I was two and a half years old to the day on August 27, 1991. I wouldn't know who Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, and Billy Corgan were for another good decade or so. And I sure as hell didn't know who Pearl Jam was or that they'd released one of the albums of the decade on that particular Tuesday. But, for what my money's worth, I don't know if I can name a better album to come out of the grunge era than Pearl Jam's seminal Ten. You can have your Nevermind. Your friend can have her Mellon Collie. I just need "Once" through "Release."
Beyond latter day tracks like "Last Kiss" occasionally getting play on the radio when I was a child, I didn't even really discover Pearl Jam until my freshman year of college. "Even Flow" was one of the songs in the Guitar Hero III soundtrack, and I had instantly fallen under the sway of Mike McCready's manic shredding and hypnotic riffs. So, I bought Ten on iTunes, and if I listened to another album for the next two months, I honestly can't remember what it would be. The best albums consume you and become part of you, and Ten reached that level for me even if I stumbled into it 16 years after its release.
The album is strong from front to back, but that run from "Once" to "Oceans" is one of the most astounding opening statements any band could ever hope to ask for. And few albums (even many of the typical greatest of all time) can hope to drop that many classic tracks in a row. "Alive" and "Jeremy" were positively massive hits, but "Why Go," "Once," and "Even Flow" are just as good, and "Black" is the understated grunge masterpiece of the decade. That's not to insult "Porch" through "Release" but Side A of that record (which is blasting through my turntable as I write this piece) grabs you by the collar and then knocks you on your ass cause it wants to make damn sure you're paying attention.
And what makes all of these tracks so strong is that Pearl Jam doesn't sound like many of their grunge counterparts. They were famously vilified by many of their peers for having a sound that was too accessible and radio friendly, but it's a mistake to confuse craftsmanship (which, let's face it, Nirvana sorely lacked) for selling out, and the way that Pearl Jam mixed classic rock guitars with schizophrenic distortion and the otherworldly baritone of Eddie Vedder marked them as a band willing to acknowledge the influences of their past, but they were also always looking forward. The punk ferocity of "Porch" shows a band willing to write songs that no radio station would ever be willing to play.
Of course, Pearl Jam were also set apart from their peers by a subtle yet decidedly subversive streak to their lyrics which were also overflowing with political allusions. "Jeremy" is the most famous example, and I remember my jaw dropping to the floor the first that I saw the video and realizing that MTV was actually playing something this dark and furious in the early 1990s. But, that's not even the most powerful example on the record. "Even Flow" chronicles the suffering of our nation's homeless. "Alive" is about a son who discovers that his father isn't his actually his father (as opposed to the anthem of feeling alive that so many people who don't actually listen to lyrics think it is). And "Black" is the gut-wrenching plea for love and acceptance that we all understand in our early 20s.
Although Nirvana would eventually also exhibit this type of emotional vulnerability on In Utero (as direct a window into Kurt's emotional anguish as could ever exist), when Ten was released almost no other American rock bands were this staggeringly honest and open. Eddie Vedder has one of the most emotive voices in rock history, and on tracks like "Deep" and "Once," he channels a pain so real and true that it can be draining listening to him excise his demons through his songs. Grunge was often about an ironic disconnect (tracks like "Lithium" by Nirvana are a clear example there, and that's even my favorite song of theirs), but Pearl Jam were never insincere, and it's why so many of us form such strong emotional connections to their work.
It's easy to draw a connection between the way I fell immediately in love with Ten and the attachments I've formed with other similarly raw and vulnerable artists. Pearl Jam and The National don't sound anything alike, but the confessional imagery and occasionally haunted, screamed outbursts of Matt Berninger aren't far removed from "Black." Or the relatively straightforward arena rock guitars on Japandroids' Celebration Rock? I can see Mike McCready nodding in approval to the hook driven shredding of Brian King.
Twenty three years later may seem like a weird anniversary to do a retrospective on a record, but when I realized it was the album's birthday, I couldn't help thinking of how much the album has come to mean to me over the last seven years (and, clearly, what it means to people who can actually remember when the record came out and turned their worlds upside down). Certain albums have the power to totally alter the way that you listen to music. Kid A is one of those records. London Calling is one of those records. And, for me and millions of others, Ten is shining example of an album that transformed all of our musical experiences.