Here’s a fun fact for you: Pearl Jam’s first album Ten actually came out about a month before Nevermind, twenty years ago tomorrow (8/27). Both albums are getting plenty of press-noise for their respective anniversaries, with Nirvana’s album being celebrated by every music publication this side of Jazz Beat and Pearl Jam throwing themselves a few birthday parties with their Pearl Jam Twenty festival and documentary. And though Nevermind is getting the lion’s share of the attention these days, perhaps justly, I remember Ten being just as big a deal. Maybe a bigger one, and not just within my sixth-grade circle of friends. After all, when Time published its goofy alternative-rock cover story in 1993, it was Eddie Vedder who the magazine threw onto the cover.
In terms of cultural significance, both Nevermind and Ten were slow burners, with both of them really impacting the universe in 1992. Nevermind got there first, topping the Billboard chart in January. Ten took longer. Pearl Jam were on the Lollapalooza tour that summer, but they weren’t headlining. They were playing second on the main stage, with only Lush preceding them. And listening to it today, one of the striking things about Ten is how normal it sounds. While Nirvana had a burning sense of purpose that you can hear in Nevermind’s first notes, Pearl Jam sounded, more or less, like a mainstream rock band on a mainstream rock label. Or, more accurately, they sounded like what they were: A group of guys with punk-rock pedigrees trying their hand at making a canyon-spanning Great American Rock Album.
In its expansive riffage, Ten carries echoes of Pink Floyd and Tom Petty and Black Sabbath. Its production, long a matter of debate among fans, dates it to the moment when glam-metal was hitting its commercial peak, and there’s at least a whiff of cheese in its wheedling solos. (As a 12-year-old, I first read about Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the hair-metal magazine Hit Parader; make of that what you will.) But in Vedder’s roars and moans and mutters, there’s also the sense of an absurdly gifted singer doing everything he can to communicate transcendent truths, even if he’s not entirely sure what those truths are. When he sang “Jeremy” at the 1992 VMAs, sharing a stage with Bobby Brown and Def Leppard and En Vogue, he seemed like a man possessed, and his self-exorcising head-shaking performance is one I tried to replicate in my bedroom many, many times. That was the same show where Krist Novoselic threw his bass way up in the air and got hit in the head when it landed, and that was cool, but Vedder’s performance was the one that pretty much blew my mind.
Maybe the legacy of Ten isn’t that it’s one of those albums that changed everything. Maybe it’s that this band managed to make a deeply heartfelt rock album that resonated with a vast number of people. So even if it’s not a game-changer necessarily, it’s part of a proud lineage, one that includes Born to Run and Rumours and Graceland. It’ll be a dorm-room staple until long after we’re all dead.
But what do you, the readers, think of the album now? What’s your favorite Ten track? (Mine: “Black.”) Your favorite moment on the album? (Mine: The drawn-out moan on the “Black” intro?) Your favorite random memory of the album? (Mine: Learning who the Butthole Surfers were because Vedder wore the exact same Buttholes T-shirt in every press pic at the time.) Also, check out a few period-specific videos below.