Accidental spokesperson for a slacker generation or workaholic music pioneer? Musical dilettante or stylistic sponge? Detached snarkster or squishy-hearted romantic? Beat lyrics expert or fridge poetry absurdist?
Beck Hansen's been in all those pigeonholes over the years, some with more justification than others. It's hard to say that a guy who's gone platinum four times is under-appreciated, but you can argue that we do tend to take Beck for granted. Sure, he's repeated himself and overreached on occasion, but after nearly three decades he's also still delivering ace songs and taking chances.
So, here's a quick catalog-spanning playlist in anticipation of Beck's Uptown Amphitheatre show behind his new release, Morning Phase (aka the mildly less-gloomy Sea Change).
"Goin' Nowhere Fast" (Banjo Story; '88) b/w "Hollow Log" (One Foot In the Grave; '94) — Under the spell of outsider musician Daniel Johnston, high school dropout Beck wanders the L.A. transit system improvising teen-ennui songs like this from a 1988 cassette release. "Hollow Log" appears earlier under the title "Desire," but this version best channels Beck's infatuation with bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt. It also connects him to the waning '90s NYC anti-folk scene, which Beck briefly orbits before high-tailing it back to warmer climes.
"Fume" ("Loser" b-side) b/w "Beer Can" (Mellow Gold, '94) — "Fume" has to be the definitive song about doing whippets in your buddy's pickup while listening to Molly Hatchet. And over the cut-and-paste hip-hop beats and white boy rap of "Beer Can," Beck samples the Melvins and TV's Care Bears. Such determined eclecticism and whimsy would've read flippant if it hadn't been such a welcome antidote to grunge's self-injected angst. "Give the finger to the rock 'n' roll singer," Beck sang here, and both these tracks raise it firm and high.
"Novacane" (Odelay, '96) — Fearful of one-hit-wonder status amid the backlash to "Loser," Beck records an LP of glum country-tinged numbers, scraps it and doubles down with the Dust Brothers. Their Paul's Boutique vibe comes through loud and fuzzy here, and the LP's easy swatch of styles — from hip-hop and bossa nova to metal and folk — points to future stylistic investigations.
"Runners Dial Zero" (Mutations bonus track, '98) — Fresh off OK Computer, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich helms Mutations, which is a hard-left, sample-free turn from the Mellow Gold/Odelay playbook. This dark dirge is an outlier amid the country, bossa nova, and folkie flavors.
"Debra" (Midnite Vultures, '99) — This tongue-in-cheek LP-closer — complete with Prince-ish playah plea, "I said, lady, step inside my Hyundai" — anticipates the soul revival of the 2000s in brilliant Stax horns-style. It's the perfect chill-down for the neon funk party that precedes it.
"Guess I'm Doing Fine" (Sea Change, 2002) — A cyanide tablet in aural form, this is the sound of a heart sliced in two obsessively replayed in agonizing detail. Way back on Stereopathic Soulmanure ('94), "Rowboat" was both homage and piss-take on country's broken-heart tropes; nothing remotely funny about those (Topanga-flavored) tropes this time around, as Beck relives the Death of Love.
"Qué Onda Guero" (Guero, 2005) b/w "Qué Onda Guero" (Nortec Collective remix) — "Qué Onda Guero" — aka "What's Up, White Boy?" — is Guero's rump-shaking highlight, an homage to SoCal's vibrant immigrant culture featuring scratches, samples, mariachi horns and a backbeat to die for. Trumping all remixes (especially Islands' coma-inducing version on the companion disc, Guerolito) is Nortec Collective's dubby groove, whose low-end horns and guitarrón emphasizes its Latin roots.
"Dark Star" (The Information, David Sitek remix, '06) — Criticized for Beck's detached vocals, the LP returns to collage-making without adding much to the template. But this remix by TV On the Radio's studio whiz loses Beck's disembodied vocals in haunting dub-echoes to make something far colder than Godrich did.
"Chemtrails" (Modern Guilt, '08) — Danger Mouse in the house, but this isn't quite the sonic playpen you'd expect from two studio rats. Instead, the Mouse's deft touch with drum loops and tape-splicing leavens the LP's psychedelic Orwellian paranoia.
"NYC: 73-78"/Philip Glass & Beck (Rework Philip Glass Remixed, '12) b/w "Defriended" (extended 7-inch mix, '13) — Over its stunning 22 minutes, Beck slowly absorbs Glass' minimalism into his own cut-and-paste pop world. The 14-minute "Defriended" delivers a similar transformative journey, just more like the Boards of Canada "Broken Drum" remix on Guerolito.