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.