Pavement photo by Masao Nagasaki
Photo: Masao Nagasaki / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The 20 Essential Pavement Songs

This stroll down memory lane’s shady lane only underscores how a collection of Stephen Malkmus’ sharpest turns-of-phrase comes off like a veritable Bartlett’s Famous Quotations for the Gen X indie set.

What better way is there to mark Stephen Malkmus‘ past milestones and present achievements than to revisit his most memorable Pavement songs? Malkmus’ wordplay, enigmatic and open to interpretation as it was, revealed different aspects to Pavement, often hinting at a sentimental, emotionally in-touch side that belied the wise-acre reputation that preceded the band. This stroll down memory lane’s shady lane only underscores how a collection of Malkmus’ sharpest turns-of-phrase comes off like a veritable Bartlett’s Famous Quotations for the Gen X indie set. Those are a few things you notice when, to riff off Malkmus’ own words, you go back to those gold sounds.

20. “Major Leagues” (1999)

For Stephen Malkmus to utter the thought “Bring on the major leagues” is probably too blunt to be considered ironic — and anyway, Pavement could’ve made good on that wish (or threat?) any time it wanted to. Instead, Pavement’s last hurrah might actually be expressing just a tinge of regret over what coulda-shoulda-woulda been. It’s hard not to argue that “Major Leagues” came at a time when Pavement was past its prime, still good enough to hit for a solid average on muscle memory alone, but no longer at the top of its game. Maybe it was hardly as subtle and complex as Pavement’s bittersweet best, but “Major Leagues” addressed Pavement’s fate with biting humor and wistful wit.

19. “Shady Lane” (1997)

Some have chalked up Pavement’s worldview to a devil-may-care-less attitude, but what the tone of Malkmus’ vocals really captured, with equal parts bemusement and grudging tenderness, was how alienation in its most ordinary, everyday forms feels like. Revealing a more mature Pavement in its crafted rock sound and evocative storytelling, “Shady Lane” reflected on how life imitates art imitating life, its scenes from unasked-for adulthood surreal precisely in how mundane they are. The blind dates and the break-ups inevitably end up in a suburban cul-de-sac, as Malkmus tells it, and how that happens can sometimes seem like a screenplay we’re watching of our own lives.

18. “Range Life” (1994)

It figures that the closest Pavement ever came to breaking through into the mainstream had more to do with shit-talking Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins than the catchy tune that delivered the butt-kicking — to the extent that that’s possible through faux-country tones and a cracking falsetto. Backing down from a pissing match, Malkmus, rather unconvincingly, claimed that he was dissing his own band as much as anyone else, pointing to the absurd, awkward, and barely perceptible “I/they” hair-splitting in the lyrics as proof. Whatever its true intentions, the song did lay down a marker between indie cred and selling out at the pinnacle of the alt-rock feeding frenzy.

17. “Debris Slide” (1991)

A badge of honor for any Pavement fan is having an encyclopedic knowledge of the band’s lesser-known EPs, B-sides, and pre-Slanted discography. Everyone’s got what he thinks is a forgotten favorite that happens to be the same thing for a whole legion of other devoted fans — “Debris Slide”, from the 1991 Perfect Sound Forever EP, fits into that category. With its crappy tape-hiss production and rudimentary riffs, “Debris Slide” is early Pavement in its natural state, primitively imaginative, ramshackle, and unabashed. But there’s already a sense of mystique present, which is the only way to explain how Malkmus’ scatted, nonsensical wordplay comes off like Dada-esque poetry.

16. “We Dance” (1995)

“We Dance” was far from Pavement’s most ambitious or powerful artistic statement, but the enigmatic tune may have been one of its boldest: Rather than following up the on-the-cusp almost-hits of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with a modern-rock anthem you thought Malkmus had up his sleeve, Wowee Zowee‘s opening track best articulated Pavement’s contrarian streak on its most challenging and complex album. In the leadoff spot, “We Dance” set the tone for a change in direction from Pavement’s manifest destiny, with its meandering pace, steely acoustic sound, and Malkmus’ whack faux-British accent. It takes two to tango, and the understated “We Dance” was almost a test to see if you were gonna stay with the one who brung ya.