A confession: I can’t remember the last time I played Ten start to finish. It’s been years, quite a few of them, in fact. And yet, I’m one of the biggest Pearl Jam fans you’d ever meet. So why have I neglected Ten, one of the defining albums of the 1990s and the most significant release in my own music universe, for so long? I guess I’ve outgrown it. It’s no big deal. I’m not putting it down, and I’m certainly not forgetting the impact it had on me and so many others more than a decade ago. The album just doesn’t ring true for me anymore.
In a very tangible way, I’ve grown up with Pearl Jam, or at least with their discography. Every release had songs that I instantly and eagerly latched onto, some admittedly more than others, and more than a few of those songs have provided me with insight into some of my own questions about life. Now, 12 years after I first heard “Black” on the bus ride to a high school track meet, I don’t have those same questions. I’m about to turn 30, so I guess that’s a good thing. I just hope kids in high school today are listening to Ten.
So consider this all a disclaimer, because you’ll only find one song from Ten on this list of Pearl Jam Deep Cuts, and just one from Vs., the band’s sophomore release. Aside from the reasons I laid out above, everyone’s heard Ten and most people have heard Vs. too, so uncovering more than one or two true deep cuts from each album is next to impossible. Besides, the music from the band’s more recent releases, including their new self-titled album, is simply better than the stuff they were putting out in the early ‘90s. It’s true. Just like I’ve outgrown Ten and the whole grunge “thing,” Pearl Jam has too.
“Porch” – Ten
Like so many people, I played Ten to death, but I couldn’t kill “Porch.” For a long time, “Black” was my favorite cut off their debut but, while “Black” has faded a bit, “Porch” has endured. Nobody knew it at the time, but this song offered the clearest preview of what was to come. In fact, without “Porch,” there may never have been a “Corduroy,” and see if the opening riff of “Severed Hand,” off the band’s latest album, sounds at all familiar. Forget why you used to love Pearl Jam so much? Play this song.
“Leash” – Vs.
“Drop the leash, drop the leash / GET OUTTA MY FUCKIN FACE!” Gee, why did high school boys dig this track so much? This song should’ve made it clear to everyone that Pearl Jam was more than just a grunge band. “Leash” is one ballsy rocker that still sounds great 13 years later.
“Last Exit” – Vitalogy
Those who claim Pearl Jam went soft with Vitalogy need only listen to the album’s first track to drop that notion. Raw, defiant and edgy, “Last Exit” is the pitch-perfect opener for Vitalogy, an album crammed with jagged lyrics, crunching guitars and bold experimentation. It also served as an early notice from the band, an indication that things were going to be a little different this time around. Listen to Eddie roar, “Let my spirit paa-aaaass!” and try calling him a softie.
“Whipping” – Vitalogy
One of the best cuts from Vitalogy is the single “Not for You,” in which Eddie shouts at everyone greedily clutching his band’s coattails, “This is not for you / Oh, it never was for you / Fuck you!” That retaliatory mood also churns throughout “Whipping,” a relentlessly paced song that confronts the backlash Pearl Jam experienced from fans, critics and label execs who resented the band’s refusal to stagnate and follow up Ten with Eleven: “They don’t want no change / We already have.” In many ways, “Whipping” represents a more mature and refined “Leash,” just as aggressive but much more focused, and instead of “Get outta my fuckin’ face!”, Eddie growls, “Don’t mean to push / but I’m being shoved!”
“Nothingman” – Vitalogy
“Better Man” absolutely tore up the charts and, incidentally, represents the moment Pearl Jam jumped the shark in many former fans’ eyes, but “Nothingman” is a better tune. Lyrically, this is one of the best selections in the PJ catalogue, with my personal favorite line being, “Caught a bolt of lightning / Cursed the day he let it go.” For quite a few years, Vitalogy was my favorite Pearl Jam album and “Nothingman” was one of my favorite PJ songs. Today, they’re both still high on their respective lists.
“In My Tree” – No Code
I forgot just how cool this song is. While hostility and resentment coursed through Vitalogy, the mood on No Code was more contemplative and less confrontational. On “In My Tree,” Eddie dreams of living high above the problems and concerns of everyday life that weigh most people down. Escape and seclusion have been recurring themes throughout just about every Pearl Jam album, most notably in songs like “Rearviewmirror” (Vs.), “In Hiding,” (Yield) and “Gone” (Pearl Jam), but like No Code as a whole, “In My Tree” is unlike almost everything else in the PJ library. Drum fans will dig the banging by former Chili Pepper Jack Irons, which gives the song a strong jungle vibe, and one of the best PJ fan sites around (theskyIscrape.com) was inspired by this song’s lyrics: “Up here so high, the sky I scrape.”
“Smile” – No Code
I’m an absolute sucker for a mid-tempo groove that features a harmonica (see “Drifting” a little farther down this list), so “Smile” is a no-brainer for me. Bluesy, funky and very Crazy Horse-esque, “Smile” is highly representative of the overall feel of No Code. I initially had a hard time getting into this album, and the concert I saw on this tour ranks as my least favorite PJ show, but after putting No Code on the shelf for several years, I picked it up again following the release of Yield and was stunned by how much I enjoyed it. On what I now consider to be one of Pearl Jam’s strongest releases, “Smile” stands as one of the album’s premier tracks.
“Present Tense” – No Code
This one starts out slow, but give it time. The extreme change of pace several minutes in instantly transforms “Present Tense” from a slow burner into one of the best jam tunes in the PJ collection. The message throughout is hopeful and inspiring, but those messages are emphatically driven home when the guys kick this tune into high gear. Bassist Jeff Ament, in particular, is at his funky best here.
“Brain of J” – Yield
Once a bootleg favorite with the extended title “Brain of JFK,” this rave opens 1998’s Yield, one of the band’s strongest albums. With guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard setting the pace, “Brain of J” is in and out in just under three minutes…
“Faithful” – Yield
…giving way to this excellent change-of-pace tune that starts mellow and ends mellow, but in between it flat-out rocks. One of Pearl Jam’s biggest strengths has always been their ability to write love songs that aren’t cheesy, lightweight and soft, and this is a prime example.
“MFC” – Yield
There seems to be some disagreement as to what “MFC” stands for: Some say it’s “Many Fast Cars,” some say “Mini Fast Car” while others believe it’s “Mother Fucking Cars.” Regardless, it’s clearly about cars (it opens with, “Sliding out of reverse into drive / This wheel will be turning right, then straight / Off in the sunset she'll ride”), which is fitting because this tune, checking in at a tight 2:28, is one of those songs that sounds best blasting from your car stereo with the windows wide open and the dial on your speedometer rising. Another song about escaping life’s problems, this one kills in concert.
“Low Light” – Yield
One of my personal favorites, “Low Light” is just a beautiful song. Eddie’s voice has never sounded better than it does here, though ironically this one was written by Jeff Ament. The musicianship is stunning, with Stone’s acoustic guitar playing behind McCready’s electric, crashing cymbals and even an organ and piano. Slide this one in after a tough day and your mood will improve by the time it fades out.
“Gods’ Dice” – Binaural
Undoubtedly my least favorite album of the bunch, Binaural still features some great songs, including this direct descendant of the No Code single “Hail, Hail.” Another rocker that comes and goes in less than three minutes, this wasn’t the first time PJ explored religion and spirituality in their music and it wouldn’t be the last, but the imagery found in “Gods’ Dice” sets it apart.
“Of the Girl,” Binaural
I actually hadn’t paid this one much attention until I heard it live, which is rather surprising considering how much I like it now. You get the feeling that McCready ad-libs his way through this entire song, providing a steady dose of bluesy riffs that beautifully complement Stone’s acoustic backdrop. The version on Live from Benaroya Hall, a brilliant two-disc acoustic set from 2003, is one of that album’s many, many highlights.
“Can’t Keep” – Riot Act
One of the most uplifting and inspiring tracks from any Pearl Jam album, “Can’t Keep” feels like it’s going to bust out at any moment, but it never does. While that may sound like a bad thing, it’s actually one of the reasons the song is so damn compelling. There’s tension here, something bigger just beyond the horizon, both in Eddie’s lyrics (which progress from “I won’t live forever / You can’t keep me here,” to “I will live forever / You can’t keep me here”) and in the music. I once heard Eddie refer to drummer Matt Cameron as the band’s secret weapon; turn this one up and you’ll know why.
“Thumbing My Way” – Riot Act
I wrote the following about “Thumbing My Way” in my review of Riot Act: “The greatest songwriters tell the greatest stories, and Vedder has always been a gifted storyteller.” He did it with “Jeremy,” followed that with classics like “Elderly Woman” and “Off He Goes,” and in 2002 he added “Thumbing My Way” to the list. As with so many of his songs, the imagery here is magnificent.
“Down” – Lost Dogs (Disc 1)
In 2003, Pearl Jam fans finally got their long-awaited collection of B-sides and rarities, and thank God we did. Otherwise, we may have been deprived of this Riot Act cast off. Simply stated, this is Pearl Jam at their absolute best, an upbeat, guitar-driven jam that so many other bands would kill to record. How this failed to make the album cut is beyond me, but judging by how frequently it pops up on the concert bootlegs (the version on Benaroya Hall is fantastic), it seems the band loves “Down” as much as the fans do.
“Black, Red, Yellow” – Lost Dogs (Disc 1)
From the No Code sessions, “Black, Red, Yellow” is a popular selection among PJ fans not only because of its garage rock sound, but because Dennis Rodman makes a brief guest appearance on a recorded message left on one of the band member’s machines (the Worm wraps up his message with, “Give me a jingle, uh, when you get in from wherever the fuck you're at.”). I’ve got no idea what this song is about (someone makes mention of “the three faces of Satan” on a message board), but it’s catchy as hell.
“Undone” – Lost Dogs (Disc 1)
There are so many gems on the Lost Dogs collection, but the buoyant “Undone” sits at the top of the list alongside the aforementioned “Down.” Ironically, both songs were products of the Riot Act sessions, and both are superior to at least three or four tracks that actually made the album. Fortunately, as is the case with “Down,” “Undone” often finds itself on concert set lists these days.
“Drifting” – Lost Dogs (Disc 2)
This folkish tune is a great sing-along: “My road it may be lonely / Just because it’s not paved / It’s good for drifting, drifting away.” Rumor has it the original version from the 1999 fan club Christmas single is better than the version found on Lost Dogs, but I’ve never heard the original. This one suits me just fine.
“Daughter/It’s Okay” – Live 8-24-00 – Jones Beach, New York
I was instantly captivated when I first saw this on the “Touring Band 2000” DVD. One of the coolest moments of any PJ show is when they flow from the end of “Daughter” into another completely different song. In the past, fellow Vs. cut “W.M.A.” or a few lines from Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in a Free World” were popular choices, but during this particular show, Eddie pulled out a sheet of paper, told the crowd, “I’m gonna stand here with you,” and then asked for their help with a Dead Moon cover called “It’s Okay.” I’ve never heard the original and I have no idea who Dead Moon is, but listen to Eddie sing, “It’s okay, you know I love you anyway” and you’ll find it impossible to not sing along when the keyed-up crowd belts out, “It’s okaaaa-aa-ay!” in response. Better yet, pick up the “Touring Band” DVD to get the full, almost overwhelming experience.
BONUS: “Untitled” – Live on Two Legs
This sweet little tune is only 2:02 long, so you’ll have to decide if it’s worth the price of a download. I’d gladly pay a buck for it if I didn’t already own Live on Two Legs, especially since you won’t find it on any studio release. It’s quiet and simple – just Eddie, a guitar and the crowd gently clapping along – but in this case, simple is better.
POSSIBLE CONTENDERS FROM PEARL JAM
Since I can only guess what singles the band will release from their new disc (“World Wide Suicide” has already torn up the charts), I didn’t include any new tracks on the above list. That’s not to say that there aren’t any worthy songs on the album; far from it, actually. If you want to get a taste of Pearl Jam before shelling out the cash for the full album, check out these songs:
“Marker in the Sand”
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