If you really know me, you know that Beck is my main guy. My “favorite” musician since high school. My most listened-to artist according to my last.fm. This fact usually comes off as surprising to most of my friends because of Beck’s more recent, arena-crushing material, along with his consistent prominence in the “alt-rock sphere” since the mid-90s with bands like Cake, maybe Weezer, maybe The Flaming Lips, maybe Modest Mouse. The type of act that can fill arenas, pavilions and headlining spots at festivals in 2019, but haven’t put out records that come close to their earlier output in terms of “quality” (cue a “back in MY day”). These bands have hit a certain point where no matter what they put out, they will have legions upon legions of undying fans.
Well, count me as an eternally retained fan of Mr. Beck, because despite his ultra-polished last album Colors and 2014’s gorgeous yet daze-inducing folk dip Morning Phase, I’m still a monster fan that can still derive pleasure from listening to all his music, and not simply in a nostalgic way. There are still active listens where I find new little nuances to nestle myself in amongst the other worn down grooves I’ve loved for over a decade.
When I was in the process of making this list I was asking around to gauge folks’ feelings on the groovy scientologist man. I returned with mixed results. It seems that folks older than me still hold Beck in a shining light, but like me don’t connect with his recent material as much. On the other hand, people closer to my age and younger don’t really care about Beck, new or old. Either he’s accidentally slipped through the cracks of their listening journey, not pulled in enough interest to warrant a dedicated listen, or outright avoided altogether due to overwhelming prominence and perceived corniness.
Well, spurred by the fact that Beck has a new album coming this year, accompanied by a new single that I just cannot get down with (complete with a totally unnecessary and phoned in Pharrell verse?? c’mon y’all I had faith in this), I’ve gathered together my top 10 favorite Beck tracks to help someone either get into his music or revitalize a fandom gone dry. I’d like to say I have a nice mix of hits, b-sides and newer tunes, to help the olds get down with the new school, as well as the “youngsters” that have not yet been trained in the ways of the ascended slacker. Hope you dig! And please let me know what your favs are!
PLUS – keep scrolling after this to see more of my favorite tunes, a discography breakdown (the first of hopefully many User’s Manuals) and a flowchart (Assembly Instructions!) to help you find your way in Beck’s discography!
- “Devil’s Haircut” [Odelay]
The song that started it all for me. A friend posted it on their Facebook back in 2007 and the rest was history. In my eyes the best encapsulation of Beck’s oddball rock tunes, containing nonsensical lyrics, a drum break, rippling guitar, distorted harmonica, weird sound effects, nonchalant bass, and it’s catchy as all hell.
- “I Only Have Eyes For You” (The Flamingos Cover) [single]
Not a ton of people know about this cover, so I’ll be very happy if this is your first time listening to this beautiful work of art. This is a cover of the The Flamingos’ classic “I Only Have Eyes For You” (aka the best song in existence), done for an art installation by Doug Aitken called SONG 1. The work paired visuals, directed by Aitken, of people singing along with the song with various covers of the song from artists like Beck, No Age and Oneohtrix Point Never. It premiered at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC (my favorite art museum!) in 2012. Beck’s version keeps things pretty traditional with she-bops, spare instrumentation and smoky production, and it’s marvelous. I love the original, but this version damn near could be the real thing. It’s low and slow, romantic, gauzy, syrupy, a spotlight on love. It’s one of the most romantic songs that I know and I feel like I should have it at the top, but putting a cover feels like it’s cheapening the legacy of his own music-making. It’s really, really, REALLY good.
- “Lost Cause” [Sea Change]
Just an absolute emotional bulldozer. Sea Change is a masterful album. A breakup album for the ages. “Lost Cause” is perfect for those times where you’re floating, completely disconnected from earthly connections. Laying in the waves, being pushed along by the currents. It made me cry when I saw it live for the first time in 2014.
- “Girl” [Guero]
Out of all the Beck songs minus “Loser”, this is likely the one you’ve heard. For good reason – it’s really damn good and catchy. Is there anything better than listening to this on a bright summer day? It’s an instant mood-improver with a chorus that’ll get stuck in your head instantly, along with a sweet, but not sickeningly, lead melody.
- “Defriended” [single]
In 2013, after five long years of no official new music aside from a few covers, we finally got “Defriended”, a futuristic-sounding Beck song that felt like it wasn’t catering to the masses of fans, but rather introducing them to new sounds within the Beck framework. I may be mistaken, but 2013 marked the start of Beck’s work with engineer Cole M.G.N., another perennial favorite on the blog. Swirling synths, echoing bass, skittering drums all encase Beck’s voice in a house of mirrors, sending the sound bouncing all over the place in a confusion. This is by and far the Beck song I listened to the most, and for good reason. It’s totally satisfying and a breath of fresh air. I would have LOVED for Beck to release an album that sounded like this, along with “I Won’t Be Long” and “Gimme”, the two other singles he released summer 2013, but it never came to fruition. We got Morning Phase the next year instead, an alright but anticlimactic record after these three bombastic, innovative and exciting singles.
- “E-Pro” [Guero]
Probably Beck’s most arena-friendly jam. It almost quite literally STOMPS, with a thudding beat present throughout, as well as a chorus with no actual words, just “na’s”. Easy to sing along to, easy to hum along to, easy to clap along to, easy to head bang to. The epitome of alternative rock in the mid-00s. It crushed on the radio then, and I’m sure it continues to crush on alt stations throughout the world now.
- “Soldier Jane” [The Information]
The Information as a whole is pretty underrated, mixing the tenderness seen on Sea Change, the freakiness of Midnite Vultures and the pop-rock simplicity of Odelay or Guero, with a good bit more instrumental experimentation thrown in. This is a totally lush, dreamy track that he plays live often, for good reason. The synths wash over the track like the tide, while Beck’s elongated vocal passages drift along like pleasant clouds. It’s a pristine tune, one that’s perfect for summer introspection.
- “Sexx Laws” [Midnite Vultures]
There were a few different songs from Midnite Vultures I could have chosen, but why not pick the song that frames the concept of the album most succinctly: “I wanna defy the logic of our sex laws”. A horn section, squelching keyboards, banjo and a whole mess of other sounds hold this track together like an over-glued kid’s project, but it’s one totally beautiful one.
- “Dear Life” [Colors]
Reminiscent of his rogue 2013 singles, “Dear Life” was the kind of song that got me unreasonably hyped for 2017’s Colors. It turned out to be some arena pop rock, but the melodies on this song is great, the production is awesome, the arrangement is interesting and the chorus is mad catchy without being grating. If we got a whole album kind of like this, Colors would have had a good shot at my #1 album for 2017.
- “Paper Tiger” [Sea Change]
Sea Change is my favorite Beck album, so I had to have two tracks on here. Gotta love that after all his slacker rock tomfoolery, Beck can compose an emotional, compelling piece with a moving string section backing him up. It’s a relatively mellow track in his discography, but it’s quite upbeat compared to the rest of Sea Change. Love the guitar solo at the end, love the spare drum beat, absolutely love the strings. Love it all!
Read more below for more essential tracks + an album breakdown to pick where you start your Beck adventure.
OTHER ESSENTIAL TRACKS:
- “Asshole” [One Foot In The Grave]
- “Bit Rate Variations In B-Flat (Girl)” [Gameboy Variations (Hell Yes EP)]
- “Black Tambourine” [Guero]
- “Broken Drum” [Guero]
- “Broken Drum (Dntel Remix)” [Beck Remix EP #2]
- “Cellphone’s Dead” [The Information]
- “Chemtrails” [Modern Guilt]
- “Dark Star” [The Information]
- “Debra” [Midnite Vultures]
- “Dreams” (2015 version) [single]
- “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” [Eternal Sunshine OST]
- “Fresh Hex (feat. Beck)” (by Tobacco) [Maniac Meat]
- “Gimme” [single]
- “Go It Alone” [Guero]
- “Guess I’m Doing Fine” [Sea Change]
- “Heart Is A Drum” [Morning Phase]
- “Heaven Can Wait” (by Charlotte Gainsbourg) [IRM]
- “I Won’t Be Long” [single]
- “Lazy Flies” [Mutations]
- “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Bob Dylan Cover)” [War Child – Heroes Vol. 1]
- “Loser” [Mellow Gold]
- “Milk and Honey” [Midnite Vultures]
- “Mixed Bizness” [Midnite Vultures]
- “The New Pollution” [Odelay]
- “Novacane” [Odelay]
- “NYC 73-78” [REWORK_Philip Glass]
- “Orphans (feat. Cat Power)” [Modern Guilt]
- “Painted Eyelids” [One Foot In The Grave]
- “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” [Mellow Gold]
- “Round The Bend” [Sea Change]
- “Think I’m In Love” [The Information]
- “Wow” (2016 version) [single]
LISTEN TO ALL OF THESE SONGS ON THE ESSENTIAL BECK PLAYLIST!!
USER’S MANUAL (DISCOGRAPHY BREAKDOWN):
- Golden Feelings (1993) – nearly incomprehensible anti-folk. Guttural guitar, pitched-down vocals, noisy experimentation. Feels inspired by VU, blues & budding slacker culture.
- Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994) – Lo-fi folk album with more coherence than Golden Feelings. Johnny Cash covered “Rowboat” off this one!
- Mellow Gold (1994) – The one with “Loser” on it, aka the man’s rocket to stardom. The posterboy of California slackerdom. Sounds like a dude that binges Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground in his basement and records whatever he comes up with, which honestly turns out to be really damn good. Not my favorite due to consistency issues, but clearly the point where Beck’s creativity level was starting to develop rapidly.
- One Foot In The Grave (1994) – Recorded before Mellow Gold but released after. His most coherent “folk” album, initially released on K Records. Kind of a seamless synergy of the LA slacker and the Pacific Northeast bedroom popper like Beat Happening. Lots of great songs on here, but I still need to really trawl this one. An initial showcase of Beck’s simple yet effective songwriting chops.
- Odelay (1996) – Many say this is the one you gotta listen to. I’d mostly agree if I wasn’t such a hopeless fan that implores you to explore the whole discog. This does have the mainstream hits, along with some true 90s rock bangers like “Novacane”, “Minus” and “Lord Only Knows”. Actually, yeah you should start with this one. It’s awesome.
- Mutations (1997) – Beck’s David Bowie album. His vocal inflection takes on Bowie-like qualities on multiple songs. At this point his most fleshed out sound, with plenty of interesting instrumentation and genre-blending (tropicalia, country, blues rock, chamber pop). It’s an interesting blend. Not the most compelling tunes of his, but there are definitely some all-time greats on here like “Lazy Flies”, “Static”, “Tropicalia” and “Cancelled Check”.
- Midnite Vultures (1999) – REEL FREEKY. A glitter-glued mess of horns, drum machines, wonky synths, Prince worship, 90s optimism and surplus, sex robots, late night phone hotlines, and more. Best part, it’s actually very fun and hasn’t aged poorly. Sure, it’s clearly a time capsule, but you can listen to it now and still have a great time. Wish an artist these days could take a chance like this. Maybe they have? Who knows.
- Sea Change (2002) – The crown jewel! The sadboy paradise! Could be the complete and total opposite of Midnite Vultures. Lush beyond words, yet still so simplistic. Will totally pluck you from your current reality and allow you to drift aimlessly in the ether. I listened to this in high school after a brutal first date. I listen to this on my own fairly often. Tender, lovable, aching, majesty.
- Guero (2005) – Beck taking what made Odelay such a fun record and applying it with mid-00s technology and a bunch more money. Got the SMASH hits “E-Pro” and “Girl”, some sleepers like “Broken Drum”, “Earthquake Weather”, and some real goofy jams in “Qué Onda Guero” and “Hell Yes”. In my eyes not his best, but widely regarded as the one with the most jimmy jams on it.
- The Information (2006) – The most sonically adventurous in the discography, with a whole cabinet full of studio tricks swirled inside to make b-sides pop amongst lead singles like “Think I’m In Love” and “Nausea”. There’s also a 10-minute closer, which is sick. Still plenty of accessible, catchy songs but I can see how this one is polarizing.
- Modern Guilt (2008) – Perhaps the album with the least frills in the discog. The Danger Mouse production is incredibly apparent on some tracks, but after the sonic curveball that was The Information, Beck going simple is refreshing. Not to say this album is milquetoast, though. “Walls” is a perfect dip test to what indie rock sounded like in the late 00s and “Replica” employs an In Rainbows Radiohead-like drum pattern. Incredibly easy to blow through multiple listens through this guy and have a good time.
- Morning Phase (2014) – The “spiritual successor” to Sea Change. Similar in ways that make you think about Sea Change and make you think “damn I should be listening to that instead”. Absolutely beautiful production-wise, the string arrangements are gorgeous, the performances are top-notch per usual. If Sea Change didn’t exist in his discography, this would be an astounding album. But it’s still easy to appreciate even with its predecessor around.
- Colors (2017) – By far his biggest sounding, glitziest, pop-friendly album to date. So bright that it feels like the stage lights are constantly being shined right in your eyes. The songs are catchy, but sometimes its over-simplicity in the melodies, hooks and choruses dumb down the experience, taking you out of the song. There are some undeniable bangers on here though, that’s for damn sure.
“I’m Looking For…”
(* = start here in discography)
- a really weird time that you don’t remember the next day: Golden Feelings
- a day-drinking-but-not-in-a-fun-way folk binge: Stereopathetic Soulmanure
- a warm beer floating alone in a swimming pool: Mellow Gold
- a stripped back, coherent and heartfelt Bob Dylan binge: One Foot In The Grave
- a very fun time, seemingly designed to enhance the heat of the summer sun: Odelay *
- a chiller time, with a nice even mix of everything good about summer: Mutations
- a freaky time with sex robots, mascot costumes & disco dancers: Midnite Vultures
- a melancholic, reflective and potentially very sad experience: Sea Change *
- a return to hooky rock n roll with some innovative production choices: Guero
- an exploration into innovative, unorthodox sounds of rock & pop: The Information
- a no-frills all-thrills Danger Mouse-led rock experience: Modern Guilt
- a relaxing, meditative, sun-speckled hike: Morning Phase
- a direct shock to the “pleasure” center associated with fun commercials: Colors
ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS (ALBUM FLOWCHART):
STARTING WITH ODELAY:
– Dig the rock hits? Go to Guero, then Modern Guilt, then The Information, then Colors. In that order.
– Or did the lo-fi moments really get you going? Go to Mellow Gold, then the previous lo-fi folk albums.
– Did you really not mesh well with the rock vibe? Go to Sea Change.
– Were “Sissyneck” or “Ramshackle” your favorite songs? Go to One Foot In The Grave.
– Was “Readymade” your favorite song? Go straight to The Information.
– Was “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” your favorite song? Go to Midnite Vultures. Your body is ready.
– Woah did you really like Midnite Vultures a lot? Sign up for a FetLife account.
– Did you really love Guero? Go to Gameboy Variations (Hell Yes EP).
– Yikes, I didn’t tell you it was a chiptune remix EP? Oh you were into it? Ok phew.
– Did you really love Modern Guilt? Go to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM.
– Did you really love The Information? Listen to the 2013 singles, then Colors, then go on a Michel Gondry film / music video binge.
STARTING WITH SEA CHANGE:
– Did you really love that? Did you want more? How could you not? Go to Morning Phase.
– Man, Beck’s voice is really good right? Duh – go to “I Only Have Eyes For You”.
– Wish there wasn’t so much instrumentation? Go to One Foot In The Grave.
– You really like the mellower vibe, but need more instrumental variety: Go to Mutations.
– Did you really hate Sea Change? Go to Odelay.
– Did you already try Odelay cause I listed it first and you hated that too? Go to “I Only Have Eyes For You”, or the 2013 singles.
– Did you hate those as well? First of all, how dare you. But second, I salute you for continuing to try for my sake. But third, listen to the original “I Only Have Eyes For You” and come back to me trying to think it’s NOT the best song in the known universe. If you disagree I will pull my Hyundai around to the Wendy’s drive-thru you work at and slap ya.