Talking Heads Albums From Worst To Best

Talking Heads Albums From Worst To Best

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.


8. Naked (1988)

While I waited for the G train a couple nights ago, I was listening to Naked on my phone. I walked to an available seat at a bench, passing a group of buskers, and sat down. They piped up, swaying back and forth behind a pretty standard subway setup, and my neighbors without headphones winced. It's pretty rare that these performances are good, much less stunning; if the performers don't appear to be unusual in some way, I often leave the headphones in and opt to tune out. But this time, the music in my headphones seemed to swell as the band played. I wanted to check how far I'd gotten into Naked, so I took out my phone and inadvertently paused the music. But "The Democratic Circus" continued to play. I looked up and realized my mistake — I was listening to the three-piece Appalachian subway ensemble, unconvincingly patting a brushed snare drum alongside too-clean guitars. Talking Heads had stopped playing. 

But perhaps they had stopped in 1988, when David Byrne opted to hire a veritable rolodex of "world" musicians and sidemen to lay down everything form kora to alto sax on Naked. Gone are the textures and smells of SoHo and the unmistakable ears of an artist-producer at the mixing board. And in their stead, there is no distilled wisdom from the band's past. The experiments in popular-form-as-artistry, which dominated the two preceding records, have paled. At best, we have a saccharine, heavy-handed facsimile of a pop record, the seductive "Mr. Jones" and "Ruby Dear" standing out as classics, performed by a (perhaps surprisingly good) subway band.



7. Little Creatures (1985)

A few years beforeNaked, Talking Heads made the first move toward losing their stature as experimental heavyweights with Little Creatures. The difference is that there's nothing wrong with Little Creatures, really. It's a perfect pop album made at the right time: silky "Margaritaville" guitars and road music refrains make it a strange piece of nostalgia stuck in the otherwise spacey futurisms of the mid 1980s. It sticks out.

But that's about all that can be said about the album. It's got a heavy sheen that makes it warm, but sonics aside, it's more of a lacquer than a sheen. Little Creatures is grave in a way that the band's previous work wasn't: heavy-handed on the weirdness, as opposed to open and reading-inducing. Songs like "Give Me Back My Name" do have beautiful moments (the sultry, sour chorus), but they don't move. Byrne sings "Something has been changed in my life/ something must be returned to us," which — though I don't know what he means, exactly — couldn't be more true.


6. Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

I can't imagine I'm alone in having heard 77 way after I'd already fallen in love with the band, à la Stop Making Sense and the Eno-produced monoliths. I even had a T-shirt that simulated the album cover, that awful red presiding with the album title in bar-light neon green. When I bought it, I thought it was just the year Talking Heads had formed.

Years later, "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town" arrived in my life via mix CD from a friend, and I was floored. I recognized David Byrne but wondered if he'd tried to cover the Jackson Five — and by chance something had gone horribly right. Weymouth's bass playing was a lot worse than Jermaine's, much less any of Motown's hired guns. But that is the immediate early victory of Talking Heads. Post-punk, new wave, whatever you want to call them — in entering the house of music, they squeezed through the same doorframe as a spate of radicals performing downtown, borrowing and lending, all parties writing some pretty weird shit.

The ethos of punk musicians — bands that actually did worry about the government or claim to be psycho killers — initially manifested itself in their physical manhandling of (or perhaps disgust with) their instruments, a rejection of the way the world had asked them to play. With 77, Talking Heads only slightly build it back up: musicianship is back, though still deflated. Instead, song form gets the punk treatment and is left totally wacked out.

The high school-level playing on "New Feeling" and "Tentative Decisions" speaks volumes to the band's initial refusal to play a certain kind of pop music, though to take from it liberally. "Love Buildings On Fire" (Read: Love Goes To Buildings On Fire) vastly predates unwavering, exuberant DFA anthems, where "Who Is It?" is barely a song at all, sounding more like a fun sonic experiment.

Make no mistake, though, there's no lack of intellectualism at work. These songs are beautiful, revealing a predisposition to whimsy and a kind of psychically broken lyric that would pervade Talking Heads' music: it takes a stab at the concerns of both pop music and the people that listen to it.

My building has every convenience 

It's gonna make life easy for me 

It's gonna be easy to get things done 

I will relax along with my loved ones


5. True Stories (1986)

There's a scene in True Stories, the film from which this album sprung, in which David Byrne walks around the fictional town of Virgil, Texas in a Hollywoodish mockup of a cowboy outfit and says to the audience, "They sell a lot of these around here, but I never see anyone else wearing them."

It might be fair to attribute the absolute curveball that is True Stories (the record) to the same sentiment: it's arresting to hear Talking Heads drenched in source material no one was playing in the '80s. Where did all that music come from? Though the group had already replanted the American pop stylings of their previous work when recording Little Creatures, this record is in many ways a very long reach back to the crazy-person embrace of pop history from 77, using pop forms the same way David Lynch does — to impart that feeling you get when accosted by a homeless man: you want to trust but some part of you is guiltily expecting danger.

But unlike the anemic borrowing on Little Creatures, True Stories presents the spittle-spouting preacher of Americana, with tracks like "Wild Wild Life"and "People Like Us" just barely skirting radio gaga in favor of manic celebrations of sameness and a false sense of peace.

So much of the mystery is gone: no more urban nightmares or youthful sensuality. Left is the Bible-beating (in the "overcoming" sense of beating) gospel of "Puzzling Evidence" imploring you: "Now don't you wanna get right with me?" There's that very rich, contemporary complexity that can only come from being inside of the thing with which you battle as an artist.


4. Speaking In Tongues (1983)

"With Eno departed," Robert Christgau noted, "this funk is quirkily comfortable." While Christgau goes on to bemoan a lost sharpness of tack, Talking Heads do gain something from letting their hair down (or with respect to the era, proverbially styling it up): on Speaking In Tongues, they enter the glamorous chorus of the 1980s. With backup singers galore, slimy synthesizers, and some straight-up, freeballing disco, the Heads draw from all over the early parts of the decade, from poppier Madness shout-alongs ("Our house!" "My house!") to African- and Arabic-influenced minor-key verse structures.

Speaking In Tongues could not serve as a better bridge for their catalogue, while offering a massive trove of gems in its own right. The band abruptly departs from pointillist funk neurosis only to half-cheekily borrow the manic, music video enthusiasm of New Wavers like Human League and Soft Cell; that hyperactive pop element, when united with nostalgia for American music, generated the incredible concoction that is True Stories.

For the first half of the record, they take no prisoners (the belligerent "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Slippery People" tempering popular slammers "Burning Down The House" and "Girlfriend Is Better"). Then they slide into shimmering disco tributaries (perfect oddballs "Moon Rocks" and "Pull Up the Roots") and empty into one of the most beautiful oceans in music ("This Must Be the Place [Naïve Melody]").

The tone of the record is shifting, without question Speaking In Tongues, but it's their broadest and warmest, looking constantly for a way to worm in and "share the same space for a minute or two."


3. More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)

Funky and bright, More Songs About Buildings And Food delivers a messy agglomeration of radio frequencies, with Byrne's punk monotone often in sharp relief against the bubbly pop seltzer. Rigorously unorthodox in its trajectory, the album begins on a plateau of ecstasy ("Thank You For Sending Me An Angel") and eases into a place of calculated, funky contemplation through "Warning Sign." In the middle, there's a massive unloading of dance ("The Girls Just Want To Be With The Girls") and a series of reflections on the place of the artist in the non-art world ("I don't have to prove/ that I am creative!"). The funk gets downright slimy for a few songs (through the Al Green cover "Take Me To The River"), but then the album ends on a rural paean to the big city, with "The Big Country."

However, the band seems only to be following the advice of the perpetually mystifying "Found a Job": "They might be better off, I think, the way it seems to me / making up their own shows, which might be better than TV." If you don't like what you see out there, Talking Heads posit that the artist's job, if there can be said to be one, is to make it.


2. Fear of Music (1979)

If you listen to the alternate version of "Cities" from the Fear Of Music reissue, you'll notice one major change besides the less-disco/more-freaky mix: the siren blaring at the beginning of the song is actually blaring. What was an element of collage (maybe bricolage — the practice loft they recorded in was in industrial Long Island City) in the original mix is elevated to aural offense.

It's more appropriate: Fear Of Music operates at that level from the literally gibberish "I Zimbra" onward, blurring the distinction between an entire house party on funky uppers and academic urban criticism.

Loud and clear behind that siren is the dark downtown no recent New York transplant really knows, where "people sleep in the daytime/ if they want to," a world so insular, warfare can only be understood as not going to party at the Mudd Club or CBGB. Jerry Harrison's album cover, an inhospitable black print of diamond plate metal flooring, perfectly mirrors the production of Fear Of Music, at once offering mesmerizing efficiency and repetition (the spidery patter of "Mind"), an obdurate impenetrability (the sad determinism of "Heaven"), and of course, a frotteuristic friction (the paranoia fetishism of "Paper" and "Life During Wartime").

We leave with a disturbing map of what sounds like a total urban environment: air quality, transportation, news, drugs, nightlife, government, violence. It's just barely tempered with the sexy thrust of dance music (funk and disco most prevalently) and the occasional parroting of a bar ballad's chorus.


1. Remain In Light (1980)

Few albums step into the light of unrepeatability, in which one can bathe, unable to move forward but also unable to ever look back at music the same way again. Remain In Light is this sort of record. After listening to it, something seems scarred, permanently and transcendently, and that peculiar thing about great music — when it seems you've both never heard anything like it and heard it somewhere before — begins to consume you.

Remain In Light draws so much music history to its center, even that which was only emerging at the time of its recording. There's freedom (the associative and open lyrics of "Seen And Not Seen" and "Crosseyed And Painless") and structure (the West African polyrhythm algebra of "The Great Curve"). Speaking of Africa, there's western (highlife full-band arrangements, even in the outtakes), northern (dirge-like Islamic overtones on "Listening Wind" and "The Overload"), and even southern (the loud harmonies and vocal polyphony on "Born Under Punches") influence.

And there's even rap, not even a year old, really, in 1980 — the spoken "facts" breakdown in "Crosseyed And Painless," sure, but also the unmistakably hip-hop beat on the classic "Once In A Lifetime." The last album in the string of three produced by Brian Eno (not coincidentally, all at the top of this list) succinctly forges together the advances of their previous work, stomping out the last glowing embers of pop in place of a flaming machine of twitchy propulsion and a rewriting of the self.

Throughout a loss of identity ("How did I get here?") and a continual shift in musical traction, there's a magnificent (if temporary) death of the band's ego: somehow we're reminded that the world may be as destructive as it is on Fear Of Music or as schizophrenic as it is on More Songs About Buildings And Food, but that it's the "same as it ever was."

Remain in Light offers the rare reminder that music has always been so deep, referential, and innately world-shattering. As Eno has said of this record, it's about "looking out to the world and saying, 'What a fantastic place we live in. Let's celebrate it.'"

more from Counting Down