Pearl Jam’s “Ten” Returns To Rock Radio With A Vengeance

Al Shipley | March 30, 2009 11:00 am

Pop quiz: What was the biggest Modern Rock hit from Pearl Jam‘s Ten? The answer is “Jeremy,” which peaked at No. 5 in 1992. But if we brought the recent reissue of the 18-year-old album into the mix, the answer would not be “Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” or “Alive”—it would be “Brother,” a bonus track that was released to radio and has topped the Modern Rock chart for the past two weeks. Surprisingly, “Brother” is only the band’s fourth Modern Rock chart-topper, and it joins an odd lot: 1993’s “Daughter” (also a Mainstream Rock No. 1), 1996’s “Who You Are,” and 2006’s “World Wide Suicide.”

Pearl Jam’s four No. 1s are far behind the record (11, held by the Red Hot Chili Peppers); instead, they’re in the less impressive company of Incubus. But Pearl Jam are still one of alternative rock radio’s most ubiquitous bands, and there is one statistic that reflects that: The group has 33 charting titles on Modern Rock, a number bested only by U2, who notched up to 36 with their current single, “Magnificent.” At different points over the years Pearl Jam have taken the lead, and they may yet when their next album comes out. It’s purely an academic exercise to look at it like a competition, though, given Pearl Jam’s general sense of embarrassment about their own success and U2’s load of other, more impressive records and accolades.

Still, Pearl Jam’s own shyness about how popular Ten made them has, in a way, contributed to their enduring success at radio. Much like Led Zeppelin’s refusal to release singles of its most popular songs helped make their entire albums classic rock staples, Pearl Jam’s abandonment of music videos for most of the ‘90s—at the height of MTV’s tastemaking power—helped drive radio play for the band’s non-singles. Instead of video play dictating an album’s hits, radio programmers and fans figured out what songs they liked the most. Even today, four of the band’s 10 most-played Modern Rock recurrents were never released as singles: “Black” (from Ten); “Yellow Ledbetter,” (a B-side); and “Better Man” and “Corduroy” (from Vitalogy—both have proven to be more popular any of that album’s three official singles, “Spin The Black Circle,” “Not For You,” and “Immortality”). Nowadays, the band makes videos occasionally, and radio stations make less of an effort to champion deep cuts off their less popular recent albums. So it’s appropriate that “Brother,” recorded way back in 1991, has kind of brought them back to the days when a Pearl Jam song that was kind of offhandedly thrown to the public could become a massive radio hit.

It’s not often I go to bat for a painfully unhip band in this space; usually it’s enough just to defend an individual Nickelback song to forever mark me as an apologist for their entire existence. But right now I have to say I’m kinda riding for Papa Roach. I never liked “Last Resort,” their 2000 debut single and permanent contribution to the canon of lunkhead jock jams. But in the years since then, they’ve become a consistent purveyor of hooky hard rock singles, even if the band’s more guyliner-heavy image is no less embarrassing than it was before. In fact, they’re probably doing My Chemical Romance-style dramatically screechy rock anthems better than MCR at this point. “She Loves Me Not,” “Scars,” “To Be Loved,” “Forever,” and “Time Is Running Out” were all guilty pleasures for me. So I should just man up and admit that I love their new single “Lifeline,” which is currently at No. 3 on Modern Rock and No. 2 on Mainstream Rock; it seems destined to top both charts. Dig that riff:

As an aesthetic, “indie rock” has had a presence on the Modern Rock chart to some degree for years, but bands with no major-label ties are still few and far between. No matter how many records that, say, Arcade Fire sells on an indie, they’ll probably never get enough spins to get in Modern Rock top 20 without major-label radio promotion muscle. And usually the indie bands that get little bits of radio play are the kind of overexposed ones I don’t care much for like, well, the Arcade Fire. But lately I’ve been cheering on a humble chart run by Jersey punk band the Gaslight Anthem, signed to the tiny label SideOneDummy. They’ve spent the last 10 weeks in the lower reaches of the Modern Rock chart, peaking at No. 35 with “The ‘59 Sound,” the title track from their 2008 album that ended up on a lot of critics’ year-end lists, including my own. They’re just barely hanging on at No. 40, so I’m guessing their run is almost over. But it’s been exciting to find them hanging in over the past few weeks, and I hope they return with a real hit sooner than later. And whether they go major to do it or not doesn’t really matter to me; they deserve to be huge.