The 40 Best Yo La Tengo Songs

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The 40 Best Yo La Tengo Songs

Just over three years ago, I wrote about Yo La Tengo’s 20 best songs. (For accuracy’s sake it could’ve been called “one man’s 20 favorite Yo La Tengo songs,” but that wouldn’t work as well on Google.) With the release of the band’s 15th album, There’s a Riot Going On, last week, the time was right to reappraise the trio’s discography and see what 20 songs would make it onto such a list in 2018. There was a problem, though: That top 20 is exactly the same as it was in 2014. There’s a Riot Going On is a good one, but so far none of its songs have bumped off any of my absolute favorites. That’d be a tall order for any band.

So here’s what Paste decided to do. Instead of reconstructing my top 20 list, I’ve expanded it to a top 40, spanning the entirety of Yo La Tengo’s 30-plus-year career. If you want, feel free to imagine Casey Kasem’s unforgettable voice counting down each song as you read through this thing, in what would’ve been the best episode of American Top 40 ever. And yeah, go ahead and listen along, if you’d like; I did while I was writing this.

Read: If There’s Really a Riot Going On, Yo La Tengo Aren’t Saying What It Is

And if you’re somehow wondering who these Yo La Tengo cats are in the first place, well, they’re a rock band—a really good rock band. The husband-wife team of guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley started the band in Hoboken in 1984, and released four albums with a variety of partners and sidemen and on a handful of labels before incorporating bassist James McNew on the 1992 full-length May I Sing With Me. The next year they released their breakout record Painful on Matador, a partnership that endures to this day. In the original version of this list I wrote that Painful is where their “disparate influences congealed into a fully formed style of the band’s own, from early ‘60s folk and pop to the post-Velvets diaspora of noise and punk,” and that’s still a good summation. They’re about as likely to play a three-minute pop gem as they are a forlorn folk song, a 10-minute one-note drone, a cover of a classic hit from the ‘70s, or a crazed, 20-minute noise jam. And they do it all with the same level of proficiency, confidence and humility. Again, they’re a really good rock band, and these are their 40 best songs.

40. “My Heart’s Reflection”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
Yo La Tengo have a lot of quiet songs. They have a lot of songs that sound like improvisational jams. They don’t have a lot of songs that do both, and the best one in that small subset is this song from Electr-O-Pura. James McNew’s bass and Georgia Hubley’s drums are admirably patient, settling into a hushed, one-note groove while Ira Kaplan plays a gossamer guitar figure and sings in a near whisper. Occasionally Kaplan hits a discordant note, or lets out a guitar squeal, or otherwise adds an unexpected bit of emphasis to what he’s playing. After two minutes and change, McNew finally hits a second note, and then a third, and you realize this song actually has parts. Kaplan’s guitar eventually gets louder and more erratic, colliding with the rhythm at odd angles and in clusters of notes that sound like they’re collapsing. Hubley’s steady beat keeps the whole thing together. The first few times you hear it you may not even register it as a pop song, but it’s a brilliantly fractured take on the kind of restrained, earnest, fundamentally mature-sounding love song that Yo La Tengo have explored many times.

39. “Little Eyes”
Album: Summer Sun (2003)
Summer Sun is a bit of a letdown from the great run of albums the band put out throughout the ‘90s, but it has a few highlights. The best of them is “Little Eyes,” one of the few songs to break through the bland uniformity of the record’s production. On an album heavy with drum machines and a watery, gurgling sound that floods out every track, “Little Eyes” is almost a straight-up rocker, with live drums and a chugging bass cutting through the glacial sheen of Kaplan’s guitar shimmer.

38. “For You Too”
Album: There’s a Riot Going On (2018)
Their newest record was mostly created in the studio, with the band jamming extensively and then whittling that work down into semi-recognizable songs. Its tone and production resembles Summer Sun, but with more of a spark to it—instead of feeling overproduced and relatively listless, as that album did, it’s endearingly and quizzically shaggy, proudly wearing its improvisational inspiration on its sleeve. It’s the kind of slow-burn grower where the songs I love most today, at release, could very easily not be the songs I love most months or years from now. At the moment “For You Too” has made the best impression; sure, it’s the closest to a conventional pop song on the record, but like “Little Eyes,” it brings a sense of structure and motion to a record that otherwise threatens to drift away.

37. “Ohm”
Album: Fade (2013)
The droning first song on Fade piles three-way harmonies, assorted guitar crust and pop song doot-doot-doots over a one-chord chugger driven by Hubley’s simple beat. About halfway through its seven or so minutes, Kaplan unleashes another one of his splattering guitar solos, and although it’s no less unhinged that what you expect from him, it stays fully alongside the song’s deliberate groove, which makes it notably slower than his typical skull-bursting solos. “Ohm” is a great example of picking an idea and plowing through it until you’ve exhausted all of its possibilities.

36. “Alyda”
Album: President Yo La Tengo (1989)
Is this where Yo La Tengo realized how beautiful Georgia Hubley’s voice can be? This early song is a catchy folk tune with pop hooks (think brushed drums and an acoustic guitar playing an ascending three-note major chord riff) and Dylan-esque vocals from Kaplan. But what makes it great is Hubley’s background vocals. They’re mostly just wordless ahhhhs, but it’s a crucial element that elevates the whole song and also points to what will become one of the band’s most defining sounds.

35. “Black Flowers”
Album: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)
This McNew-sung number bears a sonic similarity to Pet Sounds. It’s more than just the presence of strings and horns—it’s McNew’s voice, the echo of the drums, that combination of wide-eyed positivity and silent, internal sadness. No other Yo La Tengo song quite sounds like this one, making it a standout on what was already their most musically diverse album.

34. “Detouring America With Horns”
Album: May I Sing With Me (1992)
May I Sing With Me is a transitional record in the band’s discography. They had experimented with noise in the past, but this was the album where they truly started to integrate their folk tendencies with their noise explorations. But we’re talking about one song here, not the whole album, and “Detouring America With Horns,” the first song on the record, didn’t necessarily let the listener know what was in store for them. It starts with a lengthy instrumental intro that isn’t far removed from R.E.M. before coasting into a uptempo pop song built around a tunefully overdriven guitar riff and Hubley’s hushed vocals, which are buried in the mix. It’s melodic yet noisy and one of the first Yo La Tengo songs that sounds fully like the band that released albums like Painful and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.

33. “I’ll Be Around”
Album: Fade (2013)
You know those songs that sound so sad that they pretty much always make you sad, but are so beautiful and moving that you still can’t stop listening to them? Here’s one of them. It sounds a bit like the somber, ghostly folk music of Jackson C. Frank, but with some muted organ drones and high bass notes keeping it aloft.

32. “Shaker”
Record: Shaker single (1993)
The bad vibes are heavy on this 1993 single, which features a doom-laden, wayward riff from overdriven bass and guitar, occasional backward guitar flourishes, a drum beat that seems to be building to nothing in particular, and an out-of-nowhere outro that ends as abruptly as it starts.

31. “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”
Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out can seem like a downer at first—other than “Teenage Riot” sound-alike “Cherry Chapstick,” it’s an album full of quiet, understated, bittersweet love songs. “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” (named after a Simpsons joke) is one of the exceptions. It’s a jaunty little number built around multiple organ lines, a dance beat and unusually upbeat vocals from Hubley.

30. “The Room Got Heavy”
Album: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)
It’s not just the room that got heavy—the multiple organ parts in this song are thick, unrelenting blasts of sound smothering the polyrhythms kicked up by a stripped-down drum set and some hand percussion. There’s a hint of Suicide’s minimal dread in that organ tone, along with the psychedelic paranoia of Oneida. (“The Room Got Heavy” sounds so much like an Oneida song that that band eventually covered it.)

29. “False Alarm”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
A spiritual successor to Painful’s “Sudden Organ” (you can find that particular chestnut at no. 24 below), “False Alarm” is another rhythm-heavy, overdriven organ jam, with Kaplan pounding out the indie-rock equivalent of Cecil Taylor’s nontraditional piano chords over Hubley and McNew’s steady rhythms.

28. “Before We Run”
Album: Fade (2013)
On the Fade album closer, stuttering percussion, guitar washes and tasteful horns gently blur together with Hubley and Kaplan’s understated vocals into a minor triumph.

27. “Nothing to Hide”
Album: Popular Songs (2009)
The video for this short pop blurt starred the now-defunct lo-fi faves Times New Viking masquerading as Yo La Tengo, which made perfect sense: At a time when incredibly noisy, incredibly catchy pop songs were making a major comeback among the record collector set, Yo La Tengo whipped up “Nothing to Hide” to remind everybody that they’d perfected this particular type of song decades before. “Nothing to Hide” is pure bubblegum buried deep beneath guitar fuzz, and one of the most infectious songs the band has ever written.

26. “We’re an American Band”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
Nope, this isn’t a cover. It’s a miniature epic of ethereal noise, with Kaplan and Hubley harmonizing over his heavily processed guitar and McNew’s loping bassline for three blissful minutes, before launching into one of Kaplan’s noisiest and most volcanic guitar solos. In a way this is almost like its own small, self-contained mission statement for Yo La Tengo’s entire career.

25. “Don’t Say a Word (Hot Chicken #2)”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
There’s not a lot of common ground between the two songs on Electr-O-Pura subtitled “Hot Chicken.” Whereas “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)” is a pulsing rock dirge with bursts of noise, “Don’t Say a Word” is an aching love song with almost wordless vocals from Hubley and no percussion.

24. “Sudden Organ”
Album: Painful (1993)
Painful is where Yo La Tengo really came into their own, and mid-album track “Sudden Organ” introduced what became a longstanding subgenre of Yo La Tengo songs: heavy freakouts on one of those old ‘60s electric organs that can sound like a thick, impregnable monolith when played properly.

23. “Tears Are in Your Eyes”
Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
This hauntingly beautiful bummer of a song could be a lost country classic exhumed by these noted historians of pop music, but it’s just another Yo La Tengo original aimed to break your heart with Hubley’s pristine voice.

22. “Green Arrow”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
This gorgeous instrumental, driven by the sound of crickets and a quiet egg shaker, captures the wonder of sitting on a porch on a lazy summer night while idly plucking a guitar. It’s an ambient delight.

21. “Our Way to Fall”
Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000)
Kaplan and Hubley have a great knack for writing love songs that are tender and poignant but never schmaltzy. It might sound weird to commend the restraint of a band that’s partially known for very long jams and almost comical contortions during Kaplan’s unhinged guitar solos, but there’s always been a strong streak of restraint running through the band, and “Our Way to Fall” is a fantastic example of that. Like most of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, this song avoids the noise and distortion and focuses on ethereal organ and acoustic guitar strums, underpinned with brushed drums and McNew’s bass melodies, as Kaplan sings about the early days of his relationship with Hubley.

20. “Drug Test”
Album: President Yo La Tengo (1989)
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”
Album: Fade (2013)
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”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
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 2018 know who Tortoise are.

17. “The Summer”
Album: Fakebook (1990)
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”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
“Damage” is one of their most delicate songs even though it’s encased in a constant low-grade buzz. 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.

15. “From a Motel 6”
Album: Painful (1993)
“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 jet-stream 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 Yo La Tengo’s 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”
Album: Popular Songs (2009)
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”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
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 (2006)
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 flood over everything. Shakers, handclaps and Hubley’s mechanical drumming keep the ship afloat and rhythmically enriched.

11. “Pablo and Andrea”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
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”
Album: President Yo La Tengo (1989)
In the liner notes of the CD reissue of the band’s first album, Ride the Tiger, Kaplan wrote about the trio’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. It was 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”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
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 on “Decora” floating atop a wash of guitar that has enough distortion and tremolo on it to pass for something off My BLoody Valentine’s Loveless. Hubley sings the title almost wordlessly, arcing the melody above a great guitar hook and a stolid bass line, finding tenderness within the noise.

8. “Nowhere Near”
Album: Painful (1993)
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”
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
“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”
Album: Today Is the Day EP (2003)
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 Yo La Tengo grow and challenge themselves 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 efforts 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”
Album: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)
Stylistically similar to the No. 1 song on our list, “The Story of Yo La Tango” was released more than a decade later, and over 20 years into the band’s career. Most bands eventually coast on the goodwill of their early work, but Yo La Tengo have remained vital into their 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 12-minute song about rock clubs misspelling a band’s name should probably be.

4. “Big Day Coming”
Album: Painful (1993)
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, 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 Stones covers, into an aching ode to making music for the love of making music. I’ve listened to this song more than anything else Yo La Tengo have ever recorded.

3. “Tom Courtenay” / “Tom Courtenay (Acoustic)”
Album: Electr-O-Pura / Camp Yo La Tengo EP (1995)
As with “Big Day Coming,” the Yo La Tengo have 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 Tom Courtney and Julie Christie, avoid any sort of emotional reflection.

2. “I Heard You Looking”
Album: Painful (1993)
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”
Album: Electr-O-Pura (1995)
Okay, maybe I’m biased toward the epics and blow-outs. “Blue Line Swinger” nearly 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.

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