Pearl Jam 1991

Pearl Jam’s status as an artist can be a hard one to quantify. They entered the scene as one of the biggest bands in the world, and after a few years vanished from the mainstream audience radar, even though they continued, and still continue, to be an absolutely monolithic touring entity. Every fan knows the experience of talking to someone who goes, “Oh, they’re still around? I remember that one song they did…” before said person breaks into some ridiculous impression of the chorus from “Jeremy.” (Or maybe that was just me and a high school gym teacher, but I’ve got to imagine this is a semi-frequent phenomenon.) And even with them now falling outside of a lot of people’s attention spans, they’re still a quantifiably “big” band, between their ease at selling out arenas and the fact that their albums still move a respectable amount of copies (especially for a rock band in 2013, even if the numbers pale in comparison to their commercial peak twenty years ago).

All of this means that there’s a predictable rhythm to what critics will write upon the release of a new Pearl Jam album. Some entirely dismiss anything that happened roughly ’95-’02, some argue those mid-era Pearl Jam works are wrongfully sidelined in the ’90s alt-rock narrative. Nobody really claims the band’s most recent albums are their best, but there’s a pretty noticeable divergence amongst critics who dig their back-to-basics approach, and those who have yawned their way through the last three albums. Some still stick to the idea that their first two or three records are their most focused and accomplished, and thus the only ones that really matter. Sometimes people write about a band that seems ever-present even while their albums are sort of non-events; sometimes people write about a band that seems to be lost out there in the ether, but is in reality a much more powerful force than you’d think and maybe, just maybe, is making better records than you’ve been led to expect.

Inevitably, a point will be made about how Pearl Jam willed themselves away from the mainstream and made a slew of albums that only fans care about. Accompanying this point is always some statement acknowledging their live show, and there might be something suggesting that the new studio recordings primarily exist as an excuse to put the band back on the road, where they really belong, or something. These days, the fact that the band members are all firmly middle-aged is an obligatory topic, and not without good reason — Pearl Jam was a band founded on a particular youthful brand of aggro-angst, and they abruptly shifted gears to a mid-career period of early-onset world-weariness. What kind of band they become as they age out of these different phases and into what seem to be primarily healthy lives is a fair question, but it also strikes me that a lot of reviewers seem to fixate on Pearl Jam’s age almost as a veiled defense mechanism against their own graying hairs, given that a lot of the people who still give enough of a damn to write about Pearl Jam were coming of age when “Alive” ruled the airwaves.

The end result of all this is that the discussion surrounding Pearl Jam’s career and legacy can be made quite murky. You can’t really argue with certain stock elements of these cyclical observations of the band. Yes, they’re getting older, and that matters, as it does to the story of any band. Yes, by and large any album post-Vitalogy pretty much only matters to fans, even if it’s kind of a crime that No Code gets left out of the discussion of great ’90s alt-rock albums. Even so, all the hand-wringing can sometimes get in the way of the music itself, and I’d argue that all the competing takes on what exactly the story of Pearl Jam’s career is have become the primary reasons it’s too easy for people to write off a lot of their studio work. It’s all gotten a bit too clouded to wade through, and it’s simpler to be like, “Well, they haven’t mattered for a while.”

Thing is, the fanbase has played a role in all this as well. As predictable and yet fragmented as the critical reactions can be to Pearl Jam’s studio releases, their fanbase is one of the most divided yet simultaneously fervent and staunchly loyal beasts in the game. You’ve got fans who’ve been around since Ten and Vs., and still rank those albums above all the gnarled detours that followed. There are those that are more alternative-minded, and got turned on by Vitalogy and No Code and can’t stand some of the mainstream rock-isms of “Evenflow.” And with every new album released, there is the camp that inevitably hates it but later comes around, and there’s the camp that will automatically love it but also automatically call the next one the true return-to-form. Pearl Jam started out as a grunge band that made music that now sounds like classic rock, went through almost a decade of artsy growing pains and yearning, and ended up pretty close to where they started (conceptually, if not sonically), just a bit less angry. Consequently, they’ve got a varied fanbase whose only glue is an extreme, shared passion for this band. Call it a disclaimer if you want, but it almost feels as if any time you’re about to enter into a conversation with someone about Pearl Jam, whether you’re fan or critic or both, you should declare just what kind of Pearl Jam listener you are. So we know the parameters.

Let me give you an idea of where I’m coming from, then. Pearl Jam and I are about the same age. Not the band members. Pearl Jam, the band itself, was born the same year I was. They decided to mark their twentieth anniversary in 2011, from the release of Ten, with the PJ20 festival and documentary, but Pearl Jam was really born in 1990, with the band first appearing together in concert on October 22, 1990, at Seattle’s Off Ramp Cafe. This means Pearl Jam and I are just about a month apart in age, and this means that I am in a weird no-mans land: On one hand, I feel as if I’ve grown up alongside the band, even though being born in 1990 means I don’t have the same experiential context for their earliest albums. Twenty-three is, of course, a lot different in human or Rock Band years. As a person, twenty-three means you’re listless, drifting about as you decide what to do with your life. A band at twenty-three is a survivor and veteran, at a different crossroads altogether: Its members are probably twice that age, and the question isn’t what you’re going to do or what you have done with your life, but what to do with what remains of your life. It makes sense that this is a point where people question why they still play rock music.

As I alluded to in my Premature Evaluation of Pearl Jam’s new album Lightning Bolt, the band at twenty-three is a little dissatisfying. There isn’t a single Pearl Jam release I don’t like, but I’m definitely in the camp that finds these last few albums to be a bit by-the-numbers, and I miss the weird middle years of Pearl Jam’s career, the same ones regularly overlooked by critical consensus. So, well, call it a disclaimer if you want, but here’s the kind of Pearl Jam listener I am. Ten was an entry point, but I am entirely disinterested in it now; I get its historical role, but I haven’t listened to it the whole way through since I was 16 or so, and never reach for it when I return to Pearl Jam. Vs. is great, but still sounds like that early Pearl Jam — a band I don’t entirely recognize. I’m in that camp that loves where the band went with Vitalogy and onward, the camp that prefers the more experimental angle of No Code and the anthems of Yield to those of Ten. I think Binaural and Riot Act are gorgeous and battered in their way, and easily the most wrongfully maligned releases Pearl Jam’s put out.

So, now you know the parameters. This has been the hardest list to narrow down of any I’ve written for this site so far, the first one where I had to whittle it down from an initial list of about thirty titles. As a result, we have a top 10, but I couldn’t claim it to be the top 10, considering I myself have a whole other top 10 I could’ve written about. These are, however, ten songs I would recommend to anyone interested in checking out Pearl Jam, ten songs I’d argue represent different elements of what the band is best at. Having been a part of the Pearl Jam fanbase for ten years, I’m all too aware that this won’t be to every fan’s liking. But I think one thing we can all agree on — as fans if not as critics — is that these are ten songs from a catalog that deserves a closer look than it’s often given.

10. “Light Years” (from Binaural, 2000)

“Light Years” began life as an almost entirely different song called “Puzzles & Games.” One of the only remaining traces of that original version is the lyrics (“I have played games with pieces and rules,” Vedder sings in “Light Years”, before later saying he’s “deciphered tricks,” “come up with riddles,” and “figured out numbers and what they’re for”). “Puzzles & Games” was a more uptempo anthem, and the band felt uncomfortable with how similar it felt to “Given To Fly,” so Vedder and McCready spent some time rehashing it and came up with “Light Years,” one of the band’s most tender and understated midtempo ballads. The song actually hit #17 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart, but it’s become something of a deep cut in the band’s catalog. Part of that is likely due to the general dismissal of Binaural by many critics and fans alike as the years have gone on. I’ve always felt that Binaural gets a raw deal: It’s an album where the band wrote straightforward Pearl Jam songs but played with different atmospherics, and went into some darker territory, which makes it a lot more interesting than what we’ve gotten recently. You could say Binaural gets a little dour in places, but whether the album’s your thing or not, “Light Years” is a serene reprieve in the midst of it all, even with the fact that it’s dedicated to a friend of the band that died at a young age. The slower songs have been a bit of a mixed bag on the last few Pearl Jam albums, with the group delving a little too far into predictable “rock band plays acoustic instruments and piano” coloring within the lines. “Light Years” — along with other Binaural tracks like “Nothing As It Seems” and “Of the Girl” — came toward the end of the time where the band pushed the boundaries of what they’d do on the non-rocker side of their work, alternating between dark and convulsing all the way to meditative beauties like this.

9. “Undone” (from Lost Dogs, 2003)

It’s not hard to see why “Undone” was left off of Riot Act. I like that album a lot more than a lot of Pearl Jam fans, but there’s no way getting around the fact that it’s maybe the most defeated sounding of all the band’s records. Not anxious and tortured like their earliest work, not painfully seeking like their late-’90s output. Just: tired, ragged. “Undone” actually isn’t too thematically removed from Riot Act. Where much of that album quietly brooded at the political atmosphere of our country post-9/11, “Undone” channels a lot of the same concerns into an ebullient pop song. “Can’t wait for election day/ Witness the occupation/ Corporations rule the day,” Vedder sings over a gently propulsive drumbeat and a bouncy guitar figure that’s essentially an indie-rock riff. When he sings of the world coming undone on the chorus, it’s against sighing background vocals. In its contrasts, it feels like an addendum to Riot Act, a light at the end of the tunnel after that album’s bleak closer “All Or None.”

A selection from the b-sides compilation Lost Dogs, “Undone” is admittedly the darkest horse on a list full of them (depending on how you look at Pearl Jam’s career), but it’s a song that’s stuck with me over the years, and suggests an alternate route the band could’ve taken. There’s another history where the band didn’t go full classic rock this past decade, slightly acknowledged the music around them, and instead of trying to roar back with the self-titled album, crafted a mellow, impeccable pop-leaning album prefigured by “Undone” and “Man Of The Hour” (a close contender for this spot on the list, and my other favorite post-2000 Pearl Jam song). I can’t help but feel like that’d be a better way for the band to age than forced punk rave-ups at 48 (“Mind Your Manners”) or treacly ballads of contentment (“Just Breathe,” “Future Days”). We’ve seen hints of Pearl Jam’s poppy side with the “The Fixer” and more melodic rockers like “Getaway” and “Lightning Bolt,” and the latter two are certainly highlights on the new album. But there’s something else about “Undone.” It came about in one of the band’s more beleaguered times, and yet those sighs are the sound of a band coming to peace with themselves but not yet in neutral, still striving to understand the world around them.

8. “Given To Fly” (from Yield, 1998)

Yield is a hard thing to pin down in Pearl Jam’s career. It often gets lumped into their more experimental middle stretch, but in reality most of it is the band making big shiny rock songs in a way that could have always been associated with them, but that they hadn’t really done in this exact way just yet. Following the raw Vitalogy and the eclectic No Code, Yield was in some ways a return to form, but one etched in a far different tone. Where their early hard rock anthems sounded like Vedder trying to bellow his way out of a darkened four-walled world, Yield is more open spaces, with no better summary than “Given To Fly.” Like the song that will show up at #6 on this list, “Given To Fly” is the kind of song you would’ve sworn had to have existed earlier in Pearl Jam’s career, when in reality it didn’t. It’s the kind of song that seems to open up a new world at the same time as it leaves you convinced that you’ve heard it somewhere before. Some listeners attribute that latter quality to the fact that there are some distinct similarities between the guitar figures and vocal melodies of Led Zeppelin’s “Going To California” and “Given To Fly,” which you can hear in the verses, but it’s always struck me as a bit much that some people belabor this given the radical differences in the nature of the songs (Zeppelin’s an acoustic ballad, Pearl Jam’s a churning rock song). Rather, there’s a faint hint of familiarity because it’s a song where Pearl Jam writes a quintessential Pearl Jam song you’d always been waiting for, but hadn’t quite received yet. Released as the lead single off Yield, “Given To Fly” was a moderate hit at the time, but more importantly has lived on as one of the songs most representative of the band, and remains a live favorite to this day.

7. “Who You Are” (from No Code, 1996)

Seemingly wanting to double down on alienating their fanbase after the jagged Vitalogy, Pearl Jam opted to release “Who You Are” as the first single from No Code. Admittedly, No Code is a weird, wandering album, and “Who You Are” is probably one of the only songs that was viable at all as a single (though “Hail, Hail,” one of Pearl Jam’s best rock songs, might’ve been more in character). “Who You Are” was effective, however, in the sense that it gave a heads up as to what to expect from No Code. Vedder’s lyrics have oscillated over the years, sometimes being excellent and sometimes glib. No Code is populated by all sorts of abstract spiritual musing, and it’s easier to age and continue to find new folds in it, where some of the other albums can begin to sound like juvenile bleating as you exit your teens. “Who You Are” was one of the central songs in that mold, its big questions on transcendence told through almost a grab bag of Vedder-isms that don’t always make so much sense but sound pretty good and wind up gesturing to all the corners No Code would explore. Where parts of Vitalogy sounded bitter and aggrieved, a lot of No Code sounded resolved to go out searching for something, for the answers. No Code also marked the entry of drummer Jack Irons, a less traditional player than his predecessors whose presence seemed to be the center cog in the band’s new willingness for genre experimentation. Though both Vedder and Gossard played a role in charting the new territory of “Who You Are” — Vedder’s lyrics as well as his electric sitar, Gossard’s co-writer credit — the song belongs to Jack Irons. His polyrhythmic drum pattern provides a steady, low rumble over which Vedder is able to improv mantras. After Irons’s departure, the song sadly disappeared from setlists for a decade, disappearing to the outskirts of the band’s catalog only to finally return on the last tour. Who knows if they’ll keep playing it; it remains one of their most interesting songs, but it is definitively a product of Irons-era Pearl Jam.

6. “In Hiding” (from Yield, 1998)

Not so much a sleeper hit as a sleeper classic, “In Hiding” has trumped modest beginnings to wind up ranking amongst Pearl Jam’s greatest songs and to become many diehard fans’ pick for the band’s single best song. As can be seen in the studio film Single Video Theory, it took a little while for Stone Gossard to convince the rest of the band to try this song out, and then Pearl Jam buried the lede: They released “Given To Fly” as the single, and stuck “In Hiding” towards the end of Yield. Despite “In Hiding” never being released as a single it entered the charts anyway, and it’s become a rare gem to see in Pearl Jam’s live shows (In my interview with Gossard from last week, he spoke about how they didn’t play the song for a while due to it being somewhat tricky to perform.) It’s something of a sister song to “Given To Fly,” both being big, anthemic rock songs. Like many mid- and latter-era Pearl Jam mini-epics, both are made to feel like a wave, building and cresting with some of their biggest choruses before it finally breaks and drifts back out to sea. While the songs are similar in nature, they’re opposite in their approach: Where “Given to Fly” is a story of transcendence and wonder out in the world, “In Hiding” is about a spiritual rejuvenation resulting from staying inside and not talking to anyone, which is such a Pearl Jam sentiment when you think about it.

I have an “In Hiding” story. The first time I saw Pearl Jam was when I was 15, and they were touring Pearl Jam. I was seated next to a history teacher from central Pennsylvania who seemed mild-mannered and nice enough. He clued a then-Born in the U.S.A.-ignorant me (I know, right?) into the fact that Eddie’s pre-opener acoustic cover was the Boss’s “No Surrender.” Eventually we bonded over our mutual love of Yield, and I mentioned my favorite Pearl Jam song was “In Hiding.” His eyes widened. “I’m so happy you feel that way,” he said, and reached into his pocket to bring out a smooth grey rock perfectly shaped like a yield sign, each of its sides about three or four inches long. “I bring this to every show in hopes that they’ll play ’In Hiding.’ It’s the Yield Rock.” Well, about seven songs in those distinctive bright chords echoed out and this guy absolutely lost it. He jumped up and down screaming “Touch the Yield Rock! Touch it!” and passing it around to everyone near him. This might be an extreme case, but that’s the kind of reaction “In Hiding” evokes.

Interesting part of the fanbase, us Yield fans.

5. “Not For You” (from Vitalogy, 1994)

“Not For You” is one of the most scathing, vitriolic songs Pearl Jam has ever recorded. It’s not that its lyrics are all that specific. It’s the way Vedder’s increasing rage in his pronunciation of the title and steadily rising bile of the instrumentation coalesce into one of the band’s most furious songs (which is already true of the studio version, but is particularly true of even longer, more distorted live takes). So, just what was Vedder — who was also the primary songwriter at that point — so angry about three years into his stardom? His stardom, basically. Not that that was anything new here, since Pearl Jam was one of those ’90s alt-rock artists that got famous right away then spent a whole lot of time telling you just how uncomfortable they were with it all. Something really boiled over with Vitalogy, though, all the acidic guitars and clipped, shredded melodies the sound of a band turning the fight both inward and outward at the same time. “Not For You” appears as one of the most pointed kiss-offs, Vedder railing against the commercialism of the music industry, the way youth and art were exploited and business interjected into the communication between artists and fans. While that’s all well and good — and would’ve earned Vedder brownie points in an alt-mainstream that play-acted at punk authenticity — there’s a part of me that feels like “Not For You” is kind of biting the hand that feeds, and that might’ve seemed a bit of bad form that helped contribute to Pearl Jam getting a little sidelined in the latter ’90s narrative (After all, it wouldn’t be a stretch to picture “Not For You” pointed at music journalists, too. You know, the people writing that narrative). While “Not For You” could come off petulant and hinged to a particular moment in the band’s career, there’s an added layer: the self-loathing of having all these issues with how the music business works, and yet having played a part in it. The more strained and torn Vedder’s proclamations of “This is not for you!” get, the song begins to seem not the most resolved of dismissals of the outside world, but also a lacerating self-critique: This wasn’t for them, but maybe this world wasn’t for us.

4. “In My Tree” (from No Code, 1996)

“In My Tree” should have a much higher profile in Pearl Jam’s body of work. It’s a classically structured Pearl Jam song hidden within something that seems much weirder, which also happens to make it one of the more enduring Pearl Jam songs out there. Like “Who You Are,” Irons’s fingerprints all over this track, his rolling tom patterns an elemental driving force behind the whole song. While the music in each song has its own exotic bent, this similarity marks them as the two primary tracks on No Code that sonically suggest some unnamed far off place as much as Vedder’s lyrics. In a weird way, “In My Tree” is a kind of predecessor to “In Hiding,” using solitariness as a means towards something. With “In Hiding,” there was a healing quality matched by the song’s major-key triumphalism. There’s something a lot more uncomfortable about “In My Tree,” though, far less at peace. “Up here so high/ the sky I scrape,” Vedder sings, but even while that suggests transcendence, the song remains rooted in the fact that there’s something they’re all trying to run from to begin with. Chords slash down around Irons’s drums, all of it a roiling surge that never quite lets up. Part of the reason “In My Tree” feels so intense and yet so unresolved is the fact that it’s dialed up almost the whole way through, Vedder’s voice peeling out over charging verses only to strain even further across the chorus. There’s a recurring reference to “innocence” and that seems to be where the searching of No Code and the escapism of “In My Tree” come from: after taking on the demons outside on Vitalogy, Vedder’s left with what’s left inside him, and the destabilizing realization of having lost some bit of himself in this whole rockstar process. The last claims of “Still got it, still got it” come out as desperate barks, Vedder drowning out as the band climbs into the coda. It feels cathartic, but it doesn’t feel victorious.

3. “I Got Id” (from Merkin Ball, 1995)

“I Got Id” is in many ways one of the definitive Pearl Jam songs, which is a little weird given the context in which it was recorded. During the early months of 1995, Pearl Jam acted as backing band for Neil Young for the recording sessions for what would become Mirrorball. After being absent for much of the sessions, Vedder came in towards the end with two songs. Also known as “I Got Shit,” “I Got Id” was released with “Long Road” as a companion single to Mirrorball entitled Merkin Ball later in 1995. Out of Pearl Jam’s members, only Vedder and Irons play on “I Got Id”; producer Brendan O’Brien filled in on bass, and lead guitar was none other than Young. There isn’t any Pearl Jam album where “I Got Id” would make total sense. Vitalogy is more punk-inflected and biting, the rock moments of No Code being either pounding, uptempo numbers or injected with a bunch of stylistic flourishes. “I Got Id” feels outside of all that, its fuzziness alternating between aggressive and warmly engulfing. When people toss out the modifier “grungy” to describe guitars these days, it’s more the sound of “I Got Id” than “Once” that they’re talking about. It’s Young’s ringing, textural solo in the outro and the way the song uses distortion in a vaguely dirtied-up shoegaze kind of method — as defensive blanket and exorcism alike. Vitalogy was such a deconstruction of Pearl Jam’s sound, it’s tempting to think of the album that could’ve occurred between it and the total divergences of No Code. Despite the presence of Young, “I Got Id” feels like Pearl Jam doing ’90s alt-rock with their classic rock influences sucked out (i.e., without the classic hard rock elements of Ten or Vs.). Along with “Long Road,” there’s something about “I Got Id” that’s more rooted in ’80s college rock than ’70s arena rock. It fits in some space outside of most of Pearl Jam’s work, and yet seems to sum up so much of it at the same time.

2. “Rearviewmirror” (from Vs., 1993)

Vs. is less represented here than I necessarily would’ve liked, though others from it hovered around the list (mainly “Go” and “Indifference,” though “Leash” gets an honorable mention, too). Eventually, I realized that the album that was my first favorite by Pearl Jam is also an album that I just haven’t returned to as much over the years, for all the different reasons I’ve mentioned at various points above when alluding to Pearl Jam’s earliest work. That isn’t true of “Rearviewmirror.” Where the other rockers on Vs. primarily thrashed (“Go,” “Animal,” “Blood”) or reached for rafters (“Dissident”), “Rearviewmirror” is nearly claustrophobic, very tightly coiled around an R.E.M.-esque riff. Even the distorted second guitar is kept in line, maintaining a low buzz in the background where later—say, on songs like “Corduroy”—Pearl Jam would let those guitars bleed all over the borders of a track. The reason all this control works so well for “Rearviewmirror” is the way it unwaveringly propels you to its conclusion, which becomes one of Pearl Jam’s most overwhelming catharses with a mere fraction of their usual exertion. “Rearviewmirror” is just under five minutes, but its pace and catchiness make it feel shorter while its emotional reach makes it feel much longer, much of it thanks to how the song builds to its climax. There isn’t really another moment where Pearl Jam makes use of vocal layering in quite the same way as in the final minute of “Rearviewmirror.” There are three distinct Vedders playing off of one another, the first repeating “Saw things so much clearer,” another echoing “Once you, once you…” out from one channel, then another screaming “Rearview mirror!” out from the other. Even as the song seems to be boiling over, it keeps everything in neat little rows like that. In later Pearl Jam iterations, this would all make me hate a song; as they went on, I preferred the moments where they were pushing and pulling and let the edges remain rough. In spite of (or because of) “Rearviewmirror” being a less conventional entry in their earlier work and seemingly at odds with everything I like about what this band did later, though, it ranks amongst their best work. There are few other places where the band conveyed what they were trying to get across as cleanly and effectively as they do here.

1. “Corduroy” (from Vitalogy, 1994)

When I think of everything I want to hear in a Pearl Jam song, it sounds like “Corduroy.” The foreboding opening notes, the emphasis of that verse guitar part when it first hits, the way the choruses are actually calm reprieves hiding between the unbridled verses, the moment where those foreboding opening notes return after the final verse, and the way they lead into the cascades of distorted chords that the song rides out on — everything about the structure of “Corduroy” is perfect. It’s a band at the peak of their powers, able to deftly ratchet up drama, let it loose, bottle it back up, and then do that all over again a few times over in the course of four and a half minutes. Like “Not For You,” “Corduroy” was pretty explicitly about Vedder’s experience with fame, named for the fact that there was a reproduction of his battered corduroy jacket being sold as a luxury good. But as rooted as it is in his frustrations with having suddenly become an icon to millions of people, the lyrics of “Corduroy” are of that vintage Vedder sort that can be bent into much more universal themes. Every couplet seems to be one of their most recognizable lines, starting with that “The waiting drove me mad…” opening straight through to “Can’t buy what I want because it’s free/ Can’t be what you want because I’m…” denied its closure. And, as a bonus it has their most recognizable misheard line — “Everything has changed/ Absolutely nothing’s changed” instead of “Everything has chains/ Absolutely nothing’s changed.” There’s no doubt that all this is specific to Vedder’s life and specific to a very ’90s version of celebrity vs. the machine, but there’s something about it that makes it still very resonant today. In a broad sense, the lyrics of “Corduroy” are an earnest attempt at maintaining some sense of individual identity, its music a back and forth between being subsumed and breaking out. For any of us as listeners, it’s easily applicable to the heavy dose of mediation with which we live our lives on a daily basis nearly two decades after the song’s release, Vedder’s anxieties about his celebrity not altogether different from the sort that could be produced by living through all sorts of digital representations. “Corduroy” has that kind of timeless power, that kind of impeccable craft — it’s in “Gimme Shelter,” “Born to Run” territory. When I think of what it was that made Pearl Jam my first favorite band, it sounds like “Corduroy.” When I think of everything I want out of music, it sounds like “Corduroy.”

Listen to the Spotify playlist here.

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Comments (152)
  1. This should be fun. Agreement on a top ten will be near impossible.

    • Ryan’s fatal admission “The first time I saw Pearl Jam was when I was 15, and they were touring Pearl Jam”

      Yikes…all bets are off on this list…at least he got Corduroy right at #1

      Big question marks for me: Not For You, In Hiding, Undone….

      There are clearly 3 better songs from the Catalogue than these

  2. How does a list of Pearl Jam’s ten best songs not include a single song from Ten?

    • One made by a fan.

    • Because argument bait.

    • As a lifelong fan I’ve always hated ten. Well, not hated but it just seems so throwaway and shallow in retrospect; its arena rock sensibilities don’t compare, artistically to what nirvana was putting out back in 1991 (even tho I hated them at the time). IMO The real heart and soul of PJ was always VS to Binaural. I’ve followed a lot of bands over the years but PJ always had a bit of mysticism and against the grain (but still in it) appeal about them obviously this was helped along with B sides like id got shit, sad, yellow ledbetter (realistically should of been there). I think was I really hate about PJ since the avocado album is the straight ace rock shit that never suited PJ since ten. Musically, they were far more appealing when they just became the band they wanted to. But then again after a week of listing to drone ambient music I’m glad to remember a time when I wasn’t such a pretentious cunt so disagree with me at your (and my) leisure

    • Probably because Ten sucks.

    • as explained in the intro: “So, well, call it a disclaimer if you want, but here’s the kind of Pearl Jam listener I am. Ten was an entry point, but I am entirely disinterested in it now; I get its historical role, but I haven’t listened to it the whole way through since I was 16 or so, and never reach for it when I return to Pearl Jam.”

    • Because he’s 23. Simples.

  3. Rearviewmirror on here makes me happy. Missing Porch and Red Mosquito.

    Impossible list to agree on, so it’s silly to get upset.

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  5. While Rearviewmirror at number 2 is greatly appreciated, where’s Nothingman? That’s my number one by far. I also would have included Do the Evolution and Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, and I think not enough people have gotten a chance to hear The Fixer, which was catchy and fun as all hell.

    No guff from me about avoiding Ten, or any of the major hits from Vitalogy and VS, since radio is STILL playing those songs to death. I can’t imagine hearing Jeremy or Daughter with fresh ears at this point, it is astounding how many stations still play 90s songs and try to sell themselves as some sort of alternative.

    Interesting that Pearl Jam is the first band to get both a Top 10 Best list and an Albums from Worst to Best list .

  6. Bold move. I appreciate reading the list of someone that loves Pearl Jam as a band, and not just their place in grunge history.

  7. I love this list.

  8. Dear my favorite Pearl Jam song–

    I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s list but whyyy whyyyyy whyyyyyyyyyy can’t it be—can’t it beeeeee Stereogum’s?

  9. No Black???? Elderly Woman??? Alive???? I know we’ve listened to them a million times but you cant make a list excluding the best ones, regardless of if theyve been over played.

  10. Switch 4 with 3 and I’m absolutely happy.

  11. Yellow Ledbetter?
    No?
    Really?
    Nothing from Ten or close to Ten?
    OK, let’s say I wasn’t there anyway…

  12. Editors love to throw “Best of” into their List headlines, even tho the writer makes it clear this he doesn’t intend this as a list of the “Ten Best Pearl Jam Songs of All Time.”
    Taints the message, sullies the intent.
    Sure gets the Comments flowing, tho. Nice job on that.

  13. this top 5 is absolute perfection

  14. what, no “Foxymophandlemama?!”

  15. Even though I don’t listen to them a ton anymore, Pearl Jam will always be my favorite band. We can all be petty and pick apart this list, but come on – this is an excellent list. Instead of a greatest hits of sorts, this list includes some of the band’s best songs that still stand up today and appeal to the more discerning music listener.

  16. This is an impossible undertaking, so cheers for the effort, but the fact that anything from Binaural is represented in a list of the 10 best PJ songs while Ten isn’t renders this list irrelevant.

  17. Why do people love ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ so much? It’s the ‘Breadfan’ of the PJ catalog. B-Side that became a hit and elevated to classic status. It’s 2 minutes too long, and not all that interesting in the meantime…

  18. Haha that picture.

    “Hey, friends…I’m Eddie.” – Eddie Vedder

  19. I shall echo the hive sentiment that just because a song is overplayed does not mean it shouldn’t be on a best-of list. Either “Jeremy,” “Black,” and/or “Elderly Woman…” should most definitely be on this one. Well done, SG – you wanted me to get riled up and post, and here I am.

    Also “Tremor Christ”! “Severed Hand”! No love for the Avocado?

  20. Hmmm, no “Do the Evolution”?!

    That’s my fav PJ song and video

  21. I got bugs in mah hair.

  22. Shut the fuck up. “Black” should be on there. You know and I both know it should be on there.

  23. esta selección será cachondeo del duro ,no?

  24. You nailed the top two, in my opinion. Personally, I’d have Black at no. 3, Hail Hail in place of Not For You, and maybe Elderly Woman, State of Love and Trust, and Last Exit rounding out picks 7-10. But I understand, with a catalogue that deep, making a top 10 list will always be (a) damn difficult and (b) purely subjective.

    Also, I’ve actually never heard I Got Id. Will check that out tonight for sure.

    • “Hail Hail!” Yes! And here I thought I was the only one on earth who actually enjoyed that song… upvote.

      • what are you crazy?! one of their best riffs easily

        • Agreed… though I remember when No Code came out and “Hail, Hail” being the one of the first singles, it took a bit of criticism from fans – at least in my city anyway. Glad to see it being appreciated over time.

          • how and why could anyone criticize that?? i honestly can’t find one thing about it that’s worth of criticism.

            like, i like the fixer, but that cheap electronic piano riff is weak as hell and drives me mad. but man, hail,hail is flawless.

    • Yes! I think you nailed it, though you only gave three suggestions for spots 7-10 (that’s actually four spots).

      STILL, your list is far less questionable than the one above AND basically the same as mine. If this were my list, it’d look like:

      10. Last Exit
      9. State of Love and Trust
      8. Elderly Woman…
      7. Given to Fly
      6. In Hiding
      5. Hail Hail
      4. In My Tree
      3. Black
      2. rearviewmirror
      1. Corduroy

      I’d personally swap Black with Love Boat Captain and In Hiding with either Porch, Do the Evolution or Whipping but we need to consider historical importance AND quality of songwriting. So yeah.

      • Yep, that’s almost exactly what I was talking about, with the exception of #7 going to Who You Are rather than Given to Fly (merely a matter of personal preference; Given to Fly is a PJ classic no doubt). Love Boat Captain is a great one too… it’d probably fall somewhere in my 11-15. And yeah, I meant 8-10. Counting is hard sometimes.

  25. This is not what my top ten would look like, but these are all still very good songs. No two Pearl Jam fans are alike.

  26. Super interesting list. A better title for the article would be “A mega-Pearl Jam Fan’s Personal Top Ten” as opposed to “The Ten Best Songs” since no one person could possibly agree on the ten best with another person. Great article for debate and glad to see some lesser known ones on here!

  27. “State of Love and Trust” will always be my favorite PJ song. To this day, it’s one of my go-to jukebox picks… mostly because not very many jukebox’s are without the rearviewmirror greatest hits album.

    Also, “Elderly Woman…” because seriously, who doesn’t like that song? And it had one of the longest song titles back in the day – along with that Primitive Radio God’s track – that would often flub on-air DJ’s when they had to announce it.

  28. pretty pumped to see “Undone” on there, and in reading it, the reference to “Man of the Hour” being a hard song to keep off the top 10. It’s a pretty good list – I’d likely have RVM, Corduroy, Undone, and I Got Id on mine, and perhaps “In My Tree” would be close…on the contrary, “Not For You” is one of my least favourites in their entire catalog. It actually wouldn’t even crack a top 100 list. Great read. Great article.

  29. IN my list there would have been Tremor Christ in there somewhere

  30. State of Love and Trust!

  31. The fact that Ten is off the grid here, and not one song is present from an album that clearly helped defined an alternative movement, makes this a far more disturbing issue than simply what lies on the surface regarding its absence. This is a internet-based-music-publication issue and the lack of talent taking the time to develop lists like this is a potentially severe problem in regard to future credibility on SG’s behalf. This is just sickening to me. I smelled it a little with your U2 list last week, and now it reeks.
    This is like making a Nirvana list without Nevermind, an REM album without Document, a Radiohead album with The Bends, Beasties without Paul’s Boutique. Unfathomable. How old are you Ryan, like 12? Did you just scan over their iTunes library and look for the songs that had the most stars & plays, and forget to page up to their debut?

    • Ok, I just got up and walked around to let some steam off…I feel better now. I’m sorry Ryan, I’m sure you are a good person, I’m positive you are, and gosh darnit, people like you, and I’m sure you love what you do and your knowledge is wide beyond your years. I praise your insightful music banter and continue sending you my best wishes on your journey to become the next Lester Bangs and look forward to future debatable musical topics with you, I hope. That being said, it’s still is burning at the core of my being with a fiery rage that rivals Smaug’s cave.

  32. -W.M.A.
    -Of The Girl
    -Tremor Christ
    -Breath and a Scream
    -Why Go
    -MFC
    -Do the Evolution

    kudos on “In My Tree”

  33. I could tell while reading through the list that it was building up to Corduroy as #1. No arguments there. Black and State of Love and Trust belong there. I guess I’ll have to forgive you for those omissions since the “Rockabye Baby” compilations weren’t out yet in the early 90′s. Release is a personal favorite. Elderly Woman… would make my list for sure. Red Mosquito. Footsteps. This band is great because three different “types” of Pearl Jam fans (none superior to the other) could come up with three completely different lists.

  34. Corduroy
    RVM
    SOL&Trust
    Black
    Red Mosquito
    Present Tense
    Last Exit
    I Got Shit
    Given to Fly
    Hard to Imagine

  35. What, no certain song I like by a band with a lot of good songs so picking only 10 of them is certain to leave many good songs out!?

  36. I like that the writer avoided obvious answers to make the list more interesting. I do think SOLAT deserves to be on the list tho.

  37. I’ve always been partial to “Why Go” and “Animal” myself, but I’ve never been a big PJ fan…

  38. at least you got #1 right…do the evolution throws down everytime….apeman eddie

  39. Oh that pic! At first sight I thought it was “The 10 best Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians song”.

  40. Swap out Rearviewmirror for Sleight of Hand and baby you got yourself a stew going.

    Excellent list.

  41. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  42. #1 is exactly right. The rest: whaaaaa???

  43. Here’s a Spotify Playlist I put together for easy access. http://open.spotify.com/user/jexpo1976/playlist/6Fw8TAYEl4x0YmD6gEP2Vm

  44. I would’ve had Hail, Hail & Tremor Christ in there somewhere. I’m glad nothing from Ten is on here. Not their best effort.

  45. i know ‘to each his own PJ’ but Undone? UNDONE?!

  46. Much love for “In My Tree.”

  47. I never realised the lyrics to corduroy were ‘Everything has chains’… that’s kind of disappointing, because ‘Everything has changed, absolutely nothing’s changed’ is accidental lyrical genius… It first perfectly within the context of the song… it’s like one of my favourite Pearl Jam lyrics!!

    • P.S. …GRIEVANCE! What a song, just go back and watch that Live at the Garden DVD and you’ll know what I mean, as does she who was popularly referred to circa 2003 on the PJ forums as ‘Grievance Girl’ (you’ll know what I mean).

  48. Ten is not represented? Seriously? I love Yield and Binaral as much as the reviewer, but get real. Black, Alive, Even Flow, Jeremy. At least one of these deserves to be in ANY Pearl Jam top ten. I’m not one of the guys who thinks Ten is a career highlight, but come on man… Listen to the live albums when these songs play (magic baby, pure energy). Now lets get to Yellow Ledbettter, Go, Daugher, Animal, Red Mosquito, Hail Hail, Faithful, Nothingman, Off He Goes awwwww come on! Gimmee some truth!

  49. Marc Carusiello  |   Posted on Oct 17th, 2013 +3

    Love this list, here’s my Top Ten: 1. Release 2. In My Tree 3. Breath 4. Crown of Thorns 5. In Hiding 6. State of Love and Trust 7. Corduroy 8. Immortality 9. Sometimes 10. Last Exit

  50. Also, I really really like Sad.

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