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.

15. “Fillmore Jive” (1994)

The coda to Crooked Rain, “Fillmore Jive” capped off what could be interpreted as Pavement’s concept album about the music industry with an end-of-history toast snuck into one of the group’s sprawling and expansive epics. There’s a sense of artistic ambition to “Fillmore Jive” that stretches Malkmus beyond his comfort zone of cheeky wordplay and thrift-store riffs, as Pavement creates a pretty, panoramic palette here that’s as experimental as this band gets. It’s a bold enough statement that implies the end of the rock ‘n’ roll era could have been the start of something big for Pavement.

14. “Motion Suggests” (1995)

Malkmus’ most memorable lines might be the ones that seem like cryptic aphorisms or gnomic nuggets of wisdom, but he’s just as good at setting the scene with descriptive language that paints a picture like you’ve never imagined it. And the world as seen through Malkmus’ mind’s eye is rarely as vivid as it is on the languid charmer “Motion Suggests”, on which the stuff of everyday life becomes all poetic with imagery of “window-passing rainy days” and “ginger ale rain”. As with much of Wowee Zowee, “Motion Suggests” grows on you with an impressionistic impression and its slowly unfolding beauty, proving again that Malkmus isn’t about instant gratification.

13. “Conduit for Sale!” (1992)

While you wholeheartedly believe Pavement mascot Bob Nastanovich when he’s howling the refrain of “I’m trying” as he prowls around on stage performing “Conduit for Sale!” live, the original Slanted and Enchanted version doth protest too much. In other words, it lives up to Pavement’s lazy-ass cred by attempting to dispel the notion — to the point that Malkmus’ voice cracks by the end of the song. But considering the way Malkmus delivers the lines with increasing earnestness and agitation as his Fall-like spoken word moves towards entropy, it’s like he knows you don’t really believe him.

12. “Zürich Is Stained” (1992)

Coming on the heels of “Conduit for Sale!” on the Slanted tracklist is “Zürich Is Stained”, which is the closest thing to Pavement’s honest-to-goodness slacker anthem. With the vocals mustering barely enough strength to croon along to the wobbly, slip-sliding guitars, “Zürich” makes giving up on trying and throwing in the towel into infectious indie rock. It’s a testament to the way Malkmus can seemingly toss off lines that somehow make you think they’re more profound than they initially seem. Or maybe it’s harder work to be on cruise control that we give him credit for — as he tells it later on the track, “You think it’s easy / But you’re wrong.”

11. “Give It a Day” (1996)

Stephen Malkmus studied history in college, and it’s his vast knowledge of trivia and cultural ephemera that makes Pavement’s songs so rich and deep in their allusive nature. To really get into Malkmus’ head, you often felt like Pavement records shouldn’t have just come with lyric sheets, but with annotations and a concordance. No matter how much an indie smart-aleck thought he knew, Malkmus gave you the idea he knew more. To cite one of the best examples, “Give It a Day”, off the obscure Wowee-era Pacific Trim EP, made the Salem witch trials its source of inspiration, taking the moldy oldies out of the textbook and cramming ’em into a rowdy ditty.