Discog Dives: Ranking All 11 Pearl Jam Albums

Pearl Jam’s 11th studio album Gigaton arrived at the end of last month. I wanted a little bit of time to think on it and digest it before I offered my thoughts and when I was ready I couldn’t help but think about in the context of their larger discography. Because of that I thought it might be fun to start a series called Discog Dives where every know and again I can look back on artists full discography. For the purposes of Pearl Jam I am only looking at the studio albums and not the 70+ live albums they’ve officially following the Binaural tour.

11. Riot Act (2002)

Look I like Riot Act and I think it has some a few really strong moments, but there isn’t much denying that through and through this is the band’s weakest and most unfocused record. “Save You”, “Love Boat Captain”, “I Am Mine”, and “Thumbing My Way” are all stand out tracks. And it features “Bu$hleaguer”, an all time great evisceration of then President George W. Bush (side note; it’s scary how accurate Vedder’s lyrics from 18 years ago still resonate today: “A confidence man/ but why so beleaguered?/He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer/Swinging for the fence, got lucky with a strike/Drilling for fear, makes the job simple/Born on third, thinks he got a triple”) . But the rest of the album is largely forgettable at best. Out of all of Pearl Jam’s albums this is by far the one I return to the least . But hey at least it gave us a fucking kick ass tour with Sleater-Kinney opening for many of the dates (go get ahold of these bootlegs if you can, they’re by and large fantastic).

10. Lightening Bolt (2013)

Until last week 2013’s Lightening Bolt was the most recent Pearl Jam album. And where as a record like Backspacer has significantly grown on me over time, Lightening Bolt has had the opposite effect. That is still a lot to like here though. “Future Days” remains one of my all-time favorite Pearl Jam songs, when I got married in May of 2019, I even used the song as a reading during the ceremony. “Sirens” is a fine late career single and I don’t mind whenever the title track or “Mind Your Manners” get broken out live. Outside of that it’s a largely uneven affair. Maybe I am being too harsh, but the seven year gap between Lightening Bolt and Gigaton surely didn’t do it many favors either.

9. Pearl Jam (2006)

Following 2000’s experimental Binaural and 2002’s overtly political Riot Act, Pearl Jam’s self titled (also affectionately called Avocado by many fans) was seen as another return to big mainstream rock records a la Yield in 1998. It’s a really solid record and the band is by and large locked in. The band came out swinging with the overtly political first single “World Wide Suicide” and tracks like “Life Wasted”, “Come Back”, and “Inside Job” are some of the standouts here.

8. Gigaton (2020)

Gigaton is far from Pearl Jam’s greatest record, but it is everything that is great about Pearl Jam. “Dance of the Clairvoyants is their most challenging first single since No Code’s “Who Are You”. It’s a really strong choice for the first single and it sounds a lot closer to the Talking Heads than it does the band who wrote “Even Flow” thirty years ago. I also absolutely can’t wait to hear how the band breathes their live energy into songs like “Quick Escape” and “Seven O Clock”. The pump organ on “River Cross” and Vedder’s final breaths of “Share the light/ Won’t hold us down” bring a fitting and hopeful end to the band’s best and most consistent record in over a decade. I don’t even think Gigaton has many low points, it’s by far the most consistent the band has been in record in two decades. All in all Gigaton is a nice reminder that three decades in the band can still rock and surprise us.

7. Binurial (2000)

The first Pearl Jam record since Ten to not feature Brendan O’Brien as Producer, Binurial sees Pearl Jam at their most weird and it’s absolutely fantastic. The album is named after the recording technique used on the record where two microphones are arranged to capture the audio to sound like it’s almost 3D. This is a headphones record if there ever is one. The moody and atmospheric sound is pretty unique for the band and I am not sure they’ve ever really made anything that sounds like it before or since.”Breakerfall”, “Evacuation” and “God’s Dice” are all up-tempo straight forward rock songs stand out. But it’s the Jeff Ament penned “Nothing As it Seems” is probably my personal favorite from the album.

6. Backspacer (2009)

A lot of great rock bands usually find a way to make that come back record that proves to everyone they can still do it later in their career after periods of critical and commercial turmoil. For Pearl Jam, that record is Backspacer. Front to back this is just a great album and following the election of Barack Obama the year prior, is a far more optimistic record than the Riot Act and the self titled album which immediately proceeded it. And man, oh man are the highs on Backspacer monumental ones. “Just Breathe”, “Unthought Known”, and “Amongst the Waves” are absolutely essential Pearl Jam songs. “The Fixer” was also a really solid first single that the band could stand to sneak into their setlist more (it’s been played live just once in the past five years). This is also the Pearl Jam album that’s grown on me the most.

5. Ten (1991)

Please put the pitchforks down. I know this might sound sacrilegious to have Ten ranked so low, but hear me out. Ten is truly a classic record, it’s an indelible document of a bygone era when flannels and nihilism were in and neon and synths were out. It’s a testament to how much Pearl Jam grew as a band that an album as monumental as Ten can barely crack the top five. This list is entirely subjective and if I am being honest I don’t have the attachment to this record I do to some of their other work. I also think it’s the only Pearl Jam record where the production bothers me a little bit (thankfully, Brendan O’Brien re-mixed and re-mastered the album back in 2009 is a big improvement). That being said, how many songs sound better than “Alive” with 100,000 people singing along? “Black” still has the same raw emotional power it did almost thirty years ago. “Release” may be the best set opener ever and “Porch” just absolutely fucking rules live. Ten is one of the great American rock records and it’s impact is pretty undeniable at this point.

4. Vs. (1993)

I like Vs. and I think it takes a lot of things that Ten was trying to do and just ultimately does them a bit better. “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” rightfully earns it’s place in the songs with long names hall of fame. It’s played live pretty consistently, but I never get sick of it. “Go” and “Animal” pack some pretty vicious punches and it’s always a ton of fun to see the band kick into high gear. “Blood” blends punk in funk in such a captivating way, it’s an absolute joy every time it gets broken out in concert. 17 years later, the acoustic “Daughter” is still an FM rock radio staple for a reason. In the three decades Pearl Jam have been a band, they’ve undergone almost as many drummer changes as Spinal Tap. It’s criminal that Pearl Jam only got to make one full record with drummer Dave Abbruzzese, he’s an absolute animal behind the kit and his presence is really felt here.

3. Yield (1998)

For some reason this is the Pearl Jam record I come back to the most. Following Vitalogy and No Code, two records basically intended to shrink their audience, Pearl Jam made their return to big mainstream rock music with 1998’s Yield. This record has the band firing on all cylinders. “Brain of J” is a great way to kick of the album and stands out as one of the better side one, track ones in Pearl Jam’s discography. The cynical and sarcastic “Do the Evolution” is such a welcome a jolt of energy every-time it comes on. “Given to Fly” is one of my all time favorite songs, “Low Light” kills live, and a song like “All Those Yesterdays” is a fitting end to the record. For post-Vitalogy Pearl Jam, Yield is utterly digestible and is just a flat out good time. Very few rock records are as utterly satisfying start to finish.

2. Vitalogy (1994)

Vitalogy is largely seen as where things started to shift. Uncomfortable with a huge fan base and so much mainstream success, the band made concerted efforts to shy away from growing a larger fan base. This included never officially releasing “Better Man” as a single (it was seen as too commercial by the band and they were right, it eventually peaked at 13 on Top 40 and number 1 on the rock charts). “Nothingman” is acoustic Pearl Jam at their absolute best. “Not For You” is one of the great fuck you songs ever written. “Corduroy” is the perfect four and a half minute distillation of everything that makes Pearl Jam such a fantastic and undeniable rock band. “Immortality” remains one of the best closing tracks of any record (not counting the experimental “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”). I mean this is also the album with “Bugs” on it, a three minute accordion based song about…you guessed it, bugs. It is just as fucking bizarre and fantastic as it sounds. Need I say more?

1.No Code (1996)

This is it. Vitalogy walked so that No Code could run. Pearl Jam have always been at their best when they challenge themselves and their audience by exploring new artistic ground and push the creative envelope as far as it can go. They swung for the fences and went all on that with No Code when they released “Who You Are”, a four minute eastern influenced track where Eddie Vedder plays the sitar, as the first single. But if you are looking for something in particular chances are pretty good that No Code has you covered. Want Pearl Jam going full tilt on those Fugazi and hardcore punk influences? “Lukin” has got you covered. Need just some great hard garage rock songs? “Hail, Hail” and “Habit” are perfectly sequenced to break up some of the more challenging tracks on No Code. Love it when the band slips into something a bit slower? “Off He Goes” and “Present Tense” are two of the best in their catalogue. “Smile” sees the band wearing their Neil Young influences proudly on their sleeves (he is the Godfather of Grunge after all, least you forget). We even get “Mankind” where Stone gets to take over lead vocals. Pearl Jam’s albums have always rewarded patience and commitment, but No Code is the one that continues to reveal itself the most.

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