Big Star Radio City

Big Star Album Reviews

Formed around former Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star existed for a brief period of time in the early 1970s. They were spectacularly unsuccessful during their lifetime due to poor promotion and distribution. But their influence has spread far and wide – the group have earned a deserved cult profile due to their influence on 1980s and 1990s alternative bands such as R.E.M., The dB’s, Wilco, and The Replacements.

Their guitar-based sound was unusual in the context of the early 1970s. Their debut album #1 Record revisited the mid-1960s, musically bringing a slightly harder edge to the sound of The Beatles‘ Rubber Soul and The ByrdsMr Tambourine Man, but emphasising tunefulness and bringing back a wistful and youthful innocence to songs like ‘Thirteen’ and ‘In The Street’. Chris Bell left before the more rock-oriented Radio City, and the band’s final album, the slow and mournful Third languished in the vaults before finally seeing release in 1978.

Each record has a distinct flavour, although Radio City is the clear standout for me, and is high among my all-time favourite albums. While Chilton and Bell were the leaders, the rhythm section also contributed; bassist Andy Hummel co-wrote half of Radio City while drummer Jody Stephens has a recognisably busy and splashy style, and also contributed songs and lead vocals.

I’ve covered Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos, below, but for some reason I’ve never looked into Alex Chilton’s solo career.

Big Star Album Reviews

#1 RecordRadio CityThird/Sister LoversI Am The Cosmos (Chris Bell)

#1 Record

Big Star #1 Record

1972, 8/10
#1 Record revisited the guitar groups of the mid 1960s, with Bell and Chilton singing harmonies and playing ringing guitars. The production on #1 Recordis gorgeous, making the guitars and harmonies lush and appealing, especially in the softer songs.

On #1 Record, it’s the softer side of Big Star that shines: ‘Give Me Another Chance’ and ‘Watch The Sunrise’ are laden with pretty acoustic guitars and warm harmonies, while standout track ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘My Life is Right’ build from gentle verses into arresting climaxes. Even the snippet ‘ST 100/6’ boasts a sparkling acoustic riff. #1 Record is a strong debut overall, but there is some weaker material; bassist Andy Hummel misfires with the insipidness of ‘The India Song’. The rock oriented material isn’t as convincing as that on their following record Radio City: ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ is grating and predictable, while the band’s most famous song ‘In The Street’ also has awkwardly keening vocals.

#1 Record is a gorgeous, if uneven, debut – their next album would be a twisted rock masterpiece.

Radio City

Big Star Radio City

1974, 10/10
Big Star returned to the studio in 1973 without Chris Bell, who had felt threatened by Chilton’s dominance of the group. While #1 Recorddisplayed a lot of potential, Radio City shows Big Star subverting their influences into compelling and unique rock music. There are still moments of beauty and lovely harmonies, but they are augmented by a harder and messier sound.

Even the slower songs such as ‘Daisy Glaze’ build to a crescendo, while ‘Mod Lang’ and ‘O My Soul’ rock the whole way through. Chilton uses some first-rate vintage guitar tones, while Jody Stephens’ drumming is dynamic and idiosyncratic. Bassist Andy Hummel co-wrote nearly half of the songs, and sings lead on the outstanding ‘Way Out West’, ‘September Gurls’ and ‘Back of a Car’ should have been hit singles, while the nasty ‘Life is White’, an answer to ‘My Life is Right’ from #1 Record, is a wonderfully melodic rocker.

Radio City is slightly messy and off-kilter, which gives it an extra edge; the last two songs gain impact through their presentations as rough demos. If you have any interest in rock music you need to hunt this down; make sure that you grab the twofer with #1 Record as well.

Third/Sister Lovers

Big Star Third Sister Lovers

1978, 8/10
By 1975 Big Star was reduced to the duo of Chilton and Stephens, while their record company was collapsing around them. Third/Sister Lovers was not released until 1978, while Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson were never able to agree on an official title, let alone a track sequence. Chilton set out to make Third/Sister Lovers his way and the result is shambolic: but mellow and drugged-out rather than the messier version of Radio City that I anticipated. Importantly, unlike Neil Young’s contemporary and similarly bleary-eyed Tonight’s The NightThird/Sister Lovers is pretty. Alex Chilton’s voice is far more pleasant than Young’s, even when he’s trying to deliberately sabotage the album by bad singing, while someone decided to plaster stunningly beautiful strings all over Third/Sister Lovers.

The production and strings counterbalance the roughness apparent in the unpolished performances and the scattershot nature of the songwriting. Chilton writes a Christmas Carol (‘Jesus Christ’), plenty of languid, despairing tunes (‘Holocaust’, ‘Kanga Roo’) and pretty, low key pieces (‘Nighttime’, ‘Take Care’), and only an occasional moderate rocker (‘You Can’t Have Me’, the irony-laced ‘Thank You Friends’). But almost all of them work. Stephens scores his only individual writer credit with the soppy ‘For You’, which would sound lifeless without the strings. Bonus tracks include some sloppy covers (The Kinks’ ‘Till The End of the Day’, Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and the bizarre ‘Downs’ which Chilton sabotaged by substituting a basketball for a snare drum.

Third/Sister Lovers is purposefully sloppy, but it’s a compelling and surprisingly pleasant listen.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell I Am The CosmosI Am The Cosmos

1992, 7/10
Leaving Big Star after #1 Record, Chris Bell never released another full length record during his lifetime; his only release was the ‘I Am The Cosmos’/’You And Your Sister’ single which appeared in 1978. Later the same year, Bell drove into a tree on the way home from rehearsal with a new band, dying instantly. The I Am The Cosmos album was pieced together from miscellaneous sessions by his brother, finally appearing on CD in 1992 and forming a surprisingly coherent record. Hearing Bell separate from Chilton here, it’s obvious which songs from #1 Record belong to Bell; Bell’s voice is thinner and rougher than Chilton’s and easily distinguishable.

The title track is the keeper from I Am The Cosmos, launching straight into its heartrending opening statement (“Every night I tell myself/I am the cosmos/I am the wind/But that don’t get you back again”) before launching into a memorable guitar solo; the first half is so overloaded with greatness that the last couple of minutes are almost redundant, but it’s a classic nonetheless. My other favourite is the closing ‘Though I Know She Lies’, with a delicate melody and even more delicate solo. Chilton guests on the pensive ‘You And Your Sister’, while ‘Get Away’ would have fitted beautifully onto #1 Record. As very much a two style record – tender acoustic balladry or pounding mid-tempo rockers – the lesser examples of each genre do stray close to mediocrity. On the other hand, ‘There Was A Light’ and ‘Better Save Yourself’ bring diversity to the record, with a pleasant gospel influence.

It’s limited in scope, but nevertheless, the songs of I Am The Cosmos are the only solo recordings from a talented man; more than just a tragic footnote to Big Star’s commercial failure, it’s a satisfying recording in its own right.

Ten Favourite Big Star Songs

September Gurls
Back Of A Car
The Ballad of El Goodo
Life Is White
Daisy Glaze
Mod Lang
Give Me Another Chance
I’m In Love With A Girl
Way Out West

Back to 1970s Album Reviews….


  1. Idk. Every once in awhile I try to to get into this band, simply because so many people say they’re great. But I don’t know. I’ll take the Box Tops any day. Not one single track on any Big Star album is as good as The Letter or Soul-Deep or Cry Like a Baby by the Box Tops. Maybe one day the Box Tops will be a hipster band instead. Heh heh.

    • I don’t know the Box Tops at all except ‘The Letter’. but I’ve always enjoyed Big Star a lot, especially Radio City. There was definitely a mystique about them when I ordered my copy of #1 Record/Radio City – but I loved it. Radio City has all these amazing songs that sound like they’re coming apart.

    • The box tops were a generic boy band with nothing as exciting as 13, September gurls or ballad of el goodo. Thirteen is a top 500 track my friend. Pay attention

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:

Bic Runga Beautiful Collision
Bic Runga Album Reviews

New Zealand’s Bic Runga has only released four albums of original material, starting with her 1997 debut Drive, but despite her limited output, she reigns supreme as the queen of New Zealand pop music. Runga comes from a unique cultural background; her father was Maori, and her mother Chinese-Malaysian, and […]
Tiny Ruins Album Reviews

Introduction New Zealand is presently enjoying a strong crop of female singer-songwriters. Along with Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins, we also have the weirdness of Aldous Harding and the imagery-laden writing of Nadia Reid. Pop superstar Lorde isn’t a singer-songwriter but shares the introspection of her contemporaries. Hollie Fullbrook was born in England […]
Queen II
Queen Album Reviews

Bassist and vocalist Tim Staffell quit trio Smile, but not before introducing his flatmate Freddie Bulsara to the band, joining astronomy student and guitarist Brian May and dentistry student and drummer Roger Taylor. After a lengthy audition process, electronics student John Deacon was hired on bass, forming the Queen lineup that would […]
Marshall Crenshaw Debut Album
Marshall Crenshaw Album Reviews

Detroit’s Marshall Crenshaw doesn’t belong in the conversation of the most important musicians of his generation. Yet he’s a talented craftsman, whose deft guitar pop is likeable and accessible. He’s often compared with Buddy Holly, and his 1982 debut album certainly feels like Holly updated for the new wave. Crenshaw […]
Kimbra Album Reviews

Kimbra Johnson was earmarked for stardom early. There are videos online of her singing as a pre-teen, while she placed second in New Zealand’s national secondary school rock quest at the age of 14. But after a generic debut single ‘Deep For You’, she took time out and became more […]
Squid Album Reviews

Introduction A whole crop of young, critically acclaimed post-punk bands emerged in the UK around 2020. It’s tough to keep up – I can barely differentiate Dry Cleaning from Black Country, New Road. My favourite of the crop is probably Squid, a five-piece band that originated in Brighton. Squid are […]

Blog Posts

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

Paul Simon Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

Paul Simon has enjoyed a long, worthwhile solo career since Simon and Garfunkel‘s breakup in 1970. A musical chameleon, he launched his post-duo career with an acoustic record that fitted into the singer-songwriter movement of 1972, then moved into jazz-inflected soft rock with 1975’s Grammy-winning Still Crazy After All These […]
Ween White Pepper
Ween: Albums Ranked from Worst to Best

Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) met Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween) in their eighth-grade typing class in 1984. They made several homemade albums before their first official release, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, in 1990. Their fourth album, 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese, marked a change in course, recorded in a proper recording studio. It properly […]
Freedy Johnston Blue Days Black Nights
Freedy Johnston: Albums Ranked from Worst to Best

Frederic Fatzer grew up in the small town of Kinsley, Kansas, notable for its equidistance between New York City and San Francisco. He sensibly adopted the stage name Freedy Johnston. His small town background initially constrained his music career – with no local music store, he bought his first guitar […]
The Beatles Revolver
The French Horn in Popular Music: A Playlist

The French horn, as its name suggests, evolved from humans blowing into actual animal horns, like the Jewish shofar. The modern French horn is a convoluted looking instrument, that produces a haunting and gentle sound. The horn is mostly used in orchestral music, but it’s found its way into a […]
10 Excellent Tom Petty Deep Cuts

The late Tom Petty was a great singles artist – tracks like ‘The Waiting’, ‘Refugee’, and ‘Free Fallin” sound terrific blasting from cars and on classic rock radio. Petty had so many enjoyable hits through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that my list of favourite Tom Petty songs is largely […]
The Go-Betweens Send Me A Lullaby
The Go-Betweens: Albums Ranked from Worst To Best

Brisbane’s The Go-Betweens are one of my favourite bands, but it’s sometimes difficult to explain their appeal. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are limited as guitarists and vocalists, but they balance each other beautifully; the edgier Forster was a fan of The Velvet Underground, while McLennan was a fan of […]
%d bloggers like this: