Talking Heads emerged from the mid-1970s CBGB scene, along with Blondie, The Ramones, and Television. Neurotic frontman David Byrne formed the band with drummer Chris Frantz. When the new band was unable to find a bass player, Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth learned to play by listening to Suzi Quatro records. The band was completed by keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison, who’d previously played with Jonathan Richman in The Modern Lovers.

The band started playing nervy new wave, exemplified by the 1977 single ‘Psycho Killer’. They beefed up their sound with the help of producer Brian Eno, culminating in the 1980 masterpiece Remain in Light. The band’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense is beloved. Later in their career, the other Talking Heads became a backing band for David Byrne; he dominated their less notable later efforts like 1985’s Little Creatures and 1986’s True Stories.

Here are my picks for the ten best Talking Heads songs. The band have a lot of great deep cuts, so there was no room for excellent singles like ‘Psycho Killer’, ‘Life During Wartime’, ‘Road to Nowhere’, and ‘And She Was’.

10 Best Talking Heads Songs

#10 – Listening Wind

from Remain in Light, 1980
Remain in Light is a studio-intense creation, influenced by the African poly-rhythms of Fela Kuti. ‘Listening Wind’, nestled in the mellower second half of the record, features Arabic sounds. It tells the story of an anti-Imperialism terrorist – the terse narrative leads into the unexpectedly beautiful and haunting chorus (“the wind in my heart”).


#9 – Crosseyed and Painless

from Remain in Light, 1980
The three opening tracks on Remain in Light are all terrific, with lengthy running times to explore Afro-beat rhythms. ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ is a studio-based creation – Eno and Byrne created the tracks from loops of the band’s jams. It’s therefore impressive that the band could recreate it live, and it’s a highlight of Stop Making Sense, with Byrne playing lead guitar.

Facts are simple and facts are straight.
Facts are lazy and facts are late.
Facts all come with points of view.
Facts don’t do what I want them to.


#8 – Thank You For Sending Me An Angel

Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food

from More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978
The opening track from the Talking Heads’ first album with Brian Eno in the producer’s chair. ‘Thank You For Sending Me An Angel’ explodes out of the gate with its lively rhythm guitar and Chris Frantz’s drum fills. I have no idea what Byrne’s singing about, but it doesn’t match the title – “first I’ll walk in circles ’round you, but first I’ll walk around the world.”


#7 – Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town

Talking Heads: 77

from Talking Heads ’77, 1977
On the Talking Heads’ debut, David Byrne is creepily insincere. On the opening track, ‘Uh-Oh Love Comes to Town’ he’s so insincere that it’s charming. Backed with Chris Frantz’s cheesy steel pans, Byrne sings lines that would fit better as the opening theme for a children’s TV show; “So here come a riddle, here come a clue. If you were really smart, you’d know what to do.”


#6 – Memories Can’t Wait

Talking Heads Fear of Music

from Fear of Music, 1979
Much of 1979’s Fear of Music follows a brilliant formula – the songs have one word titles, Byrne’s lyrics express his concerns about the titular object, over his and Harrison’s interlocking guitars. ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ is tucked into the centre of the record, and rhythmically focused, with the pulsing, reverbed guitar.
Living Colour covered ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ on their debut album.

There’s a party in my mind
And I hope it never stops
There’s a party up there all the time
And they’ll party till they drop


#5 – This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues

from Speaking in Tongues, 1983
The closing track to 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, ‘This Must Be The Place’ is an unusual Talking Heads song. It’s an uncharacteristically straightforward declaration of love from Byrne. The band members swap instruments – while Frantz is on drums, Weymouth is on guitar, Harrison plays synth bass, while Byrne alternates between guitar and keyboards, taking the synth solo. It wasn’t a big hit initially, missing the top 50, but it’s subsequently gained popularity on streaming platforms.


#4 – Burning Down The House

from Speaking in Tongues, 1983
The opener for Speaking in Tongues was inspired by Byrne observing the religious fervour at a Parliament/Funkadelic concert, and it channels George Clinton’s funk through new wave. The studio version is fine, but the definitive version is on 1984’s Stop Making Sense. The band is augmented by guest musicians, including Parliament’s Bernie Worrell, delivering a punchier take.


#3 – The Great Curve

from Remain in Light, 1980
Guitarist Adrian Belew, soon to join Robert Fripp in King Crimson, was an important auxiliary musician on Remain In Light. ‘The Great Curve’ is his shining moment, with his stunt guitar adding firepower to the funky groove. Byrne’s lyrics are inspired by Africa; the line “The world moves on a woman’s hips”, was garnered from Professor Robert Farris Thompson’s book African Art in Motion.


#2 – Once In A Lifetime

Talking Heads Remain in Light

from Remain in Light, 1980
The best-known song from Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece, Remain In Light. ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is hooky and radio-friendly. The verses consist of David Byrne aphorisms – “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/ With a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well/ How did I get here?” I love how producer Brian Eno is clearly audible in the chorus backing vocals.


#1 – I Zimbra

from Fear of Music, 1979
Everything that makes Talking Heads great is in the opener to 1979’s Fear of Music – the creative rhythms, with the band signalling the African explorations of Remain in Light, the terrific production and textural exploration from Brian Eno, and Harrison and Byrne’s inter-locking guitar parts. The lyrics weren’t written by Byrne – they’re from dada-ist German poet Hugo Ball.

Did I leave out your favourite Talking Heads song? Do you agree that Remain in Light is one of the greatest albums of the 1980s? How do you feel about 1985’s Little Creatures?

29 Comments

  1. The albums, I admire Remain in Light but prefer listening to Fear in Music.
    Our top 10s have some overlap
    Life During Wartime
    This Must Be the Place
    Burning Down The House
    Psycho Killer
    Once In A Lifetime
    Road To Nowhere
    Found A Job
    Making Flippy Floppy (live) (from 1984’s Stop Making Sense)
    Girlfriend is Better
    Born Under Punches

    • That’s a good list – Born Under Punches was the only opener from their first five albums I didn’t include. Your list is pretty heavy on Speaking in Tongues.

      • Remain in Light was a bit intense/exhausting for me as an album. Speaking in Tongues I found more accessible. Liked your list too.

        • Speaking in Tongues is an interesting one, as the best six songs all turn up on Stop Making Sense, often in better versions. It’s still one of their stronger albums though.

  2. Interesting list, I’ve always liked Tenative Decisions off the 77 album.

  3. My favourite Talking Heads song has always been ‘Mind’ from Fear of Music — it was described in a music publication once as, “Watching your friend finally discover David Bowie,” which I feel is apt!

  4. Good list… for me Life During Wartime, Road to Nowhere, and Psycho Killer. I also liked their version of Take Me To The River.

    • I wonder if I get reactionary against the big hits in this kind of list – although I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘Life During Wartime’ on the radio.

      • I’ve heard that one but mostly it was on MTV. I’m the same way with Beatle songs.
        There is something I noticed…not many Talking Head fans will list Take Me To The River as a favorite. I like it better than Al Greens.

        • It’s actually the first song that made me sit up and take notice of them – I heard it before Green’s. More Songs About Buildings and Food was their first album I bought as well.

  5. I haven’t got to Remain in Light yet, I liked the first 3 albums though.
    They’re a group that I didn’t really remember standout tracks – apart from of course Psycho Killer, my gateway to the band!

  6. Thanks.
    Such a deep and diverse catalogue.
    Youve got me ransacking my shelves!
    Regards Thom

  7. Sorry I’d just have to pick every single track from Remain In Light. I don’t think music gets much better tbh.

  8. Like Thom I’ll be diving into some Heads.

  9. Born Under Punches
    Mind
    Wild Wild Life
    Once in a Lifetime
    Drugs
    This Must Be the Place
    Take Me to the River
    Slippery People
    Crosseyed and Painless
    I Get Wild / Wild Gravity

  10. My Talking Heads Top Ten:-
    Love Goes To Building On Fire
    The Big Country
    Nothing But Flowers
    Life During Wartime
    Wild Wild Life
    The Great Curve
    Psycho Killer
    Crosseyed And Painless
    Born Under Punches
    Pulled Up
    I saw Talking Heads in January 1978, supported by a comparatively little-known Dire Straits, in front of less than 500 people. In 1980 I saw them supported by a very young U2. Great gigs.
    By the way, check out Angelique Kidjo’s recording of the entire Remain In Light album – it’s excellent.

  11. All great songs. Here’s my top ten picks:
    10. Don’t Worry About the Government
    9. Love > Building on Fire
    8. Girlfriend Is Better
    7. Psycho Killer
    6. Road to Nowhere
    5. Making Flippy Floppy
    4. Life During Wartime
    3. Burning Down the House
    2. Once in a Lifetime
    1. Crosseyed and Painless

    • That’s a good list that’s almost totally different from mine outside the top 3. I like the other Speaking in Tongues tracks you listed – just couldn’t fit them on.

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