Pearl Jam Albums From Worst To Best
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.
8. Yield (1998): Yield was the beginning of what I like to call Pearl Jam's "Black Period." Now, this is a confusing term, and I don't believe anyone else has adopted it (or employed it, to my knowledge), probably in part because Pearl Jam has a very popular song called "Black," and that's not what I'm making reference to here. No, I call it their Black Period because Yield was the first of three consecutive Peal Jam albums whose artwork was dominated by the color black, and for me, the sound on those albums is thus suitably dreary and void-like (the second Black Period album is Binaural; the third is … coming up next on this list). Yield was the band supposedly "returning" to their roots (it was the first album since 1992's Vs. where Eddie Vedder was not guiding the songwriting in some totalitarian-seeming fashion). But while it's not an unpleasant album, it's not a memorable one, either. "Given To Fly" tries, not entirely unsuccessfully, to recapture Ten's soaring grandeur (via Zep); "Wishlist" is a very goofy but very catchy ballad, probably the most upfront and straightforward pop number the band has ever penned. I like the line about "the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood," but man, some of these lyrics …
7. Riot Act (2002): The final third of the Black Period trilogy, Riot Act was the sound of Pearl Jam at the tail end of a long morass but still firmly submerged. I think you could probably flip Riot Act and Yield here and I wouldn't complain much, but if I had to spend time with one of the two, today, it would be Riot Act. The album opens with what is truly probably the most off-putting and bland song ever recorded by Pearl Jam ("Can't Keep") but follows that with "Save You," one of their best. From there, the album veers pretty wildly -- not always a good look for Pearl Jam, but after the stolid murk of Yield and Binaural, seeing the band embrace some weirdness (a la Vitalogy and No Code) was a welcome sign. My greatest frustration with Riot Act is that the band's annoying tendency to bury great melodies is at its very worst here -- I shouldn't have to work so hard to find the hooks in "Cropduster." But they're in there.
6. Pearl Jam (2006): It's worth noting that the four albums making up the bottom of this list were all released consecutively (not in the order I have them ranked, but these four albums were the band's sixth, fifth, seventh and eighth, respectively). Pearl Jam is the first real sign of life from the band since No Code, although I maintain that it's not as good as its reputation. On the positive side, Pearl Jam are firmly committed to rocking here, and when they slow things down (such as on "Parachutes"), they do so in the service of a song rather than aimless mewling; on the negative, I don't think Eddie Vedder has ever sounded worse than he does on a few of these numbers ("Comatose"). But Pearl Jam sounds crisp and lively throughout, and some songs here -- namely "Unemployable" -- rank with the band's best, and more importantly, don't sound like they're trying to reinvent Ten or Vs. They're just strong, catchy, upbeat tunes. Yes, from Pearl Jam!
5. Backspacer (2009): Backspacer almost completely captures the best aspects of the self-titled album that preceded it and mostly does away with that album's flaws (although Eddie again sounds kind of constipated when he pushes his voice at times). Backspacer may not be a classic Pearl Jam album -- that would be just about impossible to achieve in the 21st century -- but the record sounds great; it's more ear-pleasing than any other Pearl Jam album, period. Single "The Fixer" is a total joy, and it's not the only one here. I strongly considered ranking Backspacer higher than I did, and you know, I probably should have. Today, I like it much more than at least two of the albums that I have ranked higher on this list, but (A) I recognize the historical importance of those albums to be more valuable than my listening pleasure, and (B) Pearl Jam really aren't about listening pleasure; they're supposed to be cranky and difficult. Right? So why is Backspacer so … nice? What's wrong?!
4. Vs. (1993): Pearl Jam's second album, and their second-best-selling album, is stacked top to bottom with hits. I mean Ten had hits, sure, but nothing that sounded as blatantly radio-ready as "Daughter" or "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town." The rockers stomp confidently, the ballads are effectively moving and grand. The album's bookends -- leading off with "Go" and closing with "Indifference" -- are as good as Pearl Jam gets, and they showcase the band at their tonal and sonic extremes. If every song on Vs. reached those heights, it would easily be at the top of this list, but the bombast here can be exhausting when the music is not at that level, and the weaker moments ("Leash," "Glorified G," "Elderly Woman") are too big -- big in ambition, I mean; these are anthems, not throwaway experiments -- to ignore. Still, as evidenced on its highlights, Vs. is clearly a band at the peak of its powers.
3. No Code (1996): No Code is the weirdest Pearl Jam album, the album on which the band retreated from view into solipsism and psychedelia, the album that definitively said to the world at large, "We are no longer interested in being recognized by you." But it's still the most interesting Pearl Jam album, the most varied. And it's interesting not because of the band's motives, but because the band is trying so many different things -- and achieving something special on a pretty frequent basis. Punk rage sits alongside meditative ponderousness; Eastern percussion and melodies butt up against jagged guitars obviously influenced by the band's time serving as Crazy Horse's stand-in. Rockers like "Hail, Hail," "Smile," and "Red Mosquito" have very little in common with one another, but each one is essential.
2. Ten (1991): Let's say Ten never existed. I mean, to the extent we can imagine this without including all the logical consequences; let's erase that album from history without changing anything else: Would anyone have ever cared about Pearl Jam? Would Vs. have filled arenas around the world for decades to follow? Would they have made it even to No Code, let alone Riot Act? Or would they have been dropped and forgotten long before those points? It's pretty amazing to consider just how much that album mattered -- not just in the degree to which it influenced rock music to come (again, nothing to brag about here), but the fanbase it built and has sustained. In this regard, it's more or less impossible to contextualize Ten. It's an outright classic; it will probably still matter 50 years after its initial release, the same way the Stones still matter after 50 years: because many of the people who were there when it first happened will still be on this Earth to remember it, and because new listeners will still be introduced to it, and they will find something in it worth their devotion, too. Today, ubiquity has drained the album of its power (even non-singles like "Black" have been overplayed to death), and it sounds very much of its time, but hey, its time was one of the most important in the history of American rock 'n' roll.
1. Vitalogy (1994): The recording of Vitalogy was reportedly a low point for Pearl Jam as a creative unit. In an interview with Spin, producer Brendan O'Brien was quoted as saying, "Vitalogy was a little strained. I'm being polite -- there was some imploding going on." The fact that four-fifths of the band survived intact is probably a minor miracle (drummer Dave Abbruzzese was dumped soon after initial recording of the album was completed). There was, according to many reports, a power struggle between Eddie Vedder and the rest of the group; the band's leader before Vedder took the wheel, guitarist Stone Gossard, allegedly considered quitting during the recording process. And that fury and confusion is evident in the music. Vitalogy is a tense, uncompromising album; it is a schizophrenic album in some regards. The band both shuns the spotlight (cf. "Bugs," "Tremor Christ") and embraces it ("Better Man," "Nothingman" -- both magnificent songs). But that insane disparity makes for a fascinating and absorbing listen. It also helps that Vitalogy includes the best Pearl Jam song ("Cordury") and at least two others that belong in the conversation ("Immortality," "Last Exit"). Vitalogy was the last time Pearl Jam was widely relevant, and in many ways, the band used the album as an escape from relevance. But it's really a transitional work -- the bridge from the world dominance of Ten and Vs. to the for-hardcore-fans-only period Pearl Jam entered with Yield. And in that transition, Pearl Jam captured on wax something ephemeral, something magical.