Over ten years, the Talking Heads released eight studio albums, and two live albums, Talking Heads changed the face of music. It might sound a bold claim, but these New York weirdos were a bold band. They did things no one had done before, blending together genres that had no right to be blended, combining misanthropy with goofiness, and making the kind of music that could rarely be described as approachable, but that no one could accuse of being unlistenable. They were innovative, experimental, and so far ahead of the pack, very few bands have ever managed to catch up. Here, we doff a cap to their genius as we rank the top 10 Talking Heads albums.
#10 – True Stories
We open up our Talking Heads Albums list with the mazing album entitled True Stories. David Byrne calls True Stories a ‘mistake.’ If it is, it’s a happy one. The soundtrack to Byrne’s directorial debut of the same name, True Stories describes the lives of a group of oddball characters as they prepare for their town’s sesquicentennial festival. It’s a strange premise for an album and it’s a strange album overall… but not one without its charms. The acerbic “Love For Sale” is a hard-rocking slice of heaven, with one of the chewiest hooks in the band’s canon. “Dream Operator” is wonderfully straightforward and, along with “City of Dreams,” ranks among Talking Heads’ most affecting songs. There’s too much filler for it to be essential listening, but it’s by no means the embarrassment Byrne likes to make out.
#9 – Naked
By the time they came to record their final album, tensions in the band were running high. They were still just about on speaking terms, but they clearly didn’t welcome the idea of being holed up in a studio together. So, they did what every band does in a similar situation – invite a bunch of extra musicians to join them. With the likes of Johnny Marr, Kirsty MacColl, and Yves N’Djock on board, Naked couldn’t fail. And it doesn’t. Playful in parts, somber in others, it’s an ambitious, stylish album with a hefty peppering of truly great songs. It lacks some of the boundless creativity of their earlier works, but it’s still a remarkable swansong.
#8 – Stop Making Sense
Some people have called Stop Making Sense incomprehensible. In fairness, the mixing could have been better, but it’s still a fine, fine album. David Byrne is in particularly fine voice, particularly on the superlative rendition of “Once in a Lifetime.” Most of the album focuses on material from Speaking in Tongues, but the inclusion of upbeat renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me to the River” adds variety. It might not be their best live album, but as a snapshot of a band at the very peak of their powers, it’s extraordinary.
#7 – The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads
Stop Making Sense might be the better-known of Talking Heads’ two live albums, but The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads is arguably the superior. Originally released in 1982, the double album captures the band during a period of major change, both in terms of their style and their lineup.
The first LP includes performances recorded by the original quartet between 1977 and 1979. The second features performances from the Remain in Light Tour, by which time the original lineup had been expanded to include Steven Stanley and Jose Rossy on percussion, Busta Cherry Jones on bass, Adrian Belew on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboard, and Nona Hendryx and Dollette McDonald on backup vocals. The material is astonishing, but it’s the stylistic journey of a band progressing from the underground to the mainstream that makes the album such essential listening.
#6 – More Songs About Buildings and Food
Second albums are notoriously difficult. More often than not, they’re a messy assortment of songs that failed to make the grade the first time around, along with a few rushed pieces of new material to make up the numbers. The title of Talking Heads’ sophomore effort, More Songs About Buildings and Food, might imply we’re in for a rehashed version of Talking Heads: 77, but titles can be deceiving. Not all of the tunes are as memorable as the ones on the Heads’ debut, but with Brian Eno on hand to add some cohesion, it’s still a fabulous effort – Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s rhythm section, in particular, has never sounded finer.
#5 – Talking Heads: 77
If Talking Heads were an underground band before their debut, Talking Heads: 77 wasn’t the album to propel them into the mainstream. Byrne’s vocal tics and falsetto yelps are disconcerting now. In 1977, they were flat-out weird. And then there were the off-kilter lyrics, the prickly guitars, the strange tempo changes… it was wacky and weird and the opposite of what was happening in the charts. None of that makes it a bad album. If anything, it’s what makes it a great one. It’s strange and it’s mysterious and it was so far ahead of its time, some people still haven’t caught up. They’ve got a treat in store when they finally do.
#4 – Little Creatures
For 1985’s Little Creatures, Talking Heads dug deep into Americana and pulled out their most accessible album to date. The sound is streamlined, Byrne keeps the vocal tics in check, and the songs sound like.. well, songs (which may sound strange praise, but for a Talking Heads’ album, it was a revelation). It’s not a perfect record (like almost every other LP from the period, the production is much too slick for its own good), but it’s a delicious piece of ear candy from a band at the very peak of their commercial powers.
#3 – Speaking In Tongues
After creating four game-changing albums in as many years, Talking Heads were sorely in need of a break. So they took one… for three years. Fortunately, their lengthy vacation didn’t have any ill effects on their creativity, as they proved when they finally returned to the studio for 1982’s Speaking in Tongues. Despite the addition of a gaggle of backup singers and musicians, the textures are looser and the sound is more spacious than on previous albums – there’s even room for a trickle of gospel. The result is a wonderfully approachable album with a charming goofiness and a bouncy energy that’s impossible to resist.
#2 – Fear of Music
Fear of Music is dark and strange and very, very clever. It’s not easy listening and if you’re looking for bubble gum pop, turn away now. Byrne has always been an odd chap, and on the band’s third album, he lets his freak flag fly as he introduces us to the weirdest and worst examples of humanity you could ever hope not to meet. Whereas he’d previously offset his oddness with humor, here, he doesn’t. He’s not goofing around, and neither is the music. It’s ominous, strange to the point of being unhinged, and if you manage to get through it without peeing your pants, reward yourself with a pat on the back. Or just listen to it again. Deranged it may be, but there’s method to Byrne’s madness. Bleak? Sure. Brilliant? Absolutely.
#1 – Remain In Light
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Talking Heads’ fourth album redefined music. By the time they released Remain In Light, the seeds they’d planted on the majestic Fear of Music had come into bloom. The music is expansive, Brian Eno’s influence on the African-flavoured dance grooves is inspired, and the fearless creativity on tracks like “The Great Curve” and “Once in a Lifetime” is jaw-dropping. Exquisitely layered, densely textured, and never anything but intriguing, it’s a bona fide masterpiece. Weird has never sounded quite so wonderful.