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David Byrne’s 20 greatest songs of all time

There are few artists who embody creativity like David Byrne. As the leader of the Talking Heads, he championed a brand new sound that would go on to lay the groundwork for an entire decade’s worth of musical development. Creatively, he is unmatched and within his own character, his artistic drive to evolve and push himself is only matched by his sheer and sincere authenticity. It’s is what has made Byrne an undying hero ever since his debut with the band in the mid-70s.

It’s hard to quantify the innumerable influence Byrne and Talking Heads had on rock and roll. The group built its reputation on being supremely undefinable. “Say something once, why say it again?” Byrne once claimed and judging by the list below it’s fair to say he’s kept to that mantra. We’ve compiled 20 of our favourite David Byrne songs both with and without Talking Heads and you can find them all below. 

When Byrne met Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the romantic rhythm section of Talking Heads at the Rhode Island School of Design, the trip had an instant connection. Soon enough they were planning their escape and subsequent domination of New York City. 

The group arrived as the Artistics and soon found themselves in a comfortable position; on the outside. Byrne, the Scottish-born singer found his happy place on the peripheries of society and soon invited the whole world over to his humble abode. It was a marked change in how alternative music was being presented and with the band’s arthouse slant and unstoppable groove.  

Through a string of affected and unquantifiable singles, the group’s prowess grew helped in no small part by the inclusion of Jerry Harrison. With it, so did Byrne’s influence and talent. Though the group came to an end in 1991, Byrne would continue to pursue his artistic direction. Never too far from a helpful collaboration, Byrne has accumulated quite the list of incredible songs. Below, we pick 20 of our favourites. 

David Byrne’s 20 best songs:

20. ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ 

Never one to shy away from adding his own signature style to a song, David Byrne has been known to drop a cracking cover or two. This 1990 cover of Cole Porter’s song took a special place on Byrne’s early solo album Red Hot +Blue.

Whether it’s arthouse or not, Byrne is always poking fun at himself. This track is more proof that fun is central to everything he does and irreverence is as important as solace.

19. ‘A Long Time Ago’ 

Though Byrne has an infectious sense of fun that runs through his work, he is also more than capable of delivering a wonderfully sombre ballad. This song is certainly one of Byrne’s more melancholy pieces and, because of it, it shines brightly among his other work.

‘A Long Time Ago’ from Byrne’s self-titled solo record form 1994 allows the singer to express himself with honest sorrow and deliver his carte blanche statement: “In between stations I can hear/ a million possibilities.”

18. ‘Finite=Alright’ 

Byrne may well have cut his teeth in the depths of the no-nonsense new wave but he soon developed a taste for the elaborate arrangements of classical music.

As part of Feelings from 1997, Byrne allowed a sumptuous string section to tell the story mortality with stunning directness. Although, should we expect anything less from Byrne than directness? He’s made a career out of aiming for a target and hitting it with pinpoint accuracy.

17. ‘Toe Jam’ with The Brighton Port Authority  

We’re going to let you in on a little secret, The Brighton Port Authority is actually just Fatboy Slim in a shack by the seaside — but that doesn’t mean that he and Byrne aren’t capable of providing a kinkier than sex track.

Stream the lively dance number from 2008 below and listen out for Dizzee Rascal’s verse too. It’s one of Byrne’s more adventurous pieces and lands with gusto because of it.

16. ‘And She Was’ 

Taken from the band’s 1985 album Little Creatures the song was another extension of Byrne’s increasing art-driven post-modern vision. While some pursuits of pop had seen the band fall short, on ‘And She Was’, Byrne delivers a straight up pop song.

Powered by classic rock chords, Byrne’s lyrics add some extra colour to the track while much of the song’s popularity lay in its unique music video.

15. ‘Strange Overtones’ with Brian Eno  

David Byrne and Brian Eno would find kindred spirits in one another when they first met in the mid-seventies. As well as working together on some of the band’s seminal moments they also combined on this track.

‘Strange Overtones’ appears on Byrne’s 2008 record Everything That Happens Will Happen Today and is a shining example of their partnership.

14. ‘Nothing But Flowers’  

By the release of the Talking Heads’ final album Naked, the writing had been on the wall for the band for some time. Hostility between Frantz, Weymouth and Byrne had become unbearable and the clear signs that it would all be over were there for everybody to see.

While much of Naked can be forgotten, the album did produce one last hit record, the brilliant ‘Nothing But Flowers’. It’s a moment of fragrant creativity that will linger on as one of the band’s crowning achievements.

13. ‘Snoopies’ with De La Soul  

De La Soul are a band who are genuinely infatuated with David Byrne. Most rap groups will cherry-pick their ’80s flavour bu De La are all in on Byrne.

The snaky new wave sound on ‘Snoopies’ not only gives Byrne his own verse and the hook but a quick reminder that Byrne isn’t held back by any genre or sound.

12. ‘Cities’ 

‘Cities’ may well seem a relatively straightforward track about searching for somewhere to settle in life. The song even talks about the pros and cons of living in a particular area: “Look over there, dry ice factory / good place to get some thinking done,” he sings, but the song is much deeper than that.

As well as addressing mental health it’s also one of the moments to point to when highlighting Brian Eno’s growing influence on the band and their shared determination to rip up the rule book.

11. ‘Who’ with St. Vincent  

If you were looking for a counterpart for David Byrne in modern music you wouldn’t go far wrong in picking St. Vincent, AKA Annie Clark. The mercurial singer has done her fair share of genre-bending and her collaboration with Byrne proves they’re on the same page.

The horn-driven foot-stomper is a guaranteed party-starter and sees Byrne perhaps meet his match for the very first time.

10. ‘Born Under Punches’

The opening track from the band’s 1980 seminal album Remain In Light was always going to need to be punchy. Luckily, the band had the brilliant song ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ up their sleeve and ready to deliver it with a sincere wallop whenever they could.

Funkier than James Brown and Bootsy Collins in a tumble dryer, the band deliver a squawking and squeaking trip into their inner world. It sets the tone for the record and marks out Byrne and Co. as creative juggernauts, incorporating Afrobeat and Devo like electronic pips and squeaks the song takes on a menacing vibe.

9. ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’  

Taken from David Byrne’s latest album, 2018’s American Utopia, the track is typical of his work. Forward-thinking and unashamedly forthright, the lyrics “We’re only tourists in this life/Only tourists but the view is nice,” say it all.

Byrne was showing in 2018 that none of that razor-sharp intelligence had been dulled and he was just as capable as making a statement now as ever before. This incisive piece is certainly one of his best.

8. ‘Love-> Building on Fire

Recorded before the band were completed by Harrison, ‘Love ->Building on Fire’ is the band’s first official release and sees the trio set out their unconventional stall with aplomb.

The song may well be affected by Tony Bongiovi’s traditional rock production but the hallmarks of what would make the band great were already being imprinted on their music. It’s a vision of a band who may well have been forgotten had they not found themselves and clearly defined it with Sire Records.

7. ‘Make Believe Mambo’ 

David Byrne’s 1988 debut solo album would predate Talking Head break-up by three years but perhaps began sowing the seeds of those fruitful summers. On ‘Make Believe Mambo’, Byrne is determined to make you smile and your feet move.

The album sees Byrne once again working with Brian Eno and to devastating effect as he delivers one of his most joyous compositions on ‘Make Believe Mambo’. Listen below and try to stop the infectious groove from brightening your day.

6. ‘Take Me To The River’ 

Another cover, this time of Al Green’s pop gem. While Green’s song may lurch in places, David Byrne and the band go full Michael Jackson with their standing lean into the song. It’s swelling power often allowed the band to really find their groove on stage. 

For their live performances of this song it has to be considered within Byrne’s greatest efforts and, looking back at it, we’re not sure there’s a single person who performs this song better than David Byrne and Talking Heads. 

5. ‘Road to Nowhere’ 

As we reach the top five the decisions get a lot more difficult. It’s a testament to the wide ranging variety of Byrne’s work that picking a “best” song is nigh-on impossible. We’d happily claim any of these top five as our own best work.

‘Road To Nowhere’ is about as classic a David Byrne song as you’re likely to find. Not only is it built on a chugging bassline but it also has a pearl of fun in the middle of every gritty oyster. Another Little Creatures single described by Byrne as a “joyful look at doom.”

“At our deaths and at the apocalypse… (always looming, folks). I think it succeeded. The front bit, the white gospel choir, is kind of tacked on, ’cause I didn’t think the rest of the song was enough… I mean, it was only two chords. So, out of embarrassment, or shame, I wrote an intro section that had a couple more in it.”

4. ‘Burning Down The House’ 

One song that has always stuck out on the Talking Heads’ live albums is the brilliant ‘Burning Down The House’. The song has an unstoppable power that makes every performance of it feel like a surreal ordeal, ending with panting and sweating.

Released in 1983 as the first single from Speaking in Tongues, the song was born out of the band’s mutual adoration of funk music. Tina Weymouth remembers, “Chris [Frantz, drummer] had just been to see Parliament-Funkadelic in its full glory at Madison Square Garden, and he was really hyped. During the jam, he kept yelling ‘Burn down the house!’ which was a P-Funk audience chant, and David [Byrne] dug the line, changing it to the finished version, ‘Burning down the house’.”

The song quickly became the band’s biggest track in the US and saw the Talking Heads finally receive the commercial success their critical triumphs deserved.

3. ‘Once In a Lifetime’

One of Talking Heads most famous songs, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is a nuanced and quirk-filled alt-pop powerhouse. In many ways, the track represents the collective creativity of the band but its power resonates largely in the lyrics and tone of David Byrne’s brilliant vocal.

The song appears on the band’s fourth album Remain in Light and is around the midpoint of Talking Heads’ output as a band. At this time, Byrne, the leading man and creative force of the band was at his most exuberantly expressive but it was his work with another on this song that would push it towards its worthy legend status.

During the recording of the album, Byrne was working with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while also working on the soundtrack of The Catherine Wheel. It was this kind of continuous creativity alongside one of electronic music’s most fervent pioneers, that made Byrne one of the most exciting and prospering rock and roll singers of the day.

2. ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’  

Released as the second single from Speaking in Tongues the brilliant ‘This Must Be The Place’ is about as close to a distillation of David Byrne’s talent as you’re likely to find. The singer is in imperious form, allowing his creation to truly reach new heights.

The love song, a topic Byrne usually avoids as the topic is “kinda big,” also said of the track: “That’s a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities. It’s a real honest kind of love song.”

Adding: “I don’t think I’ve ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation, or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that.” We think he should be and on the band’s concert film Stop Making Sense the performance of the track is matched by only one.

1. ‘Psycho Killer’

While our favourite performances of this song include their famous 1975 appearance at CBGB’s opening for the Ramones to Byrne dressed in an inside-out bodysuit performing the song in the mid-90s. Whichever way you cut it, it’s unthinkable to put any song ahead of ‘Psycho Killer’ as Byrne’s best.

Released as part of the band’s debut album Talking Heads: 77 the group managed to convince producer Tony Bongiovi that their original cut needed some more power to it. So they quickly began to heap more and more bass into the song as Byrne’s story of a serial killer unfurls.

It’s an area of life which has always been attractive to Byrne, “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad,” he said. “Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”

When the first iconic notes of ‘Psycho Killer’ came pounding out of the speakers, everybody roots for David Byrne and Talking Heads.

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