Saturday, May 8, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 1996


It's so weird to me what the 1996 albums are, because neither of them seem like they should be this old. 1996 was the year we settled into the new house, the year I started school. It hardly seems right that the artists I got into during college, that seemed so relevant at the time, were releasing stuff more than ten years prior. 

Runner up for 1996 is Fashion Nugget by Cake. Cake are strange, and not for everyone, but I like something about their style a great deal. The instruments used in many songs are unusual, and no one comes close to matching the lead singer's monotone. Fashion Nugget contains "The Distance," one of their better known tracks. I personally prefer "Frank Sinatra." "Friend is a Four-Letter Word" is a strong addition, and there's even a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Their best-known "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" was still five years away. Worth a listen, but not my favorite 1996 album.

My favorite album released in 1996 is If You're Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian. 

Belle and Sebastian dropped two albums in '96, their first album, Tigermilk, and If You're Feeling Sinister only a few months later. Lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch identifies the album as his best collection of songs, and it's not hard to see why. The band signed with Jeepster Records shortly after the release of Tigermilk, and their demands included no promotional material featuring the band, no press or events about the album, and no singles to be released. The final of those demands might explain why many millennials were first exposed to the band by some of our hipster movies. Indeed, the album was tough to even find in its heyday. Evidently, listeners had to work hard to track it down and the search was something of an adventure. In a way, the story makes me miss the days when you couldn't just open up a streaming app to listen to almost every album ever recorded. Speaking of which, this album was recorded in five days, and mixed in three, meaning this masterpiece took just over a week to create.

There's not a lot I can say about the individual tracks in terms of facts. I can tell you (thanks to Scott Plagenhoef's 33 1/3 book on the album) that the album cover of both Sinister and Tigermilk and indeed almost every Belle & Sebastian release since began as a nod to The Smiths. However, The Smiths used famous people for their cover photos, whereas Murdoch took photos of his friends and acquaintances.

Primed and ready for obscure music.
I don't honestly remember how I first heard Belle & Sebastian, but I know it was my freshman year of college. It may have been from a fanmix, honestly. I was discovering a lot of new music through fanmixes at the time (another ringing endorsement for the dead fanmix community). More than likely though, I was introduced to them through the Juno soundtrack. As I said, movie soundtracks at that time were introducing people to all kinds of new bands. Independent movies, Wes Anderson films, etc. were giving lesser-known artists well-deserved exposure at a time when knowing a band before someone else was its own form of currency, ever valuable in communities of young people with oversized glasses frames. 

I absolutely love the way Stuart Murdoch writes a song. "The Stars of Track and Field" features the line "Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs," which is hilarious, right? Sly jokes are slipped in around the gentle melodies, calm guitars, and instrumentation performed in these early albums by people who were learning what they were playing only shortly before being recorded. 

The kind of chaotic energy I had in 1996 
does not match the energy of this album
at all.
The first song I heard from Sinister was "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying." If I'd only heard it a year sooner, I could have used it as a sorrowful message about leaving Ohio, but alas, I didn't hear it until the next year. 

People of Tumblr loved "Like Dylan in the Movies." I don't know how many graphics I saw with the chorus lyrics on them. It was like "cool guys don't look at explosions" for hipsters (it's still a good song though).

Each track on the album takes you through a short story. I'm also thankful to Belle & Sebastian for not trying to change genres up through the years. Nothing sounds samey, but everything is part of the same family of songs. Belle & Sebastian saw frequent comparisons to The Smiths, despite the fact that they don't really sound similar. The lyrics, much like those of Morrissey, are very literary. The vocals are very subdued and honest. That's where the similarities end though. The songs are musically very different and kind of have their own genre. 

If You're Feeling Sinister is a great album to check out as an introduction to the band if Dear Catastrophe Waitress is too basic or cliched for you. You won't regret it.

Let's throw it up on the leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 1997.

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