Counting Down

Talking Heads Albums From Worst To Best

By Michael Nelson / April 19, 2013

When I was in high school, I had a friend, Trey, with a funny ritual. Whenever it was one of our mutual friend’s birthdays, he would get everyone together for a surprise party, all of us crouching behind the couch upon which we typically sat for hours of Mario Kart-playing, now holding noisemakers and whispering. The birthday-person would enter from the front door, probably expecting to play some Mario Kart. By this time, Trey had queued up the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, to the same place: about 25 seconds into “Burning Down The House,” after the knuckle-whitening introduction of windy synthesizers and tentative guitar.

I can only call what followed pure elation: As the drums do their big fill (which in the film translates to an uncharacteristic stadium-ready crash), you could follow the disarmed broadening of the birthday-person’s mouth, to the bubbling of her chest into laughter, to the loosening of her limbs into dance.

It was a display, as the song itself seems to be, of the indomitability of our friendship at that moment, and though Talking Heads always found themselves seers of some kind of imminent urban collapse, there was always the call to arms, and legs. Through “no visible means of support,” you were somehow “fighting fire with fire.”

When Trey passed away, there was an extreme chasm among this group of people. No one was constantly shoving CDs in our faces, or piping unlistenable guitar sounds into an 8-track recorder to destroy something we had just begun to make beautiful. I got to college full of Can and DNA and Eric Dolphy because of him, and it took me a long time to find peers that understood the polyphony and soul of “Burning Down The House.”

That joyful noise, the moment where you realize you are absolutely being seduced by Talking Heads, is their great victory. They were something very close to what was very popular, yet small and specific, referential but irreverent, constantly puttering along while redoing the interior.

I find myself always getting really close to their music, only to remember how scary and distant Byrne, Weymouth, Harrison, and Frantz can really be. (Listen to “The Overload” only during the day and in the company of others.) These days, I have to remind myself to dance; their music comes very close to fulfilling us the way pop music often does, and then there’s that paranoiac monotone one can’t shake, and we are worried and harried and thinking again.

In the honest pursuit of expressing my exuberance, here are the Talking Heads’ studio albums, worst to best.

Start the Countdown here.