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 tunes of 2000: #4 Belle And Sebastian “Legal man”

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At some point in the early 2000s, the full season box sets of Gilmore Girls began being released on DVD and my wife, Victoria and I bought them and watched them all, as they were released, one season at a time. I’m not going to go into the wherefores of why I enjoyed and got hooked on the show right now but let’s just say that I did. The reason I mention this idiosyncrasy of mine this morning has to do with one of my favourite scenes that occurred at the end of episode 14, season 2 (no, I don’t have them memorized, I had to look it up).

Lane, the best friend of Rory (the younger of the Gilmore girls), is the Korean-American daughter of first generation immigrants, who is a music fanatic and snob. During the episode in question, she is grounded by her strict, traditional mother, something that happens frequently during the show for several reasons but in this case, it is problematic because the new Belle And Sebastian single is due to be released and she simply must be one of the first to hear it. Rory, being the friend that she is, procures a copy for her and orchestrates a drop off as Lane and her mother are walking through town, an intricate plot involving the town weirdo Kirk running interference while Rory’s mother’s employee, Michel, posing as a jogger, drops the disc in lane’s bag (watch the scene here). It’s hilariously like something out of Mission Impossible and all the while, the first part of “Legal man”, the single in question, is playing as soundtrack, lending the scene a 60s spy movie feeling.

Belle And Sebastian, as you are hopefully aware, are an indie pop collective out of Glasgow, Scotland that formed in 1996 and that were so prolific, they released two full-length albums in their first year of existence. The following year, they released three EPs of songs that never appeared on their LPs, something they would become known for doing. They also became known for twee-inspired chamber pop, whose witty and biting lyrics acted as counterbalance to the light tone of the music. Numerous releases and personnel changes later, B&S are still a going concern.

“Legal man” is the title track off another one of those standalone singles/EPs that I mentioned above, only being available on that release until the song and its two B-sides were included on the “Push barman to open old wounds” compilation. It is two and half minutes of frenzied bongo drumming (by Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn), snarling sitars, whirling hammond, and fun backing vocals by Rosanne Suarez and The Maisonettes. As you can imagine, with all those ingredients swirling in the lava lamp, “Legal man” is a retro and mod revivalist romp that spells magic on the dance floor. So get out your beach blanket and let’s boogie!

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

Vinyl love: Belle And Sebastian “Girls in peacetime want to dance”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: Belle And Sebastian
Album Title: Girls in peacetime want to dance
Year released: 2015
Details: black vinyl, 2 x LP, gatefold sleeve

The skinny: The Glasgow-based indie pop collective returned after five years with album number nine and to my ears, it’s their best in a decade. It’s fresh and rejuvenated and shows that Stuart Murdoch hasn’t quite found the end of his tether yet.

Standout track: “The party line”