Looking Back from Backspacer September 22, 2009Posted by Matt in music.
Tags: album ranking, Backspacer, Binaural, Generation X, No Code, Pearl Jam, Riot Act, Ten, Vitalogy, Vs, Yield
Over the decades, music has always been an integral part of American culture, from sock hops to hippies to big hair to the multiplicity of styles available today, and each generation has their artists with whom they self-identify. For me, and I reckon many others on the younger end of generation X, there is one band that has long stood above the others – Pearl Jam.
I was 14 in 1991, the year their debut album Ten broke into the mainstream, and I have been a dedicated follower ever since, for some 18 years, over half of my life. It’s as if we’ve grown up together, and they are like friends or family that have always been there. I remember driving up to Searcy to the only music store within 40 miles of my house to buy the Vs. album on the day it came out back in 1993 and then later that year waiting in line outside a car audio store to buy tickets to their Little Rock show. Their songs of disillusionment and disnefranchisement seemed to speak to me, despite being a teenager in small town rural Arkansas and far removed from Seattle.
A few years later when I was in college I discovered a little used CD store in Little Rock where I was able to purchase two imports full of cover songs and other performances culled from the archives that I still have today. I had the chance to catch them live again in 2000 and then saw Eddie Vedder solo earlier this year, so I feel quite confident in recommending that you see them live any chance you get.
With the upcoming release of Backspacer, the latest album from Vedder & Co, coming this week, I wanted to give you my rankings of their 8 other albums spanning the past 18 years. Let me know what you think.
8. Pearl Jam (2006) – Though certainly not a bad album by any means, this one ranks last on my list due to the fact that it just is not as a memorable as their other releases. It is their political, anti-war rant that was timely when released, but that may not stand the test of time against their stronger releases. There are still some real gems on here, though, and it is definitely worth owning.
Favorite Tracks: World Wide Suicide, Unemployable
7. Binaural (2000) – For some reason, Binaural did not resonate with me from the beginning and it was not until after I saw them live later that year and went back and truly listened to it that I discovered how much I enjoyed it. The material is heavier and darker than previous releases, and lacks the anthemic tunes of the early 90’s, but it still serves a nice bridge during a commercially quieter time in their recording career.
Favorite Tracks: God’s Dice, Insignificance, Thin Air
6. No Code (1996) – I’ve long held that the oft-maligned No Code is PJ’s most misunderstood album. Their previous release, Vitalogy, had some moments of experimentation, but this is where the band stopped flirting and delved into the world of experimentalism full throttle ahead. While I will admit that it can feel a bit disjointed at times, the overall product is truly a work to be marveled at.
Favorite Tracks: Hail, Hail, Off He Goes, Red Mosquito
5. Riot Act (2002) – As much as PJ disliked the Bush Administration, he did provide quite a wealth of material to the band, as this and the aforementioned Pearl Jam are evidence of. Politically charged tunes like Bu$leaguer are products of the time and will no doubt prove to be dated over the years, but plenty of other great songs will stand the test of time.
Favorite Tracks: Love Boat Captain, I Am Mine, Thumbing My Way
4. Yield (1998) – PJ followed up their venture into experimentalism with this more conventional rock record which captures them at their ferocious best. It also doesn’t hurt that “Do the Evolution” is one of the coolest songs ever and the very best one ever recorded about evolutionary biology.
Favorite Tracks: Given to Fly, Wishlist, Do the Evolution, Low Light
3. Ten (1991) – Yes, I know it is a borderline heresy to place their most popular album all the way back in third place, but as time goes on I find myself listening to it far less than the others. This is the album that launched the band into the stratosphere with early 1990’s anthems like Alive and Jeremy that I’ve heard enough to last a lifetime, so it is quite nostalgic for this longtime fan.
Favorite Tracks: Evenflow, Porch, Black, Release
2. Vitalogy (1994) – This first foray into experimental music may have its missteps (Bugs and Foxymophandlemama, to name two), but the overall product is a veritable feast for the ears. The diverse sounds, from the quiet beauty of Nothingman to the heaviness of Not For You somehow work together to form a cohesive whole that, along with Nirvana’s Unplugged, puts the nail in the coffin for early 90’s grunge.
Favorite Tracks: Last Exit, Not For You, Corduroy, Immortality
1. Vs. (1993) – Vs. occupation of the top spot may have more to do with my nostalgia toward the album as the one for which I first saw them live, than it has to do with being their best, but it remains a real testament to the band’s greatness, even 16 years after its release. The album has a diversity of styles that their debut lacks, while not yet embracing the noisiness of their later works. This is the band in all of their flannel-clad, crowd-surfing, mosh-pitting glory, and I love it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I bought this album on cassette the day it came out and actually even had one of the early-run tapes with the Five Against One title imprinted on it. So, that’s pretty cool too.
Favorite Tracks: Animal, Rearviewmirror, Elderly Woman, Indifference
All of that being said, Pearl Jam remain an important part of the American music landscape, even after almost 2 decades as one of the, if not the, preeminent bands of an entire generation. Here’s to 20 more years!