A Beck Primer– 10 Essential Tracks

beckI was pleased to see Beck making the cut on my colleague Jordan’s enigmatic Top 100 Rockers list the other day. I was beginning to think I was the only one around here who held this artist in high esteem, but in any case, this presents a good opportunity to try to explain why I really love this guy.

I think Beck is a brilliant songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who knows where to find the groove and knows how to serve it, too. He is a Rock chameleon who takes on new styles with each new album, and puts his own imprint on each style, combining the searing cynicism of Ray Davies with the earnest experimentalism of Brian Wilson. I think he’s a genius, and I would put him in the Top 20 or 25 in my list of the All-Time Rock Greats.

I understand this is not the majority view about Beck. I mean, he’s had only one major hit, and that was in 1994 for the song “Loser”. It was an accidental hit for a song he never wanted to release, and it may have created a lasting misconception about him as being as a lame, wannabe white rapper.

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He is also up against the image problem faced by all artists who release many different styles of music — it confuses the industry, it confuses radio, and it confuses the public, all of whom are more comfortable placing artists into tidy little boxes.

That being said, he has received a lot of critical acclaim. He has been nominated nine times as Best International Solo Artist by the BRIT awards, and won it three times. He has been nominated for 16 Grammys, and won six, including last year’s shocking winner as Album of the Year for Morning Phase.

So as a public service I present the following 10 essential Beck tracks as a guide to better understanding this under-appreciated artist.

Where It’s At (From 1996 album Odelay)

A swampy sixties blues jam and a nineties rap flow sharing a single bed together. It’s hard to tell tell which one he’s taking the piss out of.

The New Pollution (Odelay)

Beck uses this “Taxman”-inspired rhythm several times throughout his catalogue. Odelay was his true breakout album, and it, too, was nominated for the Grammy Album of the year in 1996. Some argue that last year’s win for Morning Phase was a make-up call for Odelay not getting the nod in ’96.

Tropicalia (From the 1998 Album Mutations)

His first sharp career left turn, Mutations was inspired by the music of the ageless Brazilian psychedelic pioneers Os Mutantes. The blend of acoustic guitars and latin rhythms left Beck’s early fans saying “what the… “, which of course is what all great artists should leave their fans saying.

Debra (From the 1999 Album Midnite Vultures)

Midnite Vultures represented Beck’s take on soul and R&B styles, another huge, ambitious departure. Hilarious and groovy at the same time:“I met you at JC Penney/I think your nametag said Jenny/I could step to you/With a fresh pack of gum/If somehow I knew you were looking for some”

E-Pro (From The 2005 Album Guero)

Here’s your power chords for those seeking Rock credentials. Some Beck fans call Guero his best album for pure gimmick-free variety.

Girl (Guero)

Pure pop greatness from the seedy side of L.A., what the Beach Boys might have sounded like if they were all drug-addled depressives like Brian Wilson: “Walking crooked down the beach/She spits on the sand where their bones are bleaching”

Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime (From the 2005 soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

A prolific songwriter, Beck has also covered dozens of tracks for various side projects. This cover of a 1980 European hit by the Korgis showcases the strength of his vocals, his guitar licks and his production techniques.

Think I’m In Love (From the 2006 Album The Information)

From his electronica-inspired album, a lesson in songcraft. Check out the brilliant middle-eight, the most challenging part of any pop song. Also, check out the string arrangement on the song’s extro. It’s called attention to detail.

Orphans (From the 2008 Album Modern Guilt)

People call this his Beatle-y album, this track sounds like what would happen if you crossed the early Beatles in their collarless suits with the Abbey Road Beatles in their post-hippie incarnation.

Heart Is a Drum (From the 2014 Album Morning Phase)

In 2002 Beck released Sea Change, an album of quiet reflections on a broken relationship, which threw everyone for a loop, and not necessarily in a good way. Morning Phase was also an album of quiet reflections, but much less morose, and much better written. It is all about the song. You get the sense that Beck wrote these songs that could have been improved with all the bells and whistles, but he chose to keep them in their simplest form. It may not be the most exciting work he has done sonically, but from a songwriter’s point of view, the lyrics, the melodies, the chord changes and the song structures are pretty hard to top.

Photo credit: “Beck at Union Chapel London 2013 (3)” by Aurelien Guichard from London, United Kingdom – BeckUploaded by January. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beck_at_Union_Chapel_London_2013_(3).jpg#/media/File:Beck_at_Union_Chapel_London_2013_(3).jpg

2 comments to “A Beck Primer– 10 Essential Tracks”
  1. I’m sure this one was a tough one to craft. Gotta give love to “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” or “Nitemare Hippy Girl.” Some Mellow classics.

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