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Music

Ranking David Byrne and Brian Eno’s collaborative albums

Talking Heads caused a stir with their debut album in 1977, not least for its unnerving lead single ‘Psycho Killer’, a track which invited the band to the global arena from the off with its unforgettable bassline and funky progression. The choppy guitar and yelping delivery from David Byrne saw the band erroneously filed away in the burgeoning drawer of punk music at the time. This label didn’t fall comfortably upon their shoulders, but with such a progressive sound, they were difficult to pin down. 

The band’s creative breakthrough with Talking Heads: 77 attracted the attention of the musical marvel and creative eccentric Brian Eno. The former Roxy Music synth player was particularly drawn in by the funky, rhythmic approach the New York band were developing and wanted in on the action. 

Eno first met Byrne in May 1977 when he tagged along with John Cale to a Ramones gig which Talking Heads supported. The very next day, Eno welcomed Byrne to his apartment to listen to music and become better acquainted. The pair bonded as Eno introduced Byrne to Fela Kuti, whose album Afrodisiac would have a pivotal impact on the pair’s subsequent collaborations. 

Inviting Eno to join the group as producer and creative collaborator, Talking Heads released the first of their “Eno trilogy”, More Songs About Buildings and Food, in 1978. The album marked the beginning of an extremely fruitful collaboration between Byrne and Eno, carrying them through to 1981 with four albums to show for their labours. 

The pair’s final work together, until 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, was Eno’s involvement in three of David Byrne’s compositions for The Catherine Wheel, a musical score commissioned for choreographer Twyla Tharp. At this stage, Byrne’s close professional relationship with Eno had begun to strain Talking Heads, so the band decided to self-produce their subsequent three albums.

David Byrne and Brian Eno’s collaborative albums ranked:

5. Brian Eno & David Byrne – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Finding itself at the bottom of the pile is Eno and Byrne’s 2008 reunion album. Often these lists will come with a varied spectrum of albums, with the worst being in some way artistically corrupt, uninteresting or downright unlistenable. For this list, that is not the case. It’s difficult to fault Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, but perhaps it just lacks the pioneering element the following albums enjoy.

The record offers a deep pool to dive into with an intriguing collection of soaring folk and gospel-inspired tracks layered with the pair’s typical avant-garde instrumentals and Byrne’s absorbing lyrics. Eno told BBC Radio 6 that the music attempts to “make that picture of the human still trying to survive in an increasingly complicated digital world… It’s quite easy to make just digital music, and it’s quite easy to make just human music, but to try and make a combination is sort of, exciting, I think.”

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4. Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food

This 1978 release marked the beginning of the Eno era for Talking Heads. More Songs About Buildings and Food took the first of several steps toward more danceable and rhythmically-focussed music. The album also featured the band’s first top-30 single with the erotic cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’.  

The appropriate title for the album seems to pertain to the band’s characteristic artistic exploration of quotidian subjects. In a 1979 interview with Creem, bassist Tina Weymouth said of the title: “When we were making this album, I remembered this stupid discussion we had about titles for the last album. At that time, I said, ‘What are we gonna call an album that’s just about buildings and food?’ And Chris said, ‘You call it more songs about buildings and food.”

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3. Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life In the Bush of Ghosts

Eno’s stint with Talking Heads reached a climax with the 1980 masterpiece Remain In Light which boasted a delicate balance between commercial appeal and experimentalism. At around the same time, Byrne and Eno had been working on a side project consisting of less commercial material. What resulted was 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a progressive feat of musical alchemy that may not have sold as well as the preceding Talking Heads releases but was highly revered by peers. 

Speaking to Howard Johnson in 1996, Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright said it “knocked me sideways when I first heard it – full of drum loops, samples and soundscapes. Stuff that we really take for granted now, but which was unheard of in all but the most progressive musical circles at the time… The way the sounds were mixed in was so fresh, it was amazing.”  

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2. Talking Heads – Fear of Music

Following the meet and greet smorgasbord, More Songs About Buildings and Food, the collaboration blossomed into something more refined and conceptually focused in 1979. Fear of Music stands up as one of Talking Heads’ finest releases boasting punchy hits like ‘Life During Wartime’ and ‘Cities’ as well as some slower, more enveloping tracks like ‘Drugs’ and ‘Heaven’. 

The album’s opener ‘I Zimbra’ also marked a big step forward in the band’s plan to incorporate more African influences into their sound. “[‘I Zimbra’] was generated from a group improvisation,” Eno told Rolling Stone in 1981. “It was a step forward in a lot of ways. And we suddenly thought, ‘This is really quite close to what we’ve been listening to.’ We realised that we were nearly there, in some sense. It was an interesting piece, but it presented a real dilemma for the Talking Heads in that it was a new format for them. And I really wanted to encourage that.”

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1. Talking Heads – Remain In Light

Most fans will arrive at the 1980s effort Remain In Light as the greatest Talking Heads album, the pinnacle of their collaboration with Eno and the fruition of their Fela Kuti-influenced Afro-funk sound. The album is void of dull moments, with a fine balance between pacey classics like ‘Once in a Lifetime’ or ‘The Great Curve’ and its poignant, atmospheric closing tracks, ‘Listening Wind’ and ‘The Overload’.

Byrne described the album as a “spiritual” work of art, “joyous and ecstatic and yet it’s serious”; he also pointed out that, in the end, there was “less Africanism in Remain in Light than we implied … but the African ideas were far more important to get across than specific rhythms.”

(Credit: Press)