On April 7 2017, Pearl Jam were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Given that in 2014 the Hall of Fame also inducted Kiss (arguably the worst band of all time), this distinction is essentially meaningless. It is, however, a fitting dovetail with my own series reevaluating Pearl Jam and their music.
Is Pearl Jam one of the greatest rock bands in history?
I will concede, however, that they are a hardworking group with integrity and a considerable amount of talent. Pearl Jam have released at least a couple of very good albums and there is worthwhile material to be found on all of their releases. Occasionally, they actually rock.
When I embarked upon this journey, I considered Pearl Jam to be a somewhat laughable also-ran Grunge band that got swept along to success on the steam of other, much better bands. I actually considered them the worst of the big grunge acts, ranking them even below Stone Temple Pilots (who many don’t consider to be an integral part of the original Grunge explosion). I thought Eddie Vedder’s voice was stupid and that the band was basically a shitty 70s rock revival band.
Having spent a good deal of time and energy over the last year giving Edward and the gang a fair shake, I have to admit that I may have been wrong. Pearl Jam are not the worst of the original Grunge bands. Alice In Chains are. Pearl Jam’s best music has aged far better than anything Alice In Chains have done. What kind of degenerate could listen to Alice In Chains in contemporary times and come to the conclusion that it is good music?
So, I’ll admit it: I was wrong. About some things. I was also totally right about a lot of things, and a lot of what this band has done is pretty lame and embarrassing! But the official result of this exercise is that my mind actually has changed. Pearl Jam are a fine group, worthy of some respect.
That amount of respect varies from album to album, though, so I think that the best way for me to truly put this series to bed is to give a definitive ranking of all of Pearl Jam’s records, from worst to best. I will do so using a very scientific formula.
In order to rank these albums in a fair way, I have devised a scoring method that I believe will accurately judge these albums on their content. I will assign a per-song score reflecting the following: Great song = 5 points. Good song = 4 points. Okay song = 3 points. Mediocre song = 2 points. Bad song = 1 point. Absolute disaster = 0 points. I will then divide the total by the number of tracks on the album in order to determine the album’s overall worth. In the event of a tie between two records, I will decide the winner.
This is an incredible amount of work for me to take on, but I have decided that I owe it to myself and to Pearl Jam to not just make this an arbitrary ranking of albums. Without further ado, I present to you – from worst to best – a ranking of Pearl Jam’s albums.
Holy smokes, do I ever hate No Code, you guys. This record is Pearl Jam’s peak of pointless, meandering fuck-around nonsense. Packed with mediocrities, a number of terrible mistakes and zero truly great songs, No Code is the pits.
Riot Act sounds like Eddie Vedder developed terrible insomnia following 9/11 and his lack of sleep for three or four years caused him to put in the saddest, tiredest performance of his entire career. There’s very little life to this record and very little about it to recommend. It doesn’t have “In My Tree” on it, though, so it is a little bit better than No Code.
Pearl Jam’s 2020 release is a decidedly middle-of-the-road rock album with a few mildly amusing gems and lots of duds. Attempts at experimentation are largely more humorous than successful. A few quite good rockers (“Who Ever Said”, “Quick Escape”) can’t elevate this release beyond the lower-middle of the pack.
Although much of this album is middling AOR-sounding gentle rock music, there are some moments of reasonable energy and invention. “Life Wasted” and “Comatose” both rock along pretty well, and they pull an otherwise drab crop of tunes up away from No Code and Riot Act into the middle of the pack.
This ranking may be controversial as I think that people probably have fond memories of this one. Memories are funny things. I remember Alice In Chains being a great band! Look at me now, though. Now I’m an adult and I can recognize the wide constellation of factors that let me to make such a foolish assessment. Yield is not terrible, and is certainly a leap ahead of Pearl Jam’s worst albums. It boasts a fair stack of good songs and a number of passable ones, “Brain of J” and “Do The Evolution” being the cream of the crop. It also has tracks like “Push Me Pull Me” and “Red Dot” that work to sabotage any attempt at listening to the whole album without snapping the disc in half.
While Backspacer falls flat on a number of its tracks, there is some great material here. “Got Some“, “The Fixer” and “Speed of Sound” are all solid tracks, and this is one of Pearl Jam’s best-sounding records in terms of recording and arrangements. I’m not going to put it on all the time or anything, but it’s an album indicative of the band slowly regaining an understanding of themselves as they age. And that ain’t bad.
One of Pearl Jam’s lower-energy entries also manages to be one of its most interesting. On an arbitrary personal ranking, I would probably peg Binaural higher than this. Many of the songs are too long, and it is a largely downbeat affair, but this is the rare case when Pearl Jam’s experimental side really worked to its advantage. Pair that with it being perhaps their best-ever sounding recording, and there’s a compelling argument for Binaural over something more conventional and hokey. Something like Ten. I actually think that Binaural is better than Ten, and I’ve had at least one great argument about this.
I argue about Pearl Jam with people in my spare time.
I know that this one is going to be controversial, and I think that the flack that I’m going to get over this is pretty hilarious. I will concede that the high points of Ten are high indeed. “Once“, “Black” and “Jeremy” would all be in the upper reaches of a “List of best overall Pearl Jam songs” list (that I will not be compiling). The problem is, there are so many really lousy songs on this record, the recording sounds dated to the point of being embarrassing and unlistenable, and the band itself basically sounds like a flannel permutation of Guns ‘n Roses. Ten is not as good as you think it is. I’ll point out that I’ve still ranked it in the upper half of this list, but I have a feeling that there are those among you that believe it should be perhaps the number one Pearl Jam record. It isn’t.
This is going to surprise a lot of people. Honestly, this record succeeds largely by virtue of being very consistently listenable and (occasionally) very good. It sounds more animated and comfortable than anything since the bands mid-90s output, and there are only one or two truly embarrassing moments. “Mind Your Manners” is a great slice of PJ’s take on punk rock, and some of their stabs at folk-rock balladry really land this time. This album is better than it ought to be, and – while I’m surprised that it landed this high – I’m comfortable with this ranking.
I would have liked for this album to have been #1. It is my favourite of the Pearl Jam records, and I still content that it has the largest number of truly great songs. “Last Exit“, “Spin The Black Circle“, “Better Man” and “Corderoy” would all land near the top of a “top ten Pearl Jam songs ever” list (that I’m not going to write). Due to my scoring scheme, though, this album gets sabotaged by three unbelievably bad tracks: “Pry, To“, “Bugs” and “Stupidmop“. I had no choice but to award basically no points for these songs and the resultant overall score wound up much lower than it otherwise may have been. Vitalogy remains my go-to Pearl Jam record, and I still think it’s my favourite… but I am not sure that I can call it the best.
Here it is: Your number one Pearl Jam album of all time. Vs is a very good album. While there is a hint of a hard-rock hangover from their first album, Vs rocks along at a very high level for most of its duration, and I find it difficult to argue with the notion that the band was at the peak of its power. “Go“, “Daughter“, “Rearviewmirror“, “Elderly Woman“, and “Indifference” are all wonderful Pearl Jam tunes. There are a few shaky moments, but overall this is the most consistent of Pearl Jam’s records. It is as close to a perfect Pearl Jam record as currently exists.
While I prefer the garage-punk influences that they would begin to incorporate immediately following this album, there is little doubt in my mind that Vs is Pearl Jam doing what Pearl Jam was put on this earth to do: Jam pearls.
With this, dear reader, I bring this series to a close. I will never write about this band again as long as I live.
Thank you for reading.