Ten (Epic, 1991)
Vs. (Epic, 1993)
Vitalogy (Epic, 1994)
Merkin Ball (Epic, 1995)
No Code (Epic, 1996)
Yield (Epic, 1998)
Live on Two Legs (Epic, 1998)
Binaural (Epic, 2000)
Riot Act (Epic, 2002)
Lost Dogs (Epic, 2003)
Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003)
Pearl Jam (J, 2006)
Backspacer (Monkeywrench, 2009)
Live: 9/4/00 Washington, D.C. (Epic, 2001)
Live: 11/6/00 Seattle, Washington (Epic, 2001)
Live at Benaroya Hall (Monkeywrench, 2004)
Live at the Gorge 05/06 (Rhino, 2007)
Of the four juggernauts that came to represent the Seattle scene of the Nineties, Pearl Jam started off with the sound that was the most overtly commercial. Where Nirvana had punk influences, Soundgarden were metalheads, and Alice in Chains began as a glam band, Pearl Jam never gave the impression that they wanted anything other than to headline arenas, which they did within a year of San Diego surfer Eddie Vedder hooking up with the remains of Seattle's Mother Love Bone. Their debut album, Ten, was a runaway success, they were MTV favorites, and ticket sales set off the kind of hysteria not seen in rock since the Beatles. Success happened so quickly the band faced an immediate backlash: Kurt Cobain labeled them "careerists" (true, but it's not as though he wasn't himself), and critics described them as the Nineties Aerosmith, when they really wanted to be the Nineties' Who.
Their early albums are better than those first reviews suggest, perhaps because only a band gunning to be the best in the world can play with the kind of narcissism and conceit that is needed to fuel such arena anthems as Ten's "Jeremy," "Even Flow," and "Alive." Released a month before Nirvana's Nevermind, Ten is the more derivative album, but it does showcase Vedder's unique, driving vocal style and the delicate interplay between guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready.
Vs. was a far better example of what Pearl Jam could do live, and by this second album the group was already consciously unplugging from the trappings of fame by refusing to make videos and starting to battle with Ticketmaster. As a result, riff-heavy songs like "Animal," "Daughter," and "Dissident" sound large without being bombastic, perhaps because they were never in regular MTV rotation. Still, the band's songwriting skills left something to be desired: Tracks like "Rats" and "Leash" come off as arrogant experiments by a band with a fan base that can't be disappointed.
On Vitalogy Pearl Jam hit their creative zenith, combining their driving brash sound with the kind of songwriting that keeps tunes on classic radio for decades. Vedder turns in vocal performances on "Better Man," "Spin the Black Circle," and "Not for You" that seem possessed, and the songs are as varied as they are powerful, from the burnished folk-rock on "Nothingman" to intense rockers like "Corduroy" and "Last Exit" and the Tom Waits–like weird attack on "Bugs."
In the midst of a war with Ticketmaster that forced the band to tour in unconventional, out-of-the-way venues, Pearl Jam in 1995 teamed with Neil Young and did service as his backing band on Mirror Ball. Although songwriting takes a backseat to spontaneous riffing, the results here are inspired and searing rock. An EP titled Merkin Ball is credited to Pearl Jam, and the two songs it includes, "I Got ID" and "Long Road," were the band's best work of the year.
Both No Code in 1996 and Yield in 1998 may have let down fans who prefereed the straight-ahead rock of Ten, but they were crucial steps toward ensuring the band's creative survival. Having pulled back on every level, the Pearl Jam of No Code looks to its influences (The Who, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin) for guidance and comes up with an adventurous album chronicling the proverbial calm after the storm. The rockers are some of the band's finest ("Hail, Hail," "Habit"), and new drummer Jack Irons injects a fresh sense of groove ("Who You Are," "In My Tree") into the mix. But the catharsis is more strongly felt on tracks like "Off He Goes" and the epic "Present Tense," where Vedder faces up to his status as a rock idol.
The experimentation of No Code out of its system, Pearl Jam works comfortably within a classic rock framework on Yield, ratcheting up the arena-sized choruses ("Given to Fly," "In Hiding," "Faithfull") alongside Fugazi-style post-hardcore ("Brain of J"), punky raveups ("Do the Evolution") and a lighter-waving radio ballad ("Wishlist"). The non-Vedder-written songs are a mixed bag, foreshadowing the uneven songwriting collaborations of the next two albums.
In 1998, Pearl Jam released Live on Two Legs, their first live album. Although the band has traditionally been better in concert than on record, this tour highlighted tunes from Yield, which made it less essential than some of the fan-produced bootlegs from earlier tours. But it's the first recorded appearance of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who would quickly become a key piece of the puzzle in Pearl Jam's second decade.
By the time they made Binaural, Pearl Jam were no longer enraged by its own celebrity, so they railed against the state of the world tracks like "Insignificance" (inspired by the WTO protests), "Rival" (the Columbine massacre) and "Grievance" (the loss of personal freedom). New producer Tchad Blake presents the band in a fascinating sonic environment awash with previously unheard clarity, but the material is only occasionally up to snuff. Best tracks: the slamming, 156-second "God's Dice" and the anthemic elegy "Light Years."
Made in the wake of a June 2000 tragedy at Denmark's Roskilde Festival, where nine fans were killed in a crowd surge during Pearl Jam's set, the band's last album with Epic crackles with energy but has the lowest ratio of hits to misses of its career. A sexy stomper which feeds its guitar riffs through a drum machine, "You Are" sounds unlike anything in the Pearl Jam catalog, while the acoustic "Thumbing My Way" is one of Vedder's most heartbreaking songs. But while amped-up tracks like "Get Right," "Save You" and "Green Disease" hit their marks, they just don't measure up to past glories.
A long-awaited clearinghouse of rarities, Lost Dogs features key B-sides like "Yellow Ledbetter," "Footsteps" and "Hard to Imagine." It also spotlights plenty of tracks where the guiding principle is simply having fun in the studio ("Gremmie Out of Control," "Leaving Here"), plus the band's cover of Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss," which in 1999 reached Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, the biggest hit of Pearl Jam's career. The 2004 contract-fulfilling Greatest Hits has everything a Pearl Jam beginner would ever need, but is notable only for remixed versions of three songs from Ten, foreshadowing the complete Brendan O'Brien-steered scrub job afforded the debut on a deluxe 2009 Ten boxed set.
Pearl Jam roared back to relevancy on its 2006 self-titled debut for J. Vedder returned to his storytelling roots, focusing on the intricacies of life in a post/9-11 world. "World Wide Suicide" and "Life Wasted" were radio smashes. "Severed Hand" gets downright funky a la "Porch" from Ten, while the soulful "Come Back" is tear-jerking conversation with a departed loved one.
Backspacer, self-released by the band with the help of Target in the U.S., is lean, mean and vital, and owes a surprising musical debt to new wave. The band's oft-hidden sense of humor is at the forefront of tracks like the Devo-ish blast "Got Some," "Johnny Guitar" and the almost joyous "Supersonic," while Vedder reaches for the cheap seats—and succeeds—on gorgeous anthems like "Just Breathe" and "Unthought Known." Backsapcer was Pearl Jam's first Number One since No Code, proving there was still plenty of life in this Seattle institution even as it nears its 20th anniversary.
Pearl Jam has always allowed fans to tape their shows, and Vedder has openly admitted he's a fan of bootleg recordings himself. But in 2000 Pearl Jam took that enthusiasm farther than any band had before by releasing 72 different shows—every concert from their world tour of that year. The sound quality on these shows was first-rate, and the tour found the band playing at their best. For casual fans, the three best live sets are shows in Poland; Washington, D.C.; and the one that ended the tour, in hometown Seattle.
With the bootleg program now a permanent fixture for every tour, Pearl Jam offered up a variety of other concert product in the 2000s. Live at Benaroya Hall, taped in front of a hometown crowd in 2003, finds songs both familiar and ultra-rare given the acoustic treatment, while Live at the Gorge boxes up three sweltering shows from 2005 and 2006 at the iconic outdoor amphtheatre in Washington state.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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