10 Best Big Star Songs

Alex Chilton was already a star when he joined forces with the 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 best-albums-of-all-time 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 these three records.

10 Best Big Star Songs

Big Star Third Sister Lovers

#10 Kanga Roo

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’.

Big Star #1 Record

#7 Give Me Another Chance

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.

Big Star Radio City

#4 Life Is White

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’?

Read More


Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.


  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.

      • I listen to that album as a whole…it’s odd. The album is everywhere…but possibly You Can’t Have Me…and Thank You Friends…but not over what you have so far…today
        Thank You Friends good but…have you heard the demo version? It’s acoustic and I like it better.
        Thanks for the post…you have me listening to the album today.

  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.

Leave a Reply

More from Aphoristic Album Reviews

Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.

Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

Review Pages

Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:

Album Reviews

This is an archive of album reviews that I’ve been writing since around 2000. Reviews are organised by decade – artists are filed under their most successful or prolific decade. Sometimes this is confusing – Radiohead are filed under the 1990s, even though some of their most acclaimed music was […]
Can You Fly Freedy Johnston
Freedy Johnston Album Reviews

Freedy Johnston seems destined to be remembered as a one-hit wonder for 1994’s ‘Bad Reputation’, a critically acclaimed but commercially marginal figure. This semi-obscurity isn’t necessarily surprising – popular music is littered with talented performers who only enjoyed a brief period of fame – but Johnston is worth hearing, a skilled craftsman […]
Jimmy Webb Album Reviews

Jimmy Webb wasn’t the only prominent person to enjoy success as a songwriter in the 1960s before launching a career as a singer. Isaac Hayes, Carole King, and Neil Diamond all followed similar paths. As a songwriter, I rate Webb among the 1960s greats – like Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, […]
Vampire Weekend Album Reviews

Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson started playing together in a rap collaboration named “L’Homme Run” while attending Columbia University. The pair were interested in punk and African music and named their band after a short film Koenig attempted to make about a vampire invasion of Cape Cod. Koenig and […]
John Cale Paris 1919
John Cale Album Reviews

While his former Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed enjoyed a larger public profile, John Cale has always been like an invisible hand guiding the alternative music scene. Cale started his career in the early 1960s in the contemporary classical scene. He studied the viola, and worked alongside contemporary composers like […]
The Clash London Calling
The Clash Album Reviews

Perhaps the most celebrated band to emerge from the 1970s punk movement, The Clash started as a straight-out punk band. But their music soon expanded, incorporating the reggae and dub they heard on London’s streets, as well as venturing into radio-friendly rock, hip-hop, and pretty much everything in between. As […]

Blog Posts

I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections:

New Zealand’s 2023 election in five songs

General elections are held every three years in New Zealand and they’re due soon. Our electoral system is known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP for short). Everyone gets two votes – one for a party and one for an electorate MP (Member of Parliament) – and a party wins seat […]
The Police: Albums Ranked from Worst to Best

Stewart Copeland, Sting, and Andy Summers were all veteran musicians when they formed The Police in London in 1977. Copeland had drummed for progressive rock band Curved Air, Sting had played in the jazz fusion band Last Exit, while Summers’ career as a guitarist dated back to the 1960s when […]
The Moody Blues Core Seven Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

Between 1967 and 1972, Birmingham’s The Moody Blues released seven studio albums, commonly referred to as the core seven. They stayed in step with the times, transitioning from richly orchestrated psychedelic pop to more stripped-down albums in the 1970s. At the same time. The Moody Blues were twee, moustachioed and […]
Van Morrison Veedon Fleece
Van Morrison: Five Best Albums

The best albums from Van Morrison's catalogue.
Genesis Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

Originating at Charterhouse School, one of England’s most prestigious public schools, Genesis recorded their first album as teenagers in 1968. They spent their early years losing money and making long-winded progressive rock albums. Their use of gentle 12-string guitars and bass pedals, coupled with Peter Gabriel’s wordplay, gave them a distinctive […]
10 Best Queen Songs

In the 21st century, Queen have emerged as the most-loved band from the classic rock era. They enjoyed little critical respect and struggled to sell records in the US for much of their career, but they now outperform more acclaimed acts like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones […]