Two of the most important moments of my youth were seeing Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in the theater in the fall of 1994 and buying a copy of Beck's Odelay when it came out in the summer of '96. What did these two things have in common?
First, they were two of the most important artistic statements of the '90s. Second: They're both mixtapes of the highest order, a mishmash of ingredients in which the end result is a piece of art far greater than the sum of its parts. While Tarantino was injecting his work with references to '60s French New Wave films and old Kung Fu movies, Beck (full name Beck Hansen) was giving a nod to the grooves of early hip-hop, the wild energy of punk, the meticulous showmanship of James Brown, and the wild synth sounds of New Wave.
And now: our essential Beck mix!
Why It Matters: The tune that kicked it all into high gear for Beck, "Loser" is a twangy freak-folk-meets-hip-hop theme for a generation on the cusp of being dubbed, yes, slackers. Beck's rambling delivery and surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics perfectly positioned him to be the voice of that emerging generation—your weird, funny friend arriving to the party just in time to fill the massive void left by the sudden disappearance of Nirvana.
Why It Matters: Right around the release of his major-label debut, Mellow Gold, Beck also sneakily released a folk album called One Foot in the Grave. It was a reminder that he would never lose sight of the dual nature of his songwriting instinct, which drew him equally to tweaked, frenetic pop and sincere, spare folk.
Standout Lyric: "Your brains went black when she took back her love / And put it out into the sun / The birds did fly when the heavens all went dry / And the cigarettes were smoking by themselves"
Song: "Where It's At"
Why It Matters: I got to see Beck play on the Odelay tour, so I can personally confirm that two-thirds of the Beastie Boys were in attendance at his New York show—which, in '96, was unquestionable proof that you were a thing. For this album Beck teamed up with The Dust Brothers, the legendary production duo behind the Beastie Boys' classic Paul's Boutique, to create a polished and dynamic record that somehow radiates all the raw energy and joy of a mixtape made for you by your best friend. If "Loser" threatened to pigeonhole Beck as a one-hit wonder, the release of Odelay in 1996 put that conversation to bed.
Standout Lyric: "Shine your shoes with your microphone blues / Hirsute with your parachute fruits / Passing the dutchie from coast to coast / Let my man Ken Wilson (rock the most)"
Why It Matters: This ballad off Odelay is a perfect microcosm of what's so cool about Beck. It takes a number of seemingly disparate ingredients—sampling, lyrical abstraction, a cover of a cover (Beck via Bob Dylan via Van Morrison)—and combines them to make something sonically beautiful and emotionally resonant.
Standout Lyric: "Someone will sweep up my lazy bones / And we will rise in the cool of the evening / I remember the way that you smiled / When the gravity shackles were wild / And something is vacant / When I think it's all beginning"
Song: "Nobody's Fault But My Own"
Why It Matters: I first heard this song sitting in the back of a friend's tour van, moments after he'd played a show opening for Sonic Youth. This van was outfitted with a VCR, and as we pulled out of the venue's parking lot and onto the highway, he cued up a movie about crop circles before asking, "Wanna hear the new Beck song?" The minor chords, the hypnotic instrumentation, the shockingly straightforward lyrics—I instantly realized Beck had another gear he'd only just decided to unlock.
Standout Lyric: "Treated you like a rusty blade / A throwaway from an open grave / Cut you loose from a chain gang and let you go / And on the day you said it's true / Some love holds, some gets used / Tried to tell you I never knew it could be so sweet"
Song: "Nicotine & Gravy"
Why It Matters: Midnite Vultures saw Beck returning to the chaotic sonic terrain of Odelay and Mellow Gold. This time around, his retro-futuristic sensibility yielded a record bearing the clear fingerprints of both Kraftwerk and Rick James, and the result was one sharp, sassy affair. To be sure, it's a funny album, and one that Beck definitely presents with a serious wink—but the music is there to back up the tomfoolery. "Nicotine and Gravy" is Midnite Vultures at its best: a mid-tempo groove, classic drum breaks, wild bursts of synth, and a whole lot of falsetto.
Standout Lyric: "I'll feed you fruit that don't exist / I'll leave graffiti where you've never been kissed / I'll do your laundry, massage your soul / I'll turn you over to the highway patrol"
Why It Matters: Morning Phase is the album that landed Beck Album of the Year honors at the 2015 Grammys—inspiring Kanye to rant to reporters about Beck's inadequacy in the field and subsequently apologize for it all on Twitter. And it's good he did, because while Beyoncé's self-titled album clearly captured the zeitgeist and was the de facto album of the year, insulting Beck is an amateur move. This album saw Beck return to a feel previously explored on Mutations and Sea Change, and this song is perfectly emblematic of that mood, with its sweeping strings, luxurious vocal phrasing, and a tone that's equal parts comforting and ominous.
Standout Lyric: "If I surrender / And I don't fight this wave / No I won't go under / I'll only get carried away"
Why It Matters: Because Beck's back, and he's up to his old tricks. The track opens with him saying "Giddy up, giddy up" over the low boom of an 808, and that pairing reads like a clear statement of intent: he's returned to his super-saturated mash-up world, merging the signature sounds of old-school rap with Wild West moves and abstract turns of phrase to dole out a welcome dose of that winky, wild-eyed Beck we got to know back in the '90s.
To dig through Beck's catalog and sign up for his mailing list, head over to beck.com—and to listen to all these songs, follow us on Spotify @wearesweet.