New York rock band Talking Heads started their career as the Artistics, with drummer Chris Frantz and vocalist/guitarist David Byrne. As the group were unable to find a bassist, Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth joined – she learned to play bass by listening to Suzi Quatro records. The trio played at famous New York club CBGB -for their first gig as Talking Heads in 1975, they supported The Ramones. The quartet was completed by guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, formerly a member of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers.
The Talking Heads released their first album in 1977, featuring Byrne’s edgy ‘Psycho Killer’. Their 1978 cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’ took them into the US top 30. The hits continued into the 1980s, with ‘Burning Down The House’, ‘And She Was’, and ‘Wild Wild Life’, The band quietly dissolved in 1988 after recording Naked, officially breaking up in 1991. The other three members tried to reconvene without Byrne in 1996, releasing the unsuccessful No Talking, Just Head with guest vocalists.
The band started out as new wave, but incorporated many other influences – African music on 1980’s Remain In Light, funk on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, and Americana on their David Byrne-dominated albums from the mid-1980s. I’ve only ranked their eight studio albums, but they also have a pair of well-regarded live albums, both best heard in their expanded editions – 1982’s The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads and 1984’s Stop Making Sense. The latter is the soundtrack to a Jonathan Demme concert film that’s a terrific introduction to the band.
Talking Heads Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best
#8: True Stories
True Stories originated from a David Byrne movie set in the fictional Texan town of Virgil. While the film’s actors sang on the soundtrack, the songs on the album are performed by the Talking Heads. Repeating the countrified sound of its predecessor, True Stories is essentially a less enjoyable rerun of Little Creatures. There’s a strong hit single in the joyful ‘Wild Wild Life’ and a solid opener in ‘Love For Sale’, but oherwise True Stories is unremarkable. Deep cut ‘Radio Head’ inspired the name of another famous art-rock band.
#7: Little Creatures
David Byrne assumed control of the Talking Heads for their sixth album. The songs on the previous two records were developed from group jams, but the most tracks on Little Creatures were written by Byrne alone. The funky and layered sound of Speaking in Tongues is replaced by hints of country. There are a pair of excellent singles: the nihilistic ‘Road to Nowhere’ with its choral introduction and the joyful pop/rock of ‘And She Was’. Apart from the deep cut ‘Stay Up Late’, which indicates that you shouldn’t hire David Byrne as a babysitter, the rest of the record is disappointingly thin.
After two records of David Byrne-penned Americana, the Talking Heads returned to their previous method of working up songs from group jams. They recorded in Paris with producer Steve Lillywhite, joined by a vast cast of supporting musicians including ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, cellist Arthur Russell, and vocalist Kirsty MacColl. The fuller sound and return to world music textures are welcome, and highlights like ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’, ‘Blind’, and ‘Mr. Jones’ are worthy additions to their catalogue. Byrne’s lyrics and performances aren’t as captivating as the group’s earlier work, but the lesser tracks here are more interesting than their counterparts on Little Creatures and True Stories.
#5: Talking Heads: 77
The Talking Heads’ debut is disarmingly upbeat – opener ‘Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town’ even features a steel drum. The overall effect is creepy and the group’s sound is thin, but the record does boast signature song ‘Psycho Killer’. The record was co-produced by Tony Bongiovi, cousin of Jon Bon Jovi – he also worked on contemporary records by The Ramones and Ace Frehley.
#4: Speaking In Tongues
After 1980’s Remain In Light, the band took a break and recorded solo albums, including Frantz and Weymouth’s side-project Tom Tom Club and David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (a collaboration with Brian Eno). Speaking In Tongues is a more commercial record than Remain in Light, delivering arty funk within accessible songs. Opener ‘Burning Down The House’ was inspired by Frantz attending a Parliament concert, while ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ is an unusually sincere love song from Byrne. The 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense features the six best songs from Speaking In Tongues, often in punchier versions, rendering it a little redundant.
#3: More Songs About Buildings and Food
Producer Brian Eno linked up with the Talking Heads for their sophomore album. He furnishes them with a fuller sound, making their edgy new wave more accessible. There are plenty of excellent originals like ‘Thank You For Sending Me An Angel’, ‘Found A Job’, and the countrified ‘The Big Country’. The band’s popular breakthrough, however, came with their nervy cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’, their first top 30 hit.
#2: Fear Of Music
The band’s third album was another step forward, more musically inventive and wide-ranging. David Byrne explores a wide range of neuroses, most notably a narrator who’s afraid of breathing in ‘Air’. ‘Life During Wartime’ employed funk rhythms alongside Byrne’s narrative about living at a grave site and surviving on peanut butter. Standout opener ‘I Zimbra’ pointed the way forward for the group, with its lead guitar from Robert Fripp and African feel – the lyrics were taken from a poem by Dada-ist poet Hugo Ball.
#1: Remain In Light
The Talking Heads used ‘I Zimbra’ as a template for their fourth album, combining African rhythms and stream-of-consciousness lyrics into lengthy and exploratory songs. The band is augmented beyond the four core members – Brian Eno is essentially the fifth Talking Head here, and his distinctive backing vocals are noticeable on the single ‘Once In A Lifetime’. The band is also joined by stunt guitarist Adrian Belew, soon to join King Crimson, and Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer on percussion. It’s a masterpiece, paced with stunning pieces like ‘Crosseyed and Painless’, ‘The Great Curve’, and ‘Houses in Motion’.
- 10 Best Talking Heads Songs
- Talking Heads Album Reviews
- Brian Eno: Five Best Songs
- Punk and New Wave Album Reviews
What’s your favourite Talking Heads album?