The four-time platinum artist rose to underground popularity with his early works, which combined social criticism with musical and lyrical experimentation. He first earned wider public attention for his breakthrough single "Loser", a 1994 hit. Beck is known for creating musical collages of a wide range of styles.
Beck's 1996 album Odelay was awarded Album of the Year by the American magazine Rolling Stone and by UK publications NME and Mojo. Odelay also received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Both Odelay and Sea Change appeared on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In early 1985 Beck went to Germany to visit his grandfather Al Hansen. He then returned home to Los Angeles, where he remained until the summer of 1990. After dropping out of high school in 1987, Beck started a punk-poet fanzine "Youthless" with his then girlfriend, poet Rain Spurlock. In 1990 Beck and Rain moved to Vashon, Washington, where they rented a summer house with Beck's brother, Channing, and Rain's brother, Zach. It was during this summer that Beck developed an interest in performing, playing the OK Hotel's open-mic night in Seattle, Washington. The early 1990s found him in New York City, living with fellow artist Paleface, involved in the punk-influenced anti-folk music movement.
In 1988, Beck recorded a cassette entitled Banjo Story, which has since become available in bootleg form. He returned to Los Angeles at the turn of the decade. He lived in a shed and took a variety of low-paying, dead-end jobs (at one point working as a leaf blower operator), all the while continuing to develop his music. Beck also sought out (or snuck onto) stages at venues all over Los Angeles, from punk clubs to coffee shops and playing on the streets. During this time, he met Chris Ballew (founder of The Presidents of the United States of America). They performed on the streets as a duo for a while. Some of his earliest recordings were achieved by working with Tom Grimley at Poop Alley Studios, a part of WIN Records.
In 1993 Beck released his first studio album, Golden Feelings, on Peter Hughes's Sonic Enemy label. It was initially released only on cassette (though later on CD in limited quantities). It has been estimated that only between 500 and 750 copies were made, making it a rare artifact. AllMusic.com would later describe the album as "an extremely interesting, entertaining, and humorous document that proves that from the start, Beck had his heart set on making experimentation his only gimmick".
1993 saw Bong Load Custom Records (owned by Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf, and Bradshaw Lambert) sign Beck to their fledgling label. His first release for Bong Load was "Loser", a collaboration between hip hop nuance producer Carl Stephenson and Beck. The song created a sensation when radio host Chris Douridas played the song on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship music program from Santa Monica College radio station KCRW. That exposure and a subsequent live performance on the show July 23, 1993, led to a bidding war among labels to sign Beck. Eventually, he choseGeffen Records, who offered him terms that included an allowance for the release of independent albums while under contract. Of all the record labels to offer Beck a contract, Geffen offered him the least amount of money, but the greatest amount of creative freedom.
On February 22, 1994, Flipside Records released Stereopathetic Soulmanure. A sprawling 25-track album, it contained the fan favorites "Satan Gave Me a Taco", "Rowboat", and "Thunderpeel", as well as spoken tracks, noise recordings (such as leafblowers), and live recordings. Johnny Cash would later record "Rowboat" and include it on his 1996 album Unchained. Cash later said that the song "sounded like something I might have written or might have done in the [1960s, when] I was kinda going through some weird times." "Satan Gave Me a Taco" was acknowledged by Allen Ginsberg to be one of his favorite contemporary works of pop poetry.
In March 1994, Geffen released Beck's major label debut, Mellow Gold. The album, created with Bong Load's Rothrock and Schnapf, as well as Carl Stephenson, turned Beck into a mainstream success. The record received the best ratings possible from Spin, Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone's Album Guide and AllMusic.
On June 27, Olympia, Washington–based independent label K Records released Beck's third album of 1994, One Foot in the Grave. The recording featured a number of notable musicians from the independent music scene, including Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, The Presidents of the United States of America's Chris Ballew, and Built to Spill members Scott Plouf and James Bertram. Sam Jayne, who played in the Olympia band Lync with James Bertram, also appears on the album.Beck took his act on the road in 1994 with a worldwide tour, followed by a spot on the main stage of the 1995 Lollapalooza tour.