Pavement Singles Ranked, 1-10

Wrapping up this brief Pavement list. These are all excellent songs but if you’re not previously familiar with the band and enjoy these tracks, take some time to listen to their five full albums (and assorted EPs). It’s worth it.

10. Spit on a Stranger

First single from Terror Twilight (1999), released as a single in 1999

After a fashion, this is a break-up song (or certainly an end of a relationship song) where a formally close couple are now estranged (see lyrics). “Spit on a Stranger” was the first single from their final album and it a somewhat more mellow and straight-forward track compared to their other work. It’s also surprisingly moving – something about the low-key delivery mixed with the sadness of the lyrics makes this song more effecting than in might be if it were sung in a more emotional way.

What I Like: I especially dig the rhythmic changes in the lead in to the chorus and then the chorus. Very effective.

9. Rattled by the Rush

Second single from Wowee Zowee (1995), released as a single in 1995

I love Steve West’s drumming especially on “Rattled by the Rush.” In fact, I like the whole syncopated rhythm of the piece. Apparently, the Wowee Zowee album was a response to the commercial success of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain both in the sense that the record company rushed them to finish and in the sense that the band wanted to move away from that sound. “Rattled by the Rush,” as a song, can be specifically interpreted as a reaction to the “rush” of fame and acceptance they received after the success of the previous album. In several entries, I’ve discussed how sudden fame and success can throw artists for a loop (Bowie’s entire post-Let’s Dance 80’s career or Dexy’s Midnight Runners after “Come on Eileen”, for example) and Pavement clearly is another band who experienced this. They were accused of being “afraid to succeed.” If they were, who could blame them? Success can be the kiss of death to a band.

What I Like: In addition to the rhythm work, I really like Scott Kannberg’s (aka Spiral Stairs) guitar work here.

8. Major Leagues

Video and EP Released from Terror Twilight (1999), released in EP and video form in 1999

“Major Leagues” is another very pretty late-period Pavement ballad (like “Spit on a Stranger” and from the same album). It seems like the video for this song was the last “song” released by the band so the tune both has the suggestion of a romantic relationship that can’t quite reach the titular major leagues but can also be read as a response to the band’s feelings about the “major” (label) leagues. I especially like Malkmus’ lyrics on this song and I always appreciate atypical tunes from bands with distinct styles.

What I Like: The chorus is lovely – hopeful lyrics, quietly despairing delivery.

7. Shady Lane

Second single from Brighten the Corners (1997), released as a single in 1997

Pavement had two top 40 hits in the UK – this was the first, peaking at 40. No kidding, the lyrics are fabulous, particularly “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.” The song seems to be about a couple of different social statues going on an unsuccessful blind date. The lower class man is the main speaker (he describes himself as both white trash and a red neck) and he mocks his date for being shallow – thought in the end, he also wants the comfort and security of a home on a “shady lane.” I like how the song vocals start immediately and the rest of the band joins in – that’s a bit of a challenge to do (Oil in the Alley does something like this on one song and my challenge for a long time was finding the right note) and is a great hook. Anyhow, this song took a little while to grow on me but I like it more now every time I hear it.

What I Love: That fake out fade out after the first verse and chorus.

6. Trigger Cut

Second single from Slanted and Enchanted (1992), released as a single in 1992

I kind of identify a number of these singles as being played in a “classic Pavement style.” These would include essentially every song in the top 7. “Trigger Cut” is, thus, chronologically the earliest song in this particular style. What I hear is a specific kind of blasé sing0song (almost sprachensung) delivery from Stephen Malkmus, strong musical chops from the band, great backing vocals and a kind of tension between artsy noodling and pop sensibility. I should really sit down and study music terminology someday so I can describe things better. “Trigger Cut” sounds like the band cut it live in the studio with a minimum over overdubs or takes – it’s really one of the great indie rock songs of the 90’s. In a different era, with a different producer, this could have been the kind power pop song that Cheap Trick would have been proud to play at Budokan. In 1992, it was a great stripped down response to the excesses of the hair-metal era (right before Nirvana broke).

What I Love: It’s hard to beat that opening verse both for lyric content and for melodic hook but I also love the backing vocals on the chorus.

5. Range Life

Fourth single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), released as a single in 1995

How serious is the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan’s animosity towards Stephen Malkmus (initially at least) because of the lyrics of this song? Serious enough that this past April Fools Day, Brooklyn Vegan’s prank was an article about how the two bands were going to tour together soon. Or maybe his animosity has been blown out of proportion. Or maybe not since he was still criticizing Pavement during their reunion tour. Who can say?

Pavement were locked into a weird state where they both wanted to be successful so they could live off of their music but also where they felt trapped by the need to write catchy pop songs. “Range Life” is a song somewhat about this tension – youthful rebellion vs an adult desire to settle down. The verses are sung in Malkmus’ signature style but the choruses are sung in a more traditional manner. The third (controversial) verse name checks/calls out the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (who, in the lyrics, are foxy elegant bachelors, so I mean I’d take that insult even if it was intended ironically) but it also slyly calls out Pavement for wanting that type of secure touring lifestyle too.

What I Love: Underneath everything, this is a great country song.

4. Gold Soundz

Third single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), released as a single in 1994

Three of my top five favorite Pavement singles are from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Keeping in mind that I listened to the Pavement albums for the first time in alphabetical order because I downloaded them all at the same time, this would have been the second album’s worth of songs I listened to (I had a hard time getting past “Stereo” on Brighten the Corners because I liked it so much but I eventually listened to the rest of the albums). I have the sense that listening to the songs on this album before the songs on three of the other albums gave them an unfair advantage (and, indeed, two of my top seven are from Brighten the Corners so those singles got a bit of an advantage too).

“Gold Soundz” introduces a nostalgic image (the titular “gold sounds” ad slogan that one used to hear on AM radio all the time) right at the beginning and then sort of follows that radio metaphor to look back at a painful failed relationship. The music is crazy upbeat but the lyrics speak of emptiness and choosing to lose touch with somebody. Sometimes throwing yourself into work (in this case, touring and playing music) is one way to get over a heartbreak – or at least a way to put off dealing with the pain for a bit.

What I Love: I love that the lyrics literally tell us the chorus is about to begin in the first verse

3. Carrot Rope

Second single from Terror Twilight (1999), released as a single in 1999

The lyrics for “Carrot Rope” defy easy interpretation but the delivery and the pop hooks still managed to make this song their biggest commercial success in the UK. There’s this great “bwow…. bwowbwowbwow” keyboard line (That is a keyboard, right?) by Bob Nastanovich that anchors the song and for much of the song, Malkmus and Spiral Stairs sing counter melodies (with additional vocals by bassist Mark Ibold). This was their final song on their final album but they didn’t include it on the “greatest hits” package for whatever reason. A shame because its a crazy catchy pop song – even with a second verse that suggests something awful.

What I Love: Simply put, it’s a perfectly constructed pop song.

2. Cut Your Hair

First single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), released as a single in 1994

In 2005 (I think), my improv group Loose Screws was invited to perform our improvised Kabuki play Screwbuki at the Chicago Improv Festival. We received an award for Innovation in Improvisation at that time presented by David Shepherd of the Compass. That rocked. That’s not really the point, though.

The way that Screwbuki worked back then is that I’d get a suggestion for a location in old Edo town from the audience and then I’d narrate in a description of that location and some of the people in that location as the actors took the stage. I’d always end this by singing a snippet of a popular song (which is somewhat in line with how popular music occasionally functioned in traditional kabuki). For this performance in Chicago – our first out-of-state – the opening suggestion was “barber” and so it came to pass that I sang a the title line from “Cut Your Hair” to a different melody in Kabuki style at The Playground Theatre in Chicago in 2005. I remember almost nothing about anything else I’ve ever improvised but that has stayed with me for 13 years now, so thank you Pavement.

Pavement released a number of singles that were about being in the music scene. This is the second best single on that theme.

What I Love: The “oo oo oo oo oo oo” hook is amazing, but the whole song is (again) about as perfectly constructed a pop song you can imagine from start to finish. I especially love “no… BIG HAIR.”

1. Stereo

First single from Brighten the Corners (1997), released as a single in 1997

What is even going on in this song? They managed to build a remarkable, catchy rock song out of noodling and cryptic nonsense. This is such a well constructed pop song that Pavement doesn’t even bother to play the catchy song at the heart of it – there’s a burst of noise here, some guitar feedback there, Malkmus’ detached singing style seems completely unconnected from the song and then… then the chorus bursts in and its like this is the greatest rock song ever written by anyone ever. I was so taken with the song from the very first time I heard it that it took me weeks to realized that its deliberately a complete mess of sound. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of irony (chutzpah?) to releasing a single that defies airplay that simultaneously boasts about being “on the stereo… stereo…” but darn me if the song doesn’t work. Its remarkable. Also, it asks and answers the pressing question about Geddy Lee of Rush’s voice that we’ve all been asking ourselves for decades. Thank you Pavement.

What I love: Just absolutely everything. Every note, every ping, every crunch.

Coming Soon: INXS. That’s what. You need.

Pavement Singles Ranked – 11-171-10

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