A Strange Invitation

Ranking the Beck Albums

by Sean McCarthy

26 February 2014


5 - 1

5. Midnight Vultures (1999)

Of course Prince was going to be part of everyone’s Y2K soundtrack on December 31, 1999, but thankfully Beck brought his own party album to the mix that year. Midnight Vultures stands as one of the most cerebral “dumb” party albums ever recorded. “I think we’re going crazy / Her left eye is lazy / She looks so Israeli,” Beck croons on “Nicotine and Gravy”. Of course, with the music as good as it is on Midnight Vultures, you can be excused for not pouring over its lyrical content.

The common summation of Midnight Vultures was that Beck put out the best Prince album since Diamonds and Pearls. And tracks like “Peaches & Cream”, “Milk and Honey”, and the plaintive “Beautiful Way” justified that tag. It may not have shifted the musical landscape like Odelay, but Midnight Vultures did just fine for supplying the party soundtrack for grad school lit and art history majors in the late ‘90s.

4. Mellow Gold (1994)

Beck’s first album on a major label was released onto the public shortly before Kurt Cobain killed himself. At first, Beck’s sarcastic, deceptively lazy “Loser” sounded like a crass alt-rock cash grab. And it would sound that way if you just bought the cassette single.

However, those who ended up buying Mellow Gold were treated to a musical landscape that “Loser” only teased at. The folksy “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” managed to be beautiful on the ears while also forcing listeners to envision a giant dildo crushing the sun. Frightening overheard arguments with apartment neighbors somehow found a home next to tracks like “Beercan” where Beck sets out to be a modern-day Sly & the Family Stone. It’s not a pretty listen, but Mellow Gold ended up avoiding the discount bin that befell many alt-rock artists in that era—and a year after its release, this so-called “destined to be one-hit-wonder” artist ended up on many critics’ “most anticipated follow-up” lists.

3. Mutations (1998)

Only the logic of a major label could have justified not calling Mutations a proper follow-up to Beck’s commercial and artistic smash Odelay. The length (just short of 50 minutes) justifies calling it a full-length album. But more importantly, the songs are anything but tossed-off experiments.

Odelay may have been more of a musician’s album, but Mutations stands as a songwriter’s album. Fans who took to Mutations were the ones who were least surprised when Beck released Sea Change, thanks to confessional tracks like “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and “Cold Brains”. A consummate fan favorite, Mutations deserves to be mentioned alongside Beck’s more higher profile artistic triumphs.

2. Odelay (1996)

Mellow Gold may be one of the only albums that people bought because of a single, fell out of love with it once that single faded and the backlash began, and thanks to world of mouth, fell back in love with it. So much so that in the summer of 1996, one of the only things the music world was talking about was Beck’s follow-up album.

Odelay lived up to expectations and then some. Fusing Bob Dylan‘s non-sequitur lyrics with Beastie Boys-like production (thanks to the Dust Brothers), Odelay was a confident masterstroke of musicianship. Many music writers credit Odelay with changing the landscape of popular music, but it’s difficult to see how exactly it could have because unlike Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it didn’t seem like any band was willing to try to recreate the formula that Beck perfected on that record.

1. Sea Change (2002)

Classifying an album as “best” or “definitive” may seem like mincing words, but not in the case of comparing Sea Change to Odelay. The later may be the “definitive” Beck album as it had a greater impact on the music world, but the former ekes out a win by the strength of its songs. You can appreciate Odelay‘s ambition while not giving the album a “front-to-back” listen in more than a decade. But Sea Change is that rare album that merits an almost yearly revisit.

The backstory is well-known. Beck recorded Sea Change after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend and fiancee Leigh Limon. While many breakup albums may have reveled in their bitterness, Sea Change was the sound of someone who was first and foremost just trying to make it to the next day. Beck recruited his father (composer David Campbell) to handle the string arrangements, which provided a wonderful, breezy beauty to songs like “Round the Bend” and “Lost Cause”. Deemed a classic almost the day it came out, Sea Change remains Beck’s masterwork and deserves to be on the short list of the best albums released in the early aughts.

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