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Popular Songs: 15 (or So) Essential Yo La Tengo Tracks

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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013
Photo by Michael Lavine

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5. “Tom Courtenay”
(Electr-O-Pura, 1995)


No other Yo La Tengo song is as exuberant and flat-out catchy as Electr-O-Pura‘s pogoing anthem “Tom Courtenay”, a perfect three-minute indie rock single if there ever was. Set to irresistible “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals, Kaplan indulges in his childhood pop culture memories without ever letting the nostalgia seem stale or self-absorbed. On the contrary, the way Kaplan tells it, the feelings that treasured old movie stars evoke in him come off like they’re shared reminiscences, so vivid and joyful that you almost think Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, and Eleanor Bron were your very own forgotten favorites. An added bonus is Georgia Hubley’s acoustic alternate take on the “(Thin) Blue Line Swinger” EP, which draws out the more sentimental side of walking down memory lane.


 
4. “I Heard You Looking”
(Painful, 1993)


At this point, it’s a tradition for Yo La Tengo to cap its albums on a high note with an epic closing number that’s so fully engrossing that you don’t want it or the record to end. Painful‘s instrumental coda “I Heard You Looking” started the trend and set the bar high: Even with all the worthy candidates coming after it, “I Heard You Looking” might still be the most evocative and memorable one of the bunch, featuring perhaps the single most heartwarming guitar melody on any Yo La Tengo playlist you can piece together. But just as “I Heard You Looking” lulls you into a completely satisfying state of poignant yearning, Kaplan breaks from the repetitive main pattern and McNew’s anchoring bass line into what’s basically an extended whirling dervish of a solo. “I Heard You Looking” speaks volumes without a single word ever being uttered, as the intricate and subliminal interplay between the basic building blocks of guitar-bass-drums creates a language and cadence that’s all Yo La Tengo’s own.


 
3. “Sugarcube” and “Cherry Chapstick”
(I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 1997; And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, 2000)


Quintessential noise pop nuggets as lip-smackingly sweet as their names imply, it’s not just hard to pick between “Sugarcube” and “Cherry Chapstick” as to which is the better song, but it can actually be hard to tell ‘em apart. I’m only half-joking here—just listen to the intro riffs of both songs, then hum and air guitar them in your head, and see if you don’t confuse the two in your mind. Between them, “Sugarcube” still holds pride of place, not just because it came first and was paired with one of the best indie videos ever, but because it captures Yo La Tengo’s trademark aesthetic slightly better, taking junkyard-y garage rock coated in fuzz and hiss, then turning it into an addictive pop confection. That’s taking nothing away from the more polished, stretched-out “Cherry Chapstick”, though, which infuses some much needed energy into the high-concept tinkerings and after-hours vibe of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.


 
2. “Nowhere Near”
(Painful, 1993)


The most romantic song in the Yo La Tengo songbook, “Nowhere Near” was also the moment when Georgia Hubley really revealed herself as the group’s secret weapon. While it’s of course hard to separate or differentiate the shared contributions of the husband-wife pair, “Nowhere Near” put Hubley front and center more prominently than before or after, as she runs through an internal monologue about her unreciprocated attentions, repeating, “Do you know how I feel? / How I feel about you?” to a spare but warm keyboard line. But although she’s left hanging in the song, with the object of her affections “nowhere near”, the song cues you that everything will turn out alright even if you don’t read biography into it, Hubley making her soft-spoken move as the song breaks with bated-breath anticipation and lifts subtly in tone and color. Maybe its love story remains unresolved, but “Nowhere Near” is reassuring and comforting in a way that only Yo La Tengo can be, its true meaning coming in the intangible, between-the-lines feelings.


 
1. “Blue Line Swinger”
(Electr-O-Pura, 1995)


If any single track can encapsulate the entirety of Yo La Tengo’s nearly 30-year career, “Blue Line Swinger” comes the closest. Electr-O-Pura‘s behemoth closing number pretty much combines all the elements that make Yo La Tengo great: Grinding slowly but surely into gear, the guitars and keyboards pick up momentum in a locked-in, distorted groove, as Hubley’s drums tumble and rumble behind them. But once you think the trio has passed the point of no return, with Kaplan working himself up to an axe-wielding temper tantrum, Hubley’s cooed vocals kick in, changing the tenor of the track completely from instrumental freak-out to undercover indie pop ditty—just check out the abridged “(Thin) Blue Line Swinger” version to see how well it works as the latter. Imposing but intimate, improvisational but the product of a finely-tuned, precise dynamic, “Blue Line Swinger” reflects Yo La Tengo’s mastery over a gamut of moods, textures, and techniques, which is why something so sprawling and on the brink of spinning out-of-control turns out so coherent and cohesive.


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