March 26, 2008

Pearl Jam Fanatacism - Debunking the Best Ever

I sit here in my living room listening to the entire Pearl Jam catalogue. A challenge of sorts, because including bootlegs and rarities, this totals 517 tracks. I obviously will not finish this preposterously fun task today, but it’s an important undertaking to consider. It makes me feel the weight of what is at hand and it sheds some light on all that my older brother left out. No, you won’t find a ranking of all 517 songs below, but I will let you know about a few omissions from an admittedly thorough dissection of our favorite band’s career.

What Lou’s post accomplished was to take the soul out of music. His method of ranking each song individually and then regurgitating them into complete album reviews automatically includes him in the current iTunes generation; a group of people that hears a song on a commercial, or waiting in line for their caramel macchiato, and downloads just one lone track. If you follow this avenue you will never hear some of the great songs that appear on the “B sides” of albums. Most often, it is the lesser known tracks that stay in your personal rotation, not the ones that your goofy friend who reads Rolling Stone likes best.

The second and only slightly less important ramification that stems from the individual track to complete album methodology is that you wind up ignoring 80% of Pearl Jam’s prolific catalogue. Granted, much of these songs are rare recordings that I do not often listen too, but Lou, what about Down (7), I got shit (a dead to rights, bonafide, 10!), Dead Man Walking (5), and Other Side (5) to name but a few of the best. Notice, people, that I left out Yellow Ledbetter.

In this post, I will (for the most part) resist the temptation to argue over the rankings of each individual song. This is based on my possession of a soul, and a baby who does not afford me the time for such a feat. So, without further ado, the ranking of Pearl Jam’s albums based on a truly novel idea…how good they are.

An almost perfect album that epitomizes what Pearl Jam is: A groundbreaking band that isn’t afraid to experiment with sound and a band with the unique ability to combine the art of popular songwriting (my god, Betterman?) with unconventional formats (Corduroy). There is no album on earth that I would rather listen to at harmful decibels while driving down a back road in midsummer with the windows down. Enough said.

When this album came out and the Sony website had a front page banner declaring that the company was In Hiding listening to the new album. I felt it was my duty to ignore my college classes and wet blanket of a girlfriend for a week and do the same. Top to bottom this album is as almost as strong as Vitalogy, it just lacks Vitalogy’s originality.

Pearl Jam
Lou, go back and listen to Comatose and Severed Hand. Comatose is a rare example of PJ acknowledging their punk roots, with a drum line that is an ode to the form. Just ask your sister, this is one of her fav’s. And Severed Hand may be a bit unconventional for the PJ catalogue, but have you ever heard of Crescendo? Understand, I’m not falling down/I said Look around, the room’s taller now/I can’t close my eyes, cause I see the sound/In waves/In waves. Add in the myriad tempo changes and you have a great song. You gave it a fucking two, just like Comatose. Okay, now that that’s out of my system and I’ve won you over, you can go re-rank these songs (I would recommend 5, if the basis of three is a mediocre song like Love Boat Captain). When you do that, this eponymous album starts off 5, 5, 5, 5, 7, (10?). Can any other album on your list match a run of songs like this?

No Code
Here is where you have to take in an album as a whole. This is the one where PJ tries out the old Eastern Religion vibe with songs like Who You Are. The whole thing takes on a very introspective feel, and beginning to end you should be able to sit with this one and feel more connected to the band than on any other effort they make. When you rated this one, you literally ignored any soul you have. Of course you’re not going to queue up Red Mosquito or Lukin, but as two parts of a greater whole they fit so well. Oh, and by the way, you once told me that Who You Are was one of you favorites from this album…you gave it a 3. Oh, and double by the way, Present Tense is about as close to a 10 as you can get without being Corduroy. You can spend your time alone/Re-digesting past regrets, oh/Or you can come to terms and realize/You’re the only one who can’t forgive yourself oh/Makes much more sense, to live in the present tense. C’mon.

There is no way to do a traditional review of Ten. It is unlike any other album that Pearl Jam subsequently made. I doubt that they had any idea what they were starting. Almost every other rock singer since has modeled his voice on Eddie Vedder’s (my God, that douche from Creed?). If they did know how mimicked they would be, this album would have sounded entirely different. No matter, this was THE seminal grunge album and had tracks on it that made girls cry (Black), parents cry (Jeremy), and dudes want to lovingly punch each other (Porch). Top to bottom this album carries with it more memories for someone in their thirties than their High School yearbook.

Okay, so Versus is a great album. My issue with it is that it gets caught between Grunge Pearl Jam (Ten) and Groundbreaking Pearl Jam (Vitalogy). Because of this, it sonically leaves me feeling lost. I love some of the tracks, but would on the whole rate them significantly lower than you did, especially Elderly Woman. I would however, have rated two tracks much higher: Indifference and Leash. These are the only two songs (I’d include WMA, but it isn’t much of a song) on the album that are both musically powerful and carry a powerful message. You missed the boat on these two. They both capture Eddie’s youthful anger more artfully than Jeremy and have the added bonus of no excessive airplay.

As with Yield on your list, I truly feel bad about Binaural’s seventh place finish. I really, really like this album. The track list is ridiculously strong and it gets points for being recorded entirely in a format that is best suited for headphone listening. This, as you know, is the only true way to listen to a band you love. So why seventh place? First and foremost, this should not be seen as a bad thing. No album put forth by Pearl Jam has been bad. Hell, all but one of them have been great. So to be seventh on this list is sort of like being sad that you are dating the sixth Bundchen sister; pretty sure she’s nice to look at, and you're never too far away from the real thing. Secondly, Binaural as an album sort of all feels the same. There are no surprises here and very little innovation.

Riot Act
What to say about Riot Act? It had too many tracks. It didn’t include one of the best songs form the recording session (see Down above). It was PJ’s least effective “political album,” with too obvious a disdain for the current president in the likes of Bush Leaguer. They have recorded great songs about the state of our country before (Insignificance) and after (World Wide Suicide), but the difference is that these songs were great songs put together with great care. The unfortunate thing is that Riot Act did include one of my all-time favorites in I Am Mine, a song that should, if there is a music God, show us glimpse of the sonic future of the band.


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