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

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.


15. “Upside-Down”
(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.


14. “Barnaby, Hardly Working”
(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.


13. Mr. Tough
(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.


12. “Stockholm Syndrome”
(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.


11. “Here to Fall”
(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.

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10. “False Alarm”
(Electr-O-Pura, 1995)

Yo La Tengo isn’t just a studio band that makes impeccable recordings, but also a live act that’s always ready to kick out a compelling, sweat-soaked performance. And for anyone who’s seen Yo La Tengo on stage, the most indelible image you have of ’em is Kaplan building up to a full-on freakout as he transforms from mild-mannered indie nerd into a holy roller rock proselytizer, bent over a guitar or banging away on the Farfisa. More like a blaring red-alert warning bell, Electr-O-Pura‘s “False Alarm” puts that live experience on record as well as any Yo La Tengo song, helping you mentally picture Kaplan becoming a man possessed trying to get just the right stabbing keyboard tone and spasmodic fit of feedback, with Hubley’s booming, primal beat heightening the intensity.


“Speeding Motorcycle” and “Cast a Shadow”
(Fakebook, 1990; “Walking Away from You” 7″ single, 1991)

Few bands handle cover songs with as much care as Yo La Tengo, who often gives them the same treatment as its own music — heck, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think many of ’em are Yo La Tengo originals. Its renditions of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” and Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow”, two of indie pop’s most beloved — and oft-reinterpreted — songs, are the best examples of how Yo La Tengo can take the signature works of others and make ’em all its own. Kaplan and Hubley show their obvious affection for these cult favorites by retaining their sense of wide-eyed romance, while giving them their own twist by smoothing out their charming, rough sentimentality with more tunefulness. These covers also hearken back to a time when Yo La Tengo was a scrappy upstart, underdogs in the underground’s underground before the band attained elder-statesman status.


8. “Saturday”
(And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, 2000)

The centerpiece of 2000’s mood-heavy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, “Saturday” is Yo La Tengo’s most striking foray into something resembling electronic music. Dressing up a fairly minimalist synth-and-bass composition with pinging electronics and a syncopated drum machine beat, “Saturday” articulated the still, starry-night tone of Nothing the best, putting an emphasis on the space between sounds as much as the carefully wrought effects themselves. It’s indietronica done on Yo La Tengo’s terms, still radiating a gentle warmth and conveying an easy intimacy no matter the stylistic tweaks. And when Hubley and Kaplan harmonize, repeating — with what must be irony — the phrase “out of tune”, you wouldn’t know the difference between it and one of the duo’s acoustic confessionals.


7. “Autumn Sweater”
(I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 1997)

It was 1997’s “Autumn Sweater” that paved the way for “Saturday”, as Yo La Tengo stepped out from its wallflower perch on the former to become one of the first indie rock acts to embrace emerging electronic trends. Released as a single in advance of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, “Autumn Sweater” was a tantalizing and mysterious teaser, suggesting the possibility that YLT was heading in new directions on the album after straight-up indie classics like Painful and Electr-O-Pura. Deceptively simple, “Autumn Sweater” is still one of the best examples of groove-oriented indie rock around, built around a basic fuzzed-out keyboard pattern, plump bass lines, and, of course, the dueling drum kits. Getting remix-y with it, the “Autumn Sweater” EP augured things to come not just for Yo La Tengo’s own dabbling with dance music moods, but for rhythm-oriented trends in the genre as a whole.


6. “Big Day Coming”
(Painful, 1993)

The renditions of “Big Day Coming” on 1993’s Painful capture the two sides of Yo La Tengo perfectly: the more plaintive, poignant side that makes the group so cherished, and the rambunctious garage-y side that set Yo La Tengo apart from the rest of the indie pack. You can notice these two faces of Yo La Tengo just in the way Kaplan delivers the chorus: while his imperfect falsetto conveys dreamy anticipation when he slowly croons, “Now there’s a big day coming / And I can hardly wait” on the minimal, drawn-out version that opens Painful, he spits those same words out so anxiously that you’d think that day had already arrived on the bristling, raucous redux near the end of the album. Either way, “Big Day Coming” suggests Yo La Tengo must’ve known something few others did, sounding prophetic on both takes.

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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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