Belle and Sebastian formed just over 19 years ago in Glasgow, Scotland. And within that first year of 1996, they had already released two classic albums and managed to charm fans all over the world in a pre-internet era that seems daunting, especially when you consider the same couple years also featured in-your-face breakthroughs like Radiohead’s OK Computer, Beck’s Odelay, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and many others.
Belle and Sebastian didn’t overwhelm with their sonics, but rather with the familiarity and beauty of Stuart Murdoch’s melodies, the vividness and quirkiness of his characters, and the assembly of a band of everymen (and women) who were very much not rock stars. At a time before Pitchfork and indie rock were a commodified industry, Belle and Sebastian laid the groundwork of earnest songwriting that a whole culture would build off.
Yeah, we can say all that, but that ignores that there is something special about their music that isn’t quantifiable or explicable — like emotional resonance, nostalgia, discovery of the beauty that is around us in everyday actions, belief in the underdog, and on and on.
Next week, Belle and Sebastian will release their 9th album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. None of the songs from it are on this list, and you’ll notice a general skewing towards their older material here. That isn’t to discount the band’s recent output. We very easily could have made a top 40 Belle and Sebastian songs list (in particular, recent albums have seen Sarah Martin come into her own as a songwriter, taking some of the pressure off Murdoch). Likewise, you’ll see an absence of songs written by Stevie Jackson and Isobel Campbell, which again, is not because they didn’t make some excellent contributions, but because they were crafting tunes against Murdoch, one of the best in music history.
So, these are our 10 favorites from a band that has made a ton of favorites. Hope you enjoy rediscovering these gems.
10. “Piazza, New York Catcher”
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Six albums into their career, Belle and Sebastian began fulfilling what audiences expected — they wore stripes, they were witty, and their pop songs wore accents with pride — but sandwiched in was Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a throwback to their early sound. “Piazza, New York Catcher” has a warm strum that chugs along freely, inviting every pair of ears it hits to get up and follow it off into the distance, past depressing novels, bitter families, and Irish coffee, rambling on in the vein of Bob Dylan. It’s a softer romanticism, and it brings up the then-catcher of the New York Mets, Mike Piazza, of all people. Name-dropping a celebrity who is still alive is a curious decision, especially when you question his sexuality, but Murdoch plays it off with gorgeous enunciation, offering a casual shrug through the audio as if to say, “It’s okay. We don’t care. Just remember to live.” As he continues to outline the bores of long days and dull epitaphs, Murdoch wraps up his acoustic number with a chord hanging in the air. He’s already off to meet you at the statue, and it’s best you get up and chase after him – because really, what else is there to do? -Nina Corcoran
9. “Sleep the Clock Around”
The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)
One of the underrated aspects of Belle and Sebastian is their synthy moments, the points where they slyly nod to dance culture despite the fact that they never truly make pure dance music. “Electronic Renaissance” is the most straightforward example of this, but stronger is the subtle and nuanced slow-burner “Sleep the Clock Around”. At a time when Radiohead was putting out OK Computer, Belle and Sebastian sound like they are at least on the same planet as the rest of us, not afraid to insert some sonic twists, as the dueting Murdoch and Isobel Campbell deliver their breathless, always-building melody. “Sleep the Clock Around” is also a song that goes somewhere, that delivers a dramatic payoff for the time it demands of the listener to “get somewhere.” This is a recurring element in Belle and Sebastian’s craft and one of the most rewarding aspects of the band. -Philip Cosores
8. “The State I Am In”
There’s a young person, they are in trouble, and they’re going to tell their tale over some upbeat twee. That’s the general summary of every Belle and Sebastian song, but “The State I Am In” was the first time their formula hit our ears, and boy did it sound good. It’s the band’s magnificent debut, and their coy innocence is mirrored in every bedroom guitar line. Lullaby-like indie rock never had us laughing so hard. A young man finds out his brother is gay, marries a girl to keep her from being deported, and is busy kicking crutches out from under the crippled because he thought God swore to heal them all. When the priest winds up penning the boy’s confessions in a book, the boy wanders aimlessly through stores and eventually tries to give his soul up to God, resulting in one of Belle and Sebastian’s finest lines of all time: “And so I gave myself to God/ There was a pregnant pause before He said, ‘Okay.'” It’s so dry and just dark enough that it’s not hard to see the sun on the other side. -Nina Corcoran
7. “The Stars of Track and Field”
If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
In terms of unlikely bands to write a song about sports, Belle and Sebastian are up there. But is “The Stars of Track and Field” about sports? In an interview (with me!), frontman Stuart Murdoch admits to still not knowing really what the song is about, but the lead track to their most iconic album is impactful regardless of the narrative. The imagery seems both personal to growing up in Glasgow and universal. Lines like “Kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs/ You’re a honey with a following of innocent boys/ They never know it/ Because you never show it/ You always get your way” evoke a reality even if it isn’t the listener’s. Whether or not the subject of the song likes boys or girls is an ambiguity present in many a Belle and Sebastian song and speaks to a sort of sexual liberation. The title sentiment, though, speaks to an otherworldliness of celebrity and maybe how that even translates to the people we encounter in our lives, how we can only admire them from afar and never truly know them. But if Murdoch doesn’t know what the song is about, maybe it is pointless to make sense of it all. Like the athletes, we can just admire the song for its beauty and sentiment, never truly knowing what makes it tick. -Philip Cosores
6. “I’m a Cuckoo”
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Most of Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue is quick to get the hips moving while keeping the volume knobs at a comfortable middle ground. When they turn things up, they’re able to dabble in rock confidently, a side of them that infrequently gets the attention it deserves. On “I’m a Cuckoo”, Belle and Sebastian go straight to the heart of the matter with a spirited melody that recalls Thin Lizzy and every sloshing mug of beer the skinny kids held high on Thursday nights. “I see a wilderness for you and me/ Punctuated by philosophy/ And a wondering how things could’ve been,” Murdoch sings, letting us travel down nostalgia road without getting teary-eyed. It’s the song one roommate puts on for the other after a crummy day at work, where a girl grabs a boy by the hand and gets him to dance, and someone decides that horns certainly deserve a place in a rock song. After all, a two-guitar riff that harmonizes that sweetly wouldn’t know how to stay quiet if it tried. -Nina Corcoran
5. “My Wandering Days Are Over”
With a title that speaks of “wandering,” “My Wandering Days Are Over” feels like the titular journey. Buried deep in their debut LP, the song functions as a sort of peak on an album full of highlights. The song trots along for more than five minutes, with a long instrumental outro that isn’t commonplace for the band. But the song really shines in its center, as band members add their presence to the song while it progresses. Stevie Jackson’s electric guitar strums swoop in. There is a trumpet solo, orchestral swells. Backing vocals add layers upon layers, coming and going as they please. By the end of the journey, it all feels so far from where it started that the fact this composition is on a debut LP becomes hard to believe. -Philip Cosores
4. “The Boy with the Arab Strap”
The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)
Belle and Sebastian faced high expectations when they dropped their third LP, The Boy with the Arab Strap. After two solid albums, there wasn’t much we knew other than that a new scroll of verbose lines from Murdoch was a safe bet. To liven things up, Belle and Sebastian delivered a title track that became a go-to pick-me-up. From its opening guitar strums, “The Boy with the Arab Strap” douses the listener in hand claps and jovial organs, turning the five-minute number into a rich reassurance that Belle and Sebastian weren’t a fleeting fad. The combination of flutes and pianos support Murdoch’s tale of Aidan Moffat, the singer for Arab Strap, who, over time, would become a green-tinted staple, soundtracking our everyday sighs about our “ten biggest wanks” to an Asian cab driver’s racist clientele. It’s one of their best character sketches because it looks not just at the boy but at the very struggles his neighbors are enduring as well. -Nina Corcoran
3. “Me and the Major”
If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
If there’s one thing Belle and Sebastian know how to do, it’s give the dramedy of teenager-dom a chorus worth singing with your closest friends. In “Me and the Major”, our youthful protagonist and an elder Major converse on a train only to have the blaring gap between their generations become darker. So the relationship grows tenser, and all the while the song barrels forward with quick drumming and gruff strumming. Belle and Sebastian articulate the comedic parallels of age with a goofy grin and, as it always seems to go, make the lashing out of their elders less painful. That is until one nasty harmonica solo bleeds into Murdoch’s repeats of snow falling, creating a hazy scene of teenagers passing a bottle back and forth, taking swigs until their fingers grow cold. As the song fades out, it’s safe to assume we all know what happens: the next morning they will wake up, look at those same hands covered in snow, and realize they’re no longer “the younger generation” – and it’s up to them if they use their hands to scold those who replaced them or not. -Nina Corcoran
2. “String Bean Jean”
Dog on Wheels EP (1997)
There are two things to absolutely love about “String Bean Jean”, a B-side that would later appear on the band’s Push Barman to Open Old Wounds compilation. 1. Is the sound of Stevie Jackson’s electric guitar as it lays down leads throughout the song. 2. Murdoch’s always sharp lyrics creating a moment of humor and humanism that is unparalleled in the song’s closing stanza. “She asked me, ‘Do I need to lose a bit of weight?'” Murdoch sings. “And I told her, ‘Don’t be stupid ’cause you’re looking great.’ And we call her String Bean Jean because the label on her jeans says seven to eight years old – well that’s pretty small.” The little bits of slang, the details, they make a song that is melodically strong, detail oriented, and arranged beautifully… they make it transcendent. They make it pretty perfect. I love this one. -Philip Cosores
1. “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
Lazy Line Painter Jane EP (1997)
I also love this one. “Lazy Line Painter Jane” came during a year of putting out singles in 1997 and saw some of their strongest work coming in the format. It may seem weird that they brought in a guest vocalist, Monica Queen, to take the female part, but when you hear her sing, it becomes not that weird at all. Queen sings with a wild, soulful, and untamed tenor. The song’s classic R&B aesthetic suits Queen’s voice, with the vocalists all coming together for a big finish that fills the church hall in which it was recorded. It might not be the most well-known Belle and Sebastian song, but its looseness and swagger is that of a band in its prime. Luckily, the prime would last a long time. -Philip Cosores