Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana

On the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, we settle things once and for all.

By Alex Heigl and Peter Smith

Pearl Jam is better than Nirvana  
by Alex Heigl, Nerve writer

Chuck Klosterman makes a great point about Pearl Jam in his book Killing Yourself to Live: "Pearl Jam was seen as the people's band; Nirvana was seen as the band that hated its own people." And that's really the best distillation of the difference between those two bands, and why Pearl Jam, despite not having the cult of personality that Nirvana does, is ultimately a better band.

Pearl Jam always trafficked in raw, soaring emotion: you can point out all the people that took Eddie Vedder's vocal style to the bank (as I have), but the fact remains that he's a marvelously emotive singer whose grandiosity is only bearable because God love him, he really seems to mean it. Kurt Cobain, meanwhile, drew much of his power from abrasiveness — I would never suggest that he didn't mean what he was singing, but his voice is ultimately alienating and rejecting, where Vedder's is warm, embracing. "Oceans"  from Ten is the perfect example of this — his falsetto on and worldless vocals on "Oceans" are touching and affecting in a way that raw power and rage can't touch.

I'm also of the opinion that Vedder was a much better lyricist than Cobain, something that comes across particularly well on Vs., which often loses out to In Utero in the great revisionist fawning that people have attached to Nirvana in the wake of Cobain's suicide. By way of an example, Cobain was writing lyrics like "What else could I say/everyone is gay" on In Utero's "All Apologies" (which I do happen to think is a stellar song) — regardless of the emotive quality of that song, those lyrics are juvenile, simplistic and the kind of eighth-grade reasoning that you could say Cobain was probably lampooning, even though he wasn't. Meanwhile, Vedder was writing "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," a beautifully specific character study both broad and nuanced, an incredibly difficult trick to pull off in a song: "I swear I recognize your breath/memories like fingerprints are slowly raising."

Listen: "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,"


Pearl Jam also continued to take chances with their recordings that their radio singles rarely touched on. Case in point: "All Those Yesterdays/Hummus" from Yield, a track that careens from a sparse power-trio arrangement to a horn-augmented, harmony-laden gem of a song that recalls perennial Vedder favorites The Who's work on The Who by Numbers. My point here is that Pearl Jam are often tagged as workmanlike, classicist-leaning rockers, but they've got a back catalog filled with odd gems that defy such easy categorization.

Finally, Pearl Jam is still out there, doing it. I'm not going to disparage Kurt Cobain's mental state, but even if he hadn't killed himself, I don't think it's that much of a stretch to speculate that Nirvana wouldn't have lasted. That's not to say he wouldn't still be making music, but I think that he was too uncomfortable with the fame the band had achieved by 1994 — we likely would have been treated to an awkward retreat from success, sporadic output, not to mention whatever would have happened had Courtney Love kept her claws in him. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, has survived their own forms of self-sabotage (a battle with Ticketmaster that effectively barred them from playing a wide swath of venues across the U.S.) to emerge hardened but still kicking ass. Their live shows are still catarthic blasts of rock, and their albums haven't fallen off either — 2009's Backspacer showed a band still able to kick out the jams like it was 1994 — fifteen years later, "Got Some" still rages as hard as songs the group cut as young men.

Listen: "Got Some"


Commentarium (60 Comments)

Sep 23 11 - 2:40pm

FYI, All Those Yesterdays is from Yield....a good article, though :)

Sep 26 11 - 10:20am
Alex Heigl

Correct! GrooveShark misled me again! Good catch, thank you.

Sep 23 11 - 2:53pm
Johnny Utah

Just because I too would listen to Teen Spirit over Jeremy every time does not mean I would take Nirvana over Pearl Jam. It means Jeremy is not one of Pearl Jam's best songs, that's all.

Let's take some different songs. Would I take Teen Spirit over Rearviewmirror? Never ever.

Or, if we're sticking with Ten, over Once, Why Go, or Even Flow? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Over Just Breathe from Backspacer? No sir.

Aside from the Jeremy, I just don't know that a band with only three real records to its resume can compete with one that's put out, what, nine or ten (?) consistently good ones over twenty years. It would be like claiming Dwight Gooden is better than Roger Clemens, right, Mookie?

May 15 12 - 8:50am

That's what I was gonna say. Nirvana vs Pearl Jam, not smts vs Jeremy. (band) vs (band) debates are stupid, anyway

Sep 23 11 - 4:35pm

Using a hypothetical situation in the debate, centered around the non-suicide of Cobain, is a little silly (for several reasons) though I can appreciate the other points. Cobain's frequently juvenile lyrics probably had just as much of a negative effective on pop music as all the Vedder-lite vocalists.

Though I have a hard time imagining Cobain releasing some crap cover of a song like Last Kiss.

Sep 23 11 - 4:51pm

I thought this was a pretty good debate on the whole, but using the fact that Pearl Jam is "still doing it"--i.e., using Cobain's suicide--as a mark against Nirvana was pretty gross to me. Also, just kind of stupid. If you try to sift the depression out of a great artist, who knows how much of the art you would take away with it.

Sep 23 11 - 5:01pm

I didn't take it like that? I feel like he was just making a point that "they are still doin' it" like, if they were just a flash in the pan, cashin' in on the whole "grunge" thing they would not still be touring and making music...but I see how you could take it that way, b/c after all this article is a direct comparison...who knows, but I'm gonna give the writer the benefit of the doubt and say that he didn't mean it like that, b/c on a whole he wasn't as douchey sounding as the other guy...

Sep 24 11 - 1:07am

I think we can all agree that Poison was a flash in the pan... But Brett Michaels just won't go away. Staying power does not equal musical genius.

Sep 23 11 - 4:55pm

Alice in Chains>Nirvana or Pearl Jam

Sep 23 11 - 5:39pm

If you had asked me five years ago, I would've agreed. But Alice in Chains diluted their impact with a misguided reunion, while Pearl Jam put out two fantastic albums back to back (self-titled and Backspacer). Not only that, but Alice in Chains' first album isn't aging well.

HOWEVER, on an album to album basic, I would pick Dirt over anything put out by Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or even Soundgarden!

Sep 23 11 - 5:40pm

*album to album BASIS, I mean

Jan 30 12 - 8:36pm

I'm 16 and Facelift is one of my favorite albums of all time. How exactly isn't it aging well?

Sep 23 11 - 5:56pm

This article is wrong. The "simple" lyrics of the Nirvana albums are what made the music so accessible to the masses. The Beatles didn't need to be fucking poets. And by the way, Backspacer sucked. Nirvana was a Hall-of-Fame band, not that that really matters, anyway.

Sep 23 11 - 6:45pm

somebody missed page 2

Sep 23 11 - 6:18pm

um, pearl jam is absolutely terrible. that's all that was needed.

Sep 23 11 - 6:22pm

Does a shark swim better than a cheetah runs?

Sep 23 11 - 7:50pm


Sep 23 11 - 8:50pm

Pearl Jam are playing Vancouver tomorrow night, can't afford even the cheapest tickets :c

Sep 24 11 - 1:10am

price ranges from $82 to $266. What happened to $10 shows? Guess Pearl Jam decided they like money after all...

Sep 29 11 - 3:20pm

Seriously? You think a band could possibly afford to run a tour with $10 tickets? They used to not make money on the tours, but the fans stopped doing their part when they started downloading albums for free instead of paying for them. So now the band has to make some money on the shows. If you want to blame someone, blame the people stealing music online.

Sep 23 11 - 9:01pm
gain 20 pounds

yeah but i don't like pearl jam

Sep 23 11 - 11:27pm

Glad AIC made it into the discussion. I was always of the persuasion that Nirvana Unplugged was massively overrated, Alice's output on that long-ago defunct MTV vehicle was supremely better. Look at the instrumentation. Observe the Staley/Cantrell vocal harmonies, well crafted and sublime. If Staley hadn't somehow survived his various afflictions until 2002 we might be talking about how heart-rending and laid out on the table his performance was; a better alternative to me than hearing a hackneyed version of "The man who sold the world" on the radio overy other day.. I mean, look at the guy! (Staley) He appears a pink haired zombie.

Sep 24 11 - 12:37am

Good article.

Sep 24 11 - 11:00am

I love unplugged in ny. It's a classic album I will still listen to when I'm 80. But I saw pearl jam play Madison square garden on their yield tour in '98 and that performance blew "unplugged" out of the water. Eddie vedder climbing up the microphone cord he'd thrown over the rafters during the instrumental bridge to "alive" is a moment I will still remember when I'm 80, even if I don't remember anything else.

Sep 24 11 - 1:46pm

his lyrics-- juvenile and simplistic? idiot.

Sep 24 11 - 1:56pm

what a useless article and argument. why bother comparing the two bands? why does one have to be better than the other? it's all relative, personally i liked Pearl Jam for a minute when i was fourteen and then got tired of them, Nirvana on the other hand i still have in regular rotation and am now going to go crack a beer and listen to Bleach, fucking timeless.

but whatever, just enjoy them both for what they are... different.

Sep 25 11 - 9:25pm

What a useless comment. Can't find your shift key?

Sep 25 11 - 9:01am


Sep 26 11 - 4:14pm


Sep 25 11 - 9:15pm

Pearl Jam is slang for semen.

Sep 25 11 - 10:27pm

Grunge will always be my favorite and both bandswere/are awesome..however as I just read, and feel the same way as the writer, Cobain was bitter, Vedder is warming. That doesnt make the band dull. Vedder is a better lyrist in my opinion, he is more humble than Cobain ever was. He gives to causes. Nirvana sometimes made me feel their message was all about the money and who cares what message they sent out to alot of impressionable kids. Pearl Jam was the opposite. Sorry, Pearl Jam is the better band although, yes, some Nirvana's songs are better, but some isnt the ratio that cuts it. Love you, Eddie!

Mar 23 12 - 9:37pm

Did you ever even listen to Cobain's lyrics? He was totally against money and fame. Most of the lyrics he wrote were written sarcastically to convey the opposite of their literal meaning (he didn't actually want to be raped, for example)

Sep 25 11 - 10:30pm

Excellent article..very well written!!!

Sep 25 11 - 11:35pm

isnt it sort of rude to pose this argument on the anniversary of nevermind? i mean come on. that's tacky.

Sep 26 11 - 12:19am

it's also the 20th anniversary of pearl jam

Sep 27 11 - 12:57am

nirvana spawned a new aesthetic. pearl jam spawned creed.

Sep 27 11 - 1:00am

plus that dude in the pj pic is wearing leggings. as in denim, sean white hoodies and denim. hair gel tunics and denim. denim denim denim denim. sorry. i'm going to bed now.

Sep 27 11 - 5:56am

I lived in Seattle from 1990 - 1995, saw both bands live back in the day and remember from the very beginning the Pearl Jam/Nirvana debate, no doubt stoked by a media that thrives on pitting different artists against each other in silly, meaningless competitions. You can't compare the two. Pearl Jam rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone (also check out the great transitional album "Temple of the Dog" with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden) and they occupied a different corner of the musical universe than Nirvana. While Pearl Jam made solid rock-n-roll, Nirvana (and Mudhoney) were more punk rock, more abrasive, more visceral and lacerating.

Nirvana actually broke ground - they integrated the Pixies' "loud-soft-loud" dynamic with the Melvins slow sludge, the Beatles sense of melody, oblique lyrics and punk passion - in a way no-one had ever done before. For a generation of kids coming of age in a shitty economy with no jobs (sound familiar?), after almost 12 years of Reagan/Bush cultural repression and a mainstream music scene dominated by phony poseur hair bands, saccharine Whitney Houston type ballads and soulless pop, Nirvana came along and ripped it all down.

Nirvana looked at the hypocrisy of mainstream culture, the music industry, and society as a whole and repudiated it. They felt - and were - authentic, no bullshit, intense and passionate. They encapsulated and conveyed the frustration, alienation, anger and futility of tons of young people across the country - and ultimately the world.

Before "Nevermind" they toured with Sonic Youth and other bands, firmly rooted in what had no name then but was soon named "alternative". Nirvana brought the entire 80's underground to the surface, exposing lots of people to artists like the Meat Puppets and the Vaselines and countless other bands that were playing - and thriving - outside the mainstream.

When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released it really felt like the earth had shifted in its orbit. It wasn't that people weren't into Nirvana before, but it was kind of unimaginable that something that sounded this raw and real would actually get played on the radio. Not only that but on EVERY radio station, ALL the time. Even Kurt never expected Nirvana to get bigger than Sonic Youth.

Someone on this chain of conversation made fun of Kurt's "Everybody's gay" lyric - what you don't realize is that, at the time, actually, queer politics were pretty new and frightening to the mainstream and for a straight musician to place himself so clearly on the side of The Gays was unheard of. When you watch the "Live at the Paramount" video (I was at the show, it was amazing, Bikini Kill and Mudhoney opened for Nirvana) you see a butch girl on one side of the stage dancing in a t-shirt that reads "boy" and a fey boy on the other side dancing in a t-shirt that says "girl". The idea of including gender-transgressive stage dancers (clad in grungy jeans and t-shirts) was a subtle but meaningful statement. Supporting a relatively unknown Riot Grrl band by having Bikini Kill open for them was an important statement on gender equality. And demonstration of Nirvana's commitment to promoting under-recognized artists (and ideas) and using their newfound fame to help bring those people to the awareness of a mainstream audience.

Nirvana's impact musically and socially was (and is) far greater than Pearl Jam's. Nirvana was sui generis and Pearl Jam, while a really good band, is, you know, just a band. They've released some good albums and done a lot of good work, they've spawned countless deep-voiced imitators over the years and have, no doubt, made an impact on the musical and cultural landscape. But they weren't as groundbreaking as Nirvana. From the outset their music was more melodic, accessible and radio-friendly. They never really risked alienating the press - and fans - that were attracted to them by espousing unpopular opinions, they never made an album that pushed their artistry outside of their comfort zone. Pearl Jam was, in some ways, an entry point into "alternative music" for mainstream audiences that found Nirvana a little too hard to listen to. That's not to disparage what Pearl Jam does, nor their talent, just to say that they are now, and have always been, very audience-friendly.

Nirvana was the kind of band - and Kurt the kind of artist - that was going to follow his brutal muse wherever it took him, regardless of what the audience thought. Who can speculate what drives anyone to suicide (conspiracy theories aside)? But if Kurt had survived his demons rather than succumb to them I think he would have followed his creative instincts in some very interesting directions and gone on to create new sounds and offer new perspectives. I don't think Nirvana would have stayed together for 20 years, I think Kurt would have gotten restless with the constraints of the cultural moment that put his band on the map and explored new genres and territories. But who can say?

Anyway - this is a really long-winded reply to a pointless debate. People are free to like what they like and pitting artists against each in competition is juvenile and cynical. Artists create what they need to create and it either resonates with you as an individual or it doesn't. Creating a "who is better than" scenario just feeds into the consumerist mentality that quality is about how much people like you and how many units of musical product you've sold.

But for me Nirvana was a revelation. I had moved to Seattle actually only having heard Soundgarden - who actually got more recognition earlier than Nirvana (I think they had a write-up in Spin). But when I got to Seattle someone gave me a tape (!) of Bleach, I saw the band at the Okay Hotel and at the Off-Ramp and basically had my mind blown. By the time Pearl Jam came around, my ears had been opened and I found them to be kind of middle of the road - tuneful and enjoyable but not as viscerally and personally meaningful.

Sep 30 11 - 12:50pm

You just made a better argument than the article writer. Very well done.

Oct 01 11 - 1:25am

Yes. Yes.

Mar 19 12 - 2:15pm

I agree, Your comment is way spot on then the whole article." Bleach" is an art. Pearl Jam still makes great rock music but Cobain would have probably take us to another dimension

Jul 08 12 - 10:24pm


Sep 27 11 - 12:07pm

Love this article. :)

Sep 28 11 - 6:53pm

Pearl Jam was my favorite band for 10 years, and Nirvana were one of the best bands ever.

But Sonic Youth and Radiohead are better than Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Sonic Youth is better than both bands, and Radiohead is better than both bands.

I'd like to see a Sonic Youth vs. Radiohead showdown, that'd be more original than PJ vs Nirvana which has been done almost as much as Beatles vs. Rolling Stones.

Sep 30 11 - 3:34pm

Oh and you know what? I bought another Sonic Youth album and it sucked... it's just noise.

Radiohead hasn't had a good album in 10 years and they know it.

Oct 25 11 - 11:10pm

@genxer hit the nail on the head, I mean, I couldn't make one change to your statement it was perfect. I still listen to Nirvana and PJ, each have a place in the rotation, I have seen PJ live twice and never seen Nirvana but I can agree with @genxer, Nirvana blows my mind, PJ just occupies it.

Dec 03 11 - 1:29am

Nirvana was a glorified 3 chord mess of distortion and junkies. PJ melted (and still melts) faces. Enough said.

Mar 08 12 - 2:03am

ahhhh well said sir! Im still recovering from my melted face from there show in Columbus, Ohio in 2010

Dec 04 11 - 1:40am

There's a beautiful symmetry to Nirvana's music. It flows easily through my head. I like hearing their songs. When it comes to Pearl Jam, their music is all over the place and lacks symmetry. It's an effort to listen to one of their songs on the radio. Symmetry is not required for me but whatever Pearl Jam does it somehow irritates (me).

There's also something really goofy about Eddie Vedder in general. He says ridiculous things and gives the impression that he thinks himself "deep." He takes himself way too seriously. $200 tickets to see them and Vedder still can't look at the camera during an interview?

Vedder seems insecure and maybe this results in him appearing contrived.

Cobain was such a natural talent. Perhaps a genius.

Dec 06 11 - 11:48pm
Some Guy

I stopped reading after the first line. This train of thought is a completely pointless exercise. They both made(make) great music. There is absolutely no need to try to compare or quantify/qualify either of these bands. Just fucking listen to what moves you.

Dec 08 11 - 11:28am

Soundgarden is way better than both.

Nirvana sucks and Pearl Jam is even worse.

Dec 08 11 - 11:28am

Nirvana = Overrated garbage

Dec 10 11 - 9:25am

Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are miles ahead shitty Nirvana and pearl jam.

Jan 28 12 - 12:49am
A Guy

I personally find it kinda stupid to fight over two bands that were both very talented, and even though I believe Nirvana is better its not like I'm gonna freak out about someone who doesn't think the same, people are different.

I personally, however like Nirvana better because Kurt was an incredible songwriter and I have to disagree with the whole simple lyrics things, even though their biggest hits had kinda simple lyrics (with the exception of Heart Shaped Box) if you dig deeper, especially in In Utero, you'll find that the lyrics were very creative, surreal, disturbing, dark, and poetic. Although Pearl Jam was more complex in instrumentals, I think that their songs had less depth and weren't written as well.

Not hating on Pearl Jam though. They are an outstanding band, Vedder has a very recognizable voice and all of the members are very talented in their ability to play their instruments. I just find that although the songs are well written, such as Hold On (an incredibly well written song) they lack the same level of depth that Nirvana songs did.

I've also seen that Cobain was a very kind and intelligent man, as shown through many backstage videos (like the Reading festival one with the boy dying of cancer) and home videos, even though in the end he couldn't save himself.

Mar 25 12 - 12:15am

Awesome article. Pearl Jam is so real and authentic. They just wanted to make music and share it. They never wanted to make money or fame, they just wanted to make art<3

Apr 22 12 - 5:43am

Pretty sure Cobain even admitted his lyrics didnt mean anything

Apr 22 12 - 5:44am

Oh and of course Alice in Chains are the best band ever

Jun 14 12 - 7:45am

Nirvana is the best and always will be :||| don't compare to each other they are both very good rock bands

Jun 28 12 - 3:20pm

Both are fucking incredible. End of story.

Jul 15 12 - 2:43am

nirvana is overrated shit, all their songs sound the fucking same.
at least pearl jam's music has good songwriting and creativity.