Dinosaur Jr. Albums From Worst To Best
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.
9. Hand It Over (1997): For a man who has a habit of sounding incredibly exhausted while singing, J Mascis has always worked at a tireless pace to achieve his artistic goals. 1997's Hand It Over represents a restless talent trying to figure out what's next. He experiments on this record with instrumentation from horns ("I'm Insane") to strings ("Can't We Move This") to fruity mellotron and high harmonies ("Never Bought It") to kooky, flanged synths ("Nothin's Goin' On") and all of these ideas work, relatively, but also have the habit of gilding the lily. The result is an ambitious collection of songs that does not always hang together as a cohesive whole.
8. Dinosaur (1985): The first album by this gifted young band portends tremendous things, even while the songwriting chops are not fully in place. Vestiges of Dinosaur's hardcore roots remain in place on songs like "Does It Float," but far more exciting is the slow and almost bluesy "Severed Lips," a great song that anticipates the more ambitious work laying just around the corner.
7. Beyond (2007): The prospect of any reunion of a beloved band is always a nail-biting exercise. There's the chance of reliving what was and –- even better –- seeing what might be. Alternatively, there's also the possibility of witnessing one's heroes engaging in a humiliating, geriatric slog up the mountain. Thankfully, 2007's Beyond found Dinosaur Jr. in the exact fine fighting form that gave their earlier releases the energy, inspiration and pathos that first drove audiences to starry-eyed fandom. The band also has the benefit of being mellowed by 10 years of successes and indignities that dulled the edges of internecine grievances. In sum: Beyond is an exceptionally fun record. Opener "Almost Ready" is a concentrated distillation of every killer Dinosaur Jr. trope. It trips the listener up by starting with a scorching riff that comes from seemingly nowhere, which leads into Mascis' shrugging vocal line that is abetted by the assured rhythm section of Murph and Lou Barlow. On the track, Mascis repeatedly sings "I'm almost ready," but to any listener, he sounds fully prepared and doing exactly what he was meant to do, and the rest of the record follows suit.
6. Whatever's Cool With Me EP (1991): This 1991 release was originally intended as a stopgap between the full-lengths Green Mind and Where You Been. Over time the EP has acquired currency as one of the band's best outings. The title track is a whirlwind of loud, crazed guitars and double bass drums that somehow resolves itself into a kind of mission statement of passive disinterest. "Not You Again" is a fun and atypically off-the-cuff rocker, surprising for its loose and comedic feel. Coupled with his faithful cover of David Bowie's "Quicksand," Whatever's Cool With Me is a snapshot of Mascis at his most overtly winsome and irresistible.
5. Farm (2009): For many fans of the band, Farm represented the acid test for whether or not the tremendously successful reunion outing of J, Lou, and Murph that resulted in 2007's Beyond was just a freak accident or if, in fact, Dinosaur Jr. redux had somehow managed to put the genie back in the bottle. Fortunately, the latter proved to be the case; Farm is a thrilling follow-up to Beyond. The record kicks off with two rockers that mirror the opening of Green Mind, "Pieces" and "I Want You To Know," defying the band's vintage with the sheer magnitude of their energy. Unlike most other records of similar length (Farm clocks in at a bold 61 minutes), the dozen songs that comprise it do not suffer from the bloated excesses of wankish frippery or masturbatory noodling. In fact, some of the most successful tracks are the longer ones, the almost 8-minute long lament "Said The People" and the near 9-minute "I Don't Wanna Go There" allow Mascis and company to realize the potential and power of these anthems in full bloom. Both songs grow geometrically from simple beginnings into frenzied guitar solos of near epic proportion. Farm opens up the astonishing possibility that some of Dinosaur Jr.'s best work may be yet to come.
4. Where You Been (1993): 1993's Where You Been was Dinosaur Jr.'s great commercial push, with major label backing hoping to cast them in the role of the next Nirvana. In retrospect, that was never more than a ludicrous fantasy, but for a brief period of music industry weirdness, the notion of J Mascis as minted star seemed nearly viable. He even appeared on the cover of Spin magazine with the headline "J Mascis Is God," plainly referencing earlier claims attributed to Eric Clapton. It was an impossible position, but goddamned if Mascis did not deliver a tremendous record when the stakes were highest. Where You Been is replete with great tunes like "Out There," the lead single "Start Choppin'" and the brilliantly wistful penultimate track "Goin' Home." In a sense, that last song goes a distance to describing the feeling of this record. It is tough and thoughtful, but also a seeming acknowledgment that Mascis is likely punching out of his weight class commercially. He'll be headed back to the indies soon, and he'll be going home.
3. Bug (1988): Dinosaur Jr.'s third record begins with "Freak Scene," one of the truly unimpeachable singles of the 1980's. And this is merely the beginning of a fantastic album full of unstoppable anthems like "They Always Come" and "Let It Ride." As a counterpoint, contemplative, abrasive mid-tempo numbers like "The Post" preview a more sedate and confrontational mode of the band, which will manifest itself to great effect on future records. Bug certifies that Dinosaur Jr. will approach a larger audience, but only on their own terms.
2. You're Living All Over Me (1987): The second Dinosaur Jr. record, released in 1987, is the apex of the first iteration of the Mascis-Barlow union, with Barlow playing an exaggerated second banana role, often shrieking discordantly over Mascis's laconic delivery on such classic tracks as the opener "Little Fury Things." Barlow's anarchic utterances are at once exhilarating and disquieting. When his full-on "Plastic Ono Band" guttural freak-out occurs over the last verse of "In A Jar," it is difficult to know exactly what to feel. It is both disjunction and deliverance. This great collection of songs is as compelling as it is challenging. It notably contains Barlow's Sebadoh precursor, the psychedelic music-concrète adventure "Poledo," which provides a welcome respite to Mascis's bilious songs of suffering. A brilliant album by a young band finding their way toward genius.
1. Green Mind (1991): Mascis's first record minus Barlow is a kind of full-scale rendering of his id, vacillating between ebullient and wonderful rockers like "The Wagon" and "How'd You Pin That One On Me?" and more contemplative material like "Water," which sounds like a sped-up version of Neil Young's "Cowgirl In The Sand" (making it still five-plus minutes). Mascis is unusually playful here -- "Muck" is an amiable foray into something like funk, while the brief "I Live For That Look" soars to unusually romantic heights over the course of its infectious 1:56 running time. Unencumbered by the bother of other strong personalities, Mascis thrives in his first outing as essentially a solo artist. It is a great record start to finish, including the wryly stated epigram from "Thumb" that should probably be inscribed on Dinosaur Jr.'s tombstone: "There never really is a good time/There's always nothing much to say."