Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#14)


Let's keep the countdown moving with #14.

If you like your rock bands full of contradictions in expectations, then Pearl Jam was for you. Here’s a group that came together after the collapse of various Seattle scene groups (Green River, Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog), rode the wave of alternative/grunge success that Nirvana ushered in, passed Cobain’s crew in sales and worldwide fame, and went from unknowns to one of the pearljam1biggest rock groups on the planet in about a year’s time. Most acts would falter and fracture under the pressures of such a meteoric rise, but not Pearl Jam. Most would try to take advantage of the sudden fame and convert good faith into cold, hard cash, but not Pearl Jam. Most would try to stick to their basics in order to appease fans, but not Pearl Jam. Most bands that get strong notices from both audiences and experts tend to get revered more and more as the years pass, but not Pearl Jam.

On second thought, you might not like Pearl Jam even if you enjoy contradictions. That’s because over the last ten years or so they’ve become one of the most divisive popular bands around; not between the “indie” and “Top 40” crowds as it frequently is, but among people with all manner of listening habits and preferences. I saw a poll online several years ago where people voted for their all-time favorite rock band. Who won? Pearl Jam, and by a pretty healthy margin as I recall. Now, the results were highly suspect considering that I also rather vividly remember Journey finishing ahead of Led Zeppelin, but that just emphasizes how “average American” the sample size was. But today the average person, especially the average avid music fan, gives Pearl Jam a shrug. They’re outright loathed by very few, but it seems like today you’re either really passionate about them or really indifferent.

Actually, I can understand how this came about. Pearl Jam will forever be at least tenuously linked to Nirvana for becoming huge at the same time, playing same/different “grunge” styles, emerging from the same locale, and having their frontmen become the “faces” of the musical generation pearljam2(roles that neither wanted). But since Nirvana ended abruptly and far too soon, there will always be a fascination, a mystery, an eternal promise never resolved that surrounds them like an aura. Pearl Jam, however, is about the only grunge band to press on steadily all this time with no major windfalls or breakups or meltdowns—all of the pressing questions have been answered, the story is (more or less) told at this point. Their future as of right now hasn’t yet been written, but they’ve had a “full” and “productive” career: everything left might as well be just gravy. So you never know where Nirvana could have gone, but Pearl Jam’s path has largely been laid. And with that path gradually sloping downhill for more than a decade now, it’s even easier to observe that fantasy/anticipation almost always trumps reality/results.

Nirvana could be insular, confused, cryptic, but PJ’s music was catharsis, a roaring force of nature that recalled an fearsome toll and emotional wrench that traded poetry for bluntness, shards of bristling fuzz for clear, slashing guitar riffs. You couldn’t always lay a finger on what Kurt Cobain was getting at, while Pearl Jam’s early songs churn with dark, furious energy, full of charges of abuse, violence, angst, incest, suicide, upheaval. Such emotional honesty and burden is dangerous—teeter the wrong way and you’re left with soppy melodrama and accusations of therapy through moral shock—but the anxiety and vigor in the musical performance did as much baiting as Ed Vedder’s impassioned baritone.

Almost all of the alternative rock/post-grunge bands to spring up after the so-called Year That Punk Broke would have loved to get the critical adulation and feverish fan interest that Nirvana got, but secretly wanted to be like Pearl Jam. There’s a reason other than Saint Cobain as to why Nirvana is pearljam3almost always the darling of the music obsessives and why Pearl Jam’s stature has fallen steadily since their “peak” in the mid-90s—a small handful of those bands leaping onto the Seattle bandwagon had noticeable shades of Nirvana in them (Bush and Toadies spring to mind, but even that’s more of a blend) while nearly all the rest sounded like Pearl Jam clones—Nickelback, Matchbox Twenty, Creed, Candlebox, Fuel, Goo Goo Dolls, Sponge, Live, Oleander, Switchfoot, 3 Doors Down, Breaking Benjamin, Puddle of Mudd, Nickelback (yeah, I said them twice); Pearl Jam did more for the creation of crappy modern rock than any other band. Cobain’s raw voice didn’t catch on beyond the underground but everyone was trying to get a piece of Vedder’s earthy, Jim Morrison-esque growl. And Nirvana was a lot “cooler” by owing their debts to post-punk and 80s indie/college rock; Pearl Jam heralded back to the brief-lived glory days of stadium rock from the 70s and heavy English blues long after Cream and Zeppelin “perfected” it. If Nirvana spoke to their generation, then Pearl Jam appealed to all generations (yep, even your parents probably liked ‘em). No wonder they got the worldwide devotion but only a fraction of the respect.

Of the Seattle heavyweights, Pearl Jam was the workhorse, the “classic.” It’s no wonder they have been frequently tagged as the “Neil Young” and/or “Who” of the scene (and not just because they turned covers of each of their songs into concert favorites). They were as dour and dirty as their fellow Pac-NW peers, but also had a cleaner aesthetic and surged with passion and intensity when most just preferred wallowing in the murky gloom. For sounding more like “classic rock” than the fusion of punk, college, and heavy metal that typified the Seattle sound, they knew to be ardent and earnest while the arena rot was pompous and self-gratifying. Their debut Ten proved to be a megahit, the sort that not only gets several singles steady rotation on the radio, but warranted enough fan enthusiasm to elevate a non-single to FM classic (“Black”) and a B-side getting more rotation than most of the era’s best A-sides (“Yellow Ledbetter”).

pearljam6Their follow-up Vs. was their “angry” album, but the band name was too big then for consumers to shy away—it broke the record for first week album sales and went platinum in just eight days. Irritated by their enormous popularity overshadowing their music, they spent much of the rest of the decade trying to shake off fair weather fans and people who turned up at shows just to hear their two or three favorite songs. They took on corporate monopolies, (reportedly) blocked their MTV unplugged performance from being given an album release, stopped making music videos (and, aside from the animated “Do the Evolution” clip done by Todd MacFarlane with minimal band participation, when they finally started making new ones, MTV had pretty much stopped airing videos altogether); they even hesitated to release “Better Man” because they thought it might be too accessible…and went straight to the top of the Mainstream Rock charts after it finally was. Increasingly daring, personal, eclectic albums like Vitalogy, No Code and Yield followed, filled with some of the group’s all-time best and weakest tracks (the tepid ones were typically strange little experiments and interludes, which, like it was in Sabbath’s heyday, never much suited them). And there lies another of the band’s detractors’ favorite weapons—when they tried something far off their beaten path, it usually fell flat. So they’re just a boring old rock band; bummer, man.

But in their stride (their comfort zone, really, which was plenty wide), there was no one else around that was as good at hitting on rock styles across the spectrum, from scorching hard rock and punk-ish frenzies to thoughtful ballads and sad laments and everything in between. They paid tribute to their heroes in their songs—in addition to Young and Townshend, their affection for the Ramones, the Band, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, the Clash, the Doors and more show up in their album collages. And they’ve perfected a blend of their inspirations and their own private aspirations—even without Vedder’s patented vocal, you can almost always tell if it’s a Pearl Jam song even on the first listen.

They are constantly releasing material, whether it’s full-length albums, singles, B-side collections, live shows (72 at one time following their Binaural tour), and Christmas singles through their pearljam5fanclub. And they inspire the fervor in us fans to gorge on anything and everything we can find—I hardly even had a reason to pick up Lost Dogs because I had most of those songs on CD singles and mp3s. It’s hard to find a big-time act more devoted to its fans that never condescends or follows music barometer trends or recycles former glories to appease them. Their infamous beef with Ticketmaster wasn’t scored as a legal win, but their efforts to keep their shows affordable made a legion admire them even more. It must seem odd that the band would do so much to transform from one of the world’s most popular acts to the biggest cult band in the world, but by the 2000s, they had succeeded; striving to be “independent” for so long, it only made sense that they’d move to their own indie label for their latest album, Backspacer. Accusations of losing relevance, meanwhile, are ignorant—how relevant was Paul McCartney when he was releasing really good records both solo and as part of the Fireman project this millennium? And he was a god damn Beatle!

Other than a flux of drummers (including Dave Krusen, Dave Abbruzzese, Jack Irons, and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron), they’ve stuck at it for more than twenty years now with no big fallings out or lineup changes. Although individual members enjoy side projects (Brad, Mad Season, Three Fish, the Rockfords, Wellwater Conspiracy, solo albums, etc.), it’s not a case of disgruntled identity crisis or frenzy for liberation. And though I’d hesitate to name any of them as being at the absolute pinnacle of each role during their time or times before and after, there was no slacker among them, all were exceptionally skilled as performers (and even songwriters/contributors), and they have a chemistry that cannot be faked, especially the steady instrumental “core” of Mike pearljam4McCready, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament; it’s not often you hear a bassist that propels the melody as much as the backbeat, but Ament’s bass can sometimes sound like a third guitar, spare, twinging and deep-throated as it might be in that role (might as well, ‘cuz other times you can’t hear it at all over the roar of the riffs).

Their first six studio albums are all at least very good, most approaching or reaching greatness. And though Riot Act and Pearl Jam were both a step down, they were still both among the best straight rock albums of the last decade. From a purely critical perspective, Pearl Jam is just a “reliable rock band” with plenty of good tunes. They’re a love-‘em-or-leave-‘em crew, pretty much guaranteeing that you’re either cheering this selection or rolling your eyes so hard you’ll only see fuzzy spots for the next three minutes. But they have vigor, ardor, urgency, emotion, enriched by quality songwriting, production values, and a commendable work ethic. They tour and record constantly and are still standing ready and defiant when almost all of their alternative rock “brothers” have disappeared or tumbled off the proverbial cliff. It’s odd that a band as “workman” as Pearl Jam would inspire so many frenzied hardcore fans, but I can’t deny it. I can look at my CD shelves and spot almost forty packages with their name printed on the side—and I know plenty of much more zealous followers (hell, I lived with two for a time at college). Can’t explain it, but I can’t deny that the contradiction exists.

Yellow Ledbetter
Spin the Black Circle
Not for You
I Got Id
In My Tree
Present Tense
Of the Girl
Love Boat Captain
Inside Job
…and the album Yield

Also endorsed: Brad, Mother Love Bone, Stone Temple Pilots

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
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[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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