Beck has, mostly rightfully, received critical acclaim for his constant reinvention. Past a certain point, after his first few albums, he really does basically cover a whole new genre with each release. I?ve long been a Beck fan, and when he released his new album, HYPERSPACE, some time ago, I was pretty excited to listen to it. And I enjoyed it. Enjoyed-ish. But when I went back to listen to the whole discography (made up of fourteen studio albums and one compilation album of previously unreleased material, which I will be considering for this list), I had a startling realization: Beck hasn?t been, like, that good for about a decade. In fact, his three albums of the 2010s don?t really come close to touching the highs of his 2000s work, and even the mixed feelings I have for the start of his career. So let me weave you a rollercoaster tale (I love mixing metaphors) about the iconoclastic Beck Hansen and his discography of wonders.
#15 ? GOLDEN FEELINGS (1993)
Favorite track: ?Heartland Feeling?
There?s a happy medium between the anarchy of Beck?s early anti-folk leanings and the smooth, glossy, and therefore somewhat boring production of his latest work. GOLDEN FEELINGS exists at that left pole. With his debut album, Beck tried to make a statement rather than a listenable composition. It?s lo-fi, scrappy, bizarre, brash, unsettling, and kind of funny I guess, but GOLDEN FEELINGS is not something I?d really prefer to listen to in most situations. Listen to it if you must, if you want to see where Beck came from, but just know that ?Heartland Feeling,? Beck?s ode to and/or skewering of artists like Bruce Springsteen and John (Cougar) Mellencamp (cited in the introduction to the track), is the sole ?anti-anti-folk? song on the record.
#14 ? STEREOPATHETIC SOULMANURE (1994)
Favorite track: ?Thunder Peel?
STEREOPATHETIC SOULMANURE is Beck?s second album, and followed his EP A WESTERN HARVEST FIELD BY MOONLIGHT (1994, something not considered for this ranked list). The latter was a bit more streamlined from GOLDEN FEELINGS? extreme anti-folk sound, but STEREOPATHETIC SOULMANURE took another step backward (or forward, depending on your inclination). It?s a long document of abstract noise and experimentation, but within, there are little gems foreshadowing Beck?s clever and more universal sound. ?Thunder Peel? is the best example of that, and this effect is strengthened by his re-recording the track for ODELAY. Across the 24 other tracks, there are some other nuggets of enjoyable listening, but ultimately, it?s a minor improvement over GOLDEN FEELINGS.
#13 ? HYPERSPACE (2019)
Favorite track: ?Stratosphere?
From here on in, it?s somewhat easier to define a number of Beck albums as the ?so-and-so genre record.? Well, in HYPERSPACE?s case, it?s Beck?s ?synth-pop? record. But oh what a disappointment it is. A toned down continuation of COLORS? broad, modern pop sound, HYPERSPACE just ends up feeling like a dreamy indulgence, lacking any kind of fire, humor, or convincing sentiment that defines Beck?s best work. ?Stratosphere? is the most relaxing aspect of this dreamy sound, and so it takes the cake as my favorite track from HYPERSPACE. I just don?t see much reason to listen to it more in the future.
#12 ? COLORS (2017)
Favorite track: ?Dreams ? Colors Mix?
As mentioned, HYPERSPACE is a ?toned down continuation of COLORS? broad, modern pop sound.? What I mean by that is Beck tried to make an arena pop record with COLORS, and the general result is pretty flaccid. A few songs make the case that maybe this was a worthwhile endeavor from an artist who has always wrapped his experimentation in universally identified sounds, like the title track, ?Wow,? and ?Dreams ? Colors Mix? (the ?original? mix appears as the bonus track 11 on ?digital? versions of the album). Otherwise, Beck falls into the trap that many other rock/alternative/pop artists and groups have fallen into 20-plus years into their career. He sounds so insistent that he can keep up that he feels so behind.
#11 ? MELLOW GOLD (1994)
Favorite track: ?Loser?
Some part of me really appreciates experimentation and ahead-of-its-time thinking, even if it results in ?interesting? rather than truly empathetic and affecting art. That?s the case with Beck?s third album, MELLOW GOLD, a refinement of his anti-folk efforts into, like, actual songwriting and even some hip hop inspiration. Famously, the record holds Beck?s biggest hit, ?Loser,? even though ODELAY would end up being his breakthrough success as an album. And it?s a great song, kicking off MELLOW GOLD with a little wink amid a catchy chorus. What follows is less broad and is often nearly as confounding as Beck?s previous two albums, but the cohesion in its strongest products (which also include ?Nitemare Hippy Girl? and ?Mutherfuker?) puts it ahead of its more radical and bland cousins.
#10 ? STRAY BLUES (2000)
Favorite track: ?Totally Confused?
I really struggled with whether or not I wanted to include STRAY BLUES (:A COLLECTION OF B-SIDES) in this list. While not considered a ?canonical? Beck studio album, the compilation album features previously unreleased songs at album length. I also thought back to my inclusion of DEATH TO FALSE METAL (2010), Weezer?s ?compilation album? that also brought never-before-heard songs out at a full-scale length, for their ranked consideration. And, finally, I had to concede that STRAY BLUES had some great songs that fit into the Beck canon. The record?s best track, in spite of what I said about never-before-heard songs, is ?Totally Confused,? which had appeared in a more muted form on the EP A WESTERN HARVEST FIELD BY MOONLIGHT. Beck?s duet with Anna Waronker of That Dog (who, speaking of Weezer, had also collaborated with my favorite band) makes the song totally beautiful, and it just kicks off a run of eclectic, yet cohesively straightforward folk songs. STRAY BLUES is a delightful little morsel among the polarized opposites of Beck?s anti-/folk work.
#9 ? MORNING PHASE (2014)
Favorite track: ?Heart Is a Drum?
Speaking of folk and polarized opposites: Beck?s ?comeback? album, as it were, since it came after his biggest hiatus between releases (six years), was widely praised. I can dig it. However. MORNING PHASE is just about on the right pole that I?ve been referring to this whole piece so far, the highly produced pole. Usually, I prefer a more commercial sound; I almost always appreciate studio album mixes more than demos, and I just have a general affinity for a good ol? pop song. But when it comes to Beck?s latest work, it just ends up making his musical experimentation a bit boring. MORNING PHASE was his return to the muted, sentimental, and personal sound that defined SEA CHANGE and MUTATIONS. It?s less successful for what I must admit are somewhat ambiguous reasons. I can?t really identify why, but when the best the album has to offer is ?Heart Is a Drum,? a laid back, almost easy listening track, I can?t rightly justify putting it much higher than this. MORNING PHASE is a kind of lush thing to fall back into, though.
#8 ? MUTATIONS (1998)
Favorite track: ?Lazy Flies?
MUTATIONS was the start of Beck?s earnestness. Following the wisecracking, sarcastic, high-strung, hip hop inspired, and sample-based ODELAY, MUTATIONS was a relatively straightforward guitar-based folk album. The subject matter touched personal subjects while maintaining a veneer of ?weirdness? and an off-beat tilt. Track titles like ?Nobody?s Fault but My Own? and ?Cold Brains? indicate this dichotomy (and also stand as two of the album?s best songs). But it?s ?Lazy Flies? that best communicates MUTATIONS? value, a wandering, almost whimsical song with a warped backing instrumental and an overall sense of playfulness within its ?stripped down? approach. The same could be said for much of the record.
#7 ? SEA CHANGE (2002)
Favorite track: ?End of the Day?
And some would say SEA CHANGE was the apotheosis of Beck?s earnestness, or indeed his apotheosis in general. While I clearly enjoy the record, insofar as a squarely (technically) middle-of-the-road Beck album, I think its ?big step forward,? as some saw it, was a marginal improvement over MUTATIONS. They aren?t exactly comparable, but I think it could be said they are part of a sort of trilogy of straightforward folk albums from Beck (finalized, for now, with MORNING PHASE). SEA CHANGE?s emotional center came from Beck?s break up with his long-term girlfriend, and that energy permeates the album for better and worse. It makes for some inspired, musical sadness, but also a larger sense of malaise. SEA CHANGE is a perfect record to talk about Beck?s true embrace of ?the album.? Whether I?m critical or praising a Beck album, I think it could be said for all of them that they are almost always most valuable as whole works of art. Of course, there are great standout tracks and singles, but Beck?s commitment to a sound and general artistic merit really shines when you sit through one of his records, fully, as I have done for a lot of the past couple weeks.
#6 ? ODELAY (1996)
Favorite track: ?Hotwax?
On the other side of this ?experience the whole thing? effect I?m describing stands ODELAY. Probably equally considered Beck?s best work, compared to SEA CHANGE, ODELAY carried the energy of ?Loser? from MELLOW GOLD and, whether intentionally or not, made it more sellable. Although ODELAY could be considered Beck?s ?hip hop album,? it?s actually the hardest entry of his discography to define. The guero does sampling and an unconventional vocal delivery great justice, but there?s a lot of conventional rock guitar fused with folksy acoustics and electronic experimentation. The last holdover of Beck?s anti-folk leanings, ODELAY is best enjoyed as a singular, weird listen. However, ?Hotwax? is a bop even on its own.
#5 ? ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE (1994)
Favorite track: ?I Get Lonesome?
Forget what I said about Beck not getting earnest until MUTATIONS. ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE was his admission that folk was good, actually. Beck covers a couple of songs and interpolates still others on the record, creating a modern Americana that never existed but feels delightfully fresh and ancient at the same time. ?I Get Lonesome? carries this spirit, but falls short next to deluxe edition track ?Teenage Wastebasket;? I decided to remove it from contention because the deluxe edition wasn?t released until 2009. Altogether, though, ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE is a mega-release, packed with enjoyable, singular tracks and an overall sense of American melancholy. The fourth Beck release of 1994, ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE proved a greater sense of range than even the eclecticism of the anti-folk records were meant to imply.
#4 ? MODERN GUILT (2008)
Favorite track: ?Gamma Ray?
When I first went in to listen to MODERN GUILT, I expected it to be a minor Beck work after my previous experience(s) with the album. Listening to it again, however, awakened a newfound appreciation for this record at the end of a busy decade for the artist. Beck?s tightest album by far at 33 minutes (barring STRAY BLUES), MODERN GUILT is just a straightforward alt rock album with a tint of blue moodiness. It?s produced by Danger Mouse. I think that communicates something. But the record yielded some all-time Beck favorites, like ?Gamma Ray? and the title track. I don?t think I have much more to say about MODERN GUILT; it?s simple, but in the best way. It?s not as extreme as any other Beck album, but maybe that?s what makes it a little sleeper hit.
#3 ? THE INFORMATION (2006)
Favorite track: ?Nausea?
Recorded concurrently with GUERO (we?ll get to that in a second), THE INFORMATION is a vastly different album from Beck?s 2005 release. A fusion of electronic sounds and acoustic guitar, as well as some hip hop sensibilities that call back to ODELAY, THE INFORMATION was the start of Beck?s streamlined production period that continues to this day. It doesn?t feel as raw as anything that came before it, including GUERO just the year before. But in this case it?s to the album?s benefit, as the whole thing plays out to an entertaining and vacillating crescendo. I?m not sure how else to say this; ?Nausea? is probably the best example, a catchy and slick track that nevertheless feels chaotic as hell. That?s THE INFORMATION in a nutshell.
#2 ? GUERO (2005)
Favorite track: ?E-Pro?
But GUERO is catchy and slick and chaotic as hell on another level. Contrary to my writing a whole thing about Beck?s discography and explaining that his albums are best listened through as a whole, I think the top two records on this list are Beck?s only truly great albums. The entirety of GUERO lifts me up and makes me appreciate Beck?s diverse influences, and even retroactively sweetens his other work. There are a ton of great songs on the album, a rock record with Latin sounds and driving guitar and simple, pounding choruses. But ?E-Pro? is the king of them, just edging out the beats of ?Guero? and ?Girl.? It?s a complete joy to listen to GUERO.
#1 ? MIDNITE VULTURES (1999)
Favorite track: ?Peaches & Cream?
And yet only one Beck album reigns supreme. And it has on it ?Peaches & Cream.? Sorry, I had to rhyme. MIDNITE VULTURES, Beck?s funk/dance/electronic closeout to a decade, century, and millennium, is a near perfect listen. Picking a favorite track from MIDNITE VULTURES is like picking your favorite child. And since I don?t have any children, MIDNITE VULTURES is a satisfactory replacement. God, I hate my exaggerations sometimes. But that?s what MIDNITE VULTURES brings out in me: a chaotic, hedonistic impulse. If Beck was going for anarchy on his earliest anti-folk recordings, he actually achieved it with this record, an experimental yet poppy ode to the ?70s. Beck?s own vocals have never sounded so strange nor so varied, to the benefit of the layered instrumentals. I listen to MIDNITE VULTURES and marvel at Beck?s sometimes virtuosity. As much as I?ve criticized much of his discography, it?s only because I have tremendous respect for his work ethic and numerous, different artistic visions he has steeped himself in over the course of his 26-year career.