelay or even Guero would sound like. Morning Phase arrived well after the surprise that Beck could be mature and introspective, but the album turned out to be a surprisingly persistent entity itself. I have a feeling its stock might continue to rise in Beck's catalog, and hopefully it's a signal of a renewed period of creativity in Beck's career after that six year absence.
Midnite Vultures (1999)
Beck doing libido is funny, so much so that, apparently, a lot of people have often thought of Midnite Vultures as a complete spoof record. On some level, as much as Beck was always playing with genres and reclaiming strange styles, Midnite Vultures was probably an instance where he was a bit ahead of his time -- dance music of any type, especially sleazy disco and funk, was pretty foreign to the indie scene in the late '90s, before that whole dancepunk business in the early '00s and the general "anything goes" attitude of the latter '00s and '10s. Not thatMidnite Vultures was a disastrous release, by any means. It didn't reach quite the level of Odelay's success, but it was still very well-reviewed and earned a Grammy nomination for Album Of The Year. Collectively, all this filtered into Midnite Vultures becoming something of a dark horse candidate when it came to arguments about which album is Beck's absolute masterpiece. After a time, though, that dark horse argument became so commonplace that these days, I'd argue, we might overestimate Midnite Vultures' standing in comparison to Beck's other work. (This could very well be influenced by the particular critics I pay attention to on Twitter, but at any rate.)
The issues with Midnite Vultures is that some of the songs are just sort of grating, and those songs (I'm thinking about "Mixed Bizness," "Get Real Paid," and "Hollywood Freaks") do sort of come off as jokes at the expense of legitimate genres. A previous working title for the album, after all, was I Can Smell The V.D. In The Club Tonight. (On second thought, I kinda wish the album had been called that.) As a result, this is one of the few Beck albums where I actually prefer the latter half to the first half. After starting strong with "Sexx Laws" and "Nicotine & Gravy," "Peaches & Cream" is where I get back on board for real with Midnite Vultures. Admittedly, that's the part of the album where slightly more traditional Beck songs ("Broken Train," "Beautiful Way") sit comfortably alongside undeniable stuff like "Milk & Honey." Or maybe that's where you get to the point where you just know "Debra" is on its way. Despite "Debra" reportedly being inspired by Prince and Young Americans-era Bowie, it's always reminded me of one of those falsetto-driven funk and/or disco Rolling Stones songs (as in "Miss You" or "Emotional Rescue"), and the genre of bands doing their one "falsetto Stones song" is a personal favorite of mine. (See also: Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On.") "Debra" is one of the all-time great Beck songs. I'm still not sold on the idea that Midnite Vultures is the all-time great Beck album, but I think it's fair enough to say it belongs in the conversation. There's a gonzo achievement to the record, which stands out perhaps the most in a catalog where, to some extent, every record stands out.
Before Morning Phase came around, it was easy to look at Mutations and Sea Change as something of companion albums. They were the two Nigel Godrich collaborations, the two acoustic-based, more somber singer-songwriter works. Mutations falls in a strange intersection of Beck's career. It was recorded in two weeks and initially intended for release on an the indie label Bong Load Records, until his label Geffen interfered, then decided it wasn't a smart commercial move to bill this as the "official" follow-up to Odelay, and proceeded to give Mutations some strange, quiet release. Whatever, the fact remains that Mutations came next after Odelay, won a Grammy, and wound up as one of the best albums Beck has yet to release.
Mutations is another one of the Beck albums that it's not uncommon to hear referred to as his best. It also came around during what might be the man's creative, most unpredictable peak: the shared ethos of Odelay and Guero bracketing an almost ten year period in which there'd be the series of left turns of Mutations into Midnite Vultures into Sea Change. But where on the surface it'd be kind of easy to lump Mutations and Sea Change in together because they both have a lot of acoustic guitars and were both produced by Godrich, that does a disservice to how different all these works were from another. Mutations, in some ways, actually echoes the folk, blues, and country elements that were lost in the gross mess of Golden Feelings andStereopathetic Soulmanure, or that appeared in a much lower-fi form on One Foot In The Grave. In a weird way, Mutations was a surprising left turn from the styles favored on the blockbuster Odelay, but it was a left turn that did have roots in where Beck had been before. The difference, this time around, was that the folk was, uh, actually produced and generally maintained a vaguely psychedelic character. It's all a far cry from the heavy despair and orchestration of Sea Change. You can hear this was an album cranked out, by a band, in two weeks. And you can hear that, while this could arguably be the first totally cohesive "Serious Beck" record since his ascension, there's still a lot of wit and smirk to Mutations compared to Sea Change or Morning Phase. What's telling about returning to something like Mutations a year after Morning Phase, though, is that while the "Beck sound" would be attributed to Odelay and the albums in its vein, it's these strands of folk and country that have been the most persistent in the man's career. Mutations was the first time he really let this stuff out into the light, and the fried, wry collection that resulted remains a career highlight.
For a long time, Guero was actually my favorite Beck album. Some days, it still is, and probably for the same reasons that others don't give it as much credit. Since it was Beck's first return toOdelay's general aesthetic in nine years, Guero was the album to establish what the recurring "Beck sound" would be (even though it's really only recurred, across the board, once more onThe Information). People love it for that reason. Hearing mid-30s Beck hop from sound to sound between songs, now with a sharpened craft and a bit more of a settled down mentality, is an interesting and sort of unexpected update on the sound that made him a major star. The flipside of that is that all those factors are also what, in many people's eyes, diminish Guero to some extent. Most conversations about Beck skew positive on the topic of Guero, but it's always followed by qualifiers. It's not as surprising and bizarre and giddy as Odelay. And even if someone might yield that Guero shouldn't be, considering it was made by a man ten years older than the one who made Odelay, this is what tends to keep Guero from really contending for the #1 spot in Beck's catalog. Guero plays with different sounds and moods, but usually from song to song; Odelay crashed all sorts of different stuff together within single songs, making the whole thing seem more invigorating and unique to Guero's slightly mellowed, calmer approach to the whole thing.
Guero is where my contrarian taste with regards to Beck's catalog really comes into play: personally, I prefer it to Odelay. Again, I realize it's weird to complain about an element of Beck's music that is pretty much his trademark, but while I appreciate the sheer sonic lunacy of Odelay, these days some of those songs just haven't aged well to me, whereas Guero is a dark horse candidate for the most consistent Beck record, song for song. There's the obvious heavy hitters, from the massive groove of opener "E-Pro," to gratifyingly straight-up pop of "Girl," to the simmering churn of "Black Tambourine." But the latter half of Guero goes dustier and occasionally moodier, and that's where the fact that Beck made this one in his 30s really shows. It doesn't sound amused and smirking in the way of the man's '90s stuff. The run of "Broken Drum" to "Scarecrow" to "Go It Alone" to "Farewell Ride" to "Rental Car" is some frayed, bleary 21st century road music. Guero is still an expansive listen, but there's something to be said for the control and direction that came with a more mature -- and, presumably, happier, as he was about to get married and become a father -- Beck. Sometimes I think Guero is the closest we have to a complete and total distillation of Beck as a musician, even more so than Odelay. Maybe I could attribute that partially to its current midway-point status in Beck's career, or to the fact that it's autobiographical name is a reference to the Spanish slang term applied to Beck during his youth in Los Angeles. Whatever the case, I'll always hold a special appreciation for Guero, the album where Beck's far-reaching tendencies and a streamlining impulse meet somewhere in the middle, resulting in an album that's simply full of great songs allowed to exist as they are.
Modern Guilt (2008)
In the six year span of 2002 to 2008, Beck gave us a ton of great music, starting with Sea Change, running through Guero and The Information, and then ending with Modern Guilt, which marked the last official Beck release before that long stretch leading to Morning Phase. This was a period in my life where I wasn't listening to or thinking about Beck a ton, but even with that context I was disappointed Beck went quiet for so long, because Modern Guilt might be one of my favorite albums of the latter '00s. Combined with Morning Phase, Modern Guilt might start to suggest that Beck is aging into a more conventional rock musician, but even if that's the case, I'm not sure I can really muster a complaint. As much as the man's genre fluctuations have been a crucial part of his identity and have often resulted in fascinating contrasts (you know, like, Sea Change following Midnite Vultures), it turns out he's also just exceedingly great at going a bit more straightforward. Again: there's a certain strength in the Beck records that might come off as smaller, the ones where he hones in on a specific sound and mood and chases that intently over the course of a record.
Modern Guilt might be the shortest, most intense burst of this kind in Beck's career. Where most of his albums are long, sprawling, all-encompassing listening experiences, Modern Guilt is brisk, running just over a half hour. And it sticks to this '60s-indebted psychedelia angle pretty strongly, even though a few entries (mostly "Youthless" and "Replica") could've fit on other Beck records. Otherwise, despite there being plenty of psychedelic elements to Beck's work in general and scattered '60s-ish songs along the way, Modern Guilt is more or less a total outlier in Beck's career. The beautiful "Chemtrails" is the longest song at a little under five minutes. Most of the rest of the album is comprised of quick endorphin bursts, songs that get in and out in three and a half minutes or less, and are always infectious enough to leave you wanting more. (More so than the clear sonic markers in songs like "Gamma Ray" or the title track, Modern Guilt's '60s debt might have more to do with its penchant for economy mixed with warped pop values, with "Walls" and "Orphans" and "Soul Of A Man" doing right by mid- and late-'60s psych rock and pop.) Given that Beck has albums twice as long as this that cover tons of ground, it's easy to underrate Modern Guilt as being a somehow slighter, less crucial offering from him. Maybe that's true on some level; it certainly doesn't have the kind of magnitude to it that you'd expect from an album that lead to a six year gap between releases. Outside of all that, though, this is simply Beck's sharpest collection of songs. If I'm going to casually throw on a Beck album, chances are it's Modern Guilt, and it's still as much of a purely enjoyable, engaging listen as it was six years ago.
In a few places in this list, I've made reference to not being as much of a fan of Odelay as most people who care about Beck. Don't get me wrong, there's stuff on here that I love. I somehow still hear "The New Pollution" in public often, and that never gets old. "Jack-Ass," built on that mesmerizing sample of Them's version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," might be my single favorite Beck song. Outside of the music I like or don't like from this album, though, I recognize the achievement of it. Against most expectations, Odelay wound up being a bit hit of an album. Beck might've found some surprise success earlier with "Loser," but there's a different part of the story that could've played out with Beck as an early '90s curiosity, the one hit wonder he was in danger of becoming after "Loser." Odelay solidified his ground and then some, establishing him as an exhilarating young alternative artist, and laying the groundwork for his current hallowed position in the indie world.
Here's the other thing about Odelay, though: in my mind, it's the album that says Beck is important, not just a great artist. If you were to take a bunch of his albums released since, you could actually find a pretty traditionalist rock musician hiding all along the way. (I'm talking about Mutations, Sea Change, Modern Guilt, and Morning Phase.) But that Beck sound -- it's one of harnessed cacophony and heavy sample usage and a total disregard for borders between genres. It's the sound that make people use the word "collage" a lot when talking about him. There were the beginnings of that on Mellow Gold, for sure, but that album was still a bit too grimy to really show the extent of what he could do with this. Working with the Dust Brothers on Odelay, Beck blew open everything. It's sort of pointless and reductive to try to parse everything that's held inside Odelay, as far as sounds and styles go. Its samples and rhythms blend together into something totally of its own breed. Given, rap music had been making similar use of the same technique for a long time by 1996. But Beck's playfulness, performativity, and free-for-all attitude towards music history made him an outlier as an indie/alternative artist in either a world defined by Alt Nation or a world defined by '90s indie acts like Pavement. If you look at what's been going on for the last few years, this is what a lot of the (for lack of a better term, in 2015) indie world looks like. Everyone's quoting whichever sounds they want, everyone's making pop records, everyone's collaging and colliding and forgetting that their even used to be a strictly codified indie sound or ethos. Beck feels like a slightly different generation of it to me. Like M.I.A. in the early '00s, he's an artist where the striking quality of his music has to do with genres being mixed together cleanly, but in ways where you can still be aware of the borders and how much they've been dismissed, vs. a contemporary indie scene where terms like indie and pop have been rendered ineffectual precisely because those borders are so often inaudible now. To me, that's what's so special and enduring about Odelay. Beck was an early adopter of this mentality in the alternative scene. He took whatever sound that interested him, and from this weird, scattered collection, he built his own trademark identity.
Sea Change (2002)
Sometimes, an artist's greatest work just turns out to be the one that is entirely unique and detached from the rest of their body of work. Given, now that Sea Change has a sister album inMorning Phase, it might seem to not be as much of a total standalone peak in Beck's career. But still. It is. In the context of its 2002 release, this was a different level than anything else Beck had worked on. Sure, Mutations had been the somber singer-songwriter album, and sure, there was the occasional blur between serious and jocular Beck in the past, but Sea Change still felt like this other animal entirely. Inspired by the dissolution of a nine year relationship, it's one of the great breakup albums of all time. People compare it to Blood On The Tracks, and that's some heavy stuff. Personally, its temperament has always reminded me a little of Blur's 13. This is an album of massive, overwhelming emotion, comprised of acoustic songs like "Paper Tiger" and "Lonesome Tears" that feel like epic catalogs of grief and isolation, their string arrangements and choruses peeling open in a way that makes the idea of lost love feel all-important. And, I guess, on some level it is.
The story with Sea Change is that it's peak earnestness for Beck. It's easily his most nakedly emotional album. Some criticize it, though, claiming that its grasp for emotional profundity is too much of a grasp, that its extensive orchestration drowns out the honesty. This is part of what makes this album so special though. Contrary to what the lyrics or mood of Sea Change might suggest, Beck's performativity is still at play here. It's still there in just how extensive that orchestration is, just how over the top sad that chorus to "Lonesome Tears" is. I believe that Beck really suffered as a result of this breakup and that these are very honest songs. But knowing how he works as an artist, I also feel like there must be, whether subconscious or conscious, some understanding on his part of what a "breakup" album is supposed to sound like. This is his interpretation and performance of that concept the same he's done with all his other variations throughout his career. There are a few understated songs here, but the part of Sea Change that envelops you and stays with you is the sheer size of most of these songs. Beck's still subverting conventions: taking the form that's supposed to be the most quiet and introspective, committing to that, but then blowing out that ethos into the music that remains his grandest.
Beck didn't want to record these songs at one point, not wanting to catalog his own personal relationship trials. Later, he realized the universality of it. This is the brilliance of Sea Changerelative to the other albums in Beck's career. There's a universality to Odelay and Guero and all his other various permutations. There's the universality of how we consume art and culture, taking little bits and pieces out of the atmosphere and incorporating them into ourselves in some way. Beck tapped into that, he tapped into quirky human experience and perception and taste and how that all plays together in a big cultural sense. The paradox of Beck's career is how he built his career on each work being unique, surprising, theoretically standing alone in a catalog where that doesn't distinguish you, and yet the impact of these records is inextricably reliant on the existence of the others. More and more, Beck's career looks like a tapestry, a collage of its own built out of all the little mini collages he's crafted over the years. Sea Change will always occupy a crucial position in all of that. Its universality is a different version than all the rest of that: it's the universality of a specific moment of human emotion, played out on a large enough scale as to make a movie out of our lives for all of us. It's the beating, desperate heart at the core of the big, crazy mess of Beck's career.