My love for Pearl Jam is no secret, not least because I’ve written about it before, so when I was recently challenged to put together a PJ starter mix I jumped at the chance. It’s not been an easy task, though, with 20 years and 9 studio albums to choose from. And that’s before taking into account b-sides, live albums etc.
Anyhow, I’ve managed to narrow things down to 16 tracks (I was aiming for 15, but didn’t quite make it) which I thought I’d share here – after all, I was going to write the notes anyway.
1. Release (live)
Pearl Jam’s reputation as a live band is formidable, so it makes sense to feature a few live tracks here. Release, often used as a show opener, was never a favourite song of mine, until I saw the performance in the recent Pearl Jam 20 movie. The setting (the stunning Arena di Verona), the lighting, the performance and even the rain all combined to make me really take notice of the song. It’s a favourite now.
An obvious choice, but how could I not include this? Semi-autobiographical (Eddie Vedder really did find out, in his teens, that “what [he] thought was [his] daddy” wasn’t) and with an anthemic chorus that’s not really as euphoric as it sounds, this is probably the song most folk think of when you mention Pearl Jam.
Believe it or not, Ten (PJ’s debut album) kind of passed me by. Shocking I know. This, the lead single from second album Vs., was what hooked me first time around.
4. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
One of my absolute favourite PJ songs, and one I’ve written about before. The wordy title was a reaction to criticism of the titles given to other early songs, which were mostly single words.
5. Last Kiss
Originally a fan club single, this 1950s teen tragedy cover became PJ’s biggest mainstream success to date , reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999. Proceeds from the single went to a charity for Kosovan refugees.
6. Spin the Black Circle
Highlighting the band’s punk roots and love of vinyl, this is the band’s highest charting single in the UK to date, reaching #10 in 1994. The album from which it’s taken, Vitalogy, is a real mixed bag, containing not only some of my favourite PJ tracks, but some that are just unlistenable (I’m talking to you, Hey Foxymophandlemama!)
7. Given To Fly (live)
Another live version, this time from my first PJ show, Glasgow SECC in 2000. Midway through, Eddie can be heard asking if everyone is alright – a section of the crowd near the front (including me) had been knocked to the floor in a big pile of bodies. Weeks later, 9 fans died in a similar incident at Roskilde Festival. Chilling.
8. Do The Evolution
Following their initial rapid rise to fame, Pearl Jam made a concerted effort to drop back out of the limelight. Part of that was stopping making music videos in 1992. So it was a big deal when, six years later, they produced one for this song, working with comic book artist Todd McFarlane.
I imagine for a lot of people this is a throwaway piece of nothing, but I love the imagery employed. “I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house-keys on” is just beautiful, as far as I’m concerned.
10. Life Wasted
Never a band to shy away from politics, the George W Bush presidency provided a lot of fuel to PJ’s creative fire. It’s pretty obvious what this one, the opener to 2006’s self-titled “comeback” album, was about.
11. Just Breathe
Similar to a track from Eddie’s solo Into The Wild soundtrack album, this is another one of those tender moments that seem a million miles away from the early days. I think I’m right in saying that this is the first time a PJ song has featured strings.
12. Unthought Known
Something Pearl Jam does well is write songs that build and build… and something I really like is songs that build and build. Coincidence?
If this was a live set, we’d now be entering the encore(s). Another obvious choice, but one that simply couldn’t be excluded. Best 12-string bass intro ever?
14. Black (live, MTV Unplugged)
One of Ten’s many highlights, this was a song the band fought with their record company NOT to release as a single – and won! A gut-wrenching breakup song which is usually given a slightly stalker-ish edge live, with the addition of the “We belong together” tag.
15. Better Man
Eddie wrote this song when he was 15, and had performed it with an earlier band, but wasn’t convinced it was any good. Fortunately the rest of the band persuaded him that it was, and it became a fan favourite, with the opening verse often being sung just by the crowd.
16. Yellow Ledbetter (live)
Almost every show closes with this early b-side, so it seems appropriate to close this mix with a live version. If you can’t make out the words don’t worry – with the exception of “I don’t know if I was the boxer or the bag” (and even that’s changed at times) they’re rarely the same twice, and the official site says that lyrics are “Not available“.
And that’s yer lot!
I shied away from including any songs from solo albums (Eddie’s Into the Wild soundtrack is definitely worth checking out) or side projects (Temple of the Dog being, perhaps, the most obvious) because it was hard enough picking
15 16 songs from the band’s own back catalogue that represent the breadth of their output. And hopefully one that leads to further investigation