We’re updating and revising our old Counting Down lists to make room for new albums and ideas that have surfaced since their initial release. Our ranking of Yo La Tengo albums from worst to best was originally published on October 12, 2012.
With their Spanish-language name, long-running popularity, and outrageous-cratedigger aesthetic, Yo La Tengo is an American institution as unlikely as it is a beloved. For nearly four decades they have worked hard to achieve a universal theory of popular music that also rewards 60s soul, 70s scuzz, Stereolab and Sun Ra, creating a catalog full of classics and curiosities. – the impeccably organized record reserves their collective imagination.
First formed in Hoboken in the early 80s, the initial line-up consisted of Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, the former drummer and visual artist, second guitarist, part-time soundman at the legendary neighborhood club Maxwell’s, and contributor to the indispensable publication New York rocker. Running parallel to Manhattan’s no wave scene, Hoboken was brimming with talent, populated by the visionary and edgy Feelies, gifted new-traditionalist dB’s and arch synth-rockers the Cucumbers, to name a few. .
Early Yo La Tengo was an exercise in periodic inspiration and general chaos. Hubley and Kaplan struggled to find a stable lineup and scoured bass players, including a few passages of Gene Holder from the dBs. Their first three charming, albeit minor, albums ride the tiger, New Wave Hot Dogsand President Yo La Tengo, hesitating between singing pop, threatening drone and abusive noise without mastering any of them. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how standout tracks like “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and “No Water” anticipated the band’s visionary mix of approaches, but in real time, you had to squint to tell them apart. of hundreds of American indie bands. riding the formidable peloton tails of the early REM
Ironically, for a band that would become virtually synonymous with commentary-driven Crazy Horse-style guitar workouts, the first real glimpse of YLT’s idiosyncrasy came in the form of the 1990s acoustic LP. fake book, which saw the band do a spirited run through hero classics ranging from John Cale to the Flamin’ Groovies to Daniel Johnston and even throw in a few of their own tunes for good measure. Heavily encouraged by the guitar work of session ace Dave Schramm, this is the first time the band has seemed fully committed to an approach and the results are effervescent and moving. A wonderful final version of “What Can I Say?” from NRBQ revealed another of the band’s secret weapons: Georgia Hubley’s gracefully informal alto voice, which will increasingly feature in the band’s best work.
YLT finally resolved its longtime bassist imbroglio by bringing in James McNew in 1992. McNew had previously played in the well-regarded indie band Christmas and, coincidentally, attended the University of Virginia at the same time as David Berman and Stephen Malkmus, whom he never got to know. His sympathetic, melodic playing is a perfect fit for the band, providing a stabilizing backdrop to Kaplan’s frenetic guitar playing and a supple accompaniment to Hubley’s sterling rhythm. The group’s first record together, can i sing with me, is a no-prisoners affair and the loudest album they’ve ever made – in fact one of the loudest records ever made by a pop group. On tracks like “Some Kinda Fatigue” and the upbeat “Upside-Down,” McNew’s fuzzy bass acts as a kind of sonic glue to the band’s disparate impulses. It’s not a masterpiece, but after eight years of compulsive tinkering, it was obvious something big was afoot.
The backstory behind the 1993 Extraordinary Sore didn’t look too promising. Mired in a contract fight with their label Alias and settled in Water Music Studios in Hoboken after a brutal winter and with new co-producer Roger Moutenot in tow, nothing was easy. Nevertheless, over the sessions, the band came across something both entirely new and totally familiar. The deep blue strains of Sore are a rising and falling sine wave between pastoral and in-the-red with inexhaustible purpose and logic. The guitars hiss and whine, Ira and Georgia harmonize like the Everly Brothers, and McNew’s bass is metronomic and haunting. Released in 1993 by the very young indie Matador, Sore created a new vernacular not only for the band itself, but also for independent music in general. Almost 30 years later, it’s a watershed moment and the objectively brilliant debut album from one of America’s great bands of the last half-century.
Sore proved to be the pivot that launched YLT on one of the great races of any group in the 20th century: Suddenly they couldn’t miss. 1995 Electr-O-Pura consolidated the creative gains made on Sore and even improve them. The elegant “Blue Line Swinger”, the heartbreakingly delicate “Pablo And Andrea” and the delirious “Tom Courtenay” are all classics of the genre and exemplary demonstrations of their remarkable agility in moving through the mood and the gender. 1997 I can hear the heart beating as one is even better: 16 songs over 70 sprawling minutes that artfully sidestep the problem of choosing a direction by choosing all directions at once. The result is a tour de force unlike any other – samba and ambient noise coexist with fuzzy guitars, country and western excursions and haunting, percussive confessionals. “Anything you want from me / Anything I’ll do,” promises lead single “Sugarcube.” And they do.
Yo La Tengo’s audience grew in proportion to their accomplishments and soon bigger and bigger stages presented themselves. They were a part of Lollapalooza in 1995, where they played ping pong with Pavement as Courtney Love’s behind-the-scenes drama played out. However well-deserved, the attention seemed to surprise a band of devoted island personalities. This may have contributed to the haunted vibe of the 2000s And then nothing returneda tale of domestic honesty and dark moods resembling those of Richard and Linda Thompson turn off the lights on psychotherapy and Quaaludes. The closest 18-minute “Night Falls On Hoboken” is up for the band’s greatest achievement, a pastoral anthem to the promise of love that simply slips away, unable or unwilling to finish its thought. Another kind of masterpiece.
Everything that follows further reinforces the band’s legacy. 2003 broadcast and research summer sun was greeted as something of a disappointment at first, but its reputation has grown over time and it contains some of the band’s finest music, particularly “Little Eyes” and “Today Is The Day”, sung by Hubley, which conjure up mountain ranges of proper melancholy stretching in every direction.
2006’s positively bonkers I’m not afraid of you and I’ll kick your ass sounds like Crazy Horse backing a Las Vegas revue and is every bit as upsetting and/or promising as it sounds – the most aggressively uplifting music they’ve made since can i sing with me and apparently something from a concept album about fistfights. It’s a template for later phases of Yo La Tengo when the band would increasingly follow their experimental muse in any direction they randomly pointed, with no fear of losing their stature or their loyal following.
The ironically titled post-post popular songs released in 2009 continued the band’s winning streak, but only on their terms. Tracks like the space-age Prince tribute “Periodically Double Or Triple” or the Ira-Georgia-quoting Motown duo “If It’s True” seemed like the closest we could get to a band that might feel more and more distant even if the quality of their work never wavered. Euro-elegant from 2013 Vanish never failed to be memorable – think Stereolab produced by Bob Ezrin – sonically dramatic yet emotionally distant.
It was therefore extremely moving to receive the 2015 fake book after Stuff like that here which saw the band reuniting with Dave Schramm on a new set of reimagined originals and covers of songs by Hank Williams, George Clinton, and a definitive version of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love.” It’s both a formalistic gesture linking their formative years to those of sunset and a deeply sentimental gesture – a low-key homage to their little corner of the world.
The band borrowed their 2018 LP track from Sly Stone’s masterpiece There’s a riot going on, taking their audacity to unprecedented heights, but delivering an album worthy of pretty, often narcotic grooves that aesthetically rhyme with its titular predecessor. More recently, on the 2020 Sleepless night EP, the band delivers a pitch-perfect cover of the Byrds’ version of the Goffin-King classic “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” which ranks among their finest work and once again exemplifies the glorious hall of mirrors that is their timeless aesthetic.
In keeping with their tireless work ethic, there are all manner of YLT soundtracks, release recordings, promo EPs, delightfully anarchic WFMU fundraising shows, and the highly recommended Condo Fucks. For the sake of sanity, we won’t attempt to classify all of these here, and instead stick to the official LPs, but treat yourself to an emboldened deep dive into the furthest reaches of their catalog – the rewards are endless. Here’s a loving attempt to rank their records knowing that placing the things you love in a rigid hierarchy is objectively insane.