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

    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.

Personalized Stories

Around The Web