INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Ultimate Classic Rock SEPTEMBER 11, 2014 - by Bryan Wawzenek
TALKING HEADS ALBUMS, RANKED FROM WORST TO BEST
For the decade and a half that they held it together, Talking Heads led a charmed musical career. David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (who were soon joined by Jerry Harrison) formed the most creative and sonically adventurous band to come out of the CBGB punk scene. Over the course of eight albums, the group grew to embrace R&B, pop, funk, Afrobeat and other world music - incorporating bizarre permutations of each into their tightly wound sound. And somehow - amid being fiercely experimental and writing songs about serial murderers, conservation and midlife crises - Talking Heads had actual pop hits (partially thanks to MTV). Despite the commercial success of songs such as Burning Down The House and albums like Speaking In Tongues, most of the cool kids didn't start calling for their, ahem, heads. Byrne and company pulled off the nifty trick of being immensely popular while simultaneously having their albums held up as paragons of forward-thinking pop-rock. But how do those albums hold up now, more than twenty-five years after the band's swan song was released? Let's do some Heads-scratching and rank Talking Heads' studio albums from worst to best.
8 TRUE STORIES (1986) - For a record that's been acknowledged as a "mistake", this album isn't too shabby. The kinda-sorta soundtrack to David Byrne's independent movie of the same name, True Stories' features the band's versions of songs featured in the film (in which they are sung by characters played by Pops Staples and John Goodman). Byrne was compelled to sing these renditions by the flick's financiers, something he publicly regretted. But that's not the only issue. This is the Heads album that's most stocked with pleasant but inconsequential filler, most of it a little too slick on the production end. But highlights remain, including the driving bounce of hit single Wild, Wild Life and the buzzsaw crunch of the anti-commercialism rant Love For Sale. The most notable thing about Radio Head is that it inspired the moniker of a group that also would gild the lily by making incredibly inventive music that found a large audience.
7 NAKED (1988) - When things are getting tense, bring in extra musicians - just ask the Beatles. Before the members of Talking Heads stopped speaking to each other, they made the decision to record an album in Paris and invite about thirty other musicians (from French keyboardists to Latin percussionists to ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr) to participate in the sessions. Although the experience of fashioning these sometimes dark, sometimes dance-y grooves was freewheeling, the results are a few shimmies short of the Heads' earlier worldbeat dalliances. You can't help but think that something more exciting fell under the iron of Steve Lillywhite's crisp, NPR-friendly production. Still, the over-adorned Naked is about as ambitious as final albums go, and there's no hint of acrimony in the music. The rambunctious, polyrhythmic energy of tunes like Mr. Jones forecasts David Byrne's eclectic solo career, while (Nothing But) Flowers remains one of the band's most lively, clever and funny songs.
6 MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD (1978) - Talking Heads' second LP and first collaboration with producer Brian Eno found the band both expanding their musical vocabulary and bringing their disparate influences into a more cohesive whole. The result was an album that retained the unsettled energy of the NYC punk scene but added full-bodied funk. This irresistible mix resulted in the band's first Top 40 hit: a dynamite cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River that matched a deep soul groove with needle-nosed guitars and David Byrne's keening pleas. Although most of the tunes on More Songs About Buildings And Food are not as memorable as the ones on the Heads' debut, the basslines certainly are. Eno's supervision - plus a year of touring - strengthened the band's playing (especially when it came to the married rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz). In stark contrast to the Heads' addled R&B was the glistening album-closer The Big Country, which found Byrne looking down his nose, and out the window, at "flyover country". It turned out that his tales of alienation worked not just in angular funk but also in a country music construct - something the band would explore further on up the road (to nowhere).
5 LITTLE CREATURES (1985) - On their sixth album, the group plunged head first into Americana. Some songs gained steel guitar (Creatures Of Love) and accordion was added to others (Road To Nowhere), while David Byrne seemed to focus his razor-sharp pen on the 'Little Creatures' he encountered while exploring America on tour. Then the voices of these characters coalesce into a full chorus that gallops into oblivion - or at least the city in Byrne's mind - on Road To Nowhere. Like many records made in the mid-'80s, Little Creatures' airless production hasn't aged well, its unforgiving sharpness often at odds with the left-of-center characters the band describes. But the songs are great. The Lady Don't Mind is textbook Byrne weirdness, with the singer apparently having a conversation with himself throughout the sax-spiked tune. Meanwhile, Stay Up Late is as good as anything he ever wrote. On paper, it reads as an innocuous older brother having fun with the new baby in the house. But heard via Byrne's staccato yelps, the song sounds much more sadistic. That only makes it more interesting.
4 TALKING HEADS: 77 (1977) - From side one, track one of their debut, Talking Heads showed they were not your typical band (they weren't even the typical band to come out of CBGB). On Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town, a rubber-band bass line meets prickly guitar, rock-steady pounding take their place alongside clangs of steel drums and David Byrne cries out, "I'm not the people you read about in books." Understatement anyone? Talking Heads: 77 still sounds ahead of its time, presenting a punky band with a passion for R&B - and one that could actually play it. The groove ability is undeniable, but so is the band's off-kilter attack. Both shine brilliantly on Psycho Killer, a debut single so strange, so mysterious and so great that it's still discussed as Talking Heads' signature song. Almost as good is album finisher Pulled Up, a frenetic rave-up-up-up-up with Motown, pop and punk in its DNA.
3 SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1983) - After putting out their masterpiece (see Number 1 on our list of Talking Heads Albums, Ranked From Worst To Best), and after creating music at a furious pace (four boundary-challenging albums in as many years), Talking Heads took a three-year break. When the members reconvened, they seemed to be more open to pop melodies again, albeit in a very Head-y way. And so we were given Speaking In Tongues (a reference to the gibberish David Byrne would sing as placeholders on working tracks), an album brought the funk... along with the band's strongest set of pure songs. Girlfriend Is Better dragged an R&B workout into the New Wave era (and coined the name of the band's 1984 concert movie, Stop Making Sense). Swamp mixed John Lee Hooker-esque growling blues with synth-rock (and might be responsible for Byrne's creepiest vocal - which is saying something). Burning Down The House transformed a P-Funk jam into a slicing, dicing shout-along classic (and a Top 10 hit!). Then there's This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody), a rare love song from Byrne that's as sweet as it is slippery.
2 FEAR OF MUSIC (1979) - After gaining attention with Psycho Killer on their first album and scoring a genuine hit with Take Me To The River on their second, the members of Talking Heads made a conscious decision against becoming a singles band. For their third LP, the band sought to create their most cohesive work yet, recording all of the basic tracks in two one-day sessions. The result was Fear Of Music, Talking Heads' darkest album, packed with misanthropes, paranoiacs and people so freaked out they can't even form words (I Zimbra). The characters' worldview was so bleak, they're even terrified of air and relish ending up in heaven ("a place where nothing ever happens"). Brian Eno returned to produce, adding electronic treatments to build on the band's open embrace of disco rhythms. David Byrne might have shrieked, "This ain't no disco!" on the glorious Life During Wartime, but the song could have been played in one. Fear Of Music featured the smartest, strangest dance music ever released... until the Heads' next album.
1 REMAIN IN LIGHT (1980) - This is not only Talking Heads' best record, it's on the shortlist of the most innovative albums ever made. Under the influence of Brian Eno, the group began to weave African music into the dance grooves (years before Paul Simon's Graceland did the same thing in a less transformative manner). Also, Eno and the members implemented the cutting-edge tactic of crafting loops and samples to form the core of tracks. That was unheard of when it came to rock, so it makes the music on this album a second cousin of hip-hop (another influence on the album in terms of Byrne's delivery). Few bands have ever been so fearlessly creative as to make an extended tribal groove that is as breakneck as it is epic, then perforate it with a snarling guitar solo from Adrian Belew (The Great Curve). Once In A Lifetime is so weird, it's hard to believe it's become a celebrated staple of our musical past. Such is the power of a dive-bombing bassline, intriguing synthesizer sounds and Byrne's nervy, nerdy charisma. After running themselves ragged on the earlier parts of the album, Talking Heads slow down and stretch out on the last three tracks, proving that they can be just as interesting after the dance party ends. Droning closer The Overload adds layer after layer of texture as it stretches into the void as the occasional squawking loop pays homage to another, great meditative final track: Tomorrow Never Knows. Is there a way for such dark thoughts to remain in light? Talking Heads found a way.