Noticing that yesterday marked twenty years to the day of the release of Pearl Jam’s Dissident single, I decided to write a post highlighting my favorite 10 Pearl Jam singles over the years; then about a paragraph into doing that I realised it would actually be more interesting to talk about tracks that never were singles but so easily could’ve been.
Though admittedly the idea of a ‘single’ doesn’t mean as much, doesn’t have the same aura to it, as it did in the past – not unless you’re a pop chart act on the one hand with guaranteed radio-play/sycophancy or on the other hand you’re a vinyl enthusiast.
For the record, my favorite Pearl Jam single is toss up between ‘Go’ from the Vs album or ‘I Got ID’ from the 1995 Merkinball EP; the latter being one of the greatest tracks I’ve ever heard by any artist, this being Pearl Jam at their most sonically powerful to me, with Vedder’s mesmerising, broken-throated vocals, that perfect chorus and those brilliant dueling guitars. I was obsessed with this track when I heard it in 1995. It’s something of a Pearl Jam quirk that some of their very best songs – Footsteps, Yellow Leadbetter, State of Love and Trust, Long Road – are those that don’t even appear on their albums.
Pearl Jam are a band with such a big catalogue that even to ask a fan what their favorite PJ song is a lot more difficult than it is with a lot of other bands; they’re also a rarity in modern rock in terms of how prolific they’ve been in the almost 25 years since they formed. Outlasting Nirvana by two decades and far more prolific than Alice in Chains, Soundgarden or any of the major acts I loved in my formative musical years, Pearl Jam have made so much music that I sometimes wonder how on earth Vedder, Gossard and the others decide on set-lists.
This remarkable longevity wasn’t always something I imagined would be the case; certainly back in 1994 following the death of Kurt Cobain and Vedder’s own struggles with fame and the band’s struggle with the insane level of popularity, I didn’t imagine Pearl Jam would be putting out music for twenty more years.
Years later, after the tragic Rosklide incident, it seemed possible Pearl Jam again might’ve been at their end. But thankfully that didn’t happen.
For a band who’ve crafted out such a large body of material, it’s always been a marked characteristic of Pearl Jam that they have only minimal regard for the workings of the mainstream music industry and its conventions, including the convention of the promotional music video (the life-blood of so many other artists) and even the convention of releasing singles aimed at chart positions. In regard to videos, it’s fascinating that for a band that generally doesn’t make videos, they happen to nevertheless have two of the absolute best music videos of modern music in the form of 1992’s generation-defining ‘Jeremy’ and 1998’s insanely brilliant ‘Do The Evolution’. And in regard to singles, the actual choice of singles released from their albums is sometimes baffling, with the album’s best tracks often not being chosen.
Pearl Jam also, more than any artist I can think of, have such a large body of classic material that doesn’t even appear on any of their proper album releases; which again is testament to their high level not only of creativity but of immense productivity through the years. All of this means there have been any number of tracks over the years that could’ve made fitting singles but never did. I’ve narrowed this list down to the 10 that have most struck me as having been the strongest candidates. Note, however, that this isn’t my list of the 10 best PJ tracks necessarily, but just of those tracks that would’ve made great singles in the classic sense…
State of Love and Trust (Singles soundtrack, 1992)
I still prefer the version from the MTV Unplugged show to the studio version. And I always felt it should’ve been on Ten, it being a faster tempo song than anything else on that album. It would’ve slotted perfectly right after Once as the second track. Definitely should’ve been the single; and is generally *treated* like a hit single when live audiences react to it.
Black (Ten, 1991)
A song deeply, emotionally personal to Eddie Vedder, and sometimes mistakenly though to have been one of the ‘Ten’ singles; it wasn’t, however, despite being one of the best-known and best loved Pearl Jam songs since the band’s beginning. Actually not one of my favorite PJ songs, but nevertheless a seemingly obvious choice for a single. Any act obsessed with singles sales or chart listings would’ve definitely released Black. It says something about Pearl Jam that they didn’t.
Rats (Vs, 1993)
One of my all-time favorite PJ tracks; in fact it was my favorite until I heard ‘I Got ID’ for the first time. This is PJ at their flat-out coolest. At a point in time where Pearl Jam were the biggest band in America and one of the biggest, most talked-about acts in the world, it’s somewhat remarkable that a track as insanely good as this wasn’t put out as a single from what was at the time the fastest-selling album in history. But then PJ have often done things their own way, which more-often-than-not hasn’t been about sales or even commercial logic.
Rearviewmirror (Vs, 1993)
Another quintessential Pearl Jam song, though surprisingly not one of the singles released from Vs. I always felt that either this or Rats should’ve been put out instead of Daughter or Animal, as good as those two tracks are in their own right. Nothing quite like Rearviewmirror being played live and half the crowd singing along.
In My Tree (No Code, 1996)
Another of my favorite PJ tracks, the musicianship here is exceptional, particularly driven by Jack Irons’ superb percussion-ism. I never really understood why Who You Are, which is very average by comparison, was chosen as a single for No Code when In My Tree was a far greater musical statement.
Grievance (Binaural, 2000)
I still regard Binaural as a tie with No Code for my personal favorite PJ album. There were several tracks on it that would’ve been suitable for single releases, but Grievance is one of the best, being a spirited, flowing piece of rock kick-arsery that flows perfectly from start to finish.
Thin Air (Binaural, 2000)
How this wasn’t a single choice for Binaural, I’m not sure; but with its simplicity and old-style charm and Eddie Vedder’s velvet vocals carrying the perfect melody, this would’ve been one of the obvious choices.
Comatose (Pearl Jam, 2006)
Probably the best track on Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth album, this is the track that hits you like a brick when you listen to that record. Would’ve made a great, no-nonsense, punk-rock single in the vein of Spin The Black Circle. Awesome.
Unthought Known (Backspacer, 2009)
At a point when I was beginning to lose my interest in new PJ material, this was the main song that reminded me of how great they can still be. Just a perfect, timeless piece of simple, unpretentious and poignant songwriting that could sit comfortably in any era.
Curiously, I remember having a conversation with a fellow musician friend of mine in a pub and he said he thought Pearl Jam “should just quit now” when I asked him if he was looking forward to Backspacer; I disagreed with him, but only in a lazy, ‘whatever’ sort of way. But when I heard this track I sent him a link to it, considering it the most concise, persuasive argument possible against his earlier opinion.
I didn’t think Backspacer was a very good album, but as is the norm with Pearl Jam, even amid a relatively uninspiring collection of tracks there’s always something really special about to sneak up on you and catch you when you least expect it.
Getaway (Lightning Bolt, 2013)
In my opinion the best, most addictive song off PJ’s current album Lightning Bolt and another example of how every time I start to drift off from Pearl Jam there always appears a track that reels me back in and reminds me how good they are and have always been. This should’ve been a single in place of Sirens, which was really PJ at their worst.
I just realised I forgot Yellow Leadbetter! How foolish! That song, despite being an utter PJ standard, didn’t even make it onto an album. It doesn’t make it onto this list either – but only because of a foolish oversight 🙂
Which just further highlights how extraordinarily rich a body of material Pearl Jam has produced. And will no doubt continue to produce.