Beck recently celebrated his 42nd birthday. It’s hard to believe it has been almost two decades since “Loser” defined a generation of disaffected 20-somethings and catapulted Beck into the national spotlight. In 1994 he put out Mellow Gold and two other full-length albums, and since his breakout year he’s released seven additional LPs, all with their own unique flavor, but all unmistakably Beck.
Below we’ve compiled our list of his 20 best songs. With each song we’ve included a portion of the lyrics—lines which couldn’t have come from anywhere else but the mind of Beck.
20. “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”
Mellow Gold was recorded before Beck had found a national audience, and most of the album lacks the catchiness of Beck’s subsequent releases. But “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997” is a haunting lament of a life lacking hope.
I was born in this hotel,
Washing dishes in the sink.
Magazines and free soda,
Trying hard not to think.
The leadoff track of 2005’s Guero features one of Beck’s heaviest riffs, which alternates with lilting verses of classic Beck-ian lyrics.
Heaven’s drunk from the poison you use.
Charm the wolves with the eyes of a gambler.
Now I see it’s a comfort to you.
Hammer my bones on the anvil of daylight.
18. “Bottle of Blues”
Off 1998’s Mutations, “Bottle of Blues” is a woozy, matter-of-fact take on never finding a way to escape misfortune.
Holding hands with an impotent dream.
In a brothel of fake energy.
Put a nickel in the graveyard machine.
I get higher and lower,
I get higher and lower
Like a tired soldier
With nothing to shoot
And nowhere to lose
This bottle of blues.
Driven by a deliciously thick bassline, “Nausea” stands out as a relatively traditional song on Beck’s most digitally pixelated album, 2006’s The Information.
Now I’m a straight-line walker
In a black-out room,
I push a shopping cart over
In an Aztec ruin.
Featuring abrupt changes of pace, a dizzying array of effects and plenty of Beck’s freely associative rapping, “Hotwax” is a great example of the sonic diversity of Odelay condensed into a single song.
Sawdust songs of the plaid bartenders,
Western Unions of the country westerns,
Silver foxes looking for romance
In the chain-smoke
Kansas flash dance ass pants.
15. “Gamma Ray”
The standout track from Beck’s most recent release, 2008’s Modern Guilt, “Gamma Ray’s” mention of the “ice caps melting down” is about as topical as Beck is going to get.
She’s got a cactus crown
With a dot dot dot on her brow,
And she speaks inside a cloud
With her countenance turning around.
14. “The Golden Age”
This blasé ballad sets the tone for 2002’s Sea Change with slide guitar and a tender, chiming keyboard line.
Let the desert wind
Cool your aching head,
Let the weight of the world
Drift away instead.
The most light-hearted song on an otherwise dark album, “Beercan” also boasts one of Beck’s most underrated videos.
I quit my job blowing leaves,
Telephone bills up my sleeves.
Choking like a one man dustbowl,
Freedom rock slime ball
Talking in code.
We went down,
Lit up the shack,
Grab me a beer out of the sack.
12. “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)”
Like “Loser,” Mellow Gold’s “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” captures the spirit of Gen-X-ers looking for a reason to care.
Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing.
There’s shopping malls
Coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure.
11. “The New Pollution”
Another great example of Beck’s masterful use of effects and seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyricism on Odelay.
She’s got cigarette on each arm
She’s got the lily-white cavity crazes
She’s got a carburetor tied to the moon
Pink eyes looking to the food of the ages