This page contains all my Pearl Jam studio album reviews. I am nowhere near crazy enough to even attempt the live albums. Are there people who listen to all of them?
Bonus: Temple of the Dog (7/10)
Sometime between 2005 and 2016, I wrote the following:
I have generally liked Cornell’s songs more than not and he has a good voice. But there’s an earnestness (for lack of a better word) to his music that can be unappealing. He can, at times, sound like he should have been belting out classic rock songs instead of grunge.
When Soundgarden is around to hide his over-singing and to give a little more muscle to his songs, I have zero problem with Cornell. The problems emerge, for me, when he is backed by a softer band. For example, though I didn’t mind Audioslave’s first hit (am I the only one?) the rest of their music struck me as too polished. I have the same problem here.
The lyrics here are underwritten. If the music behind them was better, it wouldn’t matter. It’s not the music really… it’s the arrangements and the production. I think these lyrics and these melodies would be a lot more compelling if Soundgarden were playing them, or if the Pearl Jam of Vs. or Vitalogy and not Ten was backing Cornell. (I don’t mean that personnel-wise, but sound-wise, production-wise.)
The production is way too clean and Cornell comes off as bombastic and pseudo-profound. And when those bad ’80s keyboards show up, well… things don’t improve.
Nowhere near as good as it should be.
I think this is a little harsh but it’s not that far off base. So I upped my rating one.
You could forgive someone who isn’t a Pearl Jam fan for believing this is the only Pearl Jam album to own. Though the band has now been releasing music for
a quarter century thirty years, most of the songs that the general public knows are from the first three albums, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that half of those songs (if not more) come from this record. When Pearl Jam is played on “Classic Rock” radio now (or whatever they call it), it’s most often songs from this record that you hear.
And that should come as no surprise. This is one of their best sets of songs to this day, and it is almost entirely free of the artsy fartsy stuff they started to pursue, the kind of stuff that turned them into a cult band, that made it so that their most famous songs come from their four of their first five records.
But for fans, it really isn’t that representative of the band. And I personally believe that they have become better songwriters over the years, for the most part, while at the same time getting a little less prone to writing anthems.
But it’s not the songs that make me like this album less than some of their later records (including the sequel). It’s the production. Band members have gone on record complaining about the mix, so maybe it’s just the mix that is at fault, but this is one of only a few of their albums that sounds so utterly of its time. The production is rather terrible, dating the record but also making the whole thing sound kind of “cheesy” in a way that no other Pearl Jam record sounds.
It’s too bad, because this should be one of the classic Grunge records. It almost is. But it really needs to get remixed.
1993: Vs. (10/10)
Pearl Jam’s second album remains their best, even decades later. Never before or since have they been able to so well combine their aesthetic with quality songwriting. On their debut, mostly strong songs were weakened by rather horrible production. On Vitalogy and almost all subsequent albums, they nearly always find a way to throw in some filler. And this record remains their best set of songs, without filler, without experimentation, but still very much “grunge.”
It’s possibly the best American Alternative Rock album of the decade and the standard by which all other records of its ilk should be measured by.
1994: Vitalogy (8/10)
This is another strong set of songs from Peal Jam, the best of which (mostly on the a-side) rank up their with their very best.
The problem is that this album is kind of derailed by the band’s conscious decision to be difficult, to be arty just for the sake of it. The nadir of the artiness is the last track, which is hardly original enough to be interesting as experimental music, and goes on forever.
Fortunately, the other arty experiments work much better, but are still not as good as regular Pearl Jam songs (those here, or on other records).
All that being said, I’d rather listen to this record than lots of other records, so there’s that…
1995: Neil Young: Mirror Ball (???)
I listened to this 20 years ago, a little bit before I started actually writing reviews. I have yet to listen to it since.
1996: No Code (9/10)
This Eddie Vedder dictatorship of a record is actually my third favourite Pearl Jam album. Though I am normally reluctant to see one band member take over (and usually dislike the results), somehow Vedder attempting to gain full creative control of a band he just sang in a few years earlier results in one of Pearl Jam’s best sets of songs of their career. What’s more, the artsy fartsy experimental excesses of Vitalogy (which I believe were also Vedder’s fault), are reigned in and, instead, incorporated into the songs for the most part. I think that’s a rather big improvement and, for a long time, this was one of my candidates for their best album.
I’ve since mellowed a little bit and there is a really annoying Vedder moment near the end that is hard to forgive. But, on balance, I still think this is a solid number 3 behind Vs. and Binaural.
1998: Yield (8/10)
Not that long ago (2016?), I wrote the following:
This is the first time Pearl Jam really tried to sound different than usual. That may seem like a weird thing to say given that, for example, on Vitalogy then went and did all that “art noise” stuff, but what I mean is that the production – deliberately “modern” ’90s production – is noticeably different. Much like you can hear a distinct difference between Ten and the rest of their records, so it is with Yield.
And it’s annoying. And the songs are a reasonably strong set – some classics, some not – but certainly not the worst set of songs they ever recorded. But so many of them are smothered in this weird attempt to sound different than normal, to sound, I guess, more of the particular time. And it means that Yield sounds nearly as dated as Ten, but has fewer classics on it.
It’s not my least favourite Pearl Jam album by any means – especially given their latest few records – but it has dated about as much as any of their music, and it’s definitely in a lower tier.
I don’t know what happened in the interim, but I heartily disagree. Maybe the record has just worked its way too far into my subconscious for me to be objective about it but the things that used to bother me here, bother me less.
And what I’ve discovered, now that I’ve finally gotten over the consciously “modern” production (which really only affects a few tracks), is that this is a pretty good set of songs, especially compared to some of their 21st century efforts. So, while I feel like a bit of an unreasonable old man for claiming every ’90s Pearl Jam album is at least “very good” I can’t really help myself. It’s good.
2000: Binaural (9/10)
For years, this was tied with No Code as my favourite Pearl Jam album. It’s still in my top 3, but I’ve given up maintaining it’s some kind of forgotten masterpiece. It’s just one of their best sets of songs and it features a little bit of everything they do well. It features one silly Vedder indulgence but that’s all, and the rest of it is the band firing on all cylinders. I guess you can gripe about the sequencing (as you can with most PJ albums) but I think that’s nitpicky. It’s one of their best and it’s a shame that it gets so little attention.
2002: Riot Act (7/10)
When I first heard this, I thought it was their worst album since Yield. (It is!) I’ve always found that when they try to get creative with their record production it appears to be to be an attempt to hide their lack of strong songs.
But more than a decade on I definitely like it more than I used to. I guess that’s because I’ve gotten used to the songs (hearing them, at random, on my iPod) and so I am less annoyed by the weird choices they make in presenting those songs.
I think, at this remove, I’m willing to lift it out of that unholy trinity of their least good albums, leaving Yield, Backspacer and Lightning Bolt as the Pearl Jam albums you absolutely never need to listen to. It’s their 4th weakest studio album. And for that, it’s not bad.
[Editor’s note: Obviously I’ve moved Yield out of that and moved their latest in.]
2003: Lost Dogs (9/10)
Rarities collections are really, really hit or miss. Usually a rarity is a rarity because the band (or the label) decided it didn’t cut the mustard. And so it makes sense that rarities are often not really great, or for fans only.
There are generally two types of approaches to rarities comps: the demos/outtakes/alternate versions approach, of which the gold standard in rock music is The Beatles Anthology, wherein the band tries to show their process, warts and all. And then there’s the collected all-sorts approach, typified here.
And, honestly, this has to be one of the best ever released. The quality of the material is downright shocking, with a number of these songs being better than a number of the tracks on the albums they were left off of. And even the weaker tracks are interesting.
It also acts as like a Pearl Jam alternative history, as it contains music from their entire career up until its release. And it’s probably as good an introduction to the band as any of their proper albums.
[As a funny side note, a young colleague of mine thought this was a real album or Greatest Hits or something and I laughed out loud when he told me. Especially if he said “Greatest Hits” because, you know, it has only one of their big hits on it.]
2006: Pearl Jam (9/10)
What I said at the time (i.e. 2006): Pearl Jam is more in the mode of Yield and Ten than their most recent stuff (Riot Act, Binaural) which is a good thing in the sense that they’re changing things up (if only slightly). I’ve only listened to it once (and that, while falling asleep). But my initial impression is: decent. Pearl Jam is one of those bands I can listen to even though they don’t change much from album to album (see also: AC/DC, the White Stripes, Sabbath, for example). In any case, I’ll try and give you a better verdict after I’ve given it 10 or 20 listens.
January 2014: The thoughts I expressed at the time surprise me now because this has become my favourite late Pearl Jam album, both for its immediacy and emotion – something I think is lacking from Riot Act, for example – and for their willingness to do new things – not trendy new things, like on Backspacer or Lightning Bolt, but far less trendy things, like soul! (At least it wasn’t trendy in 2006.) I don’t really see the comparison to Yield either. (If anything, Backspacer is much more like Yield.)
This eponymous record is a great band showing they can still play like they used to, and delivering better than expected results. Honestly, they haven’t sounded this alive (in the studio) since, I don’t know, Vs. (And that’s not to disrespect my two favourite Pearl Jam albums, which were both released in the interim. But Pearl Jam went through a long, inward-looking phase and this record feels much more populist.) A near-classic.
2009: Backspacer (6/10)
This lacks the immediacy of the eponymous effort, and that shouldn’t be, given the short running time. For some reason this doesn’t grab your attention like the previous album. Also, I find myself noticing Vedder’s lyrics and some of the arrangements in a negative light. Usually I either don’t notice Vedder’s lyrics – as they are usually fine – or I like them. Usually I love the arrangements (though not always, see Yield). But in this case I find a number of lines are really pretty crappy and a number of the arrangements are straight out of the rock cliché book. It’s depressing, especially given how good the last album was.
As usual, the more I listen to it, the more it grows on me, and I figure I will eventually like this one as much as some of their other albums. At the moment, I’m not particularly impressed, and I’m really annoyed by the length. However, I should mention that this was actually a great buy as I was entitled to two concert downloads (four CDs worth in total) meaning that I bought five discs for the price of one, so you can’t go wrong with that.
2013: Lightning Bolt (6/10)
After Backspacer I was ready to give up. Most of my friends who like Pearl Jam were too. But then I heard “Mind Your Manners” and I was willing to give it a chance, as this sounded significantly more energized – and less obviously trendy – than the music from the previous album.
So I finally found my way to it and all I can say is that, while at least some of it feels more energized than Backspacer, it again feels like lesser Pearl Jam, and not really worthy of much attention after I finish my usual three listens. Though there is the odd track to holds my attention, most of this feels repetitive – trying to relive older glories – or like unconvincing attempts at sounding modern – or “with it”, perhaps – like so much of Backspacer suffered from, though in this case there is more of the former than the latter.
So 6/10 feels charitable.
2020: Gigaton (6?/20)
So this is now the third Pearl Jam album in a row that fails to excite me. Is it them? Is it me? Is the truth somewhere in between?
I disliked Backspacer and Lightning Bolt enough that I’ve never listened to them again, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the ratings I gave them. That presents a problem for me, here, because I read reviews saying this is a marked improvement over at least one of those records, and I honestly can’t tell you. I don’t remember! When I was younger and a band I liked would put out a new album, I’d listen to all the albums I had of theirs to see how it fit. I don’t really have the time or inclination to do that anymore, so I’m left trying to remember two albums I haven’t listened to in years.
As a friend said, “This is Pearl Jam”. What he might have said is “This is 21st Century Pearl Jam”. The band has a certain sound at this point that they only deviate from occasionally. (Sometimes more often than not, such as on Backspacer.) The things I like about Pearl Jam are mostly here but something is missing and I’m not sure what. It could be that, at this stage, they don’t write songs that work for me quite like their older songs do. Alternatively it could be that I am no longer as receptive to the songs they write. I don’t think its their sound, for the most part, as I like the sound of the record, and I continue to like music made with guitars, no matter how passe it might be in 2020.
One thing I want to mention: It sounds like Vedder is doing a David Byrne impression on the verses of “Dance of the Clairvoyants” and I can’t decide whether it’s annoying, funny or endearing. I’d say it’s the weirdest thing here but nothing here is that weird for them. It’s not like there’s a song with a broken accordion about bugs, or anything like that.
There is a part of me that thinks this record will grow on me more than the last two, but there’s a part of me that knows I will not find the time for it as I’ve got too much other stuff to listen to and this isn’t calling my name right now.