Tonight on Twitter my friend Britta asked me to recommend some of my favorite Belle & Sebastian songs, which is a bit like asking me to name my favorite streets in London: if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves having a really long discussion.
Belle & Sebastian have been recording for 20 years now; they’ve released nine studio albums and a couple of generally excellent compilations. They’ve been my favorite band since the fall of my senior year in college. There are other bands I listen to and rave about more (Keane, The Killers, Oasis, Dry the River), but no other band that sounds the way I think my soul would sound if my soul could make music. Belle & Sebastian has never been hugely popular, but over the past couple of decades they’ve taken over the niche that was occupied by The Smiths in the 1980s and 1990s, the cultural and artistic standardbearer for sad-eyed indie kids who wear cardigans and knee-high socks and go tramping through the woods alone and sit in the windows of coffee shops reading books by Marx and Engels and wondering if love will ever find them.
At any given time my 100 favorite songs list has at least eight or ten Belle & Sebastian songs in it, which doesn’t make the task of naming my ten favorites particularly easy. In this list I’ve tried to include tracks from both halves of their career: the early years in which their music was moody and atmospheric and their lyrics often seemed to be compressing whole novels into the space of a few verses, and the later years in which they began evolving towards a more danceable, infectious pop sound.
- Nobody’s Empire
The best introduction to late-period Belle & Sebastian—and to their music in general, really—is the first single from their latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (January 2015). Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has called this the most personal song he’s ever written. It’s one of the few songs in which he foregoes inventing characters and imaginary situations and sings directly from his heart. Hearing him describe his experience overcoming a chronic illness in his early twenties to found the band that would save his life is a powerful and, ultimately, hopeful experience.
- Like Dylan in the Movies
The best songs from Belle & Sebastian’s early years all seem to be trying to capture a particular moment in words and music. Even their albums can roughly be grouped according to specific seasons. This track from their best album (If You’re Feeling Sinister, the fall album) vividly captures the feeling of walking through a city park at twilight, late in the year. It’s gorgeous and a little scary and a little sad.
- This Is Just a Modern Rock Song
Belle & Sebastian’s lyrics have always had a weirdly meta-fictional element to them (see also the song “Belle & Sebastian” later on this list). They like to sing songs about themselves, in a band singing songs. Probably the apotheosis of their postmodern bent is this soft, seven-minute rocker from their first compilation album, in which the various band members take turns singing about themselves and each other and the song they’re playing (“we count three, four / then we start to slow / because this song has got to stop somewhere”). It’s great.
- My Wandering Days Are Over
and 06. I Could Be Dreaming
Belle & Sebastian’s first two albums are now widely regarded as two of the best indie-rock albums of the 1990s. Remarkably, they were both written and recorded in a single two-month creative burst. These two songs from their first album exemplify the rich orchestration (cello, glockenspiel, Hammond organ, etc.) and elegantly crafted, evocative lyrics of those first sessions. In the first, the band cheerfully commiserates with a friend who’s fallen on hard times (“you were doing it for businessmen on the piano, Belle / you said it was a living hell / you said you were in hell”), while in the second they contemplate murdering a sister’s abusive boyfriend.
- Belle & Sebastian
I can’t defend my love for this song, except to say that it’s a deeply personal song for me (and even showed up during a key scene between two people in my memoir). It’s the story of a woman named Belle who seems to own the whole world, and a miserable boy named Sebastian who pines after Belle, crashes his car, and tells his diary he’ll never be young again. But he will.
- Act of the Apostle 1 and 2
The Life Pursuit (2006) is the best album Belle & Sebastian has released in the twenty-first century, the perfect middle ground between their “sad bastard” phase in the late ‘90s and the shoegazing dance-rock of their last few albums. Act of the Apostle is actually two songs, both of them about a teenager struggling to navigate high school and a broken home. The second begins with one of the best keyboard intros you will hear this side of heaven.
- The Boy with the Arab Strap
Apart from being one of the bounciest, catchiest, clap-happiest songs Belle & Sebastian ever did, this song is a perfect example of their lyrical brilliance at its peak. “Color my life with the chaos of trouble / ‘cause anything’s better than posh isolation” became the rallying cry of a whole generation of pretentious indie kids. And how many other deliriously infectious dance songs can you think of that could get away with the word lascivious?
- Fox in the Snow
If You’re Feeling Sinister is so atmospheric, there are moments when it almost ceases to be an album of songs and becomes instead a collection of gorgeous images, like an impressionism exhibit in a fine arts gallery. If the effects are sometimes overly precious, they are also devastatingly effective, never more so than in this wintry, Satie-inspired ballad about lost kids trying to find their way in a cold and unforgiving world. Here the band most nearly approaches the simplicity of the early Beatles both musically and lyrically (“don’t let yourself go hungry now / don’t let yourself go cold”), in the process attaining a level of poignancy they never reached again.
- Waiting for the Moon to Rise
How is it that Belle & Sebastian’s weakest album gave us their best song? This is both my favorite Belle & Sebastian song and one of my three or four favorite songs of all time. The half-wistful, half-enchanted orchestration melds with Isobel Campbell’s ethereal vocals to create a dream of half-lit city streets and empty train stations and misty autumn mornings with the sun just rising over the fields on the far eastern horizon. It’s the band at their most sincere and most romantic, in awe of the indescribable beauty around them. Around all of us.