There has not been a new Pearl Jam album in six years. At the moment, the release of a new PJ record does not appear to be imminent. However, today is the 25th anniversary of the third Pearl Jam LP, Vitalogy. And this seems like as good of an excuse as any to listen to Pearl Jam songs and figure out which ones are the very best.
For the past week, I have revisited each Pearl Jam record, made about a dozen different lists of my favorite tracks, and finally concluded upon this listing of 60 songs culled from 10 studio records, plus compilations, singles, and various television appearances. Given the rabid following this band has, I expect there to be … absolutely no disagreement about this list. Because I think I pretty clearly nailed it. Don’t you? Of course you do!
Let’s jam some Pearl!
60. “Sleight Of Hand” (2000)
Pearl Jam will probably forever be associated with their “angry young man” angst anthems from the early ’90s. But as the band members aged, they became experts at writing songs about middle-aged ennui. This deep cut from Binaural is a snapshot of workaday drudgery: “Routine was the theme / He’d wake up, wash and pour himself into uniform / Something he hadn’t imagined being.” It’s a far cry from “I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode.”
59. “Unemployable” (2006)
Eddie Vedder has long looked up to Bruce Springsteen, and this track from 2006’s self-titled “avocado record” comes closest to aping the Boss’ regular-joe, blue-collar narratives, with a classic Who-style guitar riff added for good measure. The first verse is a grabber: “He’s got a big gold ring which says ‘Jesus Saves’ / And it’s dented from the punch thrown at work that day / Where he smashed a metal locker where he kept his things / After the big boss said you’d best be on your way.”
58. “Dirty Frank” (1991)
Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten dropped about one month before the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ blockbuster commercial breakthrough, Blood Sugar Sex Majik, in 1991. The bands ended up touring together around that time, and the funk-rock influence clearly rubbed off on PJ in the band’s early years, showing up on Vs. tracks like “Blood” and “Rats.” And then there’s this classic Ten-era B-side, which is practically a straight-up Chili Peppers impersonation.
57. “Thumbing My Way” (2002)
Around the time of No Code, Vedder became enamored with writing acoustic ballads reminiscent of Neil Young’s early ’70s albums. This meandering ode to hitchhiking is one of the finest examples of him working in this style, thanks in part to the loose, live-in-the-studio vibe of the album version from the band’s most underrated LP, Riot Act.
56. Smile” (1996)
Here is Pearl Jam working in a Neil Young with Crazy Horse mode, not long after the band (sans Vedder) backed up one of their biggest influences on 1995’s excellent Mirrorball. This song has the stomp and screaming harmonica breaks of Young’s classic Crazy Horse records. If only they had also allowed Mike McCready to play a feedback-drenched guitar solo for 10 minutes in the outro.
55. “MFC” (1998)
One of the most enduring guitar riffs in the PJ canon is from 1993’s “Rearviewmirror,” which has been re-used in slightly modified form in several other top-flight rockers, including this energetic driving song (short for “Mini Fast Car”) from Yield.
54. “Pendulum” (2013)
While the fast songs on the most recent Pearl Jam album, 2013’s Lightning Bolt, fell a little flat, the band continued to flourish while working in slower, atmospheric, and foreboding mid-tempo mode. The best example of this from Lightning Bolt is this slow burner, which suggests that the members of Pearl Jam have studied The National’s catalogue.
53. “Green Disease” (2002)
Another “Rearviewmirror” knock-off, this is also among the fastest songs in the Pearl Jam universe. While “fast PJ” isn’t always the best PJ, “Green Disease” surges forward at such a rapid pace (especially live) that it can’t help but carry the audience away.
52. “Immortality” (1994)
This moody, darkly beautiful ballad from Vitalogy was widely presumed upon release to be a comment on Kurt Cobain’s death, which occurred about seven months earlier. Vedder has denied this, though the song’s depressive ruminations about how one “cannot find comfort in this world” reflect the point of view of a person “on a parallel train.”
51. “You Are” (2002)
When Matt Cameron joined the Pearl Jam fold in 1998, the band didn’t just gain a great drummer, but also an interesting writer of unconventional, psych-tinged hard-rock songs. This cut from Riot Act resembles something Cameron might have written for his other iconic Seattle-based grunge band, Soundgarden, during the Superunknown era, with the song’s weirdly funky riff — which was distorted by running a guitar through a drum machine — giving it a menacing flavor.
50. “Long Road” (1996)
This philosophical drone about coming to terms with the inevitability of death was written while Vedder was left to his own devices during the Mirrorball sessions, which he did not play a significant role in. Eventually released on the Merkin Ball EP, “Long Road” is the most Zen song of this otherwise tumultuous period in Pearl Jam’s career, arriving at a moment of relatively serene acceptance: “Will I walk the long road? / We all walk the long road.”
49. “Hold On” (1994)
The electric version of this Vs. era outtake (eventually released on the odds-and-sods collection Lost Dogs) feels like a missing link from the previous album, Ten. (The band’s drummer from that period, Dave Krusen, plays on this track.) In that way, it’s akin to their Singles soundtrack cuts, “Breath” and “State Of Love And Trust.”
48. “Crown Of Thorns” (10th Anniversary Show Live Version, 2000)
As any remedial-level Pearl Jam fan knows, the band’s precursor was Mother Love Bone, the glammy late-’80s outfit featuring Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and singer Andrew Wood, who died tragically of a drug overdose in 1990 at the age of 24. PJ has performed the most famous MLB song, “Crown Of Thorns,” over the years, but the song’s emotional debut at the band’s 10th-anniversary concert in Las Vegas (eventually featured on the soundtrack for Pearl Jam Twenty) is the definitive take.
47. “Alone” (1991)
In the early days of Pearl Jam fanaticism, the band’s B-sides were as well known to fans as the album cuts. While “Alone” didn’t rise to the prominence of the iconic “Yellow Ledbetter,” it fits perfectly with the style of Ten, to the point where it’s hard to remember that it’s not sequenced between “Once” and “Evenflow.”
46. “Leatherman” (1998)
This B-side to “Given To Fly” is supposedly based on a real-life mountain man from the 19th century, though Pearl Jam fans are more likely to recognize it as the most obscure part of the so-called “man” trilogy. On rare occasions, the band will perform “Leatherman” in conjunction with “Better Man” and “Nothingman.”
45. “I Am Mine” (2002)
A defining song of the thoroughly downbeat Riot Act era, when the band’s career was at a low ebb and the country was similarly mired in a post-9/11 depression. The chest-beating anthems of the ’90s were long gone at this point, replaced with resigned, defeated-sounding songs like this one in which Vedder moans, “The ocean is full ’cause everyone’s crying.”
44. “Last Exit” (1994)
A common songwriting trick for Pearl Jam in the mid-’90s was marrying lyrics expressing extreme despondency set to music that made you want to put a fist through a brick wall. A perfect example of this is “Last Exit,” the barnstorming opener from Vitalogy, in which Vedder appears to either hope for an early death or at least an escape from being the lead singer of the most popular rock band in the world. Fortunately, neither of these fates ultimately unfolded for Eddie.
43. “Off He Goes” (1996)
When No Code came out in 1996 and failed to replicate the massive sales of its predecessors — which in retrospect clearly seems like the album’s intention — one of the complaints wasn’t just that it was too weird. It was also too soft. Songs like “Off He Goes” don’t hit go for the emotional jugular like the first three records do; they’re content to quietly meditate. It wasn’t until PJ performed it live that “Off He Goes” blossomed into such an affecting number.
42. “Glorified G” (1993)
Even in the enlightened, left-leaning early-’90s alt-rock scene, it wasn’t common to record an anti-gun protest song as explicit and direct as “Glorified G.” While the song’s portrait of a gung-ho gun owner quickly lapses into caricature (“Got a gun / fact I’ve got two / that’s okay man ’cause I love God”), it’s still admirable that Pearl Jam was willing to set these lyrics to music so infectious it would’ve otherwise made “Glorified G” an obvious radio hit.
41. “Garden” (1991)
I’ve been listening to this song for 28 years and I still have no clue what it’s about. If I had to guess, it’s about a dude who likes to hang out in cemeteries — “I will walk with my shadow flag / into your garden, your garden of stone.” If that’s that case, it captures a not uncommon pastime for intense young men with a lot of emotions and no place to put them.
40. “Of The Girl” (2000)
While this song felt like an afterthought on Binaural, like so many Pearl Jam tracks it took on a second life in concert, where it emerged as a surprisingly great set-opener. Live, it slowly builds into a showcase for some hot McCready shredding.
39. “Nothing As It Seems” (2000)
Speaking of hot McCready shredding, here’s another Binaural track that was completely transformed live from a surly mood piece into a showcase for a Hendrix-esque guitar meltdown.
38. “Fatal” (2000)
This solo Stone Gossard composition was written for Binaural and apparently was a favorite of the record’s producer Tchad Blake, and yet it was left off the record. (It eventually came out on Lost Dogs.) Weirdly, it sounds a little like one of the biggest rock radio hits of the period, Everlast’s “What It’s Like.” Perhaps the subtle connection is what doomed this otherwise top-shelf outtake.
37. “Do The Evolution” (1998)
This deranged highlight from Yield is most remembered for the trippy music video, the band’s first in several years, after they retreated from MTV in the wake of the ubiquity of the “Jeremy” video. But the song itself also stands out as one of the hardest rocking and — here’s a word not normally associated with Pearl Jam — funniest tracks in the band’s canon.
36. “Spin The Black Circle” (1994)
Pearl Jam’s unique curse in the mid-’90s was that they were built to be the Gen-X equivalent of The Who or Led Zeppelin when Eddie Vedder would’ve been far happier being the second coming of Mike Watt. “Spin The Black Circle” is one of their most blatant attempts to write a mile-a-minute, no-frills hardcore track, though they can’t help but infuse it with muscular arena-rock grandeur.
35. “Who You Are” (1996)
One of the great “what if’s” of Pearl Jam’s career regards the frustratingly brief tenure of drummer Jack Irons, who entered the band right as they were achieving peak fame. Irons ultimately helped them realize some of their most sonically interesting records. For “Who You Are” from No Code, he’s credited as a co-writer, contributing the song’s hypnotically jazzy, polyrhythmic drum pattern, which inspired Vedder to play electric sitar over the top of it.
34. “Faithful” (1998)
A “talk with God” song with some robust, bouncy music courtesy of McCready, “Faithful” was one of the most immediate tracks from Yield, the “return to rock” record that Pearl Jam made after alienating so many fans with No Code. Though in terms of lyrics, this song is very much a continuation of the spiritual concerns that dominate the band’s prior album.
33. “Even Flow” (1991)
A crucial track in breaking Pearl Jam in the spring and summer of 1992. The irresistible music video, which culminates with a famous Eddie Vedder stage dive, did as much as anything to promote Ten to a growing audience on MTV. You couldn’t watch that video and not want to see Pearl Jam live.
32. “Tremor Christ” (1994)
While Pearl Jam is regularly linked with classic-rock bands such as The Who and Pink Floyd, The Beatles are another crucial (if also under-appreciated) influence on their songwriting. This track from Vitalogy is like a hard-rock redux of Revolver, with jagged guitars rubbing up against Jeff Ament’s blissfully melodic, McCartney-esque bass line.
31. “Red Mosquito” (1996)
Another fine Beatlesque rocker with some wicked guitar work from McCready, this song was written by Vedder in 1995 while in a San Francisco hotel room suffering from food poisoning. (Vedder later had to a bail on a concert at Golden Gate Park in front of 50,000 fans after struggling through just seven songs.) But the highlight is the jammy, guitar-heavy outro, which allows McCready to shine over some psychedelic undulations from the band.
30. “Just Breathe” (2009)
My sister got married to this song. There’s a good chance one of your family members or friends also got married to this song. Yes, it’s a little corny. But the fact that PJ waited nearly two decades before writing a love song this universal, and then totally stuck the landing, makes it feel more like an achievement than a concession.
29. “Wishlist” (1998)
While it hasn’t achieved the popularity of “Just Breathe,” this wistful track from Yield also deserves to be mentioned among the greatest Pearl Jam love songs. The lyrics are disarmingly understated and sweet: “I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro’s hood.”
28. “Wash” (1991)
Another famous song from the Ten sessions that swiftly became a beloved B-side, “Wash” was also a mainstay of Pearl Jam’s early tours. Any collector of PJ bootlegs from 1991-92 has no doubt heard numerous live versions of this dreamy ballad, often positioned at the start of sets before slamming into “Once” or some other supercharged Ten track.
27. “Light Years” (2000)
While Binaural is one of Pearl Jam’s murkiest and most dispirited albums, “Light Years” stands out as one of the more relatively uplifting tracks, thanks to music from Gossard and McCready that harkens to the early ’90s and a moving Vedder lyric about grieving a lost friend.
Early Pearl Jam albums didn’t start as much as explode out of the gate. This song from Vs. might be the most explosive opener of all, leaning on the power of PJ’s rhythm section to slam as hard as it swings. It’s no wonder that the music was written by the band’s early ’90s drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Ironically, Abbruzzese was asked to “go” the year after this song was released.
25. “Breath” (1992)
As big as Ten obviously was for Pearl Jam’s career, the release of the Singles soundtrack the following year played a crucial role in stoking the flames of the band’s stardom. “Breath” was one of two excellent PJ songs on the record, which essentially functioned as a Pearl Jam EP for fans desperate for fresh material as Ten blew up.
24. “Once” (1991)
The first song on the first Pearl Jam album immediately set the band’s early persona in cement: The lead singer is unhinged, crazy, and hunky, and the band appears to teeter on the brink of chaos while always staying fully in control. It’s no wonder that millions of kids were hooked from the jump.
23. “Amongst The Waves” (2009)
Surfing has always been central to the PJ mythology. A young Eddie Vedder supposedly wrote the songs on the “Momma-Son” demo tape shortly after riding the waves, and the band’s own career has ridden on surges of great success and crests of disappointment. But “Amongst The Waves” is the best Pearl Jam song about surfing, “It’s rare when there is nothing wrong / Survived and you’re amongst the fittest” sums up the Pearl Jam experience as well as any lyric.
22. “Better Man” (1994)
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Eddie Vedder’s songwriting is how often he writes about women, and even from the point of view of women. Coming in the early 1990s, just a few years removed from the macho and sex-obsessed hair metal era, this was especially revolutionary. The most famous example of this is “Better Man,” a kind of rock ‘n’ roll Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore about a woman seeking to exit a bad relationship.
21. “Daughter” (1993)
Here’s another hugely popular instance of Vedder’s affinity for female protagonists, as well as an example of Pearl Jam branching into a more introspective, folky style on Vs. The song’s House Of The Holy-style splendor is a nice (and irreverent) contrast with the spiky feminism of the lyrics, which subtly upend the casual sexism of PJ’s classic-rock predecessors.
20. “Given To Fly” (1998)
Speaking of Zeppelin, the similarity of this song to “Going To California” has been remarked upon so often that even Robert Plant made a quip about it in 2015. McCready, who wrote the music, subsequently joked that the song should be called “Given To California.”
19. “Hard To Imagine” (1993)
Originally written for Vs. but not officially released until Lost Dogs, this minor-key gem lingered on bootlegs for years as an atmospheric respite during the “chill” parts of Pearl Jam shows. One could say that it’s “hard to imagine” why it didn’t make Vs., especially since — as McCready notes in the liner notes of Lost Dogs — the song has been a frequent request by fans over the years.
18. “In My Tree” (1996)
Another song from the “exotic polyrhythms” Jack Irons era. Pearl Jam has always been a very good groove band, and “In My Tree” is one of the best examples of this. Lyrically, Vedder borrows a metaphor from “Strawberry Fields Forever” — no one I think was in his tree in 1996, and he desperately wanted to keep it that way.
17. “Black” (1991)
The lore of “Black” is that Pearl Jam’s record company wanted to release it as the fifth single from Ten and Vedder refused, because he felt (probably correctly) that it would have made the album even more popular. Not that it really mattered, as rock radio stations (and countless school dances) played this dramatic power-ballad to death anyway.
16. “Not For You” (1994)
Vedder’s definitive “I don’t want to be famous” statement from the mid-’90s. The reason why “Not For You” endures beyond that fraught moment is Ament’s bass playing, which gives this noisy and thrillingly grouchy anthem a surprisingly soulful bounce.
15. “Hail Hail” (1996)
I thought long and hard about packaging this song with “Sometimes,” which precedes it on No Code. Hearing those two incredibly different songs — one soft and meditative, the other arrogant and caterwauling — enhances both sides of the equation. But even on its own, “Hail Hail” is simply one of the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll songs in the PJ catalogue.
14. “Jeremy” (1991)
Let’s be clear: I refer to the version of “Jeremy” in the music video and included on the single, not the Ten version. The important distinction here regards Vedder’s climactic “whoa!” — on the album, there are two separate “whoa’s” that are spaced out by a few seconds, whereas in the video the “whoa!” is more or less continuous. The former is good, but the latter is one of the most spine-tingling moments in all of Pearl Jam’s work.
13. “State Of Love And Trust” (1992)
My son was born 20 years after this song was released as part of the Singles soundtrack. He heard it for the first time three years ago and it instantly became one of his favorite tracks of all-time. That only justifies ranking it this high.
12. “Rearviewmirror” (1992)
A song often duplicated in Pearl Jam’s catalogue, as we’ve seen on this list, but never equaled. The opening of this song is rightly celebrated, but for me “Rearviewmirrror” is all about the outro, a peerless showcase for the two-guitar tandem of Gossard (who brings the muscle) and McCready (who brings the fire).
11. “Alive” (1991)
I remember the first time I heard this song — August of 1991 on my local classic-rock station WAPL, which made space for a small cadre of modern bands who made music in the style of the greats of ’60s and ’70s rock. For “Alive,” Pearl Jam proved that it’s always a good idea to ape the structure of “Free Bird” – a sexy, vaguely sinister mid-tempo ballad that builds to a blazing, solo-heavy climax.
10. “Porch” (MTV Unplugged version, 1992)
The most heroic use of a Sharpie during a rock show in music history.
9. “Unthought Known” (2009)
This is the highest-ranked song from the 21st century on this list. What makes it the greatest late-period PJ song? Because it retains what makes “young” PJ so great (i.e. it makes you want to kick ass while simultaneously breaking down in tears) while also evidencing the hard-won maturity and emotional stability that makes “old” PJ so reassuring. Put another way, it’s their dad-rock masterpiece.
8. “I Got Id” (1995)
This is really a Pearl Jam track in name only, given that the only members who play on it are Eddie Vedder and Jack Irons, while producer Brendan O’Brien plays bass and a veteran Canadian musician named Neil Young plays guitar. Then again, only three members of the Rolling Stones play on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and nobody is keeping that off of best Stones’ songs lists.
7. “Nothingman” (1994)
The greatest of all the Pearl Jam “man” songs, it was written in the space of an hour after Ament brought the strummy, touching music to Vedder, who was inspired to craft a plaintive lyric about a relationship gone cold. (“Caught a bolt ‘a lightnin’ / cursed the day he let it go / Nothingman.”)
6. “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” (1993)
Vedder’s greatest homage to Nebraska-era Springsteen, with a dash of John Prine’s “Hello In There” added for good measure. “Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away” subsequently became one of the band’s most robust (if also unlikely) sing-along cues live in concert. This song is also noteworthy in the annals of Pearl Jam history for the extraordinarily long title, given that it has nearly as many words as the entire track listing for Ten.
5. “Animal”/”Rockin’ In The Free World” (Live at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards)
For people of a certain age group, this is the greatest musical performance in television history. (I happen to be a member of that age group.) Years before YouTube, it was required for any Pearl Jam fan to have a VHS copy of this performance so you could watch it at least three times a day. Not only is the actual performance amazing, but the gesture itself — playing 10 minutes of over-amped and dirty chunk-rock in the middle of an awards show — sums up what made Pearl Jam so important as ambassadors of cultural vitality even in the most banal corners of the early-’90s mainstream world.
4. “Footsteps” (1992)
Again, it’s important to distinguish a specific version — I refer to the original cut from the “Jeremy” single, not the version on Lost Dogs with that unfortunate honking harmonica dubbed in. This song features the greatest Eddie Vedder vocal ever in which — this is an important caveat — he coherently enunciates. (There are songs after this on the list in which he notably — and with extreme effectiveness — avoids enunciation.) The part where he sings “I’ve got scratches all over my arms / one for each day since I fell apart” is the most reliable cus to start openly weeping in any Pearl Jam song.
3. “Corduroy” (1994)
This song is rightly considered by pretty much everyone who loves this band as one of the best Pearl Jam tracks of all-time. So, rather than talk about how great it is, allow me to make two small complaints: 1) Pearl Jam plays this at nearly every concert — it’s their most-performed non-Ten track — so I’m slightly sick of it at this point; 2) It has the best outro in Pearl Jam history, except for the fact that it should be at least five minutes longer. Let Gossard and McCready go full Crazy Horse on this song!
2. “Yellow Ledbetter” (1992)
Is there a more popular non-album B-side in rock history? “Yellow Ledbetter” at this point feels as momentous as “Alive” or “Jeremy” in the band’s canon, even though it didn’t make the cut for Ten. (I’d love to hear the justification for leaving off “Yellow Ledbetter” while also including “Why Go.”) As for the song’s meaning, Vedder has said it was about a friend who lost a family member in the Gulf War, but I think it’s actually about hey-ayyyyy canyouseethat ohhhh on that boah oh yeah takeemawayyyyyy.
1. “Release” (1991)
Eddie Vedder’s diva moment. As a singer, I think he could do a credible job of singing “My Heart Will Go On.” But Celine Dion could never do “Release” justice. This is the greatest Pearl Jam song for me because it delivers everything I want from the band: Tear-jerking emotionalism; a fearless disregard for whether they look uncool, because coolness might get in the way of the tear-jerking emotionalism; an Eddie Vedder vocal where I intuitively grasp the emotional truth of what he’s communicating without literally understanding a word he’s singing; raw musicianship played with tremendous proficiency; a vibe that works equally well in a huge stadium with 50,000 people and by yourself in the dark with headphones and a box of Kleenex. “Release” is an anthem and a prayer. May the church of Pearl Jam never close.