Yo La Tengo are one of the most widely beloved bands in the indie rock canon, with a deep catalog of classic records going back to the early '90s. Their discography is sprawling and eclectic, with overstuffed albums sharing space with soundtrack music, covers albums, singles, collaborations, and a hardcore punk record released under a pseudonym. It's an impressive and remarkably consistent body of work, but it's all very daunting if you're new to the band. This post is a guide to their major works of the past 20 years, moving backward through time from their most recent album, Fade, to their breakthrough record, Painful.
First, a quick primer: Yo La Tengo were founded by singer/guitarist/keyboardist Ira Kaplan and his wife, singer/drummer Georgia Hubley, in 1984. They released a handful of records with a revolving door of collaborators through the '80s, but were largely unknown outside of the Hoboken, New Jersey, music scene. Bassist/singer James McNew joined the band in 1991, and they have been working as a trio ever since.
The band's new album Fade is the most serene and relaxed record of their career, with Kaplan and Hubley reflecting on the passage of time, mortality, and the dynamics of long-term relationships over hypnotic beats and gentle tones.
"Popular Songs" (2009)
Popular Songs is a strange little record, split between moody, concise pop songs that borrow elements from classic soul and R&B, and a handful of long, blissed-out epics at the end. Yo La Tengo albums typically follow an unusual musical arc, but this one takes you on an especially odd emotional journey.
"If It's True"
"Here to Fall"
"I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" (2006)
Yo La Tengo's most stylistically eclectic record is also one of their most consistently enjoyable. There's not a lot of connection between songs like the incredibly loud and sprawling "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and a mellow neo-soul tune like McNew's "Mr. Tough," but it all fits together like an adventurous mixtape or a really good college radio show.
"Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"
"The Room Got Heavy"
"Summer Sun" (2003)
Summer Sun is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked by fans, but it's one of the band's most thematically consistent records. It sounds like a beach party in the dead of winter, or recalling sunny, happy days when everything has gone dark and cold.
"Don't Have to Be So Sad"
"And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" (2000)
And Then Nothing... is nothing but extremes, with the band at their most romantic ("Our Way to Fall"), their most delicate ("Tears Are in Your Eyes"), most hypnotic ("Everyday"), their grooviest ("Let's Save Tony Orlando's House"), and their loudest ("Cherry Chapstick"). The latter is one of the best rock songs in their catalog, and a perfect example of Ira Kaplan's talent for dramatizing the anxieties of introverts. The lyrics are meek and self-effacing, but his guitar vents years of pent-up sexual frustration.
"Our Way to Fall"
"Let's Save Tony Orlando's House"
"I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One" (1997)
The band's most popular album is also their most tuneful and musically adventurous, with big, bold rockers like "Sugarcube" and "We're an American Band" sharing space with groovy cuts like "Autumn Sweater" and "Moby Octopad," folky ballads like "Stockholm Syndrome," the whimsical bossanova love song "Center of Gravity," and extended ambient instrumentals "Spec Bebop" and "Green Arrow." This is the record that established Yo La Tengo as major players in the world of indie rock, and it's widely — and justly — considered to be their masterpiece.
Electr-O-Pura alternates between incredibly loud rockers and sleepy slow numbers, giving it a sort of bipolar quality when heard in full. "Tom Courtenay," the single, stands out as not only one of their finest tunes, but one of the greatest indie rock songs of all time. It's certainly the best song ever written about watching Billy Liar while strung out on heroin.
Yo La Tengo had been around for nearly a decade and put out five studio albums before releasing Painful, but that record — their first for Matador Records — was the beginning of the band as we know them today. After years of trial and error, this is where they truly found their sound, with Kaplan stepping up to become one of the most influential guitarists of '90s indie rock with songs like "From a Motel 6" and "Double Dare," and Georgia Hubley finding her voice on the heartbreaking mixtape staple "Nowhere Near."
"From a Motel 6"
If you're interested in diving deeper into the band's body of work, here's a Rdio playlist featuring all of the songs from above, plus more from their pre-Painful albums and extended catalog.