The ‘90s were the last true safe haven for standard rock music, giving birth to movements like grunge, post-rock, math-rock, and even the revival of pop-punk. The legendary names associated with each of these genres either continue to play today; like Green Day; or are touted as one of the greatest bands of all time; like Nirvana. Given the innovation, imagination, and pop-culture swagger each group exuded at the time, their memories are forever-trapped in rock (and music) history. But one unlikely gathering of a few fun-loving, instrument-playing friends also left their stamp on the industry, with their “lazy,” “nonsensical” music. That group is Northern California’s indie giants, Pavement.
Like several other genre-definers, Pavement didn’t last very long. Their formation technically began in 1989, but their first full commercial release wouldn’t come for three more years. By the time of their swift exit in 1999, they had only been releasing records for seven years, but each of their five LPs came with something new, fun, interesting, and engaging. Slanted & Enchanted (1992) is arguably the best lo-fi record to this day; utilizing lack of production as a strength, rather than a hindrance. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) cleaned up the production, and allowed their effective pop jams to become true hits. Wowee Zowee (1995) was a quick retaliation to their popularity, a return to experimentation, and by far their most eclectic release. And finally, their two closing records, Brighten the Corners (1997) and Terror Twilight (1999), illustrated their “classic” and alternative influences.
Pavement’s greatest attraction was, and still is, their everyday-man appearance, and fun parodying of industry staples. While a lot of independent artists begin as average people, they get caught up in fame, and eventually change. But while their music developed and grew with each release, they stayed relatively similar, only aging from time, and not their limited appearances in the spotlight. Despite the immeasurable influence they have today, every member’s wikipedia page remains sparse, with little information outside of the band itself, because for the most part, they wanted to be left alone. Stephen Malkmus’s writing often tries to throw-off anyone openly analyzing things like lyricism, and also glorifies simplistic ideas of life separate of fame or success. And in the twenty years following their breakup, they’ve only rejoined twice; once for a twenty-year anniversary in 2010, and now, for their thirty year, originally set for this year, but swapped over to 2021. In the world of indie bands, perhaps the band that created modern indie, somehow manages to still be the most “indie” of them all.
On a record with little focus, “AT&T” mimics the calamity of its surroundings incredibly. What’s initially a ballad goes through intense rotations, layering almost random guitar licks over each other, and stumbling over Malkmus’s multiple lyrical stutters, before an unadvertised transition to a different beat, tempo, a vocal filter, and some out-of-tune squelches. It’s the perfect microcosm of Wowee Zowee.
Rarely do we get to see a Pavement song primarily-driven by bass, but it’s gifted to us here. And while Mark Ibold doesn’t do anything fancy, “Stereo” is just a simple conversation between his bass, and Malkmus. The spur-of-the-moment, flow-of-thought lyricism is super fun as well, hitting a high point with its mentioning of Geddy Lee, asking “How did [his voice] get so high?”, and wondering “if he speaks like an ordinary guy.” The band’s pseudo-celebration of being on the stereo isn’t clear on whether it’s ironic or genuine, but either way, it’s a light-hearted jam.
18. “We Dance”
Once again, Wowee Zowee gives a rare glimpse at a much different Pavement. “We Dance” is a slow, piano-heavy, acoustic, depressing offer to dance with someone. And even with its occasional, unrelated lyrics, it seems to actually mean something. The repetitive, “You can’t enjoy yourself. I can’t enjoy myself,” hits hard. And the slow fadeaway at the end lasts an entire minute, as its dance request gets more and more hesitant, showing just how bad of a spot they’re in.
17. “Shoot the Singer (One Sick Verse)”
Pavement’s well-known for their EP features, and B-sides, and “Shoot the Singer” is just one example of many on this list. Malkmus’s voice is surprisingly diverse in this song, from monotone, to falsetto, to shouts, but the lack of a one-dimensional vocal approach is traded in for the very simplistic, stable bass line. The track closes with Malkmus’s powerful, cloudy, rhythmic screams alongside the instrumental, fading to a finale.
16. “…And Carrot Rope”
The clear, “wa wa” of the guitar is uncharacteristic of Pavement’s raw sound, but it works with their joyful-yet-melancholy so-long to their audience. The band’s final track takes the nonsensical lyricism to the next level, seemingly taking it phrase-by-phrase, from “Carrot ropes,” to “Periscopes,” and “the wicket keeper.” It makes a few callbacks to past songs in lyrics like, “harness your hopes,” and it also features vocals from three different group members; diverging from the standard one-man show of Stephen Malkmus.
15. “Cut Your Hair”
“Cut Your Hair” is an elaborate and fun metaphorical explanation of the musical industry, beginning with a woman wanting to cut her hair so her boyfriend will change and like her more. Malkmus equates this to many of the early ‘90s rock bands, and the commercial exploitation of popular sounds like grunge, expecting trivial things like the length of band members’ hair to make a difference. It pokes fun at those successful, saying “Attention and fame’s a career,” providing groundwork for a lot of what this album is about (ironically being their biggest commercial record), and is covered in bright background falsettos.
14. “In the Mouth A Desert”
Pavement’s guitars are consistent and serviceable, but rarely noticeable. This changes on “In the Mouth a Desert.” The high-pitched chords following the chorus match up perfectly with the accompanying falsetto to create an earworm of a poppy melody. At the same time, it features some of the harshest, fuzziest background instrumentation in their discography. And the lyrics, while clear on occasion, are ambiguous enough to play with, without being downright indecipherable.
13. “Harness Your Hopes”
“Harness Your Hopes” is yet another B-side, and it feels as casual as you might expect. As soon as the melody enters, it doesn’t really shift for more than a few seconds, and Malkmus continues to spout randomness with as many internal rhymes as possible, to the main tune. Some of the lyrical highlights include rhyming “molasses” with itself, and the worrying-but-hilarious “Well show me, a word that rhymes with pavement, and I won’t kill your parents, and roast them on a spit.” Each line takes a huge leap from the next, until you’re left with something that reads like a gorgeous bit of gibberish.
12. “Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17”
“Trigger Cut” is likely a description of a dysfunctional relationship, hidden behind the veil of clever wordplay. Filled with “lies and betrayals, fruit covered nails, electricity and lust,” and more, it’s not the best for either party, but they’ll continue to come back to each other anyway. The smooth “la-las” in the bridge bar the inherent sadness from coming through, and keep it appearing bright and friendly. It has all the marks of a great Pavement song: weird, meaningful lyrics, gorgeous simplicity, a pop chorus, and a fun, thirty-second elevator music jam session to usher in the next track.
11. “Silence Kid”
It’s unclear who Malkmus is talking to, or about here, but its significance still remains. The track attempts to give a silent kid advice, and maybe explain the birth of his condition as well, often putting the blame on the family. It doesn’t demonize the silence, though, recognizing it’s better than something more harmful. It enters with a thirty-second playful exploration of instruments, and ends with a thirty-second breakdown too, bookending this touching story with a few powerful and interesting sections.
10. “Shady Lane”
It’s hard to tell what Malkmus is attempting to do with “Shady Lane.” Is he trying to bash the wealthy, and the overvaluing of money? Is he humanizing those with money, equating them to the layman in the end? Or is it somehow both? Either way, it has to make the top three or four melodic songs in Pavement’s discography. The glossy echoing guitars perfect the perpetually-soft words of Malkmus. It’s bouncy. It’s accessible. It’s not something you’d see from early Pavement, but it works just as well.
9. “Range Life”
“Range Life” is a staple Pavement song in so many ways. It shows a musical exploration, pre-Wowee Zowee, delving into the depths of country and Southern rock. Its subtle piano notes and acoustic guitars shout “Lynyrd Skynyrd” more than anything else. It also shows Pavement’s continuous striving for a stable life, outside of the chaos of music contracts, media, and concerts, preferring activities like skateboarding alone at night. But most notably, it features a direct bashing of bands and peers right next to them, with insults aimed at Stone Temple Pilots, the Smashing Pumpkins, and even their fans at times. If anyone thought Pavement cared about their public image, and peers’ opinions before this song, they were certainly proven wrong.
For all the crap Pavement gave to movements like shoegaze, and other alternative rock categories, they definitely stole a little from them as well. “Grounded” is a break from the lyric-driven indie rock, and leans heavily on slow, distorted guitars, and specifically the heart-aching lick that acts as the song’s chorus. Twinkling guitar chords intertwine with each other, and give the track the voice it needs, as Malkmus sits back for once in his life. But that’s not to say the lyrics aren’t meaningful or necessary. The one sentence that is the actual chorus, “Boys are dying on these streets,” hits as hard as any six words can.
7. “Zürich is Stained”
The less-than-two-minute song off of Slanted & Enchanted feels like an interlude when placed in between the epic tracks on that record, but it wastes no time at all. It does nothing fancy with the intro, the outro, and oddly, doesn’t leave much to the imagination when it comes to the lyricism either. The steady-moving track chugs along with Malkmus, as he explains why his current relationship feud isn’t his fault. Each and every second is crisp and smooth, melodic but simple, and is the best example of Pavement being efficient with their songwriting for once.
6. “Debris Slide”
“Debris Slide” is a snapshot of Pavement even before Slanted & Enchanted. Its lo-fi nature multiplies their first release’s sloppiness by a factor of ten, with endless, mind-numbing distortion coming from the strings. It’s quick and loud, almost to the point of punk at times. And about two-thirds of its lyrics are “debris slide” or “Ba-bas.” The key, though, is its still-fun, catchy, and pop-fused nature that makes it somehow one of their most fun songs despite all of that. It’s a song that shows what Pavement were like in the three years prior to their first LP, and proves itself just as well as their other songs.
5. “Summer Babe”
To most ears, “Summer Babe” was the introduction to Pavement’s discography, as the intro track of Slanted & Enchanted, and a feature on its EP just before that, Summer Babe (1991). For that alone, it’s well-known and well-respected. But it’s not just about its placement in their discography. The track is composed of just three simple chords, but manages to be as immortal as their most complex songs. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also jam-packed with groovy guitar solos, drum breaks, tempo shifts, and tone changes in Malkmus’s voice. They milked the most out of its bare skeleton, and shoved as much as they could into the empty space that remained. The result is a catchy, fun, timeless hit.
4. “Fillmore Jive”
The seven-minute closer to the epic that is Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, does just about everything the album puts forth, but arguably better. In many ways, there are four or five separate songs in its lengthy run-time, but they’re all seamlessly constructed together into one singular project. The ideas within it just happen to be numerous. Despite its lack of lyrical focus, it’s probably the most painful, and sad track Pavement has ever constructed. With the long, drawn-out repetition of “I need to sleep,” and blaming an ambiguous “you,” for the issue, it lets loose all of the emotional backdrop created during the rest of the record. It seems like they knew where the genre was soon going, saying “goodnight to the rock ‘n’ roll era, cause they don’t need you anymore.” It’s not just a farewell to the album, but in a way, to the genre that they both love and hate. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Pavement song without a bit of poetic toying, leaving the end with an ellipsis, to allow you to find the answer for yourself.
Pavement would eventually go on to make a variety of slow, ballad-esque tracks, some of which have already been mentioned. But at the time of its release, “Here” was the only true example of this. It’s an intense break from the pop-jams Slanted & Enchanted is so well-known for. Melancholy isn’t a rare emotion in the project, but the way they go about showing it in this track, takes away all of the catchy riffs, the fun wordplay, and brings it to a sudden halt. “Raw” no longer describes just the production style, but now, the transparency that exists between the band and the audience. The first verse remains as one of the harshest verses out there, beginning with “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes,” and ending with “everything’s ending here.”
2. “Gold Soundz”
Upon its individual release, “Gold Soundz” wasn’t quite up to par with some of Pavement’s previous singles, but commercial success was never important to the band, and has nothing to do with quality. Few people have the time to deconstruct each and every poetic reference, callback, or message within this song, and it’s not even three-minutes long. But what makes it even better than its depth, is its still-beautiful presence to the outside eyes and ears. The reverb coming off of the guitars, and the mellow-but-full production bring it to the dreamy center of a Slowdive track. The imagery is at an all time high here as well, presenting what could be the best four lines in Pavement’s lyrical history. “So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty, and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past” is as stacked as it is pretty, and also spawned the name of their greatest hits record, Quarantine the Past (2010).
Naturally, Pavement’s best has to be from an EP, rather than a full-length release, but “Frontwards” more than deserves it. The wall of guitars slowly drag along the ground, stalking Stephen Malkmus for the whole song. They’re grimy, but outstanding; a very good descriptor of the band as a whole. Malkmus even admits their quality later in an interview, saying “Oasis could have used those chords, as far as I’m concerned. They’re that good.” It tells a nostalgic story of basic everyday life back when Malkmus was growing up; from the night news, to plastic cones, and stolen rims. It also holds onto an unconventional brag from Malkmus, claiming he’s “got style [for] miles and miles.” The finishing touches are then the periodic cut-outs of sound from the left ear. Whether they’re intentional, or an unfortunate result of poor production, they add an extra flare that reminds you “this is indie music.”