Friday, May 18, 2012

The Wagon

There’s a great rock-n-roll debate built around the question, “What was the greatest year ever for rock-n-roll?” As in which year produced the best music?

And hell, we can start as far back as, say, 1956, when two gentlemen named Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra very much ruled the roost, and others like Fats Domino and Little Richard and Chuck Berry were just getting started.

That was definitely the best year for rock until…the next one. When 1957 gave us “Jailhouse Rock” and “That’ll Be the Day” and “Rock-n-Roll Music” and “Great Balls of Fire.” With the Everly Brothers and Sam Cooke starting things off for themselves as well. Wow.

1966 was an epic year, and I say that without a trace of hyperbole. With full-run albums now the primary vehicle to get the music out, as opposed to singles, this year gave us Pet Sounds, Revolver and Blonde on Blonde—epic indeed. 1968? Not too shabby with The Beatles and Beggar's Banquet and Electric Ladyland and Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Astral Weeks and Lady Soul.

Three years later 1971 gave us What’s Going On, Blue, Sticky Fingers and Who’s Next, while 1972 gave us Exile on Main Street, Talking Book, Led Zeppelin IV and Harvest.

Three more years later, 1975 gave us Born To Run, Horses, Physical Graffiti, Wish You Were Here and Blood on the Tracks. The list goes on—as the man said, as long as you've got a dime, the music will never stop.

But here’s a year closer to the present…well, a little bit, anyway. 1991.

Achtung Baby

Five albums that represented the very, very best of each of those artists, at least four of which are first-ballot Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famers, and the fifth (Matthew Sweet) one of rock's most respected and enduring figures.

On the "second tier" were albums like Out of Time, The Soul Cages, Gish, Luck of the Draw, Woodface, Apocalpyse 91, Badmtorfinger and Dangerous, which should take a backseat to very few.

What's more, Stevie Wonder did his best work in a decade with the Jungle Fever soundtrack. Toad the Wet Sprocket and Cypress Hill and 2Pac debuted. Prince and the Pixies and Elvis Costello and N.W.A. had estimable releases. Guns 'n Roses had two albums that apparently a lot of people liked. Even without anything from our boy Bruce Springsteen, that makes for one hell of a watershed year.

And tucked among all that came one of the finest releases from one of the finest bands of the era. Green Mind by Dinosaur Jr.

J. Mascis and company (OK, mostly J. at this point) never sounded better than  on an album that was loud, fast, tight and just bled nihilistic pathos. As much as any album ever released, Green Mind was a perfect hybrid of the post-punk movement that came before it (The Replacements, Husker Du, The Pixies) and the so-called “grunge” era that made its big splash in 1991 and controlled the early 1990s.

Leading off Green Mind is, in my estimation, the band’s greatest song, “The Wagon.” Just shy of 5 minutes of revved up, rocket-fueled energy, it is all at once chaotic and melodic, reaching full speed literally half a second in and with J.’s vocals surprisingly coherent and a tunefulness to the song that truly surprises you. Not only does the breakneck tempo never let up, but it even speeds up as it careens towards the halfway point. Just before J. unleashes (starting at 2:19 in the below clip) one of the truly great and astonishing guitar solos in rock-n-roll history.

1991 gave us tons to be thankful for, musically. Green Mind and “The Wagon” are right there at the front of the line.


  1. Agree completely about Green Mind. Man, I listened to that album FOREVER at the place I was working....

  2. delightfully repulsive cover art too....

  3. "The Wagon" is, in my ever so humble opinion, unsurpassed as an album opener. I'm not saying it's the greatest ever, but I don't believe anyone—not Dylan, not the Who, not REM or Springsteen or even the Beatles—ever opened an album more powerfully.

    But for me, the highlight of the entire album might just be when the chorus (bridge? B section?) to "Water" finally rolls in, about two and a half minutes into the song: the song has a hypnotic, melancholy feel from the first, but somehow this section takes it even higher. And J's solos on this song are just gorgeous and aching, even for him.