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.

100 best covers: #79 Mumford And Sons “The boxer”

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Here’s one that might incite comments. Or maybe it’ll just incite vitriol. I usually finish these posts with the question of which you prefer, the cover or the original, but I’m pretty I sure I know the answer to this one already.

Mumford and Sons brought back the banjo in a big way in the late 2000s. It feels like the centre around which their platinum-selling debut album, “Sigh no more”, crowded, but really, they used a lot of non-traditional rock instruments to build their sound. I really liked the debut when I first heard it (still do, really) and because I don’t often listen to commercial radio, didn’t realize that it made them a household name until I saw a part of their set at Osheaga in 2013. Already by this time, though, the typical backlash that accompanies a meteoric rise had begun to set in. There really is a lot of hate out there for them. I’m not sure I completely understand it. However, I will say that with each successive album I’ve become more and more ambivalent, especially after they dispensed with their trademark sound on their third record and started to head down the vanilla pop road, hot on the trails of Coldplay.

They covered Simon & Garfunkel’s classic folk pop tune, “The boxer”, just before they remade themselves, and released it as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of their 2012 sophomore release, “Babel”. This is a tune I have known and loved since high school and can remember singing the words along with my classmates on the bus trip back from a particular weekend winter retreat. Though Simon & Garfunkel were usually on the quieter side of folk, this was a jauntier number and when I saw that Mumford had covered it, I thought I would enjoy it even before I had heard it.

The instrumentation is different but the feel is very much in the same vein, the banjo, resonator guitar, and even Marcus Mumford’s vocals lending the tune some uplifting sadness. And it is just as easy to sing along with on that “la la lie” chorus.

So though I won’t bother asking the question, I will say that at least Paul Simon must have approved of this cover, given that he appeared on it, along with resonator guitar legend Jerry Douglas.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

100 best covers: #80 Teenage Fanclub “Nothing to be done”

<< #81    |    #79 >>

One quick glance at my best tunes of 1990 and 1991 lists and you’ll likely notice I tended towards British music in that decade. It got worse when Nirvana’s explosion meant that the American (and Canadian, to a slightly lesser extent) music industry looked to grunge for the template to all things ‘Alternative’. So in the world before the internet, of course, it made sense that I would find my way to the British music magazines that managed their way to the shelves across the Atlantic and that I would constantly peruse these pages in search of new bands to explore. My favourite of these magazines was the now-defunct “Select”, champion of all things Britpop.

“Select” was also known for the cassette tape compilations that it would include with certain issues. Personally, I was always surprised when I’d find a copy that had somehow survived the voyage with the cassette still attached so it would invariably join me on my return home. One such cassette that I remember, mostly because it is still in a shoebox along with other preserved cassettes in my basement, was the 1995 compilation titled “Exclusives”. It was so called because the songs or versions thereof were only supposed to be available on this tape. It included tracks by Spiritualized, Boo Radleys, U2, EMF, and this cover by Teenage Fanclub.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a cover. I had never heard of The Pastels, the highly influential Scottish indie rock band who did the original. I just loved the laid back groove of the Teenage Fanclub track that came out just one month before their fourth album, “Grand prix”, the crisp production and jangling acoustic giving a foreshadowing impression of what to expect when the new CD was to hit my carousel. And I couldn’t possibly know that the female vocalist tracing barbs with Francis MacDonald on the recording was Katrina Mitchell, a then member of the band being covered.

The original appeared as the opening track on The Pastel’s sophomore record, 1989’s “Sittin’ pretty”, and is more raw sounding than the Fannies cover, vocals even more lazy and guitars raunchy and keys plunking. It sounds a lot like Teenage Fanclub, themselves, sounded like in their early days, not far-fetched given the two bands’ shared geography. And I don’t know if the bands always knew each other or they met due to the recording of this cover but the collaborations didn’t end here. All of MacDonald, Norman Blake, and Gerard Love would lend a hand on later Pastels records.

Anyway, despite enjoying the original, my preference here is the cover and I think it is not just because I heard it first. The aforementioned vocals in the original were performed by founding Pastels members Stephen McRobbie and Annabel Wright (Katrina Mitchell had not yet joined the band when it was recorded) and though fun, they lack the melody of the cover. The Fannies’ version is also slightly more cheerful and playful.

What about you folks? Pastels fans? What’s it to be – the original or the cover?

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.