The 8 Ball 10.19.13: Top 8 Pearl Jam Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 10.19.2013
From "Alive" and "Better Man" to "Rearviewmirror," "Given to Fly" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down his top 8 Pearl Jam tracks of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Music Zone 8-Ball! This past Tuesday Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt, their tenth studio album. It is the band's first since 2009's Backspacer and they've been all over the place promoting it over the last couple weeks, which has had the band thoroughly on my mind. Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and (mostly) Matt Cameron have survived the rise and fall of grunge, forging their own paths as artists and as a commercial entity to become true veterans of the rock scene. Being of the right age for them when they (and grunge) hit in the Pacific Northwest and spread outward, I've always had a particular love for the group and this week I thought I would look at my favorite songs from the group's extensive catalog.
Caveat: As usual with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. This left out a few songs that generally are well-received, notably "Last Kiss." As an aside, many of you may note that "Jeremy" is not present and may consider that a travesty. I have a long history with that song that I've spoken of before (short version: you never want a song that has your name as a title and is about a school shooting becoming popular when you're just entering high school) and while I did grow to love it, it just doesn't rank among my personal favorites. It is a fantastic song though, to be sure.
Just Missing The Cut
• "In Hiding" (1998)
• "Spin the Black Circle" (1994)
• "Man of the Hour" (2003)
• "Even Flow" (1992)
• "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" (1994)
#8: "Better Man" (1995)
First on our list this week is a song that was a long time in the making. "Better Man" was originally written by Eddie Vedder as a teenager but it didn't get recorded and released until Vitology, their third album. And even that was a battle; producer Brendan O'Brien has said that he heard it in rehearsal once and said "Man, that song's a hit." He added that as soon as he saw Vedder's hesitant reaction, he knew he had said the wrong thing and it took a while for the song to finally make it to release. The song is one of a few that were written about Vedder's troubled relationship with his stepfather; he once introduced it as a song "for the bastard that married my momma." The song has an unforgettable opening, with the distortion of an electric guitar cutting into Vedder's mellow, melancholy strumming. I've always felt that Vedder was a bit underrated as a vocalist; he doesn't have the iconic voice of some of his rock counterparts but he is incredibly expressive and that shows in the emotion with which he delivers these lyrics. Musically it is fantastic; it's deeply catchy and has some strong pop elements that gave it crossover appeal but those elements make it no less of a rock song. The group never released this as a single; it attained its iconic status simply on the strength of AOR airplay by fan demand. That's the kind of situation that shows a song's true greatness.
#7: "Immortality" (1995)
Another song of Vitology lands at #7 for us. And that's not a surprise; as much as I truly love Ten and think it's a more complete album, Vitology was the moment of the band's transition from "grunge act" to "rock heavyweights." (That's not a denigration of grunge, for the record; as I've noted in the past, I am a huge fan of the genre.) "Immortality" was one of the songs that helped bridge the gulf; you hear obvious influences from their first two albums and those grunge elements are not hiding in the shadows, particularly in the moody and introspective lyrics. At the same time there is clearly a wider sensibility to it and Vedder's ability to convey deep emotions and reflections on the nature of death and its perception by the public. There are many who believe that the song is about Kurt Cobain, especially considering it was the first album written and recorded after Cobain's death. Vedder has generally denied those claims, noting that "Nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt," but said that there could be something read into the lyrics about "the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train." There's a dark poetry to these lyrics and the musical aspects fit in nicely; I particularly love the guitar break that closes out the track. Pearl Jam has always been an amazing band lyrically but undoubtedly this is one of their finer moments.
#6: "Rearviewmirror" (1993)
If I'm being honest, Vs. is not one of my favorite Pearl Jam albums. That isn't to say that I dislike it; even a lesser album from the group's discography is basically something to aspire to as a rock group. But the group's second LP found them a little unsure in regard to where they wanted to go as a band. My favorite track on it is definitely this one though. There's a little bit of funkiness in here that juxtaposes nicely with the lyrics about leaving a bad situation and metaphorically seeing it face in the rear view mirror. There's so much going on in this song musically that you wouldn't expect it to work, but all of those elements fit together very nicely into a tight package of soaring musical progression. The song slowly builds toward its climax, starting with Vedder's vocals and the simple, repetitive bass line before more guitars are added and the emotional arc of the song rises. The song approaches a sense of complete abandon but never truly loses control; just as things hit a point where it sounds like it's about to come apart it eases back so that it can let loose again. There are times where assembling a song in this deliberate of a way can sound too artificial, but with Vedder delivering his knockout performance toward the end and the band playing near perfection "Rearviewmirror" avoids that trap and becomes a truly great musical piece of work.
#5: "Corduroy" (1995)
One more song of " Vitology" and definitely my favorite. How many ways to praise this song? I love the way the title itself came about; the title "Corduroy" came about when Vedder's brown corduroy jacket, which by his admission he "got mine for 12 bucks," was remade and being sold for $650. Vedder then saw, of all people, Ricky Martin on General Hospital playing a singer/bartender and wearing that same jacket. Feeling like his image was being co-opted now that he was famous, he wrote this song about the pressures of fame and his need to resist it. "Corduroy" is one of the band's live staples and for very good reason. It has an anthemic quality to it and a fury that plays well in live performances. The lyrics have an authenticity to them; many groups have written songs about fame but Vedder delivers emotional honesty here and a stark defiance as he sings lines like "I don't want to take what you can give/I would rather starve than eat your bread." This song has a power to it that resonates beyond just its era; it speaks to people from every generation about how easily you can be chewed up in the machine of fame. I love how this song largely avoids the need to just repeat the chorus; only the above line is repeated, and even that just once. This is another example of how a non-single became known not because of the marketing machine but because fans connected with the song and elevated its profile to make it a truly essential Pearl Jam song.
#4: "Given to Fly" (1998)
The middle part of Pearl Jam's career is underrepresented here, and I say that even as I'm the one writing it. This isn't to say I dislike the era of Yield, Binaural and Riot Act all the way through to the rest. I simply feel like at this point in their career they began making great albums instead of looking for collections of great songs. The songs on their albums over the more experimental stage of their career are all enjoyable but they just aren't quite as good individually as some from other eras. That being said, you have to give it up for "Given to Fly" off Yield. This song was loosely based, structurally anyway, on Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" and the song is a bit more uplifting than a lot of the group's most well-known songs. These definitely help it stand out from the pack, but it's also just a great little fable with an ability to send listeners soaring emotionally. This one didn't burn up any charts upon its initial release but it has since risen in stature to become one of the group's most beloved songs, and for very good reason.
#3: "Alive" (1991)
My number one surprise upon compiling this list was the realization that there aren't more songs off of Ten on here. The group's debut LP would rank high on my list of favorite rock albums, and certainly among favorite rock albums of the '90s. And yet this is (outside of "Even Flow" in the honorable mentions) the first track from the album to hit the list. At least it hit high. "Alive" was the first single by the group and their breakthrough hit, deservedly so. Much like "Better Man," this was a song written by Vedder about his problems with his stepfather, who he learned was in fact not his real father and that his real father had died a few years before. In that the song is very literal and true; in a lot of ways you might expect a song that tells the story in such a straight-forward fashion to not have the emotional resonance that this one does. But Vedder's lyrics and the coiled rage that boils underneath the surface of this song make it something truly special, and the overlay of the fictional story in which the mother's grief leads to an incestuous relationship with the son that so strongly resembles his father obviously lifts the veil of reality away and puts it in a larger and deeper narrative. The story would continue on the tracks "Once" and "Footsteps" but this was the best of the three and it deservedly rocketed the band to stardom. To this day the song-ending guitar solo by Mike McCready gives me chills.
#2: "Yellow Ledbetter" (1994)
This is so very not the typical sound that you think of when hearing Pearl Jam, but it is nonetheless one of their most beloved and even essential songs. The song was originally released as a B-Side to "Jeremy" in 1994 but didn't actually make any of the band's studio albums; it wasn't released as part of an album until the Lost Dogs rarities LP in 2003. People love to talk about how hard it is to understand the lyrics but knowing what they are, you have to appreciate once again the skill of Vedder as a songwriter. The song is about a young boy whose brother dies during a war. When he sees an elderly couple with a flag in their yard, he feels a connection to them and waves; however, they take one look at his appearance and don't respond. The track is so relaxed and almost sounds lazy, like a jam session (which makes sense considering how it's best known for its live performances). But at its heart it is truly quintessential Pearl Jam and one of my absolute favorites, second only to one.
#1: "Black" (1993)
Could there really be another choice? I don't think so. Pearl Jam absolutely 100% refused to release "Black" as a single despite how much the record label wanted them to, citing the personal nature of the track. And once again audiences showed how they know best, making this track a hit despite never getting its own commercial release. The song is everything that is amazing about Pearl Jam rolled into one; Eddie Vedder's lyrical skill, their ability to evoke mood, Mike McCready's talent with a guitar, Stone Gossard's ability to write great melodies and Vedder's infinitely expressive vocals. I love the musical range shown in this song, as it starts gentle and melodic before the lyrics lead it down a dark, winding road into a more dissonant and torn range. By the end Vedder's pained howls and McCready's exceptional solo meld into an experience that really plumbs the depths of despair. It's a truly breathtaking piece of music that gets me every time, even now two full decades after the fact.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Before we depart, I leave you with this week's Music Video A-Go-Go. I left everything from Lightning Bolt off as I haven't yet absorbed it but here's one that I particularly enjoy. Enjoy the band's second single off the new LP, "Sirens," below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.