Updated: May 20
Formed in 1994, a result of government funded program for musicians without a band, Belle and Sebastian became one of the most iconic indie-pop bands of the last 25 years. Mixing the sounds of twee-pop, distortion free guitar, and with alternative rock, the group has been heavily praised by critics, and has developed a sizable and cult-like following over their three-decade span. The list below details their five best albums ranked covering strengths weaknesses, and everything in between.
5 - Write About Love
14 Years after their sneaky debut, Belle and Sebastian released their most symphonic and experimental record Write about Love to the enthusiasm of longtime fans. A bit of a divergence from The Life Pursuit released four years prior, and with a bit more contribution from Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin this time around, this pleasing and benign collection of love songs were pleasing enough to the ear. With I want the World to Stop taking the forefront of the memorable tracks, the orchestration of loud melodic strings and keyboards turned this song more along the lines of some sort of twee-like Electric Light Orchestra with all of the indie charm that is Belle and Sebastian. The real show stealer on the track though was Sarah Martin with her wonderful harmonies and backing vocals following the lines of Stuart Murdoch. The unique and soothing voice of Norah Jones on Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John was a wonderful addition to an already good record. I don't think any Belle and Sebastian fans saw that coming but that seems to be the most timeless and genre-defying track on the album. Other note-worthy tracks Come on Sister and Write About Love live on through indie radio and are tossed into the live sets of Belle and Sebastian rightfully so. I'm Not Living in the Real World probably should have been replaced with one of the tracks cut from the record (maybe Blue Eyes of a Millionaire). I'm not sure what Stevie Jackson was going for here but just a goofy song with annoying lyrics. Very pleasing record as a whole and seems to become more timeless with each year.
Favorite Track - Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John
4 - Tigermilk
A sneaky and shockingly good debut. Only 5000 LPs were even cut here, and no singles were released (although their certainly could have been) leaving Belle and Sebastian a secret for only your coolest of cool indie friends, although that all changed with their next release. A simple and innocent enough sounding twee-pop album on its surface, this record takes from the British indie rock scene of the 80's with some Morrissey sounding lyrics and the jangly (but to their credit more complex) guitar sounds of Johnny Marr. A nice precursor to their next release If You're Feeling Sinister, Tigermilk produced a handful of memorable tracks and an even more memorable album as a whole that could have gone toe-to-toe with any indie record of the day, if that was what the band had wanted of course. The collection of government funded, out of work Scottish musicians produced some of their most memorable tracks of their collection such as She's Losing It, and My Wandering Days are Over. Bright but diversified guitar work on She's Losing It set the tone for the more advanced level of guitar work you can expect from these guys over their extensive lifespan. A fresh and long-lasting album which has only seen more popularity as time has gone on.
Favorite Track - She's Losing It
3 - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Belle and Sebastian took an important stylistic jump resulting in more of a modern and sophisticated sound, while still holding relatively close to their roots heard in their first two albums on their sixth time around. Although a lot of times changes like this can make originalists unhappy, this was not one of those times with tracks such as Piazza, New York Catcher, and Lord Anthony holding close to the iconic If You're Feeling Sinister sound. Produced by Trevor Horn, this record has a much more polished, noticeably louder, and indie rock sound, a skip and a jump away from the lo-fi(ish) beginnings while still holding the same level of charm as the early work. These songs are a bit longer, slightly more complex, and definitely more suited for radio. Piazza, New York Catcher has the minimalist musical sound of the early three records yet with the mystical storytelling lyrics of Murdoch. I'm a Cuckoo brings out the band with catchy hooks and a danceable shuffle giving B&S a level of commercial success they had not yet seen and certainly not in a sell-out kind of way, but in a mature kind of way and one that comes from years and years of chemistry. Other noteworthy tracks such as If She Wants Me and Stay loose feature danceable hooks, and a fuller sound introducing songs which can really do their best when played live in large concert halls, instead of the intimate coffee shops and small venues which the early tracks such as Stars of Track and Field, and Boy With the Arab Strap seem to thrive in. Just an all-around well written, well produced and absolute joy of an album.
Favorite Track - I'm a Cuckoo
2 - The Life Pursuit
The Life Pursuit was the peak of the Belle and Sebastian sound. The most polished, most well produced, and best written album with all of the catchy pop hooks, danceable grooves, amusing lyrics, and great guitar lines of the older B&S releases. Tracks like Another Sunny Day, The Blues Are Still Blue, and Funny Little Frog take all of the perfected British pop notes from their forefathers, The Hollies, The Zombies, and the even the generation after including The Smiths and The Cure. A true collection of perfected studio tracks with all of the clever lyrical writing of Murdoch and some of the best guitar and bass work of their discography. The Blues are Still Blue finds Belle and Sebastian with their catchiest and best chorus ever released, and tracks like Sukie in the Graveyard build off of the danceable tracks If She Wants Me and Stay Loose in the previous record above, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. A much-accredited stylistic development for the Scots on that track in particular. Being able to build from such a well produced and ear pleasing record to this immaculate album was an impressive step for Belle and Sebastian and left listeners wanting more and more. More importantly, this album, left listeners wanting to see these songs played live in huge concert halls with the amps turned up to 11, even more so than their previous release. With 2006, being such an important year for alternative rock, there really was no question that B&S was looking to dive into that genre and leave the older softly mastered indie tracks as more of a fond memory for long time listeners as the sounds of beginnings. The Life Pursuit was one of the best records of 2006 hands down and gets better with each listen.
Favorite Track - The Blues are Still Blue
1 - If You're Feeling Sinister
Their second release and their finest album with really not too much left up for debate. Released the same year as their debut but now signed by Jeepster, B&S were able to get this record into the hands of noticeably more listeners than Tigermilk. With a whole bunch of anti-commercial demands such as not releasing singles and not doing any promotional events, in a unique way Belle and Sebastian was able to build on the mysticism and mysteriousness they had been developing, but to a larger audience with the backing of a label. Often praised as one of the best indie records of the nineties, this record was a bit more complex than some of the indie-pop/twee records of the decade with a large variety of instruments being used and some clever song forms. Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying remains one of the groups most well known songs with all of the soft and soothing vocal work of Stuart Murdoch and gentle distortion free guitars backing him up. This record fits in with Tigermilk and Boy With the Arab Strap in terms of style and volume, but with more to like than Tigermilk and WAY more to like than the relatively uninteresting Boy With the Arab Strap (other than the title track of course). Mayfly finds itself with a nice high tempo, and pretty lyrics expressing Murdoch's poetic skills, where tracks such as Judy and the Dream of Horses bring up the volume a tad and showcase the band and their unusual assortment of instruments. Stevie Jackson goes to TOWN on the harmonica on Me and the Major, another track with pleasing lyrics depicting Murdoch's fascination with the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things. About as mellow of an album as you can find, but at the same time nostalgic, peaceful and memorable. A well-deserved 25 years of sucess all started with this under the radar gem which has since turned into a cult classic, and a diamond in the rough for thrifters at record stores.
Favorite Track - Get Me Away from Here I'm Dying