As any self-respecting superfan would do, I’ve compiled a list of the 30 Best Pearl Jam Songs of All Time. This isn’t just any best-of thrown together by a guy who really dug Ten, mind you – these kinds of compilations are a special decisive hell for fans intimately familiar with the entirety of a band’s catalogue. For someone who’s been to more than 50 shows and obsessed over every detail of the band’s history from the very beginning, a collection like this represents a justification of devotion for countless superfans, a testimony of dedication more than two decades deep.
The song selections aren’t numbered, because the subjective process of choosing 30 tracks from the band’s seemingly endless catalogue is challenging and polarizing enough as it is. Pearl Jam songs run a wide span of intensity and emotional output, and ranking them against each other is impossible to do with justice. So, in no particular order, here are Pearl Jam’s 30 greatest songs… so far!
This dance with the devil courtesy of the world’s most annoying bug spawned from a bad bout of food poisoning Vedder endured in San Francisco many years ago. Fittingly, the song sounds like a rising fever, though the No Code recording is far from the best representation of the track. The song’s greatest potential is tapped fully in a very early, hugely ferocious live version of the song (11.4.95) that included the changed lyric “two steps ahead of him, punctures in his neck”. Lead guitarist Mike McCready’s squealing guitar tone (attributed to a zippo on record, according to legend), coupled with Ed’s shimmying high-vibrato in the “I was bitten…” makes you want to slap at the imaginary bugs buzzing around your head. It’s too perfect.
It’s difficult to imagine a song more nakedly introspective, more determined to rise above the present pathways to ruin. With lyrical and instrumental alignment reaching epic levels, the song rises from a delicate, bleak sadness to an anthem of hope and renewal. This one gets people through the hardship, and serves as a beacon in darkness. McCready, no stranger to personal struggle, penned the lyrics – his first for a PJ track. “I just had this idea: I need to be spiritually open inside to solutions in my life,” he explained. “It also has to do with being a positive solution to anything in my life… to a spiritual malady or a physical malady. It has to come from inside first.”
Of The Earth
Debuted in Ireland in 2010, this is possibly the most surprising and promising PJ composition we’ve heard in a very long time. A staggering, jagged meanness leads to a roaring chorus, like the Sex Pistols in a blender with The Clash, before turning another corner entirely into an old-school meandering McCready solo that gets downright awesome. Full of trap doors and shifting tempos, the track is rumored to be included in the upcoming new Pearl Jam album, and if it proves true we can’t wait to hear what the studio version sounds like. Listen to the song’s debut.
State of Love and Trust
A roaring, passionate rocker that served a perfect contribution to the incredible Singles movie soundtrack, “State of Love and Trust” possessed the explosive intensity and urgency of heart that anchored so many of the band’s signature songs. Did anyone understand what the hell was being sung? Not a chance, but we sure as hell felt it.
Drummer Matt Cameron wrote the music (and co-wrote lyrics) for this oddly-tuned echoing love song, giving it a flavor unlike any other PJ release. The guitar’s strange effect produces a powerful undercurrent that evokes a feeling not unlike standing at the edge of the ocean at night.
Short for White Male American, “W.M.A.” has a delicious, thunderous ferocity over a brooding tribal instrumental. Vedder explains the song’s origins: “I think I’d probably stayed at the rehearsal studio the night before and it had been a couple of days since I had a shower and I’ve got my old shoes on and I don’t look too great, a little grunge on my teeth or whatever. And I’m sitting there with this guy who’s of a darker color than me, and along come these cops, they run around with their bikes trying to look cool. So here they come, they’re heading straight for us. And they just ignored me and [started] hassling him. Compared to me, this guy looks as respectable as fuck. But they started hassling him, and that just blew me the fuck away. So I started hassling them…And one thing led to another…I was just really wound up by it…I had all this fucking energy rushing through me. I was mad. Really fucking angry. I got back to the studio and the guys had been working on this thing and I just went straight in and did the vocals, and that was the song.”
A scathing critique of the parasitic media obsession with all things grunge, “Rats” can barely contain its boiling resentment as it rises cataclysmically. In the definitive rendition, from the band’s legendary Atlanta show on April 3, 1994 (which was broadcast on the radio around the world), Eddie tags the end with a sample of the then-unheard “Satan’s Bed” (which followed immediately after) and a short statement on Michael Jackson, from whom the “Ben, the two of us need look no more” line is inspired. Listen here.
Not the goofy Vitalogy version. To hell with the Vitalogy version. On record the song’s buoyant, spastic energy is squandered, the reckless power of the track’s first impression is entirely absent. At the aforementioned Fox Theater show in Atlanta, Vedder was on fire. He knew the world was listening, and he stepped with Jordan precision and transcendent intensity that brought wave after wave of goosebumps to the wide-eyed kids taping at home. “Ok, we don’t even know this song, but… uh… fuck it, play it anyway, that’s right,” he says, before Dave Abbruzzese’s pulverizing intro ushers in a gutturally berzerk, unbelievably awesome world debut of this funk-strut testament to love. Listen here.
Grinding to life and exploding into a jittering rock slugger, this opener to Vs. took a wrecking ball to the notion that Pearl Jam would go lightly into their second album. Urgent, aggressive and pleading, the song’s demented lyrics and spastic howling are matched in intensity by a hyperfast solo freakout, once again courtesy of the incredible Michael McCready.
Like the saddest nursery rhyme, the simple structure of the lyrics and melody to this Binaural closer defy the crushing heartbreak of the story they tell. A slow chord strum over distant-thunder drums frame an inevitable dissolution of a loving relationship. The exit melody, the repeated “drift away….” is achingly beautiful. No heartstrings with any miles are immune.
All photos: Johnny Firecloud