Top 10 Belle and Sebastian Songs

The early days for Scottish twee-pop heroes Belle and Sebastian delivered some of the greatest songs ever penned by a lonely prat holed up in a bedsit. Suffering from chronic fatigue, B&S scribe Stuart Murdoch spent the early-90s peering at passersby out the window, imagining their adventures. This lead to a string of keenly melodic, terrifically sad tunes with the depth and richness of well-crafted short-stories. As the years progressed, B&S became less autocratic, more collective, and guitarist Stevie Jackson showed, too, a dab-hand at the smart pop-song. Here, then, is a list of the Glasgow band's greatest jams.

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"She's Losing It" (from 'Tigermilk')

Stuart Murdoch (L) of Belle & Sebastian performs during the 2017 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival
Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

142 seconds of pop perfection, "She's Losing It" is closing in on two decades of all-time-classic status for twee devotees. Back in 1996, when the cult of Belle and Sebastian was slowly spreading through the indie underground, the band's debut LP, Tigermilk was more mythical than actual; long out of print and eternally unseen. Yet, "She's Losing It" escaped that obscurity, dubbed from cassette to cassette as it made never-ending appearances on crush-fueled mix-tapes. Like so many of Murdoch's classic early songs, "She's Losing It" is proper-noun-friendly and constantly funny; the casually-tossed-off line in the chorus where he sings "when the first cup of coffee tastes like washing-up" one of his band's most famous moments.

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"Judy and the Dream of Horses" (from 'If You're Feeling Sinister')

This top 10 list could, really, just be the ten songs from If You're Feeling Sinister, an album that borders dangerously close to perfection. Amongst the copious hits on the second B&S LP ("Me and the Major," "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying," "The Stars of Track and Field," "If You're Feeling Sinister," etc, etc, etc), "Judy and the Dream of Horses" has long stood slightly above all others; more wondrous and winsome. Its titular Judy is a familiar Murdoch character: both promiscuous "teenage rebel" and little-girl wastrel, carousing with boys and then sneaking under the covers to read a book about horses via flashlight.

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"String Bean Jean" (from 'Dog On Wheels')

Though its opening is pure undergrad irony —"I got my fingers dirty at the school of rock"— "String Bean Jean" is actually one of Murdoch's most sweetly sentimental tunes. Sure, there's plenty of comedy (from the girl who's "on the rag" and "spent a summer day inside her sleeping bag", to its titular character's trousers, whose tag reads "7-8 years old"), but there's also a sense of genuine romanticism. As Jackson's guitar glimmers and jangles, Murdoch throws together idle youths in mise-en-scènes suggestive of cinema's French new-wave; with boys and girls piling into a bath together, sharing fluid relationships, and, in a suitably-symbolic instance, all heading to the cinema. It makes for four minutes and 43 seconds of pure coming-of-age joie de vivre.

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"Lazy Line Painter Jane"

This six-minute single has long been a favorite of B&S fans, so much so that the band often spontaneously invites girls from the crowd to belt out Monica Queen's righteous, powerhouse vocal on stage. One of Murdoch's most fabulously-realized musical-short-stories, the narration is handed from Jackson, to Queen, to Murdoch, each telling the tale of its titular heroine, running through Glasgow streets, riding buses, and dreaming of boys. Murdoch saves himself the cut's most quotable moments, delivering this verse with a semi-ironic sweetness: "You are in two minds, tossing a coin to decide/whether you should tell your folks about a dose of thrush/you got when licking railings." It's likely his wickedest lyric in a career filled with them.

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"A Century of Fakers" (from '3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light')

It's a question that's long challenged any self-aware, self-conscious hipster who's ever picked up a camera, put pen to paper, or pushed play-and-record: how to achieve authenticity in an ersatz era? Borrowing the Byrdsian jangle and Left Bankeian organ first heard backing Stuart David's wacky spoken-word on the "Lazy Line Painter Jane" flipside "A Century of Elvis," "A Century of Fakers" addresses such concerns. After the schadenfreude of its first verse ("you're filling your fat face with every different kind of cake/if you ever go lardy, or go lame/I will drop you straight away"), Murdoch's song manages to be both a sad lament at the inevitable futility of fighting the good fight, and an unexpected rallying cry to keep doing the same.

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"The Boy with the Arab Strap"

The title-track from Belle and Sebastian's third LP is one of the band's more boisterous numbers: all rich piano-chords, cascading organs, smatters of handclaps, bashed tambourines, and twittering flutes. A veritable five-minute gallop, this good-time jam lopes along to lyrical tales that appear to be very much about Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat; or, at least, about the character he projects, both on the tiles and on record. This Boy is full of "lewd and lascivious boasts," wields "a filthy laugh," and —in true top 10 List spirit— keeps a constantly-revised litany of his "ten biggest wanks." As with so many of B&S's best songs, Murdoch manages to sketch a fully-rounded character all in the space of a single pop-song.

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"Slow Graffiti" (from 'This is Just a Modern Rock Song')

In spite of its glinting guitar, warm-hearted woodwinds, and tender Murdoch vocal, "Slow Graffiti" is easily one of Belle and Sebastian's saddest songs. Originally written for the Irvine Welsh adaptation The Acid House, Murdoch's tender ode takes its inspiration partly from the source-text ("I stay in to defrost the fridge" summoning its kitchen-sink socio-realism; "Listen Johnny/you're like a mother to the girl you've fallen for" summarizing its story and theme), partly from Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's a study in sin and humiliation, with Murdoch's sign-off ("if they come tonight/you'll roll up tight/and take whatever's coming to you next") a note of casual masochism that lingers long after the song's early fade-out.

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"Legal Man"

As Belle and Sebastian progressed, the band become less a vehicle for Murdoch's prodigious talents, more a collective endeavor. That was never more obvious than with "Legal Man," a groovy, psychedelic, lava-lamp-lit rock'n'roller penned by Jackson. With hot Hammond, a chorus of female backing-vocalists, a snarling sitar line, and a neverending boogie of bongos, "Legal Man" was anything but effete, and ended up becoming a dance floor staple at indie nights everywhere. It also became the band's then-biggest hit, crashing the UK Top 20. 

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"Piazza, New York Catcher" (from 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress')

When 80s gated-reverb guru Trevor Horn took a break from working with the likes of Seal to produce Belle and Sebastian's sixth album, 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, even he knew better than to mess with the original rehearsal-room demo of "Piazza, New York Catcher," leaving it as-is on the otherwise-polished LP. Though it's best known for baseball talk touching on unspoken innuendo ("Piazza, New York catcher/are you straight or are you gay?") and sporting folklore (Sandy Koufax declining to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur), Murdoch's acoustic ode is actually a love song for future-wife Melissa Privitera (here "Miss Private"), in which the tyranny of distance is lamented, and every second of time spent in the same city is treasured.

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"Funny Little Frog" (from 'The Life Pursuit')

The Life Pursuit wasn't Belle and Sebastian's finest hour, but the 2006 LP did sport this dashing, singalong ​pop song; a Murdoch-penned ode to romantic projection. When "Funny Little Frog"'s vowel-stretching chorus commences "you're my picture on the wall," you imagine Murdoch's speaking figuratively, making a metaphor from a snapshot stuck on the fridge. Only, subsequent spins suggest (via lines like "I had a conversation with you at night/it's a little one-sided but that's alright") that this is indeed a song about an actual picture on the wall; a movie poster that provides a lonesome flat-dweller with an imagined companion. Murdoch liked the song so much he recorded it all over again, three years later, on his God Help the Girl record.