10 Best Big Star Songs

Alex Chilton was already a star when he joined forces with the band Icewater. Icewater’s members – singer/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens – had been playing in Memphis garage-rock bands. Despite the city’s heritage of blues and soul, and Chilton’s history as lead singer of The Box Tops (he sang the husky lead on their chart topping ‘The Letter’ as a 16-year-old), Big Star were primarily influenced by the British invasion. Their music recalled the guitar pop/rock of the mid-1960s, like The Beatles and The Byrds.

Big Star are notable for the stark contrast between their lack of success during their recording career, and their subsequent acclaim and influence. Their three 1970s albums, 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers, recorded in 1974 but unreleased until 1978, failed to make an impact on the charts. The lack of success, with sales hampered by record distribution problems, exacerbated tensions between Bell and Hummel, and Bell quit the band in late 1972. Chilton and Stephens recorded a fourth studio album in 2005, working with The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer,

Big Star’s music has endured – recently, when other boomer-era rock and roll was squeezed out from Rolling Stone’s 2020 album list, all three of Big Star’s records remained. Big Star were influential on the next generation of guitar-rock – The Replacements wrote ‘Alex Chilton’ on 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me, while R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, and even KISS acknowledged their influence.

Each of Big Star’s 1970s albums has its own mood – the pristine and optimistic folk-pop of #1 Record, the messy rock and roll of Radio City, and the defeated resignation of 3rd/Sister Lovers. As you’ll discover in the list below, I have a clear favourite from their first three records.

10 Best Big Star Songs

#10 – Kanga Roo

Big Star Third Sister Lovers

from Third/Sister Lovers, 1978
Big Star’s first two albums are tuneful and energetic; their third is mournful and resigned. Hummel had left the band, leaving a duo of Chilton and Stephens. The focus is squarely on Chilton, experimenting with unsettling textures and delivering intimate lyrics. ‘Kanga Roo’ was later covered by Jeff Buckley on his Mystery White Boy live album.

#9 – Way Out West

from Radio City, 1974
The absence of Chris Bell on Radio City allowed bassist Andy Hummel to emerge as a songwriter – he’s credited as a co-writer on key tracks like ‘Back of a Car’ and ‘Life Is White’. He’s the sole writer for ‘Way Out West’, a lovely piece of power-pop where Hummel’s boyish lead vocal contrasts against Chilton’s raw guitar.

#8 – I’m In Love With A Girl

from Radio City, 1974
Big Star’s masterpiece Radio City ends with the simple ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’, performed solo by Chilton on acoustic guitar. It’s hard to believe that Chilton’s sweet voice in Big Star is from the same singer who delivered the gruff lead vocal on ‘The Letter’.

#7 – Give Me Another Chance

Big Star #1 Record

from #1 Record, 1972
While the rockers on #1 Record aren’t as raw and propulsive as they are on Radio City, there are a bunch of terrific acoustic songs – a fifteen song list would have included ‘Watch the Sunrise’, ‘Thirteen’, and ‘ST 100/6’. The subtle orchestration on ‘Give Me Another Chance’ is lovely, overshadowed by the swelling harmonies.

#6 – Mod Lang

from Radio City, 1974
Several tracks on Radio City were recorded while the band was in a state of flux – on ‘Mod Lang’, Chilton is backed by the rhythm section of Danny Jones and Richard Rosebrough. Chilton’s at his grittiest on ‘Mod Lang’, delivering the immortal line “All night long I was howling/I was a barking dog/A-how, a-how”.

#5 – Daisy Glaze

from Radio City, 1974
‘Daisy Glaze’ starts dreamily before, at around the halfway mark, it transforms into a riff-fest. The three-piece lineup of Radio City gives Stephens splashy drumming and Chilton’s sublime guitar tone space to shine. The coda, where Chilton repeats “You’re gonne die!” anticipates the defeated nihilism of Third/Sister Lovers.

#4 – Life Is White

Big Star Radio City

from Radio City, 1974
The title ‘Life Is White’ presumably riffs on ‘My Life Is Right’ from #1 Record, while the song devolves into an unexpected barrelhouse piano solo. Chilton sounds prim and English on this kiss-off, presumably to a boring ex-lover.

#3 – The Ballad of El Goodo

from #1 Record, 1972
The highlight of #1 Record is ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’, which combines yearning verses with a rousing chorus. Jody Stephens later told Songfacts that “All of a sudden I’m playing with these guys that can write songs that are as engaging to me as the people I’d grown up listening to, so I felt incredibly lucky.”

#2 – Back Of A Car

from Radio City, 1974
‘Back of a Car’ is one of several songs on Radio City that Bell reportedly helped to write before he left the band – other Bell/Chilton co-writes would surface on Bell’s only solo album, I Am The Cosmos. ‘Back of a Car’ is Big Star at their most dynamic, driven by Stephens’ unpredictable drumming.

#1 – September Gurls

from Radio City, 1974
There’s a dark undertone to much of Big Star’s work, but ‘September Gurls’ is three minutes of effervescent power pop, with a chiming guitar riff and joyful harmonies. Chilton later said: “I really loved the mid ’60s British pop music, all two and a half minutes long, really appealing songs. So I’ve always aspired to that same format, that’s what I like.” ‘September Gurls’ was later covered by The Bangles.

What’s your favourite Big Star song? Am I silly to neglect ‘In The Street’, ‘Thirteen’, and ‘Holocaust’?

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  1. This is quite an undertaking. If I did one every three months I would have three different lists. Our top 3 would be the same songs with Ballad of El Goodo at one for me. That is the only one that would remain consistent.
    Thirteen would be hard for me to leave off. In The Street…it would make my list at times but I could have a good list without it. I also like When My Baby’s Beside Me.
    But… I would take this list in a heartbeat.

  2. This is a nice list, though I don’t know Big Star well enough to rank their tunes. Plus, ranking isn’t exactly my thing in the first place! 🙂
    I first knew “September Gurls” from the Bangles cover. Great pop-rock tune!

    • September Gurls” could be the closest thing to a hit, without being one, and it’s beautiful. Big Star remains, in part, a little-known band. Almost no one listens to their albums, not even crazy classic rock lovers like us. They are on the list of cult artists who “could have been” but wasn’t, and became super influential for other artists. Like Velvet Underground or Nick Drake but with even less luck. I agree that they were precursors of indie / college rock and if they had appeared a few years later they might have been something like REM.

  3. I’ll take The Letter or Soul Deep or Cry Like a Baby any day. I can’t hear where any Big Star song even comes close to these Box Tops records.

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