Tomorrow night, I plan on watching Pearl Jam Twenty, a documentary about the band, directed by Cameron Crowe. For starters, I'm a very, very big PJ fan and have been since...well, for awhile. Now need to cut me open and count the rings. The release of this movie and the retrospective renaissance PJ has been experiencing over the past few months has worked to reignite my passion for the band. I'm never to far from my last listen to one of their albums (and my recent acquisition of Sirius radio, which includes a Pearl Jam station, has kept the saturation level at a pretty respectable high), but I never really committed to words what makes the band work so poignantly for me.
For starters, there's the music, which has seemed to evolve with my own tastes. Sure, at the foundation, PJ will always be PJ. But at the same time, I can't think of many mainstream rock bands that have taken the creative chances that PJ has over he course of their 20-year career. What started as an anthem-fueled arena rock grunge band evolved into an introspective, tight knit group of musicians all contributing their own unique voices to each and every album. Listen to Ten, then listen to No Code, then up to their most recent release, Backspacer. Between the three, there are wild variations in sound, lyrics, and overall album construction.
Of course, part of my fondness is based in nostalgia--that's a given. PJ was the first real band that I felt was my own. I grew up in a pretty music-friendly household, with a musician father. I learned all about Claption, oldies, and The Beatles at an early age. But PJ was the first band that I really felt a personal kinship to. I still remember getting Ten as a gift for completion of a science fair project; and there's the memory of skipping school to pick Yield the day of its release.
As for the PJ story, there isn't a whole lot of ground to cover that hasn't been said before. Though one of the fathers of the grunge scene, they proved to be one of the few bands to be able to evolve past the genre they helped to create. No one knows what the future may have held for Nirvana; Alice in Chains faded under Layne Staley's heroin addiction; Soundgarden broke up and were never able to reclaim their former sound (or integrity, thanks to Chris Cornell's ill-fated solo decisions); the rest of the grunge movement either disbanded, fell into obscurity, or weren't that good to begin with.
The band battled Ticketmaster to the point of refusing to tour (and likely costing themselves significant chunks of money in the process); they battled bootleg recordings of their concerts so adamantly they started releasing entire tours on CD (in fact, I believe they still hold the record for most albums released on a single day). Otherwise, they've stayed relatively free of personal drama, public feuds, all the nonsense that distracts from the single purpose of a band making music. And that's what PJ has done, at its core, for 20 years: They've carved out a niche where they have the freedom to make the music they want, on their own terms. A pretty rare thing these days.
So, as I think of the band and get all nostalgic, I decided to rank my top PJ albums. My favorite three are listed here, in no particular order.
1. No Code
This is the album where PJ through down the gauntlet and said "this is the music we're making; you're either in for the evolution, or you'll be listening to Ten for the next fifty years." Judging by subsequent album sales and radio play, most philistines--I mean fans--were more than happy listening to Even Flow for all of eternity; others were excited by the complexities PJ was unearthing. Granted, No Code is a flawed album--but it's a fascinatingly flawed effort, and that's what makes it so great. Off He Goes can stand to be a little more uptempo, and Present Tense could have been better produced (especially after hearing their live incarnation). But songs like Red Mosquito, Hail Hail, and In My Tree represent the band at its best.
Lean, direct, and fun, Backspacer gives a glimpse of PJ feeling comfortable. After a few albums mired in its own political agendas--Riot Act was especially disappointing--the band clearly went for a straight rocker. The Fixer was their best single in years, and songs like Breathe and Unthought Known raise the band to new, mature heights. Johnny Guitar is a terrific Ramones tribute.
After years of battling music media, battling Ticketmaster, and battling the band they used to be, PJ was finally able to settle into making an album that wasn't reactionary (unlike Vitalogy, which was almost completely reactionary). Songs like Faithfull, Low Light, and All Those Yesterdays sound so unlike the band, yet are distinctly PJ at the same time. It's the most lush album and represents the band at its best--comfortable with the music they're making, and making it free of outside influences.