Between the opening notes of the raw, distorted electric guitar in “Devils Haircut'' to the final mellow strumming of the acoustic folk ballad “Ramshackle,” Beck’s seminal 1996 album Odelay laid the groundwork for what would become a career in creating genre-defying musical landscapes. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the landmark album, we’re taking a look back at what made Odelay a unanimous success.
Before social media reduced the global system of interconnected computer networks to four or so websites deliberately designed to keep its users addicted – i.e., before grandpa started reposting the 2010s equivalent of chain email hoaxes – the World Wide Web felt more like a virtual Wild West. Anything and everything was on the table, and it was easy to encounter and discover an array of experiences, ideas, and cultures without even thinking about it.
In the same fashion, Odelay sounds like a precursor to the emerging early internet. Beck melds seemingly disparate genres and found noises into a kaleidoscopic record that plays like an ever-shifting multicultural party, filtered through a weirdo pop lens that could appeal to the masses. Sampling freely, from Franz Schubert’s “First Movement: Allegro Moderato” to Freedom’s “Get Up and Dance,” Beck even incorporates oddities like spoken-word samples from a sex education album. While commercial music today is less resistant to genre constraints, Beck’s freewheeling approach still felt like a minor revelation in 1996, particularly for an album published by a major label.
Most of the songs hold up today. The aforementioned “Devils Haircut” pairs loud, crunchy rock chords with a mixture of samples and Beck’s trademark surrealist lyrics. “The New Pollution” evokes ’60s glamour with its signature saxophone that could have been pulled straight out of a swanky jazz club. And the overlooked gem “Lord Only Knows” sees Beck exploring his country roots, complete with a slick, buzzy slide guitar and unforgettable lyrics like “You only got one finger left, and it's pointing at the door.”
If you haven’t heard the album, it’s worth listening to. In some ways, it’s very much of its era. Yet paradoxically, it also evokes a future that never quite was.
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