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The 11 best Pearl Jam songs

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite Pearl Jam songs, ranked

For all of Nirvana’s indelible cultural impact, Pearl Jam are Seattle’s real success story. And not just in terms of commercial success either. While the 90s alt rock scene remains inextricably mired in tragedy, Eddie Vedder and co. have navigated rough waters with a sense of clarity and purpose that allowed them to dictate their own existence.

When the explosive successes of Ten and Vs threatened to consume the band, Vedder steered the ship to a more sustainable shore, declining mainstream adoration with the sublime-yet-eccentric Vitalogy. In torpedoing the kind of idolatry that undid so many of their peers, Pearl Jam found a different road, one that has them still packing stadia and arenas 33 years after their feverishly received debut.

With a new UK tour announced, we look at the 11 greatest songs from one of the biggest rock bands of all time.

11. Do The Evolution

(Yield, 1998)
Pearl Jam’s fifth record is unimpeachably solid from start to finish, with two songs that so nearly made our list (‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Wishlist’) and no trace of filler. ‘Do The Evolution’ retains some of the wild abandon from Vitalogy’s wilder numbers, particularly in Eddie Vedder’s unhinged vocal performance. The groove the band hit after the first chorus is sublime, matched only by the brief choral interlude that follows. The song’s merciless skewering of America’s superiority complex is Eddie at his most energetic and vitriolic.

10. Light Years

(Binaural, 2000)
By the turn of the millennium, it had become apparent that Pearl Jam had found their eternal groove. Freed from trends and time, the band were operating in their own microclimate and playing to a devoted fanbase who couldn’t get enough of their contemplative, considered alt rock. Across No Code and Yield, their real strength had emerged in their emotive mid-tempo rockers and Binaural hits the jackpot. ‘Light Years’ is a terrifically simple song that ponders how it is that we can figure out everything about the universe except how to escape the pain of loss. “We were but stones, your light made us stars” is one of Vedder’s most heart-stoppingly beautiful lines.

9. I Got Id

(Merkin Ball, 1996)
Pearl Jam and Neil Young were always going to collide at some point. Vedder was effusive at the time about the life lessons he learned from the “Godfather of Grunge”, but almost as valuable is this offcut from the band’s stint as Young’s backing group for the Mirror Ball sessions. Lost love – a theme that will return later – haunts the homeless man narrating the first track from the Merkin Ball single. That build from verse to bridge to chorus is a stunner, Vedder shifting through the gears as the band roars into life around him and the melody suddenly leaps to the fore. All the while, Young’s catatonic guitar lines offer a wild counterpoint to the band’s focussed groove.

8. Alive

(Ten, 1991)
While Pearl Jam would go on to bigger, more universal topics on later records, Ten resonated with the youth of 1991 partially thanks to its intimate portraits of domestic dysfunction. ‘Alive’ is anthemic in every sense, a battle cry for legions of disillusioned, misunderstood teenagers who found solace in Eddie’s enduring, existential howls. Your own life might not have mirrored the precise melodrama, but from that massive riff to the cavernous chorus, it’s impossible to listen to ‘Alive’ and not feel it right down in the pit of your stomach.

7. Better Man

(Vitalogy, 1994)
Many elements of Vitalogy test the resolve of casual listeners, but others see the band at their most accessible and melodic. Eddie Vedder wrote the hooky ‘Better Man’ before he even travelled north from San Diego to join the band, so it’s a curious contradiction that they finally chose to use it on their most ‘difficult’ record. Nothing in the band’s short history comes close for sheer catchiness but Pearl Jam craftily hide it on side 2, behind the accordion-driven madness of ‘Bugs’ and the unhinged ‘Satan’s Bed’. Even the opening seconds of feedback seem to dare listeners to skip on to the next one and risk missing one of their biggest crowd-pleasers.

6. Nothingman

(Vitalogy, 1994)
From one of Pearl Jam’s catchiest songs to their most devastating, all within the same manic confines of Vitalogy. ‘Nothingman’ is instantly effective, both in its minor key beauty and overwhelming sadness. Over a gorgeous melody courtesy of bassist Jeff Ament, Eddie sings of lost love, not the kind from sad bangers, but the kind that leaves you permanently hollowed out and less than you began, a real “nothingman”.

5. Black

(Ten, 1991)
If ‘Nothingman’ has a rival in Pearl Jam’s back catalogue, it’s ‘Black’. Both reflect on heartbreak, but where ‘Nothingman’ is almost oppressive in its despondency, ‘Black’ builds into something cathartic. Find me a lovelorn 90s teenager who didn’t have those final lines etched into their heart: “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I know you’ll be a star in someone else’s sky / But why can’t it be mine?” It’s that mixture of wounded sensitivity and bombast that turned the band into superstars.

4. State Of Love And Trust

(Singles, 1992)
Imagine having so many absolute winners at your disposal that you can offload a song like “State Of Love And Trust’ onto a soundtrack. Mind you, this was no ordinary soundtrack. Cameron Crowe’s Singles came to define the grunge movement, not least by including music from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney. The first of Pearl Jam’s inclusions is rawer and more explosive and direct than anything on Ten, while Mike McCready’s solo feels like it might actually catch fire.

3. Daughter

(Vs, 1993)
Nothing Pearl Jam had done before 1993 sounded even remotely like ‘Daughter’. Open-tuned acoustic guitars, a more restrained Ed, and big, dopamine-unleashing major chords combine into a truly tremendous song that matches the sensitivity of its subject matter. And then it just takes off, right as Vedder howls “She will rock the boat” everything shoots skywards and McCready’s guitar comes storming into the room. It’s not subtle but by God it’s effective. Ten was a terrific album but ‘Daughter’ was the band’s first moment of greatness, the point where your parents stopped telling you to turn it down and finally acknowledged that these guys were pretty good.

2. Rearviewmirror

(Vs, 1993)
That riff. Dave Abbruzzese’s relentless drums. Those razor-sharp guitars. That chorus. In the midst of all its perfect ingredients, there’s a weird sense of restraint to ‘Rearviewmirror’, like all the volume and chaos is still somehow on the leash. Then it drops out and you know what’s coming. Ed’s howls build and build and, as he screams “Rearviewmirrrrrrrrrorrrrrrrrr”, the whole thing kicks off. Where Ten defined grunge’s sludgy stomp, ‘Rearviewmirror’ is instead a dynamic, nitro-fuelled ride into the abyss, nothing left behind but scorch marks along the road.

1. Corduroy

(Vitalogy, 1994)
Eddie Vedder once described ‘Corduroy’ as him trying to make sense of his relationship with millions of people. The title refers to his famous brown corduroy jacket which had just been replicated by a fashion house and was being sold for $650. Vedder felt like a commodity, like his identity was being co-opted by powers beyond his control and that existential crisis is reflected throughout the song as he realises he doesn’t want any of the things being offered in exchange for his soul. There’s anguish in ‘Corduroy’ but also resolve and clarity, the first signs of a band figuring out how to exist on their own terms. The way the songs shifts from stomping verses to melodic choruses and then to that driving final section, like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ on amphetamines, seems to almost represent Pearl Jam’s determination to remain elusive. If anything can define them, it’s that their rejection of fame and fortune inspired their best song.

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