It's no surprise I'd tackle my favorite solo artist next. Beck's album arc is stranger than most artists. He's our era's David Bowie in that respect. He's more prolific than most artists of the newer generation. Ten records out from 1994 to 2008 and that does not include some of the indie records and the slew of B-Sides and unreleased stuff. For our cause, We'll start with Stereopathetic Soul Manure.
Stereopathetic Soul Manure (1994) The first of three records in one year, Beck released Stereopathetic Soul Manure on Flipside Records before his debut came out on the major label on DGC. The album is a schizophrenic hodge-podge of all kinds of strange experiment, traditional tracks and other sound clips. It's definitely Beck's most peculiar album in the catalog, but it also contains some stellar samplings from Beck's early career. Songs like "Satan Gave Me A Taco" show Beck's troubadour/slacker story teller roots that would be paramount throughout Beck's early era. "Rowboat", a fantastic blues song, was covered by Johnny Cash at one point, shows also that Beck still has a firm foot in the blues. It's less of an album and more of brain droppings. I can't really recommend this outside of rabid Beck fandom.
Key Tracks: "Rowboat" "Crystal Clear (Beer)" "Satan Gave Me A Taco"
Mellow Gold (1994) Beck's first major label release is a time capsule of the 90's counterculture. Much like "My Generation" by our first band to get the Discography spot, "Loser" is an anthem of the 90's and one that is undeniable to the culture of the time. It's a lot harder now that Beck has become so prolific, but for the time many thought "look at this guy." and thought he would slip into obscurity. Luckily the album pointed to the future with tracks like "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)", a surprisingly stark look at the record industry, "Blackhole" which is an underrated sleeper on the record and "Soul Suckin' Jerk" which is a punk rock sloppy mess of a brilliant track. What Beck does best is take genre and sound and juxtapose them and Mellow Gold has plenty of gems worth playing some 15 years later into his career. The cool thing here is that the genre melting is so intense that it really just sounds like Beck. Mellow Gold isn't by far my favorite album, but it's a genuine classic and a must own.
Key Tracks: "Loser", "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)", "Soul Suckin' Jerk", "Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997", "Beercan", "Blackhole"
One Foot In The Grave (1994) Getting a very sleek and extended re-issue this past year is one of Beck's most underrated albums, One Foot In the Grave. It's a swampy, muddy blues album that has slapdash production but an honesty that is pure and wonderful. This record, released on K Records, was the second indie released album by Beck in the same year and is by far the more superior. The songs are rather short, but unlike Soulmanure, they are at least not fragments of songs but consistently good blues. The Skip James cover "He's A Mighty Good Leader" is the front runner of the sound on the album with just a guitar, a stamping foot and Beck's wayward vocals. "Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods" is the best Delta blues song that Muddy Waters didn't write. "Cyanide Breath Mint" lends to the anti-major label execs wanting him to stick to the "Loser" shtick and "Asshole" is one of Beck's finer songs of love lost. One Foot proves one thing and that's Beck knows the blues.
Key Tracks: "He's A Mighty Good Leader", "Sleeping Bag", "Cyanide Breath Mint", "Asshole"
Odelay - (1996) What else can I say about Beck's perfect album? I mean, start to finish Odelay is something else. The addition of The Dust Brothers in the production room would usher in an era of cool and probably be his best production collaborator. I know that's hard with Nigel Godrich being his other constant companion, but we'll get to that soon enough. Whether it's the big hits like "Devil's Haircut", "New Pollution" and"Where It's At" or the fan favorites like "Novacane" and "Hotwax", there are a slew of excellent folk-hop goodies to be had. When the end hits you with "Ramshackle," it's hard not to see just how brilliant Beck really is. Nostalgia aside, I still don't know if Beck has sounded as good as on Odelay. It's really a stunner of a record and one that should join the ranks as one of the best of all time.
Key Tracks: Hard to not list every song.... the only not so great track is "Derelict" and even that song rules.
Mutations (1998) Before I was hardcore into Beck, I didn't even know Mutations existed. I knew songs from the record, but it was a VH1 Behind the Music type show about Beck that got me intrigued by this album. Bought it immediately and found the first introspective look into Beck without all the clamour and bang of his prior records. That's not to dilute the meaning behind his blues or crazy records, but Mutations strips it away and brings on the baroque. Nigel Godrich's production brings in a less frenzied pace and on songs like "Cold Brains" and "Lazy Flies" we still get the upbeat Beck style, but from a different angle. The amazingly beautiful "Nobody's Fault But My Own" brings in sitars and tons of other sounds swirling in the background making it easily one of Beck's finest songs. Overall the album is one of Beck's finest artistic statements with heart felt songs to his Grandfather like "We Live Again" to the calypso of "Tropicalia." It's all Beck still but it was something different. Beck's first serious album of sorts.
Key Tracks: "Cold Brains", "Nobody's Fault But My Own", "Canceled Check", "We Live Again", "Dead Melodies", "Tropicalia"
Midnite Vultures (1999) After Beck's more personal, quite and reflective album Mutations exploded the most enjoyably fun record of the 90's, Midnite Vultures. That's right, most fun record of the 90's. Especially for it to drop amid the late 90's suck zone of popular music, Beck created an electrical sex explosion of an album. With Prince and David Bowie's Young Americans being his muse, Beck concocts sexy lounge tales of love("Debra",) Kraftwerk infused debaucheries robot sex ("Get Real Paid") and straight up dance floor ready jams ("Sexx Laws".) His hyper frenetic take on hip hop, "Hollywood Freaks" takes the whole sound to the highest and most ridiculous with screams of "he my nun!" in the background as well as calling out Norman Schwarzkopf. Vultures was also a Dust Brothers production and the clamour of sound effects, sampling, instrumentation and all other sorts of wackiness add to the sheer fun that Midnite Vultures can bring. From the first time I heard it to today, it's been a staple for any party (and originally was played at midnight at every party) as well as a staple for getting amped for any good time. For some reason, this is Beck's most misunderstood record, and to me that is a crying shame. Your loss, really.
Key Tracks: "Sexx Laws", "Nicotine and Gravy", "Hollywood Freaks", "Get Real Paid", "Broken Train", "Debra"
Sea Change (2002) Almost every great artist has their heartbreak/break-up album of sorts, but Beck's Sea Change, coming after his over sexed and hyper kinetic Midnite Vultures was a surprise left turn. When I saw Beck for the first time on his small pre-Sea Change one man show, Beck shed his heart out on forthcoming tracks like "Sunday Sun" which immediately stunned me. It was a beautiful and heartbreaking number and on the album it takes a whole level of beauty with it's arrangements and freak-out ending. Tracks like "Lonesome Tears" never lets the listener rest with the ache that he feels. "The Golden Age" is a faux prosperity. The line "these days I hardly get by" is a heart wrenching feeling for a supposed Golden Age. "Already Dead" is definitely a feeling many have gone through when the loss gets so hard, but what's funny is that beyond the lyricism being straightforward and honest, the music is still compelling and fantastic. It's by far the best of the Nigel Godrich albums, with stunners like "Paper Tiger" filled with swooping strings and a funky bass groove. There is no denying that Beck's finest work in the past decade comes from the heart rather than from a stranger place that Beck usually traverses.
Key Tracks: "Paper Tiger", "Lonesome Tears", "Sunday Sun", "Already Dead", "Lost Cause"
Guero (2005) Beck's latter career in the 21st century had troubles after Sea Change. Although Guero is chock full of excellent songs, something is missing from it as an album. Part of my feeling in that regard is the fact that the leaked version of Guero was much more captivating. "E-Pro" had less production and an abrupt ending, "Scarecrow" was a 7 minute static jam with some amazing Beck harmonica and bluesy guitar work and some songs that ended up being B-Sides ("Send A Message To Her" and "Chain Reaction") were actually superior to some that ended up on the actual release. Regardless, songs like "Missing" and "Earthquake Weather" luckily remained intact and ended up being some of my personal favorite Beck songs. The album boasts some nice celebrity guests like Jack White rocking the funky bass line on "Go It Alone" and a surprisingly strange turn by Christina Ricci on "Hell Yes." Overall, Guero is one of Beck's more uneven albums but it still has a ton of excellent music. Maybe he should have stayed with the original leak track listing, but something that trivial isn't worth dwelling on. Guero is a nice little record that has a great selection of tracks.
Key Tracks: "E-Pro", "Missing", "Hell Yes", "Girl", "Earthquake Weather", "Farewell Ride"
The Information (2006) Easily the weakest link in the chain, The Information is a muddled album. It is one of those cases where an album could easily have been an EP with the best tracks numbering in at around 4 or 5 and the rest is just there. Nigel and Beck wanted to do a hip-hop record of sorts and this is what came about. Woozy bores like "Soldier Jane" and "Think I'm In Love" are muzak compared to your usual Beck and only work when used as background music. However, songs like "Cellphone's Dead" and "Dark Star" bring the heat with more intriguing musical elements and lyrical wordplay at first glance absurd and at second glance great social comment. The album shifts back and forth from redeeming tracks to boring sleepers and the final track is a bit of a mess. It's surprising that Beck's long worked on record ended up being less enjoyable then Guero which was pounded out between sessions for The Information.
Key Tracks: "Cellphone's Dead", "Dark Star", "We Dance Alone"
Modern Guilt (2008) Luckily Beck picked up a new companion in the studio with Danger Mouse and in 2008, beck released a morbid but delightful psych pop record in Modern Guilt. It's by far Beck's shortest record since One Foot in the Grave and it's even shorter than that record. Somehow Beck learned his miscue with The Information and instead of packing in tracks, gave us the ten best. Short, poppy but dark, Modern Guilt boasts one of the defining moments in Beck's career in "Chemtrails." Although not the usual clamour of funky grooves and sounds, the track swells in and out like the tide with fantastically woozy synths and falsetto and then comes crashing in with it's intensely groovy bass and Moonesque drums. "Gamma Ray" may seem like a cheap rip off of "Girl" form Guero, but it still works as a beach blanket party shuffle. "Volcano" is Beck at his darkest giving up on humanity to get "back into the womb of the world." The titular track is an ode to the Zombie's and "Orphans" is a perfect album opener. It also houses one of the most poetic and beautiful Beck lyrics of all time, and it is in this lyrics that I leave you on this edition of Discography:
If I wake up and see my maker coming
With all of his crimson and his iron desire
We'll drag the streets with baggage of longing
To be loved or destroyed
From a void to a grain of sand in your hand
Key Tracks: "Orphans", "Chemtrails", "Walls", "Volcano", "Replica"
Beck is up to lots on his website via Record Club where him and musician pals will get together and cover full albums. He's almost three records deep, but I will not be reviewing these. Beck, more so than The Who, has a mountain of B-Sides and unreleased tracks as well as other smaller indie records. My apologies for not delving into these but due to their wildly out of print nature, I would not want to tease you into thinking you can get them without it being illegal or damn lucky to get.