“I think music is the greatest art form that exists, and I think people listen to music for different reasons, and it serves different purposes. The best songs are the ones that make you feel something” — Eddie Vedder
Pearl Jam burst out of the Pacific Northwest to become a worldwide phenomenon with their unique brand of alternative rock. The group, led by the empirical vocal talent of Eddie Vedder, have been crafting searing songs with a purpose for decades. Arriving in the late eighties, they begrudgingly hold the title as one of grunge’s inspiring forefathers and are pioneers of rock music’s shift from glamour and glitz to grime and grit. Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, Pearl Jam are as potent as ever.
2020’s Gigaton confirmed the band were still a force to be reckoned with, but, in truth, it is their entire catalogue that is worth revisiting. Across eleven studio albums, the band have delivered powerful tunes and vibrant lyricism time and time again. But if you’re somewhat baffled by the sheer volume of their work, then we’ve got you covered as we’re ranking the albums in order of greatness, so you have somewhere to begin your journey with one of America’s finest.
The band are approaching some serious milestones this year. Their third record Vitalogy turned 25 in 2019, and now their debut, Ten will be 30. But perhaps the finest assessment of Pearl Jam’s ability to stick in the pocket and never come out is that Gigaton remains as vital a part of their discography as any of those mentioned. The band, it would seem, are destined to be filling stadiums and selling records for many years to come.
Below, we’re ranking Parel Jam’s studio albums in order of greatness.
Pearl Jam albums ranked worst to best:
11. Riot Act (2002)
It’s never an easy task to go through the work of an acclaimed artist and proclaim one album as the worst. But, if we were forced to pick one, and we’re certainly forcing ourselves, then it’s hard to look past their 2002 effort Riot Act. The album arrived as the band’s seventh studio record and followed some of the band’s darkest times.
As well as being the first record they released following the tragic attacks on September 11 in 2001 but also the first LP since the disaster at Rokslide Festival in 2000, which saw the accidental death of nine fans. It means the album is brimming with deeply personal and widely political messages — something which, as a piece of art, feels a little too stretched.
The album moves between these themes as it does different styles, meaning their gentle grunge feels patchy against their more experimental moments. Nevertheless, ‘Thumbing My Way’ remains a top song.
10. Lightning Bolt (2013)
It’s clear that Pearl Jam, by 2013, had found their sound and weren’t keen on shifting away from the matured rock sonics they laid down on Lightning Bolt. Though languishing near the bottom of our list, the album is packed with some robust rock songs and makes out Pearl Jam as better than most, even when not at their best.
‘Sirens’ is one of the best moments on the Lp and is bristling with punk rock ethics, while ‘Sleeping by Myself’ sees Eddie Vedder break out the ukulele for a quick jam. The real reason for its position on our list is that Vedder is far from at his peak lyrically, instead, providing more ‘radio-ready’ rock for the airwaves. For a band that have always been inspirational, this LP falls a little flat.
9. Pearl Jam (2006)
Self-titled albums usually come at the beginning of a band’s career, which may be why most of the band’s fans refer to this record as Avocado. But, no matter which way you cut it, this LP is a little on the flimsy side. The album does fly out of the gates with some serious tracks, though, but after ‘World Wide Suicide’ and ‘Severed Head’, things begin to wilt.
This album falters for a band that is as famed for their songwriting as they are their intricate and intrinsic production. Songs like ‘Come Back’ and ‘Inside Job’ still pack a punch, but, in reality, this isn’t Pearl Jam at their peak, let alone their definitive sound as the title may suggest. The album highlight is certainly ‘Come Back’ written alongside the West Memphis Three.
8. Binaural (2000)
The turn of the new millennium had countless bands revisiting their style and seeing how they could push themselves creatively — Pearl Jam were no different. Binaural saw Vedder and co. begin to fully experiment with different musical elements as well as recording techniques. It means that Binaural is easily one of the band’s most expansive efforts.
It’s not all ear-bending experimentation, though, and there is still plenty here for the casual fan. Songs like ‘Evacuation’ provide a catchy reprieve, as does the frightfully undervalued ‘Light Years’. However, as is seemingly a problem with a lot of Pearl Jam’s lesser efforts, the LP does eventually dwindle to something a little more disappointing.
One thing we would say is, miss out on ‘Thin Air’ and regret it forevermore — it’s one of their best songs ever.
7. No Code (1996)
From one expansive sound to another as we revisit 1996’s No Code, an album widely considered to be Pearl Jam’s most experimental. There is a pounding rhythm that permeates the record that feels akin to war drums while the guitars get fuzzy and Vedder’s vocals get stretched. There’s plenty of elements of the finest bits of rock on this one.
‘Habit’ hits with a penchant for garage rock, ‘Red Mosquiot’ feels like it was plucked out of the Deep South, and the is still some headstrong big hitters like ‘Lukin’ to get rock purists excited. It also sees the band’s frontman enact a narrative lyrical style that would draw on fictional characters to express his innermost feelings. It’s a heady concoction that should be revisited at your nearest opportunity.
6. Backspacer (2009)
Usually, when digging through the back catalogue of a ‘legacy’ act, it’s a safe assumption to make that the more recent the album, and therefore the older the band get, the more their cutting edge is dulled. It makes logical sense for a scything band to become a little blunt over the years. But, on Backspacer, Pearl Jam proved once more that they buck the trend.
The album is often thought of as a bit forgettable, but we’d argue that it deserves more attention than it’s given. When you peer into the deep space of the songs, it’s easy to find the beauty of their construction. Of course, some rip-roaring rockers are on the record, but they also make way for more orchestral moments. ‘Just Breathe’ is one song on the album that stands alone as one of their best, but we think there is just a much value in ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Amongst the Waves’.
5. Gigaton (2020)
In 2020, nobody saw it coming. No, not that. The return of Pearl Jam but, perhaps more importantly, the near-perfect return of Pearl Jam with their eleventh studio album Gigaton. Three decades into their career, they managed to pull a bonafide gem out of the bag and provide an album brimming with possibility and vibrating with dynamic energy.
One of the greatest facets of the record, other than the sheer gall it takes to pull off such an album, is Vedder’s unstoppable vocals. Of course, the band has always relied on Vedder as a talismanic figure within the group, but he kicks things up a notch on this one. There’s plenty of moments across the album to get your feet stomping, but our favourite has to be the funk-infused bopper ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’, which is howling good fun for all involved.
4. Vitalogy (1994)
If you’re an ardent Pearl Jam fan, you’ll have already known that the top four records on this list are when things would get interesting. While there are plenty of reasons to mix up the top quadrant of releases, there’s no doubting that all of them deserve their place, including, of course, their seminal LP Vitalogy.
Despite being one of the band’s most beloved album, it actually came about during some serious internal struggles. Vedder and the rest of the gorup’s relationship deteriorated as he seemed more focused on destroying Ticketmaster. It translated into the music, too, as the songs on this LP are far more aggressive than anywhere else in their canon, relying on the powerful backing of the band to provide clout to songs like ‘Not For You’ and their landmark single ‘Better Man’.
Though that song is the one most people remember, it’s hard not to see ‘Courduroy’ as the LP’s finest moment.
3. Vs. (1993)
‘Second album syndrome’ s a serious problem for most bands. Having to follow up your debut LP, likely a piece of work you’ve been at least partially creating since you became a band, is no mean feat. But Pearl Jam approached it with a calm sense of self that confirmed their yet-to-be-realised longevity.
There’s a good argument for saying that Vs. is the beginning of Pearl Jam’s defining sound. The first LP with producer Brendan O’Brien, the record also houses some of the gorup’s most cherished songs, including ‘Dissident’ and ‘Animal’, which only add to the era-defining sound.
The record was a finger to the naysayers who assumed Pearl Jam to be a flash in the grunge pan and set out their stall for the three-decade-long career they were about to enjoy.
2. Yield (1998)
We may catch some flack for including 1998’s Yield so high up on our list, but we’ll stick by it. The band’s final album with drummer Jack Irons, the LP ranks as the group’s most authentic piece of work, transposes the beating hearts of the band into song. Lyrics come from across the group with Vedder, Ament and Gossard all contributing, and, likewise, musically, it feels encompassing and thick with intent.
Lead single ‘Given to Fly’ is certainly one of Pearl Jam’s finest, and even the slightly flimsy ‘Wishlist’ feels like a vital piece of proceedings. Discounting that song, there truly isn’t a bad track on the album, proving that they still pack a wallop even when at their most understated.
As previously mentioned, when Vedder’s vocal ids on for,m, nothing can really touch him or the band. On Yield, we arguably get the singer’s finest performance as he delicately plays between light and dark to create textured art that few can match.
1. Ten (1991)
Go ahead, groan; you’re only making yourselves look silly. If you got to the top of this list and expected to see anything other than the band’s breakthrough record Ten sit atop the pile of perfect albums, then you’re more than foolish. The band’s 1991 debut LP is not only their defining moment but perhaps the defining moment of an entire generation.
It was the first taste of the band’s anthemic stature, the first breath of Vedder’s undeniably brilliant vocal and the first vision of a group that would define rock music for decades to come. For those reasons alone, it deserves its spot at the top. When you add songs like ‘Alive’ and ‘Jeremy’, you have a clear winner.
Though like all debut LPs, the record sees the band making their first steps toward stardom, those footprints are made with intent and can still be seen to this day. The album also contains ‘Black, ‘ perhaps Pearl Jam’s greatest song confirming its place as Pearl Jam’s best album.