Nestled between such dour '90s landmarks as Nevermind and OK Computer, Odelay was that rare happy-go-lucky record that achieved major critical and commercial success during a decade in which angst was prized over playfulness. Twelve years later, Beck's breakthrough returns dressed up in a two-disc deluxe edition that, if anything, only highlights how unlikely its revered status is.
When Odelay was first released, Beck Hansen hoped to prove that his earlier Delta-blues-meets-hip-hop smash "Loser" would not doom him to the novelty bin. Odelay's cheeky, inventive mash-up of rap, country, folk and rock — all topped off with nonsensical lyrics about devil haircuts and new pollution — was antidote to the gloomy grunge and misogynistic gangsta rap that had dominated the era but were beginning to run on fumes. Removed from its historical context, Odelay may just sound like one goofy track after another, but the underlying pop instincts of the whole thing remain a total blast. Even when he gets serious on the closing lovesick ballad "Ramshackle," Odelay is loose and smiley without being self-indulgent. If its momentousness now seems inexplicable, it's only because the album's breezy panache felt revolutionary at the time.
With the gift of hindsight, though, we can also see that while Odelay is considered his masterpiece (and it's certainly his bestseller), Beck has repeatedly improved on the album's cross-pollination of popular music's different genres, even if he's never nailed the zeitgeist so directly since. For many, Odelay was epochal, but for Beck it was just a first draft.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].