The ubiquity of Beck’s 1994 lo-fi rap/folk slacker anthem “Loser” pointed toward one-hit-wonder status, but those predictions were punctured by the boundary-pushing work that quickly followed. The pop polymath experimented with genres and approaches to style so fluid that eventually the only thing one could expect from a new Beck record is that it would be different from the last. Far from the short-lived novelty act his early success might have suggested, Beck continued down his unique and ever-winding path for decades, taking on new forms with every release. He had a creative breakthrough with 1996′s Odelay, a co-production with the Dust Brothers that touched upon his obsessions with crate-dug samples and synthesizing elements of funk, soul, hip-hop, blues, lounge music, and all other manner of found sounds. Odelay served as a cultural keystone for the fading ’90s while telegraphing all of Beck’s future moves, from the soul prankster of Midnite Vultures to the melancholy troubadour of Sea Change. Beck moved between the extremes of satire and sincerity throughout the 21st century, sometimes fusing the two emotions as on 2008′s Modern Guilt. Achievements like his 2015 album Morning Phase taking home the Grammy for Album of the Year underscored his presence in the music industry, and he continued pushing creative boundaries in collaborations with everyone from Jenny Lewis to Paul McCartney, and on solo albums like 2019′s Pharrell Williams-assisted Hyperspace.
Fittingly, Beck came from a distinctly artistic background, the son of string arranger/conductor David Campbell and Bibbe Hansen, the latter a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory whose father was a pivotal contributor to the Fluxus art movement. Adopting the Hansen surname after his father left, Beck grew up in Los Angeles, dropping out of school in the tenth grade to play as a street busker and attend poetry slams. Bashing out blues and folk, Beck wound up assembling a home tape called The Banjo Story before departing for New York, where he operated on the margins of the anti-folk scene without ever breaking into it.
He returned to Los Angeles, where he continued to play clubs, eventually gaining the attention of Bong Load Records, an independent operated by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. All parties agreed to pair Beck’s fledgling folk with hip-hop beats assembled by producer Karl Stephenson, whose kitchen provided the studio for their first efforts, including “Loser.” These tapes remained unreleased as Beck recorded an album’s worth of material with Calvin Johnson for the latter’s K label, but the first release Beck had was the Flipside single “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” and Sonic Enemy’s cassette release of Golden Feelings. However, what really broke the doors open was Bong Load’s 12″ single of “Loser,” which garnered considerable play in L.A., coinciding with increased underground attention. Soon, Beck signed with Geffen, striking a deal that allowed him to release on independent labels. One of these immediately followed — Fingerpaint released the 10” record A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight in January 1994 — before the Geffen debut Mellow Gold appeared in March of that year.
Naturally, “Loser” was the lead single from Mellow Gold and it turned into an instant smash, boasting a hook that worked as an ironic underground rallying cry and a novelty crossover. Despite many positive reviews, Beck worked overtime to dispel the notion he was a novelty, quickly releasing two indie albums in succession: the noise-skronk Stereopathetic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave. Stereopathetic made few waves, but the stripped-back, folky One Foot in the Grave acted as a counterbalance to the gonzo Mellow Gold, illustrating the depths of his talents.
After a furious 1994, Beck laid relatively low in 1995, touring with the fifth Lollapalooza in between working on a new album with the production team the Dust Brothers, who had collaborated with the Beastie Boys on their landmark 1989 Paul's Boutique. The resulting album, Odelay, appeared in June 1996, preceded by the lanky, funky single “Where It’s At,” which would go on to win the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal. Odelay piled up acclaim and hits — “Devil’s Haircut,” “Jack-Ass,” and “The New Pollution” all charted around the world — and the record went double platinum, becoming a touchstone of ’90s alternative rock. An outtake from the album, “Deadweight,” appeared on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary, and then Beck set to work on his next album with producer Nigel Godrich, who had just worked with Radiohead on OK Computer. Their collaboration, originally slated for an indie release but moved to Geffen, thereby setting a precedent that no future Beck LP would be released on an indie (something worked out in the courts the following year), traded futuristic rock — either the joyous collage of Odelay or the dystopia of OK Computer — for a quiet, pulsating, psychedelic folk-rock album called Mutations. Riding high on Odelay, the record charted well without turning out any major hits, although it did garner a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance.
Beck made another abrupt change in musical direction in 1999 with Midnite Vultures, a garish party record that was part satire and part salute to soul and funk, particularly Prince. Reviews were divided between ecstatic and skeptical, but the album had some real hits with “Sexx Laws” and “Deborah,” and in some ways it was the apex of Beck’s hipster prankster phase, a persona he shed with his next album, 2002′s Sea Change. Recorded in the wake of a romantic breakup, Sea Change was another Godrich production, but it was gentle and mournful, lacking some of the gritty underpinnings of Mutations but retaining the psychedelia — and that psychedelic edge was brought out in the supporting tour when Beck hired the Flaming Lips as his supporting band. The tour was well-received, but there were some tensions, as reported by Lips leader Wayne Coyne later.
After an extended break — the longest he had taken between albums to date — Beck returned in 2005 with Guero, an album that reunited him with the Dust Brothers and consciously evoked Odelay. Guero launched a few hits, including “E-Pro” and “Hell Yes,” and was followed within months by Guerolito, a remixed version of the entire album. Beck continued in this direction the following year with The Information, but its Nigel Godrich production kept the album streamlined and emphasized the darker undercurrents in the songs. Some of that darkness could be heard on his eighth LP, Modern Guilt, a 2008 release produced by Danger Mouse, marking the first time in 14 years that Beck worked with a producer who wasn’t the Dust Brothers or Godrich. Modern Guilt performed respectably — it debuted at eight on the U.S. Billboard charts and received strong reviews — but he spent the next several years relatively quiet.
In 2009, Beck began actively pursuing a career as a producer, collaborating with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her acclaimed IRM album; two years later, he produced Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts and Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. He also dipped his toe back into solo recording on the soundtrack to the 2010 Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Still, between 2009 and 2010, much of his studio energy was devoted to his Record Club, where he and a loose collective of friends covered classic albums in their entirety; the albums covered included The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and INXS’ Kick.
Beck returned to original material in 2012 via Song Reader, a collection of sheet music featuring 20 new, unrecorded songs; although he didn’t record versions of these songs, he did appear at Song Reader concerts featuring other musicians (and a collection of those live performances was eventually released under his name). In 2014, Beck released Morning Phase, his first new album in nearly six years and first record for Capitol. Described by the singer/songwriter as a “companion piece” to 2002′s Sea Change, it appeared in February 2014, preceded by the singles “Blue Moon” and “Waking Light.” Critical reception was largely positive, and the set won three Grammy Awards, including Best Rock Album and Album of the Year. Beck returned the following year with the lively single “Dreams,” and the like-minded “Wow” arrived in 2016. During that year, he continued working with producer Greg Kurstin and also made guest appearances on work by Fun.’s Nate Ruess, the Chemical Brothers, M83, and Flume. Beck finally released Colors, his collaboration with Kurstin, in October 2017. It peaked at number three on the Billboard 200, and topped the modern rock and alternative albums charts. Colors won the 2019 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, along with the trophy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
In 2019, Beck contributed the song “Tarantula” to the soundtrack album Music Inspired by the Film Roma, which accompanied director Alfonso Cuarón’s acclaimed work. That November, Beck released Hyperspace, an album largely produced by Pharrell Williams. Initially, Williams invited Beck to contribute to a N.E.R.D album, but the collaboration proved fruitful, resulting in the core of the record that became Hyperspace. In 2019, he also collaborated with Jenny Lewis and tourmates Cage the Elephant. The next few years brought more collaborations, as Beck worked with Gorillaz on their 2020 song “The Valley of the Pagans,” singer/songwriter Natalie Bergman on a 2021 cover of Lion’s deep cut “You’ve Got a Woman,” and Paul McCartney on “Find My Way,” a hit single from 2021 album McCartney III: Imagined. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine