Yo La Tengo

Barnaby, Hardly Working President Yo La Tengo
Speeding MotorcycleFakebook
Big Day Coming {fast}Painful
Tom CourtenayElectr-O-Pura
SugarcubeI Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
Let's Save Tony Orlando's HouseAnd Then Nothing Turned Itself
Nothing But You And MeSummer Sun
The Story Of Yo La TengoI Am Not Afraid Of You And
I Will Beat Your Ass
Avalon Or Someone Very SimilarPopular Songs
Stupid ThingsFade


Yo La Tengo playlist



Contributor: David Tanner

Originally formed in 1984 as the husband and wife duo of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. They have said they were initially influenced by The Soft Boys, Mission of Burma, and Arthur Lee’s Love, though it’s easy to see the influence of The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges in their vast output. Over thirty years, Yo La Tengo have released fourteen studio albums (the latest this month), four compilation albums, twelve EPs, fourteen singles, one film score, one collaborative album, and an album of covers. Choosing ten tracks has therefore been a very difficult task, especially as there are so many different musical styles. I have tried to cover all bases which means for instance Sugarcube gets the nod over Cherry Chapstick!

For the first couple of albums, Ride The Tiger (1986) and New Wave Hot Dogs (1987), they were searching around for a sound and went through – allegedly – fourteen bass players …

Barnaby, Hardly Working is the first track on the 1989 album President Yo La Tengo – this song laid down some the hallmarks of the Yo La Tengo sound with its “mysterioso guitar hook”, as Robert Christgau describes it.

Speeding Motorcycle from 1990’s Fakebook is their ever popular cover of the Daniel Johnston song from an album of mainly cover versions.

1992 saw the release of May I Sing With Me on which they were joined for the first time by James McNew (bass, guitar, keyboards) who would remain to this day.

In 1993, Yo La Tengo signed for Matador records and issued Painful: “I think this group really started when we made the record Painful … this was the first record that we made as the three of us, and I think it sounds different from the things that came before it.” Ira Kaplan (interviewed by Noel Murray for The A.V. Club in 2009)

The track that opens the album is Big Day Coming {slow}, a droning hypnotic take on the song. However my choice is Big Day Coming {fast} from side two; this version sees Yo La Tengo reaching for a space somwhere between the Velvets and Neu! with the Ace Tone organ to the fore. However, its inclusion was originally not assured: “They hadn’t put Big Day Coming on May I Sing With Me, and played it for producer, Fred Brockman. He was mystified that they played such an accessible number so slowly. They were mystified at his suggestion of turning it into a rock song. They humored Fred and tried it a few times unsuccessfully and put the loud version aside.” Rolling Stone

1995 and Electr-O-Pura further develops the sound of a band finally believing in themselves. My choice is Tom Courtenay.

I spent so much time dreaming about Eleanor Bron
In my room with the curtains drawn
See her in the arms of Paul
Say it, I can say no more

I think this used to be called ‘power pop’. A thrashy infectious slice of the sixties. “Anyone who can’t enjoy Tom Courtenay – arguably the best pure pop song YLT has given us – is everyone you would never like to have over for dinner.” Stereogum

Two years would pass before 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, but well worth the wait as it became a high point of their melding of indie-pop and noise.

Sugarcube is probably one of the best known and loved YLT songs, combining thrashing guitars with a gorgeous melody. Clattering drums introduce the guitar figure while maracas shake some action all over this 3 minutes 23 seconds of pop/noise perfection.

Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House is from the next album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000). Georgia features on vocals in this Lynchian tale, part inspired by an episode of the Simpsons, “Marge On The Lam”. In the song a jealous Frankie Valli takes revenge on Tony Orlando by setting fire to his house. No, really!

By this time, Yo La Tengo were indie legends and ripe for parody in The Onion, in this marvellous spoof article:

37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead
In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster

ATHENS, GA – “These people are simply not in the physical condition to survive this sort of trauma. It’s just a twisted mass of black-frame glasses and ironic Girl Scouts T-shirts in there.” Also believed to be among the missing are seven freelance rock critics, five vinyl junkies, two ‘zine publishers, an art-school dropout, and a college-radio DJ. “I haven’t seen this much senseless hipster carnage since the Great Sebadoh Fire Of ’93,” said a rescue worker.

Summer Sun (2003) was something of a change in style though Ira Kaplan describes it somewhat differently: “We made a decision at the last second just to leave the loud songs off. We were looking at the material we recorded and just trying to put out the best record that we could.”

Nothing But You And Me is the third track on Summer Sun and it’s a shimmering jazzy, dubbed up track with Ira drawling out lyrics of separation and lost love.

YLT now seem to have got into a three year cycle of releases and I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass appeared in 2006. And as for those loud songs they left off Summer Sun? Here they all are!

I saw them live for the second time after the release of this album and they finished with The Story Of Yo La Tengo and I thought my kidneys would explode they were so loud. It starts quietly enough with some guitar loop electronics but soon fires up a fearsome guitar melody that repeats and builds and repeats before Ira’s muttered lyrics enter.

We made up our minds
to lose and never once looked back
We only looked back
just once
We opened our hearts, it’s true
But not to any of you
Sold out of the myth
too soon

12 minutes hardly does justice to this.

Popular Songs was the next YLT release in 2009 and Avalon Or Someone Very Similar is a gorgeous slice of shimmering pop with one of Georgia’s best vocals.

Fade (2013) is the latest album from YLT and Stupid Things slides along on a restrained motorik beat, something that has featured in numerous guises on Yo La Tengo songs.

A new album, Stuff Like That There is slated for release this summer, featuring covers, reworkings and new songs. Included is a cover of The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love and they have released a video of this track in advance of the album.




Yo La Tengo official site

An afternoon with Ira Kaplan at Ohio University

Yo La Tengo biography (Apple Music)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in France. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner! He writes about music and random culture at Other Formats Are Available.

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  1. Rob Morgan
    Aug 24, 2015

    Of course with a back catalogue as plentiful as YLT’s there would be missed songs and personal favourites. My top 10 would include “Little Eyes” (that motorik beat and raga guitar) and “Feel like going home” (a beautiful ballad sung by Georgia with some heart stopping chord changes) but most of your list too. An excellent list and great overview.

    • David Tanner
      Sep 12, 2015

      Thanks Rob! It was really difficult getting down to 10, but I rediscovered lots of gems as I relistened to the albums. The new one is great too.

  2. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Aug 28, 2015

    So welcome this is, David. I too never stop ‘seeking out good music’. We saw a band today in Centennial Square in Victoria, BC., as we walked home from a dinner outing and noted again how there are so many talented young people out there making excellent music. The tradition continues. YLT has been around for a while but they continue to seem as fresh and new and creative as they have always been. Thank you, David.

    • David Tanner
      Sep 12, 2015

      Thanks Jerry, always new music to discover every day.

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