Beck is one of the most incomprehensible musical chameleons on the planet. Throughout his career, he’s tried out several different genres, and has succeeded in just about all of them. How diverse is Beck’s discography? Well, let’s take a closer look at just how many styles the ever-restless musician (who turns 45 Wednesday) has tried through his two-plus decades as a recording artist.
Albums: Sea Change (2002), Morning Phase (2014), a few songs on Mutations (1998)
The aptly-titled Sea Change was a remarkable departure from anything Beck had done before (although you could kind of say that about all of his albums). After reeling from a difficult breakup, Beck released a remarkable collection of acoustic songs that documented the misery he was going through. Tracks like “Lost Cause,” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” were unlike anything we might have expected from the guy who gave us “Where It’s At,” and “Mixed Bizness.” In 2014, he returned to this field for Morning Phase. This album wasn’t quite as depressing as its predecessor, but it was a similarly quiet set of contemplative songs. Morning Phase was widely praised by critics, it devastated Kanye West and the Beyhive, won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Albums: Midnite Vultures (1999)
Beck has always been a fairly funky character, but the only time he went directly into that well was on Midnite Vultures, one of the more controversial albums in his discography. British music magazine Q gave the album four stars upon release, but would later name it the 50th worst album of all-time. You can see why it would be divisive; Beck dropped anything resembling seriousness here, making an album that was undeniably fun, but perhaps not as deep as his previous work. Still, there’s some brilliant nonsense on this album. “Sexx Laws” gives us glorious non-sequiturs about “Sports Illustrated moms,” and “wearing hepatitis contact lens.”
Albums: Various tracks throughout his career
Beck has never released a full-fledged hip-hop album, but he has surprisingly strong flow and hasn’t been afraid to bust it out. The most famous example of this is probably the smash single “Where It’s At,” but he also drops some strong verses on “Hell Yes,” from 2005’s Guero. Odelay was probably the most rap-heavy Beck album, but he occasionally reminds us what he’s capable of when you just give him two turntables and a microphone.
Albums: Song Reader (2012)
In a rather innovative move that’s surprisingly not been copied yet, Beck released a collection of sheet music for some new songs he wrote in 2011, challenging his fans to record the songs themselves. For an artist who had always challenged his audience, this was his greatest challenge yet: I write the songs. You play them. Many people took him up on this and posted videos on YouTube. Eventually, Song Reader was released as LP with artists such as Jack White, Jarvis Cocker, and even Beck himself performing the songs.
Albums: One Foot in the Grave (1994) Stereophonic Soul Manure (1994)
Before breaking through with Mellow Gold and “Loser,” Beck was an indie lo-fi artist making short, experimental songs with whimsical titles like “Satan Gave Me a Taco” and “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack.” On these albums, we can see the genesis of some of Beck’s later musical explorations, particularly on the lo-fi folk tune “Asshole,” which was later covered by Tom Petty on the She’s the One soundtrack.
Albums: Modern Guilt (2008)
While Beck has always written lyrics that were fairly trippy, 2008’s Modern Guilt was the closest he came to making a full-blown psych-rock album. The album, a collaboration with Danger Mouse, featured the Doors-ish title track, and the head-rush of songs like “Profanity Prayers,” and “Soul of a Man.” This album confirmed what we all figured for years; that Beck would have been perfectly comfortable in 1967.
Albums: Mellow Gold (1994), Odelay (1996), Mutations (1998), Guero (2005), The Information (2006)
Certain Beck records tend to defy categorization; he zooms from genre-to-genre on each track, and, more importantly, the general vibe of the album can’t really be placed into a single convenient category. I suppose that’s why the term “alternative” exists, but these feel like albums only Beck could have made, and they’re best understood simply as Beck Music.