Pavement first appeared on the music scene in 1989, formed in Stockton, California when founding members and school friends Stephen Malkmus (SM) and Scott Kannberg (Spiral Stairs) met and started creating primitive indie-rock. Their music stood out amid the angst-fuelled grunge of the day, borrowing from the classic rock of The Clean, and even more heavily (and their let-me-throw-some-shit-together album art) from The Fall, they were armed with a combination of cynicism and spirit that caught everyone by surprise in the early-90s and, in an age of cod-metal bands with big hair, Pavement gave smart-aleck ‘readers’ a new way of being cool.
They formed Pavement with the decade-older, yet vital, Gary Young on drums and cultivated a mystique by releasing three brash singles that sounded like you were listening to the surface of the sun, before a debut ‘cassette’ called Slanted and Enchanted in 1992 caused a buzz it so deserved. The alt-rock press, and even the likes of Rolling Stone immediately took to the band, posting rave reviews, branding them “slacker rock”, however despite the lo-fi angular quality, Pavement’s music was always warm and sunny – West Coast style – and unabashedly tuneful and anthemic.
With the eventual addition of a bass player (Mark Ibold) and two drummers (Bob Nastanovich more a percussionist/backup singer/keyboardist and general good guy, and Steve West replacing Gary Young), this five-piece band’s material went from searing combustible energy, sudden shifts in tone and tempo, soaring solos, shrieking vocals and fuzzy meltdowns, to resplendent and strikingly accessible classic rock with intriguing country leanings and breathtaking melodies and loping rhythms – and at their best live on stage. Their music was consistently fresh-sounding, and Pavement’s sonic roughness has preserved it from time: production values are never going to date on records that have minimal production values in the first place.
This scrappy band of brothers seared through the cynical haze of the decade, their guitars climbing higher than their feedback and voices reaching way beyond their own irony. A certain tossed-off cool touched everything they did as they developed and evolved throughout the 90’s making a marvel of mistakes, first-takes, deliberate self-sabotage, and mastering a beautiful looseness that seemed part of their craft before imploding at Coachella in ’99. And then, of course, they triumphantly reunited in 2010 to play a number of sold out shows worldwide throughout the year. Their perfect discography had a rare and refreshing breadth of songcraft and depth of musicianship, and were all lopsided, languid, carefree, crooning beasts, but at the same time well-constructed, well-paced, with an increasing diversity, all subtly different from each other.
I’ll never forgive Pitchfork for omitting David Bowie’s “Heroes” from their Top 100 Albums of the 1970’s, but please go easy as I send advance apologies to live favourites such as Brinx Job and Best Friend’s Arm, the majority of Terror Twilight, Fillmore Jive, No Life Singed Her, Type Slowly, Grave Architecture, and unfortunately many many more.
Join us at The Press as we count down the Top 50 songs from one of the most original, sincere and distinctive American rock bands of the Slow Century.
50. Westie Can Drum
Fact: Some of Pavement’s best songs do not appear on their albums. This is one of them. The B-side to Brighten the Corners’ (1997) single Stereo, this chromatically awesome ‘joke-song’ describes their drummer Steve West: “Lincoln’s beard / Why’s he got a horses body?” before finishing with: “Westie he cannot drum.” They then proceed to go completely fucking mental at the outro – one of Pavement’s finest and most rocking-est moments caught on tape.
49. Black Out
An effortlessly tuneful number found early on the track list on triple-sided masterpiece Wowee Zowee (1995). Matador Records re-released this in 2006 as part of their expansive Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition, and a lovely little promo 7″ with fellow album track Extradition, were both previously unheard versions and both very top notch. It also included a poster based on a painting that artist Steve Keene originally designed for the album cover. “…like rattlesnakes walkin’.“
48. We Are Underused
Something of a band singalong, or maybe a band theme song, its a very tongue in cheek and as weirdly ambiguous as the band’s principal songwriter Malkmus’ gets on this dinner-party-gone-wrong epic: “Let’s thank the host / You’ve been such a great host / The roast / Was just so perfectly prepared.” The loping interplay is signature Pavement on this Brighten the Corners standout.
Malkmus rambles over a Spiral Stairs live favourite featuring fuzzy guitar (like a lot of their early material), an overdubbed electronic Kraftwerk-like sound with an infectious ba-ba-badada hook. Recorded essentially as a duo pre-Gary Young, pre-Slanted and Enchanted (features Jason Turner on drums), Forklift was a fine opener to their six-track Drag City 7″ single Demolition Plot J-7, released in 1990.
It’s incredible a song such as this was relegated to B-side status (if that, I recall it was just a song from a magazine CD at one stage), considering the beautiful lilting tune and outstanding SM lyricism. Check the vivid imagery in these couplets, “On an icy island in north, in the woods beside the church / We can bury crimson lockets filled with dirt“, simply dazzling on this criminally little-known, bittersweet classic.
45. Elevate Me Later
The first track here featured from the stunning Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (1994) breakthrough album and one of the greatest rock albums ever made. As great as their debut Slanted and Enchanted was, this album put Pavement on the map, and they started travelling in a different direction including clean production and, particularly on this track, insidiously catchy melodies.
44. Motion Suggests
The poignant and delicate Motion Suggests is one of the many golden moments on the 18-track, initially oblique Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s third album. Recorded in Memphis, its a less well-rounded album than its predecessors but ultimately more rewarding.
43. False Skorpion
A case of a B-side not making the Malkmus-sequenced Wowee Zowee kitchen-sink track list. Pavement had struck upon a particularly rich vein of form and put nigh on everything they recorded on the album, but not this one. This experimental and “random” punky nugget is instead inserted into the Rattled By La Rush EP, and is loaded with attitude and squally aggression. Fucked-up faux-hardcore, it’s probably a first take. Best line: “Whenever you misdirect me mama / You’re misdirecting a person / You wouldn’t want to misdirect!” This EP also includes a fine song called Brink of the Clouds which can also be heard live in Australia in all it’s free-form, improv glory (Johnathon Peel!) with Candylad on the Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition. Well worth a listen, unlucky to miss the cut.
42. Unseen Power of the Pickett Fence
This Crooked Rain-era track was worked up in those sessions and included on No Alternative, a rock compilation album released in 1993 to benefit AIDS relief. The album featured original tracks and cover versions from bands who went on to define the alternative rock scene of the 1990s such as Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course our heroes, Pavement. The song is about the band REM, their albums, band members, their impact on the rock scene of the 80’s, and songs: “Time After Time / Was my least favorite song!” Malkmus sums up this great band with the final line: “And we’re marching through Georgia! / And there stands R.E.M.”
41. Rattled by the Rush
“Caught my dad cryin’.” Something of a curve ball for listeners after Crooked Rain, this single off Wowee includes some whacked-out poetry: “Getting off on the candelabra / We call her Barbara / Breeding like larva / She rabble-rousing, dental surf combat / Get out those hardhats and sing us some scat“. It includes one of the best guitar solos of all time, and the tune will lurk around your head for days if not careful.
40. Maybe Maybe
This noisy oddball can be found on Pavement’s very first 7″ single Slay Tracks (1933-1969) recorded over a four hour session and released in 1989. An accomplished and confident, semi-atonal, punky lo-fi romp with some sloppy noisy guitar beauty underneath Malkmus screams and the repeated line “MaybeMaybeMaybeMaybeMaybe” while the percussion tries to keep up. Catchy as hell.
39. Loretta’s Scars
“How can I / How can I / How can I / Make my body shed for you?” Perfect Slanted and Enchanted (1992) album track and live staple with Malkmus’ speak-style melody and lyrics, somewhere between sardonic and oblique absurdisms, mixed deep over half-a-dozen buried guitar hooks: “From now on I can see the sun….“
38. Old to Begin
One of Pavement’s finest and most cohesive moments on record. They were very comfortable as a band when they recorded Brighten the Corners, and as great they were when chaotic, there’s something magical about the gentle flow to this track and the sublime guitar interplay. This song was originally entitled Chevy and pops up on the Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition (2008). Interestingly they kept the Malkmus screaming at the end of the original take.
37. Easily Fooled
The lines are blurry between Pavement’s EPs and singles, and this track appeared on the Rattled By La Rush EP and you can see why they called them slacker posterboys. This has Olympic-sized slackness values and is on the verge of toppling over at any given moment until it erupts into an extremely tuneful falsetto-soul chorus.
36. Conduit for Sale!
The goofy charm of Slanted’s Conduit for Sale is the rock-out moment when a live Pavement would explode into a high-volume extravaganza, as Bob Nastonich takes the mic and screams: “I’m Tryin’ / I’m Tryin’ / I’m Tryin’ / I’m Tryin’ / I’m Tryin’ / I’m Try.” As simple and anthemic as that is, it still makes a good case for securing the most elaborate lyric on the album: “Imagine if you were Herr Barockter / Alias and nobleman / Son of son of sky, and of scion / Part of his rich inheritance parcelled and generous divorce, sentence forthwith being.”
35. We Dance
Certainly a strange song to open an album with (Wowee Zowee), Malkmus sings in a faux-Brit accent a la Hunky Dory-era Bowie over lush acoustic guitars and running water. Even stranger are the lyrics: “There is no castration fear” and “Chim chim chim sing a song of praise“, SM must have spent a lot of time listening to a particular John Coltrane record during the recording of Wowee Zowee, and for lyrical inspiration.
34. Price Yeah!
Cryptic angst, non-existent production values, and verbal acrobatics abound on this feedback-splattered and infectious closer off Slay Tracks. Gary Young stars here with a driving beat.
33. Wanna Mess You Around
The noisy, one-and-a-half-minute punk libido of Wanna Mess You Around appeared on the five-track Shady Lane EP in 1997. The jet-fuelled riffing and light-hearted energy of this track is the only thing missing off Brighten the Corners.
With its ruminations about the peculiar oration of Rush’s bassist/singer Geddy Lee, and referencing the Lone Ranger’s catchphrase “Hi Ho Silver Ride!“, Brighten’s opener is a knowing dig at their level of popularity at the time and full of sonic and lyrical detail that really cuts loose in the huge chorus.
31. Zürich Is Stained
A first-take primitive recording with guitars that are barely in tune (actually they’re not in tune at all), but the exquisite country-vibe melody more than make up for it on this short-but-sweet ‘shrug’ of a classic from debut album Slanted and Enchanted.
30. I Love Perth
A short song about Western Australia’s capital city, I Love Perth name checks Noise Addict, a decent little band from back in the day (Ben Lee was it?). This glorious song can be found on an EP called Pacific Trim (1996) featuring only Steve Malkmus and Steve West, making good use of studio time originally scheduled for a Silver Jews session, which the late great David Berman couldn’t make. The full band and extraordinary BBC in-studio version is seventy-one-seconds of pop perfection and must be heard to be believed.
29. Newark Wilder
A different kind of song for Pavement at the time, this one is on Crooked Rain and the band would go on to explore these tuneful sounds, weird guitar tunings, and darker lyrical themes more thoroughly on their follow-up albums. Rarely played live, the stunning ‘lounge-jazz’ of Newark Wilder is an underrated treasure.
28. Carrot Rope
A happy pill of a tune and just a great pop song with just a hint of melancholy. The closing number on Terror Twilight, so essentially Pavement’s last ever song and what a way to go out. Malkmus could write these in his sleep, and Pavement could effortlessly pull it off, he just chose not to very often. This has a terrific film clip of the boys fooling around in raincoats singing their three-part harmonies. Carrot Rope should’ve been a big hit. Written when on tour in Brisbane, Australia, reference to the cricket wicket keeper, as their hotel was on Vulture Street and they were listening to a lot of test match commentary at the time. Howzat?
27. No Tan Lines
Faux-bossa nova beat and bitchy lyrics, its the great Brighten the Corners non-album track. Infectious does not pay it the props it so deserves: “Princess with a cold killer instinct / Winked at me from across the ice rink / Leather uppers soft for the spins / But she gives it away without a rest.” It’s genius. A fruitful era, and you could make the argument that the leftovers compiled on the expanded edition are some of the band’s best ever material.
26. Shady Lane
A top 40 hit in the UK, this Brighten the Corners track is wistful with a summer-y vibe, yet quite disarming in its beauty and jauntiness. A lovely video by Spike Jonez accompanied the track, featuring a headless Malk, and stands tall among the other clips the band made during its ten year career.
25. Box Elder
This is the base of everything Pavement. Essentially the first thing SM and Spiral recorded with Gary Young, its off Slay Tracks. Soon after its release John Peel was playing it, and then was covered by the Wedding Present. People were excited about it. Fanzines were writing about them, and that’s how Box Elder broke Pavement.
24. Texas Never Whispers
Opening track to the essential Watery, Domestic EP released in 1992 between Slanted and Crooked Rain. A transitional release moving towards a cleaner sound, although Gary Young was still on drums and the song opens with a huge blast of molten guitar distortion. While only containing four songs, Watery, Domestic is one of the best overall things Pavement ever recorded.
23. And Then
“Rally around the parking lot.” Recorded during the Brighten the Corners sessions and ended up as The Hexx, another beast entirely, for their final album, the Nigel Godrich-produced Terror Twilight. This is a more immediate and careering performance. Wound up the B-side to the Carrot Rope 7″.
22. Father to a Sister of Thought
Some wondrous pedal steel guitar from Wowee Zowee engineer Doug Easley (Cat Power, Jeff Buckley, Wilco) on this country-rock-thru-lo-fi leanings number. The majority of the album was recorded at his Easley Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and just when you thought the song couldn’t get any better, a bluesy riff comes out of nowhere at the end. As for the video, its all check-shirts and cowboys-on-rollerblades.
21. Two States
The band’s indebtedness to The Fall was never more apparent than on guitarist Scott Kannberg’s mesmerising Two States, a major highlight off Slanted and Enchanted and a strong contribution to the album. Despite the obvious debt to their heroes, it’s a lot of fun, and one the best shout-along songs in their catalogue: “40! Million! Daggers!“, includes a scything Malkmus guitar line.
“I am the only one searching for you / And if I get caught then the search is through.” The Watery, Domestic EP was Pavement’s last work featuring original drummer Gary Young and their first with bassist Mark Ibold and percussionist/keyboardist Bob Nastanovich. It finds Pavement focusing on songcraft over riffs, tunes over noise, and as displayed on the lumbering melody of this live staple, even in their transitional phase they were still untouchable.
19. Spit on a Stranger
The finely-crafted opening track and lead single off the band’s final album Terror Twilight has a glassy-clean guitar pattern and some soaring Spiral Stairs lead guitar floating below Malkmus’ melody, who’s voice still has the detached slacker quality, but this time there’s some vulnerability to it as he reaches up into his falsetto on each verse: “Whatever you feel / Whatever it takes.”
18. Kennel District
“Why didn’t I ask? / “Why didn’t I ask? / “Why didn’t I ask? / Why didn’t I?” This fuzzed-up anti-anthem is a mini-masterpiece and is one of two Spiral’s exemplary contributions to Wowee Zowee (the other being the underrated closer Western Homes). As catchy as anything the band recorded, it dissolves into a haze of distorted guitars. A clear highlight, and as good as anything Malkmus delivered on the brilliant sprawling album.
17. Harness Your Hopes
This obscure and forgotten B-side, recorded during the sessions for 1997’s Brighten The Corners has become Pavement’s top song on Spotify. One of the best songs the band recorded, it sounds “normal” or similar to other songs until you listen to the lyrics–which are some of SM’s best. The song has rocketed up the charts to become number one on Pavement’s Spotify page, ending up with over 30 million plays to date, seven million more than…….
16. Cut Your Hair
……the enduring 90’s slacker anthem and Pavement’s best-selling single. As effortlessly cryptic as it is catchy, Cut Your Hair snidely attacks the importance of image in the music industry and had a tenuous dalliance with the mainstream in 1994. They knew that they could easily be the next big thing, but was it really what they wanted? With an atypical, unbalanced chord structure, playful thematic lyrics, and a who give a fuck video, it sums up the aesthetic of not just the band, but Gen X as a whole.
15. Range Life
This is the song where Malkmus languorously bitches on the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots: “Out on tour the Smashing Pumpkins / Nature kids / I, they don’t have a function / I don’t understand what they mean / And I could really give a fuck / Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors / They’re foxy to me, are they foxy to you?
I will agree they deserve absolutely nothin’ / Nothin’ more than me.” It’s actually a beautifully emotional song with a plaintively aching melody and vocal, especially when Malkmus half-hums that final “Dreamin’ dream dream dream.”
14. Half a Canyon
Can-esque Wowee standout where the band switches abruptly from a slow lurching jam to smeared warped electronics and into a demonic motorik freak-out halfway through. It’s all about the huge sparkling guitars, Malkmus never played better than he does here without soloing.
Malkmus ruminates on fame, “I was dressed for success / But success it never comes“, on this slow woozy ballad from Slanted which features SM and Spiral recording as a duo. The effectiveness of the track lies in the resigned guitar note picked throughout under a beautiful vocal melody and intricate lyrics. “And I’m the only one who laughs / At your jokes when they are so bad / And the jokes are always bad.”
12. Silence Kid
Classic rock opener off Crooked Rain ushering in a breathtaking leap forward, production-wise, from what came before. This set the scene for the band’s breakthrough, and after a false start the track settles into that buoyant and endlessly joyous riff (with cowbell!). If you listen carefully you can hear the lead vocal is double-tracked, and awesome bass from Ibold. As is their want, “Silence Kit” careens off track mid-song and slows down where you get Malkmus’ admission that he’s “screwing myself with my hand.”
“He foaled a swollen daughter in the sauna / Playing contract bridge / They’re soaking up the fun or doing blotters / I don’t know which, which, which!” Regular live opener for the band, this sinister Wowee Zowee centrepiece revolves around a slow-moving three note de-tuned guitar figure, a loping beat, and Malkmus’ seemingly endless flair for catchy epigrams and wondrous capacity for tightly knotted wordsmithary. On the marvellous Slow Century DVD package, it includes a live performance from Manchester 1999 where guitar-God Malk plays the guitar Hendrix-style over his head.
10. Gold Soundz
Pavement followed up Watery, Domestic with Crooked Rain: their masterwork and the absolute zenith of ’90s American indie rock. A major highlight on the album being this shimmering pop single. The charming video features the band in Santa Claus suits pursuing a stuffed chicken of course, and it fittingly opens things on Quarantine the Past: The Best of Pavement (2010).
9. Summer Babe (Winter Version)
The bumpy dream-pop of Summer Babe is the definitive Pavement song. The last time I saw Malkmus and the Jicks perform, this was the one and only Pavement track they played, and when they unexpectedly rolled out Summer Babe as the encore, all hell broke loose. This instant classic has vivid lyrics and is appealing in its melodic simplicity. Also popped up as a ‘single mix’ on Westing (By Musket and Sextant) which compiles all tracks on their first three singles.
8. Fight This Generation
The scattered Wowee Zowee found Pavement at their loosest, funniest and most willing to do whatever pops into their heads – unfocused but filled with mystery. None more so than on this meandering late-album cut that has an almighty genre-defying changeup mid-song, the band not bothering with such troupes as a chorus, bridge, or meaning.
7. Stop Breathin’
The glacial track (perhaps) aligns tennis as a metaphor for a terrible breakup, and deliberate double-entendres abound: “Got struck by the first volley / Of the war in the courts / Never held my serve.” Pavement’s signature guitar tunings sounding off-kilter but still uniquely melodic. The slowly intensifying mid-song jam on this track is perhaps Pavement’s finest moment on record.
6. Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse)
Opening with the abstract line: “Someone took in these pants“, this Watery, Domestic closer is full of raw energy and texture and has a subtle Velvet’s feel, finishing with a loping, jangly electric guitar riff and infectious ba ba bada ba-ba-ba hook. I remember hearing this live in Sydney in 1994 and making it my life’s mission to hunt it down. Malkmus sings the final lyric over and over: “Don’t expect” like a mantra.
On Pavement’s White Album (the erratic masterpiece Wowee Zowee), they turned their back on potential pop stardom, exemplified on the scattershot AT&T. It is Pavo at their most peculiarly poppy, idiosyncratic and sublime. It starts relatively sensibly with the strumming, “Maybe someone’s going to save me / My heart is made of gravy / And the laps I swim from lunatics don’t count“, but goes off the rails very quickly at the chorus, “Whenever, whenever, whenever, whenever, whenever / Whenever I feel fine“, where SM doesn’t even bother singing properly, the song slows down, speeds up; its all over the map, finally finishes up by collapsing in on itself, a seething mess, as Malkmus screams maniacally. A wild glorious ride.
4. Transport is Arranged
Pavement made a quasi-straightforward, potentially marketable follow-up to Wowee Zowee in Brighten the Corners, and this mid-tempo track with its sausage-link-strings of non-sequiturs is that remarkable album’s toppermost pinnacle. Structurally exquisite, the mood of the track is mellow and conventional, seemingly addressing the dynamic between relationships and life on the road, “A voice coach taught me to sing / He couldn’t teach me to love“, until two minutes in, the system breaks down entirely as destabilised rock yields to blistering magisterial prog riffage.
3. Give it a Day
A casual yet killer pop song written and recorded at short notice in a day while making good use of scheduled Silver Jews studio time, it shows up on the essential Pacific Trim EP. Preceded by two years of touring around the globe, this recording only consists of Malkmus and Steve West and marks the end of their irreverent stage as they would go on to record the measured Brighten the Corners the following year, but the enjoyable and winding Give it a Day remains one of Malkmus’ best tunes.
2. Trigger Cut / Wounded Kite at :17
“Lies and betrayals / Fruit-covered nails / Electricity and lust“, it was the first Pavement song I ever heard, that’s probably why it is so elevated on this list, but it shone like a glistening beacon out of the indie underground at the time. The standout track on Slanted and Enchanted possesses everything that’s good about Pavement: distinct delivery, undeniably wonderful songwriting, bizarre lyrics, stripped-back production and an irrepressibly catchy hook. I saw them, front and centre, at the ANU refectory in 1992 with about twelve other people, my mate picking them up from Canberra airport. It was great to chat to Mark and Gary post-gig but I still don’t know what chord shapes SM was playing on this track.
1. Debris Slide
The only track to appear here from their 10″ EP Perfect Sound Forever (1991) is number one on our Top 50 Pavement songs: the seething, primitive beast that is Debris Slide. It may be obscure, it may pay a debt to the great Mark E Smith, but Pavement fans would be more than familiar with this live favourite’s rapid fire drumming, the ba ba ba da da Debris Slide! chorus, the spiky ramshackle chaos, and sludge-wrapped one-minute-and-fifty-six-seconds of rocking perfection: “Eyes in the socket / Eyes are in the socket / So I’m gonna sock it.”