Beck Hansen has a discography so diverse it almost demands to be taken as a whole. Better known by his mononym, Beck has made 12 studio albums since beginning his recording career in 1993, and each one feels like an extension of his personality as a songwriter. He culls together new influences and evokes distinct moods for each outing, resulting in polar opposite albums like Midnite Vultures, a sleazy electro-funk-soul romp, and Sea Change, a lushly devastating breakup album.
It’s nearly impossible to compare such disparate records against one another, but we’re going to try anyway in celebration of Beck’s upcoming, currently untitled 13th studio album. Judging from the first songs released, “Wow” and “Dreams,” it looks like another big departure in a career full of them. Let’s rank the current 12 albums for now, though.
12. Golden Feelings
I wouldn’t call any Beck release truly bad, but his first album certainly comes the closest. Released only in limited quantities without Beck’s permission, Golden Feelings simply sounds unfinished and overly muddled with a few too many noise experiments and too few memorable tunes. Its biggest redeeming feature is the surreal humor throughout, which gives the lo-fi recording an enjoyable homemade quality.
11. Modern Guilt
Modern Guilt feels like a return to basics that’s mostly welcome but occasionally goes a little too basic, especially when compared with the rest of Beck’s adventurous discography. The atmosphere is breezy and psychedelic with a hint of 21st century paranoia, a sound that really works on standout tracks like “Orphans” or “Modern Guilt” but can’t support weaker ones like “Chemtrails” and the oddly mixed “Walls.”
10. Stereopathetic Soulmanure
Beck’s second independent (and overall) release is an authentic hillbilly record from the Los Angeles native. It features lots of mournful Bakersfield-style steel guitar and drawling, and almost consciously silly vocals. Most of the record comes across as a sincere tribute to the independent-minded folk singers and outlaw crooners that inspired these just barely off-kilter country songs.
Like Golden Feelings, the album is almost consciously off-putting at times, but that can’t diminish the strength of “Rowboat,” a song truly worthy of being covered by Johnny Cash.
9. The Information
Much like its predecessor, Guero, The Information sounds too indebted to Beck’s earlier, endlessly eclectic hit album Odelay to truly stand on its own. Harmonicas, jazz fusion keyboards, guitars both electric and acoustic, and all manners of percussion and sound effects come together to form a collection off hip-hop inflected tracks that occasionally sound constructed to the point of being organic. The sheer range of influences and sounds give this album a pass despite its share of forgettable tracks.
8. One Foot in the Grave
Recorded before but released after Mellow Gold, Beck’s 1994 independent release, One Foot in the Grave is another bare-bones hillbilly folk record (a sound miles removed from his previous hit “Loser”), but without the obnoxious anti-folk noodling of Golden Feelings and Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Beck’s lyrics are earnest but as simple as his spare recording style, which fits instant classic songs like “He’s A Mighty Good Leader.”
A return to lively eclecticism after the somber Sea Change, Guero spawned two of Beck’s most accessible hits in “Girl” and “E-Pro,” two catchy tracks that nonetheless betray this album’s biggest problem — the songs are too basic and monotonous in their catchiness. Every track has an immediately accessible, often repetitive or lyric-less chorus, which makes it seem like Beck doesn’t have enough interesting ideas to accompany his admittedly infectious sample-based beats and riffs.
6. Morning Phase
A spiritual successor to Sea Change, Beck’s most recent release saw the welcome return of his more somber side. He trades in the post-relationship woes of Sea Change for more ethereal and spiritual subject matter that’s well-suited to the lush orchestrations that turn acoustic strumming into soaring epics like “Blue Moon” and “Waking Light.”
5. Sea Change
Sea Change has none of the cryptic word salad lyrics that characterize many of Beck’s releases — instead, the album finds him at his most direct and openhearted, penning simple but resonant lyrics concerning his ongoing breakup with a long-term girlfriend. The production is lush and lovely with sparingly-used orchestral flourishes that strike the right balance between intimate and epic for heartbreaking tracks like “Lost Cause” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine.”
Mutations finds Beck merging his interest in traditional American music with the polish and instrumentation of a major studio release. The rap-free record proves Beck can be just as eclectic without relying on sampling, and his influences here are as diverse as country, blues, folk, psychedelic, and British bossa nova. Standout songs like “Canceled Check” and “Cold Brains” make this Beck’s strongest folk-centric foray.
3. Midnite Vultures
Beck takes on the burgeoning techno culture of the late ’90s (“Get Real Paid”) through the lens of ’80s new wave (“Peaches and Cream”) and oversexed Prince-style funk (“Debra”). Midnite Vultures is a record full of horn-accented party anthems on the surface with just enough tongue-in-cheek lyrics to suggest Beck’s skepticism of these hedonistic lifestyles. It’s simultaneously fun and melancholy, and all-around a richly rewarding listen.
Odelay is Beck’s most successful album to date and likely his most well-regarded. It’s certainly the album that most describes Beck, effectively synthesizing all of his disparate influences — honky tonk, psychedelic rock, hip-hop, and lounge jazz — into a cohesive collection of songs that are also catchy as hell. The only possible complaint I can lodge against tracks as strong as “Where It’s At” and “Jack-Ass” is that the Dust Brothers’ production sounds occasionally overcrowded. Otherwise Odelay is just about perfect.
1. Mellow Gold
The lo-fi humor and personality of Beck’s early recordings meshed perfectly with the improved aesthetics and stronger songwriting of his first major label release, Mellow Gold. Surprise hits “Loser” and “Beercan” are catchy slacker-rap classics with personality and entertaining nonsense lyrics. Many of the remaining songs are acoustic triumphs, like the gloomy “Pay No Mind” and the humorous “Nitemare Hippy Girl” or abrasive but inexplicably interesting anti-folk experiments that actually work (“Sweet Sunshine” and “Soul-Sucking Jerk”).
It all adds up to a fun record that can hardly sum up Beck’s career as a whole, but still best exemplifies his unique strengths as an artist.
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!