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Surprise of the Year: Beck and the 2015 Grammys

grammys-2015At the tail end of a nearly four-hour Grammy haul, viewers had no idea what was still to come. They didn’t know Sam Smith would take home Song of the Year; they couldn’t have guessed Kristen Wiig would dance to Sia’s “Chandelier”; and they certainly didn’t anticipate Beck to be the dark horse that won the coveted Album of the Year.

The nod came as a surprise in a stacked category. Beyoncé was snubbed of what many considered a done deal. Sam Smith had a fifth trophy snatched from him. And some 44-year-old dude—with the least album sales of all the AOTY nominees—took home the trophy (almost becoming Kanye’s next victim in the process). His name is Beck, and what’s even lesser known than his award-winning album Morning Phase is that he’s actually been around for quite a long time. And whatever you feel about the result, Beck is an artist worth knowing about.

According to Rolling Stone, Bek David Campbell was born to bohemian parents and divided his youth between Los Angeles and Kansas; he was a high-school dropout looking to make it big in the music industry when a casual recording session produced the 1994 jam “Loser.” You read that right: 1994. Over twenty years ago. It’s a bizarre mashup of twangy guitar and mediocre freestyle rap (you know how the nineties were), and it hit number 10 on the Billboard charts; its album Mellow Gold made number 13.

beckAfter that measure of success, Beck’s career oscillated between critical respect, commercial ambivalence, changes in sound and risks in style. Over the years, his musical tendencies shifted album to album. From the self-produced Midnite Vultures in 1999, to 2002’s serious and introspective Sea Change after his breakup with his long-time girlfriend (critics are calling this album the most comparable to Morning Phase), to his penultimate full-length release Modern Guilt in 2008—Beck’s career spans over twenty years.

Surprisingly enough, 2015 wasn’t his first rodeo at the Grammys; this was his tenth year of nomination, and in fact his third time being up for Album of the Year. His first nod in this category came in 1997, when his album Odelay won Best Rock Male Vocal (for track “Where It’s At”) and Best Alternative Male Performance, but lost to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You. Midnite Vultures also got an Album of the Year nomination in 2001, but fell short to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature. 2015 was his first win in a major category.

Morning Phase was up against some powerhouse albums for Album of the Year: Beyonce’s Beyonce, Ed Sheeran’s X, Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, and Pharrell’s G.I.R.L. The commercial success and hype of Morning Phase certainly seems to pale in comparison. However, for willing listeners, it has a lot to offer, and its most differentiating sound quality just may be its sense of quiet. As Bob Boilen described in an NPR interview with Beck, beckmorningphase“The string piece that opens Morning Phase really feels like dawn, and the tone for the next 45 minutes is completely set by this. It’s very programmatic.” To listen to Morning Phase straight through is to be immersed in this oddly electro-folk soundscape that doesn’t require much thought; it’s pretty easy listening, with vibes hearkening to Pearl Jam, Iron & Wine, and even a little bit of the Head and the Heart.

But to call it easy listening isn’t to say it’s boring—far from it. Beneath its atmospheric orchestral sound is an album that’s undoubtedly tight. The ambiance of “Wave,” the harmonies of “Turn Away,” the clear vocals of “Blue Moon”—Morning Phase is an experience in 45 minutes, not simply oriented around the listener but around an artist who has created this experience with intention.

Beck may be a little hipster, a little underground, but he has been biding his time for this breakthrough moment that the LA Weekly describes as “not just honoring Morning Phase, but his entire career.” After twenty years of musicianship, this recognition could not be more timely. It was a blessedly tough call for Album of the Year this year, but ultimately this Rock writer is calling the award well deserved.

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