Top 10 Talking Heads Songs
Talking Heads were one of the strangest groups to come out of the punk and New Wave movements of the mid-to-late '70s, and not just because frontman David Byrne was a total oddball. In an era where fans were forced to take sides among the classic rock 'n' roll they were used to and this new variation on it -- parts of it inspired by disco glam, parts of it inspired by garage-bred rage -- Talking Heads almost immediately found a sensitive audience with traditional rock fans, who undoubtedly heard the gritty rock band buried somewhere inside the art-rock clatter they often produced. It also helped that they were a funky bunch -- it was a lot easier to dance to Talking Heads than, say, Molly Hatchet. Our list of the Top 10 Talking Heads songs includes some pop, some punk, some New Wave, some R&B and some straight-up rock 'n' roll.
After a series of albums that got bigger in scope and sound, the quartet scaled back on their sixth album, a return-to-the-roots record that explored Americana through the lens of a modern-day rock band. The twang has a decidedly NYC art-school feel to it, which is probably the point. And this great single is the closest the group got to country music, which is to say it was miles away. But the road leading there sure is fun.
'This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),' a highlight of Talking Heads' terrific fifth album, is a love song -- a rarity for the band, which typically stayed away from such mundane subjects. Still, it's a love song with an arty twist. Byrne rattles off a series of trite phrases to form the randomly inserted lyrics. The lovely music, though, takes the song to a much earthier place.
The band's debut single set the tone for the next few years. It's all jittery, spastic pop that sounded like it was made by a bunch of bratty art-school kids. But there's also a massive hook to the song that belies the group's punkier DIY tendencies. And it's way bigger than it initially lets on. ('Love > Building on Fire' was later added to the 2005 reissue of the debut album, 'Talking Heads: 77,' as a bonus track.)
The opening track on Talking Heads' sixth album was also the record's biggest single (it stalled at No. 54, but the LP remains the band's best-selling studio record). It signaled the arrival of a leaner group, following the expanded-band world tour that accompanied 1983's 'Speaking in Tongues.' The song is basically about a drug trip, but you'd never know it from the playful bass line and semi-funky beat that fuel it.
Following 1980's groundbreaking 'Remain in Light' album, Talking Heads sharpened and refined their sound on their fifth album, expanding the band to include string, horn and percussion players. The result is the band's tightest, most groove- (and song-) oriented album. 'Girlfriend Is Better' is a workout highlight. (A live version of the song, from the 1984 concert film 'Stop Making Sense,' was released as a single, but we prefer the original studio take for the Top 10 Talking Heads Songs).
Talking Heads' cover of Al Green's 1974 R&B classic became the band's first Top 40 hit. In a way, it's remarkably faithful to Green's version, which was never released as a single. But the gurgling synths and Byrne's man-from-outer-space delivery trigger a different kind of salvation. After two albums of skittering art-school punk, 'Take Me to the River' was the first sign of some genuine soul in the band's grooves.
The band's first chart hit (it reached No. 92) had been kicked around by Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth for a couple of years before ending up as the debut album's key song. Like so many other tracks on this list of the Top 10 Talking Heads Songs, 'Psycho Killer' features a rubbery bass line that pretty much drives the entire piece. And it includes one of Byrne's quirkiest vocals -- perfect for getting into the head of the narrating serial killer.
Best known for its sloganeering chorus -- "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around" -- 'Life During Wartime' quickly became one of the group's most popular songs. The album it comes from, 'Fear of Music,' explored global rhythms while firmly keeping the basic structures secure on the band's usual New Wave foundations. It's an active, ambitious album; 'Life During Wartime' is its anchor.
Much of 'Once in a Lifetime''s success can be credited to its innovative (and supremely bizarre) video, one of the first to receive heavy rotation on MTV. The song wasn't a huge hit (it didn't even crack the Top 100), but its influence is huge. Like the rest of 'Remain in Light' (the group's best album), 'Once in a Lifetime' is a rhythmically adventurous foray into African music styles. Working closely with producer Brian Eno, the quartet created one of the landmark records of the '80s. Almost every song on the LP is great. This is the greatest.
Talking Heads' breakout hit from their breakthrough album expanded on the global sounds and styles the group so enthusiastically delved into on their previous record, 'Remain in Light.' It's essentially an art-school/post-punk version of P-Funk's slippery beats and rhythms. Even Byrne keeps his usual idiosyncrasies in check, rolling through the song like he's the funkiest white guy on the planet. 'Burning Down the House,' sadly, was Talking Heads' only Top 10 hit.