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  • Yo La Tengo Albums From Worst To Best
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12. Ride The Tiger (1986): Ride The Tiger is a genial and enjoyable jangle-pop album of the sort that was in no short supply in 1986, but is mostly notable as a measuring stick for how incredibly far the band would come in later iterations. Mainly this is the sound of YLT playing small ball --the modest of pleasures of three-minute tunes like "Big Sky" and "The Cone Of Silence" are undeniable -- but it would have taken a near-clairvoyant insight to discern that this agreeably ragtag collection of songs would launch one of the legendary discographies in modern music.

In the best possible sense, Yo La Tengo can feel less like a band and more like a beloved national trust.
 
YLT has for so long been proffering great music, and at such a consistent rate, that even for older fans like us it can feel difficult to wrap one’s mind around their enormous and esteemed catalog. But a significant part of the fun of the band derives from the pleasure of falling arbitrarily into a sprawling and compelling story and working your way backwards and forwards through a tangled but brilliant discography that reveals unexpected pleasures at nearly every turn. To borrow a phrase, it feels like they were always the caretaker here.

Many fine bands have come and gone and come back and gone again in the time that YLT has diligently refined their craft and taken on ever more legendary proportions. Their initial full-length, Ride The Tiger, was released in 1986, alongside The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, R.E.M.’s Life Rich Pageant, and the Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill. They predated Pavement by three years and are still going strong following Pavement’s breakup and subsequent reunion tour.
 
Much like their spiritual forebears NRBQ, Yo La Tengo is a band composed of obsessive music fans, moved by their passion to master a phenomenal variety of idioms. As followers of the band will note, any given YLT release or show might at any time feature diversions into free jazz, power pop, soul, country, krautrock, samba, or just about anything else you might want to throw into the blender. Crucially, this freewheeling approach never feels like dilettantism: YLT’s explorations into genre are always integrated into a coherent aesthetic that has evolved from countless years of hard study, collaboration, and touring. There is simply no way to fake your way into this circumstance. Only by dint of labor and passion (or genius plus love) were they eventually able to alchemize their approach into a completely unique and utterly inimitable sound all its own.
 
Early iterations of Yo La Tengo featured a revolving bass chair and some truly exceptional accompaniment. However the hiring of James McNew as permanent bassist in 1992 was a critical development. While the band has continued to employ esteemed contributors and collaborators, the addition of McNew to the husband-and-wife lineup of Ira Kaplan on guitar and Georgia Hubley on drums consecrated that rare formulation of musicians whose strengths, impulses, and desires fit perfectly together. With McNew on bass, frequently playing melodic lines in a high register, Ira Kaplan’s guitar id seemed unleashed, his playing veering between the elegantly lyrical and the utterly unhinged, frequently in the same song. Hubley’s diverse and creative timekeeping became even more so, and the band kept taking more chances. Perhaps most propitiously, each member could sing, and increasingly they would sing together. Kaplan and Hubley had long made hay out of their harmonies — her beautiful and plainspoken alto meshing wonderfully with his surprisingly versatile Lou Reed-like croon. The addition of McNew’s lovely high/lonesome vocals made for endless possibilities that, in the accustomed fashion of the group, were excitedly explored. Yo La Tengo are like the Band or Elvis Presley’s “TCB” lineup — complementing one another at every turn. The result has been a string of brilliant records that simultaneously credit and utterly rethink the music history they adore.
 
The creative drive, work ethic, and personal and professional dynamics that have allowed Yo La Tengo to continue to thrive in ways elusive to nearly all of their peers are multifaceted (and well covered by the writer Jesse Jarnow in his fine recently published history of the group Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo And The Rise Of Indie Rock). YLT is remarkably prolific, and over the course of their career have released countless EPs, side projects, and soundtrack work, almost all of which is absolutely excellent. For the purposes of this article, we’ve stuck to ranking the 12 main studio LPs, but there is plenty more to discover. Starting here is our highly subjective attempt at putting this terrific catalog into an order; cries of “foul!” over our exclusion of the Condo Fucks go to the comments.

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Comments (53)
  1. all 5 slides are just showing me the bottom 5 albums. is i can hear the heart beating as one the top pick?? where does i am not afraid of you… clock in? WHAT’S HAPPENING STEREOGUM?!

  2. Lost my virginity to and then nothing turned itself inside out… #1 in my book.

  3. Yes, Yes, and Yes. I can Hear the Heart Beating as One is actually one of my favorite albums. the entire first half is just perfect, and all the crazy excursions on the other side are just another part of what makes it awesome.

  4. Oh my god, I agree with this list. Feels weird.

  5. When will you make Sex Pistols Albums From Worst To Best ?

  6. Haha, I see once again they’ve put… oh.

  7. I wholeheartdly agree with the top 4 but Summer Sun is such an underrated record.

  8. Electr-O-Pura ROBBED at #6! Easily a top 3 album, and definitely better than Fakebook. Also, I think PYLT deserves a higher ranking for “Drug Test” alone. But this is another brilliantly written piece that makes me want to go back and rediscover the band’s entire catalog, so, you know, mission accomplished. Would read an entire book of Bracy-Bracy lists.

  9. I tend to agree with this list. Glad you put “IANAOYAIWBYA” as high as you did because that is (often) my favorite YLT record.

    In other news, I don’t think this was posted? But it’s the best thing I’ve heard all week…

    http://happymusicsadmusic.blog.com/2012/10/12/check-out-becks-brilliant-reworking-of-the-music-of-philip-glass/

  10. Man, Summer Sun continues to get no love, and comparing “The Fireside” to the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” is unquestionably the kindest thing ever written about “The Fireside.” That said, fantastic, well reasoned piece, wouldn’t change the Top 6 at all.

    But everyone needs to sit down with Summer Sun again. “Moonrock Mambo” is a candidate for the worst song they ever committed to wax (and unintentionally steals a bassline from MC 900 Ft. Jesus), but there’s lots of mellow sweetness on that record.

  11. I would also say “Electr-O-Pura” should be higher, but overall this is a damn good list. Especially the top 2.

  12. Ride The Tiger last? Wow.

  13. If this were my list, Condo Fuck’s Fuckbook would’ve been ranked, somewhere in the middle I think.

  14. No the Sounds of the Sounds of Science?

  15. I agree with some of you on Summer Sun…to me, it was their biggest grower. Electr-O-Pura shoud definitely be top 3. Other than that, I agree with this list. Yo La Tengo is the ultimate “stumble-onto-them-and-not-think-much-of-them-then-slowly-realize-how-effing-brilliant-they-are” band (that’s a thing, right?).

  16. May I Sing With Me beats Popular Songs? No way, Jose! Otherwise, yeah.

  17. an impossible task would be ranking their best songs

    LONG LIVE YO LA TENGO

  18. MEAT PUPPETS ALBUMS WORST TO BEST! Or Husker Du….

  19. I don’t love all of May I Sing With Me, but dammit, “Detoruing America With Horns’” and “Five Cornered Drone”, one of my five fave YLT songs, continue to get absolutely 0 love.

    Fakebook for me was the biggest and sole real dissapointment in their catalog, I just don’t like most of it.

    And Then Nothing… was a grower, but I remember listening to it on acid and thinking I understood every aspect of the trials and rewards of marriage when it was over.

    But yes, no way could #1 be anything but I Can Hear the Heart, one of the absolute elite releases of the 90s. I played it on an overnight drive with friends one time and one thought it was a mix cd of all different bands.

  20. I’m not sure I agree with this list entirely, but I could honestly care less about that.

    Yo La Tengo! Such an amazing band, and a necessity in this Stereogum series.

    I bought May I Sing With Me when it was first released and fell in love with it. I then went out and bought the first four, and when Painful was released, I knew that YLT was one of the best bands America (or anywhere for that matter) had to offer. What a masterpiece! The best was yet to come, which is amazing when I think back on it.

    I have seen YLT many many times. Some of those shows have been outright awful and some of them just ok, but most have been nothing short of transcendent on some level. I cannot think of one other band out there like them. SO good. So many great songs and albums, start to finish.

    And to think that they have a brand new album coming out soon!!!!!

    There have been very few bands out there this special. Lucky to have them.

  21. Why does everybody hate “Summer Sun”? I mean, “Tiny Birds”, “Little Eyes”, “Winter-A-Go-Go”, “Let’s Be Still”, come on. For me their best album, just BECAUSE they sounded so relaxed and etheral back then.

    • Not sure if this is cool or not, posting an All Music link, but this sums it up pretty well for me. Especially as a fan that had waited three years for the next album after the masterpiece that was And Then Nothing……. There are fantastic songs on Summer Sun, and honestly I am more a fan of it now than I was on release, but as a whole it lacks a lot of what the albums surrounding it deliver.
      http://www.allmusic.com/album/summer-sun-mw0000594957

  22. Summer Sun was just such a letdown after what came before. Can’t argue with the albums in the top 3- all masterpieces.

    Never really loved “Moby Octopad” but “Autumn Sweater”- so amazing. Need to give a little shout for “Nowhere Near” from Painful. A million sighs of awesomeness.

  23. Nice list, but c’mon… the one we’re all waiting for: Beethoven Symphonies from worst to best. Let’s gooo!

  24. ylt is an amazing fucking band, but it seems to me that they made a conscious decision after “and then nothing turned itself inside-out” to turn down their artsy and ambitious side (which i dearly loved) and to start having fun with a more straightforward mining of their manifold influences. personally, i would probably move electr-o-pura up to #4 for “tom courtenay” alone, but otherwise it’s a pretty fine list.

  25. I just want to say thank you for this list. I have always been intrigued by Yo La Tengo, but never checked them out, and this was enough incentive to finally get going. Saving up for some albums now.

  26. As someone who counts YLT as their favourite band, I give my seal of approval to this list.
    I personally would switch ‘I Am Not Afraid of You’ with ‘And Then Nothing’, but that’s just because I prefer loud YLT to soft YLT.

    I don’t always agree with these lists, but this one is on the money. Were I introducing a friend to the catalogue, this would be where I would point them.

  27. P.S. It’d be nice to see you do a list of Beck albums next.

  28. God Bless Yo La Tengo, and very well done Bracys. A couple of minor adjustments:
    1. I Can Hear the Heart
    2. Electropura
    3. Painful
    4. I Am Not Afraid
    5. And Then Nothing
    6. Fakebook
    7. President
    8. Popular Songs
    9. May I Sing
    10. Summer Sun
    11. New Wave Hot Dogs
    12. Ride the Tiger

    Evidently I need to listen to May I Sing some more, based on list consensus. Have never been a fan.

  29. Summer Sun is underrated IMO…

    • Just noticed from the comment above that Timothy Bracy co-wrote this post….am I correct in assuming it’s Tim formerly of The Mendoza Line? If so:

      7. I LIke You When You’re Not Around
      6. Fortune
      5. 30 Year Low
      4. Poems to a Pawnshop
      3. Full of Light and Full of Fire
      2. We’re All In This Alone
      1. Lost In Revelry

      Nice job with this YLT list. I like Popular Songs better than some you have above it and Ride the Tiger too. Summer Sun ain’t underrated. Fakebook would probably be lower on my list too.

  30. Yeah, I liked Fortune a lot when it came out – there’s a big jump in quality on the Shannon McArdle songs. Bracy’s songs are typically pretty great, “Metro Pictures” being one of his very best, but some of the tracks sound a little over produced to me, they lack the rough around the edges sound of their older stuff or the really well-crafted folk rock vibe of the last two

  31. is a very good list. i Like Especially the top 2. i have a site in spanish about music http://www.cancionromantica.com/

  32. Totally disagree on the placement of Electr-O-Pura, which is definitely a Top 2 album. Probably under duress, I’d put I Can Feel the Heart at 1, Electr-O-Pura at 2, and Painful at 3. Also, Summer Sun seems pretty low, but I won’t argue, as I don’t know the newer albums quite so well.

  33. And yeah, so I got the name of one of my favourite albums wrong. I always do that for some reason.

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