May 30, 2012
Welcome to Ranked, our new series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all their official studio albums from best to worst. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Austin Trunick ranks Beck.
Like a latter-age David Bowie, Beck Hansen has built a long, successful music career largely because he's (rarely) recorded the same album more than once. A genre chameleon capable of swapping hats multiple times on a single record, half the thrill of being a Beck fan is in the surprises he'll throw our way with each track he releases.
With a new Beck album rumored to be just over the horizon, it's anyone's guess at this point just what direction he'll choose to take it. We've ranked Beck's 10 major studio releases below, from most essential to least, with an explanation of our placement following each entry.
[Note: We're skipping over long-unavailable records such as Golden Feelings or A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight, and unreleased (yet leaked) tapes such as Banjo Story, Fresh Meat + Old Slabs, Don't Get Bent Out of Shape, and Beck, Like the Beer, as well as any of the Beck.com exclusive material. Perhaps a guide to Beck rarities is called for in the future?]
Words by Austin Trunick
The closest Beck’s come to a perfect record. It’s Beck’s best-curated collection of songs, touching on each of his various musical modes and at different points showing influences of hip-hop (“Where It’s At,” “Hotwax,” “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)”), country music (“Jack-Ass,” “Lord Only Knows,” “Sissyneck”), garage rock (“Minus,” “Devil’s Haircut”), and trippy psych-folk (“Derelict,” “Ramshackle”). The results play like a great party mix. It’s also helped by producers The Dust Brothers crafting a sample-heavy backing that’s some of their best work, second only to what they did on The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. You’ll find little to complain about on Odelay: it’s not only Beck’s best record, but one of the best albums of the 1990s.
After the partying, funkateer vibe of 1999’s Midnite Vultures, the last thing many fans expected Beck to do was follow it up with the most downbeat, introspective album of his career. Frequently regarded as Beck’s other masterpiece, Beck turned a breakup with a longtime girlfriend into a set of raw, heartbreaking songs. You can feel the twinges of pain and guilt in tracks such as “Lost Cause,” “Lonesome Tears,” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine.” Far and away his most emotional work, the songs on Sea Change are accompanied by lush string arrangements, without ever becoming overindulgent; “Paper Tiger” finally allows Beck to give in to his obsession with Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire du Melody Nelson. If anyone still held any notion that Beck was still just the slacker kid who sang “Loser,” this is the album that blew apart that assessment. This is grown-up Beck at his most serious; even his voice seems here to have dropped an octave over the turn of the millennium.
Mutations wound up being Beck’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Odelay, even though he never intended for it to be. Dropping all of the samples and drum machines in favor of a live band and a warm, cozy production from Nigel Godrich, Beck’s country and folk influences take center stage. The lyrics, still packed with wacked-out, surreal imagery, are more pointed than ever; for the first time we have an album where most of the songs seem to have a clear interpretation. Underneath all of his bizarre lyrical images are some genuinely sad pieces of music, in particular the bitter “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and the world-weary “We Live Again.” The peppy bossa nova tune “Tropicalia” feels weirdly out-of-place amongst the more subdued numbers, but it’s also one of the record’s most-loved songs. Although it probably turned off a lot of listeners expecting a return to the hip-hop-influenced sounds on Mellow Gold and Odelay, it was many fans’ first exposure to Beck’s softer side and netted him his second Grammy for Best Alternative Album.
As if fearing the risk of being taken too seriously after Mutations, Beck turned right around and put out this silly party record just one year later. Inspired by—among other things, of course—Prince, and David Bowie’s Young Americans soul-funk era, Midnite Vultures is over-the-top and hyper-sexualized, well beyond the point of parody. (I Can Smell The V.D. in the Club Tonight was at one point a working title for the record, if that gives any additional indication.) The music video for “Sexx Laws” featured kitchen appliances getting it on with each other, “Mixed Bizness” threatens to “make all the lesbians scream,” and its famous closer, “Debra,” is a nearly six-minute falsetto-pitched come-on to Jenny, a JC Penny’s employee, and her sister. If you’re looking to throw on a Beck album and just have a good time, Midnite Vultures won’t do you wrong.
Mellow Gold is more or less where it all began. “Loser” will be the song that forever defines Beck’s career, having been his first (and only) hit single. Vaulting him to the top of the charts and positioning him as a poster boy for the Generation X slacker crowd, it’s still the first song many people will associate with Beck and the only one in his oeuvre that’ll ever be a staple at karaoke bars. Stylistically, the album is all over the place. “Beercan” and “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” follow in the hip-hop collage aesthetic; “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997” are downbeat folk songs. “Steal My Body Home” is a droning, trippy piece of psych. “Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)” manages to swap genres several times in under four minutes, bouncing between rowdy country-rock, roadhouse blues and sugary-sweet popsike. While all of the above-named records work almost wholly without any excess fat, this is the point in the rankings where albums will start to include a few dud tracks. “Mutherfucker” is an unnecessarily paranoid bit of heavy noise and “Nitemare Hippy Girl” contains some of Beck’s weaker lyrics amongst his folk-inclined output.
One Foot in the Grave
Beck released this album on Calvin Johnson’s K Records label several months into the “Loser” boom, having recorded it months before Mellow Gold at Johnson’s Dub Narcotic Studios. In addition to Johnson, who produced and lends his deadpan bass vocals to “I Get Lonesome” and “Atmospheric Conditions,” studio musicians also included Built to Spill’s Scott Plouf and Presidents of the United States of America’s Chris Ballew. It’s largely a set of folk numbers, save for “Ziplock Bag,” which comes as a harsh intrusion in the middle of a mostly laid-back record, with sweeps of distortion and vocal whines more in the vein of his experimental/noise recordings from the earliest parts of his career. The only other exception to the rule is “Cyanide Breath Mint,” an upbeat punk rock track. Despite some missteps, it’s still a classic Beck recording among fans, with “Asshole,” “Hollow Log,” and “Sleeping Bag” perhaps being the highlights. (The currently-available edition of One Foot in the Grave includes an additional 16 tracks recorded during the same sessions.)
Beck’s most recent album and easily his best since Sea Change. Teaming up with Danger Mouse to produce the record and featuring Cat Power as a guest vocalist, Beck moved away again from hip-hop beats and obscure samples to release this brief, moody rock record. The first half of the album, including all three or its singles (“Gamma Ray,” “Youthless,” and “Chemtrails”), make for a rather exhilarating opening, and perhaps even the strongest A-side to an album in Beck’s career. It’s unfortunate that there’s such a dropoff in the second half; only the heavy-shuffling “Soul of a Man” manages to stand its own against the record’s stellar first five tracks.
Recording began on The Information in 2003, but wasn’t finished until early 2006. In the meantime, Beck would record and release both Guero and its remixed sister, Guerolito. Beck and producer Nigel Godrich would meet over the years—balancing between other projects—to plug away at the songs that would eventually become this record; the result of this extended genesis is perhaps Beck’s only album without its own singular identity. The production, however, is outstanding, and some of the songs are really there. “Think I’m In Love” is Beck’s most honest pop song, and “Cellphone’s Dead” touches on a lot of the funky electronic elements that worked so well on Midnite Vultures and Odelay. “Dark Star” has a great trip-hop groove. It all feels a little less focused than his usual efforts, but there are still more hits than misses on The Information.
This was the first Beck record to not sound unlike anything the artist had put out before. Until this point, each album showed a new side of Beck; here he’s finally repeating himself. Guero almost seemed as if it were a conscious effort to return to the formula that made Odelay a hit; Beck even re-teams with producers The Dust Brothers to lay out a sample-heavy mix underneath his mix of hip-hop and rock. There are a few great tracks, including the hard-riffing “E-Pro” and the funky, deep-grooving “Black Tambourine.” It’s even hard not to love the cheesy Game Boy beeps that kick off “Girl.” However, Beck almost sounds as if he’s parodying himself while performing along with rapping robots in “Hell Yes.” The rest, sadly, is mostly dispensable. While Guero has gotten slightly better with time, it was the first record to underwhelm a lot of Beck fans on its arrival. Guerolito, a track-by-track remixed version of the album, hardly sounds like the same record, but doesn’t really improve on the songs.
Beck’s third album of 1994 was also his weakest. Despite collecting tracks that dated back to the singer’s teenage years, this odds-and-sods collection of home demos, live recordings, noise pieces, and joke-y spoken word tracks actually did have a few solid songs hidden on it. The manic floor-stomping and howling harmonica of “One Foot in the Grave” would find a regular home in Beck’s live set across pretty much his whole career. Songs such as “Ozzy” and “Satan Gave Me A Taco” would show Beck’s sillier side. The country-ish “Rowboat” went on to be recorded by Johnny Cash for his second American series album. Most of Stereopathetic Soulmanure, however, is just a hard listen; as fun as some of the spoken word pieces are (Beck’s voice is sped up enough to sound as if he’d sucked up a whole helium balloon), they become distracting after a few listens. The frequency of white noise and vacuum cleaner sounds doesn’t help much, either.