With the release of their 10th studio album last week, I’ve decided to rank Pearl Jam’s albums.
It’s no secret Pearl Jam is my all-time favorite band, although I didn’t really start listening to them until 1996, when I bough No Code on a whim. I then came to appreciate their earlier work, which I had liked, but hadn’t really gotten into. With each subsequent release, I would go through a time where the most recent album was my favorite. I tried not to do that with this list (though I felt compelled to include Lightning Bolt). Instead, I’ve attempted to step back and put them all in perspective.
10. Riot Act
This was the first and only Pearl Jam album that I didn’t really get. Not even during my immediate-post-album-release euphoria. The songs felt too heavy handed, with their highly political lyrics and their just a bit too intricate riffs and arrangements. I realize PJ is often quite political, but I felt that they went overboard here. My favorite song is “You Are,” which is pretty much an experimental piece written by Matt Cameron, the drummer. The rock songs feel deflated. The mid-tempo songs drag. The slow ones are a burden.
With Binaural, another from the “middle period” of Pearl Jam, the band was attempting to feel out its new drummer and contend with Eddie Vedder’s writer’s block (see the hidden track). This one was hit-or-miss for me. Some songs I love (“Light Years,” “Nothing as it Seems,” “Thin Air”), while others disappointed (“God’s Dice,” “Breakerfall,” “Rival”). After Yield, I was hoping for an even further return to hard rock, but the ones that try to rock are missteps. Speaking of Vedder’s writer’s block, 5 out of the 13 songs had lyrics penned by band members other than Vedder. Another issue I had with Binaural is that they left off the best songs they recorded during the initial sessions. “Sad,” “Fatal,” “Hitchhiker,” and “In The Moonlight” would be revealed later, and though the band said they didn’t fit the album, I think they would have definitely improved it.
Backspacer finds the band in a relatively happy mood, with some playful rock tunes dominating the early part of the album. The problem is, Pearl Jam doing playful rock tunes just isn’t their strength. Not that the songs are bad, they just aren’t their best. I thoroughly enjoy “The Fixer,” and “Johnny Guitar,” but I wouldn’t dare rank them among Pearl Jam’s greatest accomplishments. “Unthought Known,” “Force of Nature,” and “Amongst the Waves” tread the ground I prefer this band to tread, and those are some great examples of it. “Unthought Known” especially, with its interesting structure (no chorus, great bridge) and soaring vocals – I think it’s one of their top ten songs.
7. Pearl Jam (Avocado)
The return of rock. Pearl Jam kicks ass on this record. And while not my favorite Eddie Vedder vocal performance (he sounds so . . . scratchy sometimes – too many cigs?) songs like “Life Wasted,” “Comatose,” and “World Wide Suicide” find PJ right in their element. The mid-tempo songs are pretty great too, especially “Marker in the Sand” and “Gone.” Solid all the way through.
Here is where this list become difficult. I adore Yield, and every album ahead of it. It also holds a special place in my heart. It was this album’s tour during which I first saw Pearl Jam live. It gave us the wonderful Single Video Theory. It’s hard to rank it so low. There are some truly great moments on this record. But, as I pull back and consider the individual songs and how they stack up, I’ve got to put it here. “Given to Fly” is certainly terrific, “Do the Evolution” is about a Pearl Jammy as you can get, “Brain of J.” is a great, hard-rocking opener, and “In Hiding” is wonderfully anthemic in the tradition of “Alive,” but PJ has better songs than these.
5. Lightning Bolt
Yeah, it’s brand new. But I already love it. Maybe after it marinates for a while it may go up or down, but this is really a great record. “Sirens,” in my opinion, is one of the best songs they’ve ever written. On a side note, I love how PJ comes out with “official” videos that feature actual live performances of the song that are different than the recordings. Not many bands have the chops, nor the balls to do that. The middle portion of this album, with “Sirens,” “Lightning Bolt,” “Infallible,” and “Pendulum,” is just about as terrific tracks 4-7 run of songs you can get. Did that sentence make sense? I don’t care. Listen to this album.
Pearl Jam’s second album proved that they were a band with staying power. Not only were they able to maintain the energy of their first release, but they were able to do some experimentation and growth without losing quality. Vs. showed that weirder and more atmospheric songs (“WMA,” “Rats,” “Indifference,”) were well within the band’s repertoire. Also, the two acoustic numbers, “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” proved to be legendary in the Pearl Jam catalogue. But all of that didn’t mean the band was no longer able to kick ass. “Go,” “Animal,” “Blood,” and “Rearviewmirror” are absolute must listens for any fan of hard rock. McCready is on fire, Eddie’s voice is unreal, Jeff Ament lays down the foundation, Dave Abbruzzese provides rock solid drumming, and Stone, during an album which saw the power and leadership of the band switch from him to Eddie, continues his songwriting prowess and unmistakable groove.
3. No Code
So this is the record where Pearl Jam lost a lot of fans. They took a major departure from their usual sound (well, with a good number of the songs, anyway), and made an album that, in order to appreciate, required both multiple listens as well as a completely open mind about what type of band Pearl Jam was. Well, for most people. As I stated before, No Code was the first PJ album I bought. I knew most of the songs that had been featured on MTV and the radio, but I’d never listened to a Pearl Jam album. No Code was not difficult for me. I was 15 at the time and just beginning to be able to understand nuanced music and complex emotions. I was just beginning to be able to identify music that was made from a genuinely artistic viewpoint. So, yeah, I’m a sucker for this one. Besides, “Off He Goes” is the best acoustic Pearl Jam song there is, “Hail Hail” showcases PJ’s excellence in hard rock, “Present Tense” is an anthem, and the weirdness of “In My Tree” and “Who You Are” belie their greatness as wonderful pieces of music. Not to mention maybe the coolest album packaging since, well, the previous album, Vitalogy.
I realize most people would have this at number one. And for good reason. But this is my list. Ten is Pearl Jam just beginning to blossom. It was the only Pearl Jam record with all of the music written mainly by Stone. The band’s dynamic would quickly change, and these songs, though classic in every sense of the word, would clearly stand out as specific to that early era of the band. That makes it somewhat of an outlier. And an outlier, for me anyway, could never be the truest representation of something, and therefore cannot be placed in the #1 spot. Aside from that, it’s absolutely one of the greatest albums of my generation and there isn’t much to say about it that hasn’t already been said. It would be like reviewing outdated and wildly popular Stephen King novels or something. Oh, wait . . .
Vitalogy is where Pearl Jam became the band they are today. Yes, Vedder dominates the songwriting credits, but there are still various contributions from everyone in the band, something that only became more prominent as PJ aged. In listening to this album, I feel it’s the first one where every member of the band settled into their respective roles and the music truly began to become an amalgam of the five members. True, the dynamic would change during the final recordings of Vitalogy, with Abbreuzzese being replaced by Jack Irons, but the true core of Pearl Jam remained intact. Pieces like “Tremor Christ,” “Nothingman,” “Last Exit,” “Spin the Black Circle,” and “Immortality” are deep album cuts that, to me, define what the band is about. When I think of Pearl Jam, I think of songs in this vein – which is interesting because those 4 songs are quite diverse musically. I think it’s that greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts-edness (???) that Pearl Jam is able to tap into. That feeling you can’t quite put your finger on. Music that is technically sound, emotionally gratifying, well produced, different enough not to be considered banal yet still straightforward enough to dance to or to jam out in your car and sing along (“Corduroy” and “Better Man”, anyone?). Pearl Jam can at times be too serious and even too playful – but Vitalogy straddles the two perfectly, and it’s in that zone where the band is at their best.