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.

10. “Stereo” (1997)

Pavement conveyed ambiguity and ambivalence better than any of its peers, more or less defining the sensibility that the indie underground would be working from in the ’90s. Malkmus’ gift for open-ended meaning is present and accounted for on the single “Stereo”: Was the chorus an ironic jab at actually not being on the stereo or a clever attempt at wish fulfillment to Jedi mind-trick their way into airplay? Is “Stereo” a self-effacing dig at Pavement never becoming as popular as some had predicted or an almost earnest last gasp to live up to its commercial potential before the opportunity slipped away? What’s best about the beefed-up sound of “Stereo” and much of Brighten the Corners was that all of those possibilities were plausible.

9. “AT&T” (1995)

“AT&T” is one of those Pavement songs that conveyed mixed messages about what the band’s mission and raison d’être were, announced in the opening lyrics quoted above. The group that was gonna save you — and maybe rock’n’roll in the bargain — was also a band of merry pranksters who were probably more preoccupied with how to squeeze “gravy” into a rhyme than plotting a career path. These phrases could sum up Malkmus’ m.o. as the voice of a cultural movement who didn’t want to be that, asking for existential guidance, only to chase it with some nonsense that pulled the chair out from under you. And that’s just scratching the surface of this rollercoaster ride of an indie romper, which moves from some of Pavement’s catchiest bits to one of those wacky, free-form Malkmus breakdowns.

8. “Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse)” (1992)

You can’t help but read a little too much into the title of “Shoot the Singer”, especially since the ever-evasive Malkmus usually walls himself off in so many layers of linguistic play. There’s gallows humor to Malkmus’ lyrics on the track that suggests that he’s not up for the role that was preordained for him. While “Shoot the Singer” possesses Malkmus’ ineffable ability to convey mixed feelings without caring, it also gives an ever-so-slight glimpse of how vulnerable the unflappable frontman can be. You might not be inclined to take him at face value, but you believe him here when he tells you the “song is sacred” and feel his burden as his voice trails off, cautioning “don’t expect”.

7. “Trigger Cut” (1992)

“Trigger Cut” was Pavement at its postmodern best, which, of course, is saying a lot. With Malkmus’ intuitive gift for vocal riffing and rhyming front and center here, no other opening lines from the Pavement songbook probably piqued your interest and kept you scratching your head like the surreal, free-associating lyrics of “Trigger Cut”: You might never figure out what “Lies and betrayals / Fruit-covered nails / Electricity and lust” is referring to, but that doesn’t mean you won’t keep trying. And amidst all the vividly weird imagery and the song’s mysterious semi-narrative, Malkmus slips in the lesson on post-structural semiotics quoted above without you even noticing it, making it go down easy with his spoke-sung vocals. The truth of the words, indeed.

6. “Gold Soundz” (1994)

With its retro-ish sound, Pavement could make you feel nostalgic for something that never actually existed, an uncanny sensation that “Gold Soundz” captured better than anything else in the Pavement catalog. While Malkmus’ wordsmithing often took center stage — and, of course, it does here too — the band’s music had a remarkable gift for matching the lyrics in expressing just the right wry and yearning tone. “Gold Soundz” was indeed golden, recalling some heretofore undiscovered AM-rock gem that you’d thought you heard before, except there’s no way you possibly could have. That might be the most appropriate way to describe Pavement, as hitmakers in an alternate universe.