Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Big Star

  • #1 Record [Ardent, 1972] B+
  • Radio City [Ardent, 1974] A
  • Third [PVC, 1978] A-
  • Live [Rykodisc, 1992] ***
  • Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 [Zoo, 1993] A-
  • In Space [Ryko, 2005] Dud
  • Keep an Eye on the Sky [Rhino, 2009] *
  • Live on WLIR [Omnivore, 2019] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

#1 Record [Ardent, 1972]
Alex Chilton's voice is changing. When he was a teenage Box Top, his deep, soulful, bullfrog whopper was the biggest freak of nature since Stevie Winwood sang "I'm a Man," but now that he's formed his own group he gets to be an adolescent, complete with adenoidal quaver. Appropriately, the music tends toward the teen as well, but that provides brand new thrills. Special attraction: a fantasy about India with gin-and-tonic in it. B+

Radio City [Ardent, 1974]
Brilliant, addictive, definitively semipopular, and all Alex Chilton--Chris Bell, his folkie counterpart, just couldn't take it any more. Boosters claim this is just what the AM has been waiting for, but the only pop coup I hear is a reminder of how spare, skew, and sprung the Beatles '65 were, which is a coup because they weren't. The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange, though maybe that's just the context. Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time? A

Third [PVC, 1978]
In late 1974, Alex Chilton--already the inventor of self-conscious power pop--transmogrified himself into some hybrid of Lou Reed (circa The Velvet Underground and/or Berlin) and Michael Brown (circa "Walk Away, Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina"). This is the album that resulted--fourteen songs in all, only two or three of which wander off into the psycho ward. Halting, depressive, eccentrically shaped, it will seem completely beyond the pale to those who already find his regular stuff weird. I think it's prophetically idiosyncratic and breathtakingly lyrical. A-

Live [Rykodisc, 1992]
Radio City, loose and in person ("O My Soul") ***

Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 [Zoo, 1993]
Nostalgia has nothing to do with it. For Alex Chilton, redefining garage pop with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel was but a single obscure step on a pilgrim's progress toward eternal oblivion, and that they came up with one of the great catalogues in the process merely constituted one of life's little ups and downs. Here he and Stephens and a couple of Posies who play loud even if they sing wimpy remake that catalogue as a rock and roll noisier and more impolite than anything he would have tried at the time. Or anything he's especially inclined toward now, either--last time I caught him he covered Johnny Lee, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, and the Vancouvers (the Spanish ones, how did you miss them?) A-

In Space [Ryko, 2005] Dud

Keep an Eye on the Sky [Rhino, 2009]
After three CDs of collectorama, Disc 4 documents a 1973 show mere admirers might try to isolate ("Hot Burrito #2," "Slut"). *

Live on WLIR [Omnivore, 2019]
With Chilton dead of a heart attack in 2010, what's more striking than it was in 1992, when Rykodisc first released this 1974 studio concert, is that this Chilton is still so young--barely 23. With Chris Bell long gone from the band they created, an uncommon freshness and directness comes front and center on this particular night. Highlight: a poignant, four-song, solo-acoustic interlude that celebrates his conscientious objector brother in "Ballad of El Goodo," looks back at his even younger self in "Thirteen," directs "I'm in Love With a Girl" to "the finest girl in the world," and then does an abrupt right turn into Loudon Wainright's desolately lonesome, predatorily horny "Motel Blues." B+