The Over/Under: Pearl Jam


With nine studio albums and more officially released bootlegs than any band in history, Pearl Jam has managed to not only escape the grunge pigeonhole and the shadow of Nirvana but also cement itself in rock history as one of the most uncompromising and captivating live bands of all time. Sure, Pearl Jam has inspired whole, terrible sections of the radio dial, and I cringe to imagine who will give its Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech (Eddie Vedder has done it for R.E.M., the Ramones, Neil Young and the Doors), but these guys were almost the only thing I listened to for several formative, angst-filled years growing up, and there’s something to be said for being such a major influence on mainstream modern-rock radio, just like there’s something to be said for having sold more than 50 million albums. Pearl Jam’s debut album was 1991’s Ten, and it was the first CD I ever owned. At one point, this was the biggest band in the world, but then the group decided to make a conscious effort to cut back on the videos and press and take the ride at a pace it could digest. Now the guys seem to spend most of their time surfing, skateboarding or with their families and working with various charities, but they’re still at it: Pearl Jam’s latest, Backspacer, hit Target and iTunes this week. Here are the five most overrated and the five most underrated works from the last band standing from the ’90s Seattle grunge explosion. Read our 2006 Q&A with Vedder.

:: The Five Most Overrated Pearl Jam Songs
1. “Better Man” (1994)

Supposedly Vedder wrote this song when he was only a teenager while sitting on his bed, and that makes sense. The worst part about this song is seeing it live. It is not uncommon for the entire crowd to drown out Eddie with its singing, and he’s been known to completely give the performance of the song over to the audience. I’m not against crowd participation, but during “Better Man,” it can get a bit obnoxious. Also, it’s not a love song, as i think it’s often misinterpreted; I don’t know how many times I’ve seen couples slow-dancing in aisles to this song or singing it to each other at shows, either missing the meaning or possibly having some issues they need to work out.

2. Ten (1991)
Radio has killed a good number of the songs on this album along with a handful of other great Pearl Jam tunes. “Evenflow,” “Alive” and “Jeremy” are so overplayed that my parents probably know all the words. When you hear a song for the 1,000th time in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, some of the meaning has probably been lost. Obviously, the band knows this and it has made efforts to fight overexposure as much as any rock ‘n’ roll band ever, but it’s a hard battle to fight. What rock band doesn’t want fans? Despite it being Pearl Jam’s bestselling album and the whole reason for its existence, without the recent remixing, Ten sounds dated and cheesy. When the band plays these songs live, they’re usually more aggressive and amped-up, but I’m so sick of hearing them that I’m usually just wondering what’s next.

“Even Flow”:

3. “Daughter” (1993)
Very few Pearl Jam songs stay at one level of intensity. Aside from a quick electric guitar solo, “Daughter” goes almost nowhere. There might be a reason the band used to use this song as the improv section of its sets, jamming the song into a cover or something else entirely. It’s probably because the guys get bored playing it. How many songs can one band write about dysfunctional parent/child relationships? Nothing speaks to disaffected youth better than songs about disaffected youth, I guess. Troubled souls unite.

4. “Bee Girl” (1993)
When I caught Pearl Jam in Berlin last month, the band pulled out this rarity, and the crowd went nuts. I have no idea why. Originally recorded as part of a radio appearance, Vedder wrote (improvised?) this song about the girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video who wears a bumblebee costume. The song had been a throwaway novelty that appeared on early bootleg compilations until the guys dusted it off for 2003’s Lost Dogs b-side collection and it started to make its way back into sets. It was cute for what it was: a one-shot tossed-off joke of a song. But Pearl Jam shouldn’t use it to open the first encore. It diminishes the greatness of the songs the band actually put effort into writing.

5. “Yellow Ledbetter” (1992)
Speaking of putting effort into writing songs, this song doesn’t even have lyrics. If Vedder had taken 15 minutes to sit down and put pen to paper, this could have been one of the greatest rock songs of all time and a massive hit. As it is, it’s a jumbled, mumbled mishmash on top of a guitar line nicked from “Little Wing.” The band usually saves this for last at its shows, and I’ve always found it as the signal to start heading for the parking lot in hopes of beating some of the traffic.

:: The Five Most Underrated Pearl Jam Songs
No Code (1996)
When this album was released, I remember many Pearl Jam fans claiming that the band had lost it. “Who You Are” as the lead single was a strange mid-tempo choice for a band whose last album was the jagged, punky Vitalogy, and this was the point where I started to hear the rock-critic cliché of “I liked their early stuff.” Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons is partially credited with the band’s slight stylistic departure. His tribal-influenced drumming gave the group a whole new dynamic and one that it never completely lost post Irons thanks to reverent renditions by Matt Cameron. As a whole and compared with the band’s entire discography, I don’t think there’s another album that better embodies Pearl Jam’s sound. No Code is full of every kind of great song the band can write: rockers (“Hail, Hail”), ballads (“Off He Goes”), ones sung by other members (“Mankind”), quirky experiments (“Who You Are”) and anthems (“In My Tree”).

“In My Tree”:

2. “Brain Of J.” (1998)
One of the best political songs the band has done and here’s why: It’s non-specific. Pearl Jam is just raging against the machine in general here, and lyrically, Vedder has always been more interesting when he leaves spaces for listeners to fill in their own lives. This song originally surfaced during the 1995 tour but for some reason did not appear on an album until three years later. A short, paranoid, conspiracy rocker that seems to preach to the Bush administration before they even got started, this song opened Yield with a false start and then a promise: “The whole world will be different soon/The whole world will be relieved.”

3. Merkin Ball (1995)
This single (two-song EP?) came out of collaboration with Neil Young for Mirror Ball, and it is a crime against rock that these guys haven’t gotten back together for another round. Stylistically, the album’s songs show a more gradual evolution between the dark, jagged Vitalogy and the roomier, eclectic instrumentation of No Code. Almost all of the tracks were written and recorded in four days in the studio, and Mirror Ball is still one of the best things PJ or Young has ever put to tape. Unfortunately, only two Pearl Jam songs came out of the session, “I Got Id” and “Long Road,” but they are two of its strongest. Young plays guitar on “I Got Id” and organ on “Long Road”.

“I Got Id”:

4. “Satan’s Bed” (1994)
The opening riff to this song is scary. It just sounds nefarious and angry. This is Vedder’s best lyrical response to fame and the temptation of money: “I shit and I stink/I’m real, join the club.” Recorded at the height of the band’s popularity (just mere months from Vs. becoming the fastest-selling album of all time) and containing some of its most angst-filled lyrics, aggressive guitar lines and powerful drumming, “Satan’s Bed” simply rocks. There must be a good reason why Pearl Jam doesn’t play it live very much, but I cannot fathom it.

5. “Fatal” (2000)
Originally a Binaural outtake and later released on Lost Dogs, this infectiously catchy acoustic song has no excuse for not making it on a proper album and becoming a huge hit. I remember the first time I heard “Fatal.” I was sitting in a parking lot in Bonner Springs, Kan., in the conversion van of some truly insane superfans who had been following the band on tour. They played me this song and three others, and no one would tell me where the songs came from. (And no, I definitely could not have a copy.) I remember not being sure who I was more frustrated with, the “elitist” fans who taunted me or the band that kept the song off Binaural.

—Edward Fairchild

20 replies on “The Over/Under: Pearl Jam”

Um. All Those Yesterdays is off of Yield, not No Code. Another “journalist” who does not do his/her homework.

You are correct, Sam. Thanks. It’s been updated. We don’t need a fact checker as long as you are around.


What’s the big deal? Your old man says the same thing about ever Zepplin song – only he’s surprised you know the words.

Also: <>

I don’t disagree – but it’s hard to take you seriously after f’n up All Those Yesterdays being on Yield.

I wonder if the reason why they don’t play satan’s bed live is because Vedder is now involved with (or married to) a super model type…read the lyrics or listen carefully to put what I’m talking about into context.

Other then your point about Bee Girl (spot on there!) i disagree with your Overrated points, but I’m on board with you on your under points. I Got Shit is one of my favorite songs by them.

Try to enjoy the betterman sing along next time. It is always fun in concert for me.

I will preface by saying I am not a Pearl Jam fan. I’m a music fan who likes the occasional Pearl Jam song. As such, it’s hard for me to understand the inclusions in both lists here. Sure, very little outside of the Ten – Vitalogy run is even rated enough to qualify as overrated, but that’s because that was a very solid run of albums. I don’t think anyone who isn’t a fanatic could possibly think any of the songs on this underrated list is better than pretty much any song on Ten (or Yellow Ledbetter, for that matter.) If there is a diamond to be had in the rough, from what I’ve heard, Wishlist has got to be it. Maybe it’s too well known to be technically underrated, but it’s from one of the lesser known albums (honestly, I don’t know off the top of my head or care too much which one) and it’s a bona fide great song. As far as the criticism of Daughter “not going anywhere,” I have never understood that logic. Not that I love Daughter, because I don’t, but do songs really need to “go somewhere?” I think there are plenty of fantastic songs in every genre imaginable that find a good groove and stick with it for 3-4 minutes. Maybe I just need to smoke some pot in order for it all to make sense, as that seems to be the one prerequisite of Pearl Jam ultra-fandom that I haven’t fulfilled (the other, being in high school when Ten came out, is checked off the list.)

Not bad, but Yellow Ledbetter kicks too much ass live to be in there. Here are mine:

Even Flow
Last Kiss

Tremor Christ
Army Reserve

I agree, listing albums is a cop out. For example, I would say Garden is an underrated PJ song. Here is my list if anyone cares.

1. Evenflow – Mike McCready is phenomenal, but I have just heard it too many times. When I go to a concert, this is my beer run song.
2. Daughter – I agree 100% with sentiments written above.
3. Down – A B-side from Riot Act, but they play it all the time in concert. There are approximately 90 otther PJ songs I would rather hear at that point during a show.
4. The 4 experimental songs from Vitalogy (Pry To, Bugs, Aye Davinita, and Stupid Mop). One crazy song? Sure. Two? OK, if you are really feeling wacky. But 4??? Vitalogy has so many good songs, but it is the only album I end up skipping tracks on.
5. Inside Job – First, I love McCready. His guitar is as much a part of PJ for me as Eddie’s voice. However, the lyrics on this song are not good. “…I tried to kill love, it was the highest sin…” Um, actually killing real people is the highest sin. Killing love just means you are insecure and myopic.

1. Severed Hand – This may be in my top 5 favorite songs of all times. The guitars shred, and Ed uses the word “preternatural” perfectly. I do not understand why it does not get more love.
2. Love Boat Captain – I know this song might be a little cheesy, but I literally get chills during some of the lyrics even 7 years later.
3. Indifference – They do not play this song live nearly enough. They did play it at my 1st concert and I was sold for life. There is no better line than, “I will scream my lungs out until it fills this room” at a live concert.
4. Red Mosquito – Fabulous guitar work, and so bluesy and different than most of their work.
5. Grievance – I know a lot of people don’t, but I love PJ’s politics and I respect them for standing up for what they believe in. I too often pledge my grievances to the flag. If you don’t like it, I am sure there is a Toby Keith concert coming to a venue near you soon enough.

I understand people getting tired of the staples from Ten, although I personally don’t agree. Nice call on Indifference, and Garden is way under. If you’ve seen it live I don’t know how you could diagree.

but because I’m a homer (I rate all PJ albums in the order they were released as well as picking my favorite song from each album in the order they were released)

With that said I’ll just give my under list which is also my fave list
Not For You
Hail, Hail
All Those Yesterday
Of the Girl (Rival/Sleight of Hand, god this is a good album)
1/2 Full (Save You/L.B.C., this a really good one too)
Come Back
Just Breathe

This was a pretty good list, but it’s a pretty easy one to write. In general Ten (especially) and Vs. and Vitalogy got a lot of attention and other releases have some excellent songs on them which are ignored in comparison. It’s hard to go wrong if your list follows that theme.

If you wanted to break from that theme, you could have put a couple later songs in the overrated list (Wishlist and Last Kiss) and put a song from Ten like Garden in the under rated list.

Thanks for reminding me about I Got Id. I also like the song Thin Air. I always forget it exists but it’s a very pleasant melody.

I only agree with the “over” because of overexposure. I don’t think the reasons are terribly valid for being “overrated.” If you heard them all for the first time I dare say you would enjoy them and potentially think they are “hit” material.

That said, my “under” list:
In Hiding
Glorified G
Man of the Hour
Red Mosquito

Honestly, there are a number of PJ tunes that are underrated. And my favorite album is No Code. To me it’s the definition of Pearl Jam.

I’m starting to like PJ. I avoided listening to them when I was a kid, but now, i’m liking many of their songs, 3 of which are included in your Overrated list. I agree with Bee Girll though.

Agree with most of this.

My Under List:
Glorified G
Last Exit
Not For You
Given To Fly

Last kiss
Even flow

Push me pull me
Present tense
Unthough unknow
Satan’s bed
Off he goes
Severed hand
Whale song

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