On June 18th wistful Gen Xers around the world will, in the way they do, most likely fail to acknowledged the 20th anniversary of one of the anchor recordings from the alternative movement of the 1990s — Beck’s Odelay.
Odelay, which would represent Beck’s commercial high water mark (2.3 million copies sold in the U.S.) would feature five singles, including the “The New Pollution”, “Devils Haircut” and the “two turntables and a microphone” rallying cry, “Where It’s At.”
More important than the album’s success at the cash registers, though, was its success as a piece of art. Odelay would score flattering reviews in publications like Spin, Village Voice, NME, and Rolling Stone and would represent peak Beck, where he was doing memorable things no matter which musical Beckguise he was wearing in a given song (sad Beck, slacker Beck, funky Beck, white-rap Beck, freak-folk Beck).
As an exercise in nostalgia, we hopped into the AUX Time Machine™ and listened to all of Beck’s 12 proper albums once again just to reassure ourselves that Odelay is the best Beck album.
We explain why below…
Golden Feelings (1993)
Beck’s debut album and a collector’s item to completists, there’s little here to suggest the man born Bek David Campbell would eventually make music that real people enjoyed.
Vibe: Freak-folk Beck
Signature Song: —
Why Odelay is better: If we’re being generous, Golden Feelings showcases an artist with an incomplete vision.
Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994)
Through either sly negotiation or loophole exploit, Beck released the independent Stereopathetic Soulmanure immediately before his major label debut, Mellow Gold.
Vibe: Freak-folk Beck
Signature Song: “Satan Gave Me A Taco”
Why Odelay is better: The best moments of Stereopathetic Soulmanure (“Ozzy” and “Satan Gave Me A Taco”) reveal some of Beck’s signature scamp, but there’s still a lot of unnecessary weirdness to wade through.
Mellow Gold (1994)
Slacker anthem “Loser” captured the alternative nation zeitgeist of the mid-’90s and is probably also to blame for the existence of Mac DeMarco.
Vibe: Slacker Beck
Signature Song: “Loser”
Why Odelay is better: While “Loser” is arguably Beck’s biggest hit, taken as a whole Mellow Gold feels very dated all these years later. It’s also the first time listeners got a really good snapshot of Beck’s specific brand of word salad song lyric poetry. In hindsight imagery like “giant dildos crushing the sun” is more exhausting than it is amusing.
One Foot In The Grave (1994)
The second independent album/contractual exploit Beck released in 1994, One Foot In The Grave would flirt with some of the acoustic glumness (“Black Lake Morning,” “I Get Lonesome”) he would improve upon with later records.
Vibe: Sad Beck/freak-folk Beck/slacker Beck
Signature Song: “Asshole”
Why Odelay is better: Not so much an “album” as it is a bunch of disparate ideas thrown together on a single CD, One Foot In The Grave‘s worst fault is that it feels like a workshopping session.
Following Odelay‘s success Beck swerved in a different direction with Mutations, a somber psychedelic folk record.
Vibe: Sad Beck
Signature Song: “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”
Why Odelay is better: While “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” remains sublime all these years later and “Canceled Check” has a charming Dylan-like pace, Mutations occupies an uncertain place. People who’ve never experienced real tragedy in their lives probably find it really moving, but it’s not exactly like listening to a Jeff Buckley album, is it?
Midnight Vultures (1999)
Predating Mickey Avalon’s hustler schtick (see “Hollywood Freaks”) by a decade, this record features Beck trying to get his Prince on with lurid songs about doin’ it and doin’ it well.
Vibe: Sex Beck
Signature Song: “Get Real Paid”
Why Odelay is better: The songs on Midnight Vultures hold up remarkably well 17 years later. Where things get troubling is in the image of Beck Hansen, naked and pale, a hint of perspiration on his upper lip and his first gen Michael Cera hair flopping to and fro while he ruts away at some partner. Disgusting.
Sea Change (2002)
A adult-seeming treatise on sadness and loneliness, the breakup album Sea Change saw Beck put away childish things and deal with real life.
Vibe: Sad Beck
Signature Song: “Guess I’m Doing Fine”
Why Odelay is better: Sea Change scored lots of critic points at the time, in part, we suspect, because he had to confront with many of life’s same ugly realities that his now older, more mature audience had to as well as it shed its alt.slacker past. That said, speaking for a time and a place is different than being amazing art.
Reunited with production duo the Dust Brothers and Tony Hoffer, Beck revisited many of the sonic styles that made Odelay so successful, whether it was shimmering trips through the Middle East (“Missing”), funky westerns (“Farewell Ride”) or clap-along groovers (“Emergency Exit”).
Vibe: Funky Beck
Signature Song: “Black Tambourine”
Why Odelay is better: Calling it Odelay II would be dismissive. Guero doesn’t suck. You can still listen to it today and enjoy it. But you’ll enjoy it in almost the exact same way you’d enjoy hearing Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” or some mid-period Beastie Boys track.
The Information (2006)
There’s some sophisticated funk to The Information. Songs like the punky and, paradoxically, tough first single “Nausea” showed Beck could still surprise us…
Vibe: White-rap Beck
Signature Song: “We Dance Alone”
Why Odelay is better: …and then he’d start rapping again. By 2006 it had become clear that rap Beck is not the best Beck.
Modern Guilt (2008)
Beck enlists Cat Power and Danger Mouse for a contractual obligation album.
Vibe: Listless Beck
Signature Song: “Chemtrails”
Why Odelay is better: Did he even try on this record? Like, sure, it’s got all the hallmarks of a talented craftsman — there are some interesting new electronic elements and the high profile help he enlisted added some star power — but taken as a whole Modern Guilt holds about the same place in the Beck discography the Accelerate album does for R.E.M.
Morning Phase (2014)
Meant to be a companion piece to Sea Change, on Morning Phase Beck flirts with Laurel Canyon soft-rock (“Blue Moon”) and something approaching Simon & Garfunkel-style folk (“Turn Away”).
Vibe: Sad Beck
Signature Song: “Blackbird Chain”
Why Odelay is better: By now if you haven’t figured out that Beck is a sort of musical Rorschach Test where you see what you want to see in each new Beck record, well, you haven’t really been paying attention, have you?
Is he sad here? Happy? Reconciled? Who knows? What we do know is that in our world the best Beck is still the one where we can just clap our hands. Clap our hands.