Twenty years ago last month Pearl Jam released their debut album Ten, a few weeks before Nirvana released Nevermind. The record became a cornerstone (along with Nevermind) of the early ‘90s alternative boom. And while both bands grew out of the Seattle, WA underground music scene and both were labeled as grunge, both were quite different. Nirvana was a band expressing great rage while Pearl Jam was a band that seemed to just want to play good music. Not that they weren’t angry about a variety of things mind you, but the rage wasn’t the primary focus of the band. On top of that, Pearl Jam had much stronger classic rock elements to their music and thus was a far more accessible band to the masses, in fact one could make an argument that Pearl Jam would have had the same success with Ten had Nevermind not exploded the way that it did.
Sonically, Ten is an album that mixed elements of punk, glam, classic rock, and post punk to create 11 great rock ‘n’ roll songs that sound perfectly at home when played next to Neil Young as they do played next to Fugazi. That was ultimately Pearl Jam’s greatest strength—they simultaneously appealed to fans of underground and mainstream rock music. The album’s three singles “Alive,” “Even Flow,” and “Jeremy” were all huge hits but only scratched the surface of what made Ten a great record. Songs like the incredibly moving “Black” and the rambunctious “Porch” were every bit as good, if not better, than the singles.
For me, while I enjoyed Ten at the time, it didn’t move me like Nevermind or other ’91 classics like Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s God Fodder, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, or R.E.M.’s Out of Time. That having been said, I absolutely loved their performance on MTV’s Unplugged. In fact I think that those versions of the songs are much better than those on the record, primarily because of drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Ten was recorded with drummer Dave Krusen but shortly after the record was finished he left the band and was replaced Matt Chamberlain (who can be seen behind the drums in the video for “Alive”). Chamberlain toured with the band for a few months and then quit, suggesting Abbruzzese for the spot. Abbruzzese is a drumming monster that brought elements of funk and jazz to Pearl Jam’s songs fleshing them out in entirely new ways. Just compare the version of “Alive” from the record to that of the video (which was recorded live) to their performance on Unplugged and you can see and hear the difference. Abbruzzese stayed with the band through for Vs. and Vitalogy but was fired prior to its release. I always thought that Pearl Jam’s music suffered without Abbruzzese behind the drums (in fact, Vs. is my favorite PJ record).
Pearl Jam is a band that I saw once in 1994 on the Vs. tour (the same summer that Nirvana played OKC…regrettably I missed that show) but stopped following after Vitalogy. They are a band that I still respect and those first three records are ones that I enjoy a lot, but I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Ten is 20 years old.