10 Best Big Star Songs
Back when they were making music from 1972-74, nobody really paid attention to Big Star. They were formed by Alex Chilton — who had a No. 1 hit with ‘The Letter’ in 1967 when he was fronting the Box Tops at age 16 — and Memphis singer-songwriter Chris Bell at the start of the ’70s as both a tribute to the Beatles and their own southern-soul roots. Somehow a Camaro-ready version of power pop emerged from it, with killer hooks and chiming guitars pushing it along. Bell quit after the band’s first album, leaving Chilton to call the shots on their other two records (the reunion LP with new members released in 2005 doesn’t count). Since then, the band’s legacy has swelled to include an entire legion of fans who consider Big Star one of the great lost groups of all time. They’re right. All three of their albums are worth owning, but we’ve broken down the 10 Best Big Star Songs for your playlist.
Bell was long gone by the time Big Star made their third and final album, which left Chilton in a somber, reflective mood. He mostly penned minor-key songs dripping with melancholy, including the spare, beautiful ‘Nightime,’ one of his greatest compositions. The minimal orchestral flourishes that wash in and out of the mix buoy the sadness.
‘In the Street’
Even though Chilton and Bell shared songwriting credit on most of the songs from Big Star’s debut, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s partnership, you could tell who wrote what. Bell sang the tougher songs, and this scorcher sounds like it was made to be blasting out of souped-up Chargers. ‘In the Street’ would later serve as the theme song for ‘That ’70s Show’ in a cover version by Cheap Trick.
‘Thank You Friends’
Big Star’s third album has a troubled history. It was mostly completed in 1974, after their first two albums bombed. Chilton was physically and mentally worn down during the sessions and eventually gave up on the record, which wouldn’t be released until 1978. Appropriately, many of the songs strike somber notes. ‘Thank You Friends,’ however, is one of the record’s uplifting cuts, a heartfelt bit of gratitude that gives way to a parade of instruments and backing vocals.
For every upbeat ‘Thank You Friends’ on Big Star’s final album (see No. 8 on our list of the 10 Best Big Star Songs), there are three or four downcast songs. And they don’t much gloomier than this moody piano ballad that sounds defeated, worn and hopeless. It’s one of Chilton’s most emotionally scarring numbers.
‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’
Big Star never had a hit record, which isn’t all that surprising when you consider all the things that were stacked against them from the start (including the fact that power pop always plays better on paper than on the radio). This guitar-fueled stomper from their debut album should have been a hit with its chewy riff, super hook and hand-clap-powered choruses.
‘I’m in Love With a Girl’
Big Star end their second album with this spare, brief (it doesn’t even make it to two minutes) acoustic love song by Chilton. It not only concludes ‘Radio City’ on a relatively springy tone, it also signals what was to come. ‘I’m in Love With a Girl’ sounds more like it belongs on the breaking-down ‘Third / Sister Lovers’ than the carrying-on ‘Radio City.’
‘The Ballad of El Goodo’
The near epic ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ gives weight to the band’s debut album, a monumental follow-up to the blah lead-in song ‘Feel.’ There was a lot of democracy going around on ‘#1 Record,’ with Bell and Chilton alternating vocals (and making room to share a couple and giving one from bassist Andy Hummel). This is Chilton’s scene-stealing centerpiece.
‘Back of a Car’
‘Back of a Car’ is one of Big Star’s most deceptive songs. On the surface, it sounds a little like album filler, with a ringing guitar riff anchoring the rolling drums and power-pop hook. But it slowly emerges into a monster cut, like a Badfinger hit single with guts. And then, just as it starts charging forward, it pulls back slightly and ends. An excellent show of restraint among the strength.
‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ may be Chilton’s centerpiece on ‘#1 Record,’ but the stripped-down ‘Thirteen’ is his best song. A two-and-a-half-minute acoustic tribute to young love, ‘Thirteen’ is one of Big Star’s most covered songs (Garbage, Elliott Smith and Wilco have all recorded versions), and for good reason: Chilton nails a universal feeling here — that moment between growing up and full-on responsibility.
It’s considered a power-pop classic today, but almost nobody heard ‘September Gurls’ when it came out. Starting with a ringing guitar riff that belongs right up there with other greats from the era, the song — which was originally buried on side two of the band’s second album — is three minutes of unrefined pop-leaning rock that goes all the way back to the Beatles and charges forward to any number of indie groups influenced by Big Star. A monumental song from a great record.