As fans check out LP14, here’s a deep dive into Beck’s prolific 21st century discography — the essential listens, the albums worth of a revisit and the cuts best left for the diehards to mull over.
Sea Change, 2002
In 2000, Beck ended his relationship with designer Leigh Limon — his girlfriend of nine years, predating his “Loser” breakthrough — and like any good artist, he channeled his feelings of melancholy and desolation into his art. But Sea Change is no cookie-cutter breakup record. It’s a bleak, brilliantly sculpted bummer that ensnares the heartstrings and never lets go, and perhaps his most arresting project to date, regardless of style. The meld of honest acoustic folk-rock and orchestral strings — far removed from Beck’s patented mad-scientist sampling — expands upon 1998’s introspective Mutations, and is at once sweeping and intimate, particularly on the downcast “Paper Tiger” and lamenting “Lost Cause.”
Sea Change doesn’t get much cheerier than its single, “I Guess I’m Doing Fine” — “It’s only tears that I’m crying / It’s only you that I’m losing / Guess I’m doing fine” Beck matter-of-factly croons — but it remains an engaging listen that showcased a new, more adult side of Mr. Two Turntables and a Microphone. Beck’s vocal tone is deeper and richer, he’s more present in the sometimes austere mixes (skillfully managed by producer Nigel Godrich, of OK Computer fame) and he feels, for the first time, like a genuine singer-songwriter. Sea Change is an easy standout record in the catalog, coveted by diehards and casual fans alike — even if no one’s spinning this one at parties.
Morning Phase, 2014
It was a musical mismatch of epic proportions: Beck’s lovely, unobtrusive comeback LP Morning Phase incited a bunch of Kanye-centric drama after the record scored an unlikely album of the year win over Beyonce's self-titled album at the 2015 Grammy Awards. West hopped onstage as Beck approached the microphone — a la the Taylor Swift interruption at the 2009 VMAs — but didn’t say anything, instead suggesting, “Beck should give his award to Beyonce,” during E!’s post-show recap. And, of course, “who is Beck” trended on Twitter immediately after the ceremony.
Have some respect, people! Morning Phase, which was billed upon its release as a companion to the wistful Sea Change, is a masterstroke in down-tempo cinematic folk-rock that, perhaps more so than any other Beck release, bleeds into a listeners’ psyche, flooding it with serenity and warmth. The opening “Cycle” and “Morning” mini-suite conjures a “yoga at sunrise” mentality as the moseying western-rock of “Say Goodbye” and “Country Down” reveals Beck at his most zen, even under the anticipation borne from a six-year gap between LPs — a lifetime for the patently proficient artist. The project, largely recorded with the same Sea Change musicians in Beck’s Los Angeles home, shimmers with more welcome hope than its predecessor. Expect Morning Phase to age as well as any of Beck’s releases.
The Worthy Revisits
The Information, 2006
Beck’s songwriting timeline got a little twisted in the mid-’00s: his taut and rewarding project The Information was mostly written around 2003, after Sea Change but before his reconnection with producer pals the Dust Brothers, which yielded 2005’s Guero (and its accompanying remix album, Guerolito). The Information didn’t drop until 2006, but the three years of off-and-on songwriting with Godrich ultimately led to a product that was markedly superior to Guero in its sonic development.
The Information was the first proof that the thirty-something husband and father could retain his idiosyncratic, kitchen-sink aesthetic and create something that didn’t sound just like Odelay. The album doesn’t exactly leap from Beck’s catalog — it’s much more appealing on second listen — but there’s plenty to love here, from the bumping campfire funk of “Nausea” to the anxious pop-rock of “Think I’m In Love,” one of Beck’s best Act II earworms. If nothing else, tech nerds can at least appreciate that Beck is credited as “playing” a Game Boy as an instrument in the liner notes. Whether you forgot about The Information or never gave it a chance to begin with, it’s worth a spin today.
Modern Guilt, 2008
At just 33 minutes — Beck’s shortest LP to date — Modern Guilt quickly comes and goes, yet still manages to leave a heap of focused, moody tunes in its wake. “All I can take from these skies is fog / And all I can see in this light: a boat sinking,” Beck laments on the wispy pseudo-dirge “Chemtrails,” a lead single that sets the album’s tone of a man overwhelmed by conspiracy and the smothering Information Age. There is some irony here, too: the doomsaying lines of “Gamma Ray” — “Hold out for now /With these ice caps melting down” — are delivered over a ‘60s James Bond guitar riff, all but screaming that history will repeat itself. Elsewhere, psychedelic melodies suggest it may be better to simply numb yourself to the news and let the world implode.
It’s worth noting Beck’s restricted vocal style here: all that half-whispering was due in part to spinal injury suffered during a 2005 music video shoot, which hindered him in the studio. This record is Beck’s first and only collaboration with producer and fellow sonic weirdo Danger Mouse, he of Beatles/Jay-Z mashup The Grey Album notoriety back then. Together the duo wove together a project that plays more like a bridge record than the last album Beck would release for six years. Either way, Modern Guilt is razor-sharp and ready for rediscovery.
While Colors is inarguably Beck’s most radio-friendly, pop-leaning album — and perhaps a little too light for the anti-folk elitists — it’s still a load of fun teeming with retro and modern flourishes. Producer Greg Kurstin is a natural co-writing fit here (he even played keys for Beck on the Sea Change tour), delivering anthemic dance-rock with vibrant singles “Dreams” and “Up All Night,” as well as thrilling new-wave revival in “No Distraction” and “Seventh Heaven,” which feels as though it was plucked off The Cure’s cutting room floor.
There’s some meat here, too; “Dear Life” is the Monday ballad of a man just barely scraping by, and “Fix You” is a haunting outlier, as Beck proclaims, “I don't mind / If the sea / Washes over the city tonight.” Still, Colors is a party record. Treat it as such and you’ll be dancing before the opening title track finishes (and understanding why it won two Grammy Awards).
For Diehards Only
Guero is, in simplest terms, Odelay’s elder sibling — a more measured attempt at the same genre-leaping, sample-laden alternative rock concocted by Beck and the Dust Brothers in the mid-’90s. There’s less premium wackiness here, more of a calculated “return to form” pivot after Sea Change’s cliffside heartache. But it's an exciting West Coast boombox record nonetheless. “Guero” is Spanish slang for “pale-skinned,” a term plucked from Beck’s childhood as he was partially raised in Latino communities in East L.A. With that, some local sounds weave their way in: “Qué Onda Guero” feels like a stroll through one such neighborhood, with car honks and Spanish voices hanging around rap rhythms.
But as with most Beck albums, Guero isn’t just one, two or even 10 things. It’s a hodgepodge of jangly synth-pop (“Girl”), crunchy anthem rock (“E-Pro”) and loopy hip-hop (“Hell Yes,” featuring actress Christina Ricci). For Beck classicists, Guero surely provided a sigh of relief — finally, he was back writing the songs that made him famous! — but for those who had come to appreciate Beck’s penchant for unpredictability, this album was a little too on-the-nose. Then again, the numbers don’t lie; Guero hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in 2005 — Beck’s highest-charting album ever.
The new record, co-produced by Pharrell Williams, is defined by a handful of exciting, collaborative moments — particularly a pair of ethereal backing vocals courtesy of Sky Ferreira (on “Die Waiting”) and Coldplay’s Chris Martin (on “Stratosphere”). But Hyperspace is ultimately a followup to Colors in that it digs its heels in the pop turf and refuses to budge. Williams’ minimalistic production approach is an interesting foil to Beck’s go-for-broke styling, which is deliberately reeled in throughout this mid-tempo record, which doesn’t bounce quite as hard as its predecessor.
Hyperspace instead spends most of its time traipsing from melty, R&B-tinged radio pop — “Die Waiting” sounds a little like a Post Malone track — to familiar dream-pop. Even the big-swing lead single “Saw Lightning,” complete with a “Loser”-like slide guitar sample and verse from Williams himself, is more measured. Extra help from super-producers Kurstin and Paul Epworth (Adele, Rihanna, U2) boost this album a bit, but time will tell how Hyperspace stacks up against the rest of the masterful Beck brand.