Pearl Jam are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, so there’s a perfect excuse for them to be the next band I do an Discography feature for…
Ten – 1992
For some reason, my introduction to Pearl Jam came from a completely impulsive purchase of this album on cassette from a music shop somewhere in Cornwall about 16 years ago, having not heard any of their music before. It was a good buy though, because Ten still stands as one of Grunge’s high points almost two decades later. Pearl Jam had risen from the ashes of Mother Love Bone and had unearthed a real talent in singer Eddie Vedder, who brings so much of himself to this debut album. There’s no weak tracks here and the likes of Even Flow, Alive, Black and Jeremy are as good as rock music gets.
Vs – 1993
There was no sophomore slump for Pearl Jam, who returned quickly with their second album, which set a new record for albums sold in its first week in the USA (and held it for five years) despite the band making a conscious effort to curtail their commercial activities. Musically, it’s both more muscular than Ten at times and quieter at times, from relentless opener Go to reflective closer Indifference. Along the way there’s plenty of classics, not least Rearviewmirror, which wasn’t a single but has still gone on to be one of Pearl Jam’s most enduring favourites.
Vitalogy – 1994
As their success and fame continued to soar, the band reacted by getting more and more difficult, refusing to make videos, going to war with Ticketmaster over prices and getting more experimental with their music. That didn’t stop Vitalogy becoming the second fastest-selling album, after Vs, and it’s another fantastic record that does go some way to reflecting the turmoil within the band at the time, with drummer Dave Abbruzzese getting fired, guitarist Stone Gossard considering quitting and other guitarist Mike McCready going into rehab to fight a cocaine addiction. It’s got some of their weirdest songs, some of their heaviest songs (Spin The Black Circle) and some of their loveliest songs (Nothingman and Better Man) and showed that Pearl Jam were still developing and refusing to be the grunge sell-outs that Kurt Cobain kept accusing them of being.
No Code – 1996
After that turmoil and the grunge implosion that followed Cobain’s suicide, Pearl Jam took a little time out and returned with a mellower, looser sound. A lot of this was down to the arrival of old friend and former Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons, who had helped out during the Vitalogy sessions. His influence was felt on the worldbeat-sounding first single Who You Are, which got an underwhelming reaction and led to No Code selling a lot less than the first three albums and being seen at the time as a bit of a disappointment. Looking back, it’s very much a transitional album (again made amongst some turmoil within the band), but one full of great songs, lots of which still regularly appear in their live shows.
Yield – 1998
After two albums that had seen Eddie Vedder increasingly taking control of the band’s direction, leading to some considerable friction, but Yield (appropriately enough) saw him, well, yield some of that power and make it more of a team effort. This resulted in one of their best albums, as well as representing a return to more straightforward rock, highlighted by the fantastic lead single Given To Fly as well as some other live favourites like Do The Evolution and In Hiding. This was the sound of a band maturing from angsty grunge icons to mature rock legends.
Live On Two Legs – 1998
The first of many Pearl Jam live albums came out later that year, but another personnel change had already happened, with former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron replacing Irons to cement a line-up that has now lasted for 13 years (as well as virtually recreating the grunge supergroup Temple Of The Dog). It’s a great live album, as you’d expect from a great live band who are always value for money, and it provides a good mix of old favourites, new songs and a rollicking cover of Fuckin’ Up by their mentor Neil Young.
Binaural – 2000
The first Cameron-era Pearl Jam album saw a return to more experimental ways, but with a focus and a push towards a more militantly political approach with Grievance. There’s some excellent stuff there, not least the brooding atmospheric Nothing As It Seems and Sleight Of Hand, with Tchad Blake taking over as producer from Brendan O’Brien, who had produced all of their albums before (although O’Brien was called in towards the end of recording to beef the sound up a bit). There’s still plenty of traditional-sounding Pearl Jam anthems, like single Light Years and Thin Air, as well as heavy rock in the shape of Breakerfall and Evacuation, so Binaural works out as an all-round excellent album.
Riot Act – 2002
The most politically-focused album of their career, Riot Act was Pearl Jam’s anti-Bush album, most notably on the very fiery Bu$hleaguer. However, it’s also one of their least impressive collections of songs, with more filler than most, even though the likes of Save You, Thumbing My Way and Help Help are all amongst their best material. Riot Act is far from rubbish and even the weaker tracks are alright, but it’s still a slight disappointment.
Live At Benaroya Hall – 2003
Their second live album is an acoustic performance released for charity and showcases lots of relatively obscure tracks as well as plenty of covers, not least an intense and very pointed Masters Of War by Bob Dylan. The crowd-singalong in Black always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and the whole show is fantastic.
Lost Dogs – 2003
Pearl Jam have always been a band who have produced great b-sides, with one of their finest songs being Yellow Ledbetter, a b-side for Jeremy that has become almost as popular and acclaimed as the a-side itself. So it’s no surprise that they were able to compile a two-disc album of their best b-sides and rarities and even less of a surprise that it’s really good. Yellow Ledbetter of course is on there, as well as great tracks like Footsteps, Leavin’ Here and charity single Last Kiss.
Pearl Jam – 2006
Like Yield before it, Pearl Jam’s self-titled album is seen as a ‘comeback’ record, taking them back to more straightforward rock music and it certainly gave them good reviews and better sales than Riot Act, but it’s not entirely a return to form. Sure, there’s some great rollicking rockers like World Wide Suicide and Life Wasted, but the momentum and quality both seem to fade as the album goes on.
Backspacer – 2009
Now this was a comeback. Easily Pearl Jam’s best album since Yield, Backspacer brought back Brendan O’Brien as producer, and ditched most of the political diatribes for more personal and reflective lyrics. In many ways it’s even unusually upbeat and is one of the ‘poppiest’ records they’ve made, with New Wave influences on songs like The Fixer. But what makes Backspacer work is that there’s some great rock songs and there’s some great ballads (Just Breathe is one of their best songs ever) and it sounds like a band at peace with the world and themselves.
Live On Ten Legs – 2011
A sequel of sorts to Live On Two Legs, this is a collection of songs from tours between 2003-2010. Pearl Jam are hardly short on live albums, given the various limited edition releases, the box-set from The Gorge and the many official bootlegs that have been put out from their tours, but their live sets are varied enough to make it worthwhile. Covers of Joe Strummer and PiL songs help make it different and there’s a great tracklisting, so it’s certainly worthwhile.
44 years ago, Brian Wilson was due to deliver his masterpiece, his follow-up to the phenomenal Pet Sounds, and the album that would blow Sgt Pepper out of the water. But instead, SMiLE became the straw that broke the camel's back for Wilson and the Beach Boys, sending both into freefall. It had been a hugely ambitious album and one that deeply divided the band while it was being recorded, not that you'd know that from some of their more recent comments about it.