Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and producer Beck has had a long career experimenting with genres and never staying in one place for long. In this career retrospective, we take a look back at Beck’s 14 studio albums and rank them. Of course this is all subjective – and with an artist as versatile as Beck, every fan likes his work for different reasons. With that said, let’s get to it!
Golden Feelings (1993)
Beck’s first album is a collection of curiosities. Lofi and at times abrasive, Golden Feelings offers an early glimpse into Beck’s anti-folk, blues, and country leanings. Long out of print, the record surely has its charms, but Beck would later perfect the sound on his major label debut Mellow Gold.
Standouts: “No Money No Honey,” “Gettin' Home,” “Totally Confused”
To follow up on his Grammy-award winning album Morning Phase, Beck teamed up with producer Greg Kurstin – known for his work with Adele, Sia, Kelly, Clarkson, and Ellie Goulding. Despite sounding overtly pop, Colors never quite lives up to the promise of the album’s second fun, goofball single, “Wow.” Curiously, Beck wasn’t even sure he wanted to release the song – he credits his children for convincing him otherwise. Beck seemed to take criticism of this “sanitized” sound to heart, as his next album saw him experimenting once more.
Standouts: “Colors,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Wow”
Two years after the release of Colors, Beck teamed up with Pharrell to release his latest album, Hyperspace. While the album lacks the punch many of his best records do, fans welcomed the veteran artist’s return to a more experimental sound. Indeed, songs like “Saw Lightning” are reminiscent of early Beck classics, combining blues and hip-hop – all the more noticeable when stripped to its bare essentials.
Standouts: “Uneventful Days,” “Saw Lightning,” “Hyperspace”
Morning Phase (2014)
At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, Morning Phase won three awards, including Album of the Year. As a spiritual successor to Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, the two albums share a similar folk-rock sound and feature many of the same personnel. A more mellow affair, Morning Phase is a showcase for Beck’s mature vocals – particularly on ballads like “Unforgiven” and “Wave.”
Standouts: “Blue Moon,” “Unforgiven,” “Country Down”
Modern Guilt (2008)
Modern Guilt’s first three tracks are perhaps Beck’s most impressive pairing of any of his albums. From the shimmering opener “Orphans” (featuring guest vocals by Cat Power), to the surf-rock delights of “Gamma Ray,” to the career highlight psych-rock meltdown “Chemtrails,” Modern Guilt truly impresses. Outside of the breathtaking album closer “Volcano,” the other songs don’t quite reach those same heights. Yet, the album is tightly sequenced, with just 10 tracks and a runtime under 34 minutes, and Danger Mouse’s production plays to Beck’s retro sensibilities, giving the album a unique ’60s rock vibe.
Standouts: “Orphans,” “Gamma Ray,” “Chemtrails”
Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994)
Where Golden Feelings’ meandering occasionally feels tedious, it somehow becomes a defining strength in Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Sprawling, unfocused, heartfelt, and hilarious, Beck’s second studio album sounds like a mess in all the best ways. Notably, the album also features “Rowboat,” which would be covered by the legendary Johnny Cash.
Standouts: “Rowboat,” “Satan Gave Me a Taco,” “Modesto”
Morning Phase isn’t the only “sequel” in Beck’s discography. Once again teaming up with Dust Brothers, Beck created what many consider to be a return to his sample-heavy Odelay sound. While it’s true the album does similarly freely jump between genres, it would be unfair to paint Guero as a mere retread. “Girl” hides its dark lyrics behind a fun beach vibe and “Black Tambourine” brings a cool, sedated jam. Meanwhile, the second half of the album leans heavily on Beck’s blues and folk roots – particularly underrated deep cuts like “Scarecrow,” “Farewell Ride,” and “Emergency Exit.”
The Information (2006)
Produced by Nigel Godrich (known for his work with Radiohead), The Information sees Beck deeply exploring existential themes surrounding what was then-burgeoning technology (see “Cellphone’s Dead”). Much like Guero, the album leaps between genres, though is heavily influenced by hip-hop and alternative rock. Sprawling and bleak, the album ends with an eerie conversation between author Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze.
Standouts: “Elevator Music,” “New Round, “Dark Star”
Mellow Gold (1994)
“Loser” was a runaway hit – an ironic slacker anthem so ubiquitous it threatened to turn Beck into a one-hit wonder. Yet, somehow, Beck defied expectations and created an album that distilled his unique blend of anti-folk, country, and hip-hop into a sound that could appeal to a much wider audience than his earlier recordings ever did. And he was only getting started.
Standouts: “Loser,” “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”
One Foot in the Grave (1994)
If Mellow Gold is a distillation of all the ironic, humorous tendencies Beck showed early on in his career – One Foot in the Grave is surely its more earnest counterpart. Released three months after Mellow Gold, this album is mostly Beck and an acoustic guitar, drawing heavily from Beck’s early blues and country influences – including a reworking of a Skip James tune.
Standouts: “Sleeping Bag,” “Cyanide Breath Mint,” “Hollow Log”
Midnite Vultures (1999)
Closing out the ’90s with a record determined to make people dance, Midnite Vultures is a vibrant anomaly in Beck’s discography, melding funk, soul, R&B, and, yes, banjos, to create songs that are impossible to ignore. The album marries playful compositions with strangely alluring, surrealistic lyrics, conjuring images like “Brief encounters in Mercedes Benz/Wearing hepatitis contact lens” that put commercialism on blast. From the gender-bending “Sexx Laws” to fan-favorite concert staple “Debra,” Midnite Vultures is a party from beginning to end.
Standouts: “Nicotine & Gravy,” “Mixed Bizness,” “Get Real Paid”
Sea Change (2002)
For an artist known for left turns, Sea Change surely stands as Beck’s sharpest. Following the zany Midnite Vultures, Sea Change is a total 180 – featuring melancholic folk songs with cinematic string arrangements by Beck’s father, David Campbell. Reportedly written following a breakup, the lyrics discard Beck’s trademark ironic lyrics for direct, simple language. The harrowing songs chronicle Beck’s difficulties dealing with heartache, eventual acceptance, and moving forward. The album would mark the second time Beck would collaborate with producer Nigel Godrich.
Standouts: “Paper Tiger,” “Lost Cause,” “It’s All In Your Mind”
In 1996, Beck released his most successful album to date, Odelay. Produced by Dust Brothers, the album makes extensive use of samples and genres – ranging from folk and punk to hip-hop and bossa nova. At a time when rock was still emerging from grunge, Odelay felt like a revolution, boundless in its breadth, and endlessly fun and filled with life and geeky musical references. It remains the definitive Beck album, and for good reason. But it’s not the No. 1 album on our list.
Standouts: “Devils Haircut,” “Lord Only Knows,” “Where It’s At”
From spacey folk rock opener “Cold Brains” to harpsichord-led “We Live Again” to the desolate country ballad “Sing It Again,” Mutations sees Beck play around with all things Americana. Perhaps a surprising follow-up to listeners who first caught on with the sample-heavy Odelay, Mutations sees Beck exploring his traditional roots with plenty of acoustic instrumentation, while adding some synths and international influences such as the esraj played in “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and the Brazilian-influenced “Tropicalia.” The lyrics play a pivotal role in the album’s appeal as well, pairing Beck’s penchant for inconspicuously dark, surrealist imagery with an understated sincerity. Produced by Nigel Godrich, the album was recorded in two weeks. In an interview with a robot, Beck mused the album could be enjoyed during a nice evening bath – how could we not celebrate an album like that?
Standouts: “Cold Brains,” “Canceled Check,” “Sing It Again”
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