Best albums of 1998: #1 Belle and Sebastian “The boy with the arab strap”

There used to be a ‘night’ in Toronto called “Blow up”, so named from a cult film of the same name from the 60s. It changed venues a few times but I’m pretty sure its final resting place before calling it quits was on the upstairs level of the famous El Mocambo lounge. I frequented this ‘night’ many times over the years, especially in the late 90s, because the DJs played a good deal of the music I enjoyed: British indie in the early hours and Northern Soul and Motown later on. It also helped that I was on speaking terms with a couple of the DJs.

I mention these nights of debauchery this morning because it was here that I first heard tell of Belle and Sebastian. I remember Darrell and Trevor, two of the aforementioned DJs, drunkenly raving to me about this band, ensuring to me that any one of their first three albums would be worth checking out, and drilling their name into my own drunken psyche. Why I picked “The boy with the arab strap” to sample first, I will never know for certain, but I did fall in love with it. And this was only the start of a decades long infatuation with the band.

Belle and Sebastian are quite well known now and likely as influential as the Scottish twee pop bands that influenced them, but back in the late 90s, they were largely ignored by North American mass culture. Led by Stuart Murdoch, his vast collective of multi-instrumentalists have put out a brilliant body of work, favouring EPs almost as much as they did full-length albums. They have built up so much of a following that they are no longer as ignored here on this side of the Atlantic and tour here quite regularly.

“The boy with the arab strap” is still one of my favourite albums, not just because it was the first that I first explored, but also because it was so focused on being counter mass music culture. Many of its songs are not just anti-pop songs but they actually reference the major labels’ attempts to court them. Like those DJs, Darrell and Trevor, impressed upon me, to really know them, you should take in a whole album by Belle and Sebastian, but in the interest of saving time, here are my three picks for you.


“Is it wicked not to care?”: Where B&S’s fist couple of albums were generally generated by Stuart Murdoch, this third album was more collaborative, with more of the band’s talented members contributing to the writing duties. “Is it wicked not to care?” was not only written but also song by Isobel Campbell. Yes, she of the Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell collaborations. She was a member of the collective for its first six years and here, her soft touch on vocals works its wonders, fitting right in with the feel of their album. All wistful and longing and angst-ridden, the dark lyrics glossed over with plenty of sunshine in the music. “If there was a sequel would you love me like an equal?” Awesome.

“Sleep the clock around”: Campbell adds her vocals on this track as well. Only this time, she duets with Stuart Murdoch, the two of them whispering a sort of rant that feels sung without taking a breath, a sort of second person narrative of youth, a pep talk for the disaffected. Laying a base for all these words is a cacophony of relentless drums, trumpet, keys, and even bagpipes (this last to close out the song). As a track two that follows a quiet opener, it’s quite the alarm clock that definitely wouldn’t allow you to sleep through. It is incessant and urgent for all its diffidence and knowing asides, you can’t help but feel cooler, just for listening to it.

“The boy with the arab strap”: I almost feel that this album would still be in this number one position, even if it were only this track, the title track, played over and over again. Yeah, it’s that perfect in my opinion. It’s got that endless organ loop that pulls you in and drags you under. The piano flourishes, the peppy drumming, and of course, the handclaps all serve to get your feet tapping. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the dance floor. And I don’t even know how many times at the aforementioned “Blow up” (after the aforementioned conversation, of course) that this song dragged me up to jump and hop around to this song and sing along with its hilarious sketches and observances on the craziness of life. And, yes, to shout along with when he gets to the line that described the hero we all aspired to be in those days. “We all know you are soft ’cause we’ve all seen you dancing. We all know you’re hard ’cause we all saw you drinking from noon until noon again.” Brings back lots of good memories. I think.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”
2. Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1998: #2 Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.

I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.

The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.

It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.


“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.

“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.

“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.