Ranked: Belle & Sebastian
Jul 09, 2012
Welcome to Ranked, our new series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all their official studio albums from best to worst. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Austin Trunick ranks Belle & Sebastian.
Over the course of 17 years, Belle & Sebastian have gone from precious and endearing to frustratingly scattered, before reinventing themselves with a more grandiose sound somewhat far removed from their bedroom-pop beginnings. What began as a collective of musicians tightly shrouded in mystery has spun into a much larger musical identity. The whole time they've been mainstays in the realm of indie music, with their first few albums serving almost as a rite of passage for fans who enjoy the gentler side of the spectrum.
Here are Belle & Sebastian's major releases, ranked from most essential to least.
Words by Austin Trunick
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Belle & Sebastian’s second album is not only their best, but one of indie’s true masterstrokes. We have 10 softly-sung pop songs, all written by a well-read, somewhat sarcastic Glaswegian boy by the name of Stuart Murdoch. Each track is a classic; cut after cut seemingly custom-made to obsess over on a pair of headphones in your bedroom. Whether it’s the easily-relatable relationship central to “Seeing Other People,” the boy who retreats into books in “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” or the spiritually-confused girl who stars in the title track, there’s no shortage of characters and themes for a listener to connect with. Murdoch’s wit and storytelling ability have long been among Belle & Sebastian’s greatest allures; it should be no surprise his best-written collection of tracks would lead this list.
It’s difficult to imagine that any member of Belle & Sebastian could have guessed that what had begun as a school project would have such an impact on the indie rock landscape of the late 1990s. Pressed in a run of just 1,000 copies, the original release of Tigermilk was put together to fulfill a requirement for Stuart Murdoch’s music business course at university. Gathering a group of musicians—many fellow students—Murdoch would record this collection of gentle, literate pop-folk songs. The hushed “The State I Am In” and sing-along-ready “I Don’t Love Anyone” are among the band’s most-loved songs, but there’s hardly a bad track here; rookie efforts this well-composed are rare. The strange, digital soundscape of “Electronic Renaissance” is an early hint toward the band’s later, more ambitious approaches to music. The original run of Tigermilk sold out almost entirely through word-of-mouth hype; for several years, dubbed cassettes would be the only way much of their rabid fanbase were able to hear Belle & Sebastian’s debut recording.
Push Barman to Open Old Wounds
Push Barman to Open Old Wounds collects seven EPs released by Belle & Sebastian between 1997 and 2001. The band released some of their best songs from the era separately from their albums; tracks such as “A Century of Fakers,” “I’m Waking Up To Us,” and the sprawling “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” are classics amongst the full Belle & Sebastian catalog. With more than 100 minutes of music, Barman is probably the second record after If You’re Feeling Sinister that should be recommended to a Belle & Sebastian newcomer. It’s the best way to get a whole lot of great Belle & Sebastian material in one swoop, especially as the individual EPs get harder to track down as the years pass.
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Over the span of two previous years, Belle & Sebastian put out brilliant material, and a lot of it: their first two records were quickly followed by three very good EPs. Perhaps they were getting a little worn out by the time they got to recording a followup to the acclaimed If You’re Feeling Sinister; it’s the first album that feels like a little bit of filler has been thrown in. Stuart Murdoch steps aside to let other band members sing a few of their own songs, with Stevie Jackson’s lilting “Seymour Stein” being the highlight of these; the problem lies more in the songs that seem to lack focus, particularly the spoken-word “Space Boy Dream.” However, there are a good number of Murdoch penned-gems to be found, such as “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” “Sleep the Clock Around,” and “The Boy With the Arab Strap.”
The Life Pursuit
Compared to Belle & Sebastian’s first handful of records, The Life Pursuit feels positively huge. Producer Tony Hoffer gives the band their biggest, most sleek sound yet: this is Belle & Sebastian at the height of their pop bombast. “White Collar Boy” rumbles with bass and pounding drumwork, “Song for Sunshine” features a Stevie Wonder-esque funk organ intro, “Funny Little Frog” actually echoes with reverb; 10 years earlier, the fuzzy guitar solo in “We Are The Sleepyheads” would have seemed out of place, but here it makes sense. There’s a sense of spaciousness that sets this album apart from the rest of the band’s work; The Life Pursuit features songs meant to be heard in music halls, rather than through headphones.
Write About Love
Belle & Sebastian team up with producer Tony Hoffer again, but dial back the over-the-top pomp of The Life Pursuit in favor of a calmer, ’60s soul flavor. A nearly half-decade break between records seems to have given the band some time to refresh, as well; “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “I Want the World to Stop” will likely stand among the group’s tightest pop songs. Write About Love finally features a correct-feeling distribution of vocalists, with Stevie Jackson getting to take lead on “I’m Not Living In The Real World,” and Murdoch singing in duet with Norah Jones on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” and actress Carey Mulligan in the album’s title track. Belle & Sebastian has matured into a very different sounding band since they debuted almost two decades ago; Write About Love still has enough of the elements that hooked their fans in the beginning to show that growing up isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
With powerhouse ’80s pop producer Trevor Horn twisting the knobs and Stuart Murdoch back in the pilot’s seat as primary songwriter, Dear Catastrophe Waitress can be looked at as Belle & Sebastian’s post-millennial return to form. Horn was able to streamline the band’s recent eclectic dalliances and craft them into an album that felt cohesive, rather than scatterbrained. This is Belle & Sebastian leaping fully into their slick, baroque mode; “Lord Anthony” and “Piazza, New York Catcher” are the only tracks that remotely recall the soft, rainy-day bedroom pop of their first few records. Still, bits such as the sunny synthesizer backing of “I’m A Cuckoo,” the grooving horns in “You Don’t Send Me,” and the drumline antics of “Step Into My Office, Baby” show a promising sign of things to come. Dear Catastrophe Waitress would be higher in these rankings if it weren’t overshadowed by their two successive albums.
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
This is Belle & Sebastian in their awkward phase. There’s no question that the band has grown from a modest Stuart Murdoch musical project into a much larger, flashier indie pop juggernaut; their turn-of-the-millennium album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, is where they display the most growing pains. The shift from purely recording Murdoch material to a wider distribution of songwriting and vocal duties that began in The Boy With the Arab Strap continues here. Perhaps it’s because the other members of Belle & Sebastian weren’t as seasoned at crafting songs at this point, but the album stumbles in the points where Murdoch isn’t taking the lead. Only the chilling “I Fought In a War” is essential here.
Belle & Sebastian were charged with crafting a soundtrack for Todd Solondz’s film, Storytelling, much of which wound up unused in the movie’s final cut. There are only six conventional Belle & Sebastian tracks scattered amongst an assortment of instrumentals and snippets of dialogue; out of those, the upbeat title track and the Latin-flavored “Wandering Alone” are standouts. They’re not enough to overcome the way the material feels so mishmashed together. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the soundtrack to one of Solondz’s weaker films turned out to be Belle & Sebastian’s weakest efforts.
God Help the Girl
(The bonus selection includes albums and side projects that don’t quite neatly fit into the band’s studio discography, but will likely be of interest to fans of the band.)
A side project by Stuart Murdoch that started as a series of singles, later became an album, and eventually, will be a feature film. Murdoch placed a magazine advertisement seeking female singers for a series of songs he’d written about the lives of young girls; he gathered a group that included Catherine Ireton, Linnea Jönsson, and Smoosh’s Asya, as well as The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and five more vocalists. The music is often similar in sound to songs from The Life Pursuit, featuring wonderful orchestral arrangements by Belle & Sebastian member Mick Cooke, and includes two songs that previously appeared on that album: “Act of the Apostle” and a definitive version of “Funny Little Frog.” The girl-group vibe of the title track and the somewhat goofy, Hannon-led “Perfection As a Hipster” are additional highlights. The musical film version, directed by Murdoch, is still a work-in-progress.