Most everyone knows Pearl Jam’s early hits like “Jeremy” and “Better Man,” and their first few albums sold in the millions. But starting in the mid-1990s, they did everything possible to back away from the spotlight. Albums like Binaural and Riot Act came and went without much notice, even as their massive cult fanbase grew to insane proportions. They recorded a ton of amazing songs after No Code, and here’s a guide to 15 songs that only the hardcore fans love. (A special shout-out to Pearl Jam super fans Hillary and Kate for helping with the song selection.)
Eddie Vedder's contributions to the 1995 Pearl Jam/Neil Young collaborative album Mirror Ball were pretty minimal, but he did write the haunting ballad "Long Road" during the sessions and it was later released on the EP Merkin Ball. Vedder wrote the song as a tribute to his high school drama teacher Clayton Liggett, but it works as an all-purpose tribute to lost loved ones. It took on a new meaning days after 9/11 when Vedder sang the song with Young at the Tribute to Heroes telethon.
Pearl Jam's 2002 LP Riot Act came at a rough time for the band. They were still reeling from the tragedy at the Roskilde festival that left nine fans dead, and recording started just a few months after 9/11. The group's collective grief is impossible to miss on "Thumbing My Way," another song of loss and regret. They played it regularly in the early 2000s, but they haven't touched it a single time in the last seven years.
There are roughly 2,000 Pearl Jam live albums, but the very first one is 1998's Live on Two Legs. It's also one of their very best live albums, though many people overlook the barely-two minute gem "Untitled." This is the very first performance of the song (and the only one of the 1998 tour), and it's absolutely brilliant. The song continued to evolve onstage over the next decade, but it's wonderful to hear it in its original form.
Binaural was the first Pearl Jam album that was released with very little fanfare. Not surprisingly, it was their least successful effort up to that point. One of the highlights is "Of the Girl" by Stone Gossard. The lyrics are vague, but it's clearly about a guy pining for a woman from his past. They've only played it a handful of times this decade, though it did make an appearance on the opening night of the Lightning Bolt tour. Also, check out Gossard's acoustic demo of the song from the Pearl Jam 20 soundtrack.
Remember the 1997 John Cussack movie Chicago Cab? We didn't think so, considering it grossed a mere $23,946 during its brief run in theaters. But the soundtrack did introduce the world to the Pearl Jam super deep cut "Hard to Imagine." It eventually got a more proper release on the 2003 rarities collection Lost Dogs.
Pearl Jam had just wrapped up "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" during the encore of an Atlanta show in 1994 when they decided to simply make up a song on the spot. The result was the jammed-out "Out of My Mind," a bootleg favorite they released as the B side to "Not for You" the following year. After a 15-year break, they revived it at their legendary 2009 Halloween show at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
The lead-off song on Binaural wasn't a single, but the lightning-fast song has become a fan favorite and infuses shows with incredible energy each time they break it out. Had it appeared on Ten or Vitalogy this could have easily been a hit, but the band was in a very different place by the summer of 2000.
This stand-out track from Yield was inspired by the work of Charles Bukowski, who often locked himself way for long periods of time so he could work in absolute solitude. "It's about taking a fast from life," Edder Vedder has said. "Doing anything to get yourself back in touch with something real."
Pearl Jam returned from a four-year break (the longest of their career) in 2006 with Pearl Jam, an album that fans call "Avocado" due to the cover art. "Big Wave," a Jeff Ament tune, doesn't contain many lyrical mysteries: It's about Vedder's love of surfing. It even appeared in the soundtrack to the forgotten 2007 animated film Surf's Up.
Released as a holiday single to Ten Club members in 1999, this song is so crazily obscure they've never even played it live. Written by Stone Gossard, it's a mellow acoustic tune that is one of their few songs that can be considered a Christmas song, though it's really about driving through a snowy landscape in the early morning.
This might be the most 1990s-themed song of all time. It's Pearl Jam actually singing about the Bee Girl from Blind Melon's "No Rain" video. They cut the song on Rockline in October 1993, not long after the video was on MTV pretty much 24/7. The silly acoustic song begins with the lines, "Bee girl, you're gonna die. You don't wanna be famous, you wanna be shy." The actual bee girl, Heather DeLoach, grew up to be quite fine. Sadly, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon died just two years after Pearl Jam debuted "Bee Girl."
Even by Pearl Jam standards, this is one bummer of a song. The story is somewhat vague, but it's clearly about someone consumed by grief over the loss of a loved one – and this is from Pearl Jam's supposedly happy comeback album in 2006. It's very far from stadium rock, but they still had the guts to perform it during their rain-soaked Wrigley Field show this past summer.
It's easy to imagine this sad love song on one of Eddie Vedder's solo albums, but it wraps up their 2009 LP Backspacer. They cut it with a mini string section, which later joined the group on select shows on the Backspacer tour. The best performance of this comes from Philadelphia in October of 2009.
The title may sound like this number is a lost Village People song or the missing follow-up to "Better Man" and "Nothingman," but this actually a B side to "Given to Fly." Oddly enough, it's about an actual 19th-century vagabond who traveled an annual circuit from New York to Connecticut in a handmade leather suit and lived in caves. He spoke little beyond grunts, but locals recognized him on his annual sojourn and named him the Leatherman.
Jeff Ament wrote this tribute to Kareem Abdul-Jabar for Binaural, but the band ultimately decided it was simply too strange. It's a shame, because it would have given the album some much-needed levity. Sample lyric: "I grew up trying to copy you, Bruce Lee and kung-fu." You can't get much better than that.