Ranked: Belle and Sebastian's Greatest Albums

Rough Trade Records

March 2nd, 2024

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Words by Jamie Moir, Rough Trade Buyer

“I could bang on track-by-track here about just how amazing this album is, but fuck it, I’ve banged on enough already. Just go and listen to it. And then fall head-over-heels in love with all its robust DIY charm.”

Charming, cleverly crafted, poetic indie pop. The universal appeal of Scottish indie darlings Belle and Sebastian can be attributed to their whimsical yet confessional storytelling style, as steered by frontman and lyricist Stuart Murdoch.

Formed in Glasgow in 1996, Belle and Sebastian further establish their indie veteran status nearly three decades on, releasing albums A Bit of Previous and Late Developers almost back-to-back between 2022-2023. It was a pleasure to celebrate the release of A Bit of Previous with a Rough Trade East in-store and signing in 2023, a triumphant return for the band with their first new album in seven years. The Glasgow band’s perfect melodies and warm gossamer sound have certainly stood the test of time, as the band supported their most recent releases with a successful UK tour in 2023, and now carry on to North America in 2024.

Belle and Sebastian at Rough Trade East, 2022
Jamie Moir in 1998.

Longtime fan and fellow Scotsman Jamie Moir takes a nostalgic trip back to his very first time hearing the Glasgow band and shares a personal ranking of the indie rockers’ ten studio albums, in order of greatness.

November 18th 1996, it’s my 17th birthday, I’m about to start driving lessons and, like most, I’m in my final year at big school. At the school – like some – there was a common room, a place for the final year students to congregate during lunch breaks and “free periods”, a place where one could get one’s head down, to crack on and really have a long hard think about one’s future and/or just dick about. 

It was also a place with a CD player – around which arguments would routinely break out. Kula Shaker was hauled off in favour of Eternal, Eternal was hauled off in favour of Super Furry Animals, Super Furry Animals was hauled off in favour of thon nauseating Friends theme tune, and so on. It was around this time someone mentioned to someone else that someone’s parents were away for the weekend, we all knew what that meant…

Big Ross: “You heard the goss?? Elspeth’s ma and pa are away ti’ Magaluf, party at her’s this Saturday, ken?”
Me: “I thought her ma was shaggin’ that chiel, Brucey, fae Auchenblae??”
Big Ross: “Fuck knows, anyway I’ll get some weed oaf ma bro, you get the whiskey fae yer da’s.”
Me: “On it. Who else is goan?”
Big Ross: “Pegleg, Skins, Cheesy, KJ, Bear, Rach, Bal, wee Kenny, Em, Steamers, Moose, Woody, Viv, Bazza…”
Me: “Is Jenny going?”
Big Ross: “She’s oot yer league, man, likesay. And she’s bangin’ Jake. You know he’s a proper Stoney loon, a right heedcase. Tread carefully, man.

Fast forward to the party on Saturday night:

Big Ross: “This is fuckin’ shit.”
Me: “Lame, aye. Put some proper tunes on.”

Gina G is firmly rejected for Oasis. Volume dial turned up. Blur follows, back to Oasis, Supergrass, back to Oasis… then thon Buddy Holly song soon brings chaos as side lamps wobble and red wine ends up on the deep shag. Cheesy is tonguing Steamers in the cupboard under the stairs, some gatecrasher is gettin’ wide with Bazza – so he’s ge’in him the square go and wee Kenny, who’s looked pure boky all night, spews over his ice white chinos. “Right, abody listen up!” hollers Pegleg, “We’re all piling down the Commy for the over 18s disco and more double whiskey and lemonades. Let’s run down the hill, it’s more fun.” More than half the party vacates leaving me, Big Ross, Elspeth (who is now simultaneously sobbing and scrubbing the deep shag) and a quiet guy, you know the sort, called Angus.

Angus: “You guys heard this?” (Angus gets out a new CD, stark red cover)
Angus: “They’re fae Glasgae, a bunch o’ Weegies, like. Anyway, gie it a go.”

We sit, toasty with a stoned glow and expect the next big indie thing to come careering out the speakers…

The Stars of Track and Field plays out: “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs, kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs…”

Me: “It’s affy quiet, like?”
“…and now he’s throwing discus for Liverpool & Widnes…”
Me: “Did he just rhyme discus with Widnes?!”
“…and when she’s on her back she had the knowledge to get her into college…”
Me: “What the fuck is this?”

10. Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (2015)

Ranking these albums is a very tough brief given Stuart Murdoch’s consistent nous for a pop song, but that’s what we’re here for. Clocking in at just over an hour this is by far and away Belle and Sebastian’s longest album. It’s also, some hardened fans would admit, too produced for some. The Party Line, Enter Sylvia Plath and Play For Today are B&S bedecked amongst all manner of arpeggiators, phat synths and disco hops, straying dangerously close to overkill in pop production and certainly a far cry from a Bowlie whistling Dog On Wheels strolling down Byres Road on a rare day. Old fans can however find refuge in Nobody’s Empire, The Everlasting Muse, Perfect Couples and (wee hidden gem) Ever Had A Little Faith? – songs any indie-pop band worth their salt would more than likely fight over. 

Best track: Nobody’s Empire

9. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000)

From the longest album, to the shortest. This would turn out to be (for all intents and purposes) the last album featuring Belle and Sebastian Mark I, with founding members Stuart David and Isobel Campbell vacating – the latter upping sticks during a North American tour in 2002. Compared to the first three albums it casts a far more sombre shadow, perhaps due to inner turmoil or perhaps due more to growing expectations on Murdoch’s (very high) standard of songwriting – now the band edge tentatively closer to the baying limelight. 

To give you a rough idea of perspective during this largely (for most) pre-internet age – both Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister were both released in 1996, with the band not making their debut TV appearance until 1999. This is the level of obscurity we’re talking about here. Whispers of this in the weekly NME, whispers of that in the weekly Melody Maker. To achieve this form of privacy / mystique (and succeed in the music industry) during post-internet days would just not be remotely possible. 

It’s still a very strong album and some would argue underrated. Stevie Jackson coos through pop standard The Wrong Girl, whilst acting as Lee to Isobel’s Nancy on Beyond The Rise. Murdoch delivers multiple knock-out blows in The Model, Women’s Realm, There’s Too Much Love and the late night torch-bearing ballad Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby. The darkest and most daring moment on the album comes in the shape of The Chalet Lines, where the starkest of storylines is expertly and whimsically juxtaposed by the following Nice Day For A Sulk

Best track: The Chalet Lines

8. Late Developers (2023)

Belle and Sebastian aim to trim the fat from the past decade and get back to basics – delivering two albums in the space of 8 months. Leaner and more focussed than Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance and 2018’s collection of the 3 EPs making up How To Solve Our Human Problems – both albums, by and large, deliver a much more cohesive affair. Late Developers starts with Juliet Naked with a sound that harks right back to that run of essential EPs in 1997, whilst Give A Little Time delivers one of Sarah Martin’s strongest lead vocals, swathed sumptuously in sunshine handclaps. The Zombies loom large over Will I Tell You A Secret, Stevie gies it laldy on the jovial stomp of So In The Moment, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell lends her pipes to When The Cynics Stare Back From The Wall, whilst the pop monster of I Don’t Know What You See In Me will again no doubt divide fans (full clarity: I love it). The highlight here, though, is The Evening Star, sounding not unlike a lost Willie Mitchell-produced Al Green classic, nestling up among the best in the Murdoch arsenal. 

Best track: The Evening Star

Album artwork for A Bit of Previous by Belle and Sebastian

7. A Bit Of Previous (2022)

A Bit Of Previous reflects a similar mood – stripped, direct and strong. It contains numerous examples of a return to the perfect pinch of pop production, first fully realised during The Life Pursuit era. Young And Stupid, Prophets On Hold, Unnecessary Drama, Working Boy In New York City and Talk To Me, Talk To Me, replete with Thin Lizzy guitars and pounding rhythm section, let rip from the speakers – all executed by a band full of gusto and sounding almost born again after having their backs against the wall. Elsewhere Do It For Your Country is a first class Murdoch wallow, whilst Come On Home is as feelgood as you can get. 

Best track: Do It For Your Country

Album artwork for Belle and Sebastian Write About Love by Belle and Sebastian

6. Write About Love (2010)

Write About Love sees the band return to California to top up their snow white tans and work once again with producer Tony Hoffer. This is their most overlooked album for me, holding up to repeated plays and boasting some top level palatial pop in the guise of;  I Didn’t See It Coming with its carefree bounce,  I’m Not Living In The Real World playing out like some sort of lost theme tune from a BBC teenage drama from the 1980s and the delectable double-whammy of I Want The World To Stop and  Come On Sister, with the latter boasting a real solid Northern Soul swagger. The tempo is toned down to a cooing lilt on Calculating Bimbo, whilst The Ghost of Rock School would not sound too out of place on any of their first three albums, which is as high a praise as one can bestow on Murdoch and the gang.

The highlight of the album belongs to Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John, a show-stopping duet between Stuart and Norah Jones.

It’s up there with Dolly & Kenny or George & Tammy. It’s that good. A real late-night-sob-into-a-wee-dram beauty.

Best track: Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John

5. Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

Belle and Sebastian Mark II set up home at new label Rough Trade, parachute monster pop behemoth Trevor ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ Horn in on production duties and slap us silly with the glam-stomping and equally flirtatious Step Into My Office, Baby. This is not the same mysterious, somewhat evasive “bunch of students” shuffling about Sauchiehall Street – this is a gang looking each other square in the eye, strapping themselves in and pushing the Mainstream button. Shedding any form of lingering enigma and embracing the Pop World, full on. Sink or swim. Fortunately enough Murdoch keeps the in-tray chock-full of melody. 

You Don’t Send Me could easily be a Motown hit, Wrapped Up In Books is sunshine pop at its most glorious, If You Find Yourself Caught In Love weaves and bobs and Roy Walker may or may not be about Catchphrase. Piazza, New York Catcher is a true tale of Stuart and his future wife’s last minute whim to take in a baseball game, where Stuart’s gaze remains stuck on catcher, Mike Piazza. It may appear a black sheep here with only Stuart accompanying himself on guitar (and recorded back in Glasgow), but who cares when lines are this (forgive me) catchy. Asleep On A Sunbeam boasts a stellar Stevie Jackson goes Harry Nilsson guitar jangle, whilst Stay Loose finds his luscious runs mixing seamlessly with Murdoch’s overdriven, New Romantic vocal style.

Picking the highlight is a straight toss up between I’m A Cuckoo and If She Wants Me. The former being a quintessential Belle and Sebastian banger, replete with ample nostalgic nods and executed with sheer panache by Horn. The latter is a truly underrated gem, where Murdoch cuts through all the noise and static that comes with a relationship gone sour, to care for someone no matter how it crumbles, cookie-wise.

Best track: If She Wants Me

4. The Life Pursuit (2006)

Having recorded the first four albums in Glasgow and their fifth in London (with Trevor Horn), the gang reward themself with all the sun, sea and snackage that The Golden State has to offer, teaming up with Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Supergrass) at The Sound Factory in Los Angeles. You can feel the immediate impact sunshine makes on the collective peely-wallies as the album begins with the morning-sun-creeping-in-between-the-curtain feel to Act Of The Apostle.

Never have they sounded any better. It finds a band bang on form – having the fortune to work with a producer completely aware of how to get the best sound out of them, pushing them to really go there – the results are tremendous, the separation and playing of instruments sublime. We’re on T Rex via the Trongate territory with the glam-stomping White Collar Boy and The Blues Are Still Blue, woozing with Sly Stone gone Sesame Street on Song For Sunshine, hard boppin’ with a Dexys sway on Funny Little Frog and To Be Myself Completely, harking back to the Arab Strap era with the dreamy Dress Up In You to basking full on in the searing midday heat on the tongue-in-cheek-freak-chic of For The Price of a Cup of Tea.    

Serving as the centrepiece of the album are Sukie In The Graveyard and We Are The Sleepyheads – two of the most unbridled examples of sheer pop bombast ever committed to tape. The playing is simply outrageous – hats off to Chris Geddes with those wild keys and Bobby Kildea and that bass on the former. Sarah’s 60’s scatting vox alongside Stevie on that guitar solo on the latter, combining to produce a sound that makes you want to kick the doors clean off the day and stride down Sunset Boulevard, all Erchie Pluff like. It’s a real dirty soul sound, contrasting with Stuart’s clean as a whistle blue-eyed soul-boy refrain. It’s a sound you wish the band would have delved into more. Who knows, maybe it’s not too late for a Belle and Sebastian and Daptone collaboration!

The Life Pursuit is the result of the right band with the right producer at the right place and time.

Best track: Sukie In The Graveyard

3. The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)

Coming off the back of three EPs in 1997 (do yourself a favour and pick up Push Barman To Open Old Wounds – a compilation of their EPs from 1997 to 2001 – it’s essential) the band find themselves back again at CaVa Studios in their native Glasgow. This was the first Belle and Sebastian album I bought having been instantly wooed on the wireless by the song of the same name. Venturing out in between lectures one crisp September day in 1998 I made my way towards One Up – one of the then main indie record shops in Aberdeen. Here I find the new album, with its stark green cover, racked out resplendent in the window… It was nestled alongside the same stark red covered album I’d been made aware of a couple of years previous – around the time when someone had mentioned to someone else that someone’s parents were away for the weekend. ”Ahhhhh, it’s that band…”. 

I purchased both albums that day and the guy behind the counter threw in a free poster of the new album, which in turn adorned the back of the lounge door in my flat on Union Street during those heady, debauched student days. The Boy With The Arab Strap is Belle and Sebastian’s first album to feature lead vocals other than Murdoch’s – and of other writers. It’s also the first of their albums that takes longer than a week or so to complete. More time is spent on construction, arranging, and developing. In turn this gives the album more of a mixtape / collective / experimental feel. Personally, I find it impossible to not play this album from start to finish, more so than any other of their albums – but maybe this is just nostalgia calling. 

It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career opens the album, with its hushed church mouse tone – it’s a key tactic deployed by Murdoch over the first four albums – placing a quiet tune at the beginning of the album to lure the listener in. It’s akin to a Primary School teacher telling the kids to pipe down before she commences with her wee story, stating, all matter-of-factly, it’s their own time they’re wasting if they continue with the racket. Sleep The Clock Around is plucked from the Beatbox days (more of that later) leaving Isobel to reflect longingly over the following Is It Wicked Not To Care?, both of which precede the glisten of a rare bit of Scottish sunshine on a lazy summer’s day during the innocent and halcyon days of those long school summer holidays, conveyed effortlessly on the following pairing of Ease Your Feet In The Sea and A Summer Wasting. 

Stevie’s dulcet tones tackle the outstanding (and High Fidelity featuring) Seymour Stein, a pretty much scene-by-scene account of when the real Seymour Stein flew into Glasgow’s West End and attempted to woo the band to sign to his Sire label. Lavishing them with all manner of promises, dished out during a huge curry and followed by countless After Eights.

Stuart David ponders over a planetary dream before the song descends into some kind of wild 1970’s blaxploitation car chase, which then careers into the orchestrated Jimmy Webb pop of Dirty Dream Number Two. All of this occurs before we hit the monster, and career-defining anthem, The Boy With The Arab Strap. Numerous of my student nights (and no doubt other’s) are spent traipsing about with a gaggle of pals around Aberdeen’s plethora of hardened pubs, cramming the jukebox with £1 coins and continually selecting this behemoth before proceeding to gaily stomp and spill cheap pints over each other, bellowing out each and every word. Halcyon days indeed.

Best track: The Boy With The Arab Strap

2. Tigermilk (1996)

So the story goes… Stuart Murdoch meets Stuart David at Beatbox – a government funded music writing / performing course (soulessly situated beneath a slip road near a business park) in order to get the unemployed off the streets of Glasgow and focussed on something

Murdoch is still recovering from a near-death bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, finding solace in tinkling with the ivories and conjuring up wee fragments of stories. Using the rudimentary facilities and playing ability of fellow Beatbox students they record a demo tape under the name Rhode Island (eventually released as the 4 track EP Dog On Wheels in 1997). The tape is then passed to David’s flatmate Richard Colburn, who in turn plays it to his fellow students at Stow College, who in turn love it. Murdoch then convinces head Stow College lecturer Alan Rankine (he of The Associates fame, you know the tune, Party Fears Two, whorra banger) to record not just a single for the course students to get behind as an end-of-year project, but an entire 10 track album. Tigermilk, recorded under new name Belle and Sebastian, is debuted at a launch party where the assorted music hacks of London come a circling, whilst a few copies of the limited 1000 vinyl press are used as (soon to become very much sought-after) frisbees.

I could bang on track-by-track here about just how amazing this album is, but fuck it, I’ve banged on enough already. Just go and listen to it. And then fall head-over-heels in love with all its robust DIY charm.

Here’s a selection of my favourite lines:

”My brother had confessed he was gay, it took the heat off me for a while.”

“Do you want to work in C&A, cause that’s what they expect, move to lingerie and take a feel off Joe the storeman.”

”You go disco and I’ll go Funkadelic, man is the way to go, so drop a pill and then say hello.”

”It’s got to be fate that’s doing it, a spooky witch in a sexy dress has been bugging me with the story of the way it should be, with the story of Sebastian and Belle the singer, yeah.”

”And if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child, it’s to take a hiding.”

Best track: Expectations

1. If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)

By the time the gang are recording Tigermilk Murdoch has already completed the vast majority of If You’re Feeling Sinister, this is arguably the key moment in what Belle and Sebastian become known to be, and still are to this day. It’s the result of an artist delivering a body of work so complete at exactly the right time, during an already accelerated trajectory. With the enigma of being a then complete unknown, free to pound the streets that surround Glasgow’s School of Art, frequenting cafes and gallery openings – Murdoch is simultaneously buoyed by the fondness from friends, acquaintances and strangers towards his strength in taste, workrate, vision and lean quality of song. He wraps up and pours this affection into his own personal quest for that ”thin, wild mercury” sound. Growing more in confidence and belief that if you load the gun, point it in the right direction and fire – it will happen. This period of the band is forever frozen in time – a time of house parties and using what (or who) you have at your disposal, bringing the audience to you and creating something.

Indie label Jeepster had been courting the band since hearing the Dog On Wheels demo tape, passionately hounding the band to sign with them – although the band signing to a major label was never in question. Recording the album in 5 days and mixing in 3 (not far off Tigermilk’s recorded in 3 and mixed in 2, some 3 months prior) the results are even greater.

Again, I could easily wax lyrical over all of the music within, but it’s more fun just sticking it on. And if you’ve read this far you’ll either know it or will be surely willing to do just that.

I would however like to draw special mention towards Richard Colburn in the story of Belle and Sebastian. Not only is he the guy who got the demo tape to where it needed to be – but he drums for the band. Now, someone once said of a band ”you’re only as good as your drummer”, that somebody being Joe Strummer, and he’s right. Long story short – if you’ve ever been in a band or even tried to form one – finding a drummer first of all is hard enough – then finding one who actually drums ”for the song” – is an incredibly hard thing to find. So hats firmly off for Richard – the hidden player behind the Belle and Sebastian sound – the guy who saved Stuart Murdoch countless restless nights, ones soundtracked by loads of cymbal crashes and tom-tom solos. 

The band, to me, have always resembled some sort of slightly chaotic but charming extended family, one you’d perhaps meet playing at a random ceilidh-fuelled wedding. I can’t think of another Scottish pop export that exudes so much Scottishness. As Scottish to me as reaching for an Irn-Bru to curb a beezer of a hangover, as Scottish to the English as The Family-Ness with Ferocious-Ness and Thistle Whistles and as Scottish to an American as Mike Myers iconic depiction of a Scottish family in the cult film So, I Married An Axe Murderer. 

If You’re Feeling Sinister was released on November 18th 1996, the day I turned 17, around the time when someone had mentioned to someone else that someone’s parents were away for the weekend…

Best track: If You’re Feeling Sinister


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