Alex Chilton died on March 17, 2010, leaving behind him a tremendous legacy. He was one of the pioneers of power pop music, and many notable musicians from Wilco to REM to Kurt Cobain have cited Chilton’s work with 70’s group Big Star as a major influence.
Here’s a look at ten of the best songs that Alex Chilton ever recorded.
1. Thirteen – Thirteen is the first track off of Big Star’s #1 Record that really makes a music fan pause and say, “whoa, this is actually really, really good.” It’s a story of teenage love, written from the perspective of a dumb, overwhelmed kid. It wasn’t written when Chilton was 13, as some people claim. It’s tribute to Chilton’s genius that so many people naturally assumed a voice like the song’s narrator would have actually had to come out of a thirteen year old.
2. I’m In Love With a Girl – Another “innocent” Chilton song, this is just Alex and a guitar, strumming out three chords and a simple melody. Every time you hear it, you’ll swear that he’s going to break down and cry at some point. It grows a sense of uneasy joy, which had to be Chilton’s intent–it’s pretty much love, directly injected into a song.
3. Mine Exclusively – The 2006 Big Star album “In Space” confused a lot of fans, because, well, it didn’t sound anything like Big Star. It was basically a mashup of a Posies album and an Alex Chilton album, but this track showed Chilton at his best, funking out and driving home a rock cover tune with an exceptional band. It may not have been Big Star, exactly, but it was vintage Alex Chilton.
4. Mod Lang – Nobody can claim that Chilton can’t rock. Mod Lang brings in his best Rolling Stones influences with a chunking guitar riff for an undeniably fun break from Radio City’s pathos.
5. Kangaroo – Hey, speaking of Pathos. It’s hard to understand what Chilton was thinking when recording Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, but with immaculately deranged production, this simple, improvised song becomes one of the loneliest dirges ever put on tape.
6. The Letter – Although Chilton didn’t write this Box Tops classic, his performance was his first (and really, only) hit, combining a slinking young voice with a traditional yet dark arrangement.
7. Femme Fatale – As covers go, it’s hard to do something by the Velvet Underground, much less outdo one of the band’s signature tunes. Femme Fatale is less pretentious and more mournful in Chilton’s hands, and fits nicely into Third’s glorious confusion.
8. Holocaust – I’m sticking with Third here, because it really seems representative of Alex Chilton’s work as a whole. Holocaust is his darkest song. “Your mother’s dead, she said, don’t be afraid” he moans, his usually strong voice breaking. Third is often called a depressing album, which isn’t fair; I believe that that entire reputation came from this one piece.
9. No More The Moon Shines on Lorena -Alex Chilton brought haphazard production and sloppy music to his solo album Like Flies on Sherbert, which works to great effect, depending on how you listen to it. This song’s a standout, with odd synths and an arrangement that was, at best, confusing as hell.
10. September Gurls – Every Big Star fan reading this knew that September Gurls was bound to show up, and there’s good reason for that; it may be one of the best pop songs ever recorded. Certainly, I put it at #1, and I’m including the Beatles in that list.
It would be sacrilege to say that if it wasn’t Big Star’s most tender, perfect song. Through a typical pop progression, Chilton displays every wonderful characteristic that he brought into the world of music. He’s happy, then he’s sad. He’s melodic, then he sounds urgent and even frustrated. The lyrics are beautiful, thoughtful and almost completely nonsensical. Nothing should work, but it all does.
Chilton proves in three minutes that he’ll always deserve having his name listed among heavyweights like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and that’s no hyperbole or overstatement. To put it simply and adolescently, if you know someone who doesn’t like this song, something’s wrong with them; avoid them at all costs. September Gurls, like Chilton, is an experiment in beautiful fragility, a pop opus from one of the greatest, saddest untamed songwriters that the world will ever see.
What are your favorite Alex Chilton songs? Post in our comments section below.