If you were to ask me to name one song that personally encapsulates the golden era of the early 90s, it wouldn’t be Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away,’ or Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive,’ or even ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ While those are certainly all great, timeless hits of my generation (and lord Jeezus did I just feel my age typing that), the one song that will invariably send me reeling back into the salad years of flannel shirt and concert tee ensembles, driving aimlessly around southern New Jersey while either on the way to or coming back from a Wawa hoagie run, before MTV started showing garbage like A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila is Beck’s ‘Loser.’
Consider that up until ‘Loser’ came out, the top songs on the radio were slick, vapid, overproduced cheese logs like ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ and the lethal ‘I Will Always Love You.’ What an epic moment in music history the first time ‘Loser,’ a grimy, jumbled mess of brilliance in which the singer, apropos of absolutely nothing, yells out “GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEEZ WHIZ!” at one point, was played on top 40 radio. I was taken with it the very first time I heard it, simply because it was so wonderfully different. Even the video had the cheap, grainy look of something that was filmed in someone’s back yard, as opposed to the glossy exercises in ego many performers were putting out, some with budgets larger than feature-length films.
The album that spawned ‘Loser,’ Mellow Gold , ultimately became part of a veritable Renaissance period in alternative music, coming out at the same time as Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral , Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and Weezer’s debut. Yet, ‘Loser’ was generally perceived as somewhat of a novelty hit, something that would coast on its goofy charm for just so long before fading into obscurity, leaving young Beck Hansen wherever the members of Right Said Fred and Deee-Lite are today (most likely being interviewed for VH1’s umpteenth ‘Top 100 Whatever Whenever’ special). Doubters and critics were silenced however with the release of 1996’s Odelay , an album far more polished than Mellow Gold but without a bit of Beck’s own special brand of weirdness missing. It’s hard to choose the best moments in Odelay; it’s one long best moment, from the opening track, the hit ‘Devil’s Haircut’ to the seven and a half minute long closer ‘Ramshackle.’ Winning a Grammy for best alternative album, it’s also in my opinion the best album of the 90s. Five years later he’d earn another superlative in my book with the release of Sea Change, a low-key, mournful change of pace from his previous work and the single ‘Lost Cause,’ my pick for the best breakup song of all time (followed closely by Ween’s ‘Baby Bitch’).