One of the two seminal records that set the tone for mainstream rock at the start of the ’90s – just take a nod at number two on this list for the other – Pearl Jam’s debut Ten was the backbone that helped give shape to the decade’s dominating alternative movement. Spawning a radio-ready single with virtually every one of its 11 tracks, this album documents the emergence of one of rock’s leading talents, fully formed and alarmingly cohesive from their inception. While I can’t fully prescribe to Manic Street Preachers’ fatalistic argument that most bands should call it quits after their first record – by those standards, almost all of those untouchable gems in my collection would be nixed – Ten is one of those that very nearly proves the rule. Not that Pearl Jam didn’t follow up with some truly remarkable records well into their never-ending career, though none this decade, sadly. But with a record so pristine at their onset, this Seattle group could have easily retired their corduroy shorts and Mookie Blaylock paraphernalia, and walked away icons at the top of their game. It’s a rare occurrence for any band to reach such heights, yet alone at first bat the way Pearl Jam clearly did.
Formed from the ashes of two promising but rather unassuming Seattle underdogs, Green River and Mother Love Bone, it’s no surprise that the five youngbloods that comprised the band’s original line-up – for some reason, PJ drummers experience a high turnover – fell into a natural chemistry. Even so, their group dynamic somehow hit a nerve of creative energy, resulting in a level of achievement and solidarity they have never been able to recreate. Vitalogy may have been their stamp of distinction setting them apart from the suffocating grunge movement that followed them relentlessly, or any of the Neil Young and Who throwbacks that would later color their work, but Ten gave them voice that far transcended any West Coast rapport they might have had going for them. Too fresh to be pegged into any familiar ticks and too naive to have an ego about their left-field success, Pearl Jam circa ’91, apart from any revisionist critique their later fall-outs might stigmatize them with, were as damn near perfect as they come.
A sun-burnt surfer poet with vocal chords of gold (or multi-platinum), Eddie Vedder’s warbly baritone proved the perfect counterpoint to Mike McCready’s arena-sized riffs, as much indebted to ’70s lexicon of American rock as ’80s self-conscious indie punk. Rising to the surface with a steady fade-in of Jeff Ament’s wavy bass for opener “Once,” Stone Gossard’s fuzzed-out rhythm guitar sets the tension for Ten‘s gritty, heart-on- sleeve emotion. As one of those former die-hard fans who soaked up every ridiculous MTV spot and Singles b-side, it’s hard not to rekindle in my head shots of Vedder dangling from the rafters during the live video to “Evenflow,” backed by a mid-tempo drum cadence that suddenly crescendos as he falls like a rag doll, vulnerable to the fans below, in complete trust and abandon. From there, the twin heartbreaks of “Black” and “Jeremy” segue into the album’s final peak with “Porch,” before dipping into its close-out trio to finish it off. At not one point does it falter, betray itself – as nearly PJ record since has been wont to do, with drug-added experiments a la “Bugs” or sub-par punk jams – or lose its emotive edge. For as much airtime as Ten soaked up in the years following its release, most have learned to tune it out from gluttonous overexposure. But taken on its own terms, apart from any commercial blemishes it inevitably endured, this album remains utterly timeless, a benchmark in rock history.
Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion
The Who – Who’s Next
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish