This is a marvelous album. Don’t buy it. The real Big Star story is encapsulated in the band’s first three studio albums, originally recorded between 1972 and 1975, all of which are essential and readily available. Even better, you can pick up the first two (#1 Record and Radio City) on one CD, meaning that for little more than the price of this compilation album you can hear three times the music. The hook here—a brand new “Big Star” song recorded by founding member and guiding light Alex Chilton and Big Star wannabes Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies—simply isn’t worth your trouble and is Exhibit A on how record labels love to gouge consumers.
That said, what’s here is magnificent. Big Star is the poster child for all bands that made great music, were criminally underappreciated and plagued by label indifference in their day, and are now justly recognized as hugely influential. They may very well be the best power-pop band America ever produced. There would be no R.E.M, Posies, Weezer, American Hi-Fi, Rooney, Replacements, or Teenage Fanclub without them, to cite only the most obvious acolytes. Their influence cannot be overestimated.
Big Star Story borrows liberally from those first three essential albums (Third/Sister Lovers completes the trilogy), and throws in a couple spotty live tracks and a great song from founding member Chris Bell’s solo album for good measure. There's “September Gurls,” which is still the template for ragged-but-right jangly guitar anthems. Also present is “The Ballad of El Goodo,” Chilton’s stunning object lesson on how to marry Byrds/CSN&Y west-coast harmonies with a Beatlesque melody. The most effective and harrowing of the dissolute Third/Sister Lovers songs are included as well—“Holocaust,” “Nightime,” and “Jesus Christ.” But because these songs are not presented chronologically, the gravity of Big Star’s evolution is lost in translation. Part of the band’s mystique is in seeing how the pristine, perfect pop songs of #1 Record gradually unraveled into the more rough-edged anthems of Radio City, which in turn collapsed into the inchoate, barely coherent despair of Third/Sister Lovers. All of that is lost in Big Star Story, where the songs are thrown together haphazardly, without regard to context. It’s still bracing music, but the sequencing leaves much to be desired.
The Big Star story is one worth revisiting, and certainly worth checking out for the first time if you are unfamiliar with the music. But Big Star Story is an unnecessary and irksome addition to the catalogue.