The story and successes of Beck‘s Odelay essentially begin in three different places. The first is the Beastie Boys and their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Following the massive success of their debut LP, the trio turned to then-unknown producers, the Dust Brothers, to make that follow-up. The beats the Dust Brothers came up with were largely stitched together from disparate samples of other music, creating a head-spinning mélange of sound that was a huge commercial flop for the Beastie Boys. However, Paul’s Boutique turned out to be a slow burner, and musicians and new fans alike discovered it gradually over the years. It ended up being hugely influential as the 1990s wore on.
Kurt Cobain died in early April of 1994, effectively bringing the grunge era to its unofficial close. Nirvana‘s fellow Seattle-based grunge founders—Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains—would all continue to have success, and each of those acts still had a handful of radio hits in them. It’s also true that grunge would continue to influence bands for years, as the success of acts like Hinder and Hoobastank into the mid-2000s can be traced directly back to the genre. But the subgenre’s grip on alternative rock radio and MTV had already started to fade, which accelerated with Cobain’s passing.
This led to the explosion of styles that made the mid-1990s such a weird yet exciting time to be a rock music fan. Major labels were snapping up and promoting all sorts of bands, seemingly without any idea of how marketable they were, and the airwaves were filled with all manner of eccentric acts (most destined to be one-hit wonders at best). Into this stew stepped Beck Hansen and “Loser“. The song combines a bluesy slide guitar riff, a laid-back hip-hop drumbeat, and Beck’s mush-mouthed rapping. The equally lazy-sounding chorus, “Soy un perdidor / I’m a loser, baby / So why don’t you kill me?” was an insistent earworm, and the track became a huge hit.
The album “Loser” came from 1994’s Mellow Gold, spawned no other successful singles, and the two independent albums Beck released in the next year (One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathic Soulmanure) were odd and folky and intentionally non-commercial. So, the pressure to succeed with Odelay—his official follow-up for major label DGC—was immense. Beck ended up teaming up with The Dust Brothers, who had gained a following by that point, and their sensibilities meshed seamlessly.
Odelay was released in June of 1996, and its first single, “Where It’s At”, immediately became a fixture on modern rock radio and MTV. The song itself is a good primer for the record, as it has a funky beat, a strong chorus, and a whole pile of samples (both catchy and odd) scattered throughout. Also, the single mix is a full two minutes shorter than the album version, providing an unusually stark comparison between an artist’s intention and what a record label deems commercial. The single is a tight three-and-a-half-minutes, focusing on Beck’s lyrics, the organ hook, and the refrain: “Where it’s at! / I got two turntables and a microphone.” The album version has even more vocal samples and asides from Beck; plus, it stretches the instrumental passages, including an extended saxophone solo and a long, noisy ending.
The album spawned three more successful singles, with all four charting in North America on Billboard‘s Modern Rock and Hot 100 Singles charts. “Devil’s Haircut” uses a variation of the “Amen” drum break—maybe the most sampled drumbeat of all time—and features a snarling guitar riff that is reprised without distortion in the bass. It’s one of the most straight-ahead rockers on the album, which may be why it’s the opening track. It also features an outro in which a heavily distorted Beck shouts, “Devil’s haircut / In my mind” at the top of his lungs (a bit that will be heavily recurring throughout the sequence). “The New Pollution” is actually quite similar sonically to “Devil’s Haircut”, but the intro, which combines perky choir vocals with a handful of odd samples, obscures this. The song also has a prominent saxophone sample (another recurring sound on the LP).
Finally, “Jack-Ass” represents the folkier side of Beck. It’s a laid-back track that is also built around samples, particularly a watery-sounding guitar riff. But the laconic singing delivery, combined with the omnipresent tambourine and jangling acoustic guitar, make the song sound slower than it actually is. The music video—shot in stark black and white, taking place in a coal mine, and featuring a cameo from Willie Nelson—feeds into that folk music feeling. There’s a weariness and lack of artifice to the vocals that presages Beck’s occasional future forays into confessional, more acoustic songwriting on albums like 2002’s Sea Change and 2014’s Morning Phase.
The bulk of Odelay has the same mishmash of folk, rock, hip-hop, and soul as its singles. It’s a musical stew that still sounds unusual yet workable 25 years later. The Dust Brothers head-spinning use of samples and Beck’s predilection for making things sound like they’re from the ’70s (or intentionally distorting them) makes it nearly impossible to tell what was sampled and what was actually performed on the album. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, but it makes for an interesting listening experience nonetheless.
“Hotwax” manages to include slack-stringed acoustic guitar, accordion, distorted guitars (or is it a distorted harmonica?), synth bloops, honky-tonk piano, Spanish language singing, and English language rapping into a lone coherent track. Elsewhere, “Novacane” features Beck rapping over a bed of sound that buzzes along on fuzz guitars and a single beeping synth tone but then cuts in a couple of times with a sample of soul horns. It’s one of the album’s harder-hitting tracks, at least for its first three minutes. Afterward, the song calms down to just a simple groove and seems like it’s going to fade away. Then a wave of distorted noise comes in, mostly dissipates, and leaves an ancient synth playing a solo, switching from one single note to the next for the final minute.
Penultimate track “High Five” also reflects this everything-goes approach. The shouted refrain, “High Five / More dead than alive”, is clearly the hook of the song, but there are hip-hop samples, a classical music sample, an opening bit of Latin guitar, and a voice that shouts, “Hey, everybody, come on now! / Seven, six, oh yeah, I like that shit!” as the song changes its style away from that guitar. There’s a squealing sound underneath the refrain that sounds like an approximation of a dentist’s drill, which I assume is intentionally obnoxious. The tune also includes a musical joke where it slides into the weird synth solo from “Novacane”, only to be cut off by the same voice from the beginning, saying, “Turn that shit off, man! / What’s wrong with you, man? / Get the other record!” Then it goes back to the main groove.
Of these 13 tracks, only a few break from the stew Beck and the Dust Brothers have created. “Jack-Ass” uses many of the same elements but manages a wholly different vibe. Then, “Minus” resembles a heavily distorted punk rock track and is the album’s shortest entry. The spare acoustic closer, “Ramshackle” (produced by folk specialists Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf), is the only remaining album track from an earlier, mostly scrapped recording session; also, “Derelict” is a cosmic and creepy composition that pushes Beck and the Dust Brothers’ sensibilities in a completely different direction. Strange, Gamelan-style percussion undergirds the track, giving it an unsettling vibe. A sitar shows up in the spaces where Beck isn’t singing, furthering the sense of otherness.
With “Loser”, Beck single-handedly helped pave the path to something in alternative rock beyond distorted guitars and intense vocals. By the time Odelay dropped two years later, the modern rock audience was primed to accept its more expansive sound. It probably helped that the critical reception to the record was universal acclaim, giving notice to music fans that the album was something worth paying attention to. Specifically, the album topped the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz and Jop Critics Poll at the end of 1996, and it won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 1997.
Its enduring influence on the musical landscape is maybe a little harder to pin down. DJ Shadow’s iconic Endtroducing… —an album composed entirely of the kind of crate-digging samples The Dust Brothers favored—was released at the end of 1996. Would it have had as much critical acclaim without Odelay arriving six months earlier? Would The Avalanches’ seminal, sample-heavy 2000 album, Since I Left You, have been there without Odelay? Did future mash-up superstars like Girl Talk and Danger Mouse (who went on to produce Beck’s 2008 album Modern Guilt) take inspiration from this album?
The anything-goes era of alternative rock lasted maybe two more years until the heavier sounds of nu-metal began to dominate the landscape near the end of 1998. Meanwhile, pop acts like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys started their rise at around the same time. Did Odelay, which was at best a moderate success on the mainstream charts, signal to record label execs that the music landscape was brightening up to the point where teen-oriented acts were becoming viable again? Possibly.
What we can say definitively about Odelay is that it has allowed Beck to have a long-lasting career in music where he has been able to try just about anything he wants. He followed this album with the grab-bag B-sides of Mutations and then slid right into the Prince-influenced funk of Midnite Vultures and onward into the acoustic, confessional Sea Change before teaming back up with The Dust Brothers for the bouncy and fun Guero. Listening back to the album 25 years later, it still has a unique sound, one that cements how the potent combination of Beck and the Dust Brother results in some truly fascinating music.