Ranking Pearl Jam’s Albums, From Worst To Best

Next Monday begins Pearl Jam Week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, but it’s Pearl Jam Day here on UPROXX. In honor of their Lightning Bolt (review below), let’s rate all 10 of their albums, from worst to best.

10. Binaural (2000)

Binaural was doomed from the start. Pearl Jam “let go” of producer Brendan O’Brien, who had been with the group since Vs., Eddie Vedder was suffering from writer’s block around this time, and Mike McCready went into rehab for an addiction to prescription drugs. Plus, the dreaded “experimental sound” label. Pearl Jam was tired of being associated with a certain scene, so they essentially rejected all things “grunge,” whatever that means, making Binaural more of a reaction than a labor of love. It shows.

The songs are occasionally swampy and often boring, when they should have been unexpected and exciting — Pearl Jam was one of the few rock bands from the early 1990s to still be popular enough to debut at number two on the Billboard Hot-200, as Binaural did. But fortunately the album’s uneasiness turned out to be more of a bump than a complete stop, as Pearl Jam would soon recover.

9. No Code (1996)

No Code is to Pearl Jam as Zooropa is to U2. People who like it LOVE IT, everyone else shrugs it off as being too varied for its own good, a band caught staring at the crossroads, unsure of where to go next. It’s less an album than a collection of moody, unconnected songs, spiritually nonsensical songs at that. For a much better, harder rocking representation of Pearl Jam in the mid-1990s, check out their essential collaboration with Neil Young, Mirror Ball.

8. Lightning Bolt (2013)

When a band’s been making music for over 20 years, as Pearl Jam has, it’s fair to ask whether they still should be. Are they adding anything by staying together, or are they going through motions? Are they throwing fans a bone by spending time in the studio, or are they spending time in the studio to make touring not seem like JUST a money grab? As it relates to Lightning Bolt, the answer is: yes. Yes, Lighting Bolt won’t help or hurt Pearl Jam’s legacy. Yes, Lightning Bolt doesn’t need to exist. Yes, Lightning Bolt is sturdy, if occasionally very good. Yes, Lightning Bolt is mostly an excuse for Pearl Jam to hit the road, with new songs to play and old ones to dust off, with an aggressiveness some feared the band lost in the four years since Backspacer. If anything, it condenses the entirety of Pearl Jam’s career into 12 loud when they’re not soft songs, raw when they’re not gentle, admirable power ballads, profound in a shallow sort of way. Lightning Bolt is the MOST Pearl Jam album, for better or worse.

7. Riot Act (2002)

So it goes that every even sort-of moody album released in 2002 is about September 11th, which leads us to sentences like, “The lyrics deal with mortality and existentialism, with much influence from the political climate after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks…” Freed from the context of a tragedy, though, Riot Act is: fine. “Can’t Keep” and “Green Disease” are songs we’ve heard before, but not as good and more weary. Eddie Vedder sounds tired, the band unable to redefine themselves, something something 9/11. There’s a reason the world had to wait four years for the next album.

6. Backspacer (2009)

“Hey, you wanna listen to some Pearl Jam?” “Sure!” “Which one?” “Gotta go with Backspacer, bro.” That conversation has never, ever happened. Backspacer is the band’s most forgettable album, not because it’s bad exactly, but because it’s intentionally minor. Eleven tracks over 36 minutes, and it feels quicker than that. Compared to the rest of their discography, bright songs like “The Fixer” and “Got Some” are downright peppy and positive (it’s no coincidence when you consider who was elected President in 2008). It’s the kind of loose album that you forget about, until you put it on, then you question why it doesn’t receive more attention. (I’m already regretting not putting it in the top-five.) And then the whole process starts anew.

5. Pearl Jam (2006)

Yet another “return to roots” album, Pearl Jam, or as it’s affectionately known, The Avocado Album, is a rocking affair. No more experimenting, no more nebulas; it sounds like a riot, not an act, impassioned and personal. For the first time in over a decade, Pearl Jam went into the studio without any finished songs, only guitar riffs, and that coupled with Vedder’s angry, hurt lyrics concerning “moral issues of our time,” i.e. President George W. Bush, make for a catchy, frustrated (rather than frustrating) barnburner from a band that sounds energized and refreshed.

4. Yield (1998)

Or, the album where Pearl Jam became more than Eddie Vedder…and some other guys in flannel. The other members of the band had a larger hand in shaping the sound of Yield, with Vedder only receiving sole songwriting credit on eight songs, unlike No Code‘s 12. Too many cooks in the kitchen can often lead to disaster, but Pearl Jam wisely got back to their grunge-rock roots after the disappointing reception their previous album was met with. Yield is fairly unadventurous and mostly tidy, and therefore not as memorable as the Big Three, but there is some weirdness lingering around the edges, like on the festering, spoken “Push Me, Pull Me.” The album isn’t a good entry point for Pearl Jam newcomers, with the possible exception of the simple single “Wishlist,” but it’s a revealing listen for long-time fans, hearing a group try to sound like its former self while evolving at the same time.

3. Ten (1991)

The power of Ten is perfectly encapsulated in the scene above, taken from an episode of Eastbound & Down. A grieving Kenny Powers crashes Shane Dog’s funeral carrying a boombox on his shoulder. The songs he picked to honor his fallen friend’s badass legacy: Candlebox’s “Far Behind” and after finishing his touching eulogy with “anyone who wants to step up to this sh*t better recognize,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive.” Forgive the obviousness, but it’s probably Pearl Jam’s greatest song, loud enough to fill an arena, but personal enough to be played at a funeral. Ten is earnest and cathartic in the best way possible, without sacrificing any of the Pearl Jam’s eventual-trademark textured, grooved riffs. It still sounds great 22 years later. Unlike Candlebox. (Sorry.)

2. Vs. (1993)

Vs. sold 950,378 copies during its first five days of release, a then-record. Pearl Jam was one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and they sound like it on Vs. It’s a huge album, the one that solidified the template for the “Pearl Jam sound”: hoarse vocals; paranoid lyrics; self-righteous themes; soaring guitar solos; a dense rhythm section; epics balanced with reflective ballads. It’s impressively confident, especially from a band that became unintentional mega-stars, practically overnight; where other groups might have retreated, Pearl Jam got better.

1. Vitalogy (1994)

Confession: “Bugs” is one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs. It wheezes and lurches, and it’s so far beyond anything the band had recorded up to that point. It, and all of Vitalogy, are wholly unique, a tag not often associated with Pearl Jam — even on Ten, you can hear the influences; on the darkly weird Vitalogy, they’re doing something new, something peculiar, something fleeting that they’d never be quite able to tap into again.

(via Getty Image)