Discog Fever: Rating Every Pearl Jam Album (Part 1 - the '90s)

by Bill Lambusta

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com featuring a rating and review of a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Rising from the ashes of grunge forefathers Green River and groove rockers Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron) became a prominent face for the Seattle scene in the early ‘90s. Through the ups and downs of mainstream rock over the last few decades, the band has remained an icon as they continually release albums on a consistent basis.

Ten (1991)

B-

ten

Although a stunning and highly influential debut, compared to the breadth of music the band has created over its 25 year career, Ten does not hold up well. Unfortunately for Pearl Jam, the hard rock sound that defined this record has been so aped, deconstructed, and reconstructed since their debut that now it almost feels like just another face in the crowd, instead of the leader of the pack. Luckily for the band, visceral tunes like “Once,” “Even Flow,” and “Why Go” join forces with the anthemic “Alive” and sublime “Black” to overcome the lethargic second half and maintain the album’s reputation as a classic.

Vs. (1993)

A-

The band’s sophomore effort continued the tradition of chest-beating rockers with “Go,” “Animal,” and “Rearviewmirror,” but Vedder and the boys made an attempt at exploring new territory with great success with folk-tinged songs (“Daughter” and “Elderly Woman…”), some artsy meditations (“WMA”), and even a funk jam (“Rats”). Few bands have avoided “the slump” so well, having actually solidified their aesthetic while simultaneously pushing forward into new sonic landscapes and incorporating influences across the history of rock and pop. Compared to their first, this album is decidedly more balanced, ending on the terrific one-two punch of “Leash” and “Indifference.” It’s weird that Ten has become the “landmark album” of choice when discussing PJ when this is the one that helped them define themselves as more than just a grunge band.

Vitalogy (1994)

A+

As a concept record, it’s hard to talk about Vitalogy without discussing the awesome cover and artwork that turns the case sideways, adds a gold foil embossed script, and incorporates pages from an early 20th century home remedy book (filled with terrible medical advice). It definitely pulls you into the dirty, angry world the band was in at the time. Stone and Eddie weren’t getting along, drummer Dave Abbruzzese was out of the band (even if he didn’t know it yet), and Mike McCready was in and out of rehab during the sessions. Add onto that the suicide of their closest peer and most challenging but respected rival, Kurt Cobain. Although the beautiful pop tune “Betterman” is the best known from the album, considering the weirdo moments like “Bugs” or “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” the rest of it is better digested as a whole. The stark guitars, the insistent drumming, and the fully gruff vocals (“Last Exit” and “Spin the Black Circle”) define the record, but moments of unsureness and introspection (“Nothingman” and “Immortality”) turn it into art.  

No Code (1996)

B

The band spent some time as Neil Young’s backing band prior to the making of this album, and it shows through on the eclectic mix of songs. The band had already receded from the spotlight, and this album marks where the band lost critical and commercial success—probably rightfully so--as well. There are no bad songs on this album, but it’s best described as an album full of cool but separate ideas. Nothing truly elevates. In the context of the band’s career, however, this album was necessary in reuniting the band members with a sense of community and it remains a constant reminder that Vedder, McCready, Gossard, and Ament enjoy challenging themselves as artists and musicians. Songs like “Hail, Hail,” “Who You Are,” and “Mankind” make it worth regular revisiting.

Yield (1998)

A+

It’s hard to quantify what makes Yield so good. The individual songs, the tracking order, the artwork and the theme, the production, and the musicianship are all great on their own, but together, this becomes one of the best examples of what a near-perfect rock album should be. Each member contributes songs on this album, and it ends up serving as a sort of coming out party for Mike McCready, the Songwriter. Each of his contributions—“Brain of J,” “Faithfull,” and “Given to Fly”—are standouts among nothing but stellar songs, including reinvigorating rockers “Do the Evolution” and “MFC.” Additionally, with the input of the entire band, the lyrical content excels and Vedder’s delivery helps the songs find new depth. There’s the earnest love song (“Lowlight”), some minor key new wave (“No Way”), and the band even allows itself to get a little precious (“Wishlist”) which they pull off admirably. Basically, if anyone ever says to you that they don’t like Pearl Jam because of what they’ve heard on the radio (you know: Ten, “Betterman,” and “Daughter”), give them this. It will change their mind. Money back guarantee.

Continue reading Part 2!