Listen, I’m not going to be rational about this, because Belle and Sebastian are probably the beloved band from my youth that I still care the most about. They are responsible for more good songs in the last 16 years then any other band working during that time. You can’t tell me otherwise. It would be quicker to list the bad ones they’ve written than the good to great ones. So, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to find myself so mad at Stereogum’s recent “Belle and Sebastian Albums From Worst to Best List,” the latest in that website’s series of would-be objective rankings of various bands’ careers. The series is unusually angry making, actually, because of the causal authority it exerts over the respective bands it focuses on. These are great, these are trash, deal with it in the comments. I get it, but when the patient being dissected is a loved one of yours, you can’t help but get super riled up when they haphazardly throw an arm in the garbage. (Conklin might actually punch you over the Fugazi one).
But specifically, Belle and Sebastian have been so consistent over their career that this sort of ranking is totally inadequate to sum them up. So much so that I don’t feel great providing an equally flawed alternate version, even. But here are a few things I need to say:
- Push Barman to Open Old Wounds isn’t an album, it’s a singles and b-sides compilation. If it was an album it’d be their best one, because those EPs are golden, but it’s practically a greatest hits. (A greatest hits with no album tracks on it! They are the best!) It’d be like calling Greatest HIts, vol. 1 the fifth best Dylan album. Which, get the fuck out of here.
- The BBC Sessions counts if Barman does. It is also super, super good.
- I agree that If You’re Feeling Sinister is their best, mainly because it just feels like it is. I can’t make a coherent case for it that isn’t all teenage gut feelings. But if I did, you’d be sure as shit I’d mention “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying.” At least once. Also, while we’re at it, the people who’ve always claimed this record is just a pale imitation of Nick Drake can go to Hell. Now and forever. You officially do not get Belle and Sebastian. Remember all those times you laughed out loud to a Nick Drake lyric, or thought, “This song is about me, I’m the ‘River Man'”?
- Dear, Catastrophe Waitress is not their second best album, or even in the top 5, but it is pretty rad. (It took me a long time to realize this, because it’s a super silly record.) But “Stay Loose”? Oh, man. It’s a halfway record, though, in which they weren’t fully committing to their new style, and front to back it feels kind of disjointed. They did it better with The Life Pursuit, which is also not in the top 2, although “Dress Up in You”? Oh, man. But, note—neither of these highlights are as perfectly melancholy a pop song as “Simple Things” or the title track from The Boy With the Arab Strap. Sooooo…
- The Storytelling soundtrack is also not an album, and if it was it would certainly be their worst. But it isn’t, and there is no such thing. That it should be ranked ahead of the one album the Stereogum list heaps it’s most vicious scorn on, 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant??? That’s what really gets my goat. That’s a pretty great album!
Look at some of the words they used to describe it: “dismal,” “nadir,” “almost entirely unsatisfying.” Pshaw, I say! PSHAW!! Somewhere along the line it became weird gospel that this record was a total failure that needed to be corrected, which has never ever been true. There are no songs on this record that are “utterly charmless,” but let’s take a quick tour:
The album closer, which signals Murdoch’s burgeoning interest in dancing about like he’s a soul boy. One of the very best songs in their catalog. Posting it is the only defense it really needs.
Oh, the gorgeous, Billy Preston on a Beatles record keys of “Don’t Leave the Light On, Baby”! Magic.
I hated this song in 2000. Like poison! But then, some time later I realized it was something of a solemn Lee Hazlewood pastiche, and then I couldn’t think of anyone who had made a better one. Not their best work, but it’s pretty far from bad.
How come nobody got around to writing a song this good about lonely soldiers far away from home in the last decade when we were actually in 2 wars??? Stark and gorgeous and heartbreaking.
This is one of the best Stevie Jackson songs (The best one is definitely “Winter Wooskie”?), and the band’s best country tune. And this video is hilarious.
In closing, Fold Your Hands is NOT a bad album, even if it is in the relative low ranks of their AMAZING career. Belle and Sebastian have yet to make a bad one. If only all bands could have such a “nadir”! Don’t fuck with me on this.