More than many other bands, it’s hard to rank Pearl Jam’s discography. Die-hard fans are almost unusually protective of the band and their albums; casual fans more or less dropped off entirely by the mid ’90s; critics frequently overrate the band’s new material as it is released, then revise (and downgrade) their opinions when the next new material is released; haters, meanwhile, are (naturally) gonna hate.
Those disparities make considering the band’s catalog an interesting challenge — it’s been a thorny, uncomfortable couple decades with the band, who remain one of the most successful live rock acts in the world, yet have all but disappeared from the cultural conversation. (By comparison, imagine the reception that might greet, say, a new Radiohead or U2 album; then think about the last time you even realized Pearl Jam were still releasing new music.)
Part of that is because Pearl Jam’s musical influence has been limited almost exclusively to some of the worst MOR rock in history. (The only credible band I can think of who claim PJ as an influence are the Strokes.) Another part is by design: The band has gone to such great lengths to erase itself from the public eye (seemingly wary of success early on, and perhaps embarrassed by their spawn in later years) that it has succeeded in disappearing completely. But once every few years, a new Pearl Jam record is produced, and the response is always the same — on one side, you’ve got the “This is their best album since Vitalogy” camp; on the other, you’ve got everyone else, who stopped caring after Vitalogy.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about Pearl Jam recently — I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Singles soundtrack a few weeks ago, and then, about a fan who was given the opportunity to craft for the band his dream setlist, which they then performed live. And as I thought about them, I tried to put into context their music — nine studio albums since 1991.
This list only takes into account those nine studio albums; I didn’t include the thousands of live sets they have released or their B-sides or their EPs or their expanded reissues or the album they made with Neil Young (although FWIW that last one would probably rank pretty high on my list). It starts here, ranked from worst to best. Check it out and make your case for Riot Act in the comments.