From their first gig opening for the Ramones in 1975 until the (eventually permanent) hiatus that followed the release of Naked in 1988, the Talking Heads released eight albums of music potently attuned to the absurdities and anxieties of late 20th century living. As they evolved from the sweaty post-punk weirdos that mesmerized audiences at CBGB to the well-oiled (and expanded) funk automatons depicted in Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, the band never lost sight of their guiding principle: that being alive in the postmodern world is a deeply strange, deeply unsettling proposition.
While the message rarely changed, the means of delivery did. Listen to the eight albums the band released in those 11 short years, and you’ll cross sonic landscapes that take you past nervous New York punk and no wave, the irresistible grooves of contemporaneous R&B and funk, and exit pointing towards country-western, glam, and nearly every other dominant subgenre of the era. With a catalog that sometimes sounds like a wild spin of a radio dial, it’s easy to lose your way. Luckily, we’ve done some of the work for you and assembled a rough ranking of the Talking Heads’ body of work. You may still find yourself living in a shotgun shack, but with this guide at the ready, you’ll at least know how you got there.
Just remember: this ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco.
08. True Stories (1986)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): I would argue that, as the soundtrack to a movie inspired by and executed upon the prompt “What if all of the stories in Weekly World News were actually true?”, this whole record is one long Byrne-ism.
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): The looped inhalations that run throughout “Papa Legba” add an unexpected sexiness to the vodou loa (especially in the Pops Staples version).
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Materialism (“Love for Sale”), TV news (“Puzzling Evidence”), and Thom Yorke (“Radio Head”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): They’re all over the place, but instead of leaning in, Byrne dabbles to his detriment; while Byrne’s country-western experiments produce intermittent successes (in particular, “People Like Us”), his forays into gospel (“Puzzlin’ Evidence”) and zydeco (“Radio Head”) proved far, far less fruitful.
Heaven (Best Song): “Wild Wild Life” is the obvious choice, but the case can be made for “Dream Operator”, which is probably the Talking Heads’ sweetest song this side of “This Must Be the Place”.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): “People Like Us”, which is about the only one of Byrne’s occasional dalliances with country music that has the heart to match its own steel guitar. (Also, and I can’t stress this enough: it sounds even better when John Goodman sings it).
Hey Now (Final Analysis): Written as the soundtrack to the underrated 1986 David Byrne film of the same name, True Stories was more interesting in concept than in execution; while it regained a hint of the weirdness that was sorely missing from Little Creatures, its omnivorous appetite for pan-American genre-hopping never really let it coalesce into anything coherent. There’s also the matter of the record’s intended form; Byrne wanted to release the film’s (almost uniformly superior) cast recordings, but the higher-ups at Warner Bros. wanted a bankable radio hit. They got one (albeit in the form of the relatively forgettable “Wild Wild Life”) at the possible expense of the rest of the record. Still, it has to be said: the Talking Heads’ worst record would be an underrated gem in the catalog of any other band. That’s not nothing.
07. Naked (1988)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Putting out a lounge song entitled “Big Daddy” is Byrne-sy enough, so why not up the ante and fill it with lines like “mesmerized like horny toads” and “I seen you do the dog?”
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): The big band samba feel of “Mr. Jones” is tailor-made for Byrne’s theatrics and offers more than enough to carry you through the darker and heavier moments of Naked.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Regan commercialism (“Mr. Jones”), militant disinformation (“Blind”), duplicitous politicians (“The Democratic Circus”), and deconstructing humanity (“The Facts of Life”, “Mommy Daddy You And I”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): There’s not much reinventing a band is going to do after eight records, but Talking Heads clearly wanted to try. They do their best to stray from the pop formula they perfected on the previous two records, and while they find a great deal of vigor within bossa nova rhythms, it’s not long before the band revert back to Remain in Light tendencies that are ultimately impolitic.
Heaven (Best Song): “(Nothing But) Flowers” perfectly inverting Joni Mitchell’s iconic “Big Yellow Taxi” is a highlight for sure, but the capstone that is “Cool Water” perfectly brings together all of Naked’s drifting anxieties into a compelling and fiery conclusion that masterfully wraps up the Talking Heads discography.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): “Totally Nude” is basically Jimmy Buffett for art rock and world music fans, but it’s David Byrne, so of course he’s going to make your brain work a little bit while lounging carefree on a beach.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): Naked might be the most ambitious record of the band’s storied catalogue, with Byrne looking to combine a loose, improvisational feel with heavy, often dark subject matter. The open-ended nature of the grooves reflects itself in the discordant views on life that Byrne sings about, where the groove goes on for so long that Byrne himself comes around full circle on his own thoughts and views. Unfortunately, the record feels like the band trying to step out of the shadow of their previous heavyweight records but unknowingly falling back into the same habits. Thankfully, those habits still have plenty of gas to propel this record to greatness, just not the greatness that people mean when they talk about Talking Heads.
06. Little Creatures (1985)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Can you imagine the line “I’ve seen sex and I think it’s ok” delivered with a straight face by any other frontman of the entire 20th century? Maybe Noel Coward, but even that’s pushing it, right?
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): “Walk It Down”, if for the squelchy synths alone.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Transcendence (“And She Was”), television (“Television Man”), and bedtimes (“Stay Up Late”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): Little Creatures is the Talking Heads’ first pure pop record, a change that shows through in the production philosophy; the band jettisoned the extra artists (including whiz Bernie Worrell) that added heft to their famed live shows and, after all-in collaboration on their previous two records, returned the majority of the songwriting responsibilities to Byrne for the first time since 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food.
Heaven (Best Song): You can make the case that closer “Road to Nowhere” is the last classic song that the Talking Heads would ever release. You could also make the case that it foreshadowed (perhaps deliberately) the way the band felt about working together by this point. Either way – nihilism never sounded so bombastic.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): The album’s relatively forgotten first single, “The Lady Don’t Mind”, is one of the few songs on the record to resurrect the high-voltage funk that made Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues into classics. (It’s also one of only two songs that the band wrote together).
Hey Now (Final Analysis): The Talking Heads’ biggest commercial success finds them exiting their jumpy experimental funk phase in favor of music more closely calibrated for the MTV generation. (Critics liked it, too; the album took the No. 1 spot on 1985’s Pazz and Jop poll). Whether it’s thanks to a less collaborative recording process, increased cash concerns, or David Byrne finally becoming comfortable in his own skin, Little Creatures stands as the first Talking Heads record that you can take at face value. Without the anxiousness of their first two records or the irresistibly interlocked jams of their next three, the album found the band entering the final (and diminished) plateau of their heretofore ever-ascending career. There’s nothing outright bad here, but when you’ve built an artistic life around the unexpected, “pleasant” is a four-letter word.
05. Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Their debut record set the stage for what Byrne-isms truly are, from the vocal acrobatics of “The Book I Read” all the way through the iconic utterance of “qu’est-ce que c’est” in “Psycho Killer”.
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): The groove and bounce of “Psycho Killer” can’t be praised enough, but if we’re talking memorable grooves, then you have to talk about “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” with its steel drums and prancing bass lines that kick off the band’s first record in a perfect way.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Elementary sexism (“Tentative Decisions”), bureaucratic naiveté (“Don’t Worry About the Government”), involuntary disobedience (“New Feeling”), and veiled ASD (“No Compassion”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): Talking Heads’ debut record proved that the spirit of punk music was far greater than the messy abrasiveness it was born out of. The music could be polished and refined while still being aggressive and iconoclastic, making their sound feel just as comfortable in a spacious ballroom as in a Bowery dive bar.
Heaven (Best Song): Can anyone make a logical case for “Psycho Killer” not being the best song here?
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): 77 has its share of overlooked songs, but none really tell the tale of the Talking Heads’ talent more than “Who Is It”, a short and spastic song that really has the band making something special out of nothing at all.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): Talking Heads: 77 is a milestone worth observing in the context of music history, equally as important as other landmark records like Nevermind and Ramones. What holds it back from the plethoric praise those two records enjoy is that it would not take long for the band to fully lap this record, three or four times over. Still, their debut is simply sensational in any context. It introduces a band that’s gifted in sardonic observations and itinerant melodies, fully capable of out-grooving a seasoned R&B band or out-excoriating a rabid punk band. Even at the start, their sound was a moving target that always seemed to dart away just when you thought you had it cornered. So evasive, it made labels like “art rock” and “post-punk” feel shallow, with the only real description being that the name of this sound … is Talking Heads.
04. Fear of Music (1979)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Did you know that the lyrics to “I Zimbra” consist of a made-up language created by German Dadaist poet Hugo Ball? David Byrne did. David Byrne likes it that way. How very David Byrne of him.
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): …that being said, “I Zimbra” is also an unimpeachable jam, one whose infatuation with African polyrhythms also served as the blueprint for the whole of Remain in Light. Not bad for nonsense.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Deciding where to live (“Cities”), losing his mind (“Memories Can’t Wait”), and figuring out where to score Skippy in the event of thermonuclear war (“Life During Wartime”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): After two records that positioned David Byrne as a less-well-adjusted (but equally likeable) Jonathan Richman, Fear of Music took a hard left turn into harsher sonic territory. Lyrics that once seemed quirky now came with a shot of futuristic menace thanks to Brian Eno’s steel-cut production, which also knocked loose the inherent funkiness of rhythm section stalwarts Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz.
Heaven (Best Song): It takes serious confidence to diss the concept of paradise and serious charisma to make those disses sound more appealing than the alternative. “Heaven” has both and then some.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): “Mind” is the audio equivalent of watching your smartest friend finally get really into David Bowie.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): The record that found Talking Heads transitioning from the darlings of CBGB to a truly national concern is also the first record where the band feels like it’s truly operating at full strength. That rapid musical maturation, combined with Byrne’s natural disquiet and Eno’s knack for apocalyptic atmospherics, resulted in a record that, like the Berlin records of David Bowie, from which it borrows some of its moody end-of-the-world milieu, comes out both cool and cold at the same time. The Talking Heads never made another album that sounded quite like it; the fact that they were soon able to surpass it is what makes them great instead of good.
03. Speaking in Tongues (1983)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Songs can live and die based off of Byrne’s gravity-affecting delivery, something you can feel in full effect as the cadence lead-up of “Burning Down the House” masterfully unfolds.
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): Strong grooves are everywhere on this record, but you’re not going to go wrong with the hip-hop-tinged “Girlfriend Is Better”, something any listener will be convinced of when the synth breakdown crashes into the song near the end.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Rallying against 1984 (“Making Flippy Floppy”), science versus religion (“Moon Rocks”), relationship existentialism (“Girlfriend Is Better”), and the beauty of nature (“Pull Up the Roots”).
New Feeling (Reinventions): Speaking in Tongues may be the first record from Talking Heads to truly deviate from its predecessor. Everything up to that point had seemed like the next logical step, whereas this record feels like the band intentionally veer off the path laid in front of them. There is still plenty of experimentation going on, but the approach is much more abstract, yielding a sound that’s ultimately blithesome and devout.
Heaven (Best Song): The simplistic intricacy of “This Must Be the Place” is a gorgeous representation of exactly how grounded Talking Heads were on this record. Elaborate but intimate, Byrne’s first real love song is full of peculiar non-sequiturs and random instrumental trills that give the song pathos, yet never distract the listener from that ethereal serenity.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): “Swamp” kicks off side two in such a stark departure that you might think the band started making another record entirely. With its bluesy jaunt and loose narrative structure, the song is a huge, but welcome, outlier on this otherwise spacious and redolent album.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): Speaking in Tongues represents a crossroads for Talking Heads as the band deviate from the harsh territory they traversed with Brian Eno and start down the path that led to their more pop-oriented outings. The band were still fully capable of exploring new sounds and experimenting with instruments, but the edge they brought to that approach had softened, leading to an album that revels in levity as much as Remain in Light did in solemnity. That levity allows the band to loosen the stigma of “art rock” that surrounded them, stripping away most of the pretentious apprehensions that kept the masses from enjoying them. They were now darlings of the radio and MTV, and while some began writing the band’s eulogy, the following year’s Stop Making Sense only proved that Talking Heads were still at the top of their game, crafting sophisticated melodies and performing them with extraordinary vitality.
02. More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): Closing out the record with “Goo goo, ga ga ga” after belittling country life for four minutes. Like pouring salt in a wound…
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): How did “Take Me to the River” become a Top 40 hit? Look no further than the sinuous relationship between percussion, organ, and bass.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): Questioning education (“With Our Love”), gender roles (“The Girls Want to Be with the Girls”), the role of creativity (“Artists Only”, “Found to Me”), and coastal snobbery (“The Big Country”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): The entrance of Brian Eno helps things for sure, but it’s also the fact that the band is better at being in a band in every sense of the phrase. The rhythm section is more seasoned, the lyrics are more astute and trenchant, and Byrne has learned exactly how to bounce around Franz, Harrison, and Weymouth in order to enhance each song.
Heaven (Best Song): The one thing Talking Heads: 77 lacks is a sense of urgency, and “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” delivers that in spades with an aggressive charm that freely descends into spastic, wonderful disarray.
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): “Stay Hungry”, a song where David Byrne’s madcap presence takes a break and the inventive music rises to the forefront with a spacious ascent. Warning: that guitar line will get stuck in your head for days.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): More Songs About Buildings and Food is the quintessential Talking Heads record. Quirky, dancey, inventive, vibrant, curious, confrontational, and even pretentious. It lacks the freshness of its debut, the confusion of Fear Of Music, the heart of Speaking in Tongues, and the edge of Remain in Light, but it’s a perfect representation of the core values that propelled the band to become both underground icons and mainstream heroes. You can — and maybe should — argue that some of their other records are better, but just remember that every single quality that makes Talking Heads so legendary can be found within the 11 great songs here.
01. Remain in Light (1980)
Crosseyed and Painless (Byrne-isms): I can’t be the only person to imagine that David Byrne has delivered the exact monologue from “Seen and Not Seen” to himself in a bathroom mirror, right? That has 100% happened, right?
This Must Be the Place (Memorable Grooves): “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”, which packs more funk in its first 27 seconds than most songs have in 10 minutes.
Don’t Worry About the Government (Anxieties): trying and failing to seem like a cool, normal dude (“Crosseyed and Painless”), the concept of choices (“Once in a Lifetime”), and all-natural alternatives to plastic surgery (“Seen and Not Seen”)
New Feeling (Reinventions): The biggest reinvention here comes through place and personnel; after the band decided to explore the trail initially blazed by Fear of Music standout “I Zimbra”, they escaped the grungy streets of New York for occasionally contentious sessions with Brian Eno at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where they jammed out the makings of songs that would eventually blossom with overdubs from clutch session performers, including horn virtuoso Jon Hassell and guitar sorcerer Adrian Belew.
Heaven (Best Song): “Once in a Lifetime”. What, you think this is a game?
Ruby Dear (Forgotten Gems): The busiest Talking Heads song, “The Great Curve” is also secretly one of the best; if I could only listen to one song from the band for the rest of my life, I think I’d pick this one.
Hey Now (Final Analysis): “Seldom in pop-music history has there been a larger gap between what black and white audiences are listening to than there is right now.” That’s the opening line of Rolling Stone’s 1980 review of Remain in Light. Fortunately, it didn’t apply to the band responsible for that masterpiece of a record. Melding together everything from David Byrne’s love of Fela Kuti to Chris Franz’s hip-hop collaborations (fun fact: he plays the drums on Kurtis Blow’s 1982 smash “The Breaks”), Remain in Light drew together influences from across the African diaspora and jolted them into synthesis with the Talking Heads’ signature take on nervy New York new wave.
A commercial flop upon its release (and occasional lightning rod in arguments over the differences between cultural exchange and appropriation even today), the record nonetheless persists as a musical achievement that’s still in conversation with the world around it. In 2017, the songs’ cultural evolution even took them to Carnegie Hall, where Benin-born artist Angélique Kidjo filled the air with breathtaking reimaginings that added rich extra layers of African influence. From the stage that night, Kidjo also shared her feelings about the record’s cultural relevance, recounted here by Paul Elie of The New Yorker.
From the stage, Kidjo, who has served as a cultural ambassador for unicef and Oxfam, told the audience that she likes to “try to find a way to build bridges between cultures,” and explained that, for her, Remain in Light was such a bridge. Kidjo was born in Benin, in 1960; in 1983, already a working musician, she left the country, then under a communist dictatorship, and settled in Paris, where she first heard the Talking Heads album. “This album brought me back to Africa,” she said, recalling the powerful first impression it made: “This is African, yet it’s got something that is turning my head upside down.”