This was easily one of the most agonizing things I’ve ever done. I consulted with experts*, did hours of research, and asked my dog for advice. I covered a cork board in Polaroids, string, and index cards that was so extensive, it would make Carrie Mathison jealous. In the end, I believe I reached a conclusion I can live with.
Well, at least for now.
The task was to rank Pearl Jam’s studio albums. If I included the live albums, we could be here for weeks; Pearl Jam probably just released a couple more live albums in the time it took you to reach this point of the piece.
As for how the rankings were done and now this list was constructed, I let two key things make the decisions, my gut and my heart. Why? Because that’s where Pearl Jam resides for me, and where they’ve lived since I first heard them more than 20 years ago. I still remember listening to Ten over and over again in my folks’ basement, and the giddy anticipation my buddy and I had as his mom drove us to buy Vs. at the local record store. I’ve grown up with Pearl Jam, and I can’t say that about many bands. Actually, I’m not sure I can say that about any other bands.
Pearl Jam’s albums exist on a scale of Wow, This Album Is Great to Meh, This Album Is Okay. They don’t have any bad albums, which is impressive given the length of their career. But they do have a couple albums that are, you know, not totally great.
So, we’ll start with those.
10. Riot Act (2002)
9. Binaural (2000)
These two albums exist in Pearl Jam’s second stage, one I have to admit I wasn’t totally a part of (see: Phase, Hippie). I actually think that a good number of people, Pearl Jam fans included, weren’t along for the ride at this point of the trip. Pearl Jam had come so strong out of the gate that a dip in quality was bound to happen. These two albums come from a band staring straight ahead at a fork in the road – at a point of decision-making about what kind of band they were and wanted to be. Riot Act in particular was the product of a band existing within conflict, as they were only two years removed from the Roskilde tragedy, an event that would stick with them for the rest of their career and was directly addressed in two songs on the album, “I Am Mine” and “Love Boat Captain.”
While Riot Act has a handful of good tunes, none of them would show up on your Best of Pearl Jam playlist.
As for Binaural, it was the band’s first album with drummer Matt Cameron, and that should count for something. It also features a couple quality tunes; tunes that have managed to stick around after all these years – “Insignificance,” “Light Years,” and “Nothing As It Seems.” In the end, though, Pearl Jam’s second act might gain some significance the further we get from it. For now, it’s kind of like high school – not the greatest of memories, but a transitional time period that was needed.
8. No Code (1996)
This is where Pearl Jam started to veer into that second stage. No Code feels like it should be better than it really is. “Hail, Hail” has endured and become a great live song, while “Off He Goes” is one of Pearl Jam’s best slow songs. The rest of the album, though… the passing of time has not been all that kind to it. From this vantage point, it has the feel of a swan song album; the album that could have marked the end of their career as opposed to the start of a new era.
Intermission No. 1
And now, a few quick words about “State of Love and Trust”…
“State of Love and Trust” was originally released on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Singles in 1992 and a remastered version appeared on the re-release of Ten in 2009, as well as the 2004 greatest hits album Rearviewmirror.
Sometimes, the song is fast and reckless, and it’s sometimes a little slower and more plodding. Yet, in every incarnation, it’s a completely raw and killer rock song. I love the dueling passions in Vedder’s vocals and the wild drums. Over a 20-year career, there’s bound to be songs that get left behind, but “State of Love and Trust” should not be one of those songs.
7. Lightning Bolt (2013)
Pearl Jam’s most recent album is a really good rock ‘n roll record. Who hasn’t found themselves in their car humming along to “Sirens?”
I would also strongly endorse “Let the Records Play” as a killer doing-work-around-the-yard song. “Mind Your Manners” is a gritty as all hell tune, especially when the band playing it has been around as long as they have. It’s definitely a we’ll show you song, and, thinking about it, that feels like an underlying vibe from the album. The old dogs still have a few tricks up their sleeves.
6. Pearl Jam (2006)
Referred to as Avocado by diehards, this was the beginning of Pearl Jam’s third stage, the one for me that brought old fans back into the fold. I hadn’t thought much about the band in the years leading up to this album, but that all changed when I heard it. It was like reconnecting with an old friend you had lost touch with and, in doing so, realizing how much they meant to you and why you were such great friends in the first place. The first three songs don’t let up for a second: “Big Wave” is perfect for speeding down a highway with the windows down, and “Unemployable” might be the best Tom Petty song Tom Petty never wrote, but Petty is fantastic, so if it sounds like Petty, it’s a good song. Any band that’s been around as long as Pearl Jam will inevitably release the “back to basics” album and, in doing so, usually get mixed results. That’s not the case with Pearl Jam. Mission accomplished here.
5. Vitalogy (1994)
A band’s third album exists in a weird place, especially if the first one is their breakthrough. It means that the second one is the Most Anticipated, leaving the third to either clean up after the mess the second album made, or try its best to keep the party going. Vitalogy does an admirable job at the latter. It also put a lid on the first stage of the band’s career. However, Vitalogy looks better on paper than it does in real life. It’s loaded with classics – songs like “Spin the Black Circle,” “Corduroy,” “Better Man,” and “Not For You,” making it feel like it’s a great album. But, if you dig deeper, you see that it’s a two-faced album. Sure, half of it is full of Pearl Jam classics, but the other half is comprised of songs that quickly fell into the abyss. “Bugs?” Really? “Corduroy” is going to carry any album it’s on to immortality, though.
Intermission No. 2
And now, a quick ranking of Pearl Jam album artwork…
4. Ten (1991)
This is easily the Pearl Jam album that has lived in the most CD books. It christened car stereos, went to college with you, and was bought again years later because you lost the original. Ten is one of the best debut albums ever. I don’t even know how I’d go about trying to quantify how much Ten meant to me when it first came out. Nirvana had the punk rock tendencies, but Pearl Jam had the Led Zeppelin and the Who influence, which made them more appealing to me. It’s hard to imagine a point in my life when I won’t turn the radio up when “Alive” comes on.
Ten was the memorable first date that has led to this long-term relationship I have with Pearl Jam, and that will always mean something. It can’t be ranked No. 1, though, or really any higher than this, because that would ultimately mean it’s been all downhill for the band since, and that’s just not true. Slotting it at No. 4 seems like a good spot. I feel like ranking it any lower would be disrespectful. The CD booklet also unfolded into a poster, which, to a middle school kid just getting into rock and looking to replace posters of baseball players on his wall with bands, was a total bonus.
3. Backspacer (2009)
Pearl Jam was the obligatory re-dedication to rock for Pearl Jam, but this album really planted the flag firmly again. There are no weak links on Backspacer. None! It’s all peaks and quasi-peaks. “The Fixer” is by far one of the band’s best radio-friendly singles and still sounds amazing on the three rock radio stations left in America.
“Just Breathe” was probably played at a wedding you went to, and everyone was super cool with it. Pearl Jam could teach a class in mid-tempo rock songs, and, if they did, “Unthought Known” and “Amongst the Waves” would be clutch parts of the syllabus. This might be the Pearl Jam album I listen to the most.
2. Yield (1998)
Buried in the band’s second phase is one of their best albums. From top to bottom, Yield is killer, featuring one great rock song after another, songs that a modern-day Pearl Jam concert would feel lackluster without. Just for a second, imagine if this had been the album released after Vitalogy instead of No Code. Pearl Jam would have become a gigantic, unstoppable rock juggernaut on par with U2. Instead, it came out after No Code, when a lot of people had bailed on the band, and, as a result, it now gets lost amidst the debris and rubble of the band’s second stage.
1. Vs. (1993)
As I went into this, I had no idea what album would be No. 1. Going back and listening to Vs., I only got three songs in when I realized I had my answer. Vs. isn’t just a great Pearl Jam album, it’s an all-time great album. There are just so many good songs on it, songs that have become the kind of classics you can recognize upon hearing just the first few bars: “Go,” “Daughter,” “Glorified G,” “Dissident,” “Rearviewmirror,” and, of course, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”
I think it’s the lesser-known songs that push the album over the top, though. “W.M.A.” is atmospheric, prog rock at its finest, and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for “Rats” since I first heard it. With the release of their second album, Pearl Jam truly established itself. I also think Vs. has been kind of forgotten over time, only increasing its value. That will probably change over time, as Pearl Jam retrospectives start to become more prevalent. It’ll be fun when it happens; when this album gets its due. It certainly deserves it.
* The expert I consulted was my brother-in-law, Fast Eddie Turner, who is without question the biggest Pearl Jam fan I know. His ranking: 10.) Lightning Bolt, 9.) Riot Act, 8.) Backspacer, 7.) Pearl Jam, 6.) Binaural, 5.) No Code, 4.) Ten, 3.) Vitalogy, 2.) Vs., 1.) Yield.