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Few solo careers justify wholesale rebranding. Though it has become common for aging indie rockers to want a “clean slate” following the dissolution of their respective beloved bands, listeners can usually spot an old dog doing old tricks, and a fresh moniker alone is unlikely to persuade them to reconsider their already-established impressions. But unlike the mostly nominal differences between, say, a Robert Pollard album and a Guided By Voices album, the music Stephen Malkmus has produced as a solo artist (and with his backing band, the Jicks) is as distinct from Pavement as Paul McCartney’s is from the Beatles, or John Cale’s is from the Velvet Underground. Inevitably, his music will always be compared to that of his former band, but only a superficial listener could mistake a Stephen Malkmus album for a Pavement one.

Perhaps the most profound change in Malkmus’ post-Pavement music is the near-complete abandonment of the raw, frequently shambolic side of Pavement that had rock critics scrambling to liken his former band to the Fall, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Swell Maps. While AM radio signifiers were creeping into Pavement songs as early as 1994′s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Malkmus, beginning with 2001′s self-titled album, began to embrace capital-R Rock tropes in ways that seemed less trickster-y and more reverential. He may not be the first punk rock turncoat to embrace the dinosaur music of punk’s sworn enemies, but he’s one of the most visible alt-rock ambassadors to do so.

This is not to say that his music suddenly grew earnest and boring. Of Malkmus’ many enduring qualities as a writer, inscrutability remains his most salient. He is, after all, a man who can deliver a lyric like, “Give it to me, Timmy/ I’m out here on a limb-y” like he was singing a protest song. This can work against him: Even at his most brazenly straight-faced and vulnerable, Malkmus, like Dylan, can appear impish, calculating, and untrustworthy; too smart for his own good, too cool to play it entirely straight. Like magic eye paintings, tantric sex, or the poems of Paul Muldoon, frustration becomes a crucial component of the seduction, and not everyone has the patience to decide whether the payoff is worth it.

As a result, Malkmus is often misunderstood. In an uncharacteristically unguarded interview with Ian Svenonius for Svenonius’ Firing Line-style talk show Soft Focus, Malkmus admits his strong preference for a post-John Cale Velvet Underground. To this, Svenonius astutely notes Malkmus’ attraction to what he refers to as “classic formalism.” Malkmus doesn’t argue, but instead speaks of his fondness for Jeff Koons’ kitschy large-scale postmodernism and its “multi-dimensional layers of meaning” while characterizing Jackson Pollock’s work as “repulsive.” To say that these revelations are telling is an understatement; in fact, they are key to understanding Malkmus’ art: It isn’t artsy. Like Koons, Malkmus works with specific, even meticulous intent, and if his lyrics read as incoherent strings of spoonerisms and meaningless non-sequiturs, they are nonetheless communicated with distinct aesthetic purpose. For Stephen Malkmus, music is a canvas, not a projection.

Which is why Malkmus’ affinity for classic rock is often interpreted as being somehow ironic, irreconcilable with, say, a casual name-check of Walter Lippmann or a song about Yul Brenner. While contemporaries from Royal Trux to the Hold Steady have ruthlessly and brilliantly used rock’s ecumenical appeal as a sort of psychological warfare, Malkmus simply views rock as something easily — enjoyably — perverted by language. He’s not culture jamming, he’s playing Boggle.

It is true that Malkmus has yet to release a solo album as good as Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee. He’s probably not intending to: In a recent interview with Rolling Stone to promote his latest album, Wig Out At Jagbags, Malkmus admits that “[n]othing classic is probably going on here, let’s face it.” One can almost imagine a publicist reading those words before grimly filling a bathtub with warm water and opening his or her veins. By appearing to set expectations low, Malkmus no doubt realizes his own potential to deliver a classic in spite of himself — note the “probably” in the Rolling Stone quote, surely no accident for a man with such a facility with language — but he’s certainly not going to get all plan-y about it. This façade of underachieving would be frustrating if it didn’t work so well as strategy, but the more Malkmus avoids the pressure to make good on his legacy as Hip Priest Of The Lollapalosers, the more liberated, natural, and necessary his music sounds.

No one really believed Pavement when they sang the repeated refrain of “I’m tryin’” on 1992′s “Conduit For Sale!” Indeed, the band made an art of looking like they were trying as little as possible. But latter-day Malkmus reminds us of Yoda’s credo: “Do, or do not; there is no ‘try.’” Audible on even his most befuddling solo work is the sound of Malkmus making peace with the “doing,” and doing what comes naturally. This is the thread that runs through all of Malkmus’ solo albums, which we rank from worst to best, starting here.

Comments (41)
  1. I thought this list would include Pavement when I saw the title. Never been a fan of SM&TJ so I’m a little disappointed.

  2. All 6 are great records. But if we have to rank them today, it is like THIS :
    1. Pig Lib (+Dark Wave single B-sides)
    2. Stephen Malkmus
    3. Wig Out At Jagbags
    4. Face the truth
    5. Mirror Traffic
    6. Real Emotional Trash
    Stephen Malkmus (the artist) is my number one.

  3. I’m utterly addicted to “Wig Out.” SO GOOD.

  4. A good write up and an interesting list. It seems that no two people rank SM’s post-Pavement albums the same. I totally agree with your assessment of Pig Lib and Wig Out, though –– those are damn good albums. The rest each have some incredible high points, but those two are excellent front to back.

    I’ve always thought of Malkmus as a far less famous Neil Young in that he has pretty followed his own path, and has no interest in letting his career conform to a certain narrative. In this analogy, it’s helpful to think of Crooked Rain as his Harvest; it put him squarely on a certain track (for Neil, folk-rock superstardom, and for Stephen, alt-rock semi-stardom), and he responded by heading for the ditch. Some people lament that it went that way, but both produced some of their best stuff after those respective points. (Full disclosure: I say this as someone who counts Wowee Zowee and Tonight’s the Night among their top 5 albums of all time.)

    Anyway, here’s how I would rank these:

    6) Real Emotional Trash
    5) Mirror Traffic
    4) Self Titled
    3) Face the Truth
    2) Wig Out at Jagbag’s
    1) Pig Lib

  5. Hmmm, commenters not loving Real Emotional Trash. Not a huge, huge SM fan but I always liked that one a lot.

  6. Weird list for me. Didn’t realize Pig Lib was such a favorite. Also, it bums me out how widely dismissed SM’s solo work is.

    1. Face The Truth
    2. Real Emotional Trash
    3. Wig Out At Jag Bags
    4. Mirror Traffic
    5. Pig Lib
    6. S/T

    • Also, pretty vehemently disagree with the write-up on Real Emotional Trash. That album sparkles and those pop tracks like “Gardenia” are among his finest work.

      • OK, just read the write-up on the self-titled album and James shits on the only two songs I really like from the album. Obviously we’re wanting very different things from our Malkmus.

    • Face the Truth would be in my Top 3 for sure – that album is daring, super eccentric and so much fun.

    • “Didn’t realize Pig Lib was such a favorite”

      It isn’t, it’s every fan I know’s least favorite Malkmus album because it is bad and the rest of his albums are pretty good to great.

  7. I saw him and the Jicks at Bumbershoot in Seattle right after the self-titled came out. Had a great time even though I asked the guy next to me who he was. He looked at me as if I was crazy: “havent you heard of pavement?” ha ha. Great list and write up, his solo stuff does consider special ummm… consideration.

  8. “Like magic eye paintings, tantric sex, or the poems of Paul Muldoon, frustration becomes a crucial component of the seduction, and not everyone has the patience to decide whether the payoff is worth it.”

    I’m not sure who Muldoon is (I’ll have to look him up), but that’s a great line James Jackson Toth! Nice work! Kudos on the whole article.

  9. Still waiting on Prince albums worst to best, Stereogum.

    C’mon, eat your broccoli.

  10. Man I dont agree with this list at all. Emotional Trash should be last. Mirror traffic and Face the Truth should be much higher.

  11. cast  |   Posted on Mar 18th +1

    His solo work is pretty great. I like all off those records. Gotta say that Mirror Traffic should be higher though. Brain Gallop is one of his best songs.

    I wouldn’t feel 100% comfortable putting any of these on the “bottom” because they are so strong but I don’t think it should be Mirror Traffic. I guess I’d put Face the Truth last though.

    Malkmus is easily one of the best song writers of all time. Dude has been writing consistently good-great tunes for two decades now.

  12. I feel like his albums have only gotten better. My favorites are the last two.

  13. As a side note, SM&J’s drummer wearing a Fraiser shirt on Fallon is easily in the top 3 amazing things I’ll see in 2014.

  14. “kinda dumb to me/you should be gettin’ down/unghhhhh”–Brooke Candy

    • I can see Pig Lib getting #1 (it’s not mine, but along with seeing the band open for Radiohead in 2003, it’s what got me into them/him). But man, I do not agree with much else. Face the Truth is my favorite – so dynamic, colorful, and fun.

      I also feel like most of the list is WAY too referential to Pavement songs – I’m glad we got a solo list, but I wish it would have been treated like its own thing and not beholden to the old band.

      I like the new one well enough and I agree with a lot of the objective stuff said in the write-up, but most of it doesn’t really stand out much to me. I’d say “Chartjunk”, “Planetary Motion”, “J Smoov”, “Houston Hades”, and “Cinnamon and Lesbians” are keepers, but the rest is kind of tepid. Though I did randomly get “Lariat” in my head for a while yesterday, so maybe there’s still hope.

      I never listened to the first one for some reason, but as for the rest, I’d say:

      1. Face the Truth
      2. Pig Lib
      3. Real Emotional Trash (very close behind #2)
      4. Wig Out at Jag Bags
      5. Mirror Traffic

  15. wtf???? mirror traffic was my favorite album the year it came out and has stood the test of time.

  16. madt  |   Posted on Mar 19th +1

    Ah! I really dig dig dig that real emo trash record.

    1. Real Emo Trash
    2. Mirror Traffic
    3. Pig Lib
    4. SM
    5. Jagbags
    6. Face the Truth

    But i really love them all and would gladly listen to any of them at any or all the time. And i love you guys just for lovin’ the Malk.

  17. I’ve been thinking about my favorite Malkmus songs, and I think a top 10 list of those would be even more all over the map and contentious. I’d put “Church on White” on top –– and I’m guessing that’s the closest thing there would be to a consensus pick –– and after that I’m thinking maybe Post-Paint Boy, Dynamic Calories, Lariat, Pink India, It Kills, Animal Midnight, Out of Reaches, Us, and then a death struggle for the last couple of spots between J Smoov, Gardenia, RET, No One Is, Share the Red, Vague Space, maybe Freeze the Saints…. (point being, it’s rough). Then again, I could be talked into just about anything that’s not Black Book or Hopscotch Willie.

    • hah, you nailed my two least favorite solo malkmus tunes. they both kill the momentum on their respective albums before they’ve even begun. i always skip “black book,” or replace it with “sin taxi” whenever possible.

  18. 1. mirror traffic
    2. pig lib
    3. stephen malkmus
    4. wigout at jagbags
    5. real emotional trash
    6. face the truth

    hard to rank is catalog because they are all VERY close in terms of quality. i do think MT is hands down the best, though. surprised to see it ranked so low on the “official” list. it’s the wowee zowee of jicks records, it’s gonna turn into a popular favorite eventually.

  19. Well ain’t that some shit. Real Emotional Trash is my favorite Malkmus. Didn’t realize it was so looked down upon. Saw him about a month ago in Omaha though, go see him live if you haven’t yet. He’s insanely good.

    • RET was my favorite for a while, and i still think it marked the beginning of a new era for malkmus. almost like FTT was indicating a slight decline in quality, but then RET pulled it back safely into great territory. upon further reflection, i’d rank RET at 4, above jagbags.

  20. Hey, powers that be: how about a Silver Jews list? I’m always interesting in reading words about the late, great, Silver Jews.

  21. Find the overall lack of consensus here pretty interesting. As a pretty huge pave fan, I’ve had my ups and downs with sm and jicks but I will always be curious to see what he does next. Here’s my list:
    6. Real emotional trash
    5. Face the truth
    4. S/T
    3. Mirror traffic
    2. Wig out
    1. Pig lib

  22. Hmmm, the swipe at Jenny and the Ess Dog doesn’t seem entirely fair and Real Emotional Trash is underrated by at least three, probably four. Otherwise, great work as always.

  23. I really feel like his solo records from the beginning have been ON and OFF for me. The only ones I’ve liked have been S/T, Face the Truth and Mirror Traffic. Pig Lib almost turned me off SM for good. I absolutely hate it. Not into Wig Out, either.

  24. I’m not one to comment on these things but couldn’t resist since these rankings are so bad that it’s hard to believe that they aren’t some kind of goof on stereogum readers. Pig Lib #1 is LOL, easily their worst album and it isn’t even close. Slamming Jenny and the Ess-dog, one of their best songs? Dude shouldn’t be allowed to listen to Malkmus.

  25. Not as good as Pavement records, but what is?

    My list:

    1. Face the Truth
    2. Pig Lib
    3. Mirror Traffic
    4. RET
    5. Wig Out
    6. SM

  26. I agree with the first and last records, but everything else is wrong.

    1. Pig Lib
    2. Face the Truth
    3. SM
    4. Real Emotional Trash
    5. Jag Bags
    6. Mirror whatever

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