The best Beach Boys album, according to Yo La Tengo

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Almost exactly 40 years ago, the multi-instrumentalist power couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley formed their indie-rock phenomenon Yo La Tengo. Their name translates to “I have it,” a phrase taken from an altercation between two baseball players in 1962, wherein New York Mets centre-fielder Richie Ashburn yelled “I have it” while running for the ball. After colliding with shortstop Elio Chacón, he learned to translate his yells into Spanish.

This comical anecdote was enough for the group to inspire Kaplan and Hubley’s band name, but over time, it seems to represent their vast musical catalogue. Anything you can think of, they seem to “have it”. Consequently, “indie rock” is a loose descriptor that encompasses their general vision with the pinpoint accuracy of a blindfolded archer on a roundabout.

Yo La Tengo debuted its sound in 1986 with the debut LP Ride the Tiger, produced by the former Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley. With Conley on bass, the album contained strains of punk but centred on a 1980s jangle-pop sound thanks to Kaplan’s colourful approach to the guitar. Since then, Yo La Tengo has released 16 studio albums bound only by a thirst for rock exploration.

Since 1992’s May I Sing With Me, bassist James McNew has completed the core trio that prevails today following a series of lineup shuffles. Through their most critically and commercially successful period in the late 1990s, Yo la Tengo released I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, markedly eclectic releases that contain notes of folk, electro, krautrock and noise rock.

With such a broad outlook, filing the band’s pool of inspiration down to a single progenitor would undoubtedly miss the mark. Personally, I would describe their associative sound as a cross between The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake and Can, but even this falls criminally short.

Fortunately, Yo La Tengo rival Dave Grohl in their keenness to honour their most cherished influences. The 2006 covers album Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, featuring reimagined classics by The Stooges, The Beach Boys, The Who, The Velvet Underground, Yoko Ono, The Modern Lovers, Randy Newman, T. Rex and many more, is a great place to start.

For some more leftfield influences, I would also divert your attention to the ‘Doctor’s Orders’ feature the band did with Far Out in 2023. With McNew as the group’s spokesperson, they selected an album by the New York hip-hop artist El-P, Kazemachi Roman by the Japanese folk rock band Happy End and Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire du Melody Nelson, among others.

Among the albums was a not-so-niche selection from the ‘60s pop rock legends The Beach Boys. With an appearance on Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics and a popular cover of ‘Little Honda’ on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, it’s safe to say Yo la Tengo are fond of the Californian surf rockers.

As an indie artist, McNew knew better than to state the glaringly obvious and pick out Pet Sounds. Instead, he dusted off The Beach Boys’ 14th studio album, 1968’s Friends. Consisting of 12 tracks, each running for less than two minutes, the release departed from the band’s previously vibrant pop sound, opting for lo-fi tranquillity.

Owing to bandleader Brian Wilson’s psychological decline and reclusive embrace of transcendental meditation, the album was a rough, home-grown endeavour. “Somehow, The Beach Boys made this brief album of utter beauty despite their tough times,” McNew said of his selection. “Carl [Wilson] steps up and knocks it out of the park. Even more harmonically advanced than Pet Sounds despite feeling lighter than air.”

Picking out a thematic favourite, McNew described ‘Little Bird’ as “deceptively deep”. Listen to the song below.

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