Every Pearl Jam Album, Ranked
During the mid- to late 1980s and early ’90s, it seemed as though all of the most innovative bands had some sort of a connection to the Seattle area. After all, the glorious Northwestern metropolis served as ground zero for the siring of grunge—a movement that ushered in a vast shift in musical tastes, by bands whose songs still define an entire generation of rock fans.
In terms of impact, it could be argued that Pearl Jam were the most influential of grunge’s four unwilling forefathers (Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden), and that their vast contributions to rock have inspired—and continue to inspire—countless artists. And they aren’t done yet: Earlier this year, the grunge granddaddies revealed the collaborative writing sessions for Pearl Jam’s next opus were well underway.
With Pearl Jam’s third studio LP, Vitalogy, turning 25 on November 22, the milestone anniversary felt like an opportune time to go back, review the band’s catalogue with an analytical ear, and determine where this acclaimed album stands when stacked up against the rest of the band’s output.
The following is our ranking of all Pearl Jam’s albums—starting with our least favorite
10. Riot Act (2002)
Pearl Jam’s seventh album was their first following the September 11 attacks and the accidental deaths of nine fans during their set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000. As such, frontman Eddie Vedder’s lyrics on Riot Act revolve around personal and political themes, with one tune, “Bu$hleaguer,” squarely criticizing President George W. Bush and his administration’s policies. However, Riot Act, on a whole, feels somewhat disjointed as it shifts back and forth between semi-solid rockers honoring their grunge roots and gloomy experimental tunes that ultimately fall flat. Plus, Vedder’s voice is not at its most potent here, and that’s an understatement.
Album Highlight: “Thumbing My Way”
9. Lightning Bolt (2013)
The band’s most recent studio effort is, as expected, Pearl Jam’s most mature offering—a collection of tracks that could best be described as “dull radio rock.” A solid record with a couple of infectious songs, the album also exhibits folk elements, boasting various forms of instrumentation that include violin, piano, and, on the track “Sleeping by Myself,” Vedder’s favorite: the ukulele. But on “Sirens,” the guys tear it up, doing their best to channel the Dead Kennedys.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ self-released Lightning Bolt denotes a band that’s admirably reached that elusive point where they can really do whatever they want. But Vedder’s simplistic lyrics come across as rather banal, and there is a veritable dearth of hooks. All things considered, Lightning Bolt feels more formulaic than inspired.
Album Highlight: “Mind Your Manners”
8. Binaural (2000)
This is another album where Pearl Jam took considerable risks with its sound, experimenting with different elements and recording approaches—only this time, with slightly better results. In fact, Binaural is an extremely diverse album that’s front-loaded with catchy tunes such as “God’s Dice,” “Evacuation,” and the imitable and underrated “Light Years.” But again, at a certain point—after the ethereal “Thin Air,” basically—the tracks on Binaural start becoming less accessible. The album, which is the first to feature ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, lacks an overall consistency, but did mark the start of a more mature era for the guys.
Album Highlight: “Thin Air”
7. Pearl Jam (2006)
Known to many fans as “Avocado,” Pearl Jam shows promise early on with tracks such as “World Wide Suicide” and “Severed Hand”—though they share similar chord structures—before deteriorating into derivativeness. Toward the end, there’s “Army Reserve,” a somber track whose lyrics Vedder co-wrote with Damien Echols of the exonerated West Memphis Three, followed by “Come Back,” a beautiful blues-imbued ballad that leads into album closer “Inside Job,” which is perhaps one of PJ’s most affective songs. Overall, though, Pearl Jam doesn’t feel as well produced, with the guitars overwhelming the other performances at times. In addition, this album gave us “Parachutes,” a chaotic must-skip that sounds a bit awkward and muddled.
Album Highlight: “Come Back”
6. Backspacer (2009)
If you don’t dig Backspacer, perhaps listen to it a few more times. One of Pearl Jam’s least appreciated offerings, it’s rife with quick, upbeat, riff-heavy hard-rockers such as “Supersonic” and “Got Some”—songs spiked with rhythms and beats that’ll latch onto your brain’s memory centers like barbed wire. Throughout this vibrant album, one detects hints of horns, cellos, violas, violins and pianos, but none are ever used to the point of distraction. Backspacer also contains “Just Breathe,” one of the band’s most beautiful tracks, and “Amongst the Waves,” which is perhaps one of its most optimistic offerings.
Album Highlight: “Amongst the Waves”
5. No Code (1996)
Considered Pearl Jam’s most diverse release, No Code is a pensive LP that truly displays the band’s versatility. With tribal beats, fuzzed-out guitars, and stellar bass lines, No Code has tinges of garage rock (“Habit”) and country rock (“Red Mosquito”), while hard-charging tunes such as “Lukin,” “Present Tense,” and “Hail, Hail” satisfy fans who prefer the group’s edgier side. Lyrically, Vedder takes a more narrative approach, creating characters and stories to convey his feelings on spirituality and introspection. There are also acoustic moments to the album, as well as an overly ambitious attempt at spoken word (“I’m Open”), and the cringe-worthy track “Mankind,” which, regrettably, features guitarist Stone Gossard on lead vocals.
Album Highlight: “Smile”
4. Vitalogy (1994)
By all accounts, Vitalog was the album that nearly ended Pearl Jam. During its recording, tensions between Vedder and the rest of the group boiled over—at a time when the frontman seemed more intent on taking down Ticketmaster. But really, this record—and the subsequent break the band took afterward—saved them. Vitalogy also happens to be a powerful, accomplished, and at times, extremely aggressive record with truly dynamic songs, including “Not for You,” “Nothingman,” and of course, the radio-friendly “Better Man.” Unfortunately, it also includes “Bugs,” a confounding tune that’s more annoying than an actual bug. Like, how did that song make it onto the final version of the album?
Album Highlight: “Corduroy”
3. Ten (1991)
Ten is such a seminal release and left such an undeniable impact on the grunge genre that it’s hard not to place it at No. 1. However, if you put all nostalgia aside and really analyze their debut, you will find it is not Pearl Jam’s best LP. Yes, it introduced them and their anthemic sound to the world, and yes, it laid their foundation with classic songs such as “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Jeremy.” But the evolution that followed can’t be ignored. Ten captures an immature band still trying to find itself and its identity. Sure, most groups wish that their debut albums could be as imposing, but it was merely a preview of what was to come from Pearl Jam, whose subsequent output showed a more mature outfit, with more awareness of the world around them.
Album Highlight: “Black”
2. Vs. (1993)
Expectations were extremely high for Pearl Jam’s sophomore album following the commercial and critical success that was Ten, and, all in all, the grunge masters delivered, silencing skeptics who’d written them off as a possible flash in the pan. The band’s first studio effort with longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, Vs. boasts some of Pearl Jam’s most beloved and captivating tracks: “Daughter,” “Dissident,” “Animal,” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” This phenomenal album also cemented Pearl Jam’s status as one of rock’s most potent acts.
Album Highlight: “Rearviewmirror”
1. Yield (1998)
Pearl Jam’s last album with drummer Jack Irons, Yield is perhaps the band’s most honest and sincere studio set, a cohesive, well-rounded record with profound lyricism provided equally by Vedder, Jeff Ament, and Gossard. It possesses some of PJ’s finest tracks, including lead-off single “Given to Fly,” the sardonic “Do the Evolution,” and the gentle, wispy “Wishlist.” It’s hard to find a single stinker in the bunch, but if flaw is to be found on this masterpiece, songs such as “Push Me, Pull Me” and “Pilate”—a song Ament wrote about his dog—feel like they’d fit better on some of the band’s subsequent releases. Vedder’s vocal range is also on full display here, with him wavering between restrained and bombastic. Yield is a must-have for true fans and simply a fantastic album for anyone who appreciates engrossing rock.
Album Highlight: “Wishlist”