Pearl Jam’s 20 Best Tracks From the Last 20 Years
From "Binaural" to "Gigaton" and everything in between
Pearl Jam fans can be generally grouped into two camps: the ones who stopped listening to them after Vitalogy and the ones who obsess over every note released. But regardless of your allegiance to the Seattle rock kingpins, there is no denying the past 20 years have been perhaps their most industrious of their career with five full-length albums (including the freshly released Gigaton), an exhaustive reissue campaign that wheeled out deluxe versions of their first three LPs and enough holiday singles exclusive to their beloved Ten Club fan community that will yield one mighty box set someday soon.
Here are 20 tracks from Pearl Jam’s 21st century that illustrate the importance of the totality of this band’s largely overlooked catalog.
This outtake from the sessions for 2000’s Binaural kicks off with a little nod to the Middle Eastern roots of Dick Dale before Vedder enters with a narrative told from the perspective (at least in a theory keenly annotated by @goodbye_angels on Genius) of the lover left behind by the woman at the center of the Binaural single “Light Years”. Why they left this tune off the album is truly bewildering, given its superiority over a couple of clunkers that made the cut. Yet “Sad” does serve as one of the reasons why Lost Dogs is a great glimpse into what could have been for any Pearl Jam fan.
“So all you fools/Who sing just like him/Feel free to do so now/Because he’s dead,” sings a melancholy Vedder in this stark homage to fallen Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, and can be heard roughly four minutes and 20 seconds after “Bee Girl” on Riot Act. Titled after the day the singer died, it’s a beautiful toast from one modern blues singer to another, and also a scathing decree to the Godsmack set. “It won’t offend him,” Vedder adds. “Just me…”
18. “Sweet Lew”
Pearl Jam’s love for basketball is well documented, right down to their initial band name choice (legendary Atlanta Hawks point guard Mookie Blaylock). But perhaps there isn’t a better slab of proof to the group’s hoop dreams than this weird and funky talking blues paying homage to the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, originally recorded for Binaural but didn’t wasn’t released until three years later on Lost Dogs.
17. “Unthought Known”
Listening to Backspacer for the first time, it is certain that more than a few longtime fans were so happy when this midtempo beauty came across the speakers, as, like “Daughter” and “Wishlist” before it, offers a style as undeniably indicative of Pearl Jam as anything off Ten.
16. “Life Wasted”
For as unabashedly liberal as Vedder is, it’s shocking how well he had gotten along with the notoriously uber-conservative Johnny Ramone. He considered the late punk guitar legend “the best friend I ever had on the planet” and after attending his funeral wrote this chunky rocker that opened up 2006’s Pearl Jam LP.
This companion piece to such previous oddities in the PJ universe, such as “Bugs” and “Sexymophandlemama, That’s Me,” was a staple during the group’s 2003 spring tour. But when the band played it before a crowd of jingoistic Long Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, a feature of the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 2011 documentary on the group Pearl Jam Twenty, did the line in the sand separating the two halves of the PJ fanbase ever seem so obvious.
14. “Future Days”
Not since they closed No Code with “Around the Bend” has there been a lovelier finish to a Pearl Jam album as this acoustic beauty from Lightning Bolt. With producer Brendan O’Brien on piano and string arrangements by former Steve Vai violinist Ann Marie Calhoun, love songs don’t get quite better than the one Vedder penned here.
13. “Inside Job”
This beauty of a tune that closes out Pearl Jam’s eponymous 2006 LP marks the first appearance of a song on one of the group’s records written entirely by guitarist McCready. With its harmonized guitar lines and piano lilts, McCready’s narrative about the human thought process is the absolute highlight of an album that no doubt deserves a second spin if you overlooked it the first time around.
12. “River Cross”
Not since “Indifference” has there been a succinctly moodier album closer than the haunting Big Pink-esque yearning that permeates “River Cross.” As Vedder plays pump organ interwoven with producer Josh Evans’ dreamy keyboard washes, the singer once again offers lyrics that speak perfectly to these quarantined days when he croons, “Wide awake through this deepest night, still waiting on the sun. As the hours seem to multiply, find a star to soldier on.” Only today, this journey exists in our minds.
11. “Love Boat Captain”
“Lost nine friends we’ll never know… two years ago today,” Vedder sings, remembering the 2000 Roskilde tragedy. It has scarred the collective psyche of Pearl Jam ever since and the event is remembered in this strange and beautiful slow jam from Riot Act that also gives a lyrical nod to the Beatles’ 1967 unity anthem “All You Need Is Love.”