Belle and Sebastian's 10 Best Songs Ranked

To celebrate the arrival of 'Late Developers,' we're looking back on the twee band's greatest material
Belle and Sebastian's 10 Best Songs Ranked
Photo: Kristina Kimlickova
There are two Belle and Sebastians. The first were the shy wallflowers who emerged from Glasgow's coffee shop scene in the mid-'90s and defined the indie pop subgenre of twee with their sleepy, folk-inflected sensitivity. The second followed close to a decade later, as they burst out of their shell with danceable, slickly produced pop and joyous live shows.

Both eras have essential highlights, and Exclaim!'s list of the 10 best Belle and Sebastian songs spans both eras. Even as the band's sound has evolved, the core strengths of their best work has endured: their perfectly fragile voice, songwriter Stuart Murdoch's touching character portraits of misfits and outcasts, and golden hooks that transcend whatever genre they're working within at any given time.

As Belle and Sebastian continue their triumphant career with Late Developers — their second full-length in less than a year, following last year's A Bit of Previous — we're taking a look back at the 10 best songs of their 27-year career.

10. "Piazza, New York Catcher"
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

"The pitcher puts religion first and rests on holidays / He goes into cathedrals and lies prostrate on the floor"

On the otherwise lavishly produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress, this unaccompanied acoustic ballad is, at its core, about an elopement to San Francisco. But, as Stuart Murdoch is wont to do, it ventures off on all sorts of touching, funny and peculiar tangents: speculation about whether Mets catcher Mike Piazza is straight or gay (he's straight, if it matters), the emotional lives of baseball players, and local landmarks like the Tenderloin and the statue of Willie Mays. Live, the band perform it as a hop-skipping country ditty, but on record, the ultra-sparse arrangement allows Murdoch's lyrics to shine.

9. "Sleep the Clock Around"
The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)

"It takes more than this to make sense of the day / Yeah, it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste"

Once in a club, I heard a DJ play a dance version of "Sleep the Clock Around" — which, as far as I could tell, was the exact same as the regular version but with a cranked bass drum on every beat. It completely worked, highlighting the song's haunting surge that grooves for five beautiful minutes, swelling with layers of electric piano, stately trumpet, swirling synths and, finally, blaring bagpipes, bringing catharsis to lyrics that cryptically chronicle loneliness and regret.

8. "Your Cover's Blown"
Books (2004)

"The kids are pairing up in front of me / I should have stayed home"

"Say what you want and leave your shyness home," Murdoch sings at the outset of this six-minute epic — a suggestion that he embodies by completely abandoning the timid sound B&S were once known for in favour of strutting, flamboyant funk and disco. "Your Cover's Blown" initially seems like a gimmick that's style over substance, especially thanks to a breakdown of pseudo spy music, but it snaps into focus during a drawn out final passage of melodic pop (I guess you might call it a chorus?). Even as Murdoch's romantic lyrics describe self-doubt and introspection, the swaggering arrangement sounds like a seduction.

7. "Lazy Line Painter Jane"
Lazy Line Painter Jane (1997)

"Being a rebel's fine / And you go all the way to being brutal"

Belle and Sebastian have a curious tendency to stick their best songs on non-album EPs, and "Lazy Line Painter Jane" is the finest example. Stuart Murdoch sings the first verse and Stevie Jackson the chorus — but it's guest singer Monica Queen is the one who takes it to the next level, thrillingly stretching her voice to the higher octave as the band dig into a surging groove anchored by a vintage rock riff. The song was recorded in a church hall, which explains the heavenly reverb that seems to grow even more grand as the song ascends towards its organ-driven climax.

6. "The Boy with the Arab Strap"
The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)

"We all know you're 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"

The immensely satisfying "The Boy with the Arab Strap" is the moment in a concert when Belle and Sebastian invite fans onto the stage to sing and dance along — something made possible by a clapping part that's too simple to screw up (just hit the 2 and the 4)! But, as cute and fun as "The Boy with the Arab Strap" is, the song has actually been the source of contention, since fellow Scottish indie band weren't happy that Stuart Murdoch borrowed their band name (which is a fancy name for a sex toy, which is why my girlfriend caught me looking at the Wikipedia entry for "cock ring" while researching this article).

5. "Seeing Other People"
If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)

"You're going to have to change or you're going to have to go with girls / You might be better off, at least they know where to put it"

Full of confusion and longing, "Seeing Other People" is a series of snapshots from a covert sexual relationship: kissing for practice, taking a lover for a "dirty weekend," getting passed over in favour of "the new, tall, elegant, rich kids." This quiet melodrama plays out under the surface, while the song's most immediate takeaway is its playful pop arrangement, beginning with a very Charlie Brown piano intro and swelling with electric guitar, double-tracked vocals and poignant strings.

4. "I'm a Cuckoo"
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

"I'm happy for you / Now I know this hurt is poison too sharp to be bled"

Expertly drawing a fine line between misery and euphoria, Stuart Murdoch chronicles the strange highs and lows of a fresh breakup, when nighttime can either be a time of acute loneliness or liberating exploration. One moment, he's "sitting on my empty bed" while the "fever grows, it's pounding"; the next, he's having a "Scary moment, loving every moment / I was high from playing shows." The song alludes to Thin Lizzy — directly in the lyrics, and indirectly with the harmonized lead guitars — signalling a bright, bold new pop sound from the once meek band.

3. "Dress Up in You"
The Life Pursuit (2006)

"If I could have a second skin / I'd probably dress up in you"

We've all had that friend or acquaintance who later went on to become way more successful than us. (Someone I went to elementary school with now costars in Barry!) Aughts high water mark "Dress Up in You" is an absolutely devastating account of exactly that, as the narrator watches a onetime BFF go on to fame while she's left "fixing people's nails." In the absolutely wrenching emotional climax, she acknowledges that even her partner prefers the successful friend: "I've got a boyfriend / I've got a feeling that he's seeing someone else / He always had a thing for you as well."

2. "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying"
If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)

"I could kill you, sure / But I could only make you cry with these words" 

If Belle and Sebastian have a mission statement, it's unquestionably "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying." It's their manifesto, their raison d'etre, with Stuart Murdoch singing, "Play me a song to set me free / Nobody writes them like they used to, so it may as well be me." It's practically a parody of all things Belle and Sebastian, as the bookish narrator is the main character of his own story, dreaming of past loves and gazing out as rain taps the window. It's naïve to think there's "love in everything and everyone," but in this version of the story, the boy succeeds in the end — and I always cry at endings.

1. "The State I Am In"
Tigermilk (1996)

"My brother had confessed he was gay / It took the heat off me for a while / He stood up with a sailor friend / Made it known upon my sister's wedding day"

"The State I Am In" is the first song from Belle and Sebastian's first album, and they absolutely nailed it from the start. Sappy, saucy and non-secular, it introduces a cast of misfits, the likes of whom would go on to populate the band's catalogue: the brother who shocks the family by coming out at his sister's wedding, the kid who falls in love following a sham marriage, the priest who turns parishioners' confessions into a novel. Murdoch himself is a bit like that priest in the booth, reframing the humble lives of introverts as grand melodramas, and turning himself into the spokesman for quietly glamorous outcasts everywhere.