One of Yo La Tengo’s defining characteristics has been its remarkable consistency, whether you’re talking about how the trio’s warm, rough-hewn aesthetic has become so familiar, or how reliable the quality of its output is. Yet even if you consider the group’s last two decades since 1993’s breakthrough effort Painful as basically a single, more or less continuous high period, there are still some obvious peaks in Yo La Tengo’s deep catalog. And what these standout moments also point out is just how diverse and versatile the threesome of Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew has been, as adept with just an acoustic guitar as they are tangled in a mess of distortion pedals and multiple drum set-ups.
Compiled here are 15 (or so) essential Yo La Tengo songs, which mostly coincide with the band’s best, though not exactly. That kind of list would have to include “Deeper into Movies”, “From a Motel 6”, and “You Can Have It All”, as well as make room for the latest entry in the YLT pantheon, “Ohm”, which is sure to place high in the pecking order in due time. Instead, for the sake of variety, across albums and styles, what’s contained herein tries to cover all the bases to Yo La Tengo, tracing the history of the unlikely last band standing from indie rock’s ‘90s golden era.
(May I Sing with Me, 1992)
Yo La Tengo’s most conventional power-pop single, “Upside-Down” from 1992’s May I Sing with Me found the band at a crossroads right when alt-rock was at a turning point. As it happened, the catchy “Upside-Down” actually represents the path not taken, since it was after that fork in the road that Yo La Tengo took on the noise pop identity that has been its profile ever since. Still, “Upside-Down” proves that Yo La Tengo wouldn’t have gone wrong had it decided to be a straight-up alt-rock band, with the track’s just-grungy-enough riffs and head-bobbing boy-girl vocals.
(President Yo La Tengo, 1989, and Fakebook, 1990)
One of Yo La Tengo’s first successful stabs at the distortion-laden guitar workouts it would become known for, “Barnaby, Hardly Working” may be almost 25 years old, but feels anything but dated, on par and of a piece with anything from the group’s mid-‘90s heyday. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look back at “Barnaby”, originally off 1989’s underappreciated President Yo La Tengo, and pinpoint it as an early moment when Kaplan started figuring out how to shape squalls of chaotic noise into idiosyncratic melodies. It helps, though, when there’s a tuneful song structure at its roots, which the acoustic “cover” of “Barnaby” on Fakebook excavates and cleans up into a folk-pop gem.
(I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, 2006)
What’s always distinguished Yo La Tengo from its peer group is its good-natured sense of humor, more droll spoofing than the mean-spirited irony and jaded cynicism that indie smart alecks are most often tagged with. A little tongue-in-cheek, a little self-effacing, the bouncy “Mr. Tough” is as good an example as any of Yo La Tengo’s teasing wit. As Kaplan stretches the limits of his straining vocal cords on the piano-man ditty, he’s anything but imposing when he throws down the line, “Why don’t you meet me on the dancefloor? / When it’s time to talk tough”. But the song’s earworming melody is no joke, nor the sweet sentiment that feels even more endearing and embracing with a little gentle ribbing.
(I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 1997)
Maybe the best-matched third wheel ever, James McNew isn’t just on the outside looking in on Kaplan and Hubley’s husband-wife dynamic, rather an integral and fully integrated element of Yo La Tengo. Who knows, McNew might’ve actually been the secret sauce to Yo La Tengo’s success, because the band really took off once he came on board with May I Sing with Me. So McNew’s turn in the spotlight with the strummy, jangly “Stockholm Syndrome” on 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One isn’t just a bone thrown to him, but it actually plays a crucial role in maintaining the flow of an almost perfectly sequenced album.
(Popular Songs, 2009)
On “Here to Fall”, Yo La Tengo explores classic soul and R&B sounds more fully than elsewhere in its extensive catalog, leading off 2009’s Popular Songs by embellishing its trademark sound with heavier textures and a strutting mood. Building its own kind of groove, “Here to Fall” takes advantage of working with famed arranger and former Sun Ra bassist Richard Evans, who created resonant, swaggering string arrangements that enhance the kinda funky motorik moves of the keyboard-driven composition. What rings true about “Here to Fall” is that it’s neither a rote exercise in reverence nor an ironically postmodern take on a time-tested genre, but rather something organic where some of Yo La Tengo’s deeper, less obvious influences find room to bloom and flourish.