Pavement’s Top 50 Songs – Part 1, 50-26

Pavement Month Staff Lists

What would our month-long celebration of Pavement be without a group list? Easily a favorite band for the vast majority of our staff, Pavement have long been a regular topic of conversation among the Strange Currencies contributors. Therefore, it’s only fitting that we would attempt to quantify our (sometimes) decades-long debates with a ranked list. The question was straightforward: what are Pavement’s fifty greatest songs?

Our methodology was simple, and the same that we used for last year’s ranking of The Beatles’ greatest tracks: each contributor had 50 picks; the top pick received 50 points, the 50th received 1. All tracks from Pavement’s five LPs, many EPs, singles, compilation contributions, and expanded album reissues were eligible. Of the roughly 140 qualifying songs, eighty-one received at least one vote. As the site’s editor-in-chief, I held the role of tiebreaker, though the final placements varied greatly from how I ranked Pavement’s seven entries in the A Century of Song project.

The rankings revealed some interesting details about our group: only twelve of the fifty songs ended up on all seven contributors’ ballots; one entry on the final list only made it onto a single ballot; Tim Ryan Nelson’s reputation as a troll continues (really, Tim, no “Summer Babe” or “Here”?); and finally, we all REALLY love Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Here are our picks:

50. “Strings of Nashville”

single B-side (1994)

38 points

This Crooked Rain era B-side holds its own, thanks to its meandering guitar part and lyrics affirming the importance of standing out, and not becoming a “caricature no one reads.” If not for the A-side that it supported, “Strings of Nashville” could have been better known; yet it plays the role of deep cut slacker lullaby pretty well. — RG

49. “Easily Fooled”

from Rattled by la Rush [EP] (1995)

39 points

This charmingly off-kilter tune from the “Rattled by the Rush” CD single sent me down the rabbit hole of acquiring Pavement singles whenever I found them lingering in the racks. That task can be accomplished in one fell swoop now with the reissued LPs. I presume that in 2022, these tracks exist on every corner streaming service but, in 1995, they were a little harder to come by.

The tune itself is a loose little number. I was first inclined to describe it as Ween trying to reinterpret early-70s Rolling Stones. But upon further reflection, I think it’s more like the Stones tried to conjure Ween – an attempt to put a veneer of swagger over something kind of nerdy, then mostly giving up and just trying to have some fun with it. This song is also the reason I know the word “interlocutor,” a word I didn’t know prior to 1995. Hey, I warned you it was a little nerdy. — JL

48. “Half a Canyon”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

46 points

This song always felt like the “real” end of Wowee Zowee to me. This is not to impugn the good name of “Western Homes,” which is also a fine song. It’s just that after the six-minute apocalyptic workout of “Half a Canyon” it registers as a postscript, more like a footnote. If “Half a Canyon” is World War III, “Western Homes” is the sound of an AI-powered suborbital drone surveying the damage 500 years later, still trying to report back to its command base. It sounds disconnected, almost lonely.

All of which seems to argue in favor of “Western Homes” as the true album closer after all. Whatever. It feels arrogant for me to suggest that I could have been handed the raw materials of Wowee Zowee and somehow turned out something better. So I will simply suggest that there is an alternate universe in which “Half a Canyon” is the fitting conclusion to Wowee Zowee. It contains 99% more Armageddon than most songs with “Armageddon” actually in the title (including Def Leppard). — JL

47. “Motion Suggests (Itself)”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

47 points

Wowee Zowee is my favorite Pavement album because it’s peppered with chill, yet cinematic little songs like this. Unlike some of the other tracks on the album that I’d put in that category, “Motion Suggests” (AKA “Motion Suggests Itself”) never shifts gears or does anything unpredictable. It’s very straightforward. It just coasts along in a warm little cocoon, like a burrito on a skateboard rolling down a gentle grade. Normally, I’d be bored by this sort of thing. Maybe it’s the sustained, warbly organ notes. Or the scrapey-scrape of the güiro. Whatever the reason, this is a top five Pavement song for me. — TRN

46. “Ann Don’t Cry”

from Terror Twilight (1999)

54 points

This is the sound of finally admitting that this relationship isn’t working out for anyone; but you still love the subject of the song, and so you try and comfort them, while you know that you are breaking their heart by severing the relationship. That is some really complicated stuff. People speculate endlessly whether the subject of the song was the band or a lover. It doesn’t matter. The emotions are the same. That Stephen Malkmus could sum them up so succinctly – and yeah, sweetly – speaks volumes for his gift. — MM

45. “Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse)”

from Watery, Domestic [EP] (1992)

55 points

Though we didn’t get around to reviewing it for Pavement Month (c’mon, we all have “real” jobs too), the 1992 Watery, Domestic EP is considered by many fans to be as essential a piece in the band’s catalog as any of their full-lengths. At only four songs, Watery, Domestic makes each of its eleven-and-a-half minutes count, and rounding out the impeccable track-list is this sharp, brisk, three minutes of brilliant “slacker” charm. — MR

44. “Grave Architecture”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

58 points

Immediately recognizable for its dynamic shifts between reverb-flooded verses and the jam that teeters on the edge of disaster in the outro, “Grave Architecture” really stands out for its introspective lyrics, which evoke imagery of national monuments like the Vietnam Memorial. Wowee Zowee can be a daunting album to really get into, but songs like “Grave Architecture” show just how fine-tuned the Pavement formula was at this point in their discography. — RG

43. “Blue Hawaiian”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

59 points

When did you first feel like a ‘grown-up’? For some people it’s an age or rite of passage; for others time is marked by moments or places. For me it was listening to Brighten the Corners while repainting the den in my first house. Built during peak Elvis, the space retained a good amount of its original teak glory. Standing in that room, looking at the brass bar cabinet door handles burnished by years of Mai Tais mixed for backyard pool consumption, it dawned on me that, like the room, my cheeks too had lost their luster. Every passage has its moment, and this was mine to feel the weight of my own history against the momentum of a future important place. Aloha means ‘goodbye,’ but also ‘hello’ – it’s in how you inflect. — GB

42. “Type Slowly”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

62 points

Lest you denigrate this as “the slow song” on Brighten the Corners, consider it has all the beautifully quirky signatures of a Pavement classic. In the first verse, Malkmus sings “For you morning comes so easy,” with his voice cracking and lilting like a pubescent incapable of holding a tune. Then you get to the second verse and he somehow precisely duplicates the exact same vocal lilt over the acerbically witty line, “one of us is a blue incandescent guillotine.” Wait. So that was intentional? How does he do that!? Even his guitar work sounds accidental, but it’s unexpectedly unfamiliar and at the same time melodic and hooky. And one more thing: never before has a video game laser blast sound been so effectively employed on a “slow song.” Brilliant. — GK

41. “We Are Underused”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

64 points

For a band that is largely remembered for giving words to the frustrated and held-back youth, a song like “We Are Underused” feels like a far cry from the very sentiment the group’s best songs are known for. Opposed to the “Hope I die before I get old” mentality that they and bands before them had employed, Malkmus’ assertion “Simply put, I want to grow old / Dying does not meet my expectations” directly puts the power to make a meaningful life into the hands of both singer and listener. — RG

40. “Black Out”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

82 points

My dad likes to tell a story of seeing John and Yoko at a movie theatre in Manhattan in the 70s. Truth is, he probably only saw them from across the lobby, never really occupying the same breathing space. I have a similar story about standing in line behind Stephen Malkmus and Liz Phair at a mid-morning showing of The Social Network a few years back at a festival in Vegas. No one really believes me, and that’s fine. It’s one of those stories that I’ve kept mostly to myself because it’s too fantastic to believe; something reserved for my own “hall of fame.” These Sunday recollections make me realize that Malkmus, and Pavement by extension, have a sneaky way of taking you on introspective journeys. “Black Out”’s minor key progressions and self-deprecation reinforce the eternal truth that the external satisfaction doesn’t last, and inner peace is more elusive that expected. The depth is impressive; even more impressive is Malkmus’ ability to get us there in under 2:30 minutes. Way better than any movie. — GB

39. “Newark Wilder”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

88 points

The gorgeously fractured tremolo guitar alone would probably have landed “Newark Wilder” on this list, but Stephen Malkmus’ fragile vocal performance – one for which he expressed a desire to give a second take in the liner notes to the expanded edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – helps to put the song at the emotional core of Pavement’s breakthrough album. Malkmus was often noted as an “elliptical” lyricist, but despite the abstraction of its individual lines, the cumulative effect of “Newark Wilder” is nothing short of piercing. — MR

38. “Kennel District”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

88 points

Okay, so it was originally recorded and intended for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but it didn’t make the cut. Don’t hold that against it. That’s just because that album is full of gold. Not a fair standard. This straight-forward power pop track written by Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg eventually made its way onto Wowee Zowee, with Kannberg singing the lead vocals. The album version is a bit cleaner than the rougher original recording from the Crooked Rain sessions, and does away with an oddball bridge, opting instead to just let Kannberg’s hooky chorus worm its way into our hearts a bit more. It’s one of the more accessible songs on an album that is otherwise more off-kilter and experimental.

Typically I find something quirky in a Pavement song that grabs my attention and I latch onto it as a memorable highlight; most of the time that quirky thing is a video game laser blast sound effect. This time it’s a bit simpler. SONG HIGHLIGHT: Love that fuzzy bass. — GK

37. “Fight This Generation”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

90 points

I picked “Fight This Generation” as my personal No. 1. Here’s a song that does shift gears (see “Motion Suggests,” above). It starts out as one of those chill tunes, but it slowly dies about halfway through and then gets a little spooky as it comes back to life. There was a cello being played back there in the chill part, and now there are slide whistles. A slow simmer of what feels like anger is interrupted by a funky bass line that sounds like it was recorded with a microphone that someone accidentally tossed a wet towel on. In fact, the whole song sounds like it was recorded live in a room with a mic or two missing or unplugged. There’s a spontaneous energy here that can’t possibly be spontaneous. The song is carefully constructed, or at least it seems to be. But somehow it feels like it’s being made up in real time and recorded by coincidence. That’s some kind of magic that I can’t even begin to understand or explain. — TRN

36. “Date With Ikea”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

92 points

My colleague and podcast co-host, Tim Ryan Nelson, has often expressed his lack of enthusiasm for Spiral Stairs’ songwriting contributions to Pavement, particularly reserving some of his harshest criticism for this Brighten the Corners track. You can’t please ’em all, Spiral, but some of us rightfully recognize this glorious slice of Byrds-ian twelve-string pop as not only your finest contribution to the canon, but yet another gem from Pavement’s most conventionally-appealing album. — MR

35. “Give It a Day”

from Pacific Trim [EP] (1996)

98 points

Honestly, there are too many Pavement songs. Let’s be real. Between the albums, the EPs, the B-sides and the special edition re-releases of the albums, there are more Pavement songs out there than I can keep straight in my head. It’s a personal problem, I suppose. However, in listening to a good chunk of the band’s non-album tracks over the years, several have managed to drill their way into my thick skull as standouts. “Give It A Day” is one of those. It’s super wordy, doesn’t really have a chorus, and the only lyrics I can ever remember are the song title, the part about smallpox, and something about a girl’s dad calling her a slut. But it’s super catchy and hummable, if nothing else. It’s one of my favorite deep-ish cuts because it’s just kind of bright and cheery fun to listen to. What else do you need? — TRN

34. “Zurich Is Stained”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

98 points

Reading too much into any one set of lyrics is perilous. More so when you add Redditt or fan theory sites. If you do a quick Google search for “Zurich is Stained,” for example, you’ll find the standard break-up or relationship turmoil theories, but you’ll also get crash educations on the Swiss roles in WWII, Nazi pacification, and international banking. My own history with the song tends towards the former, as it feels emblematic of a personal strain.

I secretly hold “Zurich” as my personal favorite Pavement song. That may be an odd thing to say for a track that is under two minutes long, but those two minutes seem to quickly turn into ten every time I stop to ponder its simple complexity. Whatever the words mean to Malkmus, I know I’ve questioned the meaning of a mistake or two, and had moments when I just don’t have the strength. “Zurich” likely wouldn’t work in a longer format, but it excels for what it is. As we run down this list, I’m happy to find these “album filler” tracks getting their proper due. — GB

Here it is: the first showing of real vulnerability on a Pavement LP. Sure, it’s cloaked in the vague hipsterism of its title, but this is where the dam begins to break. Following “Zurich” – and a brief palate cleanser in “Chesley’s Little Wrists” – we get “Loretta’s Scars” and “Here,” before Spiral finally interjects with the cocksure “Two States.” It’s too late though. The “enchanted” of Slanted and Enchanted has worn off. “Zurich” is part of a through line that eventually leads to “Stop Breathin’,” “Father to a Sister of Thought,” and “Spit on a Stranger.” “It was the first crack in the band’s facade of disaffected cool, and it proved to be a glorious thing. After all, it was Pavement who first showed a great many of us that such fractures could, in fact, be beautiful. — MR

33. “No More Kings”

from Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks (1996)

100 points

A song for a television compilation reboot sounds like a recipe for cash grab disaster, but Pavement nails this School House Rock! track in all the right ways. A smorgasbord of guitar soundscapes that employs more laser blasts (see “Type Slowly”) in a jaunty composition that brings all the wry wit you’ve come to love and expect from Pavement. — GK

32. “Old to Begin”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

102 points

STP and Smashing Pumpkins references aside: Stephen Malkmus occasionally writes songs that strike me as oblique, veiled swipes at other artists, but without actually naming names. When I stumble across those tunes, I like to conjure up hypothetical scenarios in my mind as to who these other artists are, and what they did to earn a few minutes of typically mild, shrugging derision from SM. Should any of these mental scenarios ever become too plausible, I usually try to concoct ridiculous side plots, in an attempt to keep the truth to the absolute minimum. Nearly all of these song origin stories are ridiculous, totally fake, and as a result remain incarcerated in my own mind. As they should. Strange Currencies Music has no need for my conspiracy theories about Gary Young flushing David Berman’s socks down the toilet at a highway rest stop.

But it doesn’t seem preposterous to believe that on “Old to Begin,” Stephen’s critical aim could be directed at the more relevant topic of Pavement itself. The line about “You get to feeling like a fixture / Set in 1966” could be telling. Both Malkmus and Scott Kannberg were born in 1966, and presumably hit the wise old age of 30 during the production of Brighten the Corners, which was their most polished, MOR effort up to that point. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to me that the references to the “senile genius” and the need to “reinvent the wheel” could be criticism leveled inward, and other lyrics would seem to reference strained relationships, the kind known to break up bands. Regardless of my guess on the denotative meaning of Pavement song lyrics (a losing game if ever there was one), “Old to Begin” is a great song. Not a dirge, but also not “Best Friends Arm.” Just a good tune that may or may not be about maturing, and trying to look backwards and forwards at the same time. — JL

31. “Fillmore Jive”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

102 points

The first wave of rock and rollers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Bill Haley – gave us songs celebrating the birth of this new musical form. Forty years later, amps had gotten as loud as they could get, hair had been as big as modern advances in hairspray and the laws of physics would allow, glam had come and gone, and synthesizers had lost their sheen. “Fillmore Jive” is the anti-rock anthem. It’s the ringing left in your ears at the end of a show that went on a little too long, and after an hour-long ride with the other people who get on the last bus of the night out of the city. It’s disjointed and exhausted (“I need to sleep / why won’t you let me?”) and makes a glorious end to what could be Pavement’s best album. — MM

30. “Box Elder”

from Slay Tracks: 1933-1969 [EP] (1989)

103 points

In Lance Bangs’ 2002 Pavement documentary, Slow Century, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore describes an early Pavement release – presumably their self-released 1989 debut EP, Slay Tracks – being described to him by a record store clerk as “unlistenable.” While Slay Tracks does host a handful of songs that skew heavily toward the dissonant, experimental side of the band’s spectrum, there’s nothing even remotely jarring about the breezy pop perfection of “Box Elder”: the first unambiguously great Pavement track. — MR

29. “Fin”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

107 points

As the title suggests, “Fin” feels like the perfect last song for any rock album. It’s slow, but has that burst of emotion to push the record just over that final edge into the dead wax. The narrator sounds tired, emotionally exhausted, and at their wits end, only to express their last bit of energy into, as Malkmus himself described, “Neil Young-y, last-song-on-the-album-guitar-solos.” — RG

28. “Texas Never Whispers”

from Watery, Domestic [EP] (1992)

123 points

I’ve always considered this tune to be one of a piece with “Frontwards.” I think if you grafted the DNA from “Texas Never Whispers” and “Frontwards” in a song lab, you’d probably get “Summer Babe.” But the last time I took a biology class, Gary Young was still in Pavement, so what the hell do I know. Maybe it’s enough just to say that “Texas” is the yin to the nostalgic yang that “Frontwards” brings to the table, although I know even less about Chinese philosophy than biology.

It’s a weird adjective to use here, but a word that often comes to mind for this song is “satisfying.” There’s a recent onslaught of “satisfying” YouTube videos, usually involving a seamlessly looped and sped-up version of a factory processing raw materials into packaged saleable goods. It probably speaks more to our collective first-world disenchantment that there’s such an audience for these videos and animated GIFs – all of which seem to exist only because they are “satisfying” – and in general, I don’t get much satisfaction from those kind of videos. But for me, there’s something immensely satisfying about hearing those “Texas” chords pile on top of each other into a song that sounds structurally rickety, but in a verse or two reveals itself to be sturdy as Flemish Bond brickwork. Clearly it does something to the pleasure center of my brain, because I don’t think I’ve ever played this song without hitting “repeat” at least one. — JL

27. “Perfume-V”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

128 points

Pavement’s catalog is littered with the band’s exploration of different sounds. Call this one their Joy Division song. I think there’s a murder in it. If there’s sex, it isn’t the fun or loving kind. It’s dark and radioactive. The song pulses and jerks more than it moves. “She shivered like a vein slashed bright and new”: Ian Curtis would be proud. — MM

26. “Carrot Rope”

from Terror Twilight (1999)

135 points

“Carrot Rope” starts out like it’s going to be the worst song you’ve ever heard in your life, especially if you happen to be watching the music video. But about a minute in, the mood shifts and it becomes a Pavement song again. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s the final Pavement song. What at first sounds like a throwaway, a lark, an excuse to dance around in raincoats in front of a wrinkly blue tarp instead of taking this final moment even a little bit seriously, evolves into a reminder of why we love this band. It’s a little goofy, a little moody, a little mysterious and as catchy as their best work. I don’t know what Malkmus has in his pocket or why he’s trying to show it to a child, but when he starts yelling about the Wicket Keeper, I am fully invested in this song. A solid closer to an okay album. Also, the music video rules. — TRN

Part II: #25-1


Authors

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

  • Glenn Krake is the associate editor of Strange Currencies Music and a co-host of the nearly flawless podcast of the same name. He counts among his proudest achievements taking his daughter to her first concert: Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds in its entirety on its 50th anniversary (as a way of making amends for his own pitiable first concert: The Osmonds at the county fair).

  • Tim Ryan Nelson is a procrastinator and agitator who sometimes appears on the “Strange Currencies Podcast” to tell Glenn why he is wrong. Tim refused to participate in ranking the Beatles’ songs for Strange Currencies Music but was eager to rank their albums, if only to ensure that Revolver didn’t win. His favorite music is anything unpopular and annoying. He also likes kittens.

  • Remy is a contributor to Strange Currencies Music with a particular interest in Psychedelic Rock, Punk Rock, Funk/Soul, Hip-Hop, and Jazz. When Remy isn't writing for Strange Currencies Music, they enjoy playing guitar, watching movies, reading books, and playing with their dog Bowie.

  • George Budney is a guest writer for Strange Currencies Music. Though he has no musical talent himself, he has the good fortune of friends that do. His interests include music, old cars, dogs, and other fringe pursuits.

  • Matt McReynolds, of Strange Currencies' Arizona contingent, has had a song stuck in his head since before he can remember. He and Matt Ryan met outside a public library because of a Pitchfork Music Festival t-shirt. His bailiwick includes 50's - 60's rock and pop and country, 70's and 80's English new wave, Northwest Indie rock, and argyle socks (one of which he's wearing right now).

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