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Yo La Tengo: A Beginner’s Guide

Three and a half decades, 15 studio albums and countless EPs, compilations and side-projects into their career, Yo La Tengo are nothing short of an American indie institution. They’re the most influential band that you’ve heard of but probably know little about, particularly if you aren’t American.

The Yo La Tengo sound is an ingenious interweaving of melody with texture, as equally indebted to Sixties pop-lite constructs such as The Archies and The Monkees as it is to more serious, heavyweight touchstones like The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. There really aren’t many bands that can sprawl over so many genres, absorb so many influences and still make them work, let alone sound original. Their eclectic aesthetic, which includes numerous ingenious cover versions (which handily signpost a hinterland of influences worth exploring in themselves) alongside their originals that meld combinations of power pop, country, noise rock, ambient electronica, soul, drone, krautrock and jazz, miraculously never feels like dilettantism.

Founded in 1984 in New Jersey by husband-and-wife couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, who play guitars and drums respectively yet share lead and backing vocal duties, and named after a yell of ‘I Got It’ by a Spanish-speaking outfielder of their beloved baseball team the New York Mets, Yo La Tengo initially went through a number of bassists before settling on James McNew for 1992’s fifth album May I Sing With Me, who has held down the position ever since. The following year’s Painful saw the cementing of another key professional relationship in YLT’s story, that with producer Roger Moutenot who oversaw every subsequent album they released until 2013, including their run of consecutive masterpieces in the Nineties. The band also signed to the nationwide independent label Matador, which is their home to this day.

That golden era, going from Painful through to 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, was the result of natural talent and a ridiculously high work ethic, of non-stop touring and creativity that saw them enthusiastically explore every possibility. As their career evolved, so did their skills – Kaplan’s lyrical style became more confident and complex, Hubley harmonising along like a more tutored version of the Velvets’ Moe Tucker with a delicate yet reliable drumming style, and McNew weighs in with his high register vocal- and bass-playing. Theirs is a rare chemistry, with each member not only bringing something distinctive to the table but dovetailing neatly with their bandmates.

READ MORE: The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

However, despite their significant cult status and pretty much consistently excellent reviews, Yo La Tengo’s profile has remained stubbornly low in comparison to other American indie heavyweights like Pavement, R.E.M. or Sonic Youth. If you’re lucky enough to see them on the British festival circuit, they’re likely to be playing in a tent in the late afternoon, rather than high up on the bill. As such, they’ve typically been regarded – and therefore dismissed, by the more closed-minded – as a critics’ band. On the 20th anniversary of one of their very finest records in 2020, thought it was about time that we do our bit to address this injustice.

So, here’s our whistle-stop tour of Yo La Tengo’s career told via their studio albums, with a Spotify playlist of some of their finest, best known and most essential moments below.

Happy listening!

Influenced: Pavement, Guided By Voices, Low, Galaxie 500, Stereolab, Built To Spill, Wilco, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, Spoon, Broadcast, The Flaming Lips, Animal Collective, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, The Spinto Band, TV On The Radio, Real Estate, U.S. Girls, Torres

Influenced by: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Velvet Underground, Love, Big Star, The Feelies, Mission Of Burma, The Television Personalities, The Clean, Daniel Johnston, Sonic Youth, R.E.M.

Ride The Tiger (1986)

Like many long careers in indie, Yo La Tengo started theirs modestly. A collection of technically competent but largely generic jangle-pop of the kind that was extremely in vogue in the mid-Eighties, Ride The Tiger is only really remarkable now in comparison to the heights that the band would hit with later efforts. (6/10) (LISTEN)

New Wave Hot Dogs (1987)

With a couple of very notable moments such as the noise-rock workout ‘The Story Of Jazz’ and the kinetic ‘Serpentine’, Yo La Tengo’s second album is in places more characteristic of their prime work in the Nineties, and serves as an instructive listen for those wanting to do a deep dive into their discography. However, it’s not the ideal place to start in your explorations. New Wave Hot Dogs is the sound of an increasingly confident band whose reach is still exceeding their grasp, but not for very much longer. (6/10) (LISTEN)

President Yo La Tengo (1989)

The highlight of their early work in the Eighties and a key milestone in their development, President Yo La Tengo is where Kaplan and Hubley really started to pick up momentum creatively. Two drastically different versions of ‘The Evil That Men Do’ and early YLT classic ‘Barnaby, Hardly Working’ are among the taut, seven-track collection, but it’s the drastic re-tooling of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Threw It All Away’ that really points toward their future. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Fakebook (1990)

It’s always thrilling to hear an artist take a left-turn in their career trajectory, doing something that nobody expects and yet completely suiting them. Fakebook, consisting of 11 cover versions and five originals, was such a moment for Yo La Tengo, flagging up their immense talent in interpreting other people’s material. Not only is it an utter pleasure to listen to – their soft, sophisticated take on The Holy Modal Rounders’ ‘Griselda’ is pure joy – but it’s a key component in understanding Kaplan and Hubley’s enduring appeal. (8/10) (LISTEN)

May I Sing With Me (1992)

Marking the point at which Yo La Tengo settled in to a permanent line-up with James McNew on bass guitar, May I Sing With Me was an explosion of experimentation that represents possibly the most challenging individual listen in the group’s catalogue, and the moment they truly begin discovering their potential. Kaplan’s guitar is the star of the show, showcased in lengthy freakouts like ‘Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss’ and ‘Sleeping Pill’, but that’s balanced out by nuggets of pop perfection like ‘Upside-Down’ and ‘Always Something’. The foundations were now in place for one of American indie’s great career arcs. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Painful (1993)

By their sixth album, Yo La Tengo had earned a deal with Matador Records, an independent with national clout, and they marked it with the beginning of a run of consecutive classics that was to last the rest of the decade and beyond, also representing some of the finest American indie albums of the era. The first of these was the excellent Painful, which saw the group’s artistic embrace grow ever wider. Under the aegis of Roger Moutenot, with whom YLT would have a fruitful relationship lasting over 15 years, they combine atmospheric, ambient tracks such as ‘Big Day Coming’ and ‘Nowhere Near’ with ever more ambitious noise jams (‘From A Motel 6’). Consistently, though, their writing is highly melodic and executed in the style of the best dream-pop, establishing a broad template for other indie bands to follow throughout the Nineties. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Electr-O-Pura (1995)

Now settled into an optimal creative relationship with Roger Moutenot, Yo La Tengo continued to better their previous works with Electr-O-Pura, named after a discontinued soda brand and one of the most diverse indie records to emerge from America in the Nineties. Ranging from giddy, eccentric pop to pensive folk and just plain weird, they were in enthusiastic form, sounding for the first time like they wanted to go out and actually find an audience. Ira Kaplan’s guitar work was simple but determined, Georgia Hubley’s drumming steady but subtly inventive, and James McNew was more confident than ever on bass. The chirpy ‘Tom Courtenay’ is a piece of flawless guitar-pop; ‘Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)’ is a perfection of their own brand of noisy, dissonant jams; the yearning ‘Pablo And Andrea’ and now-legendary live favourite ‘Blue Line Swinger’ made for an album that was disparate yet coherent at the same time. (9/10) (LISTEN)

I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997)

It’s generally considered to be one of four as to what Yo La Tengo’s finest album is, but for our money, it’s this. Ranging in construction from long, open-ended cosmic jams to short, vulnerable ballads and dissonant thumbnail sketches, everything on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One was dedicated to pushing back the boundaries of their sound, opening up the indie-rock of Electro-O-Pura to countless new influences. There’s the bossanova of ‘Center Of Gravity’, the electronic grooves of ‘Autumn Sweater’, the krautrock jam of ‘Spec Bebop’, the jazz sprawl of ‘Moby Octopad’, the trip-hop-influenced ‘Damage’, and the psychedelic folk feel of ‘We’re An American Band’… there are few other albums that are so simply about the joys of experimentation than ICHTHBAO, the sound of a band in thrall of all the possibilities out there. (10/10) (LISTEN)

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)

Marking a pronounced shift in their established style, Yo La Tengo’s first album of the new millennium was noticeably a lot slower and quieter than their imperious career highlights of the Nineties. Taking place in a perpetual twilight, with soft folk-rock strums and harmonic humming characterising the bulk, it’s provided the perfect setting for Kaplan and Hubley to expose the minutiae of their relationship in compelling confessionals – ‘The Crying Of Lot G’, for example. Sensitive, adult and subtle, it represented a slight maturation of the themes of much their previous work, and while it may have seemed inert at first, the old saying of still waters running deep certainly applied. The feedback-laden college rock explorations of their origins are still intact in a couple of places (‘Cherry Chapstick’ and ‘Saturday’). The astonishing psychedelic lullaby ‘Night Falls On Hoboken’, unravelling over nearly 18 minutes, tied yet another incredible Yo La Tengo record together, this one more graceful and understated than others. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Summer Sun (2003)

Having taken time out to do some of their most innovative and challenging work yet, including live-soundtracking filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s underwater documentaries on The Sounds Of The Sound Of Science, it came as a serious disappointment that the hugely anticipated Summer Sun brought Yo La Tengo’s golden streak that had lasted nearly ten years to a shuddering halt. All the correct elements were in place – ‘Today Is The Day’ was excellent, and ‘Season Of The Shark’ was a masterclass in understated modesty and shy romance – but it represented the first time that Yo La Tengo sounded directionless, without an overarching purpose. Every band needs a bit of a breather, and all imperial phases come to an end, but it’s just naturally disappointing to hear such a thrillingly creative band being content to merely tread water. (6/10) (LISTEN)

I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)

After the slight blip represented by their last outing, Yo La Tengo returned defiantly to something approaching top form at the beginning of the third decade of their career. I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass saw the band return to the rangy eclecticism of their Nineties peaks – and, most importantly, Ira Kaplan’s guitars were amped up and let out of their cage once again. Heralded by the unsettling ‘Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind’, YLT blow through a huge variety of styles, the highlights including sunny, horn-drenched pop (‘Beanbag Chair’), low-key ambience (‘Daphnia’), Sixties-indebted psychedelia (‘The Race Is On Again’) and James McNew’s ‘Mr. Tough’, all with the kind of wit and personality people had long since come to expect. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Popular Songs (2009)

With their 12th studio album, Yo La Tengo’s long and productive relationship with producer Roger Moutenot came to an end in a characteristically forward-thinking fashion. On Popular Songs, you pretty much get an overview of this idiosyncratic group’s whole career as they try, with partial success, to break even more boundaries. It’s an oddly structured experience – half of it is a very focussed affair, with only opener ‘Here To Fall’ breaking the five-minute mark in the first nine songs, but the final three tracks constitute nearly half the running time, running to 35 minutes combined. But within it, you get beautiful dream-pop (‘Avalon Or Someone Very Similar’), the soulful garage silliness of ‘Periodically Double Or Triple’ and the haunting reflections of ‘The Fireside’, and lots more besides. As diving-in points go, Popular Songs is probably the ideal record to begin exploring Yo La Tengo with, but conversely, it doesn’t contain many examples of their finest craftsmanship. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Fade (2013)

Released just shy of their 30th anniversary as a band, Fade got a fairly indifferent reception when it first came out. In large part revisiting the quiet restraint that had ended up disappointing fans when Summer Sun came out a decade before, it stood in stark contrast to their two previous efforts, bearing new producer John McEntire’s predilection for deft, light-touch orchestration, reflected in the album’s sunny and bucolic artwork. However, repeated and careful listens show Fade to be the secret weapon in Yo La Tengo’s arsenal, housing some of their most effortless and accessible songs ever. Bookended by two glorious six-minute tracks, the drone-rock inspired ‘Ohm’ and the string-and-horn enhanced ‘Before We Run’, it’s a lean and highly enjoyable collection, with the high lonesome guitar-picking of ‘I’ll Be Around’ and mellow groove of ‘Well You Better’ standing out. In its own understated way, Fade is as vital as anything from YLT’s peak Nineties period. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Stuff Like That There (2015)

A quarter of a century on from their first covers album, Yo La Tengo decided to revisit the concept of 1990’s colourful Fakebook, and, just like the first time around, it spotlighted another aspect of their artistry. There’s a small handful of re-worked versions of YLT originals, including prime Nineties cut ‘Deeper Into Movies’, but the stand-out moments are Kaplan, Hubley and McNew’s often drastic but always loving interpretations of other people’s material, including Hank Williams’ famous ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s curio ‘Butchie’s Tune’. The gorgeous, Hubley-sung lullaby take on The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’ is one of their most-streamed songs ever. Another delight. (7/10) (LISTEN)

There’s A Riot Going On (2018)

A strange choice of title for YLT’s 15th record, a nod to Sly & The Family Stone’s incendiary 1971 album with which this bore absolutely no stylistic resemblance, it’s safe to say. But There’s A Riot Going On did share something of its thematic underpinning – that is, looking at the state of the Trump-led outside world, and offering comfort and enlightenment at a time of upheaval. Rather than the sometimes studied intensity of much of their work, There’s A Riot… was nebulous, taking its time to unfurl, going off on sideways explorations before returning to a main path. Often, nothing much happens, but it happens beautifully. As such, it’s an unusual moment in their large and treasured discography, and one that showed a band that had been going for 34 years still intent on pushing themselves. Long may it continue. (7/10) (LISTEN)

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