Big Star's first two albums have been reissued again on a single CD. The same twofer was available back in 1992. #1 Record/Radio City arrives on disc virtually unchanged from the previous version. The key additions are the inclusion of a pair of single mixes, one for "In the Street" and one for "O My Soul." Not much bait for collectors, especially since (to my ears, anyway) the music doesn't sound appreciably improved since the earlier edition. Liner notes and cover art remain basically the same as well. If you have this already it probably isn't worth the upgrade for two tracks that are slated for inclusion on a multi-disc set due out this September.
That said, if you haven't experienced the pure pop pleasure of Big Star this is a great place to start. Putting these two albums together results in something roughly equivalent to the Tsar Bomba of power pop. These twenty-six tracks are loaded with great hooks, heartfelt vocals, and shimmering harmonies. It's hard to say which album is better, 1972's #1 Record or '74's Radio City. Despite a significant change in personnel (singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell is only on the first album), the two go together so well it winds up sounding like one long album. Generally unsung is Jody Stephens, who's drumming glues this material together with a great deal of inventiveness.
Big Star is one of those cult groups that more people seem to know by reputation than by their actual music. And like many such groups, that reputation has become more than a bit exaggerated. Lyrically some of these songs leave a little bit to be desired. That doesn't really bother me, but I know quite a few people who bristle at lines like, "You feel bad/'Cause I got mad/And I'm sorry/I'm sorry." But as soon as the harmonies kick in, I'm in hog heaven listening to that one ("Give Me Another Chance"). Likewise, I've literally witnessed people bust up laughing while listening to "Thirteen." The laugh is actually on them, as the song's lyrics are deliberately simplistic – written from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old singing to his first girlfriend.
That's where these songs really score: emotional resonance. They aren't the wordiest, wittiest, most clever lyrics in all of pop. But the aforementioned songs (along with other stone-cold classics like "Back Of A Car," "September Gurls," and "Daisy Glaze") connect on a gut level, mixing nostalgic melancholy with the sunniest happiness ever heard on record. If "My Life Is Right" doesn't trigger your tear ducts in the slightest, then you're not someone I'd ever willingly spend time with. For me it isn't necessarily what's being sung, but rather how it's sung. Alex Chilton's vocals, especially throughout Radio City, are spine-tinglingly good.
It's a shame these records weren't popular in their time, but the fact that they keep getting reissued makes it possible for new fans to latch on to them. "In the Street" is arguably their best-known tune, simply because it served as the theme song to That '70s Show, and yet most people don't know it was originally a Big Star song. Cheap Trick recorded it for the show, adding a few lyrics to it (including the repeated, "We're all alright"). At least if you've seen that show, it provides a point of reference even if you've never heard of Big Star. For anyone who cares at all about pop music, this collection is a must.