Okay, yeah… Extolling the virtues of Pearl Jam’s debut record is beyond clichéd at this point, but hear me out.
Ten was released in August of 1991. I was born in November of 1980. So, at the time I was - that’s right - 10 years old. My life’s musical journey began with that album. There’s never been a time or phase or era of my “maturation” that didn’t involve routinely jamming to the brilliant tracks on that record. And now, thirty years later, Ten is still just as relevant to me as a nearly-forty-year-old as it was to me back when I was an idiot teen in the 90s.
In 1991, my folks got me my first CD player. It was a simple portable boombox with a CD tray in the top and a cassette deck in the middle (which was epic for making mixtapes of your favorite tracks from all your CDs - a practice I perfected and continued all throughout my teens and well into my college years). I saved up my allowance and extra Christmas card funds that winter and went across town to our local Media Play (a now-defunct media superstore of the era) and bought two CDs: the first was - you guessed it - Pearl Jam’s Ten; the second was Nirvana’s Bleach. So, while I technically purchased both those albums at the same time, it was Ten that I hunted through the alphabetically-sorted racks of “alt-rock” discs for first, and it was Ten that I first unwrapped, popped open, and delicately slotted into that top tray of my boombox when I got home. As soon as Eddie screeched out that opening line of Once… “Iiiii admit it… what’s to saayyy?…” I knew something important had happened in my life.
So Ten, for me, was two things. It was the first record I ever bought - so, in a sense, it was my gateway into connecting with and understanding music all of my own - and it was simply just an absolutely legendary album. I couldn’t even begin to count the hours I spent throughout my pre-teen and post-teen years endlessly jamming to that disc.
Music is kind of like time-travel in a way. Somehow, when you really connect with a song, whoever you are and whatever you’re feeling at that moment in time is forever embedded into that piece of music for you. So years later, when you hear that one particular song again for the first time in ages, it immediately takes you back to when you first really listened to it. I developed that connection with pretty much every song on Ten at one point or another.
When I hear the dulcet tones of Garden or Release, I’m suddenly back in 8th grade, laying in my bed feeling sorry for myself because my first middle-school “girlfriend” decided to go to the awkward “boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other” dance with another dude....
When I hear Jeremy, it’s me spending countless hours watching the MTV video countdown, sitting through replay after replay of Paula Abdul, Marky Mark, or Salt-N-Pepa videos just on the off-chance MTV might actually show the Jeremy video one more time… (I was gutted when Jeremy lost out to November Rain for video of the year… but GnR is pretty cool too, I guess.)
When the poetically-deep tracks of Oceans or Alive come in, I’m right back in high school, scrawling lyrics in black Sharpie all over my binders and notebooks.. (I actually wrote a quasi-thesis my senior year of high school in humanities class about the impact the lyrics of Black had had on my life…)
And when the pump-you-up jam-fests like Even Flow, Why Go, or Porch ring out, I’m back in my beat-up old Honda, delivering pizzas in a late-night delirium, cruising all about northwest Greensboro with the stench of pepperoni and baked cheese wafting from my backseat.
(And while not a track from Ten, I did play Yellow Ledbetter at my wedding… so I get to enjoy remembering slow-dancing with my wife in a barn on a cold October night every time that more-epic-than-epic Pearl Jam classic plays out.)
Somewhere, in a closet or attic, there’s a frayed, dusty old CD zipper organizer with my original copy of Ten still in it. The leaflet is probably worn and faded beyond recognition, and the disc probably has too many skip-scratches on it to ever really play again, but on whatever spring-cleaning day I find the long-forgotten bin that it’s still in, I’ll immediately be taken back to that winter of 1991, when I bought the best first album any kid of the 90s could have had.
True story: Eddie Vedder was a San Diego surfer bro. He didn't become the face of Seattle grunge until well after he joined the band (and Cobain died...). He heard a demo that the band-that-would-become-Pearl-Jam sent out in search of a lead vocalist. He jammed out, went surfing, reached enlightenment, and wrote Alive, Once and Footsteps. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here's a little bonus content for anyone who remembers what it was like to procure movies or music before the age of high-speed internet.
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