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  • Dinosaur Jr. - Without A Sound
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10. Without A Sound (1994): Without A Sound kicks off with the infectious single "Feel The Pain." The accompanying video, a confection directed by skateboarding auteur Spike Jonze, features Mascis playing a peculiar, aggressive round of golf on the streets of New York City. It's a lot of fun to watch and the perfect accompaniment to the track's ingratiating melody. Regrettably, for an album that starts with so much promise, the rest of the material feels somewhat uninspired. Mascis had relieved Murph of his duties at this point, making Without A Sound more or less J's effort at being a one-man-band (Mike Johnson was still along for the ride, but seems to have little more creative impact than a session player). Mascis is clearly a gifted drummer but perhaps this final gesture of something resembling total authority is simply one consolidation too many. Without A Sound is technically proficient and amongst their most commercially successful records, but feels devoid of some of the spirit that had come to define the band in the first place.

Of all the bands closely associated with The Year Punk Broke, Dinosaur Jr. is simultaneously amongst the most enduring and enigmatic.

Singer, principal songwriter, and lead guitarist J Mascis was an introverted frontman with autocratic tendencies. Original bass player Lou Barlow was a sensitive, thin-skinned songwriting talent of his own, whose personality clashed persistently with Mascis’s controlling brooding. Even as the three-piece (along with drummer Patrick “Murph” Murphy) made landmark records, the antipathy became ever more severe, leading inexorably to Barlow’s dismissal in 1989. As Barlow found success with his new band Sebadoh, Mascis continued with new bass player Mike Johnson and drummer Murph. Although the split was laden with animosity — Barlow wrote several nasty songs about Mascis, who in turn perhaps more hurtfully didn’t bother responding — the creative breakup proved propitious for band and audience alike. Sebadoh, in its various iterations, went on to be an important, long-running contributor to the cultural space, while for at least a few years Dinosaur Jr. continued firing on all cylinders.

Following a lengthy run of perfect to near-perfect material, the wheels seemed to come off creatively a bit for Dinosaur Jr. with their 1994 release Without A Sound and its follow-up, 1997′s Hand It Over. Neither was terrible, and both featured a number of winning moments, but given the sublime nature of their achievements to date, the signs of artistic fatigue were difficult to ignore. Perhaps sensing the same, Mascis abandoned the Dinosaur Jr. moniker and proceeded on as J Mascis and the Fog, often seeming eclipsed by the legendary stature of his previous band.

Then, 10 years after the fact and amidst a flurry of mainly ill-considered indie rock reunions, it was announced in 2007 that the original DJ lineup was reassembling for an album and tour. Overcoming reasonably managed expectations, the elder Dinosaur Jr. subsequently released two superb albums great enough to improve upon their already distinguished legacy. To say that a successful reunion of this kind is rare would be to vastly understate the point. Arguably, there is no precedent in rock ’n’ roll.

So, with the third post-reunion DJ album, I Bet On Sky, due next month, we stop to consider: What has made Dinosaur Jr. such an unassailably resonant part of our lives, now going on three decades? Ultimately, despite the significant talent of Barlow (who could easily merit his own countdown) Dinosaur Jr. is really the J Mascis story. As Barlow himself put it in a 2012 interview: “Of course it’s J’s band.”

Mascis is a major talent whose essence can be difficult to define. As a singer, his indelible, slightly behind-the-beat drawl is often coupled with doubling and a surprisingly effective falsetto, suggesting something like late-period Sly Stone if he had somehow been transmogrified into the son of a dentist from Amherst, Mass. Unlike his once and future cohort Barlow, there is very little studied cleverness to Mascis’s lyrics. He has always favored simple rhymes laid over loud songs of personal disillusion. But Mascis’s capacity for a memorable turn of phrase should not be discounted. Despite his modesty in words and appearance, he has managed to render some of the unforgettable verses of his era: “Sometimes I don’t thrill you/Sometimes I think I’ll kill you/Just don’t let me fuck up will you?/And if I need a friend it’s still you.” Maybe it ain’t elegant poetry, but rarely has there been a better four-line take on modern love.

Distilled to its essence, Dinosaur Jr. has always been always about Mascis’s guitar. By the late 1980s, the notion of the “guitar hero” had mainly, and appropriately, been excised from the punk and indie-rock firmament. The previous three decades had produced an interminable parade of shredding guitar icons, from Clapton and Hendrix in the ’60s all the way to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Slash at around the time of Dinosaur’s formation. All of these individuals were involved in some terrific music, but the ace leadman had come to feel something like an appointed position, one increasingly clichéd and asinine. It made sense then that bands of the era seemed eager to change the meaning of guitar in a rock band, whether by bombing it back to stone age simplification Mudhoney-style, or appropriating Glenn Branca’s avant-garde approach for the rock idiom in the case of Sonic Youth. Fortunately, Mascis never got the memo. The very best Dinosaur Jr. songs consist of inescapable hooks and melodies that lead with steam engine inevitably towards a soaring, lyrical J Mascis solo — or occasionally two in one song. These exertions are thrilling, raising the bar of excitement even on lesser material. In this regard, Mascis is a highly unique product of his era. Take for example Stephen Malkmus — by any measure a gifted and inventive guitarist — but would anyone really sit through a particularly prosaic Pavement song simply to hear what he does on the solo? With Dinosaur Jr. it was always worth the wait. There are a few others in Mascis’s generation who manifest similar characteristics on guitar — it would be cool to hear a Mike Bloomfield/Stephen Stills-style “Super Session” with Mascis and Ira Kaplan or Doug Martsch — but no individual so successfully wed trad-rock tendencies with envelope-pushing music in quite the way Dinosaur Jr. managed to do.

So here we go again! A Countdown. As Dinosaur Jr. has rendered a minimum of three unimpeachable classics and debatably more than that, it is difficult to prize certain releases above others. So, once again: We offer the following not as gospel truth, but rather as a jumping off point for discussing one of the great and unique bands of our times. Start here and get to discussing in the comments.

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Comments (43)
  1. Is there really any question what #1 is?

    • Obviously there is a question. ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ is generally regarded by most critics–for what it’s worth–to be the best Dinosaur Jr. album. It’s the one that you’ll most commonly find on best albums lists.

    • yes, because i like every song i hear but have never owned an album

  2. Since when is Bug their fourth album? And it’s my personal #1 ;)

    • Indeed, it is their third album. This has been amended in the text; thanks for the heads up! (While I’m here, I’ll make the unpopular suggestion that Farm is actually their best…)

    • Same here, and in what world is Farm ahead of Beyond? I kind of get the feeling the people who put the list together are casual Dino Jr fans, or maybe we have different taste

  3. i’ll concede that it’s not their greatest, but without a sound will always be my first CD that introduced me to music beyond the pearl jam/stone temple pilots sound, and for that i love it. also, weezer’s blue album.

  4. ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ is their best record – no doubt. ‘The Wagon’ isn’t even their 2nd or 3rd best. And people always underestimate the debut album. I’d make the debut 3rd with Bug 2nd.

  5. Some should do a list like this for Guided By Voices when Bears For Lunch comes out. And then that person should probably get a two week paid vacation.

  6. My queue is officially full, Stereogum. Between the Ryan Adams, Cat Power and Dinosaur Jr. lists and the enormous amount of new music you’re covering, I am defenseless. I’m going to hole up this weekend, absorb as much as I can, and return Monday refreshed. Take the afternoon off so I can catch up, please.

  7. Seriously? “I’m Coming Home?” It’s “Goin’ Home.” C’mon.

  8. I’d like to see this feature for Sonic Youth. Or has there already been one?

    • That would be cool, but I feel like the terrific string of EVOL, Sister, Daydream Nation would take the top three spots and the rest of their discography would be the challenge.

      • i wouldn’t be so sure about that. dirty and washing machine are great. and in the recent write-up over dirty turning 20, a lot of people were coming out of the woodwork to show love for murray street, sonic nurse and rather ripped. it’d be interesting to see where the editors fall on all of that.

        other ones i’d like to see:

        modest mouse
        yo la tengo
        ween
        ghostface
        radiohead
        flaming lips
        built to spill
        mark kozelek (including RHP and SKM)

        • I agree on Modest Mouse and Built to Spill but I think Flaming Lips and Radiohead would be very predictable.

          As for SY, I’m sure Daydream would land at number one, but I’ve spent some time this year revisiting their albums. I place Sonic Nurse at the top now, just above Dirty so I think it’s possible to have a very competitive list.

          I’d love to see one for The Replacements and possibly Wilco (tho both number 1′s would be somewhat predictable).

          • I feel like Built to Spill would be a pretty easy list to do. The Wilco one would be nice to see, and to see where A Ghost is Born (my favorite Wilco album) would land would be interesting.

          • The Built to Spill list would be a lot more fun to debate if they included the Treepeople and Halo Benders albums.

        • I’d hate to see a Flaming Lips list, just because I’d get depressed when the pre-Zaireeka albums inevitably get dismissed in favor of the post-Zaireeka albums. And there’s only so much catharsis to be gained by flipping off a computer screen.

  9. Same here, and in what world is Farm ahead of Beyond? I kind of get the feeling the people who put the list together are casual Dino Jr fans

  10. My favourite album is You’re Living Over Me, though Farm has made quite an impression on me when it came out (and it still does, each time I listen to it). Y’reLOM is simply the most mature album by Dinosaur Jr.

  11. I’m sure someone already made this joke, but I want to see Avalanches: From Worst to Best.

  12. I’m having trouble seeing how Mascis’ voice is anything like Sly Stone’s…

  13. The debut needs to be higher for “forget the swan” alone, which is easily one of DJ’s top 5 songs. I can’t believe you make no mention of it at all. Is there no love for Lou’s songs?

  14. It’d be fun to see one of these for a horrible band like Limp Bizkit. Imagine how hard it would be to decide which one was “best.”

  15. hard to vote, coz, ya know, every damn Dino album released is exactly the same. But i still love ya J.

  16. I’m with those who believe You’re Living All Over Me is the tops – I’d personally take that, Beyond, Bug, and Farm ahead of Green Mind. The other ’90s albums and the debut would form the back half of the list in some order. Beyond is a pretty underrated album, and Farm’s no slouch either. I expect the new album will be similarly solid.

  17. Beyond and Farm need to switch spots then I’m all in.

  18. Wtf. The list is all wrong. “Where you been” is the ultimate rock-art-statement, “Bug” should have place no 2 and both Beyond and Farm are better than “Green Mind” . I know Fossils is just a single-compilation but you can ad that to my list and that’s my top…eeeh.. 6

  19. FARM for the win, in my mind. Beyond is great, but Farm is far, far better. All of these are great though; late Dino Jr is something else entirely.

  20. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks Green Mind is their best- though I would have put Farm in the top 3 at least, and probably Hand It Over in the Top 5. Great band, for sure.

  21. My top 3 would be:

    1. You’re Living All Over Me
    2. Dinosaur
    3. Bug

    Everything without Lou Barlow isn’t that great in my opinion. When he came back in 2007, they started to write cool albums again.

  22. Farm is my number one by a mile. I Don’t Wanna Go There is just mind-blowing. The guitar solos! I dig You’re Living All over Me, and could understand putting it at number one, but they have just gotten so much better with age. Green Mind sounds kinda weak by comparison.

    One rock critic cliche I have always hated is the “If this album were put out by a new band, they would get so much love and attention.” Beyond and Farm proved that wrong. Everybody who likes good rock music knew that those albums were as good as anything they’ve ever put out, and said so. Nobody had to give the band back-handed compliments; they are the rare band that actually keeps progressing almost three decades into their career.

    Also, why doesn’t this band get any airplay? Any kid that likes Led Zep or Nirvana would love the last couple Dinosaur Jr. albums. Do they rock too hard for 2013?

  23. That’s not Lou screaming on Little Furry Things. It’s Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth.

  24. Not only is Green Mind my favorite, it features some of the best cover art of all time.

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