For such a guitar-driven art form, rock ’n’ roll is surprisingly low on guitarists with distinctive sounds. Many of the best players tailor their riffs and solos to the song—which is a perfectly reasonable approach, but can make it hard to recognize their stamp if they’re guesting on somebody else’s record. With Joseph “J” Mascis though, even when he’s appeared for just a few seconds on a Firehose or Buffalo Tom track, it’s obvious who dropped by. The best way to describe Mascis’ style is as a controlled squall—like a windstorm trying to out-decibel a jet engine. Distortion and feedback are his default mode, not an occasional effect. Yet while Mascis’ songs superficially seem roiling and violent, the overall result is curiously soft. The guitar and the lyrics are earnest and expressive, conveying the secret joys and pains of a stoic.
For over 30 years now, the best vehicle for Mascis’ poetic roar has been his power trio Dinosaur Jr., founded in suburban Massachusetts in the early ’80s with bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett Patrick “Murph” Murphy. Early in the band’s run (when they were still known as just Dinosaur), they developed a reputation as one of the loudest acts on the Northeast club scene. When they released their self-titled debut album on Homestead in 1985, they joined the great mass of college-rockers with an edgy, uncommercial sound and no apparent shot at longevity. But something about Dinosaur Jr.’s uncompromising volume level and unhip ’70s country-rock influences impressed peers like Sonic Youth, who helped convince SST Records—at the time the gold standard for alternative music—to sign them.
The band proved they belonged among the lofty company at their new home with the 1987 LP You’re Living All Over Me, an SST record that rivaled the best of Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, and the Minutemen. Dinosaur Jr. ended up being part of the last great flourishing of the ’80s American rock underground (covered so well in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life), and with their fusion of heavy guitars and punky energy, the trio got an early jump on the “grunge” sound about to emerge from the Pacific Northwest. As Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam all broke into the mainstream, Dinosaur Jr. too unexpectedly moved from the margins to the majors, getting actual airplay and MTV exposure with the kind of music that just a few years earlier had seemed slated for cult stardom at best.
Dinosaur Jr.’s shift to a major label—Sire Records—corresponded with the gradual dissolution of the original group. The gregarious Barlow and the reticent Mascis had chronic communication issues that led to the bassist getting unceremoniously kicked out after the second (and last) SST LP, Bug. Murph stuck around for the first couple of Sire albums, but reportedly grew frustrated with Mascis’ habit of micro-managing the drum sound during the recording sessions—or just playing all the percussion himself. Nevertheless, the ’90s albums were strong, and popular, and while the production on them was a little cleaner and deeper, Mascis’ bruised lyrics, nasal croak, and ferocious guitar remained at the core of what Dinosaur Jr. was all about.
Mascis retired the Dinosaur Jr. name for a while, recording either as a solo artist or with a band he dubbed “The Fog.” But in 2005, Barlow and Mascis overcame whatever hurt feelings they’d been fostering, and reunited with Murph for a series of tours and albums that haven’t been merely an attempt to cash in on name-recognition. The reformed Dinosaur Jr. sounds as inspired and spirited as it did when before the original break-up. The playlist below is heavy on the group’s first three albums because they’re the most influential and enduring. But it also features songs from the the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s—including one from Dinosaur Jr.’s outstanding new record, Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not—that show how Mascis and company have stayed true to a musical vision that’s still viscerally exciting and unexpectedly moving.
Dinosaur Jr.’s eponymous first album is a likably eclectic collection of post-hardcore and lo-fi country-rock, but it’s on the second LP, You’re Living All Over Me, that the band fused its various musical ideas into a unified and original sound–equal parts Neil Young, Black Sabbath, and The Cure. “In A Jar” exemplifies the one-of-a-kind dynamic of Dinosaur Jr.: the imposing noise, deployed by the unassuming. Over a pummeling rhythm section—where the bass functions almost as a lead instrument—Mascis sings a twisted kind of love song, waxing rhapsodic about how splendid it would be to be treated like a rare insect, kept and cared for by his lover. The stacked guitars and fiery solo over the bridge digress only briefly from the main idea here: the romanticism of submission.
Dinosaur Jr. wasn’t the most unlikely band to make the jump to a major label in the ’90s (the post-Nirvana era was a weird time), but few could’ve guessed that Mascis’ group would actually sell a respectable amount of records, without substantially altering its style. With first Green Mind and then Where You Been, a Barlow-less Dinosaur Jr. came off a little less indie and a little more bombastic; yet the songs were still offbeat, personal, and far from radio-friendly. Oddly, of all the sprawling heartbreak anthems on Where You Been, the oddball “Start Choppin’” and “Out There” were what the industry calls “the focus tracks” (and actually got some airplay), instead of this shorter, hookier, happier number. From its canyon-filling bookending riff to its appealing shuffle and its heartwarming “rolling home to you” chorus, “I Ain’t Sayin’” is a crowd-pleaser that could’ve been Dinosaur Jr.’s biggest hit if it’d been pushed a little harder—or at all.
When Mascis reunited with Barlow and Murph for a few gigs in the mid-2000s, the reunion initially seemed like a nice moment of closure for a group of former friends who split up too soon. Then the band followed those shows up with a surprisingly strong comeback album, 2007’s Beyond. The bandmates topped that with 2009’s even better Farm, which exhibited a renewed sense of chemistry and possibility. As great as the original run of Dinosaur Jr. was, it produced only a handful of songs as mighty as “I Want You To Know,” with its monolithic guitars, booming drums, and a shared Mascis/Barlow vocal that sounds like comrades standing courageously together against deadly waves of sound.
In a lot of ways, the You’re Living All Over Me follow-up Bug is like a rehash of its predecessor, with the same mix of headbangers, lopers, art pop, and noise experiments—only slightly scuzzier and weirder overall. But the album-opening “Freak Scene” is the song that suggested the level of accessibility and commerciality Dinosaur Jr. would reach in the ’90s. Stripped to its core elements, it’s a bright, engaging number, with a catchy melody and a lyric that preaches in favor of connection above all. To that, the band adds the profanity, volume, and careening, barely controlled performance that kept them a niche act in 1988—but which also brought them the kind of committed, passionate fans who still follow whatever they’re up to.
Lou Barlow has been an indie rock pioneer in his own right with his hands Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion (the latter of which briefly crossed over to the mainstream in the alt-rock-crazy ’90s); and while his songwriting contributions to Dinosaur Jr. haven’t been the band’s most popular songs, there’s a definite difference between how Mascis sounds with Barlow in the group and without. Though the bassist didn’t write anything on the Dinosaur album, he sang lead on a lot of it, and his moody murmur sets the tone for tracks like the faintly psychedelic “Gargoyle,” where the performance feels at once spontaneous and honest—like a page from a diary with lots of scribbling in the margins.
Similar to Barlow, Murph has always brought a unique energy to Dinosaur Jr.—even in the days when Mascis was telling him exactly what to play. This track from I Bet On Sky (the third album from the reunited trio) benefits hugely from the way Murph beats explosively on his instrument, trying to keep up with Mascis’ relentless torrents of guitar noise. He adds to the incessant assault of “What Was That,” and gives weight and menace to a song that could’ve just as easily have been played as a ballad.
Murph had been cut loose from Dinosaur Jr. by the time Mascis recorded Without A Sound, the record which contained his biggest hit, “Feel The Pain.” The relative slickness of that song (and of the rest of the LP) is evident in its best track, “Yeah Right,” a likably tossed-off number that doesn’t try to do too much. It’s short and snappy, with a semi-sarcastic lyric that suits its eye-rolling title. This was the era of albums like Nevermind, where the primary form of expression for an entire generation was a resigned shrug. In that context, “Yeah Right” is 1994 alt-rock’s version of an anthem.
It’s a measure of how beloved Dinosaur Jr. has become that each new album is a much-anticipated event—and not just by longtime fans who bought Bug the day it came out. The band’s new album Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not has been teased for months now, with videos and song leaks and special live performances. And it’s hard not to get excited about the record after hearing “Goin Down” for the first time, with its chugging guitars and pummeling percussion. Anyone who wants to know why Dinosaur Jr. has remained such a vital going concern should just skip to about two minutes and forty-five seconds into this song, when Mascis rips into one of those brain-melting solos that remains a true rock treasure.
A sort of sequel to “Freak Scene,” the first track on Dinosaur Jr.’s major label debut Green Mind (which was also released as a 7” single the year before) debuts the smoother sound that Mascis would gravitate to in the ’90s. Less reckless and more controlled than “Freak Scene,” “The Wagon” pushes Mascis’ voice higher in the mix, and saves its big guitar eruption for the a more conventional spot right in the middle, where solos usually go. The rest of the song drives speedily along for nearly five minutes, with oblique lyrics that make sense only when combined with all the other elements, into one big rush of confusion and sensation.
Any doubts longtime fans might’ve had about the reconstituted Dinosaur Jr.’s ability to recapture its old magic was quickly dispelled by songs like Beyond’s “Crumble,” which fell right back into the band’s best zone—at once brisk, laid-back, and earsplitting. What’s always set Mascis apart from both the grunge stars and the indie-rock guitar heroes that followed in his shuffling footsteps is his songcraft, and his ability to modulate intensity. “Crumble” is simple, unfussy, yet still builds up momentum, getting louder and rowdier within the terms it establishes for itself in its opening seconds.
The first Dinosaur Jr. album is sprinkled with a few enduring favorites (like the warped-but-tender ballad “Severed Lips” and the bouncy, genre-defying “Cats In A Bowl”), but none have stuck around quite like “Repulsion,” a classic “I’m so hideous” teen-angst lament, sprinkled with weirdo lines like “the world drips down like gravy.” The song establishes what would become the primary Dinosaur Jr. take on rock ’n’ roll: a loopier, louder spin on Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Zuma. While many of the Mascis’ peers were focusing on affect, he was busy writing a song that sounds almost too casual on the first spin, and then utterly sublime a hundred times after that.
Like “In A Jar” on You’re Living All Over Me, Bug’s “Pond Song” is a freaky little romantic vision, filled with abstract imagery and strange textural shifts. But what’s especially remarkable about the song is how Mascis’ layers of guitars sound throughout—moving beyond semi-improvised noodling to something more consciously constructed and spacious. Mascis started out as a drummer, and in interviews has often said that he still prefers the drums because he doesn’t have to work as hard to get his desired effect out of them. He’s said that when he started playing guitar, he only soloed, because he was bored by just strumming away at a few chords. But by Bug he was clearly starting to experiment more with his instrument, setting the stage not just for his imminent split with his original bandmates—whose power-trio dynamic was getting too restrictive—but for the wonky guitar wizards of the ’90s. “Pond Song”’s solos contain the seeds for My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.
These four songs constitute side one of You’re Living All Over Me, which isn’t just the finest 15 minutes of music that Dinosaur Jr. has ever produced, it’s one of the most conceptually well-conceived and emotionally overpowering album sides in rock history. The four work as a unit. “Little Fury Things” literally begins with a manic scream, before giving way to something more melodic, supporting lyrics about someone who’s feeling spurned but determined. Then “Kracked” races ahead, with hardcore thrash and live-wire guitar, but also with a few mellow passages to make the screeching stand out all the more. That song slams straight into “Sludgefeast,” which is as punishingly loud and head-banging as any heavy metal song, with only one pin-drop-quiet break in the middle to alleviate the lashing. The side then ends with “The Lung,” a surging near-instrumental with only one line: “No way to collapse the lung breathing down in everyone.” These songs cover a lot of ground, tackling brokenness and perseverance, with an unrelenting sound that lives out the message of the lyrics. Side one of You’re Living All Over Me howls, attacks, sighs, uplifts—all while featuring guitars that sound like they were called down from on high, to smite all enemies.