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Grading Pearl Jam’s Album Covers

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Over the last 20 years, half the fun of a new Pearl Jam release has been waiting to see what the band plants on the cover. Their oddest artwork yet is coming May 31st, when Eddie Vedder drops his solo album Ukulele Songs, which features The Lost Correspondent, a piece by underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, Antiquiet reports. Not a typical choice for an album recorded entirely on a uke -- something earthier was expected, or perhaps something featuring a ukulele -- but we'll take this as an opportunity to go through the good, the bad, and the extremely ugly of Pearl Jam's cover art as the band celebrates their 20th anniversary.

The best cover in the entire Pearl Jam discography is the "Stick Man" logo on the front of the "Alive" single, but we're restricting our report card solely to the studio album covers:

Ten: The "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" of album covers. Stoic, unified and prescient of a band that would spend two decades among rock's elite. Something about this cover always reminds us of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lyric, "Our little group has always been and always will until the end." Bonus points for using magenta as the predominant color, probably an unlikely choice for a Seattle band in the early '90s. Cloud gray or sea foam would've been more fitting, but the harsh pink has grown on us in time, to the point that when the gold-tinted reissue came out, we found it disconcerting. Still, it's no Nevermind. A-

Vs.: It looks like a scene from the world's grimiest petting zoo. Considering the album's second song was "Animal," the fish-eyed photo of a sheep made sense. We always preferred the booklet's "Five Against One" photo to the actual cover, though. Subtract a few points because the album doesn't clearly state it should be called Vs. B

Vitalogy: Easily the best Pearl Jam cover, even though it's just gold font on a faux leather-bound volume. Fit perfectly with the album's book motif and concept and was -- in our memories, at least -- one of the first CDs to deviate from the standard jewel case. Vitalogy does lose points because the original packaging fit awkwardly in CD shelves; that oversight was corrected on the album's recent reissue, however. A

No Code: A superb photo mosaic that folded out and stacked 144 Polaroids in a 12x12 arrangement to subtly form the "No Code" logo when your eyes blurred. The packaging was another Pearl Jam home run: Each No Code came with about a dozen of the 144 Polaroids with lyrics on its backside. Fans could swap them like trading cards. That's innovation! B

Yield: Oooh, pretty. Pearl Jam's most scenic cover, a lonely Yield sign in the middle of a desolate highway. It looks like you're about to evaporate into a road movie when you hit play, and some of the tracks do sound like they were recorded in a desert under open skies, so good job setting the tone there. The booklet artwork held a little Easter egg as each black-and-white photo hid a little Yield sign within. It was like Where's Waldo? for the grunge set. B+

Binaural: Best use of a Hubble Space Telescope photo in rock history. We're not sure if Pearl Jam intentionally coupled the singular "Hourglass Nebula" with the duality of the word "Binaural" or if it was a happy accident, but it worked. If only the album lived up to the cover. (There's some great songs on here, like "Sleight of Hand" and "Parting Ways," but this is where Pearl Jam first showed evidence of wearing down.) B-

Riot Act: Looks like a still from an Undertow-era Tool video, or the art project that inspired Saw. The image was too dark and eerie to be an effective Pearl Jam cover. Nine Inch Nails maybe, but PJ, no way. C-

Pearl Jam: Avocado fail. Fans refer to this album as "the Avocado album" instead of "self-titled" or "eponymous," so something went wrong. Worst cover in the band's gallery. D-

Backspacer: We're fans of Dan Perkins' Tom Tomorrow comics -- always a highlight of our off-campus college newspaper -- but we dock the cover some unoriginality points for aping No Code's square segmentation pattern. There are also supposedly tons of hidden messages in Perkins' artwork, but honestly the album barely held our attention for more than a week so we never got around to deciphering. A part of us also feels Pearl Jam is too old to be putting comics and cartoons on their cover. Pearl Jam once sang "Drop the leash, we are young," but these days it's the band members themselves toting the leash on their respective brood. C

In the case of Ukulele Songs, we give it a solid C+. Until the next Pearl Jam album...

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