The 20 greatest Pearl Jam songs – ranked
Compared to the vast majority of their platinum-rated rock contemporaries, Pearl Jam’s back catalogue does not easily stack into a defined hierarchy of hit singles, ‘underrated’ fan-favourites and forgotten album tracks. They have always been an outfit interested in everything they do. Their first three LPs, of course – spanning the pomp of the grunge scene, and full of its revolutionary excitement – still hold a special place in listeners’ hearts, but rather than trying to cling to past glories or fading into irrelevance, their eight albums (and countless other releases) since have solidified one of the most innovative, important reputations in all of rock.
Perhaps the tribulations and inspirations of their coming-together prepared them for that. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament joined proto-grungers Green River in the mid-’80s, before forming Mother Love Bone with vocalist Andrew Wood towards the decade’s close. Andrew’s death from a heroin overdose in early 1990 rattled bonds and drove Stone’s writing into darker, heavier territory, but the introduction of second six-stringer Mike McCready, and an inspired response to their five-track demo from Illinois-born, San Diego-based singer Eddie Vedder (who’d written lyrics for Alive, Once and Footsteps while out surfing) saw the band take shape. Within a year, 13x platinum-selling debut Ten was stacked high on record store shelves.
There were details to fine-tune, of course. Initial moniker Mookie Blaylock – the name of a then-active NBA star – would be changed to Pearl Jam after signing with Epic. Their drum stool wouldn’t be permanently filled until the arrival of Matt Cameron in 1998. And, although the gritty, heartfelt basis of their sound would remain, it has been tweaked for changing personal needs and political landscapes as the years and decades have passed. All of which means that this is a band best delved into, and not experienced (solely) through a greatest songs list like this.
For argument’s sake, though, here are our top 20 Pearl Jam songs…
20. Once (Ten, 1991)
One of that ‘Momma-Son’ trio of tracks that Eddie Vedder dreamed the lyrics to while on the Californian seafront, Ten’s massive opener showcased Pearl Jam’s above-and-beyond dynamism right out of the gate. While grunge had thus far been characterised by grimy miserabilism and slump-shouldered angst, this was a composition full of subtle funk inflections, seductive grooves and livewire leads, with that sunbeaten declaration of ‘Once upon a time I could lose myself / Once upon a time I could love myself…’ rushing like a warm sea breeze beneath the grey Seattle skies.
19. Seven O'Clock (Gigaton, 2020)
After seven years of silence, Pearl Jam returned in March 2020 with the planet on the precipice of an unprecedented global crisis. Although 11th album Gigaton is chock full of highlights – Dance Of The Clairvoyants, Superblood Wolfmoon, Retrograde – it was the near-seven minutes of Seven O’Clock that felt eerily appropriate. ‘This is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance,’ Eddie croons over the classic mid-tempo composition. ‘This fucked-up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck…’ Originally inspired by the impending ecological crisis, his words were perfectly fitted to global pandemic, too.
18. Go (Vs., 1993)
With their career moving at full-throttle in 1993, Pearl Jam had already become disenfranchised with the business of rock royalty by their second album, insisting that they didn’t make videos or participate in promotional interviews so that the music could speak for itself. And how it spoke. High-octane opener Go was a rumbling statement that again pushed the grunge boundaries with its diesel-fuelled riffage and purposefully open lyrics (the song rumoured to be about Eddie’s pickup truck) combining for one of their most memorably all-terrain aural assaults.
17. The Fixer (Backspacer, 2009)
Having long-since gotten over early reservations about the perceived ‘catchiness’ and AOR-appeal of their sound, the lead single to ninth album Backspacer was one of Pearl Jam’s most openly joyous pop-rock compositions. Reportedly condensed down from what was initially an “artsy” seven-minute composition into this concisely breezy nugget, it’s easily amongst the most memorable of PJ’s post-2000 output. Lyrically, it’s a reminder from Eddie to himself to stop getting bogged-down in trying to fix the endless problems in the world around him, so that life itself was free to flow…
16. Daughter (Vs., 1993)
The second single from sophomore album Vs. earned a few firsts for the band, cracking the mainstream Billboard Top 40 chart and earning a GRAMMY nomination in 1993 for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. Although the track’s twangy, acoustic listenability endures, it is Eddie’s heartfelt, evocative portrait of a girl with learning difficulties that stands out most. Originally titled Brother and inspired by the singer’s own troubled youth, the song was reconfigured to imagine the perspective of an even more vulnerable individual pushing for their place in a world with which they struggled to connect.
15. Man Of The Hour (Big Fish: Music From The Motion Picture, 2003)
Having struck up friendships with future Hollywood heavyweights like Sean Penn and Cameron Crowe in their early days, Pearl Jam have dabbled in some sensational movie soundtrack contributions over the years. (Indeed, Eddie’s solo soundtrack for wilderness epic Into The Wild is some of his finest latter-day work.) This soft-strummed, misty-eyed contribution for Tim Burton’s oddball modern classic Big Fish is charged with the same unapologetically sentimental, eulogistic energy as the narrative with which it’s matched. Utterly beautiful.
14. Indifference (Vs., 1993)
In Allan Jones’ biography Pearl Jam – The Illustrated Story, Eddie explains that the Vs. closer is about trying to “do something to make some other peoples’ lives better than they are, even if it means going through hell”. A quiet, contemplative composition, its promises to ‘keep takin’ punches until their will grows tired’ and to ‘stare the sun down until my eyes go blind’ ring all the louder for their understatement. Live versions, such as that captured for the PJ20 recording in Bologna, Italy in 2006, showcase even more layers of excellence.
13. Nothingman (Vitalogy, 1994)
The fifth track from third album Vitalogy is staggering in its simplicity and spontaneity, with Stone coming up with the easy composition in less than a day, while Eddie nailed his lyrics in under an hour. The core lyrical concept – that when one is on the receiving end of love you should do everything to keep hold of it, lest you be left with nothing – is stirring in its romantic honesty, but it’s the overarching warmth, positivity and lingering bittersweetness that really shine.
12. Just Breathe (Backspacer, 2009)
Taking the romance one step further, the second single from Backspacer is, by Eddie’s own admission, the closest thing to an outright love song Pearl Jam have ever written. Inspired by the frontman’s composition of Tuolumne from the aforementioned Into The Wild soundtrack, its gentle acoustics and earnest-verging-on-cheesy lyrics – ‘Oh, I’m a lucky man / To count on both hands / The ones I love / Some folks just have one / Yeah, others they got none…’ – saw the track go on to be the band’s first-ever platinum-rated standalone song.
11. Given To Fly (Yield, 1998)
After mixed reactions to their experimental 1996 LP No Code, the first single from 1998 follow-up Yield felt like a reassurance that the signature Pearl Jam sound was still very much alive. The classic rock influence was heavy here, with Mike McCready’s wavily wistful composition perhaps deliberately invoking the feel of Led Zeppelin’s Going To California. Eddie, meanwhile, claimed that he wrote the lyrics in the mindset of someone writing a children’s book. “I imagined a line on each page and a picture to go with it,” he told the Philadelphia Enquirer at the time. “It’s a fable, that’s all. The music almost gives you this feeling of flight.”
10. Corduroy (Vitalogy, 1994)
The fiery highlight to third album Vitalogy was another heavy reckoning on the overbearing ludicrousness of life in the rock spotlight, written in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide as the grunge phenomenon began to implode. The corduroy of the title is a reference to the beaten-up thrift store jacket Eddie had bought for $12, but which was being copied by a high-end fashion house for $650, while the lyrics rage against the corruption and commodification of a vision that thrives on being unchained: ‘They can buy but can’t put on my clothes / I don’t want to limp for them to walk…’
9. Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town (Vs., 1993)
Following the short, sharp, one-word titles of Ten, this far more evocatively-named highlight from its follow-up represented a knowing expansion of the conceptual scope and detail of Eddie’s songwriting. Imagining a woman trapped in her suffocating hometown running into an old boyfriend while waiting tables at a diner, it unfolds with the contemplation and regret of someone being faced with the chances not taken and the roads not followed. A masterclass in wringing bittersweet beauty from the everyday.
8. Even Flow (Ten, 1991)
With its groovy, sunbeaten, footloose feel, it’s easy to think of the second single from Ten as a breezy, feel good composition. To the contrary, it chronicles the travails of a homeless man with his ‘pillow made of concrete’ struggling to make sense of a troubled life – ‘Thoughts arrive like butterflies / Oh, he don’t know, so he chases them away…’ The infamous music video, which begins with Eddie demanding the lights be turned down at his rock concert, and climaxes one of those legendary his balcony-dives, was pivotal in establishing Pearl Jam’s unimpeachable early-’90s cool.
7. Rearviewmirror (Vs., 1993)
As the title to their second album so openly suggests, Pearl Jam felt downright besieged by the levels of fame and exposure they had stumbled into as part of the grunge explosion. Where so many of their emotionally sensitive contemporaries took dark paths to handle the unwanted attention, however, Pearl Jam were more successful in purging those feelings through song. Imagining the more problematic elements of their fanbase (like those who stole his journal from a dressing room in Stockholm in 1992, or the stalker who would eventually crash her car into his house) as abusers to be escaped, Eddie’s lyrics to the epically cathartic Rearviewmirror toy with the idea of the band putting it all behind them.
6. Better Man (Vitalogy, 1994)
Examining the apparently rotten relationship between his mother and her second husband, the 11th track on Pearl Jam’s third album was actually written by Eddie all the way back in high school. Having been aired with his previous band Bad Radio, the frontman was acutely aware of the song’s inescapable hookiness and was wary of releasing it with Pearl Jam lest their already-troublesome fame be stoked further still. His concerns were at least partially borne out, as the incredible song – never released as an official single – spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart.
5. State Of Love And Trust (Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992)
Pearl Jam’s relationship with former Rolling Stone writer (and future Hollywood big-hitter) Cameron Crowe – who would go on to helm 2011’s excellent Pearl Jam Twenty documentary – led to their appearance as members of fictional band Citizen Dick in his 1992 classic Singles. Filmed before their breakout success, the band wrote State Of Love And Trust specifically for the film, and its defiant, air-punching attitude is a match for any of their celebrated early-’90s output.
4. Jeremy (Ten, 1991)
On January 8, 1991, 15 year-old sophomore student Jeremy Wade Delle walked into his English class at Richardson Texas High School and killed himself in front of 30 fellow pupils and their teacher. The news story struck a chord with the young Eddie, who had experienced something similar (albeit less tragic) with one of his own classmates who brought a gun to school. The resultant song – ostensibly too dark to be a hit single, but typical of grunge’s murky appeal – would go onto be one of their signature hits, while its iconic music video was the last to feature the band onscreen for 14 years.
3. Yellow Ledbetter (Jeremy B-Side, 1991 / Lost Dogs, 2003)
Originally cut from the recordings for Ten, the easygoing, abstract Yellow Ledbetter had its second chance when it was selected as the B‑side to Jeremy and was immediately embraced by fans. The title is reportedly derived from the real name of one of Eddie’s old buddies from Chicago – Tim Ledbetter – and its borderline-nonsensical lyrics are an account of someone who lost a brother in the Gulf war, wondering whether the body would be returned in a ‘box or bag’. Despite its wilful impenetrability, the song has closed countless concerts in the years since.
2. Alive (Ten, 1991)
Perhaps the most poignant of the ‘Momma-Son’ trilogy of tracks Eddie had written before he even met the band, Alive saw the frontman-to-be layering the defining tale of his troubled youth over an irresistible instrumental ebb and flow. When he was 17, Eddie was told by his mother that the man he thought to be his father was in fact his stepfather, with his biological dad having passed away. There is a depthless display of pain and existential angst across its five-minute run, but that iconic chorus – ‘I, oooh I’m still alive…’ – is the singer’s resounding promise to leave dark days behind.
1. Black (Ten, 1991)
‘Sheets of empty canvas / Untouched sheets of clay / Were laid spread out before me / As her body once did…’ Playful critics through the years have referred to Black as ‘Ten’s power ballad’, but the level of poetry and authentic longing in this tale of lost love stood in stark contrast to the inherently cheesy nuggets rock bands had been conceding to more sentimentally-minded listeners across the previous decade. A towering composition matches the narrative of a relationship building to breaking point before dropping off into a vortex of grief and desperation. Those howling vocals and spiralling guitar solo of its forlorn outro will echo forever in millions of fans’ minds.
Read this next:
We look back over the greatest songs written in, er, honour of the United States’ past commanders in chief…
An intense, brutally honest conversation with The Used frontman Bert McCracken