Photo : By Lugnuts (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Here at ClassicRockHistory, we’ve taken the time to recognize the importance of the Alternative rock scene of the nineties, most notably the big bands of the grunge genre; this includes Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. But if there’s one other band that’s worth bringing into the conversation, and I’m sure you’re all anticipating this, it’s Pearl Jam. This is a band that’s the very epitome of arena-sized panache and the ability to march to the beat of their own drum in the cluttered company of has-been copycats, and the fellow veterans who have had to switch their style up to corroborate with the changing times; like every band has had to do throughout each era, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There are few bands who can reject the norm and spit in its face the way Pearl Jam did. They’re a band who rose from the humble beginnings of being a part of the militia that rightfully shot down glam rock, to being comfortable enough in their own skin to try new things while at the same time maintaining their loyal follower of millions; there are the shining example of a valid cult band. And with a band consisting of the likes of Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron (also the drummer for Soundgarden), and Jeff Ament, there was just no going wrong with that kind of prevailing aptitude; it’s worth noting that Gossard and Ament were both in the bands Green River, which later became Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone.
And while the other bands were embracing the gloom and disillusioned label that became associated with Generation X, Pearl Jam were busy being the more socially conscious of the lot; yes, they were at times depressing in their first two records, but they were also touching upon topics of interest that one could relate to; things that pertained to what was happening in the world, as well the human condition. So when you think about it, Pearl Jam is unquestionably the more positive of the other three grunge titans, which kind of makes them easier to get into and more of a joy to listen to; that’s not in any way a critique towards the others, by the way. For this list, like all of our other lists, this is more about celebrating a great band than judging the quality of their discography; what’s categorized as “best” is merely subjective to each human being.
The Top 10 Pearl Jam Songs
10.) The End
Backspacer, released in 2009, was something of an anomaly in the bands catalog; it was their most standardized rock and roll album since their debut, but it had a fun-loving aspect to it. The band had said in an interview that the election of president Barack Obama contributed to the album’s optimistic quality, and The End is a pretty example of the band channeling the cultivated confection of George Harrison. A great way to start out our Top 10 Pearl Jam Songs list.
9.) Light Years
Binaural is an intriguing album because it was produced with binaural recording techniques, which utilizes two microphones that creates a 3-D stereophonic sound. Musically, this was when Pearl Jam songs veered away from the highway of stereotypes and plunged themselves off of the cliff of expansion; the record being more psychedelic and ambient. “Light Years,” exhibited the band as mature songwriters with a more melodic stimulus to their hard rocking genes, and that simple yet always lovely progression based around D, C, and B major that cleans up the song towards the end.
8.) Low Light
If there’s one thing that can be said about Pearl Jam songs, it’s that they can unveil a stripped down characteristic like it comes second nature to them. With Low Light, which is such a wonderful acoustic-based deep cut off of their 1998 record, Yield, you grow to love their folksy roots just as much as their stadium rock, and the piano that hangs in the background really makes this a poignant aperture for Pearl Jam. It’s the kind of Pearl Jam song that makes you want to take a cross-country journey, and just looking at the album art is reason enough.
Pearl Jam were a band engulfed in the tedious maelstrom of rock royalty by the time they put out their second album in 1993, Vs. They decided to let their music speak for itself by refusing to release any music videos or interviews; the record underwent virtually no promotion, but that didn’t stop it from being a critical and commercial success. This would really be the last album where Pearl Jam stretched their grunge limitations, and the opening Pearl Jam song, Go, doesn’t ease up on the high-octane vigor. It’s one of the most brilliant, in-your-face Pearl Jam songs.
6.) Yellow Ledbetter
This was one of the first Pearl Jam songs the band wrote together when they were recording their first album; it wound up being an outtake that would later be released as a B-side single for Jeremy. It has a real Jimi Hendrix influence here, with Mike McCready properly paying tribute to the rhythmic/lead chords of Little Wing, with a similar guitar solo to punctuate the sad-eyed E Major musings about a friend of Vedder whose brother died in the Gulf War. It was quite a successful single for the band, and one that spotlighted the birth of their flare for political awareness.
Many say that their 1994 record Vitalogy is their best, and that may very well be the case, but we’re not here to make those kinds of judgements; it was a milestone record for Pearl Jam though. It was an eclecticism of punk, grunge, folk rock ballads, and a slight flirtation of the avant-garde. “Immortality,” is powerful form of lyrical prose embroidered into the carefully bottled eruption of mellow constraint and hardened energy; McCready shines once again with the Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque roughness he adds to the song. Some have construed the song as being about Kurt Cobain, which Vedder has denied, but that’s the great thing about music: people can interpret it in different ways.
Continuing on into Vitalogy territory, Nothingman proved to be a spontaneous genesis for the band’s emotional wingspan. The music was written by Jeff Ament and lyrics courtesy of Vedder. Its message is one of resounding beauty, with the overall melody that ensnare like an evocative boa constrictor; it’s a song about holding on to the ones you love, because it could all disappear until there’s nothing left.
This is perhaps the best song off of Vs. Its instrumentation is very minimum, with the primary sound being a very sad organ, with the added touch of a tambourine integrated within. It was the perfect song to end the album; the flame at the end of a long and winding road of darkness that slowly burns out the second you reach that point. The prose is absolutely stunning in all its self-loathing destruction, with most of its haunting sagacity going to this line: I’ll swallow poison, until I grow immune. I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room.
Now it’s time to recognize one of the greatest records of the nineties: Ten. There’s no denying its importance, much like with Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s an album with not one false note to it; every song is loud, gruff, larger than life, and with the case of Black, heart wrenching too. This poignant ballad showcases some of the best lyrics Vedder ever wrote; the imagery he conveys in this lovelorn composition plays the heartstrings like a marionette. The band as a whole brings something special to the song, making it one of their most beloved; a true rock ballad in every sense.
Everybody who was around during the early nineties surely heard this song numerous times and even saw the music video that proved to be notorious for its disturbing subject matter. It’s primarily about a teenage boy, Jeremy Wade Delle, who in 1991, came to school with a gun and shot himself in front of classmates. Eddie Vedder saw the newspaper article and felt compelled to bring to light the conversation of depression and suicide, and turn it into something positive; the song is essentially about living your life a stronger person, ignoring those who stand in your way. Vedder has said that part of the song was also about another school incident that happened involving a kid he knew who shot up an oceanography room at Vedder’s school; Vedder was in the halls while this occurred. It would be criminal not to call this one of the most timeless rock songs.
Updated November 22, 2020