Pavement never released any bad singles, but then again they didn’t really release any bad songs. Sure, a song or two here or there might have been a little dull, but in general their output was pretty consistently excellent. That said, I only knew one of their songs (“Cut Your Hair”) when the band was active because the late 90’s were my musical dark ages. In retrospect, they would have been a band that I was all over if I’d been exposed to virtually any other song on this list (and I loved “Cut Your Hair,” I just didn’t think to look into them after that song’s chart shelf life was up). I was reading a few years ago about how the band is considered to be hugely influential and highly respected so I downloaded all of their albums and listened to them with great enthusiasm.
As I’ve written about before, encountering an artist years after their active period is a different experience than being part of the excitement and energy of following an active band currently releasing material. For example, I got on the Arcade Fire train when it first left the station and I feel actively involved in their ups and downs. Pavement has received a much more clinical listen from me and while I really dig their music, I sometimes feel about them the same way I feel about Big Star or Graham Parsons – “wow, damn, I wish I’d been there.” Of course, I was there, I was just in another room listening to old cassettes and CDs. That’s somehow worse.
If you’re just joining us, there’s a FAQ, but what you should essentially know is that I’m attempted to rank all of Pavement’s singles – loosely defined to include videos, promo singles and official singles. This means I won’t be ranking my absolute favorite Pavement song of all time because it wasn’t a single. This is very likely why your favorite Pavement song isn’t here also. My working method is first, I make a chronological list of all of the singles using Wikipedia, Discogs and a few other sites. Next, I listen to them a whole bunch and arrange them in an order based on “do I like this song more than the one before it.” Then I listen to that list a few times, move stuff around, and when I realize I have spent too much time fretting over this, I start on these entries.
This is how I feel about these songs right now, but my thoughts could change in a year, a month, a week, a day an hour.
17. Dancing with the Elders
Stand-alone single released in 1995
This was a split single – Pavement was on one side, Medusa Cyclone’s “Chemical” was the other side. “Dancing with the Elders” sounds like it’s almost certainly a demo version of “We Dance” from Wowee Zowee. I admit, I haven’t looked very hard but I can’t find anything about the history of this version of the song. Its pretty stripped down and the lyrics are either identical or close to it. I also haven’t compared them closely enough to say for sure. There’s so many better songs on Wowee Zowee that I can’t really rationalize why this one would be released in any form, much less in a seemingly unpolished form. I mean, it’s not bad, it’s even good, but it’s just not great, you know?
16. Haunt You Down
Second Singles from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), released as a single in 1994
“Haunt You Down” was the second single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It doesn’t seem to get too much love on the internet. There’s half a dozen “best Pavement songs” lists (Popmatters, The Guardian, Paste, earlier Paste, Vulture by Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg, GQ, NPR, etc.) and this song doesn’t appear on any of them (“We Dance” does). “Haunt You Down” doesn’t even rate a half-assed Wikipedia link. They only appear to have played it live 4 times. Over at Genius (link above), there’s not a single comment on the tune. Anyhow, I suppose some record company A&R person loved it enough to suggest it be the follow-up to “Cut Your Hair,” possibly because this person figured the “France/no pants” section would get the kids excited. There’s a hot guitar lick – presumably from Scott Kannberg? – in this track that I really like – not the kind of lick that’s necessarily going to help your band top the Modern Rock charts in 1994, but pretty darn good.
Video from Slanted and Enchanted (1992), video released in 1991
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth allegedly made a live video of this song. In fact, it was the earliest Pavement video. I pretty much can’t find that anywhere so I’ve shared the album version of the song instead. The peanut gallery at Genius suggests that this song is sort of about covering up the murder of a call girl. In general, I caution against literal interpretations of Pavement songs, but who knows? I love the chorus – it feels like a rubber band snapping back into place. I also love the backing vocals. 1994 was my final DJ year and had I stayed on the air longer, I can hear myself playing this song all the time (assuming nobody at KTUH had stolen our promo copy of Slanted and Enchanted, which would have been a big assumption).
14. Painted Soldiers
Video from Brain Candy: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996), video released in 1996
This is the first song on this list where Stephen Malkmus really sounds like Stephen Malkmus to me.
Oh, man, Brain Candy. I love the Kids in the Hall and I really wanted to love Brain Candy. I got myself worked up believing it was going to be their Monty Python and the Holy Grail before it came out and then it was released and it was… all right, I guess. The soundtrack is actually quite good because lots of great bands also love the Kids in the Hall. The video for this song involves Malkmus firing the other members of Pavement and replacing them with the band Veruca Salt (there’s a rumor that they wanted to replace Pavement with Weezer in the video but that sadly didn’t pan out). When the band wanted to, they could create a killer hook and the “Woohoo hoo” sequence in this song surely qualifies as that. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall where this was used in the film.
Video from Slanted and Enchanted (1992), video released in 1992
“Here” is a well-loved early Pavement ballad with some great lyrics that hint at the maturation process, the futility of religion and the meaninglessness of modern life. It was made into a video by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (I am 40% sure the video I’ve shared is his, but who knows?).
I am going to go on a brief digression about R.E.M. but I’ll bring it back around to Pavement. I imagine that in the popular imagination, the R.E.M. “sound” is best represented by “Losing My Religion.” (#15) For those of us that followed that band from the start, their early “jangle” sound – “Pretty Persuasion” (#10) for example – is the “real” R.E.M. sound. As the band matured and changed their approach, many old fans held on to those early albums as the “true” R.E.M. albums (“everything after Chronic Town sucked.”).
As somebody who came to listening to Pavement late, I ended up listening to all of their stuff at more or less the same time. Indeed, I downloaded their five albums literally on the same day and think I listed to them in alphabetical order instead of chronological order. Thus, my perception of the band is skewed and I find myself more attracted to songs that sound “Pavement-y” – you’ll see that in my top five. Their early songs (especially from their first album) sound a lot like much of what I was playing on KTUH in the early 90’s and while I genuinely like those songs (including this one), they sound more like an excellent band who is still discovering their sound.
Thus, “Here” is a great song but it is surpassed, in my mind, by their later work. I suspect, however, that if I’d been with the band from the very start, I would love this song and defend it as passionately as I defend R.E.M.s “Wolves, Lower” (#5). What I do love about this song is the pre-chorus (“come join us in a prayer”) and the overall lyric. It’s an atypical song from the band and deserves its “much-loved” status.
12. Summer Babe
First single from Slanted and Enchanted (1992), released as a single in 1991
Much of what I just wrote about “Here” also applies to “Summer Babe.” Let me start off by mentioning that I love that this track starts out with a direct reference to Vanilla Ice. Making pop culture references – especially music references – is a common trope in Pavement lyrics. The original single of “Summer Babe” is apparently different from “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” which is what you hear here and what appears on Slanted and Enchanted. I’d have to do a lot more careful listening to figure out if there’s actually version of the original single online.
I’m honestly not sure why I wasn’t playing Pavement on my radio show in 1992. Either we didn’t have a copy of the record (due to theft or due to us just not ever receiving a copy) or we did have a copy and I never bothered to check it out or (perhaps most likely) we had a copy and I dropped a needle on a couple of tracks and nothing caught my ear immediately. See, I had a Midnight-3 a.m. shift at the time and the way I exposed myself to new songs was to listen to ten second snippets of them while I was playing another song (and getting a PSA ready to go, and preparing to talk about the song that was currently playing, and and and). Oftentimes, I would drop the needle on the record, get distracted, decide I must not have liked a song or two (even though I’d barely listened to them) and then put the record back on the shelf never to pull it out again unless – as was the case with Nirvana’s Nevermind – another more discerning DJ picked up a track on their show and played it a bunch. There used to be stickers that we’d place on albums so we could make notes for other DJs about what tracks they should consider playing and I would sometimes use that as a basis for putting a new song by a new band on the air without ever listening to it myself.
This is all a long way of saying that I wish I’d known this song in 1992 because it would have fit into my KTUH song rotation perfectly. The distorted guitars, the somewhat apathetic backing vocals and Malkmus’ surprisingly impassioned vocal performance all make this one of Pavement’s best early songs.
11. Father to a Sister of Thought
First single from Wowee Zowee (1995), released as a single in 1995
“Father to a Sister of Thought” is Pavement’s alt-country song and features some fine pedal steel guitar work from Wowee Zowee engineer Doug Easley. Pitchfork calls Wowee Zowee “Pavement’s White Album” due to its eclectic, experimental nature. When I first heard it, I’d been listening to a lot of Ween so I thought of it as Pacement’s Ween album. Your mileage may vary. Every time I thought that I wanted to rank this song a little lower, the steel guitar would kick in and demand I move it up the list, so I decided to place the song close to the middle. Science!
Coming Soon: The top eight could all be my top track on any given day.
Pavement Singles Ranked – 11-17 – 1-10