Readers Poll: The Best Pearl Jam Songs of All Time - Rolling Stone
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Readers Poll: The Best Pearl Jam Songs of All Time

Selections include ‘Alive,’ ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Better Man’

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Pearl Jam plays the Wetlands

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Pearl Jam have spent the past few months looking back at their 20-year career, so it seemed like a good time to ask our readers about their favorite songs by the band. Turns out you guys really dig their first three albums. Only one song in our top 10 here was released after 1994's Vitalogy – and that came out just four years later on Yield. Click through to see your selections and watch videos of the winning songs.

By Andy Greene

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10. ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’

Nearly every song on Pearl Jam's debut LP Ten had a one word title, so when writing songs for the follow-up Eddie Vedder wanted to write something with an extremely long title – giving the world "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." The song is about a woman stuck in a small town (surprise!) who catches a glimpse of an old boyfriend while working in a diner. It's a regular part of the group's setlist, and it always leads to a nice sing-along moment for the crowd. 

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9. ‘Better Man’

Eddie Vedder wrote "Better Man" when he was still in high school. He played it with his pre-Pearl Jam band Bad Radio in the late 1980s, and later cut it on Vitalogy. It's one of the most instantly catchy songs Vedder ever wrote, which is what made him so reluctant to let Pearl Jam use it. The band was incredibly overexposed after Ten and he worried that another massive hit would lead to their downfall. He eventually folded. The lyrics are about his mother and her second husband. Eddie and his stepfather had a terrible relationship that inspired many early Pearl Jam songs, but they actually have reconciled in recent years. 

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8. ‘State of Love and Trust’

There's probably no better time capsule of the grunge era than Cameron Crowe's 1992 movies Singles. The former Rolling Stone writer shot the movie before Pearl Jam became superstars, and he cast them as members of Matt Dillon's band Citizen Dick. Despite having absolutely no acting experience, they even did a decent job with their few lines. Who could forget dialogue like "Hey Cliff, you gotta move your truck, man?" The group wrote this song specifically for the movie. They played it at the movie's premiere, but Eddie was so pissed they had to work on what was supposed to be an off-day that he got totally plastered and sang it with all sorts of obscenities. 

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7. ‘Even Flow’

"Even Flow" is one of those songs that everyone sings along with even they though they know almost none of the words. The song is actually about a homeless man (thus sleeping on a "pillow made of concrete") struggling to hold onto his sanity ("thoughts arrive like butterflies"). Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were working on the song before they even met Eddie Vedder, and it's one of the first songs that the band cut together. They have played it so many times at this point that some hardcore fans occasionally hold up "No Even Flow" signs at gigs, which of course just inspires Eddie to play a particularly long version of the song. 

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6. ‘Rearviewmirror’

The title track to Pearl Jam's 2004 greatest hits LP was originally released on Vs. in 1993. It was never a single, but it's always been immensely popular with fans. Eddie Vedder says he wanted the song to capture the vibe of driving away from a bad situation and looking back on it with the rearview mirror. 

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5. ‘Given To Fly’

"Given To Fly" was the debut single from Pearl Jam's 1998 LP Yield, and it became an instant hit. Vedder said that he wrote the lyrics as if he was writing a children's book. "I imagined a line on each page and a picture to go with it," he said.  "It's a fable, that's all. The music almost gives you this feeling of flight." 

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4. ‘Jeremy’

Eddie Vedder wrote "Jeremy" about Jeremy Wade Delle, a 15-year-old Texas high school student who committed suicide in front of his classmates during English class in 1991. Vedder read about it in a newspaper and felt compelled to turn his story into a song. That's not the obvious topic for a hit single, but Pearl Jam shot a video for the song in the summer of 1992 and it quickly went into heavy rotation on MTV. It played a huge role in introducing Pearl Jam to a mass audience, though they wouldn't appear in a music video for another 14 years. 

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3. ‘Yellow Ledbetter’

If you think it's difficult to discern the lyrics to "Even Flow," you're really screwed when it comes to "Yellow Ledbetter." Eddie mumbles many of the words and nobody really knows what the hell he's singing through most of the tune. Released as a B side to "Jeremy," "Yellow Ledbetter" has become a massive fan favorite, closing out countless Pearl Jam songs over the past two decades. Over the years Vedder has explained that the song was inspired by a friend whose brother served in the Gulf War, and the uncertainty about whether he'd return in a "box or a bag." 

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2. ‘Alive’

Before Eddie Vedder met any of the guys in Pearl Jam, they sent him a cassette of some songs they had worked up. One was an instrumental version of "Alive," which Eddie finished by writing the story of his own childhood. When he was 17, his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather, and that his real father had died a few years earlier. One verse ("Oh, she walks slowly past a young man's room") seems to refer to incest, though. "There was no incest in my situation," Vedder told Rolling Stone's Brian Hiatt in 2006. "But people who knew my dad — women — would come over and stare at me when I was a teenager like you wouldn't believe. They were looking at me because I have his face and he'd been dead for 10 years at least. So they can't take their eyes off me. And I probably caught my mom — you know, she'd just stare at me."

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1. ‘Black’

"Black" received nearly twice the number of votes as your Number Two pick. Judging by the rapturous reaction it receives every time they play it live, that shouldn't be a huge shock. The tale of lost love is the most emotional moment on Ten, and it's probably a subject that most people can relate to on some level. Even lots of people that are turned off by Pearl Jam have a hard time denying the brilliance of this song. It's Eddie at his most emotionally naked, literally howling for a woman who left him behind. 

In This Article: Pearl Jam

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