I became a Beck convert when I saw him perform "Debra " at the KROQ Acoustic Christmas in 1999. At the time, I was only familiar with "Loser, " "Devils Haircut " and "Where It’s At, " but I really dove into his back catalog after seeing him live. Even though he’s widely regarded as one of the most talented and prolific musicians of the last two decades, his music hasn’t done very well on the singles charts. In 12 years, he has only one Top 10 single ("Loser ") and just six other songs charted on Billboard’s Hot 100. Beck is one of those post-grunge artists that have a ton of good songs that are either too quirky or too meticulous for rock radio. Several of these songs were released as singles and did chart on modern rock radio, but still manage to fly under the radar of the casual Beck fan. The others are album cuts that probably haven’t sniffed much airplay. Either way, Beck has a lot of tracks that just haven’t garnered the attention they deserve, so it’s a great time to present Beck’s Deep Cuts:
"Beercan" – Mellow Gold
The modulated vocals on this track are probably enough to turn pop radio listeners off, but once you get to the groovy chorus, they’re barely noticeable. Since the song is about partying, it is aptly titled. Out of nowhere Beck uses a sample from a Care Bears album where a young girl states, "I’m sad and unhappy. "
"Asshole" – One Foot in the Grave
This track is from the last album that Beck released independently. It features a slow acoustic guitar and has a distinct low-fi feel. The entire song is built around the that's-so-true lyric, "She'll do anything / To make you feel like an asshole." It's not often that a veteran artist will cover a song by someone so much younger, but Tom Petty recorded a version for the soundtrack to the 1996 movie "She's the One. "
"Jack-Ass" – Odelay
This dreamy track uses a keyboard sample from a cover (by Them) of the old Bob Dylan song, "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. " While Dylan was probably singing about going electric, Beck’s lyrics are more about a gradual, drifting change. At around the 2:45 mark, he shifts gears (as he often does), laying a rough guitar solo over a sampled beat.
(Pilot Mix)" – A
Life Less Ordinary
With help from the Dust Brothers, Beck recorded this track between Odelay and Mutations, and it first appeared on the soundtrack for the Cameron Diaz/Ewan McGregor kidnap caper, "A Life Less Ordinary. " The opening melody is somehow both haunting and catchy, and the track has a very laid-back, funky feel to it.
"Cold Brains" – Mutations
Beck fuses his folk background with his rock tendencies in this beautiful mid-tempo strummer. The track is a perfect example of his rare ability to present odd noises in the background without distracting the listener from the melody.
"Lazy Flies" – Mutations
This is an odd track in that it has no discernable chorus, but it’s still quite catchy due to the repeating melody in the vocals. The lyrics are inspired by the seedy area of L.A. where he grew up, which was filled with all the manual laborers that worked in the mansions of the city. A beautiful acoustic guitar carries the tune.
"Nobody’s Fault but My Own" – Mutations
Beck uses a sitar, a tambura and an esraj to give this bluesy track an Indian feel. It’s a slow, melancholy song about regret, and it’s a great example of Beck’s ability to create atmosphere by combining different genres and sounds.
"Tropicalia" – Mutations
This track is a great example of how Beck can take diverse genres and present them in a palatable way to a rock audience. This time, he taps Brazilian bossa nova, creating a smooth, unexpected groove.
"Nicotine & Gravy" – Midnite
This was one of the most accessible tracks on Midnite Vultures, which as a whole was a bit of a departure for Beck. It’s both funky and sexy, driven by terrific bass from Justin Meldal-Johnson. At about the 3:30 mark, it becomes a collage of disparate sounds that all somehow work together.
"Debra" – Midnite Vultures
This is easily my favorite Beck song. This is his tribute to the soulful R&B genre, and it actually started out as sort of a joke. But as he performed it in concert, he found that the audience would react to it more than some of the other songs that were getting radio airplay, and it took on a life of its own. The humor is in the lyrics – "I met you at JC Penny’s / I think your nametag said Jenny / I cold-step to you with a fresh pack of gum / Somehow I knew you were looking for some " – and the execution; Beck sings the entire song in an R. Kelly-esque falsetto. In the background, some terrific guitar noodling and funky horns round out the track.
"Sunday Sun" – Sea Change
Sea Change was the manifestation of a dreary yet beautiful exorcism of a bad breakup. After Midnite Vultures, it was a shock to the system of many fans, but upon closer inspection, there’s a lot to appreciate about the album. "Sunday Sun " just might be the prettiest song Sea Change, and with its placement towards the end of the record, it signifies a state of rebirth.
"Que Onda Guero" – Guero
This track is a snapshot of the East L.A. neighborhood where Beck grew up. The original version felt a little empty, so Beck went there with a friend to record actual street sounds. The groovy beat and Latin influences give the track a colorful feel.
"Earthquake Weather" – Guero
This track is about the calm before a storm, or the quiet before an earthquake. When asked about the track, Beck said he was referring in part to the mood of the U.S. before 9/11, saying that it "felt like a stillness, a quietness before something cataclysmic. " The lyrics refer to a desert, and this feeling of dryness is reflected in the groove.
"Hell Yes " – Guero
It’s not often that Beck raps, but when he does, it usually works. The Dust Brothers encouraged him to rap on Guero, using the odd combination of funk, harmonica and scratching to produce something uniquely Beck. A great beat and chorus round out the track.
"Scarecrow" – Guero
Beck describes this song as "robots on the bayou, " which is a good description for this swampy song. It moves along at a slacker’s pace, but it has a signature Beck groove that carries throughout the song. The chorus – "scarecrow’s only scaring himself " – seems to be about uselessness.
Music" – The Information
With its Latin beat and gritty feel, this track almost sounds like a bridge from Guero to The Information. Beck raps up to the understated, yet catchy chorus, where he sings, "Put the elevator music on/pull me back where I belong. " At the two-minute mark, there’s a breakdown that features five funky seconds of guitar.
"Strange Apparition" – The
This track opens with a great beat before Beck enters the fray with some surprisingly soulful vocals over a piano riff that would fit in on Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. From the opening verse – "Lord, please don’t forsake me / In my Mercedes-Benz / All the riches and the ruins / Now we know how that story ends " – the subject matter is clear: the song is about death and regret. After an awe-inspiring first half, Beck breaks it down in the second, dropping two tortured verses which lead the listener to the end of the song and, ultimately, to the moment of truth.
"No Complaints" – The
This track features a great acoustic guitar that continues throughout the song. It is reminiscent of Beck’s early work, which is pretty sparse when compared with his more recent stuff.
"Landslide" – The Information
This four-minute bit is sandwiched between "The Horrible Fanfare " and "Exoskeleton " in an odd medley at the end of the album. But when it’s extracted, it definitely stands on its own. It features a repeating bass riff and a descending melody in the chorus. It’s certainly not radio-friendly, but its groove makes it worth the work.
The Essential Beck: "Loser, " "Devils Haircut, " "The New Pollution, " "Where It’s At, " "Sexx Laws, " "Lost Cause, " "E-Pro, " "Girl, " "Think I’m In Love, " "Nausea "
If you have any thoughts about this list or would like to suggest a song, head on over to ESDMusic.com and speak your peace. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.