Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 debut album, ‘Tigermilk,’ really wasn’t an album at all. Frontman Stuart Murdoch recorded the LP as a project for music school, employing musician friends to help shape his lyrically and musically enchanting songs. It received a limited pressing, on vinyl only, and wouldn’t see proper release until three years later.

Which makes ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister,’ also released in 1996, the Scottish collective’s official debut. And what a debut. From the horns punctuating opener ‘The Stars of Track and Field,’ to the closing ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ (possibly Belle and Sebastian’s best song), the album is a quiet blend of ‘60s paisley pop, ‘70s singer-songwriter and ‘80s Britpop – a wonderful and surprising mix of literate folk and rock.

Its success was even more surprising considering the band’s fluctuation and questionable membership (eight musicians receive credit on ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’). From the start, Belle and Sebastian have been Murdoch’s band, but as the group released more albums (seven more through 2010), it became more of a democracy.

But on ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister,’ which celebrates its 17th anniversary today, it’s the voice of one artist who paints these vivid portraits of sexually and emotionally confused characters coming out of their shells. The strings, horns and finely tuned production on songs like ‘Seeing Other People,’ ‘Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying’ and the title track make sympathetic playmates. And the sound is one that’s as timeless as it is contemporary. In short, it’s one of the best albums of the ‘90s.

Still, the album never reached the charts in the U.S. (It barely cracked the Top 200 in the band’s native U.K., where it’s sold about 75,000 copies.) In fact, Belle and Sebastian wouldn’t hit the U.S charts until their fourth album, 2000’s ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant,’ reached No. 80. (They would finally make the Top 20 with 2010’s ‘Write About Love,’ which debuted at No. 15 on the U.S. album chart.)

But ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ found critical love from the start, placing in several year-end polls and lists. Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Spin all named it one of the top albums of the decade. And its legacy has only grown. It remains Belle and Sebastian’s best album and, really, the one where it all started for them.

Listen to Belle and Sebastian's 'Judy and the Dream of Horses'