When a tiny record label told Beck they were releasing "Loser" as a single, he couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in it. After traipsing around New York trying to carve out a spot for himself in the anti-folk movement, he got tired of sleeping on people's couches and moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles, ending up in a rat-infested shack. A few months later, he was on MTV (ironic because he also had a folk-blues track called "MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack").
You're probably well acquainted with "Loser." It's an odd karaoke tune and a staple on local alternative radio stations stuck in the '90s. But "Loser" launched Beck's career in more ways that one—yes, it introduced him to the world, but it also pushed him to prove that he was anything but a loser. And that's why you have a whole discography to comb through.
Beck has distinct phases, and it seems important to point out that these phases are somewhat connected. There's banjo on his hip-hop songs, subtle rapping on his more rock tunes and hidden meaning within "nonsense lyrics." Beck's not just jumping from theme to theme; he's working within himself and the musical encyclopedia of his brain.
"People have this conception that I put on different characters," he told Rolling Stone in 1997. "But to me, there's a definite continuity in what I do. If there wasn't, it wouldn't work. If I was just trying on a bunch of silly outfits, then there wouldn't be any weight to what I do. I would be a dilettante. But I'm not a dilettante. I'm committed to what I do."
There's the rap-rock of Guero, the R&B-funk of Midnite Vultures, the dark '60s pop of Modern Guilt. There's the Grammy nominations, the Grammy wins, and the near Kanye interruption. And there's the new, radio-friendly hits that you've been hearing in FIFA and Acura commercials throughout this year. With his 13th studio album, Colors, out, now is a crucial time to get into Beck. Lucky for you, we've got five different entry points for you. All you have to do is dive in.
So You Want To Get Into: Country-folk Beck
Beck pretty much has something for everyone. He started with country influences and ended up weaving in hip-hop. He was a huge Mississippi John Hurt fan when he quit school in ninth grade, and he practiced guitar until he could mimic Hurt's finger-picking style and took on a deep, laid-back tone in his voice. Beck's early influences were clearly drawn from the Delta Blues.
But where do you start if you're into the folky guitar stuff? Try One Foot In the Grave, which features reworks of Skip James' "Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader" and the Carter Family's "Lover's Lane." The album was recorded before Beck really made it big, and it was released on K Records by Calvin Johnson, who lent his garishly low vocals to the mix. While Beck's style comes from the Delta, it wasn't pure in the least bit. He added outlandish lyrics and song titles like "Ziplock Bag" and "Asshole." When you're listening, you can settle in calmly to one tune while getting deeply uncomfortable with another. I suppose that's Beck in a nutshell, really.
Beck never quite ditched his country influences. On Mutations, he brought back a shuffling tempo, harmonica and horns for "Cancelled Check." Johnny Cash himself eventually covered Beck's "Rowboat." He even brought that bluesy Rolling Stones-branded country to "Scarecrow" on 2005's Guero. "Country," however, is a loose definition in this sense.
Playlist: "Lord Only Knows" / "Sissyneck" / "He's A Mighty Good Leader" / "Hollow Log" / "Blackhole" / "Scarecrow" / "Say Goodbye"
So You Want To Get Into: Slacker Beck
"Loser" was one of those freak tunes that had Beck rapping about "dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose" and getting "crazy with the Cheez Whiz" while sampling a twangy slide guitar and singing "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" in a lazy drawl. It had critics and MTV personalities crowning Beck as the King of Slackers—the "Slackers" being a group of Gen X-ers who were seen as chumps not willing to make anything of merit. They made him the leader of the disaffected rock movement countering '80s glitz. To that claim, Beck had his own thoughts: "Slacker my ass," he told Rolling Stone in 1994. "I mean, I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything."
Perhaps critics mistook Beck's drawn-out vocal delivery, seemingly thrown-together lyrics and experimental instrumentation as carelessness. On his indie records and his Geffen debut, Mellow Gold (which was compiled to sell "Loser"), you can hear him slowing down or gaining speed within songs, tossing out tempo. He embraced flaws and oddities, confusing critics who had grown accustomed to slick studio work. If you wanted something tight, Beck wasn't the way to go in the early '90s. Slacker Rock was grunge and anti-folk and psychedelia mixed together. At least, that's what it was when you talked about Beck.
His music was never without care, though. Yeah, his lyrics seemed like a mindfuck to those who don't look deeper, but Beck has admitted that they all make sense to him. "I've written hundreds of songs, and I got bored of saying things the same way," he told Rolling Stone in 1997. "I wanted to use the language differently."
If you've already listened to One Foot In the Grave, use that as your catalyst for getting into Stereopathic Soulmanure, another indie Beck record that only intense fans have in their collection. God, that record is fucked up, but it's got everything: sweet folky tunes, swelling with pedal steel; experimental noise and screaming; monologues from aliens; stoned ramblings; rollicking banjo-ridden tracks about having a "fucked up day." It's all there. Call it "slacker," call it genius. He's been called both.
Playlist: "Loser" / "Pay No Mind" / "Today Has Been A Fucked Up Day" / "Nitemare Hippy Girl" / "Blackhole" / "Totally Confused" / "Sweet Sunshine" / "Ziplock Bag" / "Cyanide Breath Mint" / anything off Beck's early indie releases
So You Want To Get Into: Hip-Hop Sampling Beck
You're a hip-hop fan, and while Beck isn't exactly the best rapper in the world, that's not the point. His midway decent flow is actually the reason "Loser" was called "Loser" in the first place. "I thought, 'Man, I'm the worst rapper in the world, I'm just a loser,'" he recalled to biographer Julian Palacios. "So I started singing 'I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me.'" He admitted that he tried to sound like Public Enemy's Chuck D.
Going into 1996's Odelay—which nabbed him his first Grammy (for Best Alternative Album)—he ditched any morbid songs he had left over from One Foot In The Grave and hooked up with The Dust Brothers, who were known for their work with the Beastie Boys at the time.
Inspired by Grandmaster Flash, Beck and The Dust Brothers had a wild time sampling clips for Odelay, including bits and pieces of Grand Funk Railroad, Them, Sly & the Family Stone, Edgar Winter and more. You, the young, burgeoning Beck expert, will soon learn that Beck's mind is an absurdly diverse encyclopedia of musical influences, and sampling allowed him to piece his tastes all together in one place. It was strangely cohesive, and the Odelay sound quickly replaced the Slacker Rock label he'd been plastered with.
As for his questionable rapping, he's always been kind of a rap-sing guy. In some ways he's sort of like Drake without the beard. You can follow his hip-hop progression all the way through last year, when he released "Wow," which had him rapping with authority while letting a tipsy-turvy soundscape meander through "Giddy-ups" and trippy crowd-sung vocals. There's no spit-fire flow or intricate lyricism, but you can still connect "Wow" back to those Odelay days, while remembering similar tunes from other parts in his career, like 2006's "Elevator Music" and 2005's "Hell Yes."
The Dust Brothers returned for Guero in 2005, serving up those saucy beats for yet another album full of samples. And a year later in 2006, Beck came through with The Information, a project he straight-up labeled a "hip-hop album." While he didn't work with The Dust Brothers on The Information, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich helped carry on their influence, opting for more glitchiness, catchy hooks and just more weird Beck-dom.
Playlist: "Elevator Music" / "Where It's At" / "Dark Star" / "We Dance Alone" / "Hell Yes" / "Hollywood Freaks" / "Hotwax" / Pretty much all of The Information
So You Want To Get Into: Dreamy Introspective Beck
You're in your feelings. I dig that. And Beck probably would dig it too, seeing as he's usually laying out some bleak lyric when he's not singing about "discount orgies on the dropout buses" or making the "garbage man scream."
Teaming up with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Beck toned it down 1998's Mutations, the follow-up to his sample-heavy breakout, Odelay. Mutations showed mainstream audiences his songwriter side, along with the producer chops they've already come to love. The album features a long list of musical genres—on "Tropicalia," it gets, well, you know tropical; on "O Maria," Beck adds horns and sings in the tone of a whiskey-swilling piano comedian; "We Live Again" takes you a magic carpet through dreamy '70s balladry. But the greatest example of Beck's introspection is "Nobody's Fault But My Own," which makes you feel a bit sorry for him. The song paints him as an isolated entertainer, squeezed of all his value and worth. "When they catch all they wanted from you / And they find that's all you knew / Pack your bags from another town / It's time to move." In true Beck fashion, he sprinkles in sitar so you feel like you're isolated in a foreign place place.
From Mutations, he went to the funky Midnite Vultures, but then, it was back to the soul-searching on 2002's Sea Change. As the story goes, he and his girlfriend of nine years broke up after touring 1999's Midnite Vultures, and he wrote a bunch of songs as therapy. At first, he had no intention of releasing them, but nevertheless, he met up with Godrich again and made 2002's Sea Change, which ended up being a critic favorite. It's lush, amplified by some string arrangements done by his father David Campbell, who's also arranged albums from Adele, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake and more. There's Indian banjo, bamboo saxophone, glockenspiel, beatbox drums, clavinet and cello all mixed together on Sea Change, named after the drastic tone diversion Beck had made from his previous LPs. However, Sea Change was always in Beck's blood: "There are threads of what I've done before," he told MTV News in 2002. "If you listen to my earlier B-sides, you'll hear this record. I have been wanting to make this record for years. I've been edging towards the idea, and so it just took a while."
Therefore, it wasn't a surprise, then, when Beck returned, yet again, to the grandeur of his orchestral productions in 2014 with Morning Phase, which eventually won Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys. Beck pulled more introspective songs from his sad archives, weaving together dejected lyrics into what most critics would call Sea Change Pt. 2. "This morning I lost all my defenses / Won't you show me the way it used to be?" he sang on "Morning." "Pain—does it hurt this way?" he sang on "Heart Is A Drum." You could call this Emo Beck, too.
Playlist: "It's All In Your Mind" / "Golden Age" / "Nobody's Fault But My Own" / "Guess I'm Doing Fine" / "Don't Let It Go" / "Heart Is A Drum" / "Say Goodbye"
So You Want To Get Into: Funky Dance Beck
Of course, if you're just in it for a good time, who can blame you? Beck himself deliberately created 1999's Midnite Vultures as something fun to tour. Consider "Sexx Laws" your new anthem.
"Sexx Laws" opens Midnite Vultures with a huge brassy fanfare, a groovy guitar flapping around underneath. "I'll let you be my chaperone / At the halfway home," he sings with the unhinged confidence of a boisterous cartoon villain—Beetlejuice, perhaps. The song glitters with synth effects and pays homage to Beck's beginnings with a banjo breakdown near the middle. It's a party. And there's plenty more of it throughout the record. Beck and co. studied the R&B of R. Kelly while making the album, and it's super apparent on "Debra," a jam that sort of pokes fun at the bedroom genre: "I pick you up late at night after work / I said 'lady, step inside my Hyundai' / I'm gonna take you up to Glendale / Gonna take you for a real good meal."
There's tons of those tongue-in-cheek lyrics on Midnite Vultures, thrown in as frequent treats: "Jockin' my Mercedes / Probably have my baby / Shop at Old Navy / He wish he was a lady." They're all delivered with the strangest inflections and surrounded by the Dust Brothers' wack concoctions.
Beck's recreating that same psychedelic dance vibe with Colors. It's pop to the core. "Up All Night," the third single from Colors, is the antithesis of Sea Change and Morning Phase: jubilant, excited and full of love, more about the butterflies in your stomach than a gaping pit. Whereas Beck once reveled in his sadboy aesthetic, he can never dwell in one period too long (he has to tour this music, after all). If he unabashedly made music about being sad, it's no surprise that he would also make music about happy. Plus, it always helps when you can dance along.
Playlist: "Peaches & Cream" / "Sexx Laws" / "Dreams" / "Girl" / "Up All Night" / "Mixed Bizness" / "Milk & Honey"
Emilee Lindner is a writer. She's on Twitter.