Big Star, #1 Record (1972)
Like 99.9% of the universe, I was completely oblivious to Big Star and their three perfect albums upon their arrival in the 70s. Because the universe can be a cold, cruel place that way. But by the mid-80s, all the right college radio bands, from R.E.M. to the Replacements to the dB's, were worshiping at the altar of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell's long-defunct band, so I finally dove in.
And this, their first album, is one of those things you hear and can't help but wonder why this band is not spoken of in the same breath as the Beatles and the Who, why every child is not taught the lyrics to "Thirteen" at the same time they're learning the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The failure of the ironically titled #1 Record not to have in fact been a number one record makes me question the existence of God. Indeed, the only reason I believe there may be a God is because Alex Chilton sings the following line so earnestly and convincingly in "The Ballad of El Goodo," among my 5 favorite songs ever recorded:
It gets so hard in times like now to hold on
But guns they wait to be stuck by
And at my side is God.
So, ok, benefit of the doubt and all that.
The album itself, largely written by Chilton (who earned teenage fame as the astoundingly authentic bluesy singer of the Boxtops) and Bell (whose absolute mastery of the recording studio gave this album a glistening sheen that makes it sound like the band is playing in your living room), bounces back and forth between mid-tempo ballads and the more rocking tunes that would birth a million power pop imitators. In the former category are the afore-referenced "Thirteen" and "El Goodo," both perfect, as well as the jangly acoustic "Watch the Sunrise" and the gorgeous harmonies of the yearning "Give Me Another Chance." And then you get the rockers, like the wonderful "In The Street" (later adapted by Cheap Trick as the theme to That 70s Show), rousing call-to-arms album-opener "Feel," and the anthemic "When My Baby's Beside Me," not to mention tunes that navigate the louder and softer sides of the band like "My Life Is Right."
Anyway, words can't do the album justice. It is my mission for every living human to own this album, so just go buy it if you don't have it already. The follow-up, Radio City, is nearly as great, though Bell left before it was completed and his absence is notable; conveniently, these two albums are combined on a single CD. The band's third and final album, alternatively titled Third or Sister Lovers, is a dramatically different affair, essentially an intense, downbeat Chilton solo album, though with enough of the old power pop sentiments to keep it from being overly maudlin. And it's still insanely great.
Bell, tragically, died in a car accident long before the band experienced their 80s and 90s resurgence, when Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens joined with members of the Posies to play a few concerts and even record a so-so album. (I saw them play a show at San Francisco's Fillmore. They were sloppy and tired and it was heaven.)
Here's the reformed Big Star with the (sadly now late) Alex Chilton performing "The Ballad of El Goodo," and somewhere therein I assure you you will find the meaning of life:
You can buy the combined #1 Record/Radio City or Amazon; or, screw it, just get their complete works (mostly) on the box set.