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Beck in 10 Songs

A breakdown of the endless styles of one of modern music's most important musicians

Beck Dark Places Hyperspace Pharrell
Beck, photo by Philip Cosores
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Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Remember when Beck won three Grammys in 2015 for Morning Phase, including Album of the Year? And the Internet threw a fit since he beat Beyoncé? What a time.

(Listen: Beck Talks His New Album, Hyperspace)

It’s strange to think there are music obsessives who aren’t familiar with Beck’s work or don’t understand why he would win numerous Grammys. Then again, Beck is a 49-year-old dad. His first album came out in 1993. He went on an unofficial hiatus from 2008 to 2014. As far as millennials are concerned, that’s a big enough gap to never feel the allure of digging into his records.

Those who were introduced to Beck through Morning Phase were surprised to see the musician rapping with dweeby shades in a music video with over 60 million views. Catch him live, though, and he’s a sight to behold. Beck tears through his guitar, hits falsettos higher than ones Adele can hit, and dances with the energy (and flexibility!) of someone half his age. That guy who took the Grammys by surprise in 1997 is just as absurd these days — though his son steals the spotlight sometimes.

beck dancing Beck in 10 Songs

The truth is, Beck’s catalog is daunting. With 13 studio albums, film scores, and a handful of collaborations to his name, he’s got enough material to warrant holing up for a week just to appreciate it all. Chewing on it takes time because he pushes himself to try new styles. There are funk-rooted cuts, anti-folk absurdities, and songs about McDonald’s. He changes things up not just for listeners, but himself, wholly aware that music trends are worth challenging.

As articulate a songwriter as he is, Beck brings his music together with the help of a band somehow more reckless than he is, like bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. His catalog, both as a bandleader and a solo artist, shows the genius of a gangly, white dude who can sing, dance, and play guitar better than any other gangly, white dude out there. In the age of too many mediocre bands, Beck paves the way, showing it’s possible to raise the bar for yourself, increase the entertainment of your live sets, and remain creative as musical trends evolve even quicker than you do.

–Nina Corcoran
Contributing Writer


Anti-Folk Freak

Song: “Whiskeyclone, Hotel 1997” from Mellow Gold (1994)

There’s something bluesy, folksy, even devotional about “Whiskeyclone, Hotel 1997”, as if Beck wrote it in a rundown room off the highway, surrounded by chirping cartoon birds — which, I suppose, is the first hint that not everything here is as by-the-book as it might at first seem. The slowly loping track rumbles and rambles, mesmeric in its simplicity, but that only lets Beck’s weird, anti-folk push hide in plain sight. Once you pay attention, the honeyed words that tumble out of Beck’s mouth reveal themselves to be far stranger than they might seem, like approaching a mirror that shows a beautiful version of yourself, only to look closer and see the scars you never knew you had. “Rattlesnake on the ceiling/ Gunpowder on my sleeve/ I will live here forever,” he intones, a decided imagistic twist away from traditional folk, though using some of the same old Western signs and symbols. His woozy, clenched-jaw vowels take repudiation to new heights, hitting on existential uncertainty and nostalgic idealism. It’s actually grounded on much more: love, loss, and the youthful condition of American psyche, all captured to haunting effect. “I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone,” he sings on the chorus, like folk that goes down smooth and only makes you think about the sad reality after you’re done swooning.

–Lior Phillips


Low-Key Rapping

Song: “Loser” from Mellow Gold (1994)

The listeners who knew of Beck during Golden Feelings and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, his earliest records, knew this was a man who wasn’t concerned with traditional lyrics or, for that matter, making them sound sweet. He fell in love with the anti-folk scene in New York’s Lower East Side but then ditched it to return to Silver Lake in Los Angeles where, thanks to a record producer for Rap-A-Lot Records, he became smitten with hip-hop. The two worked on a slide-guitar demo that became “Loser”, but he set it aside, releasing it as a standalone single since it didn’t fit beside his other songs. Sitar swirls in the air, blues guitar belches, and percussion sloshes lazily on “Loser”. It’s a bizarre combination of sounds, but Beck found a way to make it memorable, an anti-pop song that’s catchy at its core. Beck’s deadpan delivery raps about his lack of rapping skills, a slew of nonsensical words making it hilarious to all, and yet that chorus — “Soy un perdedor/ I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” — became an anthem for stoners, slackers, and nerds alike. As bizarre as it is, the song found its way onto modern rock radio and quickly to the ears of Geffen Records who signed Beck for a major-label record deal immediately after. So goes the Mellow Gold opener and, in turn, thousands of people’s introduction to Beck.

–Nina Corcoran


Alt-Rock Hero

Song: “Devil’s Haircut” from Odelay (1996)

“Devil’s Haircut” was astonishingly predictive of future ‘90s trends: new beat, wiry, hyper chords, and mumbled psychedelia — it’s all there in these rubbery, winding grooves. Injecting a welcome dose of Beck glamour into rock and roll revival, he threw down the grit with a thematically wider strain of boiling-point alt rock and a charming split-personality battle between his artsy flounce and bad-boy blues. There’s something grotesque going on in his almost stream-of-consciousness flow (“bleeding noses” and “leprous faces” are rough enough, but what are “garbage man trees”?!), all slowly simmering until the kettle that is Beck finally starts whistling and the “Devil’s haircut/ In my mind” hook gets a little extra growl. This is of the grunge era, perfect for the radio, and yet somehow totally bizarre and disorienting, all at the same time.

–Lior Phillips


Experimental Electronics

Song: “Where It’s At” from Odelay (1996)

A surge of patchwork, funked-out grooves freewheel over a carnival collage of unusual samples. “Where It’s At”, astonishing in both its vision and production, best amplifies Beck’s satisfying stylistic pile-ups. Beguiling and slightly bemused, it finds inspiration in sources as bizarre as a 1969 sex education album titled Sex for Teens (Where It’s At), a quick name-check of the musician Gary Wilson (“Passing the dutchie from coast to coast/ Like my man Gary Wilson who rocks the most”), and a demodulated bellow of Mantronix’s electronic “Needle to the Groove”. The variety of sounds is staggering, like a gonzo attack: from huge jazz percussion to hip-hop, rock, pop, and spoken word lyrics, Beck’s voice stitches the giddy goulash together.

–Lior Phillips


Play That Funky Music

Song: “Sexx Laws” from Midnite Vultures (1999)

See Beck live and you’ll immediately wish you were better at dancing. The guy knows how to bust a move, but, to be fair, he better if he’s going to roll out as many funk-based songs as he has. On his seventh album, Midnite Vultures, Beck keeps the tempo up and chases after some of the best bass parts pinned to his name to date. “Sexx Laws” introduces this era with unapologetic gaudiness. If the horn fanfare wasn’t an explanatory introduction, the song wields a ’70s bassline that scampers around the neck, “Tighten Up”-style drums, and pitch-climbing screams, eventually bringing a banjo duel into the mix because, no, Beck didn’t plan on giving you a break to catch your breath. Perhaps that’s what he does best. When Beck wants to dance, he wants to keep the spiritedness at full blast, and “Sexx Laws” upholds that unwritten promise in the best of ways. Now, who gets to be his chaperone at the halfway home?

–Nina Corcoran

Click ahead for the second half of Beck in 10 Songs.


R&B Woes

Song: “Debra” from Midnite Vultures (1999)

For someone who trucks through as many genres as he does, Beck keeps himself in check. A thin line separates appropriation and appreciation. Midnite Vultures is arguably the closest Beck comes to ripping off others, but he takes notes instead of stealing them, keeping respect at the front instead of cashing in. R&B number “Debra” impersonates giants; Beck himself admitted it was inspired by Prince’s classic “Raspberry Beret” and David Bowie’s song “Win”. But the slow-burning rhythm section and whammy bar wobbles feel less mocking than they do an exercise in paying tribute to guilty pleasures. It’s comedy with fun at its heart. “I met you at JC Penny/ I think your name tag said Jenny,” he sings, a sultry seduction to pick her up as well as her sister, Debra. He’s got the white man blues, and he knows how silly that is. Because, really, “I pick you up late at night after work/ I said, ‘Lady, step inside my Hyundai,'” will never be sung with a straight face, especially when Beck belts out falsettos right after. That’s what makes it so great.

–Nina Corcoran


Groove to the Neo-Psychedelia

Song: “Gamma Ray” from Modern Guilt (2008)

Almost 15 years after he signed to Geffen Records, Beck neared the end of his recording contract. With his final LP due, he, instead of reviving the noisy alt-rock that fans and critics adored, pried into neo-psychedelia, specifically the pop-washed era of the ’60s. His 2008 LP, Modern Guilt, explored glossy spaciness (“Chemtrails”), futuristic instrumentation (“Walls”), heady guitar wails (“Soul of a Man”), and surprise breakdowns worth their wait (“Profanity Prayers”), but it’s “Gamma Ray” that utilizes those influences best. Beck sings about the state of the world over surf rock-style guitar, treading forward with wobbly beats, creating a musical sine wave that’s fills your head with ’60s goodness. Radioactive decay has never sounded so hypnotic. Afterwards, Beck fans fell into a drought, waiting nearly six years for a new recorded album, but many failed to revisit Modern Guilt to see how ripe its influences are and what an underrated gem it is at large.

–Nina Corcoran


The Sir Who Scored Soundtracks

Song: “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Between records, Beck collaborated with numerous other musicians and honed other skills, one of which included film-related work. Edgar Wright’s 2010 action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was packed with rising stars and musicians alike, with Wright bringing Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on board to help orchestrate both the soundtrack and the score. Beck wrote (and occasionally performed) songs for the film’s main band, Sex Bob-Omb, resurrecting his garage rock talents for good. Their hits — “Summertime”, “Threshold”, “Garbage Truck” — carried Beck’s nonsensical lyrics and power chord simplicity, combining for a full-volume rock that engaged music fans and comic book nerds alike. “We Are Sex Bob-Omb”, the film’s opening-credits sequence and the band’s empowering hit, blasted Beck’s talents. Guitars tear at one another’s throats, band members let hollers rip out of their throats, while cymbals crash throughout. Loaning his coolness to fictional bands? That’s so Beck. Plus, he also hinted at the orchestrated folk (Blue Moon) that would follow suit with acoustic and fully arranged versions of “Ramona”, a song about Scott Pilgrim’s love interest.

–Nina Corcoran


Grown-Ass Folk

Song: “Guess I’m Doing Fine” from Sea Change (2002)

Staying the course for Beck has always meant swerving off the road the moment the rest of the world seems to also be traveling in his direction. Most every album in his catalog, if measured by what came before, feels like a drastic stylistic detour, a sea change owing less to an identity crisis and more to a realization that no one style or genre can hope to contain his multitudes. However, the aptly titled Sea Change felt different, even upon first listen. It sounded like, maybe for the first time, Beck had made not the record he wanted to make but the one he needed to. Following the dissolution of his nine-year relationship, the album found Beck baring his broken heart on songs that felt as fragile and vulnerable as the man singing them. On “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, we hear that aching loneliness as he wanders through a world that’s left him outside in the cold, all conveyed poignantly through sad imagery like looking longingly in through a familiar window or not being able to hear a bluebird’s sweet song through a pane. With nary a wasted breath and a much deeper voice than heard on his last acoustic offering, Mutations, Sea Change felt like grown-ass folk relating a grown man’s heartbreak. Not only is it Beck’s most cohesive artistic statement — and arguably a generation’s best breakup record — but it’s the stylistic precursor to his Grammy-winning Morning Phase.

–Matt Melis


Pushing Pop Placeholders

Song: “Wow” from Colors (2017)

As the wailing, whistling synth curtain shoots up, we find a giddy-pop Beck frantically waving back at us. He’s outrageous, spirited, and completely nonsensical during “Wow”. “Giddy up, Giddy up!” he urges, as if straining out the sweet, somber, and outstanding Morning Phase. The genre-bending auteur conjures a euphoric beast here: flute beats bounce between hip-hop and trap, scurrying across the profound bridge: “It’s your life/ You gotta try to get it right/ Look around/ Don’t forget where you came from.” It’s a magpie of waxed pop production and anti-folk vocal harmonies, and for Beck’s trajectory a successful return to being tremendously experimental and commercially successful. This is Beck giving an acid-binge bath to dizzying loops and jumping through nutty vocal hoops. “Of the rules that you choose to use to get loose/ With the luminous moose,” he offers, as if it all makes perfect sense (the lyric video claims he’s saying move instead of moose, but then there’s a moose sound there, so make of it what you will). If you love the freewheeling Odelay, then “Wow” strikes upon that same moment when determined artists ask themselves, “Where to next?” And the answer is, “Everywhere!”

–Lior Phillips

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