Ranking Talking Heads albums in order of greatness
Simply put, there is no band quite like Talking Heads. Three friends, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who had graduated from art school made their way to the Big Apple, rented a dirt-cheap loft just around the corner from CBGB’s and went about plying their trade in the grime-covered rock Mecca. The story so far may be the usual punk fodder but, soon enough, the group were cutting away from the rest of the herd and making music that would not only shake the foundations of the music industry but catapult David Byrne into icon status.
There’s a lot to decipher when trying to decide whether or not Talking Heads are a band for you. The group may well flirt with the edges of punk rock, pop music and worldbeat charm but they never fully settle on one or the other. Instead, they float between the lines of categorisation and reside permanently in the steam that emanated from any crowd who watched them perform live. If, however, you’re looking for an indication on where to start when considering the band’s catalogue then below we’ve got you covered as we rank their albums from worst to best.
David Byrne and Chris Frantz weren’t so concerned with music when their first band together, The Artistics, ended up folding before they left Providence in Rhode Island. Having attended the Rhode Island School of Design, the duo, plus Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth, headed to New York with only vague notions of starting a band again. When they arrived, they quickly began to see that the power of the city would end up changing their minds.
One night, Frantz and Weymouth went down to CBGB’s, a local haunt just down the road from their $250 a month loft that the group shared and were left stunned. The murmurings of punk were picking up where acts like The Stooges had left off and the new style was intoxicating. Brash and unabashed, the Ramones have hardly changed since and were still the heavy metal bubblegum joy they always have been but they showed the band a new path. Frantz understood that something new was happening and implored Byrne to pick up the mic again and start writing some songs but they had one problem — there was no bassist.
Frantz and Byrne encouraged Weymouth to pick up the bass and become their new member, throwing away opportunities to take to the stage as they did but championing a member they knew would work well with them. When they did eventually arrive as the support act for the aforementioned heroes of punk the Ramones, the band were nearing full fruition. They soon picked up Jerry Harrison from Modern Lovers fame and completed their band, when one then adds the production power of Brian Eno, you have an accurate view of Talking Heads at their prime.
It was this group that helped to create a catalogue of albums that are so utterly unique and singular that they require their own classification. Instead, and to save time, we’ve just ranked the albums from worst to best.
Talking Heads albums ranked from worst to best:
8. Naked (1988)
Final albums always have a habit of either leaving you craving more or agreeing that the time had come for the band to break up. While it’s hard to say that the group were right to give up when they did, it’s clear to see on this record that Talking Heads had quite quickly become simply a vehicle for Byrne’s musings. Discarding the ideals of Americana that they had perused in their previous album (more on that in a second), the band returned to their world music roots.
The songs included on the record are still fully-fledged Talking Heads songs, meaning that you or anyone else can dance to them without fear of reproach. ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ is the stand out song on the album and, after it, there isn’t really much to be too excited about. This was a paint by numbers Talking Heads LP.
7. True Stories (1986)
A soundtrack to a film by David Byrne, a satirical comedy of the same name, this was never going to be a vintage piece of the band’s work. It does still definitely have its moments though. True Stories lead single ‘Wild Wild Life’ is one of the more potent moments on the album and deserves its seat at the table of best tunes from the group, especially after being winning two MTV Awards in 1987.
The film, and therefore the LP too, took a strong and uncompromising look at the heartland of America and turned away from the international influences that had shaped so much of their early career. While that change of pace was yet another movement from the most unpredictable band around, it meant their usual African rhythms were discarded and their new groove landed a little awkwardly.
6. Little Creatures (1985)
It was on this record that Talking Heads announced themselves as bonafide pop stars. Not in your typical glittery and airy way but in cold hard record sales. This album sold two million copies and confirmed the band as juggernauts. Of course, being seen in such a way was never comfortable for the group and this LP holds all of the tension.
The skeletal instrumentation on the album announced a back-to-basics approach and saw the group down their luscious arrangements for something a little closer to the bone. While the LP did contain the behemoth song ‘Road to Nowhere’ it’s hard not to see the song as an allegory for the whole record. While the rest of the band’s canon had a clear direction, this one was largely aimless no matter how often it hit the target.
5. Fear Of Music (1979)
One album in the band’s back catalogue, Fear Of Music, can rightly be seen as a huge turning point for the group. It was the moment that, alongside Eno’s powerhouse production, they crystalised their sound into something tangible and acutely identifiable. Though the group had largely rejected labels throughout their career, a purpose-built categorisation was fitting.
Opening track ‘I, Zimbra’, is certainly one of the more fragrant moments on the record and with the help of the brilliant song ‘Life During Wartime Because’ the LP becomes a must-have for any new wave hero. There’s more than just the streets of Byrne’s mind on this one though. The LP is imbued with the African rhythms that would affect his work for years, bubbling up from the New York streets Byrne called home.
After those two tracks, it’s hard to pick out a clear standout single. Instead, the record flows from one jam to another, never truly slowing down or letting their audience rest. If you were looking for a party, then you’ve found one.
4. Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
When you put it all on paper, there’s something decidedly punk about the beginnings of Talking Heads. The three friends managed to change the direction of alternative music and, more importantly, they did entirely on their own terms.
The moment the band split from their punk alignment was Talking Heads 77, the group’s debut album. The record not only set out a path for Talking Heads to begin their ascension to the top of the new wave pile but, through its conception, its welcoming of different genres and styles, and its connection to the world around it, David Byrne and Talking Heads ended up quickly making punk look a little bit silly.
From the very first notes of album opener ‘Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town’ we can hear the band’s incandescent ability to infuse everything they do with an unstoppable effervescence. Whether it is the disco shuffle, the funky groove or the inescapable hook, Talking Heads were acting as musical magpies, picking the shiniest jewels to add to their collection—and what a collection it is. It was a rejection of the machismo that had flooded rock ‘n’ roll and put the focus back on artistry.
With their debut album, the band proved that they were the most open, connected, free-spirited, artistically uninhibited, non-conformist, welcoming to its audience and all-round unreproachable punks you’d ever seen. But, despite that, they were turned away from the scene because they liked to use a keyboard. Instead, Talking Heads 77 confirmed one thing, the band were not only set to make serious waves in the future but that they were already lightyears ahead.
3. More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)
Following the band’s momentous breakthrough year, they were back in the studio straight after, ready to deliver yet another step forward in their march towards greatness. More Songs About Buildings and Food is arguably the band at their swashbuckling best, full of youthful verve and untainted enthusiasm. With their new producer, Brian Eno, on hand, the group forged what would become as near to an archetypal Talking Heads sound as is possible.
Eno took their punk-aligned rambles and, with the help of his synth, gave them a new direction. The unique combination of punk ethics with funk-driven grooves meant they were a hit among the New York intelligentsia as well as the sound of the streets. As well as a stonking cover of ‘Take Me To The River’ from Al Green, the album also packed a punch with the brilliant ‘Found A Job’ too.
On this record, Talking Heads had found their niche. They weren’t happy to be typecast by anything and were instead intent on pushing themselves forward at an alarming rate. If Brian Eno pointed them in the right direction he didn’t need to help with the power to get them moving, it was already there in bucketloads.
2. Speaking In Tongues (1983)
Included within Speaking In Tongues is one of the band’s most cherished songs: ‘This Must Be The Place’. There’s something about the song that not only typifies the album but Talking Heads altogether. The track is delicately imbued with groove, rhythm and undeniable power. To add to that, the LP also contained the huge hit ‘Burning Down The House’ was is equally balanced as another party-starting effort. The record at large follows suit.
Recorded in 1982 after producer Brian Eno had given himself a break from working with the band, Talking Heads delivered a funky record full of pop sensibilities and artistic endeavour. While previous albums had championed the latter above all else, it felt like this album was the band trying out something a little more digestible. While other groups may have been watered down by such a move, Speaking In Tongues excels because of it.
As well as including their only top 10 hit in ‘Burning Down The House’, the record was a landmark moment for the group as one of the very few times they ever operated in the mainstream. Add this album to their epic concert film Stop Making Sense and you quite possibly have the band at their populist peak.
1. Remain In Light (1980)
The musical landscape in 1980 was a confused one. As punk was continually being commercialised despite its protestations it felt like, eventually, the mass market would swallow up everything that was even the slightest bit experimental, sanitise and then sell it—even Talking Heads had found themselves with a comparative hit or two.
While acts like Blondie and The Jam had kept a degree of personality in the music scene, the real draw was Talking Heads. Although they had been born in the embers of punk, they didn’t really fit there. In fact, they didn’t really fit anywhere. That was exactly as David Byrne and the band preferred it and so they pushed forward in making themselves that most desirable of things—unique. It meant Byrne’s lyrics got stranger, his performances more entangled within themselves and his costuming grew to unimaginable levels. Byrne, to all intents and purposes, made himself irregular on purpose.
In truth, Remain In Light doesn’t sound like Talking Heads previous songs, or, indeed, like anything that had come out in 1980. It was an album built upon poly-rhythmic jams devoid of many traditional pop hooks or structure. It saw Eno and Byrne work tirelessly to make tracks via looping rhythmic sections and a penchant for layering instruments as they went. They also overdubbed Byrne’s vocals, allowing him to add his Preacher-yelp with aplomb and also welcome Andrew Belew to lay down some synth-treated solos.
It’s the kind of ensemble which often ends with an album of strong conception but lacking any real songs. Not so for Talking Heads. While there are certainly three huge songs on the eight-track album (‘Born Under Punches’, ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ and ‘Once In A Lifetime’), one could easily argue that ‘The Overload’ is the distillation of the LP. Not because musically it aligns with the rest of the record but precisely because it doesn’t. Remain In Light was Byrne and Talking Heads next step in the art for art’s sake.
There’s a certain intoxication that one feels when listening to any Talking Heads album. There’s a freedom that begs to be achieved and a listlessness that promises clarity of thought. With their debut, the group had set themselves out as the intelligent alternative to punk with Remain In Light they proved across eight superfluous songs that they weren’t the just the alternative to punk but to everything else too.