It can be time consuming trying to get into a new band, especially when the band in question have been pretty prolific since before you were old enough to sink your molars into your dad’s short-lived cassette collection. Sometimes you need to be thrown a line to avoid being drowned in the sea of albums, EPs, B-sides and live recordings any band with a career which could be described as ‘distinguished’ are bound to have poured out. Something to make the entire business of musical discovery less of a slog and more the pulse-quickening eargasm of a journey it's meant to be.
With a band like Dinosaur Jr. the process of selecting a handful of best albums becomes a very subjective business. Ask ten different people what their favourite record is and you'll get ten different answers. You might enjoy the gnarly punk tsunami of their 80s output; their 90s foray into the grunge mainstream; or maybe it's the veteran interplay of their 00s reunion that would get your pulse racing? How could I know? Consequentially the only fair and accommodating course of action is to curate a selection that spans all eras of the band's output.
Which is what I've done. You can thank me tonight when J Mascis’ guitar starts soaring through your dreams like a huge wiggly griffin.
- - -
'You're Living All Over Me' (1987)
Despite being preceded by an eponymous debut in 1985, ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ is pretty much the first true Dinosaur Jr. album. An abrasiveness dug from their hardcore roots is coupled with an emergent pop sensibility that allows the hum-along choruses and wheedling solos of 'Kracked' and 'Little Fury Things' to leap out at the listener. Emergent band leader Mascis started pushing the envelope by mixing the sonic experimentalism of noise and no wave into his already bullish guitar tone, the results of which were so ear-splittingly loud that the label famously assumed that there was something wrong with the tape. Also present on the second half were the first writing contributions of bassist and co-singer Lou Barlow, whose odd compositions ‘Lose’ and ‘Poledo’ foreshadowed his later work with alt-rock innovators Sebadoh.
‘Living...’'s influence on every major late 80s/early 90s guitar act cannot be overstated: it is likely that there would be no ‘Bleach’ or ‘Doolittle’ without it. Even Dinosaur Jr. themselves, upon reforming their original line-up twenty years later, seemed to single out this album as a high water mark of sound and energy that they would aim to recapture. Though its successor 'Bug' turned out to be the band's breakthrough album, it was here that they set the sonic template they would continue to work from on every consequent record.
- - -
'Green Mind' (1991)
One of the criticisms that can be fairly levelled at Dinosaur Jr. is the tendency of their songs to blur together into one. It's true that, once you've heard one of J Mascis' glorious face melting solos you have, on some level, heard them all. The band have carved out such a distinctive valley of sound for themselves over the years that it's unsurprising that they've reused more than a few guitar licks, motifs and textures while navigating it. But 1991's 'Green Mind', Dinosaur Jr.'s first album without bassist and founding member Lou Barlow, can safely be said to have avoided this pitfall.
Its lo-fi recording style and extensive use of unplugged instruments gives it a far more genial campfire vibe than the howling intensity they were known for before this point. Heavy shades of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ are audible on ‘Flying Cloud’, while 'Thumb's lush flute-mellotron backing reveals a propensity for experimentalism that would later be fully explored on less guitar orientated works 'Hand It Over' and 'I Bet On Sky'. By focusing less on the meaty guitar production and dropping the number of freewheeling solos, Mascis ensures that the construction of the songs that stands front and centre.
- - -
'Where You Been?' (1993)
Dinosaur Jr.'s run of 90s albums are both blessed and cursed by Mascis’ totalitarian control. After the departure of drummer Murph post-'Green Mind', Mascis was now recording nearly every instrument on the ‘band’s recordings. While this allowed him to show off his writing and playing chops unhindered by compromise or collaboration, it also resulted in something of a creative monoculture which hindered their central sense of spontaneity.
On the plus side, when focused on a clear target Mascis' single mindedness could reap sonic dividends. 'Where You Been?' was basically the result of major label Sire urging him to release an alternative chart smash in the vein of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' or Pearl Jam's 'Ten', a challenge that the usually commercially unconcerned Mascis seemed to relish. The opening salvo of 'Out There' and 'Start Choppin' is better than sex, drugs and peanut butter (individually or all at once, it doesn’t matter). The calmer 'Not The Same' also sees the first full use of the stark falsetto that Mascis would later lay over his lullaby-ish solo albums.
In addition to succeeding in its bid to pluck up some post-‘Lithium’ plaid-clad grunge fans, 'Where You Been?'s textbook construction of over-driven ear-worms would go on to strike chords with many later alt-90s guitar heroes. 'Goin' Home's gentle world-weariness sounds for all the world like it could be an Eels rip-off if it weren’t for the fact that E was still just a bespectacled teenager who was into birds at this point. Similarly the verbal spaghetti spilling over 'Hide' pre-dates Jeff Magnum's similar drawl on ‘In An Aeroplane Over The Sea’ by a fair few years. This album is basically a master-class for any songwriter struggling to write a single without compromising their sound.
- - -
In 2007, after fifteen years of animosity, a mellowed out J Mascis finally buried the hatchet with Murph and Lou Barlow to release 'Beyond'. It was a solid record that saw the trio slipping back into their original sound, which is effectively just three dudes systematically demolishing a garage from within. But if 'Beyond' was a return to form then 2009's 'Farm' was them surpassing their past achievements to create a late career addition that rivalled anything from their heyday.
Much like the dozy giants that adorn the front cover, everything about this album sounds massive. Murph's drums provide a thunderous foundation atop which Mascis' fingers build distorted towers of sludge that make the band's previous releases sound feather-light by comparison. The songs themselves are also far grander affairs than usual, many of them clocking in at over six minutes in length.
There’s an argument that prog wig outs like ‘Said The People’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Go There’ might be a touch on the self-indulgent side, but that’s a bit like saying Peter Jackson should keep his films below the two hour mark. ‘Pieces’ might just be the best Dinosaur Jr. song to start your discovery with, by the way. Just be careful okay? It’s pretty much the alt-rock equivalent of crack cocaine.
- - -
'Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not' (2016)
I know, I know. It’s terribly bad form to include a band’s current release on a retrospective listicle such as this. Fuck it though, give ‘Glimpse’ a whirl and you’ll quickly realise why it deserves this spot. Not only is it a thrilling ride in its own right, it also acts as a kind of ‘Best Of’ substitute: taking the best aspects of the band’s previous work and jamming them into place like a steel trap jigsaw. There’s the playful directness of ‘Green Mind’ present on the annoyingly hyphen-less ‘Goin Down’, the brute power of ‘Bug’ and ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ evident all over ‘I Walk For Miles’ and the pop chops of ‘Where You Been?’ clear on obvious single ‘Be A Part’. It’s like Dinosaur Jr. listened to nothing but Dinosaur Jr. for four years before recording a Dinosaur Jr. tribute album.
All of their best albums sound effortless. Actually that doesn’t quite cut it, all of their best albums sound lazy, like J Mascis is just too apathetic for a vertical world and so elects to record as much as he can horizontally from his bed. ‘Glimpse’ sounds for all the world like a happily dozy Mascis pouring out a nice warm bath for him and you to settle down and smoke a joint in.
- - -
'Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not' is released on August 5th.
Words: Josh Gray