Big Star may be the biggest band a lot of people have never heard of. Formed in the wake of the Box Tops dissolution by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, they were a group that was seemingly out of place with what was going on in popular music. A power pop band on a soul label making concise, Beatlesque pop songs in an era of 10-minute jams and rock and roll excess. A critics' darling, they were the victims of poor distribution from their record label Stax and broke up. After being persuaded to reform, Bell left the group, and by the time of the group's second album Radio City, the distribution deal that hurt the first album's chances had dried up, killing the second. The band's first two albums are loaded with songs that should have been huge and would have been, had people been able to hear them.
In the 1980s, things began to change when groups such as REM began championing Big Star. Big Star eventually reformed, this time with Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens augmented by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and continued to tour and play sporadically until Chilton's untimely death in 2010. The group finally is receiving their long overdue accolades and a group called Third goes out and performs the material from that album as well as other key songs by the band in tribute.
So what of the bands recorded output? There have been numerous reissues, live albums and a box set and, in that sense, the new compilation The Best of Big Star is no different. What The Best Of Big Star does give listeners, however, is a concise overview of the group's three albums done in their original incarnation (Sadly no songs from 2005's In Space are included) and it includes many sought-after single mixes of these great songs.
The album opens with the power pop classic "In The Street," a song most recently resurrected by Cheap Trick as the theme song to That 70's Show. The track is everything Big Star did right -- killer harmonies, jangly guitars, power chords and excellent musicianship. "Don't Lie To Me" follows and shows the group could rock out with the best of them with its gang vocals and strong guitar leads.
The ringing guitars (and mando guitars) are a hallmark of "September Gurls," a pop masterpiece and perhaps Chilton's finest hour as a songwriter. The track was later covered by The Bangles and should have been huge, but like all other things Big Star, never reached the heights it should have.
Chilton's tender side shows on "Thirteen," perhaps one of the most poignant tracks about adolescence and young love ever written. This is a vulnerable side of Chilton not shown in the blue-eyed soul days of "The Letter" and shows a remarkable maturity for a songwriter as young as he was then. Similarly, "The Ballad Of El Goodo," co-written with Bell, shows the group's knack for crafting a perfect ballad seemingly at will.
By the time of Third, Big Star had been reduced to a duo of Chilton and Stephens. The disillusion Chilton felt with the music industry and in his personal life made for a stark listen, but one that showed Chilton had lost none of his melodic gift. Four songs from the album feature here, including the dark ballad "Nightime." With lyrics such as "Get me out of here, I hate it here," this was a far cry from "September Gurls" but no less intriguing. More uplifting is "Jesus Christ," a mid-tempo rocker that could have fit in on either of the group's first two albums.
The appropriately titled "Thank You Friends," also from Third, closes out the album. When Chilton sings he "wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you," he probably didn't realize that friends in the form of famous musicians singing his group's praises many years later would finally give the group the accolades and status it deserved back in the 1970s.
While all three of Big Star's albums from the 1970s are worth owning, The Best Of Big Star is an excellent overview of these fantastic, if overlooked albums. It would have been nice to have had some songs from In Space, as that would have truly made this a comprehensive overview of the band's career, but this disc focuses on the band in its original form. For people new to the band, this is the perfect introduction and for completists who need the single mixes, it is a must own.