In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
For over 20 years, Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian have made gorgeous and nostalgic songs that are delicate but never flimsy. Led by frontman Stuart Murdoch, whose carefully detailed and character-driven stories have been charming, hilarious, and heart-wrenching, the seven-piece band has nine albums that have quietly expanded on vibrant and melancholic pop-rock. While there’s a lot sonically separating their folk-rock 1996 debut Tigermilk and their latest 2015 dance-inflected LP Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian have always kept their heart and ear for an expertly-executed pop song.
Because of this, going through and ranking the band’s nine albums is no easy task even for a casual fan. For guitarist and songwriter Stevie Jackson, who’s been a member of Belle and Sebastian since he met Murdoch at the now-closed Glasgow open mic institution Halt Bar in 1996, he’s sure to note that his rankings are absolutely subjective and not the final word on the subject. "I don't really rank things. You have to understand that these rankings are just how I'm feeling at any given particular moment. I do love them all," says Jackson.
On December 8, Belle and Sebastian is releasing part one of three forthcoming EPs How To Solve Our Human Problems (the remaining installments are coming January 19 and February 16, respectively). It’s a throwback to the band’s roots, specifically their three EPs released in 1997 Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light, and because of this, Jackson was feeling nostalgic enough to rate all nine of Belle and Sebastian’s albums.
9. Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Stevie Jackson: I would say the reason this is at the bottom is because it's probably the album that's most up for me rediscovering. The only reason it's there is because I can't quite remember it and I've not played it in years. I don't have too much feeling about it. I don't really play our records and I don't know if many people who make records play their own records, so my opinions of our records generally tend to be a mixture of things like how we felt when we were making them. Was it a happy experience and were we happy with the result? It's kind of funny that this on the bottom because I really enjoyed making Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It was a wonderful experience working with [producer] Trevor Horn. I hope he doesn't read this because I feel completely guilty about it now. It was just the first thing that popped into my head. I can't really think of anything negative to say right now. I just don't really know it.
After a couple of albums that were taking too long to make and were a bit sprawling and undisciplined, it was such a relief to have a boss like Trevor Horn, someone who was in charge of the project. I've always been frustrated when really good songs get left off albums but I think with that album, all of the best songs ended up on it. I'm sorry I'm giving it a rave review right now. It kind of amazes me this is at the bottom but I bet it's going to rise up now that it's in my head.
Noisey: This album also has one of the most well-known songs you co-wrote for the band, "Step Into My Office, Baby."
Stuart Murdoch just writes on his own. While he collaborates more now, we had never really sat in a room and wrote together before but that time we did. I just turned up and showed him the tune I was working on and we had a discussion a couple days before about girlfriends and getting into trouble with bosses. We joked that whenever you're getting into trouble, you’re going to hear "step into my office" and we just remembered that line. I had a notepad, we went quiet for ten minutes and in those ten minutes I wrote one stanza and Stuart wrote eight, as an indication of the difference in our abilities. He handed them over to me and I just picked the ones I liked.
8. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000)
Stuart Murdoch wrote in the sleeve notes for this album that "it was just a harder record to make." Why was that?
I don't know. It was misconceived and we shouldn't have been making a record, really. We were highly dysfunctional at that period. I didn't want to make a record at all but I went along with it. We needed to get it together. For a long time, this was my least favorite record because it was such a miserable time making it. I just hated that period. It was a rudderless operation and there was a lot of intrigue going on with the band. It was the end of the 90s so you had just endless studio time and budgets that no longer exist and I just remember being in there forever and it being a really obscene waste of time. An album emerged from it eventually...
So why isn't this your least favorite? What were the moments that made you think that something special was happening?
No, there were absolutely no special moments at all in it, actually. I'm joking, as there were little flashes. We had ten songs and I think only five of them ended up on the record with another five emerging during the long, protracted process. I remember "Don't Leave the Light On, Baby" was a good moment and it was a positive statement at the time for us. “The Wrong Girl” also has happy memories along with it. I think I’ve blanked a lot of that one out.
I think it was maybe about four years ago or something that all of the early records on Jeepster were remastered for vinyl and it was me and [keyboardist] Chris Geddes who were volunteered to listen to them all and check the mastering, the vinyl and all that. When I heard Fold Your Hands again, it was a revelation. I was surprised because I had to check the first four albums and sonically, Fold Your Hands sounded the best. It's a classic example of an album being colored by making it.
7. Write About Love (2010)
We had a sort of sabbatical from the end of 2006 until the start of 2010, which was nearly three years or something. We all did other things and Stuart was writing songs for God Help The Girl. It kind of felt like a slight reunion to make the record. It was a very happy record to make and it was done really efficiently. It wasn't the most striking experience but it was really good.
It works as an album because it’s not too long and it’s concise. I remember we’d get into arguments about the tracklist and the sequencing so much during The Life Pursuit that I just stayed out of it. While I think there were a couple songs left off that should’ve been on it to make it a stronger record, there some great ones on it. “I Didn’t See It Coming” is a classic, and one that’s risen up a lot for me that we’ve been playing live a lot more is “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” What a song that one is.
“Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” is interesting because it’s a duet with Norah Jones. Her and Carey Mulligan, who sings on the title track, are special guests on the album which is new territory for Belle and Sebastian.
Oh, it was fantastic. Both were great. They were slightly different in that Carey came in after we recorded the song and she sang on it. She was great. But the Norah Jones experience is a whole other thing because it was recorded with her live with the band like an old school Frank Sinatra record. It was really, really fun. I remember thinking: what a voice. No wonder she's sold so many records.
6. Storytelling (2002)
Storytelling was really interesting for me. Like I mentioned, the Fold Your Hands period was essentially dysfunctional and I just wanted to quit, but Storytelling was really good. It wasn't an unqualified success because it was a soundtrack that didn't really get used in the movie it was named after. A couple of songs did, though. For a not ultimately positive outcome, it was a very, very positive experience for the group. It was a period of rebuilding and it was quite nice to go and do something else. Even though some of our songs weren’t used and it was misconceived in that way, the fact that we did it was great. It made us a lot stronger and was almost like a rebirth for us. It just started to become fun again.
It was also technically the first album without original bassist Stuart David. What was the experience with the band dynamic?
What you’ve got to understand that Stuart David during Fold Your Hands wasn’t there either. While he was still in the band, he never showed up so it’s not like we missed him. I didn’t notice any difference whatsoever. But I think the difference in the dynamic was that for other people, especially [multi-instrumentalist] Sarah Martin, Storytelling was a big leap in terms of coming up with material. She had written a great song for Fold Your Hands but Storytelling in my head is when she emerged as a real force. She had written some of the main themes and a couple of the songs there. It was really good.
Are there any particular moments off that album that stick out?
I still think in terms of vinyl, and Side A off that record is something I'd still happily play. It's mostly instrumental but I think I'd be most happy to listen to that. The only thing I'd change in retrospect from the last time I played it was that I would take off the talking bits from the movie. It made perfect sense at the time but time has passed and it doesn't really work. But that aside, I think it is one of my favorites. Hopefully people discover it because it was definitely an under-the-radar thing at the time.
5. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015)
This is probably the biggest example of the band changing things up with the added elements of dance music and disco.
Well, I was in New York at the time when we started to make it. I was actually in a disco band at the time as well, Disco Shark, and there was just a feeling amongst the band to do something a little more uptempo. It's funny because it is our disco record but you look back on the tracks and it didn't have that much disco at all. There's a bit but there's more of a feeling of uptempo-ness. But it was definitely a different process to making it which we've never experienced. We recorded with Ben Allen and there was more of a sense that there was a collaboration. He kept referring to it as "our record" which gives you a taste of what it was like.
Ben Allen is a completely different type of producer compared to the other people you’ve worked with before. He has credits on everyone from Animal Collective to Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green.
It was something we embraced. When his name came up, we definitely wanted to work with him because he's made pop records but his background is complete hip-hop coming up in Atlanta. We thought that'd be completely different for us and it was.
I’m sure because it was the last record the band made, a lot of the songs take you back to being in Atlanta.
I remember recording "The Everlasting Muse." I was stuck by myself in a room with a mandolin and there was a lot of free time. My main memory of the process, in all honestly, was going record shopping. We'd go in the morning to record and Ben would say, "Alright, that's it." And he would go on and do his thing. It was almost like being on holiday or something. I love it but I don't feel totally connected to it in a way. I'm happy and all that but looking back I guess I felt like it was being a guest star on your own record. I embraced it and it was a good process but I'm not sure it's something I'd want to do again. I felt so out of control of the whole process which in certain ways was also a good thing.
Do you see your opinion of it changing in five years?
It’s already changing. Interestingly, when we made it, and within the sequencing and stuff, there was a sense that this was a really long record as it’s nearly an hour long. When I was driving around one time listening to it, I thought, “Oh, this works. It’s an epic record. It is long but it’s good and it works.” But during the summer we were traveling to America and there it was on the in-flight entertainment system, and I decided to listen to it. About five tracks into it, I thought, “This is our best album and this is brilliant.” But after the sixth song I thought, “Oh no. This is too long.” I actually later had to stop listening to it because it wasn’t quite right. I think we could’ve made it more concise. I think overall our earlier albums work better that way because we were still thinking in terms of vinyl and we only have 40 minutes to work with now I think with some of our later records you could argue that they’re a track long.
4. The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)
I think, of all our records, it's the one which you get more out of if you play the whole thing. It's the one that the individual tracks might not blow you away as much as other things but I think it works as an album. It's a good listen from start to finish.
This is the first album where you have songwriting and vocal contributions. You’ve said before that at the time you hated the idea of having your own songs in the mix and were nervous that the worlds of those first two albums were going to be upended.
I don't think I can quote it any better than that. I can understand and see more clearly now where Stuart was coming from. I think there was a sense that Stuart had made a statement with those first two albums. He still had lots of great songs but he thought that if Belle and Sebastian were going to survive that he'd need other members to contribute too. I didn't get it at the time. I took some time to write a song, “Seymour Stein,” which I think is a good one and then I gave him another one, which I think isn’t quite as good on that record.
The first two albums had such a self-contained world. The songs were so highly-specific, it was almost as if these songs came from characters called Belle and Sebastian. While there was obviously autobiography in there, they were so character-driven. I felt with this album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, there was a parallel with the Band’s third, where after those first two records they had to break away with Stage Fright. Even though Stage Fright is my favorite, they still had to go away from the expectations they had with The Band and Music From Big Pink.
It was just a period of the band where I just was completely confused by the whole thing. I understood nothing. Stuart had been so brilliant and he’d been right about everything and I thought he was just going to throw the whole thing away by changing it up. It was an album of unease but not as much as Fold Your Hands Child.
While you were nervous about the direction of the band, how was actually writing your own songs for this album?
My way around the aforementioned self-contained worlds in Stuart’s writing was making my songs very self-consciously about the group itself. It was a remarkable time for us and “Seymour Stein” was just an idea in my head. It just kind of encapsulated a period. I was writing about the group and my experiences of being in the group. It was the same with “Chickfactor” as well, which deals with our first trip to America. In a way, I was just trying to give some context of the group on top of these other songs. I couldn’t get into that world of Stuart Murdoch’s Belle and Sebastian if I tried. Stuart David put it very, very eloquently in an interview I saw once where he said: There's two Belle and Sebastians. The Belle and Sebastian, the mythical characters of the songs, and there's Belle and Sebastian, the reality of the musicians in that group. They're two completely different worlds.
3. If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)
This a funny one for me to talk about because I didn't like it at the time. It's such a strange thing because I was certainly disappointed with it because I thought the songs were amazing but I thought the production was a bit flat and a bit lacking in dynamic. But in retrospect, I think Stuart Murdoch was so ahead of the game in the fact that songs were so strong that whatever issues I had with the production were the same thing that made people gravitate towards it. These songs are unadorned that they speak for themselves. It works.
To be truly honest with you, when we finished this I thought, "Well, we got to make a better one than this," but the next few years of our records just got worse and worse. I was definitely disappointed about the whole thing because I knew we could have been much better. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and I think we made some great records. I think this became the favorite because we followed up with stuff that wasn't as good.
I can see why you think The Boy with the Arab Strap is the most cohesive album front-to-back but this album really flows from song to song.
It's the only album we ever made where it was sequenced before we recorded it. The only difference was that it was going to finish with a song called "Sunday Gang" which never got recorded but last minute Stuart wrote "Judy and the Dream of Horses." Stuart had everything in his notebook. It was a pretty good way of doing it because we only had a week to record it and we didn't have to worry about sequencing issues.
It’s probably got a lot to do with why it’s a lot of people’s favorite record from us. Conceptually it is so tight and it’s so concise. When we played If You're Feeling Sinister in its entirety on tour last year for the 20th anniversary, and just hearing them as you’re playing them, it was so much fun.
2. The Life Pursuit (2006)
This is just a great album. I'd always been frustrated because when we really got going again in 2001, we'd have a string section on stage and our records had a lot of orchestration and while that's great, I'm just not a fan. Now and again it's great and it works but sometimes you can overuse it. I loved making The Life Pursuit because it was just the group. It was just us digging deeper and letting ourselves perform and shine.
By that point, we had been playing live for a few years. When we started off, we were very, very quiet and the music was about drawing people in, almost. Then when we became popular, we played bigger places and being quiet didn't really work. We had to learn how to project and The Life Pursuit felt like the culmination of us projecting. It's up-tempo and branches out in interesting ways.
1. Tigermilk (1996)
This one’s first probably because it was first. It’s like a first love. It’s all subjective but I had been in bands and done recordings but this was the first time I’d ever done something and found it quite dazzling. I remember Stuart [Murdoch] came in with the vinyl and we played it at my flat and I thought, “Fuck, this is really good.” I think with a lot of bands’ first albums there’s always speed, enthusiasm, and just playing fast. With “The State I Am In,” I had forgotten that it was so fast. When we played it live, it was like a runaway train. Same with “She’s Losing It” and several others. Your heart is racing when you’re playing and listening to these songs. That’s the way it should be!
We recorded it in less than a week. We’d do a couple takes, then onto the next one, then onto the next one, and then it came out almost instantly. I’ve been saying this for years and no one will listen to me that this is the way to make records. I do admit that you can’t keep repeating yourself as well. It’s a conundrum, but I think there is something to say about having energy and just fucking going for it. I love it. Its electric songs are more electric and it’s got the fragility and it’s incredibly gentle. There’s just something about it. It’s just magical.
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