The 20 Best Yo La Tengo Songs

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Earlier this month Matador released Extra Painful, a double-sized edition of Yo La Tengo’s 1993 breakthrough Painful. Yo La Tengo were already indie rock veterans when Painful first came out. Hell, they were already indie rock veterans when people were still calling it college rock, with a history that stretches back to 1984. Painful was an important milestone for the band, though, and not just because it was their highest profile release at the time or their first sustained artistic success. In a way it was the unofficial debut of the real Yo La Tengo. The band’s first decade saw a constantly shifting line-up around the core of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the guitarist and drummer who share songwriting and singing duties. Bassist James McNew first played on the 1992 album May I Sing With Me, but Painful was his first album as a full-fledged member. Painful was also the first album where Yo La Tengo’s disparate influences congealed into a fully formed style of the band’s own, from early ‘60’s folk and pop to the post-Velvets diaspora of noise and punk. With Extra Painful taking over our turntables this month, let’s look back at the band’s best songs. And although they’re rightfully celebrated for their covers, we’re only going to look at songs the band wrote.

20. “Drug Test”
President Yo La Tengo

I don’t know if “Drug Test” was a college radio hit in 1989 but it should’ve been. It’s catchy in a classical sense, like something Jackson Browne could’ve written, and it has a bit of edge with the drug references, but it never would’ve gotten played on regular rock stations when it came out. It’s not like it celebrates drugs, though—when Kaplan sings “I wish I was high”, he’s depressed, nerdy and resigned, interested less in feeling good than in not feeling bad anymore. If Yo La Tengo broke up in 1989 this would’ve been the song most likely to pop up on a Rhino college rock compilation.

19. “Cornelia and Jane”

Georgia Hubley’s voice might be flat but it isn’t affectless. She can devastate without overemoting and while barely budging off a note. “Cornelia and Jane” is a showcase for her heart-breaking voice, which is Yo La Tengo’s greatest instrument. It’s not the best song she’s sung, but it’s her best vocal performance.

18. “Autumn Sweater”
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

Built around an organ, a shaker and two drum kits, “Autumn Sweater” is austere but rhythmically and emotionally rich. The music sounds cool and distant but Kaplan’s voice and words are warm and seductive. With its textures and polyrhythms “Autumn Sweater” sounded like a love song written by Tortoise when it came out in 1997. I hope people in 2014 know who Tortoise are.

17. “The Summer”

Fakebook is mostly an album of covers but one of its few originals is also one of the band’s most beloved songs. Kaplan and Hubley sing the low-key “The Summer” together, but it’s her voice that sticks with me, a simple, pure, honest voice that makes this acoustic gem one of their most touching songs, even if the lyrics are a bit inscrutable.

16. “Damage”
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

“Damage” is one of their most delicate songs even though it’s encased in a constant low grade buzz. There’s no wall of feedback, or anything, but gossamer webs of sound that pulse around a staccato bassline and muted drums. If you could somehow play a guitar through quicksilver it might sound like this. Kaplan sounds in disbelief that the person he used to think about all the time is now a part of his life, and although it’s easy to assume he’s literally singing about his wife and bandmate the lyrics are both universal enough and non-committal enough to apply to almost any sort of relationship the listener has in mind. That’s a sign of a good pop song, and on some days “Damage” would maybe land much higher on this list.

15. “From a Motel 6”

“From a Motel 6” might have a downmarket name but it seems “classy” in a way most of the band’s stuff isn’t, like it should soundtrack a Virgin Air flight or a W Hotel lobby. It’s sleek, from Kaplan’s jetstream guitars to the almost spoken harmonies to the basic song structure. Even the guitar solo, which is basically just an unruly clatter fed through who knows how many effects pedals, is tasteful. It’s maybe the earliest of their shoegazery attempts, a good year or so after that fad had died in England, and maybe that’s why it’s a bit chillier than the rest of Painful. These aren’t complaints, though, as it’s a classic rocker and a winning stylistic exercise. It aims for icy cool but it can’t hide the band’s fundamental warmth.

14. “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”
Popular Songs

Like “Motel 6”, they’ve had the occasional song over the years that could be classified as “shoegaze”. 2009’s “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” might have the strongest such influence, and more than anything else in the band’s repertoire sounds like something that could be on a My Bloody Valentine album. It’s a lengthy, swirling, two-chord drone with barely whispered vocals from Kaplan. It’s less of a song than a blurry, indistinct impression of a song, but it’s something I could listen to dozens of times in a row.

13. “Stockholm Syndrome”
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

Bassist James McNew, who has released a few albums of tender four-track pop under the name Dump, first took lead on a Yo La Tengo album with “Stockholm Syndrome.” The concert favorite is a warm and tightly written look at romantic confusion, sung with McNew’s Neil Young-ish high-pitched sigh of a voice. It’s one of those pop songs that sounds effortless. Sadly One Direction’s song of the same name isn’t a cover.

12. “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo burst back after 2003’s middling Summer Sun with one of their most powerful jams ever. In “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” an almost funky four-note bassline plods along with no variation as torrents of noise from Kaplan’s guitar floods over everything. Shakers, handclaps and Hubley’s mechanical drumming keep the ship afloat and rhythmically enriched.

11. “Pablo and Andrea”

The typical Kaplan guitar solo takes the sort of guitar lines you’d expect from a traditional pop song and turns them into free jazz skronk. The solo on “Pablo and Andrea” is surprisingly straight-forward, and almost has the lilt of a pedal steel. It shows up like a sunbeam about two-thirds of the way through another gorgeous, low-key Hubley love song.

10. “Barnaby, Hardly Working”
President Yo La Tengo

In the liner notes of the CD reissue of the band’s first album, Ride the Tiger, Kaplan wrote about the band’s “timid folk-rock souls.” The first song on their third album isn’t a clean break from the college rock of Ride the Tiger, which was proficient but unspectacular and has aged relatively poorly compared to the rest of their catalogue, but its clean guitar and bouncy bass are underlined with a looping guitar squeal that plays throughout the entire song. It’s an immediate sign that they weren’t the same band anymore. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is a beautiful droning pop song and the best original the band recorded in the 1980s.

9. “Decora”

Painful defined Yo La Tengo in a way no previous album had, but it was on the next album, Electr-O-Pura, that they started to explore in earnest what they were capable of. It starts with Hubley’s soft voice in “Decora” floating atop a wash of guitar that has enough distortion and tremolo on it to pass for something off Loveless. Hubley sings the title almost wordlessly, arcing the melody above a great guitar hook and a stolid bassline, finding tenderness within the noise.

8. “Nowhere Near”

Hubley had sung on Yo La Tengo records before Painful, but “Nowhere Near” was her coming out party. Built around Hubley’s serene vocals and a stately organ line, “Nowhere Near” is an assured and matter-of-fact love song for adults. The restraint is remarkable, especially since Kaplan routinely plays guitar like he’s one of those weird air balloon creatures at a used car sale. There’s nothing flashy here but it’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard.

7. “Sugarcube”
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

“Sugarcube” might be the band’s most perfectly crafted pop song. It’s a slice of bubblegum drenched in noise, from Kaplan’s feedback heavy guitars to the thick organ drone that fills in for the bass. If White Light / White Heat era Velvet Underground tried to make an AM radio hit, it probably would’ve sounded like “Sugarcube”.

6. “Today is the Day”
Today is the Day

Yo La Tengo kept getting better throughout the 1990s. The series of albums between 1993’s Painful and 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is almost flawless and saw the band grow and challenge itself in surprising ways. And then 2003’s Summer Sun halted that momentum with a listless set of meandering songs. One of the album’s better songs was rescued in an EP later that year and given a rollicking rock’n’roll treatment in the vein of “Sugarcube” and the original “Tom Courtenay”. The contrast between Hubley’s voice and the buzz of Kaplan’s guitar somehow makes this song both aching and anthemic at the same time.

5. “The Story of Yo La Tango”
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Stylistically similar to the number one song on our list, “The Story of Yo La Tango” was released more than a decade later, and over twenty years into the band’s career. Most bands eventually coast on the goodwill of their early work, but Yo La Tengo has remained vital into its fourth decade. This slow-burning epic starts off mellow and grows into a surprisingly powerful (and noisy) tour de force. It’s significantly better than any twelve-minute song about rock clubs misspelling a band’s name should probably be.

4. “Big Day Coming”

Painful is almost bookended by two versions of “Big Day Coming.” There’s a noisier, rocking take before the album’s final song that has an ersatz shoegaze vibe similar to “From a Motel 6.” That’s not the version we’re talking about here. The first song on the record, which fans call the slow “Big Day Coming”, is a long, slow, hypnotic lullaby built around a circular organ melody, Kaplan’s whispered vocals and tasteful guitar feedback. It turns the modest aspirations of the lyrics, with the band predicting a big day ahead while taking it slow and playing Rolling Stone covers, into an aching ode to making music for the love of making music. I didn’t put it at the top of the list, but I’ve easily listened to this song more than anything else Yo La Tengo has ever recorded.

3. “Tom Courtenay” / “Tom Courtenay (Acoustic)”
Electr-O-Pura / Camp Yo La Tengo

Like “Big Day Coming”, the band has released multiple versions of “Tom Courtenay”, one of their most popular songs. Unlike “Big Day Coming”, it’s a toss-up as to which one’s better. The original album version is a big, anthemic rock song, something you blast from your car with the windows down or pump your fists along to at a concert. The acoustic version on the Camp Yo La Tengo EP is just as catchy but gorgeously delicate, with one of the best vocal takes of Hubley’s career. Each version strongly evokes different emotions, even though the lyrics, about a fictional movie starring Courtney and Julie Christie, avoid any sort of emotional reflection.

2. “I Heard You Looking”

After a few fine but faceless college rock albums in the 1980s, Yo La Tengo revealed a masterful ability to unite melody and noise near the end of the decade. They reached an early peak with “I Heard You Looking”, the final song on 1993’s Painful, and a piece they still regularly play at concerts today. It’s a wordless journey as cathartic as any song with vocals, and has both the loose charm of improvisation and the smartly designed structure of a pop song.

1. “Blue Line Swinger”

Okay, maybe I’m biased towards the epics and blow-outs. “Blue Line Swinger” almost sums up a 30 year career in just under 10 minutes, starting off fragile and indecisive before growing into a committed roar, with the band’s full complement of tricks— Hubley’s beautifully flat vocals, a freak-out solo, organ drones, “baa baa baas”— supporting a timeless riff.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. He invited Yo La Tengo to his high school graduation because they were playing a show in town that night. He never got a response.

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