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Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam – Make Some Noise Debate

Nirvana Pearl Jam
Frank Micelotta / Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Who’s ready for a debate? In this week’s Make Some Noise feature, we take a look at two of the iconic bands that emerged from the ’90s grunge era, each of which who left their mark on hard rock. We’re talking about Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and both groups have their vocal supporters.

While we at Noisecreep are fans of both bands, two of our writers have taken on the task of making a case for each act. Check out their arguments for each band and then make some noise by voting which act you prefer.

Nirvana is better than Pearl Jam.

(by Chris Ford)

Nirvana
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

The Case: Nirvana didn’t invent grunge, but they definitely brought it to the mainstream. When the single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit the airwaves, America’s collective head turned and everyone took notice. With one catchy intro riff, Kurt Cobain and company dramatically changed the face of popular music in a way that very few bands have ever done. Even though the band left behind a relatively meager catalog of albums, the effect they left on music can be likened to The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

The people cast their votes and deemed Nirvana the kings of grunge long ago. When DGC Records released ‘Nevermind’ in September of 1991, the label hoped it would sell at least 250,000 copies. By Christmas of that year, ‘Nevermind’ was selling at a rate of 400,000 copies a month. To date, it has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. In comparison, Pearl Jam’s debut album, ‘Ten,’ sits at the 13 million mark. Also, ‘Nevermind’ took the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts within four months of its release. ‘Ten’ only reached the No. 2 spot, and not until almost a year after it came out.

And let us not forget the lasting impression Nirvana left on the music world by shining a light on all of the many underground acts that influenced Kurt Cobain. There’s a good chance many of us would never have gotten the chance to hear the Meat Puppets, Flipper, The Melvins, The Vaselines, Dinosaur Jr., or a slew of other amazing bands if Nirvana hadn’t come along.

While much attention is paid to frontman Kurt Cobain, let us remember that without Nirvana, we may never have gotten to know Dave Grohl. Nirvana’s huge success allowed Grohl the chance to do whatever he wanted to afterward. And what he did was write and record the first Foo Fighters record. Now they are one of the biggest rock bands in America. Thank you, Nirvana.

And while Nirvana may not have released as many albums as Pearl Jam, this comparison brings to mind the old debate of quantity versus quality. In my opinion, Nirvana failed to release any throwaway tracks on the three studio albums they recorded. The same could be said for their live albums, their ‘MTV Unplugged’ album and the b-sides collection, ‘Incesticide.’ Can the same be said of Pearl Jam’s deluge of albums?

To be sure, Pearl Jam recorded some great music. Their influence can’t be denied. But when put up against Nirvana, they simply fall short.

The Evidence: ‘Nevermind’ sales, increased attention to great underground bands, consistent quality, Foo Fighters.

Pearl Jam is better than Nirvana.

(by Chad Childers)

Pearl Jam
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images

The Case: Yes, it’s widely acknowledged that “grunge” became a thing as soon as Nirvana released ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ but I’ll argue that Pearl Jam actually eclipsed them in terms of the quality and quantity of their output.

While Nirvana sold an abundance of records with ‘Nevermind’ and did have a jump on Pearl Jam in terms of their start, Pearl Jam also had some impressive numbers of their own. The band’s sophomore set, ‘Vs.,’ debuted at No. 1 on the album chart, remained there for five weeks and sold over 950,000 copies in its first five days of release. That stood as a record until 1998 when it was broken by a Garth Brooks live album. Meanwhile, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ follow-up, ‘In Utero,’ was a more polarizing effort. Yes, it was certified five-times platinum, but it was also outsold by ‘Vs.,’ a more positively reviewed album, suggesting that during the same period fans started gravitating more toward Pearl Jam.

For a one-two punch, it’s hard to beat Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs.,’ which gave us big time hits in ‘Alive,’ ‘Even Flow,’ ‘Jeremy,’ ‘Go,’ ‘Daughter’ and ‘Dissident’ as well as longtime fan favorites like ‘Rearview Mirror,’ ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ and ‘Black.’ This was also the period where ‘Ten’ outtake ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ went on to become embraced by Pearl Jam fans, becoming a live staple without any major promotion by the band. And we should add that among Pearl Jam’s many accolades during the early ’90s was their MTV VMA Best Video win for ‘Jeremy.’

The Pearl Jam story doesn’t end there. Songs like ‘Better Man,’ ‘Not for You,’ ‘Given to Fly,’ ‘Wishlist,’ ‘Nothing As It Seems,’ ‘World Wide Suicide,’ ‘The Fixer,’ ‘Just Breathe’ and most recently ‘Mind Your Manners’ and ‘Sirens’ have shown a continued commitment to excellence that has kept the group in the spotlight a full 20 years beyond their initial breakout moment. Sadly, we can’t argue longevity with Nirvana, but as with Pearl Jam and most bands that stick around, they likely would have had their ups and downs had they continued to generate music. Nirvana even showed signs of strain before Kurt Cobain’s tragic passing. In this case, a shorter sample size benefits Nirvana, but ‘Ten,’ ‘Vs.’ and ‘Vitalogy’ match up pretty well with ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ over the same period and we’ll allow for Nirvana to throw in their early album ‘Bleach’ if you want to make it a three-disc comparison. It’s a matter of personal taste. But there’s no denying Pearl Jam’s career and catalog being more extensive.

And let us not only salute the longevity of Pearl Jam, but also the fact that they’ve done it without any major interruptions in the lineup. The group did play musical chairs early on with drummers Dave Krusen, Matt Chamberlain, Dave Abbruzzese and Jack Irons before finally securing Matt Cameron’s services, but the core group of Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament have spent two decades, evolving their sound and remaining a vital act where many of their peers have fallen by the wayside. Yes, it is great that Dave Grohl went on to find success with the Foo Fighters, but part of the reason you haven’t seen a similar breakout from any members of Pearl Jam is because the group remains their primary focus and other projects haven’t been given the time needed to grow something as big as Foo Fighters.

You want accolades? How about a Grammy, five American Music Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards and countless nominations over the years. Pearl Jam remain one of rock’s most enduring and influential rock bands with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resume and I believe their overall body of work eclipses that of Nirvana.

The Evidence: ‘Vs’ and ‘Ten’ sales, 20 years of success, major awards, chart-topping singles.

We’ve voiced our opinions. Now it’s time to have your say. Vote for whether Nirvana or Pearl Jam is better in the poll below and if you feel the need to back up your opinion, hit the comments section.

Previous Make Some Noise Debate: 70s Metal vs. Modern Metal

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