Singles and EPs
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Initially pegged as the voice of a generation when "Loser" turned into a smash crossover success, Beck wound up crystallizing much of the postmodern ruckus inherent in the '90s alternative explosion, but in unexpected ways. Based in the underground anti-folk and noise rock worlds, Beck encompassed all manner of modern music, drawing on hip-hop, blues, trash rock, pop, soul, lounge music -- pretty much any found sound or vinyl dug up from a dusty crate -- blurring boundaries and encapsulating how '90s hipsters looked toward the future by foraging through the past. In another time, Beck might have stayed in the province of the underground, but he surfaced just as alternative rock turned mainstream, with his 1994 debut, Mellow Gold, launching "Loser," a hit that crossed over with the velocity of a novelty -- a notion Beck quickly punctured with a succession of indie LPs delivered in the wake of Mellow Gold, including the lo-fi folk of One Foot in the Grave, delivered on the K imprint. But the album that truly cemented Beck's place in the pantheon was 1996's Odelay, a co-production with the Dust Brothers that touched upon all of his obsessions, providing a cultural keystone for the decade while telegraphing all his 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 he did on 2008's Modern Guilt -- and slowly becoming a fixture in the music industry, a status underscored by his 2015 album Morning Phase taking home the Grammy for Album of the Year. 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. But 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 a 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 album charted well without turning out any major hits, although it did garner a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance.