1. Dinosaur (1985) – Grade: B-
At this point they were called Dinosaur, and they were three stoner kids who played in basements and were still coming out of the hardcore scene. Bulbs of Passion sounds like it wants to break into a hardcore yell until you get the first suggestion of what will make Dinosaur great and so different from their peers: a searing, loud guitar solo that bridges into a catchy third verse. It makes no sense in the context of the song, but J. Mascis’ utter conviction almost sells it. That defines this album as a whole: most of the songs aren’t overly memorable, are poorly recorded, and yet J., Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) have enough drive to keep them from completely failing (except Pointless, which really lives up to its name.) There are a few classics on here too: Forget the Swan sounds like a Wipers tune, full of angsty vocals, ringing post-punky guitars and thick bass before getting folky in the chorus. It shouldn’t go together, but it does. Mountain Man is a near-metal track and one of most incredible things to hear them do live, letting J. really let loose with the shredding. The best track, and the one that most sounds like the Dinosaur Jr. we know and love, is Repulsion, a searing punk Neil Young track with J.’s laconic vocals and loosely strummed guitar being driven by a thick Barlow bassline. It kicks so much ass, and is one of the songs from this album they still play frequently. It’s a sloppily recorded, sloppily written, sloppily played album that has some charm and a few great songs, and suggests that they might have been onto something.
2. You’re Living All Over Me (1987) – Grade: A+
Even the best stuff on the first album could never have prepared people for the quantum leap in playing, singing, songwriting, production and pretty much everything on this one. Little Fury Things starts with a crackling guitar and some banshee screams, suggesting that they might be on the same trip, but 30 seconds in the vocal melody kicks in, and it’s a different band completely. The guitar is still full of fuzz, but it’s toned back enough to really hear the little technical fills and subtle rhythmic ticks J. throws in there. And he sings like Neil Young on opiates, all slurred nasal vocals and beautiful melodies. At the end of the track the guitar becomes a rocket taking off: the whole effect is breathtaking and a complete 180 from the amateur sound just a year prior. Whereas on the previous album they were mashing up as many genres as they could, frequently within songs, here they’ve come up with their own genius hybrid: Crazy Horse fuzz and solos on top of 80s underground punk/rock songs with a laconic singer and a gift for melody (also known as Alternative rock.) This album is frequently recognized as their opus: I don’t agree with that, but it is possibly their most consistently powerful collection of songs. Every track is a highlight, from Kracked’s scorching raygun guitar solo to the pummeling riffs and chiming bridge of Sludgefeast (bonus points for the absolutely furious outro riff and solo,) from The Lung’s fuzz-folk and warm, sun-setting guitar solo to Raisans yearning chorus. This also featured the first appearance of Lou Barlow’s lo-fi, cut and paste folk sound with Poledo, the final track. At first just tinny acoustic guitar and furious, warbly off key singing, it sounds nothing like anything else on the album and presaged Barlow’s soon-to-be-birthed Sebadoh, an outlet for all the songs that J. refused to put on Dinosaur albums. Halfway through it switches to a cut and paste collage of found sounds that close it out. Some people hate it, but it is so full of earnestness and charm that I can’t help but fall for it every time.
3. Bug (1988) – Grade: A+
Freak Scene is, no way around it, the definitive Dinosaur Jr. song: short, a fuzzed out jangly riff, a searing guitar solo, great lyrics that sound like they mean nothing but actually have considerable weight behind them, it’s pretty much a perfect track. It’s a testament to the band’s power at this point that they lead off their third album with it. I said most people recognize You’re Living All Over Me as their opus, but I find Bug to be a more enjoyable listen overall. There’s more melody, noise, raging solos, and Freak Scene. Where they created their signature sound on You’re Living All Over Me, they perfect it on Bug (and side note: between YLAOM and this one, they were sued by a 60s group named Dinosaur, and in the laziest name change ever added Jr. I think it fits more perfectly.) No Bones has the catchy, jangly sound of Little Fury Things, only it closes with a painfully loud noise solo. Released post-Nevermind, They Always Come would have been a radio hit, a bright guitar pop song with tons of fuzz and awesome drumming from Murph. Let It Ride and The Pond Song are just great minor key rock songs with fantastic vocals and guitars. The original closer, Don’t, is a brutal listen: J. made Lou sing it during their last recording session together, which was filled with animosity. It’s a long dirge of a song with just one lyric screamed over and over: “Why don’t you like me?” J.’s cynical and twisted sense of humor rings through it loud and clear. While it may not be as consistent as YLAOM, and it doesn’t have something like Poledo, it’s a great listen and one of the best things ever to come out of underground rock. This set them up for a major label bidding war and the expectation that they would be the band to take underground alternative rock into the mainstream. As history has proven, that didn’t exactly happen, but they showed that they had the skill.
4. Green Mind (1991) – Grade: B+
There was a big shake-up prior to this album: Lou Barlow was silently fired (J. told him that he was folding the band, then they went on tour in Australia without him.) Murph only plays on three tracks, and everything else is J. all the time. In addition, they took the leap to a major label. All this suggests that this should be a wildly different sounding album, but it reads instead like the logical procession from Bug. The Wagon is one of the all-time Dino Jr. greats, a fast tempo guitar shredder with a great vocal melody. Puke + Cry and I Live For the Look sound like they could have come from the Bug sessions, if it weren’t for the lack of Barlow’s distinctive low-end bass growl. However, other songs find J. mellowing out, slowing the tempos and letting hints of country-rock flow into to the sound. Blowing It and Thumb do a great job of capturing this transition while retaining the classic Dino shred. Overall, Barlow is definitely missed, as the bass never sounds as powerful and the drums don’t punch as hard as when Murph was playing. Their absence only hurts the album a bit though, as its full of strong material. Side note: grab the remastered edition, which includes J. covering Hot Burrito #2 by the Flying Burrito Brothers in hilariously slacker fashion. Worth tracking down and the best of the major label work.
5. Whatever’s Cool With Me (1991) – A-
Not a full album, this one’s a super-extended single for the track Whatever’s Cool With Me. At eight songs, it’s nearly album length as it stands, and the material here is great, continuing the more professional sound from Green Mind and applying it to songs that could have fit comfortably on any of the previous three releases. The title track is a booming Crazy Horse-style rocker, with screaming guitar solos and a laconic melody. There’s a looseness to that and the other tracks that was somewhat lacking on Green Mind, reaching back to the sloppy urgency of You’re Living All Over Me. An acoustic cover of Quicksand by David Bowie finds J. at his most tuneful and focused vocally, and he really nails the song. The two live tracks (Thumb from Green Mind and Keep the Glove, a Bug B-Side) that end the EP are decently recorded but superfluous, the only real flaws on an otherwise excellent release.
6. Where You Been (1993) - B
On this one Murph shows back up and J. hires a bass player, so they’re a real band again. This benefits some of the songs, whereas others just sound like an extension of the J.-focused Green Mind at its calmest. The best track is Start Chopping, a song that got a fair amount of radio play and deserved to be a hit. It showcases J. at his most shred-worthy and has an endlessly catchy chorus. On the flip side is Not The Same, an overly tame and boring song with some really horrible falsetto from J.: it’s the worst thing they’d put to record thus far, and a troubling sign for things to come. Other than that absolute dud though, the rest of the material veers from pretty good to excellent. The other highlights are Get Me and Go Home, two fantastic rockers that can stand with their best. A spotty album, but the highs are high and Start Chopping is worth the price of admission on its own.
7. Without A Sound (1994) – C-
Feel The Pain starts the album off right with a jangled verse and charging choruses. It was a hit for the band, reaching number 4 on the charts, and it should have signaled the answer of Dinosaur Jr.’s early promise. Second single and second song I Don’t Think So suggested another strong collection of well-written rock songs, but things drop off after that. There isn’t anything “bad” on here, but the memorable melodies, explosive guitar solos and freewheeling feeling of past releases are largely toned back in favor of a midsection full of midtempo boredom. The calm nature of Where You Been permeates these tracks and renders most of them forgettable. Cherry pick this album for the singles, Yeah Right (a decent rocker,) and Seemed Like the Thing To Do (a decent calm track reminiscent of The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin) and pass over pretty much everything else.
8. Hand It Over (1997) - F
I’ve listened to this three times and I can’t remember a single song. Again, there isn’t anything bad, but unlike Without A Sound, there isn’t anything good either. Just completely unmemorable guitar rock. J. stopped using the Dinosaur Jr. name after this album (it and the one prior were effectively solo recordings as it stood) and this would have been a sad way to see the group end, all quiet and bland.
9. Beyond (2007) - A
Dino surprised everyone by reuniting in 2005 with the original lineup of J., Lou and Murph. They played a bunch of well-received shows and then, unlike so many reunion acts, hopped right into the studio to record a new album. Even more surprising, they recorded a great album and one that effortlessly picked up where they’d left off with Bug. The guitar squall that introduces first track Almost Ready, would have fit perfectly on the catchy-yet-noisy first half of Bug, and the solo is as free and joyous as J. has been in nearly two decades. Barlow and Murph seem to inspire Mascis to write his best material, and Barlow’s thick, distorted bass frees J. to really stretch on his solos. Calmer songs regain the spark that had been so lacking on past albums, as Crumble is a highlight of ringing guitars and lamentful vocals. Unlike previous albums, Barlow’s contributions gel with the general sound, although Back To Your Heart reminds me of a lost Foo Fighters classic. They returned with all the fire of their early career and quite a bit more restraint, technical prowess and camaraderie, and in the process made one of their best albums.
10. Farm (2009) – A+
I loved Beyond, but even the most optimistic of fans expected it to be a fluke. I even saw them tour those songs, saw how incredible they were live, but I didn’t expect they could keep that songwriting spark alive through another album. Lo and behold, they dropped Farm. Unlike Beyond, it doesn’t nod to prior releases, instead finding J. and Lou incorporating the slacker sound and huge guitar anthems into a more wistful and folk/country-ish vibe that fits the added years they’ve got on them. This sounds like a record made by middle-aged men who know they’re older and aren’t ashamed to grapple with how that age has changed and mellowed them and driven them to different paths than they’d ever even considered in their earlier years. What comes to the fore is a huge batch of songs. I know it’s not a popular opinion whatsoever, but I’d argue that this is the single best group of songs that Dinosaur Jr. ever put together under a single album. There’s the peak in I Don’t Wanna Go There, the truly epic guitar jam, but there’s also the searing pop-guitar jams of Pieces, I want You to Know and Over It. Both of Lou’s contributions (Your Weather and Imagination Blind) blend perfectly into J.’s more wistful and searching songs. They’ve never sounded so much like a functioning unit or a real BAND, and the music completely expresses this coherence. Drive through a rural area on a sunny day in autumn or winter with this on and you’ll get it. My favorite Dinosaur Jr. release, without a doubt.
11. I Bet On Sky (2012) – B
After Farm they could have just continued to milk the overdriven-folk sound they perfected there, but instead J. decided they needed to take a step towards more experimentation. He added extra instrumentation and fucked around more in the studio, creating stuff that doesn’t sound “live,” and made an album more in line with the post-Barlow releases. Nothing on here is bad, and there are tons of good moments, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a drop off after two shockingly great releases from a band that should, by all measures, be well past its prime. Still, what reunion act has released an album this good three releases into their second wind?
Fuck yes Brian!!
8/22 Slint @ El Rey
8/23-8/24 FYF Fest
9/11 Swans @ The Roxy
Bryan, I was reading your Black Flag review and some how realized I missed the reference to the 1982 demos and am just now listening to it, and holy crap, it is fucking fantastic.
If I could work in some alternate-universe Black Flag albums, here would be my ranking:
1. 9-song Keith Morris-only album (aka the first 9 songs of Everything Went Black)
2. 1982 Demos
3. An album consisting of all other pre-Damaged officially relased songs (basically a variation on the First Four Years)
5. Everything Else
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I go through this thread once a year. Though I've had it for a few years, I've recently been trying to put more of a dent in listening to albums from this book.
This thread accompanies that project of mine pretty nicely.
Tom, I have Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons all cued up and ready to go next time I get a chance to listen to music. I've only listened to 270 albums from the edition that I have. Which, for the math majors, is roughly 27%. I have a lot of work to do, but it's giving me motivation to discover and re-discover a lot of fantastic albums.
So am I correct in seeing that no one has done TV on the Radio? If so, I may be able to push through my laziness to get one done in the near future.
Do it. Even if they've been done and you missed it (I don't think so) we're at the point where second sets of reviews are good as they're different opinions on big catalogs. I'm certain most people on the board wouldn't agree with my estimation of latter-day Black Flag, but it's not my fault they have shitty ears.
This is the first time I have read that Dino Jr write up and holy balls I agree with 100 percent in farm being their best album. I had that album I'm my top 20 of the decade.
"Mr. Toad's Wild Aidz."