During their original run of 1971 to 1975, Big Star recorded three brilliant albums that were overlooked on original release but were acknowledged as classics of smart, inventive pop years after the fact. So how do you put together an album that collects "the Very Best of Big Star" when you don't own the rights to that groundbreaking body of work? As it happens, Sony Music has their own solution to that dilemma: their catalog includes the album Columbia: Live at Missouri University, which documented Big Star's first reunion show in 1993 (18 years since they'd last performed, and without the late Chris Bell or original bassist Andy Hummel), and seven of the 14 tracks on Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star are live recordings taken from the Columbia album. Only three songs from Big Star's first two classic albums, 1972's #1 Record and 1974's Radio City, have been licensed for this set, and the version of the classic "September Gurls" used here comes from a rehearsal tape that surfaced on the collection Nobody Can Dance. Thankfully, two songs are included from Big Star's beautiful and damaged swan song, Third/Sister Lovers, and for completists, they've closed the set with a track from the band's misbegotten 2005 reunion album, In Space, though "A Whole New Thing" is easily the weakest item here. As one might expect, Playlist sounds and feels like it was cobbled together from odds and ends, but despite that, the album is surprisingly fun; if the live cuts are hardly representative of Big Star's overall body of work, Alex Chilton sings and plays like he cares about the songs (which wasn't a given, considering his bitterness about Big Star's failure to find an audience), Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer stand in for the missing members with a fan's loving care, and the live takes prove how hard these guys could rock when they felt like it. And the six tunes that precede the live stuff are sterling examples of why Big Star became a legend. As an introduction to Big Star's music, Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star doesn't make the grade, but as an idiosyncratic mixtape of a great band's lopsided history, it fares better, if only because 13 of these 14 songs are inarguably brilliant, and great songs will always win the day, no matter how curiously they're assembled.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming