Pearl Jam (1992) (l to r): Eddie Vedder (vocals), Mike McCready (lead guitar), Dave Abbruzzese (drums), Jeff Ament (bass), Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) – photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns
Contributor: Paul Stephenson
First things first, being asked to choose a scant ten tracks from your favourite band’s entire discography may sound like a pleasant way to spend a morning, but I can assure you it’s as pleasant as watching Trump’s face as it flaps about spewing barely coherent sentences. I feel utterly defiled, only now understanding that scene in Sophie’s Choice, as I tearfully deleted tracks from my playlist. *Ahem* Maybe don’t tell my kids that, though eh? But, I got there in the end, thanks to some heroic culling and a mild disregard for my own safety once this thing goes public. You’re welcome. So here are my top ten Pearl Jam tracks, not presented in any kind of ranking, but simply how they’d work nicely on a playlist together, because it was hard enough to choose ten, let alone try and put one of them bottom of a list.
Drum roll please!
|Let The Records Play||Lightning Bolt|
|State Of Love And Trust||Singles OST|
|Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town||Vs.|
|Present Tense||No Code|
|Nothing As It Seems||Binaural|
Since it’s designed to work as a playlist, why not find that playlist right here:
Now, whether you’re a die-hard fan or a complete PJ novice, I’m guessing that list is going to require a bit of explanation. Let me roll up my sleeves, not because I need to do that to explain it to you, but because I can’t be arsed to go fiddle with the thermostat and it’s warm in here.
Let The Records Play (Lightning Bolt)
Let’s start off with something off the new album, because it’s a great track, and has a really nice groove to it that someone who lost touch with them sometime in the 90s wouldn’t be expecting. Basically I’m setting the cat amongst the pigeons a bit and trying to drive anyone away who’s going to be upset that I didn’t pick Jeremy. This last album, which the piece below was written to eulogise, was as strong as anything they’ve released. Frankly, I could have done a top ten from the last three albums that would be as strong as Ten or Vs. But I didn’t, because that’s not why we’re here.
State Of Love And Trust (Singles OST)
Going back to the early days here, and the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film Singles. This is as confident a start as you’ll ever hear a band make, with a riff to shake the foundations of Seattle. If I were to ever try and introduce the band with a single track, this would be what I’d choose. Also, a great Mike McCready solo.
Comatose (Pearl Jam)
For all the complexity and depth that the band have shown over the years, they remain, at heart, a blistering rock band, and an incredible live force, playing upwards of three hours at a time more often than not. This track, from their eponymous eighth album, captures that live sound and spirit perfectly; Vedder’s vocals always on the edge of control, and the rhythm section driving forward the guitars of Gossard and McCready like a lorry driving forward another, smaller lorry.
Quite simply the best song on the best album. It was this song, I think, that pushed me beyond being a fan to being someone who’d be eulogising them to anyone who’d listen half my life later. That crescendo, that battering ram of an ending, it still sends chills down my spine, which is no mean feat for a song about the least interesting part of a car. If you were wondering which song would be number one in a rankings race, wonder no more.
Why Go (Ten)
Let’s face it, I’m ignoring a lot of the established classics here. On Ten alone, you have Even Flow, Jeremy and Black, three of Pearl Jam’s biggest ever hits. All great songs, obviously, but come on, it’d be boring to just choose the songs we all know. Besides, who doesn’t skip those songs these days, if they’re brutally honest? I went for this off the first album because it’s a perfect distillation of the social anger that drove that album, and the rest of their career, and it has every bit as good a chorus as those more established hits.
Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town (Vs.)
One thing that gets overlooked amidst a lot of the snobbery around Pearl Jam (and there’s oceans of that, if you care to look) is just how good a lyricist Eddie Vedder is. He’s a storyteller in the Springsteen mould, and especially adept at giving voice to those who don’t get represented in most rock music. This, the tale of a woman struggling to deal with the sudden reappearance of an old flame in her senior years, is both heartbreaking and beautiful, and the song is utterly haunting.
Present Tense (No Code)
As much as Vedder is a brilliant songwriter, he’s far from being alone in the band on that score. This farewell to addiction from guitarist Mike McCready contains a lyric that’s always stuck with me: ‘you can spend your time alone re-digesting past regrets, or you can come to terms and try to realise you’re the only one who can forgive yourself.’ The album this comes from, No Code, seems to have been a turning point for the band as well, shedding them of the mainstream press and expectations that had been laid on their shoulders from the moment they emerged, but solidifying their place with millions of fans. Not bad going for a band who were openly mocked by Adam Sandler, of all people. Who’s laughing now, Adam? Certainly not anyone watching your films, am I right? *turns to high five someone but remembers I’m sitting alone*
Nothing As It Seems (Binaural)
Continuing on a spiral of bleakness, I couldn’t not include this. It’s so moody and dark, completely at odds with anything else they’d released to this point but still sounding like nobody else on earth. It’s also tied to one of my strongest memories of the band, driving to see them for the very first time, my best friend having bought me tickets because I couldn’t afford it, insisting he rewind the song to listen to again and again and wondering if they’d play it. I don’t recall now if they did, but I don’t care. A beautiful song.
Whilst I’ve omitted a lot of more obvious choices on this list, I couldn’t go and not include any of the ‘man trilogy’. I don’t want snipers turning up outside my house after all. Carrying on the somewhat gloomy direction this top ten has headed in, this ode to not wanting to fuck up your marriage is just a beautiful song.
Just Breathe (Backspacer)
Eddie Vedder has written a lot of songs about loss over the years; it’s something that haunts every album, somewhere. But I love this song, from their ninth album, because it finds a note of hope and love amidst that loss that is quite lovely. A lot of discussion rages online about the meaning of the lyrics, and lot of people who want to see God in those lyrics find what they’re looking for, but I find the opposite. It’s about finding solace in the time you spent with someone after they’ve gone, and not having to look anywhere other than that. Musically deft of touch, the chorus shows just how good this band are. Which seems like a good place to leave it.
I’m sure there’ll be pitchforks at the door any moment now. Please direct all abuse to my second twitter account, @RealDonaldTrump. Thanks.
Ten (1991) Vs. (1993) Vitalogy (1994) No Code (1996) Yield (1998) Binaural (2000) Riot Act (2002) Pearl Jam (2006) Backspacer (2009) Lightning Bolt (2013)
Pearl Jam (2016) (l to r): Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar), Eddie Vedder (vocals), Matt Cameron (drums), Jeff Ament (bass), Mike McCready (lead guitar) – photo Danny Clinch
Paul Stephenson is a writer and blogger. His book, Welcome To Discovery Park, started as a challenge while he was the editor of sadly-deceased music zine Demon Pigeon, and chronicles Paul’s increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time’ list. This comic and acerbic book looks at why we feel the need to quantify and rank our art, revels in the complex musical world we live in, and wonders why anyone would voluntarily listen to Bono.
His first novel, the 5-star-rated apocalyptic horror Blood On The Motorway, and its sequel, Sleepwalk City, are also out now. If people decide to read these books, he might consider writing some more. If they don’t he’ll probably keep writing them anyway. You can follow along with Paul’s new music challenge, Alt. School, here.
Here’s an excerpt from Welcome To Discovery Park about today’s band in question:
As you grow ever closer to whatever end you may find, you can notice yourself accumulating a lot of rituals. I have dozens of them. I have a ritual for making coffee in exactly the right way (milk first, stir as you pour in the water); a ritual for curating the music I have on my phone (you don’t want to know); a ritual for closing down the pop up ads on an illegal football match stream (less of a ritual and more a fraught exercise in malware avoidance), and, most importantly, I have a ritual for new Pearl Jam albums.
I’ve mentioned before what a rabid Pearl Jam fanboy I am. You remember that, right? They were the be-all and end-all of my adolescence, and every two years I used to celebrate the release of a new album in the same way, when, like clockwork, they would arrive. The night before release I’d listen to all the albums back to back, to prepare myself for the inevitable wonderfulness of the newborn. It’s a bit like the nesting that pregnant women do, except nothing is actually achieved.
The first time I did this was with Vitalogy, so I only had two albums to listen to. Then, I got up bright and early on a Monday morning and headed to the shitty Our Price record store in Canterbury. I queued up (there was only me there) and ran back to school as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me, in the hope I wouldn’t get beaten for my lateness by a scowling and decidedly un-grunge teacher, clutching the plastic bag carrying the excellently-packaged CD to my sweaty little breast the whole day. For No Code it was similar, but with the Our Price in the Lakeside Shopping Centre, and me giving considerably less of a shit if I made it to college on time. By the time Yield came around it was the Our Price in Sunderland and me not remotely caring if I had lectures that day.
These days a new Pearl Jam album has been out for weeks before I even realise it, encased as I am in the shroud of middle-aged alienation and befuddlement; but the ritual is still there, like a pair of warm slippers. Ten records into their career, however, it now takes a couple of days to get through all the re-recorded classic albums, the two-disc rarities albums, not to mention their 759 live albums, and then the albums proper, all before the main event.
Listening to the band’s entire back catalogue unlocks a flood of memories, feelings and other such mental detritus, like scanning the index pages of my entire life. I recall all the friendships that have revolved around this band over the years, from my best friend in college with whom I shared a radio show, whose jingle was crafted out of a song from Vitalogy. The same one who phoned me out of the blue years later when I was absolutely skint to tell me he’d bought me a ticket to go and see them at Wembley, so that I might finally witness my heroes in the flesh, all because four years earlier, he hadn’t been able to get me a ticket to see them on the No Code tour. I think that still ranks as the single nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.
I think about my current friend who is about to enter fatherhood and how I know for a fact that his son will spend most of his first weeks listening to this new Pearl Jam album, possibly whilst being read the Morrissey autobiography, proving once and for all that being a Pearl Jam fan is no guarantee of taste. I also thought about how I’ll never fully forgive my mum for taping over the MTV Unplugged VHS I had with a random episode of Coronation Street. God damn you, Mum.
I remember feeling completely lost and sad after the Roskilde tragedy, when nine fellow fans lost their lives during Pearl Jam’s set. I remember being at the front of the crowd six years later when the band played their first festival since the accident and how overwhelmed by emotion they were and we were, the band bringing a storming set to a close with a tear-strewn Yellow Ledbetter that had band and crowd both weeping. Personally, I just had dust in my eye, obviously.
I also think about how predictable reviewers and other music hacks are when they talk about Pearl Jam’s flagging powers and their lack of decent albums since whichever was the last one they actually bothered listening to. Seriously, they’ve had a purple patch nine albums long, with every new record being well above the standard set by the rest of the American ‘AOR’ market, even the slightly lacklustre last one. Beat that, U2.
Lastly, I look at my kids and hoped that they too might find something in their teenage years that will last as long for them; that when they inevitably find themselves facing moments of darkness and strife, they have something that will pull them back from the brink, like the song Footsteps once did for me.
This isn’t a band to me anymore, it’s a mythos, a thread that has existed as part of my life for so long that I can’t separate it from the rest of what is me. They’ve been part of me for 22 of my 34 years. I’m not sure there’s anything else that can make that claim, besides my actual meat and bones.
Find out more about Welcome To Discovery Park here