There are a handful of artists I've loved for more than 20 years: the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Yo La Tengo, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, a few others.

Only one of those acts has worked that entire time; touring, writing good songs and guitar blowout and often-excellent albums that entire time: Yo La Tengo.

Last year, the band (married couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew, who has been with the band since 1990) released 'Popular Songs' its 12th studio album. The band is now in its 25th year of releasing records. Twenty-five years in, the Stones were making 'Steel Wheels,' Dylan was between 'Knocked Out Loaded' and 'Down in the Groove.' Oy vey.

Is Yo La Tengo better than those acts? At those acts' peaks, of course not. (Almost nobody was.) But few bands have had such consistent careers.

The funny thing is that almost 20 years ago, they seemed to be a band of Kinks, Neil Young and New Zealand pop obsessives destined to make records for people exactly like them.

1990's covers album 'Fakebook' is one of the most casually listenable albums of its era, a lazy summer twilight, all pink skies and make-outs. 1991's 'May I Sing With Me?' was a guitar-solo blowout with too few tunes. The YLT Deadheads were OK with it, but the band seemed to have reached its natural limits.

Then something interesting happened: Yo La Tengo started making spectacular albums.

Seemingly energized by the exploding American independent rock scene and the start of a long-term collaboration with producer Roger Moutenot, YLT released the brilliantly noisy 'Painful' in 1993, which felt like an American answer to My Bloody Valentine. It was like seeing a band go from black and white to HD. Their sound was no longer a amalgamation of influences ; Yo La Tengo suddenly sounded like Yo La Tengo.

The equally excellent 'Electr-O-Pura' followed in 1995. 1997's 'I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One' was something of a popular breakthrough, with its folded-in breakbeats, ambient drift and eventual appearance on the 'Gilmore Girls.' An amazing run, that, even if 'I Can Hear The Heart...' started their trend of filling the whole dang CD, which works for virtually nobody.

Their 21st century albums have been quieter and less fun (see also 2000's mopey, internal 'And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out' ) or overlong and uneven. 2004's exhausting 'Summer Sun' can be reduced to about a half-hour of great songs -- ironic, since they've never released a bad E.P.

They seemed to find the rock again on 2006's 'I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.' And that brings us to 'Popular Songs,' an album that moves from strength to strength. From the opening wah-wah and melodramatic strings on 'Here To Fall' to classic indie rock on 'Avalon or Someone Very Similar' and 'Nothing to Hide' to the Motown tribute 'If It's True' to the entire second LP of three long, experimental pieces, 'Popular Songs' shows as much or more ambition than any album in their catalog. And with the possible exception of Neil Young's 1990 comeback 'Ragged Glory,' 'ambition' is a word that not too many rockers can claim in their 25th year of activity.

These guys are lifers. They write what they like, they make records, they tour, they do it again at their own pace. Long may they feed back.

Yo La Tengo plays Friday at Antone's ($23. 213 W. Fifth St. antones.net ). The show is technically sold out.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926