A ranking of the top 10 Pearl Jam albums isn’t a close poll. Not even slightly. There’s a 100 percent chance you already know which album is at No.1, and it’s there for a very good reason. Actually, make that a dozen very good reasons. The band’s 1991 debut didn’t just define them, it defined an entire generation. It made a joke of everything that had come before and set the template for everything that came next. If that sounds like hyperbole, go listen to the album and see if you still think the same. But ultimately, Ten was released 30 years ago, and in between then and now, there’s been a lot of stonkingly good albums. So, which rank among the best? Everyone’s got their opinion – this is ours.
# 10 – Lightning Bolt
2013’s Lightning Bolt is the sound of a group of middle-aged men who’ve settled into their sound and have no plans on upsetting the apple cart. It doesn’t break new ground, the lyrics are about as incendiary as a wet rag, and it’s more radio-friendly than Pearl Jam has any right to be. It’s not horrible, it’s just not inspirational.
# 9 – Pearl Jam
It’s rare to find a self-titled album so far into a band’s career as this, which might explain why so many people prefer to refer to the band’s eponymous 2006 offering as Avocado. Unfortunately, it’s not a great album regardless of what you call it, and a very far cry from the ‘definitive’ Pearl Jam sound the title seems to imply. It’s not an abject failure, and some of its 13 songs are hookier and punchier than anything the band had come up with in years. But for all the aggression of standout tracks like “Come Back” and “Inside Job,” there’s not enough bite to leave a mark.
# 8 – Binaural
Released at the turn of the new millennium, Binuaral found Pearl Jam throwing caution (and the rule book) to the wind and getting down to some serious experimentation. It’s ambitious and it’s expansive – it’s not, however, completely successful, and after a strong start, it loses its momentum and peters out into a rather flat ending. Still, there’s plenty of redeeming moments, including the catchy “Evacuation” and the frankly outstanding “Thin Air,” which has a very real claim to being one of the band’s best-ever songs.
# 7 – Backspacer
Backspacer signaled an end to the band’s wilderness years. It’s not on a par with their earlier work, admittedly, but it had enough great songs to make everyone sit up and pay attention. It even managed to hit the number one spot in the Billboard charts, if only for a minute. For a veteran act who’s always considered promotion a dirty word, that’s no mean feat, and indicative of just how strong the album is. They may have been getting a little long in the tooth, but on tracks like “Just Breath,” “Supersonic” and “Amongst the Waves,” they proved they still had more bite than band’s half their age.
# 6 – No Code
By 1996, grunge was dead. All the major acts were either gone or on their last legs. Pearl Jam were still around, but their ongoing war with Ticketmaster and refusal to engage with the press weren’t doing either them or the genre any favors. No Code sums up the entire period perfectly. It’s not an easy album, but they weren’t easy times. They were especially unpleasant for Eddie Vedder, at least judging from the amount of vitriolic anger he pours into the songs. It’s tense and it’s moody, with zero concessions to the mainstream. Yet for all that, it’s still a remarkable album, with songs like “Habit” and “Red Mosquito” satisfying the listener’s hunger for daring new sounds, if not the label’s appetite for hits.
# 5 – Gigaton
Last year wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but every cloud has a silver lining. 2020’s silver lining came in the shape of Gigaton, a majestic return to form by Pearl Jam that no one saw coming but which everyone was very happy to see arrive. Vibrating with energy and bristling with promise, it finds the band back at the peak of their powers, with Vedder delivering a heart stoppingly powerful vocal that comes close to his best ever. Special mention has to go to “Superblood Wolfmoon,” a foot-stomping number with an irresistible hook and more funk than a chicken farm.
#4 – Yield
By 1998, Pearl Jam had spent years fighting each other, their label, and Ticketmaster. And they’d had enough. So they did the only thing left to do – they yielded. Vedder stopped dominating the creative process and they started functioning like a collective again. They made an animated video for “Do the Evolution” to appease the label and started playing venues with Ticketmaster contracts. They didn’t give up, but they did give in, and the result was one of the most accessible and commercial albums they’d ever made. They’d stop yielding and start resisting again soon enough, but it was nice while it lasted.
# 3 – Vs.
When you make a debut album like Ten, you’ve got a problem – a little problem that those in the business like to call ‘the second album.’ Ultimately, whatever followed Ten was bound to draw comparisons. Equally inevitably, those comparisons weren’t going to favor the second album. And yet somehow, Pearl Jam managed to pull off a minor miracle. Is Vs. as good as Ten? No. But it’s as close as dammit. Songs like “Dissident” and “Animal” are stone-cold classics… as, in fact, is almost every other song on the album. If Pearl Jam were trying to prove they weren’t the one-hit wonders people were suggesting they might be, they succeeded. They were in it for the long game, and Vs. proved it without a shadow of a doubt.
# 2 – Vitalogy
By 1994, Pearl Jam were three albums into their career and sick of the sight of themselves. Eddie Vedder had taken creative control, resulting in good albums but a lot of ill-feeling from the rest of the band. Vedder himself was angry with the band, angry with the industry, and especially angry with Ticketmaster. By the time Vitalgy hit the shelves, Steve Gossard had come close to quitting, Dave Abbruzzese had been fired, and Mike McCready was in rehab for cocaine addiction. Considering all that, you’d expect Vitalgy to be a hot mess. It’s not. “Better Man,” “Immortality” and “Nothingman” rank as some of the best songs they’ve ever written. The lead single, “Spin The Black Circle,” is a punky slice of perfection. Despite the band’s best efforts, the whole thing is a triumph.
#1 – Ten
Finally, we get to the album we were always destined to end with. Sure, it’s a predictable choice, but considering it spent 5 years on the Billboard 200, anything else would have just been plain silly. Ten isn’t just a great album, it’s one of the great albums, and in terms of debuts, there’s never been anything quite like it. It opened the door for the grunge movement, sounded the death bell for hair metal, and made it cool to be intense. It was a revelation. 30 years later, it still is. If you haven’t already heard it, listen to it now. You can thank us later.
Top 10 Pearl Jam Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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