Pearl Jam – seventh grunge father in the houseOn the eve of their debut album «Ten» 30th birthday, let us run through Pearl Jams epic backcatalogue of albums.
Article published in Norway Rock Magazine 21.08.2020
A grunge child was born in Seattle in 1990. There must have been something in the Washington State water in the late ’80s and early’ 90s. The amount of bands that popped up like magic mushrooms in the woods was second to none, the golden generation with Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam became part of the wave from Seattle that took the lives of pretentious swollen stadium rock bands that raged as old dinosaurs in the porcelain shops of Los Angeles. Throw in epic albums from Mad Season and Temple Of The Dog, and you will have the best of rock in the 90’s .
Text: Ørjan Van Wremer
From their debut with “Ten” in 1990, Pearl Jam has gone through childhood, adulthood, teenage anxiety and tragedy to end up as one of the most respected and hard-working “adult” bands that exist in today’s rock landscape. The core of the band has always been the same, Vedder / McCready / Gossard / Ament and a small group of different drummers (4 in total) before Matt Fuckin` Cameron from Soundgarden became a permanent member in 1998.
Eleven studio albums Pearl Jam have released since their debut in 1990, although all albums contain a grain of gold or more, there are also incomprehensible glitches. If you look at the band’s history, tragedies and upbringing in the context of releases, you can understand why not everything is of the same high quality. One should also mention around 85 million albums sold thus far. It is also worth mentioning that since 2000 Pearl Jam has released all the concerts they play on official bootleg discs and downloads sold via the online store, so here we are also talking about a treasure chest, and since Pearl Jam is known for changing extremely much on their setlists , each bootleg is something for itself. It is rumored that over 15 million bootlegs have been sold.
Here are some of the hardest things I’ve done in a while, namely a ranking of the albums of my absolute favorite band, Pearl Jam.
11. Riot Act (2002)
“Riot Act” was Pearl Jam’s seventh album, and perhaps one of the most difficult albums the band has ever released. The backdrop is no less heavy than 9/11 and the tragedy at Roskilde where nine fans of the band lost their lives during the band’s concert at Den Orange Scene. There is a lot of heavy and personal lyrics from Eddie Vedder, and politically he takes a stand against president George W. Bush on the song “Bu $ hleaguer”. Pearl Jam also gets a new addition in the form of the formidable “Boom” Gaspar on keyboard, he adds a new depth to the soundscape, not least with his sublime contribution to the song where Eddie Vedder says goodbye to the 9 young people who died in Roskilde in the sublime «Love Boat Captain». The album received mixed reviews, selling far from the numbers of its predecessor “Binaural” and the tour that followed was at times extremely politically anti Bush. It’s not a very smooth record, and the voice of Eddie Vedder seems more serious. I also miss the feel that had been so present on Pearl Jam’s previous album.
Golden Nuggets: “Love Boat Captain”, “I Am Mine”, “Thumbing My Way” and “All Or None”.
10. Binaural (2000)
First album with Matt Cameron as the new drummer (ironically, Matt Cameron was also the first of the band’s drummers) and he gives the band a new lease of life and a new solid rhythmic foundation. It is an experimental album and the first album without Brendan O`Brien as producer since “Vs.” Eddie Vedder experiences a writers block for the first time and struggles to make the texts work. Mike McCready has been more interested in pills he gets from the doctor than his guitars, and is once again going through rehab. The band experiments with sound and the soundscape, Binaural is a way to record sound that makes it more dynamic, especially this works well with headphones on this record. This is perhaps the first album where Pearl Jam tries to get rid of the grunge label for good, they have grown up, and thus they want to distance themselves as much as possible from their own youth and origins. A more atmospheric album than a guitar album, and it was an album where perhaps the least ardent fans jumped off the train. Zero radio hits, zero videos, only a long tour where the band seemed tired and uninterested when they visited Oslo the day before the fateful concert in Roskilde.
Golden nuggets: “Nothing As It Seems”, “Insignificance”, “Thin Air”, “Of The Girl “.
9. Pearl Jam (2006)
One of the most aggressive albums from Pearl Jam. Filled to the brim with guitar hooks, and a band that after a much-needed break of almost four years came back with amplifiers turned to 11. Not an easy-going album, with songs about the war in Iraq to the destruction of the planet. With the album we also got two videos (!) Which was something completely new from the band since they ended with that kind stuff in the mid 90’s. Pearl Jam was now back in good old rock form and back to their roots. They were also suddenly back on the charts, and managed to get all the way up to 2nd place in the US on the Billboard charts. Vedder is clearly angry that George W. Bush has been re-elected, and discovers the anxiety of having children when his first daughter is born. For the first time after Roskilde, the band is on a festival stage again, even though they swore that they would never do this again. An emotional Eddie Vedder asked the audience at the Reading Festival to take care of each other. It is also Pearl Jam’s first self-titled album, and is known as the “Avocado” album for self-explanatory reasons when you see the album cover.
Golden Nuggets: «World Wide Suicide», «Life Wasted», «Big Wave «.
8. Backspacer (2009)
This album could quickly get even higher up the list due to some of the biggest grains of gold found in Pearl Jam’s catalog of songs. “Just Breathe” is one of the finest, most beautiful and most sublime songs about love and longing that exists. And “Amongst The Waves” is beautiful, that Eddie Vedder is a surfer and loves the sea no one can take from him. After a lot of politics, anxiety and anger, “Backspacer” is a relatively optimistic affair, which definitely has to do with the election of Barack Obama as president, as well as stable family situations with most of the band members. For the first time since “No Code”, they top the Billboard charts in the United States. Pearl Jam has simplified, shortened and speeded up their songs, which makes the album feel fresh and immediate. Some adore this record, others are cooler,
Golden Nuggets: “Just Breathe”, “Amongst The Waves”, “Supersonic”, “Got Some “.
7. Lightning Bolt (2013)
The tenth album from a band that many considered a short lived band from Seattle. It’s been 4 years since “Backspacer” where the members have celebrated their 20th anniversary as a band (check out the documentary PJ 20), Matt Cameron has been back as a drummer in Soundgarden, Eddie Vedder went on a solo tour, Stone Gossard ran his side project Brad and Jeff Ament made a solo album and an album with his side project RNDM. It may seem as if this break and that almost all members got some time for themselves made “Lightning Bolt” feel like an album the whole band was behind. The songs have become longer again, there is inspiration taken from Pink Floyd and Neil Young on “Sirens” and “Yellow Moon”. Eddie Vedder’s lyrics have also become more accessible and a little less cryptic than they used to be.
An “adult” album, some would say. Eddie Vedder finds himself, while the band tries to rock as hard as they can. Songs about mortality, the environment and infallibility. Several of the songs on this album are live favorites, not least the Dead Kennedys / Fugazi-inspired “Mind Your Manners”. The album is a bit all over the place stylistically, but contains several solid songs, although some are a bit too stadium rock-like. After “Lightning Bolt”, it would take a full seven years before we got the next album with new music from Pearl Jam.
Golden Nuggets: «Mind Your Manners», «Sirens», «Lightning Bolt», «Infallible», «Pendulum».
6. No Code (1996)
In the five years from the debut in 1991 to “No Code” in 1996, pretty much everything had gone to hell for all the bands from Seattle. Heroin had put solid stops for bands like Alice In Chains, Kurt Cobain had put a definite end to Nirvana, Soundgarden was singing on their last verse and the grunge movement was more or less dead. At that time, Pearl Jam had done everything they could to get away from the stage light that was burning so brightly for a while, and they had gone to a futile war against Ticketmaster. Zero interviews and a front man who did everything to not be what everyone thought he should be. The album was the band’s 3rd consecutive album that debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts in the US, but unlike the two previous releases (“Vs.” and “Vitalogy”), “No Code” sold poorly and quickly dropped out of the charts again. . The album can be described as uneven on a good day. Drummer Jack Irons contributes some cool drum patterns on “Who You Are” and “In My Tree”. “No Code” is a band that is falling apart, frustration, anger and the height of personal trouble. There are grains of gold here too, but in return guitarist Stone Gossard unfortunately gets to sing on “Mankind” and the talk song “I`m Open” is a pillow-in-front-face song.
Golden Nuggets: «Present Tense», «Red Mosquito», «Hail, Hail «.
5. Gigaton (2020)
Not many had thought that Pearl Jam would release one of their better records in 2020, this writer included. A collective WTF moment came when they released the first single “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” which was a danceable (!) Song with groovy bass and Eddie Vedder who channeled Talking Heads and Devo! Vocally, this is one of the strongest albums from Eddie Vedder, and he shows what a brilliant vocalist he is on all tracks. Pearl Jam have always been socially very conscious, firmly planted on the American left of politics, so it’s no surprise that Trump gets his dose of well deserved bile. At the same time, this does not become too transparent, there is a sigh of grief over a country that went from chief Sitting Bull to Sitting Bullshit boxing wildly in the air around him. Or the slightly dejected attitude in “Quick Escape”, where people leave the earth complaining about “the lenghts we had to go… to find someplace Trump hadn`t fucked up yet”. A song that contains a fantastic solo by one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, Mike McCready.
An extremely confident record, firing on all cylinders, confident and wide-legged with songs that are guaranteed to work fantastically live, and they will certainly do so in 2021 when hopefully live concerts will once again be possible. It is always fun to be surprised by old racehorses that show where the cupboard should stand and what it should contain.
Golden Nuggets: “Dance Of The Clairvoyants”, “Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Seven O`Clock”, “Comes Then Goes”.
4. Vitalogy (1994)
Probably the hardest album they ever made, the third album is often like that. It did not help that the two founders of Pearl Jam, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament suddenly realized that Eddie Vedder had taken over as head of the band. And the fact that Vedder’s crusade against Ticketmaster, the press and fame created tensions within the band, and it made Pearl Jam a band on its way to crash violently into a wall. Guitarist Mike McCready was in rehab for the first time and drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired during the recording of the album and some of the songs have been recorded by studio musicians. Eventually, the original Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons came in and completed the recordings and became a regular member of the group. This is not the world’s best basis for making an album. There’s not a single guitar solo on the record either, which is to waste a talent like Mike McCready, he himself said that “this is not an album for guitar solos, it is a more rhythmic album”. Eddie Vedder seriously notices that his old life is over, and that privacy is something he can not get back, and the lyrics reflect this on, among other things, “Not For You” and “Pry, To”. Somehow they managed against all odds to make an album filled with goodies, it is fortunately difficult to hear that this is a band on the verge of a full crash. Unfortunately, the album contains the joke song “Bugs” (as annoying as a gnat), “Aye Davanita” (what!?) And “Hey, Foxymophandlemama That’s Me” (idiotic song and title with looped recordings from an asylum for the insane). The album sold well, but nothing compared to the two previous albums.
Golden Nuggets: “Better Man”, “Last Exit”, “Spin The Black Circle”, “Not For You”, “Nothingman”, “Corduroy”.
3. Yield (1998)
Pearl Jam is now a band that has realized that fighting everyone, including themselves, may not pay off in the long run. The result of this is a well-balanced album, with contributions from more personell than just Vedder to songs and lyrics. “Finding oneself” is a term that can perhaps be used about Yield, it is a solid album, evenly over very heavily strewn with favorites. This is the last album that Jack Irons is on as a drummer, he leaves Pearl Jam during the promotion tour of the album. Like most adults, Eddie Vedder has realized that screaming in all directions does not always work, so here the lyrics are more focused and solution-oriented than before. Jeff Ament gets to try his hand as a lyricist for the first time on the songs “Pilate” and “Low Light”. And if you’re looking for where some of the band’s inspiration comes from, check out “Given To Fly” and then put on Led Zeppelin’s “Going To California” afterwards. As with “Vitalogy” it is now mostly gold grain, but some weak incomprehensible mistakes still exist such as “Push Me, Pull Me” and maybe “Pilate” even though it is great live.
Lots of golden nuggets, the cream of the crop is: “Wishlist”, “Given To Fly”, “Brain Of J.”, “Do The Evolution”.
2. Vs. (1993)
Of course, expectations were extremely high for the second album from Pearl Jam. Would they just be a flash in the pan from Seattle? And the pressure on the band was of course enormous from all sides. When they went into the studio, they were probably one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, and they had everyone’s eyes on them when they released “Vs.” in 1993. The band had always said that their predecessor “Ten” was overproduced and too polished, thus Vs. is deliberately a much rawer and aggressive album. It is also the first time producer Brendan O`Brien is on board. Eddie Vedder feels the pressure after he involuntarily became rock’s posterboy, and he fought against himself and the media, and did not feel comfortable with suddenly having to deliver a sequel that should sell as much as “Ten”. One also notices that the band and Vedder in particular are not afraid to tackle political issues, child abuse on «Daughter», weapon culture «Glorified G» or racism from the police on «WMA». Listen to the anxiety in “Blood” where Vedder takes a stand against the media and himself “Spin me round, roll me over, Fuckin ‘circus” total anxiety over the media pressure that makes Eddie his own worst enemy.
Filled to the brim with classic Pearl Jam songs, the album debuted at number 1 on the charts worldwide (five weeks at number one in the US), they sold 1.3 million albums in the first 10 days after record release, and the band consolidated their position as Seattle’s uncrowned kings of grunge. I would say in my particularly subjective position that the album does not contain a single weak track.
Solid golden nuggets: “Daughter”, “Dissident”, “Animal”, “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town”, “Indifference “.
1. Ten (1991)
Perhaps not surprisingly, I choose “Ten” as number 1 on this list. I can not avoid it. It is the soundtrack to my youth, it has followed me all my adult life, and it will forever be my favorite album of all bands I listen to. If you want to look at this a little more objectively, and you probably should, then the debut of Pearl Jam together with the debut of Nirvana (released a month later) is ground zero for the grunge revolution. The last big shift in rock and music in our age, and perhaps the last big shift ever. Within a month, the poodles in Los Angeles had to realize that their time was over, away with hairspray and makeup, in with flannel and unadorned reality. The album contains the sacred grunge trinity of “Alive”, “Black” and “Release” – three songs that define the band Pearl Jam. “Alive” reinvents stadium rock and guitar god Mike McCready shows that he will become a legend in line with Clapton, Hendrix and Page. “Black” is the ultimate mourning song about lost love and “Release” belongs together with “Alive” which Eddie Vedders settles scores with his mother and a lost father he did not know he had until it was too late. “Release” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. And when you then pull in classics like “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” as well as “Once” and “Porch” with killer guitar solos from McCready, you have gold. “Ten” is an album that should be in every record collection, it is a classic, a monument to the last golden age of rock and album format. The birth of a giant, a band that still releases fantastic music almost 30 years later. Considered one of the best live bands of all time, holding concerts for packed stadiums around the world. Alive is a monument!
Feel free to check out the documentary “PJ 20” which is a solid and good documentary of the band’s first 20 years. To hear the band in their prime live, check out the live bootleg from August 7, 2016 and the concert in Fenway Park, Boston. And for the die hard fans, the concert in Telenor Arena (yes, you read that right) on June 29, 2014 is considered a classic.
Almost 30 years ago, there would have been high odds if you bet that Pearl Jam would be one of the most vital rock bands that still existed in 2020, but it turns out that adversity makes strong, and that integrity and sheer joy of playing keep old grunge heroes young and shows the new generation of rockers how to do it with style and energy.
As a huge PJ fan I’ve been meaning to do this ranking for a long time but keep putting it off. You have inspired me to get around to it in the coming months. I probably have more love for Riot Act and Binaural than you do. They would probably move up the list a little more than 11 & 10 respectively. We’ll see. Wonderful piece.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It was a very hard exersise to do, especially those at the bottom to mid, I could easily move them around depending on my mood of the day. They all have their nuggets of gold. It is an interesting thing to do anyway, totally biased of course, it is not possible to make such a personal list of my fave band unbiased. Thank you👍
LikeLiked by 1 person