10 Best Pavement Songs
Ask 10 different Pavement fans to name the band's 10 best songs, and you could easily get 10 completely different lists. Hell, ask one Pavement fan to name 10 tunes, and you could get a different list on every day of the week. Formed as trio in Stockton, Calif., in 1989 and initially conceived as purely a recording project, the band relocated to New York, gradually grew into a quintet -- singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus, singer-guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, bassist Mark Ibold, drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich made up the most prolific lineup -- and released five full length albums and nine EPs over its decade-long career. Pavement never broke through to the mainstream, but more than a decade after their breakup in 2000, they remain one of the most influential bands of the '90s. They embarked on a massive reunion tour in 2010, selling-out gigs around the globe in what was likely the band's true farewell.
The lead track from Pavement's underrated swan song finds Malkmus unexpectedly delving into a relationship gone awry -- or is it about the aimlessness of post-collegiate life? -- and the result is one of the most gorgeous tunes in their catalog. Shaped around a progression that may be lifted from 'Mr. Bojangles,' a tune penned by country singer Jerry Jeff Walker (and covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Garth Brooks), it opens in slow-motion with ringing major chords and gradually transforms into an oddly pleasant ballad filled out with subtle harmonies. Only Pavement could take a song this pretty and call it 'Spit on a Stranger.'
Pavement never quite made the leap from gods of the indie rock underground to mainstream successes -- but they certainly came close, in no small part thanks to this first single off 1994’s 'Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.' The only Pavement release that the buzz-obsessed MTV ever put in heavy rotation, ‘Cut Your Hair’ snidely attacks the image-over-substance mindset of the music industry with some of the most infectious hooks in the band’s catalog. "Attention and fame/ A career!" Malkmus shouts at one point, disparaging his chosen line of work and yearning for a promotion in the same breath.
The lyrics start out name-checking R.E.M. and basically turn into a track-by-track love letter to their 'Reckoning' album. Pavement then proceed to fawn over the Athens, Ga.-based alt-rock superstars a bit more. After years of citing relatively obscure bands (the Fall, Swell Maps) as faves, 'Unseen Power of the Picket Fence' finds Malkmus and the boys finally acknowledging one of their more mainstream -- and no less obvious -- influences. "Classic songs with a long history/ Southern boys just like you and me," he sings adoringly.
Pavement's career can be split up into three distinct eras, and 'Brighten the Corners' follows the 'Crooked Rain'/'Wowee Zowee' second slice to kick off the final third with 45 minutes of more compact and slightly more accessible fare. The lyrics don't get that much weirder near the end of the group's run, but thanks to brighter, punchier production values, they stand out more, finally giving listeners unfettered access to Malkmus' strangely surreal word flow. "The language of influence is cluttered with hard hard cs," he sings on 'Starlings of the Slipstream.' What?!
“I’ve got style/ Miles and miles/ So much style that it’s wasted,” Malkmus sings on ‘Frontwards,’ and it’s hard to argue with him. It’s also hard to tell if he’s being seriously narcissistic or singing with his tongue firmly planted in cheek. Llike many great Pavement tracks, ‘Frontwards’ is so thick with irony and double meaning you could crack it with a jackhammer. It's also so damn infectiously catchy they should give out vaccines before you listen.
In a lot of ways, Pavement were like indie rock's MacGyver. Whereas bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh were dubbed lo-fi for their decidedly minimalist four-track recording techniques, early Pavement took lo-fi to its source, actually composing their slack indie anthems in a slipshod style that made it sound like the musicians were plucking rubber bands and bashing coffee cans alongside a broken fax machine. The unabashedly poppy 'Box Elder' isn't quite as noisy as the rest of 'Slay Tracks (1933–1969),' but it maintains the gloriously amateurish vibe of a band learning as it goes and heading for great things.
Alt-country hadn't quite caught on yet when Pavement released 'Father to a Sister of Thought' as a single off 'Wowee Zowee,' but the band's surroundings at the time -- most of the album was recorded at Easley Studios in Memphis -- certainly come through on this song. If the prominent use of peda steell in this R.E.M.-inflected jangler doesn't push the country vibe heavily enough, the song's video -- which features the band mozying around in cowboy hats in front of cacti and vast Western scenic sunsets -- should definitely do the trick.
Perhaps Pavement's most infamous song, this rambling five-minute epic about the joys of life on the road takes aim at '90s alt-rock goliaths Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots with snide backhanded disses that still make Billy Corgan cringe to this day. "Nature kids, I / they don't have no function," Malkmus sings about the Pumpkins, implicating himself along with them with that first-person-singular/third-person-plural stutter. He follows that by branding STP "elegant bachelors." Apparently unable to let the resulting feud go, Corgan recently said of Pavement's 2010 reunion tour: "They’re just out there to have one more round at the till."
An instant classic, 'Summer Babe' was recorded in early-era drummer Gary Young's garage studio before he was replaced for his inconsistency behind the kit and the trio expanded to a five-piece. "We didn’t know how to record," Malkmus once said of the sessions, adding that he was singing about "sad boy stuff" in an attempt to sound more like Lou Reed. "We used reverb on the drums -- the cheapest, worst reverb ever." Cheap reverb or not, Malkmus nails it with an early look at the kind of obtuse poetic brilliance that would soon be his trademark.
There's a reason 'Gold Soundz' was named Best Songs of the 1990's by the hipper-than-thou online indie bible Pitchfork, and it's not the tune's totally random video, which features the band members dressed up as Santa Clauses and sliding down a highway overpass slope. 'Gold Soundz' is short and sweet and full of the kind of instant nostalgia you can only get when listening to a tune as perfect as this. The guitars are warm and fuzzy, and there's a certain undefinable charm in Malkmus' voice. "You can never quarantine the past," he sings, and he's right. The future will probably be Pavement-free, but when listening to this song, the past is nothing but.