“It’s not yesterday anymore,” David Byrne sings in the opening line of “New Feeling,” one of Talking Heads‘ earliest songs which would appear on the band’s 1977 debut album. Right from the start and all the way through their decade-plus career, Talking Heads never felt like yesterday. Every record took them somewhere new, every tour too, even in those early years when they rarely made it outside of the five boroughs, even when after incorporating music from around the world into their sound, they zagged into explorations of more traditional rock and pop styles. It was always somewhere new for them.
Talking Heads are one of our great American bands. Not just in that that they formed here, New York City to be exact, but that America is central to their identity. From the start, David Byrne has been obsessed with the idea of America though his ideas on it have changed from critical of the flyover states early in their career (see “The Big Country”) to embracing small town life on True Stories. As his hit Broadway show American Utopia showed, it’s still very much on his mind.
With A24’s new 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense in theaters, and all four members getting along well enough to be the same room together more than once — fueling hopes for an actual reunion — it seems like a good time to look back on Talking Heads’ discography. We rank their 10 official albums — eight studio and two live albums — where all four members are involved. (Sorry, 1996’s No Talking, Just Head, you were not included.) The band never made a bad record but some have held up better than others, and a few still feel like something new.
True Stories (1986)
True Stories is pretty much everyone’s least favorite Talking Heads album, including the members of Talking Heads. The album bears the same name as David Byrne’s feature film directorial debut of the same name, but this is not the soundtrack but versions of the songs in the film given more of a band treatment with vocals by Byrne. The film is a quirky, often surreal, slice-of-life comedy, inspired by headlines from The Weekly World News and other ’80s tabloids, set in a small town in Texas with songs sung by the cast, including John Goodman, Pops Staples, Annie Mcenroe,Tito Larriva, and John Ingle, plus Terry Allen, and more. Byrne didn’t want to record or release Talking Heads versions of the songs, but the studio insisted as part of the deal to make the movie. Where you believe John Goodman’s character would sing a folky song about regular folks like “People Like Us,” it didn’t work coming from a New York cityslicker like Byrne who later said it “always felt weird to me.” (The intended original soundtrack finally got a release in 2018 with the Criterion Blu-ray of the film.) That said, there are some great songs: “Wild Wild Life” (#25 in the Billboard Hot 100), “Love for Sale,” and lovely ballad “City of Dreams.” Plus without “Radio Head,” another of the album’s best songs, we’d have to call Radiohead something else.
Following two self-produced albums steeped in American sounds and attempts to be a four-piece band again (Little Creatures, and True Stories), David Byrne felt the need for collaboration with musicians from around the world, as well as a producer who could whip these into hits. Original sessions began as they had 10 years before, jamming in Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth’s Queens loft, but then the band decamped to Paris with producer Steve Lillywhite, fresh off working on one of the biggest albums of the 1980s, U2’s The Joshua Tree. Talking Heads expanded their worldview, welcoming some 30 additional musicians to contribute, including Johnny Marr, Arthur Russell, Mory Kanté, “Duelling Banjos” player Eric Weissberg, and Lillywhite’s wife, Kirsty MacColl. The sessions did result in the wonderful “Nothing But Flowers” — and “Sax and Violins” which wouldn’t be finished till the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World — but nothing else comes close to grabbing us the same way. Like a lot of “final” albums by bands with a clear leader, Naked was an impressive-sounding shrug that pointed to where Byrne would go with his solo career.
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)
You are probably familiar with Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads’ justly lauded concert film and live album of their 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour, but less people may realize that it was the band’s second terrific, essential live album in their discography. Recorded in four separate years across two vinyl albums, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads shows the rapid progression of the band from the nervy quartet heard on their 1977-1978 tour, to the 10-piece rhythm-forward, forward-thinking, globally inspired groove machine of their 1980-1981 Remain in Light tour. The ’77-’78 half shows, on songs like “New Feeling,” “Don’t Worry About the Government” and “Pulled Up,” what a crackerjack live band the original four-piece were, and puts more of a spotlight on the rhythm section, Tina Weymouth’s elastic, melodic basslines in particular. If that was more of a house party, the second disc takes over a block — or Central Park where some of it was recorded — with the band’s augmented lineup pumping everything up. Nona Hendryx, one of Remain in Light‘s secret weapons, is a welcome vocal presence and the augmented lineup sound great but song selection on the original album is odd — the 2013 expanded reissue added “Once in a Lifetime,” “Born Under Punches,” “Cities” and more — and as good as it is, it feels like a dry run for what this band would become on the Speaking in Tongues tour.
Little Creatures (1985)
After growing larger, sonically, with every album and reaching a maximalist zenith with the Speaking in Tongues tour documented in Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads decided to scale back and look to their own country for inspiration.
Featuring twangy instrumentation, conventional rhythms and song structures, and cover art by southern outsider artist Howard Finster (who also did R.E.M.’s Reckoning the year before), this was Byrne’s bid for the group to be an American Pop Band and they mostly succeed. “And She Was,” “Stay Up Late,” “Walk it Down,” “The Lady Don’t Mind,” and the enduring “Road To Nowhere” are as straightforward as they’d ever been while still being quirky and distinctive in very mid-’80s fashion. The rest of the album is memorable too, giving Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison lots to do while still making room for a dozen or so guests. None of those singles hit the charts with any force, but Little Creatures was the first Talking Heads studio album to go platinum and was their last “great” album.
More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Coming less than a year after their debut, More Songs About Buildings and Food was the start of Talking Heads’ fruitful collaboration with Brian Eno who would shepherd the band into the ’80s with expanded horizons. The title, a riff on a joke about what to name the record made by Tina Weymouth, was pretty spot-on with the band still pulling from the well of songs they had when signing to Sire. If they aren’t quite as distinctive as the songs on 77, Eno helped this tense and nervous group find their groove and maybe relax just a little. “Found a Job” and the exciting, propulsive “I’m Not In Love” point to the where Talking Heads would very soon be going, while “The Girl Wants to Be With the Girls” and “The Big Country” continue to find Byrne fascinated with “normal people” that he doesn’t understand…and at this point doesn’t really want to. More Songs also netted them their first hit single with their signature cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” that went to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Fear of Music (1979)
Enter polyrythms! After two albums that mostly featured songs they had played live in the first two years of their existence, Talking Heads were in new territory and saw it as a chance to leap forward, with More Song About Buildings and Food producer Brian Eno, who was becoming a more integral part of the equation, there for the assist. African pop and other “world” influences were integrated into the band’s sound that was more explicitly funky and discofied. This was most apparent on opening track “I Zimbra” that put rhythm to the forefront more than ever before and also featured dada-ist lyrics from Byrne and the distinctive guitarwork of Eno’s friend and King Crimson leader Robert Fripp. (The song is basically like a test run for their next album, Remain in Light.) The album was recorded where where they had written and rehearsed — Chris and Tina’s loft in Long Island City, Queens — with the bulk of it laid down live across two days in the spring of 1979 as engineers and Eno monitored things from a mobile sound truck parked outside that sent cables up the wall of the building and in through their windows. Street noise bled in occasionally which added to the album’s themes of urban dystopia which were present in both the most memorable songs (“Life During Wartime,” “Cities”) and Jerry Harrison’s cover design whose corrugated sleeve felt pried off Avenue A’s pavement.
Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
Talking Heads: 77 is the kind of confident debut album that comes from lots of practice, gigging and quick recording. After two years as a trio of Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth, and playing almost exclusively in New York City, Talking Heads finally followed fellow CBGB regulars Ramones and signed to independent label Sire Records — who had been courting them since their very first show — and let the rest of the world hear them. They waited to record until their newest member, Jerry Harrison (who previously played in The Modern Lovers), finished up his semester at Harvard where he was pursuing a graduate degree in architecture. (He did finish the semester but that was the end of graduate school.) Talking Heads had no shortage of songs that had been tested and honed on local audiences and Talking Heads: 77 is full of classics. Musically, “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town” wasn’t miles away from songs that got played on the radio at the time, but introduced Byrne as a man who didn’t exactly fit in and viewed matters of the heart like an alien catching broadcasts of American TV that have traveled across the galaxy. (His vocal style on the album was also a little much for some though it seems much less strange now.) From there, the music bends more to Byrne’s tilted point of view on nervy gems like “Tentative Decisions,” “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “Pulled Up,” and all-timer “Psycho Killer.” Nearly 50 years later, having having inspired countless other artists, 77 still feels delightfully odd and singular.
Speaking in Tongues (1983)
After three albums made with Brian Eno that wildly expanded their horizons, Talking Heads had the confidence to produce themselves for their fifth album. Having learned a lot from Eno, Byrne in particular wanted to apply that to more pop songwriting. Byrne may have felt a little pressure/jealousy as Frantz and Weymouth’s Tom Tom Club beat Talking Heads to the Gold Record Club the year before with their debut album (featuring “Genius of Love”), and was determined to land his band a big hit. He got it. Released June 1, 1983, Speaking in Tongues gave them their only US Top 10 single, the irresistible “Burning Down the House,” but “Slippery People,” “Swamp,” “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Girlfriend is Better” were just as good. Best of all, though, was closing cut “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” whose title was a reference to the song’s creation — the members were not playing their usual instruments — and is now just about everyone’s favorite Talking Heads song. The album also got Talking Heads their only two Grammy nominations while they were still togehter, and though “Burning Down the House” lost Best Rock Performance by a Group to The Police’s “Synchronicity II,” Robert Rauchenberg’s amazing design work on the limited edition version of the album that came in a clear plastic sleeve deservedly won for Best Album Package. As great as the album is, the best versions of many of these songs were still to come.
Remain in Light (1980)
Increasingly inspired by African pop music like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, Talking Heads used Fear of Music‘s “I Zimbra” as a jumping-off point when they entered Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas in January 1980 to begin work on their fourth album. Coming in with no prewritten material, the band jammed and after listening back to the recordings they selected their favorite moments. With Brian Eno back for a third time — basically a fifth member of the band here — they used those moments of inspiration as a basis for more structured jams. Years before sampling, Talking Heads had to learn to play those little parts endlessly for extended sessions, combining a few different of those “loops” into rhythm-heavy and decidedly funky grooves. Likewise, Byrne took a deconstructed approach to the vocals and lyrics, essentially “scatting” nonsense over the backing tracks and then going back, listening, using the bits he liked, finding meaning where there had been none. The band also brought in more collaborators — guitarist Adrian Belew, and singer Nona Hendryx in particular — who would be essential to the sound of the album. Opening with an exclamatory shout from Byrne, Remain in Light was a kick in the head when it was released in October, a massive leap forward for the band — and Eno — who lept into the 1980s sounding like the future. Side 1 features three undeniable, twisty funk jams (“Born Under Punches,” “Crosseyed & Painless,” “The Great Curve”), while Side 2 kicks off with “Once in a Lifetime,” which distills everything they were trying to do on Remain in Light into one of the greatest singles of the ’80s. From there, things chill out and get wonderfully wonderfully weird. After getting dinged by a few critics for “I Zimbra,” Byrne also made a point to be very upfront about the African influences this time; his letter with the album’s press kit included a bibliography of suggested reading. “Our process led us to something with some affinity to Afro-funk, but we got there the long way round, and of course our version sounded slightly off,” Byrne told The Library of Congress in 2017 when Remain in Light was added to the National Recording Registry.. “We didn’t get it quite right, but in missing, we ended up with something new.” What Talking Heads did here has been borrowed from so many times over the last 40 years, it may have lots a little of that lustre, but crank this one up, with dozens of their sonic miracles flying around the stereo field, and Remain in Light is still a total knockout.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Is it cheating to award the top spot on this list to a live album, the soundtrack to a concert film to be precise, that is essentially a Greatest Hits to that point in Talking Heads career? Not when it’s Stop Making Sense. Conceived by David Byrne, the tour supporting 1983’s Speaking in Tongues played like the Talking Heads Story, more or less taking audiences through the band’s history using a clever conceit: the show began with David Byrne and a boombox playing “Psycho Killer,” and from there the rest of the band — including additional players Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir and Steve Scales along with backup singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry — joining gradually as the songs and arrangements got bigger and more complex. Then there’s Byrne’s iconic Big Suit, inspired by Japanese Noh theatre, which makes its appearance during “Girlfriend is Better,” and his dance with a lamp during “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” It was as engaging visually as the music and just begged to be filmed, which it was after the tour ended in December, 1983 across four shows at L.A.’s Pantages Theater by director Jonathan Demme and released to theaters in April 1984. As great as the film is — and many consider it to be the best concert film ever made — Stop Making Sense works just as well without the Big Suit and other visuals. This was Talking Heads first record to sell one million copies, and was many people’s first real introduction to the band. Let’s make the case for this topping our list. These are the definitive versions of many songs — especially those on the original nine-song soundtrack album, specifically “Girlfriend is Better,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Swamp,” and “Slippery People” — and it features the band at their creative and performative zenith. The show was such a wow that they never toured again and while Talking Heads would make three more albums, none of them topped what had come before. If there is just one Talking Heads album you could take with you to a desert island, this must be the place.
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