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.

5. “Box Elder” (1989)

On “Box Elder”, from the band’s debut EP Slay Tracks (1933-1969), Pavement showed that it was destined to be going places, just not along the path of least resistance. If the easy melody of “Box Elder” wasn’t evidence enough, Malkmus was all but telling you in the lyrics that he knew how to make those good things come his way; it was just that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go that route. Even as it hinted at Malkmus’ natural gifts as a songwriter, “Box Elder”, in its sentimental but skeptical outlook, announced just how non-committal and standoffish Pavement was at the very core of its being, grabbing hold of your attention only to become ambivalent about whether it actually cared about that or not.

4. “Cut Your Hair” (1994)

As goofy and fun as it appears to be, you might not notice how deep “Cut Your Hair”, er, cuts: It’s at once Pavement’s most enduring and endearing hit as well as its most scathing commentary on the superficiality of the post-Nevermind music biz, coming at a cultural moment when Malkmus and company could’ve written their own check on any major label. Piling on one absurdly catchy element on top of another, from the earworming ooo-ooo-ooo’s to the mock fist-pumping chorus to the riffy guitars, “Cut Your Hair” was proof positive that Pavement knew what the game was all about and how to win it, if only the band had decided to play along.

3. “Frontwards” (1992)

You could say “Frontwards” was Malkmus at his most coy and tongue-in-cheek, except that what he was singing about was completely true. Pavement’s anti-style style has often been imitated, but never duplicated. Dubbed the Grace Kelly of indie rock by Courtney Love, Malkmus, at the height of his powers, exuded a nonchalance about his skills and talents, giving you the idea that he knew he was working with what’s, more often than not, a disposable art form, while somehow being able to elevate it into something more. With more pithy chestnuts than he knew what to do with, Malkmus, early on, had the ability to come off cool and throw down brilliant lines without ever seeming to try, especially when you compare him to all those who didn’t have so much style to waste.

2. “Summer Babe” (1992)

Who said Pavement didn’t have heart? “Summer Babe” is Pavement’s idea of a love song: On it, Malkmus seems at once suspicious of what that convention represents, but is still green enough as an artist not to be totally jaded about it either. If anything, all the layers to the song imply a sense of emotion and desire so strong that Malkmus can’t help but wrap it up in surreal imagery and allusions that are probably going over your head. “Summer Babe” is hopelessly romantic in an indirect way — not even the “Ice, baby” in-joking at the beginning nor the painterly descriptions of shiny robes and plastic-tipped cigars can totally draw you away from Malkmus’ true feelings. You ultimately find them in the lyrics, when Malkmus, after all the waiting, waiting, waiting, gives in to his feelings in spite of himself as he calls out “You’re my summer babe,” though you kinda sensed what was going on all along in guitar lines that express yearning in a way that’s satisfyingly unfulfilled.

1. “Here” (1992)

In typically inscrutable fashion, Malkmus might as well have told the story of Pavement before it happened on “Here”, like he was almost willing a self-fulfilling prophecy — except that it’s hard to argue that success never came for a band as revered and influential as this one. Depending on what you think of Pavement’s legacy and your definition of making it big, “Here” is either self-consciously prescient or self-effacingly wrong. Standing out above and beyond any other song by the group for its melancholy undertone, “Here” finds Pavement at its most poignant and vulnerable, but without losing any of its edge or humor. When Malkmus exhorts, “Come join us in a prayer / We’ll be waiting, waiting there / Everything’s ending here,” he’s reaching out in the only way Pavement knows how to, through a rallying cry that’s delivered in a world-weary whisper. It’s a touching moment that makes you realize after the fact that a palpable sentimentality was always the flipside of smirky irony for Pavement.

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This article was originally published on 9 August 2011.