In their short career, Pavement pioneered a sound and started a culture for suburban kids everywhere, embracing a love of classic guitar bands, British post-punk and the American underground to make their own nonchalant, lackadaisical indie-rock. Originally intended to be a home-recording project between Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kannberg (otherwise known as Spiral Stairs), the two made lo-fi EPs in their friend’s Stockton, California studio that gathered steam, drawing comparisons to bands like The Pixies, Sonic Youth and The Fall. The EPs circulated, eventually landing in the hands of English DJ John Peel, who was an instant fan and champion of the band.
By 1991 they were a trio, and with the help of friend Gary Young on drums, they recorded 1992’s ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ for Matador Records. The album was instantly hailed as a lo-fi masterpiece due to its smart-aleck lyrics, irresistible pop hooks, and effortless, distorted guitar riffs. They soon became a five-piece, and their sophomore 1994 release ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ cemented them as college-rock’s breakthrough band. Before long, they were climbing the charts thanks to hits like ‘Cut Your Hair’, amassing a devoted following who loved their dynamic mix of poppy rock, feedback-drenched lead guitar licks, and sarcastic, scathing words dispatched with a breezy disregard.
Although they only made five full-length studio albums, Pavement are regarded today as possibly the most iconic band to emerge from the ‘90s explosion of independent guitar bands. Their combination of unabashed, accessible, radio-friendly melodies and Hendrix-meets-Creedence loose guitar licks are inimitable, and in Malkmus they had a frontman with playful, poignant lyrics by the bucketload. So, without further ado. here’s our pick of the best Pavement songs.
10. Silence Kid
The first song on our list is typical of what Pavement are so good at. It starts like a band caught unaware they’ve been asked to play a song (they plugged directly into the tape machine and went for what Malkmus describes as a “raw” sound), with casual noodling and practice drum fills. 20 seconds later, and the haphazard mutterings turn into a steady, Beatles-esque groove. Malkmus claims the lyrics “ecstasy feels so warm” until he’s “screwing myself with my hand” weren’t based on his own experiences, and were just an attempt at embodying “young partiers at dawn.” It’s a catchy number from their second album that shows off the band’s ability to play tight, straight rock when they feel like it.
‘Here’ from the band’s 1992 debut ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ opens with some of the band’s most sardonic, iconic lyrics: “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes.” It’s something of a detour from the rest of the album, and is a fine example of Malkmus’ ability to write a luscious, tender pop song that despite its sarcastic opening, can’t hide his love for serious songwriting. It’s one of Pavement’s most simple arrangements, a simple lead riff sits on top of some gently strummed electric guitar, and a steady, slow-tempo drum beat that doesn’t feel the need to change. The chorus of “come join us in a prayer” is a tender singalong favorite.
‘Stereo’ from 1997’s ‘Brighten The Corners’ opens with a dueling guitar and bass, almost as if each instrument is willing the other one on to start the song. Before long, Spiral Stairs (wielding a Les Paul in the video) chimes in with a tremolo-heavy lead freak-out, and the song begins. ‘Stereo’ is the band at their wildest – Malkmus is given free rein to do his best open-buttoned Morrissey impression for the opening part of the song as the others play around him. Bob Nastanovich features heavily, especially during live performances, as he and Malkmus discuss Rush frontman Geddy Lee’s voice. The looseness eventually finds its chorus as Malkmus declares he’s “on the stereo!” A fun, deliberately chaotic riot of a tune.
Considering the band’s third album, ‘Wowee Zowee’ was met with mixed reviews for being a bit more slapdash than their previous effort, ‘Grounded’ is a standout song from that collection, and is a carefully constructed, rock masterclass. The lead guitar through the song is simple but powerful, with bending string licks that Joey Santiago might have written. The intro, with its chiming, picked guitar strings, turns into a post-rock section and the band have rarely sounded tighter. The lyrics are some of Malkmus’ most mysterious, involving “latent causes, sterile gauzes and the bedside moral”, and his rhyming schemes add another meticulous layer to his esoteric words.
6. Shady Lane
Another number from ‘Brighten The Corners’, ‘Shady Lane’ is one of Pavement’s most accessible, melodic songs. The video, directed by Spike Jonze, features a headless Malkmus cheerfully bopping along as he sings. Scott Kanberg plays his opening guitar riff on a Fender Strat, and Mark Ibald, the band’s bassist (who later joined Sonic Youth until they eventually disbanded) backs him up on his trademark Precision. It’s a great example of the band’s songwriting maturity, and is considerably sparse given Pavement’s love of wigging out. The lyrics seem to reference a date as Malkmus describes going “Dutch, Dutch, Dutch, Dutch” on a bill, but ultimately it feels like a song about finding your own bit of peaceful simplicity.
5. Spit on a Stranger
1999’s ‘Terror Twilight’ was the band’s last album before their acrimonious split. It divided opinions when it was released, with many reviews saying it felt disjointed. In the same way The Replacements’ (who the band cite as a big influence) later albums were effectively Paul Westerberg solo ventures, by 1999 Malkmus was debuting songs at solo acoustic shows. ‘Spit On A Stranger’, then, is a last hurrah for the band’s dynamic sounds to merge together. Gorgeously produced by Radiohead favorite Nigel Godrich (maybe overly so for a band that established itself as a lo-fi act), it’s the band finding their most easygoing sound. The laid-back folk-pop sounds are perfectly at odds with the song’s theme about break ups, and it could even be a meditation on the band’s split that was coming down the tracks.
4. Gold Soundz
On first listen, ‘Gold Soundz’ seems an apt name for this song – a syrupy, saccharine nostalgia trip about pining for long, free summers and being “so drunk in the August sun”. Listen again though, and it starts to sound more like it’s about failed relationships and how you can never “quarantine the past” (a lyric that later gave the band’s best of collection its title). Pavement were known to use alternate guitar tunings, and Malkmus has described his process as “doing variations, primarily on D and G tunings. Just tuning other strings in different ways and getting different intervals I could play.” ‘Gold Soundz’ is driven by both his and Spiral Stairs guitar parts, with arpeggio lead over the top of open-tuning, reverb-laced strummed chords. For the video, the band dressed up in Santa Claus outfits and roamed around Irvine, California.
3. Cut Your Hair
Ask anyone to name a Pavement tune, and ‘Cut Your Hair’ will likely be the answer you’re given. Like Nada Surf’s ‘Popular’, another ‘90s college-rock ‘anthem’, the song became ubiquitous thanks to heavy play on MTV and alternative radio stations when it was released. Thanks to its “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” refrain, this sarcastic ode to haircuts has the crunchy power-pop appeal of bands like Weezer and Built To Spill, and fast became the band’s biggest hit. It’s also a snotty swipe at careerist bands, as Malkmus decries “Advertising looks and chops a must! No big hair!”
2. Harness Your Hopes
‘Harness Your Hopes’ was originally recorded during sessions for 1997s ‘Brighten The Corners’, but Malkmus didn’t think it was strong enough to make the album. 20 years later, the song wound up in some favourable algorithms, or as the frontman puts it, “one of them ‘Monday Moods’ or whatever the f**k they do.” Scott Kannberg was less dry, admitting it “breathed new life into Pavement, really.” It’s a bouncy, snappy song, and finds Malkmus at his cockiest lyrically. He references the band, rhymes about “living in a coma for Donna De Varona” (an American swimmer, the songwriter is a self-confessed sports nerd) and tries some impressive wordplay with lines like “checking out the asses, the assets that attract us.” An unlikely second bite of the apple for the band.
1. Range Life
Our top pick is the third single from ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’, and it’s Pavement at their laconic best. The band always seemed aloof from the successes of their major label contemporaries, choosing instead to make the music they wanted to on independent labels. ‘Range Life’ wryly pokes fun at both the Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins from the sidelines, labeling them as “elegant bachelors” and “nature kids” respectively. ‘Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan took umbrage and booted them off the Lollapalooza bill his band were headlining. ‘Range Life’ is a jangly, feel-good alt-country number about settling down. Minus Malkmus’ tongue-in-cheek quips, you could believe Jeff Tweedy or Neil Young penned it.