Mining for Pavement’s top 10 tracks means contending with the band’s broad, almost contradictory styles. Does one keep an ear out for the saccharine pop hooks loitering just beneath the surface, or embrace the dissonance of tracks like “Conduit For Sale”? Do we celebrate Stephen Malkmus’ harsh riffing and apathetic inflection, or Scott Kannberg’s more subtle, earnest contributions?
The wise choice is to take everything together—it’s this diversity that has endeared Pavement to critics and fans as the 1990s’ most imaginative indie ensemble.
Slanted and Enchanted
Wedged in the center of the inimitable Slanted and Enchanted, “Zurich is Stained” plays like a one-minute and 41-second chorus, not letting up until Malkmus croons his final “ba da da” refrain. Presumably about a European trek gone sour, the lyrics still leave ample ambiguity for the listener to insert their own meaning. And throughout, the churning chords are accompanied by a terrific, trebly lead guitar haphazardly sliding its way around the higher frets.
Rare is the Pavement song that incorporates standard tuning and barre chords, but “Carrot Rope” proves the dynamic is just as capable as any other Pavement arrangement. Still, the song displays a handful of Pavement hallmarks, like near-indecipherable lyrics (the phrase “carrot rope” probably didn’t exist until Malkmus sang it into being). The tune has a melancholy quality, too, despite its cheerfulness: “Carrot Rope” is the latter-most piece Pavement would deliver, the last song on their final album.
Slanted and Enchanted
“Here” is one of the few instances of Pavement venturing into ballad territory, and it’s a shame. Not because the song falls short (it’s on this list, after all), but because it suggests what could have been more frequent. The lead guitar acts as a metronome, plucking out a simple and timely melody as Malkmus softly sings about failure. His lyrics are vague, but nonetheless dismal: “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes.”
Brighten the Corners
“Stereo” serves as an avatar for Pavement’s signature apathy. Malkmus delivers the verses’ lyrics in a bored drawl, squawking almost incoherently about ramrods and Geddy Lee. For the best version, see their 1997 performance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” A languid Malkmus can’t be bothered to take his hand off his hip, and hardly deigns to look up from his shoes.
Slanted and Enchanted
The listener is immediately treated to one of Malkmus’ more creative guitar inventions, a jarring-but-catchy riff. On its heels comes one of the strangest lyrical similes in Pavement’s catalogue (and that’s saying something): “Can you treat it like an oil well / when it’s underground, out of sight?” The song reaches its zenith when the guitar line and Malkmus’ singing coalesce to form an infectious chorus.
“Kennel District” is one of Scott Kannberg’s scant contributions to the 1995 record. From start to finish, the song comes across in contrast to the rest of the album, with the vocals secondary to fuzzy guitar and up-front drums. It also forecasts Kannberg’s eventual solo output as Preston School of Industry, an oft-neglected but wholly-worthwhile enterprise.
Here’s one that would get even the most listless, shoe-gazing concert-goer moshing. Malkmus screeches admonitions over a series of combative power chords. And the bridge? It sounds more Black Flag than ’90s indie rock.
If the opening phrase doesn’t make you grin (“Someone took… in these pants”), you’re a downer. “Shoot The Singer” is the only song on this list that’s not culled from an LP, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. The tune never lets up, and is accented with arpeggiating guitars, distorted leads and a little bit of scat singing toward the end.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
“Silence Kid” starts with sly wink—the first track on the album, the band tools around for a good 20 seconds before finding their groove and launching into Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain properly. And once the tune gains its momentum, we’re rewarded with Malkmus’ superb falsetto and a verse that’s just as memorable as the chorus.
Never mind the airy intro or melodic drop-d riffing during the verse: “Grounded” features the best guitar string bend of the ’90s. The bend, first appearing at the 1:34 mark, is strong enough to carry the entire chorus—no need for vocals.