Pearl Jam was a band that defined the 1990s and one of the few colossally successful bands of that era to survive into the present. Just how would Pearl Jam albums be ranked from worst to best?
I’ve always considered the band to be one of the most important of recent decades and have long felt that some of their most important musical contributions have largely gone unnoticed.
This is the reason why I’ve thoroughly gone back to inspect each of the studio albums in their discography and think I can now express my opinion about which Pearl Jam albums are essential to alternative-rock fans.
Pearl Jam Albums Ranked
11. “Binaural” (2000)
Pearl Jam had made it all too clear in the past that they were determined to follow their muse. Largely, it had worked, and audiences had bought into their rebelliousness.
“Binaural” is the first serious misstep.
Some may accuse its frosty reception on the success of trends such as nu-metal. But that would be to ignore the fact that the collection of songs on “Binaural” is simply below par with their excellent previous records.
The playing, however, is great. Matt Cameron replaces Jack Irons behind the drums and immediately gel with the group.
Mike McCready provides some of his very finest lead guitar work, especially on the album’s highlight, “Nothing as It Seems.”
“Light Years” is another strong track that emphasizes the band’s already evident love of classic rock.
While I loved McCready’s solos, this was the first Pearl Jam record that left me feeling underwhelmed.
However, little else impresses here.
10. “Gigaton” (2020)
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was never shy about raging against certain issues when he felt he had something to say. Few would argue about the band’s genuinely good intentions.
“Gigaton” is a strange beast. It’s partly a protest record and partly a classic rock album.
Once again, the interaction between band members is good, and there’s plenty of goodwill accumulated from their fanbase. But the songs are just not there.
And history had shown that Pearl Jam could not be at its best if the quality of the songs weren’t up to scratch.
It’s surprising, really, as all of the band members receive writing credits. Even Stone Gossard, the man who’d largely helmed the excellent “Ten” isn’t quite delivering the goods.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants” could be considered a highlight, perhaps, but the funky groove feels somewhat out of place.
On my review of “Gigaton,” I called “Superblood Moon” the clear standout track, an opinion which I maintain.
Overall, “Gigaton” is not an impressive record, but considering Pearl Jam’s excellent track record, some missteps can be forgiven by fans.
9. “Lightning Bolt” (2013)
Pearl Jam had largely won the war by the time they were heading into the second decade of their career.
They had sold millions but hardly done any promotion. They were regarded as grunge icons but had made entire artwork albums.
With little left to prove, the band returns to their first love, one that they’d tried to conceal for a while, classic rock.
“Lightning Bolt” sounds like a collection of songs meant to be jammed on stage by the band. This means that flourishes from McCready and Ament are frequent.
“Mind Your Manners” features some of the fury of old. Other highlights include the title track, “Sirens,” and “Let the Records Play.”
8. “Backspacer” (2009)
On “Backspacer,” Pearl Jam finally sounds at peace with its legacy. As they should’ve been. They were now frantically touring arenas, largely playing songs from their first albums.
“Backspacer” sounds like an artsy, arena-rock album. It dispels any fears that the group might want to revert to tactics used on “No Code” and create a subdued, moody record.
For the most part, it’s a real relief to hear a straight-ahead rock record with some gentle acoustic numbers thrown in.
“The Fixer” is one of the band’s best songs in years, with Matt Cameron handling much of the writing on it.
“Just Breathe” is another hand-on-heart song from Eddie Vedder and acts almost like a would-be soundtrack to his distaste for fame exhibited throughout his career.
It’s a strong record. At times, it feels almost like a gift received by members of the fan club. It’s unlikely, though, to convince bring on board new fans.
7. “No Code” (1996)
For all intents and purposes, by “No Code,” Pearl Jam was one of the last grunge bands standing. But the band was working hard to wash off that label.
Fortunately, the abilities of the band members could support their ambition. Jeff Ament’s bass playing and Mike McCready’s guitar heroics add new layers to the band’s sound.
Unfortunately, Stone Gossard’s songwriting is pushed further into the background. It was much of his knack for writing catchy rock riffs that had made “Ten” what it was.
Instead, singer Eddie Vedder is firmly in control of procedures. This is not entirely a bad thing. Neither is the fact that he rarely screams as much as in previous records.
“No Code” is largely an album where Vedder and the band take stock of their situation. Highlights include “Who You Are,” “Smile,” and the somber “Off He Goes”.
But it’s on songs like “Lukin,” where the band rocks out for just one minute, that the band still sounds most comfortable.
6. “Pearl Jam” (2006)
Their self-titled eighth album marked the longest gap between records for Pearl Jam. By this time, their reputation was well established. Grunge bands had acquired an almost legendary status.
Pearl Jam responds to all of this by making an honest, typical representation of the band. There are few surprises here, but many of the songs are very good.
“World Wide Suicide” is a distorted anti-war number. “Life Wasted” is an earnest tribute to Johnny Ramone. “Come Back” rings out almost like REM playing soul music.
The band members interact brilliantly with one another, and the group is confident in their craft. There is, however, just a little less energy and inspiration than on previous records.
This is entirely understandable, considering the pure rage on which their career-defining early records were made. Take the excellent but slightly subdued rockers “Big Wave” and “Severed Hand” for evidence.
I remember purchasing the physical copy of the record and being immensely excited. It was as if a new gateway into the world of this great, mysterious band had opened. I’ve played the album often but occasionally have nearly felt guilty about not liking it more.
5. “Yield” (1998)
Pearl Jam was only five records in by the time they made “Yield.” But they’d already survived their colossal success and largely outlived their contemporaries.
Maybe it was because Pearl Jam were the unlikely last men standing, or perhaps it had to do with the relative lack of success of “No Code,” but “Yield” is largely a straightforward rock record.
“Brain of J.” and “Do the Evolution” are highlights. They power through power chords as in yesteryear, but a stronger interest in politics can be observed.
Meanwhile, “Wishlist” and “All Those Yesterdays” are tender songs. The darkness is still here, but it is starting to be replaced by hope.
Pearl Jam were still one of the biggest bands in the world, and they had seemingly fought their success every step of the way.
4. “Riot Act” (2002)
“Riot Act” is a return to form for Pearl Jam. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the album was made at a time when, finally, grunge and alternative rock were no longer the dominant forces in the music charts.
Whereas “Binaural” was moody and ambitious but didn’t have the songs to back it up its claims, “Riot Act” has many terrific songs.
Best of all, the band finds a way to blend its experimental tendencies with straight-ahead, classic rock songs effortlessly.
The band even finds a compromise with their record label by promoting the album with two music videos. The format, which was still popular, had not been used by Pearl Jam since their debut album.
“Save You” is a frantic rocker. The singles “Love Boat Captain” and “I Am Mine” are also highlights, ringing like well-intentioned Eddie Vedder mantras.
“Bushleaguer” again showcases the band’s distrust of the political elite.
“Riot Act” was a strong album that showed that Pearl Jam was above the musical trends and not nearly as self-destructive as the first decade of their career might have had some believe.
3. “Vs.” (1993)
“Vs.” was Pearl Jam’s second album and another commercial and artistic success. It was also the first indication of the band’s distrust of the music business.
Grunge, of which Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the symbols, was arguably as much based on a sound as on an anti-corporate attitude.
Soon enough, Pearl Jam would be wrestling with Ticketmaster, music award ceremonies, and even the record label calling out for the band to release more music videos (they would not).
Much of the record takes the aggressive energy of their live shows and amps it up. Album openers “Go” and Animal” are frenzied expressions of rage. “Dissident” and “Rearviewmirror” express the band, especially Vedder’s general skepticism.
Highlights also include the slower and largely acoustic numbers. “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” show that the band was determined to fight the good fight.
The first song that I heard from this record was “Daughter.” I was intrigued by how the intensity of this performance was carried out on almost all songs here.
“Vs.” is nearly as good as “Ten.” Still, there are some signs of overindulgence which would get more pronounced with time.
2. “Vitalogy” (1994)
By 1994, Pearl Jam had become one of the most beloved live bands in the U.S.A. Furthermore, they’d also largely won over the music critics.
Some of them had previously accused the band of jumping on the grunge bandwagon, a statement largely proven false by history.
That same year, the figurehead of grunge and occasional Pearl Jam critic, Kurt Cobain, had lost his life. The sense of disbelief and anger informs some of the songs here.
Musically, the band is stretching past the format used in their first two releases. It contains fourteen songs and moves freely between styles. The darkness surrounding the making of the album is rarely hidden.
There are many highlights. “Corduroy” is one of them. It includes Eddie Vedder’s fighting words, “I would rather starve than eat your bread“.
“Last Exit,” “Not for You,” and “Spin the Black Circle” are powered by the singer’s excellent, enraged delivery.
Songs like “Bugs,” “Nothingman,” and “Tremor Christ” show that Pearl Jam’s musicians were anxious to move past the confines of grunge and alternative rock.
This was the first Pearl Jam record that felt challenging to me. The rewards, I found, were well worth the effort.
Meanwhile, “Betterman” works nearly as a power ballad and unsurprisingly became one of the band’s biggest songs.
1. “Ten” (1991)
No band could hope for a better debut album than “Ten.” Few could have done better in carrying the load of having to follow a record with so many great and famous songs.
While a landmark and one of the greatest-selling grunge albums, “Ten” suffers from being unjustly compared to Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Both albums came out in 1991 and ignited incredible interest in Seattle bands.
Critics of “Ten” will point to how easily this collection of punk and hard-rock-inspired songs flows. Fans of the album will talk mention the same thing.
It’s hard to explain the sheer quality and energy of the songs. Timing, however, seems to be the biggest factor.
Mother Love Bone had come close to mainstream success. Their arena-rock ambitions were never a secret. Stone Gossard, who dominates songwriting on “Ten,” cleverly takes on the lessons learned from his previous band.
I remember purchasing this record on cassette. I had no expectations and had, in fact, only bought this together with two other Nirvana albums. From the moment I played it, I was shocked by its intensity and the quality of the songs. It became one of my most often played cassettes.
Meanwhile, Eddie Vedder was a diamond in the rough, a soon-to-be-famous rock singer that was largely an unknown quantity. His enthusiasm for performing is prevalent throughout.
Yes, highlights include the singles “Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Evenflow.” But there is no poor song in sight. “Once” is a roaring album opener, and “Black” pitches Vedder as a singer of the same quality as Layne Staley or Chris Cornell.
“Why Go” and “Deep” capture a manic punk-like energy that would be transferred onto the album’s follow-up. And “Release” impresses by showing just what Pearl Jam could do while jamming over even the simplest of chords.
“Ten” was a monumental success, received some unwanted criticism, and it took Pearl Jam much of its career to fully accept. When the dust settled, most fans accepted it as one of the best rock releases of the decade.