Yo La Tengo are everything rock music is not. They’re domestic bliss, they’re Simpsons reruns, they’re that regular at the record store who’s just there to browse. They’re an autumn sweater and a mushroom cloud of hiss. They’re the kind of band who name an album Summer Sun and show up to the cover shoot dressed in raincoats. They’ve been around since 1984 and they still show no signs of stopping 30 years later. For the uninitiated, the good news is that there’s no wrong way to get into the secret club that is Yo La Tengo’s discography. For those who are up to the challenge of digging though, here’s a rough guide to the groups’ recorded output.
Ride the Tiger – 1986
Perhaps the least essential of YLT’s albums, Ride the Tiger is an enjoyable jangle pop effort that only hints at the signature Yo La Tengo sound that would fully bloom during the band’s mid-90s heyday. Still, there’s a lot to like here. The core of the band, husband and wife duo Ira Kaplan (guitar) and Georgia Hubley (drums), was already present, and classified ad-recruited members Dave Schramm (guitar) and Dave Rick (bass) fill in the gaps nicely. Ira’s signature guitar runs aren’t fully formed yet, but there are hints of them on classics like “The Cone of Silence” and “Crispy Duck”. Most notable though is “Big Sky,” a Kinks cover that finds the band sounding assured and capable.
Key songs: “Big Sky,” “The Cone of Silence”
New Wave Hotdogs – 1987
Arriving just a year later, New Wave Hotdogs is a much fuller, much more confident album that actually benefits from the loss of guitarist Dave Schramm. Ira is forced to fill in the resulting gap, and his obvious efforts to do so give Hotdogs a definite bump up in intensity. It’s still a very 80s sounding collection of jangle pop, but there’s a new darkness to the sound and meatier production helps the songs go down smoother. Opener “Clunk” sets the tone: the second half is basically a vehicle for Ira to destroy his guitar in new and exciting ways. It sounds tame compared to what Ira will unleash decades later, but the same spirit is definitely present. “It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)” is an even more important milestone: it makes the group’s Velvet Underground and Lou Reed worship crystal clear.
Key songs: “Clunk,” “It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)”
President Yo La Tengo – 1989
President is a pretty monumental release for the band: it’s the last slab of jangle pop they’d ever put out, and it feels in retrospect like the last glimpse of Yo La Tengo v1.0. Things get far fuzzier than they’d ever been before, and the volume gets turned up so far past Ride the Tiger levels that it’s apparent the band was stretching at its usual limits. Songs like “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and “The Evil that Men Do- Pablo’s Version,” with their feedback play and uncompromising drum and bass grooves, would feel right at home on much later albums like Electr-o-pura. And, forecasting the group’s quieter moments, there’s the beautiful husband/wife duet “Alyda,” which possesses that certain late afternoon quality that makes the band’s more contemporary music so comforting to return to.
Key songs: “Barnaby, Hardly Working,” “Alyda”
Fakebook – 1990
Fakebook could be considered the first classic album Yo La Tengo ever put out. It depends on whether or not you’re cool with the idea of a covers-based album being a band’s first major artistic statement. “Here Comes my Baby” is the first must-have song the band put out, and cuts like “Griselda” and “Speeding Motorcycle” are downright perfect in their simplicity (and still remain live-show staples). Musically, the album is noteworthy for foregoing a lot of the distortion and noise that had crept into the group’s music and replacing it with acoustic guitar, brushed drums, and a refreshingly clean overall sound. It’s also the album where Georgia and Ira’s harmonies start to become a major ingredient in the Yo La Tengo recipe (best appreciated on the yearning “You Tore Me Down”).
Key songs: “Here Comes My Baby,” “Speeding Motorcycle”
May I Sing With Me – 1992
May I Sing With Me is the first album by Yo La Tengo v2.0 AKA the band we all know and love AKA the Condo Fucks. It’s the point where their current bassist, Dump mastermind James McNew, joined the band, and it’s the album that set the stage for every album the group has put out since. It’s also perhaps the least enjoyable of the group’s current run: songwriting takes a backseat to fuzzed out guitar riffs and full-band jamming, but the group did the same thing better elsewhere. Still, songs like “Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck)” and “Sleeping Pill” transcend the murk and feature some delicious effects-laden noise excursions. Diehards will find a lot to like here, but newbies have much better starting points to choose from.
Key songs: “Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck),” “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”
Painful – 1993
Painful is, quite possibly, the best album Yo La Tengo have ever released. It’s the exact moment when all of the group’s sounds and ideas coalesced into something magical, and it holds up today as one of the best albums of the 90s. It’s angry, beautiful, and haunting all at once, and it starts to experiment with experimental tones and genres in ways that don’t sound like “experiments”. The one-two punch of “Big Day Coming” and “From a Motel 6” set the stage, shifting from quiet introspection and hope on “Big Day” into majestic, pummeling momentum on “Motel 6”. “Sudden Organ” is even more thrilling in the way it transforms typical garage rock into something exhilarating and unexpected. Georgia’s drumming shows a definite Moe Tucker influence throughout but possesses a tribal rhythm all its own, and Ira’s vocals have grown more confident even as they’ve gotten more sensitive and fragile. There is not a single track on Painful that ranks as less than stellar, and there is no better representation of Yo La Tengo as a rock group than songs like “From a Motel 6”. Absolutely essential listening for anyone even mildly interested in the band.
Key songs: “From a Motel 6,” “Sudden Organ,” “I Heard You Looking”
Electr-O-Pura – 1995
Electr-O-Pura comes across like a lesser, goofier version of Painful. There are still some amazing, endlessly enjoyable rock songs (most notably the classic single “Tom Courtenay”) and the band stretches out a bit on quieter cuts like “Pablo And Andrea,” but overall Pura is a much less monumental album. It doesn’t help that “False Ending” might just be the worst song in the entire YLT catalog (which is saying something considering “Tired Hippo” exists). Still, album closer “Blue Line Swinger” completely justifies the entire album and is the best showcase ever for Georgia Hubley’s singular singing voice. It builds in complexity and volume over 8 quick minutes until it reaches the kind of noise-filled calm that only Yo La Tengo can provide. It’s a song worth coming back to again and again, even if the album doesn’t provide the same thrills.
Key songs: “Tom Courtenay,” “Blue Line Swinger”
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One – 1997
When people think “Yo La Tengo,” they’re usually thinking of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Not only does it have two of their most well known songs (“Sugarcube” and “Autumn Sweater”), but it shows the band at their most influential and infallible. It’s their most eclectic album, but it’s also one of their most consistent and enjoyable. They hop from bossa nova (“Center of Gravity”) to Neil Young-ish folk (“Stockholm Syndrome,” featuring a wonderful vocal turn from McNew) to surf rock (“Green Arrow”) with nary a misstep. Even the much maligned “Spec Bebop,” a ten-minute organ workout, possesses a certain irresistible something that makes it impossible to skip. Plus, when the group is working within their wheelhouse, as on the beautifully complacent “Moby Octopad,” they churn out some of the best work they’ve ever done. Hell, they turn a Beach Boys song into a barnburner with “Little Honda” and it actually works, one-note guitar solo and all. For the length of an album, Yo La Tengo ruled the world.
Key songs: “Sugarcube,” “Autumn Sweater,” “Center of Gravity,” “Moby Octopad,” “Spec Bebop”
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out – 2000
Yo La Tengo entered the new millennium with their quietest and most achingly gorgeous collection of songs ever, and, though some were disappointed by the lack of guitar solos and feedback, And Then Nothing is ultimately just as essential as Heart Beating or Painful. Songs like “Our Way to Fall” and “You Can Have it All” are bleary-eyed homages to marriage and domestic living, and they’re as heartwarming and melancholic as anything the group ever released. Still, exhaustion crept in on late-album cuts like “Madeline” and “Tired Hippo,” where the band’s schtick starts to lose its appeal. They’re countered by the transcendent “Night Falls On Hoboken,” a 20 minute opus that meanders from folksy guitar strumming to blissed-out guitar echoes that end the album by wrapping around themselves endlessly. Simpler songs like the nostalgic “The Crying of Lot G” and the buoyant goof “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” prop up the album’s gentle middle third, and they establish a dreamy atmosphere that demands late-night listening. Only the chaotic, thrashing “Cherry Chapstick” recalls the usual YLT sound, and it’s almost too much to handle on such a nocturnal, thoughtful album. Nothing is custom built for summer evenings and fond reminiscences, and it fulfills that role effortlessly.
Key songs: “Night Falls on Hoboken,” “Cherry Chapstick,” “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” “Our Way to Fall”
Summer Sun – 2003
Summer Sun isn’t quite an And Then Nothing sequel, but it was close enough to have fans worrying that YLT would never return to the feedback blasts of yore. That may partially explain why it’s YLT’s most underrated and easily ignored album, but it’s clear now that it possesses plenty of its own flavor and makes for peerless background music. Beginning with the swirling “Beach Party Tonight,” the album coasts through classic pop songs like “Little Eyes” and “Season of the Shark” before getting lost in cutesier fare like “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” and the piano grooving “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo”. The molasses-paced downer “Don’t Have to Be So Sad” outclasses nearly everything on the album, and it could have been a standout cut on And Then Nothing easily. Even the kinda hokey jazz excursion “Let’s Be Still” sounds great for what it is, which is flute-led soft jazz (your mileage may vary). Ultimately, Summer Sun simply can’t match up to the landmark albums directly preceding it, but it’s still expertly crafted lightweight pop that possesses all the usual Yo La Tengo magic. It’s hard to go wrong.
Disclaimer: Ira raps.
Key songs: “Little Eyes,” “Don’t Have to Be So Sad,” “Season of the Shark”
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass – 2006
And then they brought the rock back. “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” opens the album with a roar, and it’s perhaps the best showcase for the musical talents of each individual band member that was ever laid down to tape. Georgia and James maintain a rock-solid groove for 10 whole minutes, and Ira completely decimates his guitar until there’s nothing left but vibrating strings. The song builds and builds until it loses itself in a pure cacophony of electric guitar manhandling, and then it lets everything drop out so the echoes can bounce around for a little bit. And then the album actually starts. I Am Not Afraid is basically a sequel to Heart Beating, and it features the same eclecticism that made that album a classic. There are fewer standouts, but curios like the cowpunk psych-out “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” and the horn-led pop dollop “Beanbag Chair” see the band stretching out a bit for the first time in years. The organ groove of “The Room Got Heavy” is perhaps the band’s clearest and most engaging Velvet Underground tribute, and it’s not to be missed.
Key songs: “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” “Beanbag Chair,” “The Room Got Heavy”
Popular Songs – 2009
Popular Songs is probably the most inessential of Yo La Tengo’s later albums, but there are a few hidden gems in amongst the by-the-numbers pop songs the group doles out. The filler-filled first half is a all “Yo La Tengo does retro pop,” with highlights including the stirring string section on “Here to Fall” and the killer organ groove on “Periodically Double or Triple”. The much more engaging second half is split between two lengthy guitar jams (the romantic “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” and the scalding “And the Glitter is Gone”) and a Popol Vuh-aping acoustic guitar mantra (“The Fireside). Though clumping these three monolithic jams at the end of the album kills the pacing, they’re the true draw here and make up a fantastic album all their own. The first half of Popular Songs has its moments, but filler like “Nothing to Hide” and “I’m On My Way” find the band needlessly repeating themselves for the first time in their career.
Key songs: “The Fireside,” “Here to Fall,” “And the Glitter is Gone”
Fade – 2013
Fade isn’t a reinvention for Yo La Tengo, but it does shake things up in some important ways. John McEntire (of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake) replaced longtime producer Roger Moutenot, and the resulting sound hews much closer to those bands than it does to the usual Yo La Tengo formula. Lead single “Ohm” is the most successful combination of McEntire’s trademark gloss and the band’s carefully constructed jamming, but minor fluff like “Well You Better” and “I’ll Be Around” captures little of the group’s usual fire. There isn’t even the usual album-ending firestorm, which means Fade comes off almost like a YLT side project. Still, it remains one of the group’s most commercially successful releases, and there are enough engaging moments to counteract the growing sense of lost inertia.
Key songs: “Ohm,” “Before We Run,” “Two Trains”