Pearl Jam, Vitalogy
One of the strangest mainstream rock albums of all time
When Pearl Jam released Vitalogy in late 1994, they were essentially the biggest rock band in the world — and not just because Kurt Cobain had died earlier that year. Only two albums deep into their career, the band had been labeled the "voice of a generation" by TIME Magazine, inspired a freakishly devoted fanbase, and had already racked up enough massive radio smashes to fill out a greatest hits record. For most pop musicians, this moment would've been one of ultimate triumph, but Pearl Jam — and specifically the band's charismatic singer Eddie Vedder — freaked out, and the result is one of the strangest mainstream rock albums of all time.
Whereas the songs on Ten and Vs. were coated in heavy studio gloss, the group was now actively avoiding any concessions to mainstream success, deliberately sabotaging their most obviously ingratiating tunes with borderline lo-fi production and unpolished vocal takes, lending a muted, understated tone to eventual stadium anthems such as "Corduroy" and "Better Man." The entire record is booby-trapped with peculiar interludes seemingly designed to weed out fairweather fans, from the paranoid accordion-based rant "Bugs" to the disturbing, suicide-obsessed musique-concrete piece "Heyfoxymophandlemamathatsme." These experiments may not be the album's most brilliant and enduring moments, but they define Vitalogy's contrarian spirit and highlight its relentless morbidity and terror. The record is fascinating as a document of a rock star going through a public nervous breakdown, but it is also inspiring as an uncompromising work by a band hell-bent on transitioning from superstardom to a more manageable cult popularity entirely on their own terms.