# 10 – ‘The Democratic Circus’ (Naked / 1988)
One of the most compelling things about the Talking Heads was their ability to harness a vast array of influence and meld it into cohesive songs and records. While one could align them most directly with new wave or post punk, the Talking Heads had a penchant for world music, dance and art rock, and even funk and soul. Though their final record, 1988’s Naked, proved their least successful, it did have a number of exceptional tracks. ‘The Democratic Circus,’ a political commentary, is one of them. This world-tinged tune is relevant this year especially, because Americans are indeed living in ‘The Democratic Circus.’
# 9 – ‘Seen And Not Seen’ (Remain In Light / 1980)
Nothing defines the Talking Heads as well as David Byrne murmuring spoken word ramblings into a microphone over erratic instrumentation. Byrne was one of the better poets of the 1980s, infusing the cultural landscape with much-needed insight amidst hair bands and the days of ‘Spinal Tap.’ ‘Seen And Not Seen’ is a poem that delves into the dichotomy of our appearances and our personalities. More so, it explores how we shape ourselves to our surroundings. Basically, it’s one of the best songs out there about ‘fitting in.’
# 8 – ‘City Of Dreams’ (True Stories / 1986)
‘True Stories’ was released in conjunction with a film Byrne created in 1986. (In fact, the Talking Heads are one of the most important acts in regard to video – something touched on below.) The album’s reception was lukewarm, but the lovely and anthemic ‘City Of Dreams’ remains poignant to this day. The Talking Heads understood how to write a reverb-soaked 80’s anthem that wouldn’t feel kitschy or dated many years later. ‘City Of Dreams’ still doesn’t.
# 7 – Papa Legba (True Stories / 1986)
‘Papa Legba,’ also from ‘True Stories,’ is the best exhibition of the band’s world influence out there. Inspired by Haitian and Catholic folklore, this incredibly worldly track infuses itself with zaney lyricism, Spanish language musings, and some of Byrne’s most bizarre, but oddly beautiful lyricism. In 2006 on the ‘Deluxe’ release, there’s a version of the track sung by none other than Pop Staples. One could argue that the Staples-lead version is the definitive interpretation, as the Staple Singers elder elevates it to a whole new level.
# 6 – ‘Don’t Worry About The Government’ (Talking Heads 77)
If you’ve ever had a desire to listen to an inexplicably happy song about how great your building and its conveniences are, then ‘Don’t Worry About The Government’ is your one-stop-shop. The track, which is off of the band’s first album, is the perfect showcase of David Byrne’s misunderstood genius. It’s a song about how great his building is. It’s amenities are fantastic, it’s easily accessible via the highway for family visits, and it’s going to make life easy for Byrne. The track is so blatantly weird, it’s absolutely impossible not to listen to without a smiling from ear to ear.
# 5 -The Big Country’ More Songs About Buildings And Food 78
As long as David Byrne’s living habits are in the spotlight, it’s worth touching on an equally superb song, ‘The Big Country.’ The track is an intriguing commentary on the everyday American. The Talking Heads take the listener on a journey through the country as they observe farmland, happy families, and healthy communities. Byrne, however, “wouldn’t live there if they paid him.” If anything, the track plants a dividing line between the world of the Talking Heads and reality. Their music consistently escaped the latter, which is perhaps why their catalog is in itself one of the most fine-tuned forays through escapism.
# 4 – ‘Life During Wartime’ (Fear Of Music / 1979)
While the Talking Heads’ vivid lyricism and instrumentation lent itself well to escapism, they weren’t foreign to directly addressing issues, either. ‘Life During Wartime’ is the result of Byrne living in a divided America. The United States was entering its post-Nixon, post-Vietnam era, one riddled with systemic racism, poverty, economic distress, and the crumbling of cities like New York. David Byrne jabs at reality with infectious choruses and likable references on ‘Life During Wartime.’
# 3 – ‘This Must Be The Place’ (Speaking in Tongues)1983
The Talking Heads and acts like them were partially born out a distaste for disco and music void of purpose. Their music did a wonderful job creating danceable atmospheres that were lyrically provocative as well, something disco didn’t do. (Again, this wasn’t just the Heads. Bands like The Cure and Devo were doing it, too.) If you’ve ever heard the Talking Heads playing in your grocery store, it was probably a song from 1983’s ‘Speaking In Tongues.’ While it’s certainly their most consumable effort, and the same one housing ‘Burning Down The House,’ the album is also home to a slew of hallmark tracks with immense depth. The iconic ‘This Must Be The Place’ is one of them.
# 2 – ‘Take Me To The River’ (More Songs About Buildings And Food / 1978)
It doesn’t matter that ‘Take Me To The River’ is an Al Green cover; it’s still one of the best Talking Heads songs of all time. The band’s legendary take on the track introduced it to an entirely new audience. It’s also one of those iconic covers that eclipses the original in every way. It’s not every day a white guy from New York pumps more soul into a track than its original performer, a black artist fondly referred to as ‘The Reverend.’
The song’s greatness is only concreted in the exceptional 1984 film ‘Stop Making Sense.’ Sidebar: It’s worth briefly mentioning the importance of the Heads’ influence on film and music. They understood theatrics and how to make music videos as intelligently designed as they were entertaining. ‘Stop Making Sense,’ their 1984 concert film, is arguably one of the best concert films ever. ‘Take Me To The River’ is one of the greatest Talking Heads Songs ever released.
# 1 – TIE: Psycho Killer & Once In A Lifetime (Talking Heads 77 | Remain In Light)
It would be impossible to name either of these songs as better or worse than the other. ‘Psycho Killer’ defined the Talking Heads as one of the best acts of their generation. This psychotic excursion through serial killer tendencies will remain one of the most driving, riff-centric songs in history. ‘Once In A Lifetime,’ recorded much later in the band’s catalog, concretes their importance as social and personal commentators.
In the same way Byrne commentates on society in ‘Living in Wartime,’ he analyses you on ‘Once In A Lifetime.’ It’s a track about everyday life, monotony, social roles, and constructed rewards for doing life the ‘right way.’ If nothing else, that’s what the Talking Heads Songs gave the world: a route to living life in your own way.
Top 10 Talking Heads Songs
Updated Jan 14, 2021
Written by Brett Stewart
Top 10 Talking Heads Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2016
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