Few musicians have ever contained the multitudes of Beck. It’d be folly to even attempt describing what genre of music he plays, as Beck covers everything from folk-rap to electronic pop. Over the course of a dozen albums and three decades, the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer has constantly evolved with each release, making him one of the most unpredictable and compelling artists of our generation.
Beck’s last album Morning Phase was released three years ago, winning the Album of the Year Grammy, and the word is that a new album (some rumors even claim multiple albums) could be on the way. With the hope of more Beck music on the horizon for 2017, here are his first 12 albums ranked.
Even for a Beck fan, Golden Feelings can be a chore. Beck’s debut has all the raw materials that Beck will utilize throughout his career (nonsense phrases, bizarre samples, combining genres, etc.), but without the polish that makes these disparate, odd ideas work as one. Golden Feelings is a mishmash of half-assed ideas, a young Beck clearly still trying to figure out what will comprise his music identity. Throughout Golden Feelings, Beck’s vocals are distorted to the point that it often almost sounds like a constipated Tom Waits, and the lo-fi tones he attempts quickly grow irritating and tiresome. For an artist that would go on to create aural melting pots-worth of albums, Golden Feelings starts Beck’s canon with a fairly one-dimensional note. It’s a frustrating first album that only barely hints at future excellence.
Quite often Stereopathetic Soulmanure can be just as annoying as Golden Feelings (hell, just look at the album’s name), filled with awkward divergences and incomplete thoughts. But released just a week before Mellow Gold, Stereopathetic Soulmanure works as the missing link between the sloppy Beck of Golden Feelings and the more palatable Beck that would soon dominate airwaves. His second album features the first time we hear Beck combine country-folk with humor in a way that doesn’t feel awkward, creating a cohesion in Beck’s ideas. This combo is most notable on the album’s standout “Rowboat,” a track that Johnny Cash would eventually cover. Stereopathetic Soulmanure is filled with unflattering live cuts, but it’s hard not to find these moments of early Beck somewhat charming, as his audience laughs along as songs that may or may not be jokes. Before Mellow Gold made him a star, Stereopathetic Soulmanure is unfiltered Beck, one last album of craziness before the refined Beck we know and love makes its way to the surface.
Mellow Gold is a pivotal transfer from Beck’s screwball tinkering to intentional sharpening of his of myriad skills. It’s a landmark in that transition, but almost 25 years since its release, the record also comes off as a mere stepping stone towards what’s now considered classic Beck. In hindsight, it’s also easy to see how Mellow Gold could have potentially cemented Beck as a one-hit-wonder if he didn’t continue to evolve. “Loser” sets up for the form that Beck would become most well-known for, but it could have also turned him into a quirky one trick pony. Thankfully, Mellow Gold is bookended by Beck’s two strongest songs in his career thus far: the surprise alt-rock hit of “Loser” and the gorgeous meandering found in “Blackhole,” showing a depth heretofore unseen in his albums.
Recorded before the release of Mellow Gold, but released after the popularity of “Loser,” One Foot in the Grave is Beck’s first through-and-through excellent album. Like his first two records Golden Feelings and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, One Foot in the Grave is still Beck fooling around with sounds and tactics that would foreshadow his musical identity, but this one comes off far cleaner and more complete than any of his three previous records. This is the first time Beck’s folksy side shines. Tracks like the darker “I Get Lonesome,” proves he was more than just an aforementioned loser. At times, One Foot in the Grave also becomes the only Beck album that feels like it’s set in a certain era, as “Forcefield” is largely reminiscent of the era’s output from Pavement and Nirvana. With production, writing and occasional vocals by K Records founder Calvin Johnson, One Foot in The Grave feels more collaborative than any previous Beck album. Often forgotten in the afterglow of Mellow Gold, One Foot in the Grave is the first time Beck experiments without becoming annoying or feeling contrived, thereby creating his most underrated album.
While some would argue that Midnite Vultures is right up there with Beck’s finest albums—the Grammys even nominated it for Album of the Year in 2001—it sometimes seems like one extended funkified joke. Sure, Midnite Vultures can sometimes make that joke work, as in the overblown insanity of “Sexx Laws” or “Mixed Bizness,” but with a song like “Hollywood Freaks,” we get Beck’s biggest punchline swing-and-a-miss since Golden Feelings. Maybe the biggest problem with Midnite Vultures is that the mix of humor and wacky song craft isn’t as calibrated as previous efforts. Sometimes that blend comes together in excellent ways, such as near the end in “Milk & Honey” or the gloriously over-the-top “Debra,” almost as if Beck didn’t figure out the formula for this album until the album was almost done. If Guero is considered the follow up to Odelay, and Morning View is the continuation of Sea Change, it’s a shame that Beck has yet to release an album that feels like the spiritual successor to Midnight Vultures. Just a few slight adjustments to this experiment could actually be amongst Beck’s best.
When Morning Phase was released in 2014, it was touted as a companion piece to Sea Change, which is a tough reputation to uphold. Because of that and a surprising Album of the Year win over Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards, Morning Phase has almost had to validate its existence, immediately overrated but also underrated as simply a solid Beck album. The six year build up since Modern Guilt made this the longest fans had had to wait for a new Beck album, and even for Beck fans, Morning Phase wasn’t the most exciting release (let alone worthy of Album of the Year.) But take away all the anticipation and expectations, Morning Phase does occasionally live up to its predecessor, like in the slow-moving “Morning,” which sounds like a direct descendant to “The Golden Age,” or the bouncy beauty of “Heart Is a Drum.” Considering this is supposed to be in the same vein as Sea Change—an album so heartfelt, I have a hard time listening to it all the way through—Morning Phase just isn’t able to conduct the same power. Instead, Morning Phase is an expectedly gorgeous album that is hard to displace from its legacy.
Maybe the biggest problem with being known as an innovator is that big alterations are expected. Especially for an artist like Beck, who is known for his sudden changes in genre and techniques, this shift became the norm. Coming out only a year after Guero, The Information is the first album that was incredibly similar to its predecessor. Beck worked with Mutations and Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich on what would become The Information three years before its release. Because of that shared connection, The Information sounds like more of a lateral move, which gives the album less importance in the context of Beck’s career.
That’s not to say The Information doesn’t have its moments, though. The first half is loaded with fantastic pop songs that could’ve easily made their way onto Guero. But that last half does drag, sputtering to a conclusion with the 10-minute “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton.” The Information is by far one of Beck’s most overlooked albums, but it’s easy to see how that happened in a career filled with more bombastic tonal surprises.
Released close to his 40th birthday, Beck released his most conventional album in Modern Guilt, without the crazy lyrics or weird frills that went into most of his prior work. But what is most odd about Beck’s transformation into a more traditional rock musician is that like every genre he has tried, it works for him. Modern Guilt is what a grown up Beck sounds like, and honestly, it’s pretty great.
Danger Mouse, who stepped in to produce this record, lends his style—catchy melodies with strong beats—that worked wonders with Gnarls Barkley and The Black Keys. In particular, the trippy, clipping “Gamma Ray” moves quickly and the title track boasts a simple elegance, which highlights their collaboration. This would be Beck’s last album for six years, and although Modern Guilt is his shortest album at about 30 minutes-long, it’s packed with short-but-sweet straightforward rock songs.
After the success of Odelay, Beck’s label Geffen decided to release the follow-up Mutations rather quietly since he completely changed his sound between records. Mutations, a more acoustic work, marks the beginning of Beck’s career where he would try to subvert expectations. In particular here, the Brazilian-inspired “Tropicalia” and the hypnotizing sitar of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” mix up the sounds of this mostly acoustic affair.
Looking back at Beck’s career, there’s a through line through Beck’s discography, with each subsequent album in a way tweaking what he’s done in the past. While Mutations sounds similar to the successor to One Foot in the Grave, the mellow style Godrich production sets up listeners for Sea Change years later.
On a track-by-track basis, Guero is Beck’s most solid pop album. From the opening guitar blast of “E-Pro” to the clapping hands of, well, “Clap Hands,” Guero is packed to the gills with potential hits. In the three years since the crushing weight of Sea Change, Beck found love again and was on his way to becoming a father. Maybe it’s that overwhelming joy that makes Guero Beck’s most fun record. So, why rate Guero at number 3 instead of one? Simply because it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Sea Change or the aural inventiveness of Odelay — its closest relative in Beck’s catalogue. While some might call Guero an Odelay retread (just compare how similar the opening of “Devil’s Haircut” is to “E-Pro”), Guero represents Beck’s maturation as a no-frills pop artist.
With Odelay, Beck finally brought all the separate pieces that he had constructed together into one satisfying whole. Like I mentioned when discussing Mellow Gold, Beck could’ve easily been a one-hit surprise, a glitch of popular music. But instead, Odelay polished what Beck started with Mellow Gold and presented a master artist, a new voice that defied being classified into any easily established mold.
With the phenomenal production of The Dust Brothers, Beck cracked his musical style, turning all of his peccadilloes into an altogether new sound that was still constantly changing from song to song. Nowhere is that clearer than halfway through Odelay, where Beck goes from his most melancholy and possibly best song ever, “Jack-Ass,” into the kitchen-sink folk-rap of “Where It’s At.”
Even today, Odelay comes off like an inimitable artist at the peak of experimentation. But it’s also important to note just how weird it was two decades ago. For anyone listening to rock radio stations at the time, the songs from Odelay were the true definition of “alt rock” — unlike anything being played at the time. On a personal note, Odelay was the first album I ever heard that taught me music didn’t have to sound “normal,” a tome that opened my — and surely many others’ — tastes.
Throughout his career, Beck has created isolated worlds that are so foreign and insular, it’s sometimes hard to connect to his songs. In a musical landscape that includes drive-by body pierces hijacking into your equilibrium, it’s easy to see Beck’s music, as he’s put it, “a destination a little off the road from the habitations of the towns we know.”
Because of this, it can often appear as though Beck isn’t writing from a personal place. Occasionally, we do get glimpses of him, as in “Jack-Ass” or “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” which you could ascribe to the fact that they’re arranged without samples or other complex-Beck orchestrations. But after the dissolution of a nine-year relationship, Beck made Sea Change, an album that is distinctly different from the rest of his work. For the first time, Beck let us in to not just an imaginary world, but his world. He let us into his heartbreak, into his world-shattering pain.
With the emotionally and instrumentally stripped-down Sea Change, Beck made the quintessential breakup album of the 2000s, a Kubler-Ross model for living without love that seemed like it would always be there. There’s denial (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”), anger (“Lonesome Tears”), bargaining (“Lost Cause”), depression (“Already Dead”) and acceptance (“Little One”). Through Beck’s telling of love lost, he managed to create his rawest and most relatable material to date.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing at RossBonaime.com and follow him on Twitter.