Pavement were slacker princes of 1990s indie-rock. Their brand of buzz-saw guitars and impenetrable lyrics brought a much-needed new spin on rock n’ roll conventions.
For all their cool detachment, Pavement’s discography is highly consistent. The albums that they made during their original run remain highly influential.
Today I will explore Pavement’s albums, try to discern the meaning of Stephen Malkmus’ cryptic lyrics, and get their albums ranked from worst to best.
Pavement Albums Ranked
5. “Wowee, Zowee” (1995)
Pavement begrudgingly approach “Wowee, Zowee” as (near) seasoned vets expected to take their music-making seriously. They do…sometimes.
This is, nevertheless, a good record. But “Wowee, Zowee” is where the band understands that they must expand their sound to justify putting out new records.
I’ll assure you that you shouldn’t fret. There’s still an air of mischievousness throughout. Pavement’s members are still laughing at their own jokes.
But the songwriting is tighter. “Rattled by the Rush” is an excellently catchy alt-rock track. Pretty melodies can also be found on “AT&T.”
The playing is also, overall, better. The band incorporates blues, folk, jazz, and country.
Pavement’s lineup which included Malkmus, Steve West, Bob Nastanovich, Mark Ibold, and Scott Kannberg, has also developed into a highly competent rock unit by the time of this album’s release.
And Malkmus has come to terms with his vocal style. Rather than bury it in the mix, the production treats the tonal idiosyncrasies of the lead singer as one of the music’s most essential elements.
“Wowee, Zowee” is a strong album and a document of Pavement nearly growing up.
4. “Terror Twilight” (1999)
Pavement is such a definitive band of the 1990s that it’s strange to consider that their original run nearly saw them enter into a new decade and century.
“Terror Twilight” bookends a band discography that includes no failures. However, it’s not quite the work of the excitable musicians that made “Slanted and Enchanted.”
For one thing, they’d been doing this for longer than they imagined, nearly seven years. For another, they were a genuinely successful rock band operating in a changing world. New York garage rock and nu-metal would soon draw most attention toward them.
With this in mind, “Terror Twilight,” recorded mostly in Portland, Oregon, is a nice send-off. Producer Nigel Godrich captures Pavement’s best qualities. They’re pranksters in interviews, artsy hipsters, tuneful songsmiths, and really good musicians too.
Malkmus provides most of the songs, with fewer contributions from guitarist Scott Kannenberg (aka Spiral Stairs). This helps make the record appear more as a personal agenda.
Highlights include “Spit on a Stranger,” “Carrott Rope,” and “The Hexx.”
Mostly, the tunes are direct and melodic, accompanied by occasional psychedelic trips into the unknown. There’s even a hint that Malkmus is trying to get the best out of unusual singing for this.
If it’s missing anything, it’s the fact that Pavement sound less energized for “Terror Twilight.” Stephen Malkmus would go on to make great solo records (or along with The Jicks).
But Pavement was a band and functioned best when its collective highbrow weirdness was in sync. They recorded a host of great albums, ranking them as one of the most important groups of the 1990s.
3. “Brighten the Corners” (1997)
“Brighten the Corners” is Pavement’s most single-friendly album. While it’s more concise, the band comes to this direction on its own terms.
Although Pavement hand’t even been around for a long time, it had cut a good deal of material. The truth is that they liked making albums (and didn’t hate selling merch). Some were simply more hushed affairs than others.
The opener best exemplifies the style that the band’s going for. “Stereo,” I think, rings out as loudly as a contemporary grunge single. It comes complete with Malkmus’ humorous, doubtful view of the music business.
Elsewhere, “Date With Ikea” and “Shady Lane” sound nearly as sweet 60s jangle-pop tracks. Meanwhile, “Blue Hawaiian” and “Transport is Arranged” show that the band’s passion for obscure poetry and moody arrangements remain as strong.
“Brighten the Corners” is Pavement’s acceptance of their qualities. They’re not exactly milking them, but they’re now comfortably working within their confines.
2. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” (1994)
Pavement’s members were, without a doubt, hipsters. They were the royalty of indie-rock artsiness. But they also knew they had a good thing going.
“Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” expands on the qualities of “Slanted and Enchanted.” It’s nearly as good in terms of songwriting. But the band doesn’t deny that they’re not attempting to change their style. Why would they?
If anything, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is direct and more easily digestible. There are fewer stabs of pure Jazzmaster guitar noise. Songs are more concise. There is less of an attempt to make the band appear mysterious.
“Cut Your Hair,” “Elevate Me Later,” or “Gold Soundz” are excellent, radio-friendly singles. Lyrics might be non-sensical, but they flow smoothly. Sure, the avant-retro sound of the first album is still present.
“Range Life” is a rare view into the band’s life as underground rock stars. Here they talk about the strains of life on the road and comically reference fellow alt-rock groups Stone Temple Pilots and The Smashing Pumpkins. It doesn’t, however, make for great controversy.
Pavement’s musicians are still a charming bunch. There’s a sense of disregard for taking making music too seriously. Still, the band, Malkmus primarily, can’t hide their gift for tunefulness.
“Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is an excellent album, the party before life party before being forced to take on life’s responsibilities.
1. “Slanted and Enchanted” (1992)
Pavement’s guitarist and vocalist Stephen Malkmus once compared “Slanted and Enchanted” to having the very first taste of a Coke. You’ll never be as amazed by the formula as you did on your first try. In many ways, this is true.
“Slanted and Enchanted” presents a refreshing way of making rock music. It wears few of its influences on its. It sounds distinctive.
This is not to say that “Slanted and Enchanted” did not immediately find an audience. College radio kids latched on to this Pavement record as their own. They were the ones who propelled Pavement as kings of an intelligent, elitist new wave of indie rock bands.
“Slanted and Enchanted” is a noisy affair—walls of guitar feedback fight against Malkmus’ vocals. Yet, while the songs are quirky, they are highly melodic and well-structured.
The album opener, “Summer Babe,” is one of Pavement’s greatest songs. Jagged guitar lines cut through an otherwise orthodox pop-rock song.
Malkmus, along with Pavement’s Bob Nostanovich and Silver Jews’ David Berman, had been art-obsessed friends spending their youth in New Jersey. Their taste for provocative, artsy means of expression comes through in songs like “Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite or “Zurich is Stained.”
Meanwhile, some tracks appear as mere sketches. This only adds to their effect. “No Life Signed Her” or “Two States” barely clock at over 2 minutes.
“Slanted and Enchanted” is a remarkable record, Pavement’s best album. It made an immediate impression on many who first heard it. The band achieved near-instant underground acclaim. The album’s sound has been copied countless times.
Still, with all the history behind it, “Slanted and Enchanted” remains as charming as a summer day spent at the carnival.