Twenty Years Ago, Odelay Solidifed Beck as a Serious Songwriter
It's hard to reconcile what a game changer Odelay was when it was released 20 years ago. Not to say that it changed modern music as we know it; it did not, despite its critical and commercial success, but it was a transformative album for Beck himself.
Two decades later, this may need some historical context to make sense of it all. In 1993, no one but the most intuitively driven indie-record fiends had ever heard of Beck. His unofficial first album, Golden Feelings, had been released, and it was an interesting portrait of a folk musician bent on wildly lo-fi experimentation. It was considered "anti-folk" by those who heard it, whatever that meant. Late in that year, a song called "Loser" began making its way around modern-rock radio and to college stations, and it was on this anthemic independent single that then-fledgling subsidiary to Geffen, DGC Records, signed Beck. "Loser" would be re-released by DGC at the start of 1994. Confusingly enough, indie label Flipside Records released Stereopathic Soul Manure, a collection of demos, home recordings, and more of his "anti-folk" folk music, while a week later DGC released Beck's official debut studio album, Mellow Gold.
Fueled by the hit machine, MTV, and a broad appeal to Beck's own generation, "Loser" would take the top spot for Modern Rock Tracks and became a top 10 hit on the Billboard charts. In 1994, it was difficult to go anywhere without hearing "Loser," or people singing it, or people trying to cover it. Early on, though, a certain backlash toward the song and Beck started to rear its head, dismissing the song and Beck as a one-hit wonder, a genre-blender novelty song with no substance that combined the worst of hip-hop with folk music and slacker attitude. It was declared a "slacker" anthem, which Beck himself resented, even though he was never overly fond of the song anyway. The backlash was so crass that by early April when the news came over the wire that a "Major DGC artist had been found dead," even though everyone suspected it was Kurt Cobain, more than a few people expressed "I hope it's Beck." Still, Mellow Gold was a top-20 album that became multi-platinum, and though two more singles would be released from it, they could not touch the impact of "Loser," for good or for ill. Whether it was a decidedly clever move on Beck's part or not, he had recorded an album with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson called One Foot In The Grave and released it in the summer of '94. It didn't chart, being released on the staunchly independent K Records, but it seemed to make some critics realize the depth of Beck's talent.
By the time 1996 rolled around, nearly everyone was sick of "Loser" and people weren't exactly spinning Mellow Gold very much anymore. The two singles that had followed had floundered, and it appeared that Beck would have a legacy as a one-hit wonder and not much more. Two years later, the blush was off the rose, and as far as Beck's career at DGC was concerned, his second album would either make or break him. Now, that's not to say that if he had been dropped he wouldn't have immediately popped up on K Records or Sub Pop, or Matador or Merge, but in those days, DGC was enabling indie bands to get huge distribution for the likes of Weezer, Counting Crows, Sonic Youth, and many others. So with that kind of pressure on him and that kind of expectation in the minds of his fans, critics and all else, DGC released Odelay in June 1996.
Beck at McDowell Mountain Music Festival Friday, March 11, 2016.
In one swift move, Beck proved himself to the critics, to his audience, and to his most staunch detractors. It was as if the "Loser" backlash had fueled him to knock one out the ballpark. In the end, Odelay went multi-platinum, made the Billboard charts, and won a Grammy. It spawned no less than five singles and was fueled by three monster videos that seemed to be in MTV's heavy rotation forever. With his major label debut, Beck was a curiosity that could be easily dismissed, but with the release of Odelay, he had arrived, and he would use the album's success as the launching pad for the rest of his amazingly successful career. Odelay firmly established Beck as a serious artist and vanquished all notions that he was a one-and-done artist.
Twenty years later, it's not difficult to see why it is still hailed as one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. It still sounds every bit as fresh and exciting as it did upon its release, even though the entire record is now so familiar as a go-to classic that it nearly risked being overplayed. The singles alone speak for themselves, with the likes of "Devil's Haircut," "Where It's At," and "New Pollution," all of which still reverberate through pop culture ("two turntables and a microphone" anyone?). The record is amazingly consistent record and holds up remarkably well to this day, better than, say, Counting Crows' Recovering The Satellites or REM's New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which both came out the same year. At 53 minutes, it pushed the bounds of listeners' vinyl-trained attention spans, but somehow it never seemed overwhelmingly lengthy unlike, say, Oasis' Be Here Now, released the following year.
Beck's careful use of samples varied from ultra-familiar riffs from the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Sly & The Family Stone, and Them, to the utter obscurity of Dick Hyman, Pretty Purdie, and MC5. While other alternative "rockers" were incorporating samples into their work with growing frequency, no one was doing it better than Beck. Slamming his influences of folk, country, rock, punk, electro, and even bossa nova, wouldn't cause anyone to bat an eye in 2016, but 20 years ago, this was revelatory stuff. He can't take all the credit for the musical landscape of the album. The Dust Brothers' production was an essential ingredient in the entire mix, ensuring that even the slowest of the albums tracks were completely danceable, even on sonic experiments like "Novacane." These days, it sounds like an album designed to be a monster party record; whether or not that was the intent, that's what it completely became at the time. Even on the slow, near-country sound of the fifth and final single from the album, "Jack-Ass," it's still filled with an undeniable smooth groove that can't be dismissed, not to mention the hillbilly funk of "Sissyneck."
Even as Odelay confirmed Beck's status as an important musical force, no one could have projected his trajectory, nor suspected that he would still be a vital innovator two decades later. No one would have predicted that he'd be a Grammy Award winner many times over. He would reinvent himself and completely strip down his sound for his next album two years later with Mutations, then reinvent himself as a white soul version of Prince on Midnight Vultures, then turn to the stunning introspective artistry of Sea Change and onward to the Grammy-awarded Album of The Year for Morning Phase, to two weeks ago when he released his newest single, "Wow." The songs from Odelay are now beloved fan favorites, and he performs them live frequently. But when the album was released, Beck was a risky gamble, and it was Odelay that made him a sure thing.
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