- “The State I Am In”
Perhaps it’s a bit condescending to say that track one, album one was the high point for a band. All I can say is that I’m immensely grateful they didn’t stop with this track. I love these lyrics and the tune is exciting with every listen as it builds from Stuart Murdoch’s simple voice into something desperately passionate. Both versions of this track are great, but I prefer the original a bit more.
- “Piazza, New York Catcher”
The simplicity of this track is stunning. A guitar and human voice pair without any added thrills for simple lyrics of life and love. I’ve seen this track cited as an example of Belle & Sebastian forsaking their indie-cred in favor of accessibility, but ultimately this track isn’t that far from their first.
Not a particularly popular track, this, the second best Belle & Sebastian track about wandering around New York feeling emotionally lost, is a personal favorite. Apparently about an actual indie magazine, the track still stands out as captivating the hopeful melancholy that this band does so well. Stevie Jackson sings on this one and his voice makes for nice variety after several Murdoch tracks. I’ve heard Belle & Sebastian described as a band for shy girls dabbling in books and bookish boys dabbling in shy girls, and this track encapsulates that ethos nicely.
- “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
Just trying to order the tracks on If You’re Feeling Sinister is a daunting task. Perhaps not the most exciting, twee, or affecting track on the album, it manages to combine all the best qualities of their best album (no question in my mind(see I do think they improved in the, uh, five months between first and second albums)). All I can say to defend this choice is that if this list is flawed, it’s because I don’t have more of their second album in the top five. “Nobody writes them like they used to so it may as well be me” Murdoch sings, and since so many of their songs feel like they could have come from the mid-sixties, I think that’s a line he really takes to heart.
- “Waiting for the Moon to Rise”
Harpsichord, female-male harmonies, violin, and a danceable beat: a quintessential Belle & Sebastian song. These lyrics are great too, as Sarah Martin sings about insisting on wanting things to work out. If this is too safe and predictable, it’s only because this band has turned something very far from ordinary into expected. If that’s that the case, I’m very content with boring.
- “Funny Little Frog”
One of their most upbeat and best known tracks, the words just glide out of Murdoch’s lips on this one. The Life Pursuit version of this track is probably better than the God Help the Girl version, but both are just pure fun. Fun (but not quite reasonable enough) fan theory I’ve heard: this song is about the Virgin Mary and he gets to sing to her because he’s in a church choir.
- “If You’re Feeling Sinister”
One reviewer said that Belle & Sebastian really distill to just two basic themes: atypical sexuality and Catholicism. If that’s true, this must be the archetypal track (perhaps why it’s the title track on their best album?). Building from a chorus of children’s voices, this rather adult track evokes the paradox of birth, death, and everything between.
- “I’m a Cuckoo”
The high point of the dance/pop vibe on Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Perhaps I would have preferred if they kept on churning out a new Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant every two years, but the variety of their oeuvre allows for gems like this that, while not as affecting as *anything* on the second album, stays just enough within their formula to be great fun with lyrics that still ring true.
- “My Wandering Days Are Over”
I oscillate on my choice of second favorite track from Tigermilk, but I think this wins over “I Don’t Love Anyone” because of how unassuming it is. The subtle string and brass touches are perfect to keep this a fun groove.
- “Dress Up in You”
There are so many simple compositions from this band that feature Murdoch encapsulating melancholy and regret. Like a personal favorite (but that I realize isn’t quite as good as these) “The Rollercoaster Ride,” this track features subtle male-female harmonies that give it a nice edge. The brass and “na na na” at the end also help set this one apart.
- “Seeing Other People”
Piano, guitar, and Murdoch’s voice form the basis of this track and they come together so well here. The chorus is the real highlight here, as the vocal distortion keeps it distinct and fun.
- “Winter Wooskie”
My favorite non-album track, this feels like a perfectly self-contained single. Like the Beatles track “Honey Pie” (and I can give no higher compliment to a track than comparing it to the Beatles, and I can point out the enduring importance of the Beatles in few ways better than to say random tracks on the white album are still influencing tracks in 2005), this has a 50s feel that makes me want to dance with my umbrella as I walk across the bridges of Saint Petersburg.
The lyrics of this track well describe the mundane routine of daily life juxtaposed with the transcendence of music. Personally I’m just a huge fan of “life sized models of the Velvet Underground in clay.”
- “Another Saturday”
So at this point I’ll reveal this list is more of a list of the top 50 Stuart Murdoch tracks, and I included both this and God Help the Girl tracks in the list because ultimately they feel like just another phase of Belle & Sebastian. Simple instrumentation and wistful lyrics make this one of my favorites.
- “Ever Had A Little Faith?”
The best track from their most recent album, this one feels like it could have easily been on one ten years prior. While I don’t necessarily dislike the direction of Belle & Sebastian in recent years, I definitely prefer the simplicity of this sort of track.
- “I Just Want Your Jeans”
What sets this above the other tracks from the God Help the Girl project is that the slow starts allows the guest vocalist’s talent to really shine while the second half of the track builds into a very strong tune by the end. I probably prefer the 2009 version of this with Asya singing to the film soundtrack version.
- “The Loneliness of the Middle Distance Runner”
This was my favorite when I was walking around Cambridge in the rain on my way to the train station. Maybe not the most refined EP track, but the guitar jam halfway through the song is still great.
- “Women’s Realm”
Their fourth album gets criticized for being safe and boring, but that doesn’t mean some of the tracks aren’t exciting. Both Murdoch and Isobel Campbell have verses on this one, and this is one of the tracks where I think to lead vocalists really works for Belle & Sebastian.
- “The Stars of Track and Field”
Like most people, this track was my first exposure to Belle & Sebastian. Murdoch strums slowly about troubles at school before building to a quicker tempo chorus. Ultimately it’s a very similar track to their previous album opener “The State I Am In,” but a bit more laid back. The only reason this has fallen in favor (still pretty high) is that after a hundred listens this track loses some of the novelty of the formula.
- “Your Cover’s Blown”
Almost certainly the best bass line in a Belle & Sebastian song, this rarity features a much funner disco feel than anything on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance or Write About Love, which is a pity because all the different sections of this track have a real kick to them.
- “If She Wants Me”
While almost all early Belle & Sebastian can be reasonably called twee, tracks like this from Dear Catastrophe Waitress feel particularly so because of the almost childish naivety that somehow isn’t as prominent on their earlier albums. So as sickeningly sweet as this song is, it is indeed sweet and charming.
- “For the Price of a Cup of Tea”
It’s hard for me to discern if I actually love this track or if I just love songs about tea. I’m pretty sure I’d love this fun, upbeat jam even if it was about coffee. Halfway through the track Murdoch returns to the classic theme of the catharsis of music and we get the great line “for the price of a cup of tea you’re getting 7″.” Indeed, a cup of tea is probably more expensive than a single, what a deal!
- “Me and the Major”
Stevie Jackson plays harmonic here, and I think Bob Dylan might be the only other musician that makes me enjoy a good harmonica bit. Murdoch is on top form in his story telling lyrics here too.
- “Mary Jo”
After a flute and piano duet, Murdoch opens this track with a whisper. It crescendos into a beautifully sweet chorus with nice male-female harmonies. Also, shout out to the shout out to “The State I Am In” on this track: great way to tie the start and the end of the album together.
- “The Rollercoaster Ride”
A personal favorite, this closer is a bit slower, sadder, and less diverse than “Mary Jo,” but still beautifully evokes a world of a bittersweet assurance that things will get better. Beautiful simple harmonies here too.
- “Legal Man”
Maybe the quickest tempo Belle & Sebastian track, this one features almost the whole roster singing. The music video is set a few decades earlier, and like much of their catalog, this track does feel like it could have stepped out the sixties.
- “I Dumped You First”
Clapping, a background chorus, and a simple guitar melody show the beauty of the sort of song Murdoch could have churned out if he had taken the more traditional pop route. I think it underscores how the forays towards those genres on Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the more recent albums still stay fairly close to the traditional formula.
- “Act of the Apostle II”
While the God Help the Girl versions of this track are certainly cleaner, the longer version with Murdoch’s admittedly less beautiful voice stands out because of the fantastic crescendo that would feel out of place on the streamlined soundtrack versions. However, I will defend that the film-centric versions of this track help to flush out it’s dramatic story.
- “Family Tree”
Isobel Campbell’s track here is soft but lyrically very cutting; there’s a restrained emotion here that doesn’t come through when Murdoch sings.
- “Judy and the Dream of Horses”
Closing track from early Belle & Sebastian song about a girl using the power of music to comfort herself that opens with Murdoch singing softly before crescendoing into an exciting chorus. Almost interchangeable with “Mary Jo,” except why is there a recorder on this.
- “The Boy with the Arab Strap”
Good enough for Summer Finn to quote in her yearbook. But even for those that don’t like that film this track has an infectious pop quality.
- “I Didn’t See It Coming”
The start for this track is amazing, and the shift from Sarah Martin to Stuart Murdoch is marvelous. Like “Your Cover’s Blown,” here the dance vibe works well in combination to the more typical slow Belle & Sebastian track. Although, to be fair, starting slowly before progressing to a quick tempo chorus is nothing new on opening tracks for this band.
- “I Don’t Love Anyone”
The track on their first album with the most traditional rock aesthetic, Murdoch gets a little sassy here. I love it when the song climaxes to “he said ‘the world is as soft as lace,'” again a nice reference to the power of music to make a difference in our lives.
- “To Be Myself Completely”
A sweet track from The Life Pursuit that oozes sunshine.
- “There’s Too Much Love”
Another closing track, this one starts on a more upbeat note than the others but still manages to build into a great ending.
A sing-songy early track that keeps a nice edge to it. Would definitely love it for Stuart Murdoch to compare my journal to a Bible.
- “Write About Love”
Perhaps I could use this jam in a creative writing course. Having multiple vocalists really fits well on this title track.
- “A Down and Dusky Blonde”
The crux of the movie God Help the Girl is Eve’s ability to move on with her life with the help of her friends, and not just music. This is an old theme for Belle & Sebastian, but the added twist of the importance of community is an important update.
- “Another Sunny Day”
Like almost all the tracks on The Life Pursuit, there are more rock influences here than folk, but it still comes together just so for an optimistic anthem.
- “Like Dylan in the Movies”
The bridge here is perhaps my favorite, as Murdoch utters a fairly universal line of tenderness, “you’re worth the trouble and you’re worth the pain.”
- “Pretty when the Wind Blows”
Probably the simplest song by Murdoch and company, but still remarkably beautiful in its simplicity.
- “Nobody’s Empire”
Everyone all the time wants to dance seems to be the motto of this album. Thankfully this track avoids the overproduction some of the others on the album have and focuses on Murdoch’s lyrics and vocals.
- “Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It”
The pacing on this track is ideal. A nice blend of classic Belle & Sebastian elements.
- “Sunday’s Pretty Icons”
Beautiful female-male harmonies throughout this entire track and the production isn’t too distracting.
- “Sukie in the Graveyard”
A fast-paced rock anthem that cares as much about what you think of it as the titular character.
- “The Wrong Girl”
A sugary fast-paced duet between Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson driven by some fierce violins and brass.
- “Black and White Unite”
One of the few actual songs on Storytelling, this one could have slotted on one of the other albums rather easily with a homesy folk melody.
- “Sleep the Clock Around”
The blips and bloops set this soft pop gem apart from most tracks in their early albums. The production on this one perhaps hints at what was to come in later albums.
- “The Fox in the Snow”
Murdoch’s soothing advice to not grow hungry or cold comes through here with some very subtle harmonies.
- “I Took a Long Hard Look”
Slow-paced song about growing up with some classic backing vocals.
- Honorable Mention: “The Boy Done Wrong Again”
Lyrically this is in my top few Belle & Sebastian tracks because it poignantly expresses the longing for the catharsis of music. Sadly a bit duller than most of the rest of their best album (which I finally had to agree the rest of which all belonged in the top fifty).
- Bottom: “Seymour Stein”
Maybe not their worst track, but the one that seems to drag the most to me and makes me most want to switch to something that sounds like it was written by someone who actually has a pulse.