3. Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster/Matador, 1996)

On a wintry New Year's Day a few years back, as mounds of snow piled up outside her family's suburban split-level, a good friend and I listened to this album for the first time and we both instantly fell in love with the opening song, "The Stars of Track and Field". Like Stuart Murdoch's best work ("The State I Am In", "Lazy Line Painter Jane"), it begins quietly, gently, barely audible even, then it gradually builds, adding on piano, trumpet and strings until the chorus swells and roars with Murdoch's fey warble exuding a force you never knew it had. “Seeing Other People” follows with a sharp lilt that mixes the Smiths with Vince Guaraldi; the remainder, as I once described to another friend, could be the love child of Paul Simon and Ray Davies (with the Beatles presiding over the birth, of course). If You're Feeling Sinister wasn't this Scots collective's debut album, but it was the first one most people heard. To discover it is to come across an anomaly in pop music, an alternate universe that has absolutely nothing to do with rock star celebrity or artistic pretension. Even more so than the work of another man with the same initials, these bittersweet, literate songs bring to mind people playing together in a room because the music and each other's company is what they live for.