Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Talking Heads Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Talking Heads: 77 (1977, Sire)

A –  

Easily the most raw album the band ever made and the one that’s the most purely new-wave-tinged, this disc is a bit atypical of the albums that would follow it, lacking the R&B, disco, and world-music influences and textures that would color the band’s discs later on, but David Byrne’s trademark quirky vocal delivery and lyrical style is already intact. While the album feels just a little too jagged and raw to have quite the same appeal and warmth as the band’s albums from Fear of Music onwards, the material is still very good, and taken on a song-by-song basis, there may actually be more hooks to be found here than on the band’s sophomore album. The band’s haunting but strangely addictive cult classic “Psycho Killer” is here, as are the incredibly catchy “Pulled Up,” the quirky “Don’t Worry about the Government,” the clever, piano-driven “The Book I Read,” and the shimmering, island-flavored “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” one of the band’s most delightful early originals. It’s not as famous as the four albums that follow it, but it’s a very strong debut and it tends to be quite underrated.

More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978, Sire)

A – 

A mildly overrated album, the band’s sophomore outing– the band’s first collaboration with former Roxy Music member Brian Eno, who produced the disc – really isn’t all that much different or noticeably superior to the band’s debut (if anything, the songs actually seem less catchy than those from 77 for the better part of the disc) until you get to the final two songs, where the band not only finally drops an obvious single but takes a significant creative leap forward as a band as well. Still, there’s something about the album that makes it quite captivating as an album piece, in spite of the lack of the strong hooks, and it may stand as the most fascinating Talking Heads album, even if it’s not necessarily the most addictive. While it works better as an album than as individual songs, there are still some obvious highlights, namely the catchy “Stay Hungry,” the propulsive “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” the brilliant observational pop of the album-closing “The Big Country,” and the arty disco of “Found a Job,” where the band discovers that their brand of quirky pop can translate to the dancefloor with winning results, a path they’d continue to pursue on their next three discs to even greater effect. The album’s best and most astounding cut, however, is a cover, and, boy, is it ever a great one: the band takes soul icon Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and actually slows it down by half, somehow managing to not lose any of the song’s passion in the process. It’s a strange idea, but it’s also absolutely brilliant at the same time.

Fear of Music (1979, Sire)

A + 

The band’s third outing is its darkest and most experimental yet, and yet it still strangely feels slightly more commercial than the previous album. Chalk it up to the stronger and more hook-laden set of songs. Highlights include the Bowie-circa-Station to Station-esque “Mind,” the eerie, bone-chilling grind of “Memories (Can’t Wait),” the stuttering “Paper,” the lovely “Heaven” (which boasts the extremely clever lyrical hook “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”), the heated art-disco of “Cities” and the oddly addictive Dadaist funk of “I Zimbra” (which features King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on guitar and hints at the sounds the band would explore on its iconic fourth album). Best of all is the single “Life During Wartime,” ironically the band’s most danceable song yet, if not also their catchiest self-penned song yet, its disco grooves punctuated by David Byrne’s repeated shouts of “This ain’t no party / This ain’t no disco!” This is an essential purchase for any Talking Heads fan.

Remain in Light (1980, Sire)

A +

Truly the band’s creative masterpiece, if not also their most influential and groundbreaking album, Remain in Light finds the band – aided by a wonderful crew of guests including King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, LaBelle’s Nona Hendryx, and Robert Palmer and with Brian Eno once again in the producer’s chair – experimenting with world music, specifically African polyrhythms. For an album built more around groove and texture than traditional song structures, the set of songs is surprisingly hooky, and the off-kilter grooves of the careening “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” the insistent percussive stab of “Crosseyed and Painless,” the jungle beats of “Listening Wind,” and the soulful, slippery, paranoid art-pop of “Houses in Motion” all beg for repeated plays. Even the ambient spoken-word of “Seen and Not Seen” is a surprisingly captivating listen. The album’s true masterpiece, though, is the cascading ambient funk of “Once in a Lifetime,” quite possibly the most emotionally powerful of all the Talking Heads singles.

Speaking in Tongues (1983, Sire)

A

The first album since their debut to not be produced or co-produced by Brian Eno, Speaking in Tongues isn’t quite as experimental as the previous two discs, but it’s also a bit more noticeably radio-friendly and danceable than usual, and the album deservedly gave the band their first-ever – and, sadly, only – Top Ten hit in the ominous, slippery grooves of “Burning Down the House.” Just as enticing, however, are surrounding album cuts like the wormy funk of “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Girlfriend Is Better,” the gospel-infused “Slippery People” (later covered by the Staple Singers), the percussive “Pull Up the Roots,” and the musical interplay of the beautiful album closer “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).” 

Little Creatures (1985, Sire)

B

The best thing about Little Creatures is that never has the band sounded quite so vivid on record as they do here; whereas Speaking in Tongues sounded slightly claustrophobic in places, the vibrant mix on Little Creatures makes the band more live and right in your headphones than they ever have before on a studio album, and it’s refreshing to hear the band that way. The songs also seem to have been written as songs, rather than built off of studio jams the way most of the cuts on Remain in Light were, making this a more traditional pop-rock album than that disc. (Indeed, there aren’t any dance-oriented cuts this time around.)    Unfortunately, this isn’t an especially consistent set of songs, and too many of the better songs (namely, the marching pop of “Road to Nowhere,” the punchy “Stay Up Late,” and the gospel-tinged “Walk It Down”) don’t arrive until the second half of the disc, so the album could have been benefitted from some more balanced sequencing. Fortunately, the album does have what is arguably the catchiest song David Byrne has ever written, the flat-out-brilliant, stuttering new-wave pop of “And She Was,” which inexplicably missed the Top 40 entirely but really should have been a Top Ten hit.

True Stories (1986, Sire)

B

Around this time, David Byrne directed and starred in a now-long-forgotten big-screen musical comedy (also featuring future television stars John Goodman and Swoosie Kurtz and written by Byrne with Stephen Tobolowsky, best known for playing Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day) entitled True Stories. The movie was not a commercial success, however, and no proper soundtrack was ever issued for the film (though some of the actors’ musical performances in the movie were issued as B-sides on Talking Heads singles). Instead, Talking Heads confusingly released an album of their own entitled True Stories featuring their own renditions of songs from the movie, an idea Byrne was reportedly against but acquiesced to at the wishes of his financial backers for the project. Even if this material was never meant to be a Talking Heads album, it’s not at all a bad disc (heck, even the throwaways have some really fun arrangement touches to redeem them, like the gospel choir on “Puzzlin’ Evidence”), and it’s actually a pretty underrated album, even if it’s never quite on par with the best Talking Heads albums, either. The punchy, minor-key rock of “Love for Sale” is one of the band’s most underrated songs, and the album’s second side is pretty solid, featuring the excellent, hard-rocking Top 40 hit “Wild Wild Life” (the fun video for which features a cameo from Goodman and Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison doing a hilarious impression of Prince) the accordion-laced “Radio Head” (which, yes, is where the much-loved ‘90s British alt-rock band took their name from), the country-tinged “People Like Us,” and the touching ballad “City of Dreams.”

Naked (1987, Sire)

C +

It’s a bit of a shame that Byrne and his bandmates never reconvened for a ninth studio album, because while the band’s eighth and final studio album (jointly produced by the band and Steve Lilywhite) is not at all bad, it’s also easily their least essential album, and it became their first studio album in seven years to fail to produce a Hot 100 hit. Like Remain in Light, this disc is another full immersion into world music, this time into the sounds of Latin America, and it similarly has another fun cast of special guests, this time featuring the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Kirsty MacColl, Lenny Pickett, and Eric Weissberg. Where this album pales next to Remain in Light, though, is that the songs aren’t quite as strong, and the album’s downbeat second side just drags. There are some minor gems to be found within the first half, though, namely “Mr. Jones,” “Blind,” and especially the vibrant Latin rhythms of the environmental-themed “(Nothing But) Flowers,” easily the best and most fun cut here. Byrne seems to be having so much fun on the latter track that it’s no surprise that he would continue to work in the same vein on his first post-Talking Heads solo album, Rei Momo (which similarly features MacColl and was co-produced with Lilywhite), but that album has a joy and a spark to it that’s lacking from too much of this disc.   

Compilations:

There is a very good single-disc Talking Heads hits package available, Rhino’s 2004 package The Very Best of Talking Heads, that covers all the bases and doesn’t leave out anything especially critical (though it would have been nice to have “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music and “Slippery People” from Speaking in Tongues here as well), but if you want to go bigger, the band also has an excellent double-disc anthology,1992’s Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites 1976-1992, that also includes three new previously-unreleased tracks, including the excellent Naked outtake “Lifetime Piling Up.”  Avoid the clunky boxed set Once in a Lifetime, which has a great selection of songs and refreshingly remastered sound but suffers from some really awkward and ill-conceived packaging.

Live Albums:

While the 1982 double-disc The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads offers a more extensive selection of songs and creatively captures the band at several different stages between 1977 and 1981, the definitive Talking Heads live album is most definitely 1984’s Stop Making Sense, a soundtrack to the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film of the same name. The disc showcases the band playing with an expanded lineup featuring Bernie Worrell from the Parliament/Funkadelic family and Alex Weir from the Brothers Johnson’s band and has some incredible performances. “Psycho Killer” is re-arranged completely, reworked as a stark near-unplugged number with just Byrne’s acoustic guitar and a drum machine for accompaniment, while “Slippery People” is sped up from its studio version to great effect, the live version presented here easily packing more punch than the version presented on Speaking in Tongues. “Once in a Lifetime” is similarly sped up and has more of an R&B/soul flavor in its incarnation here than the more world-music-oriented studio version from Remain in Light, but it works equally well, and the live version became a minor radio hit in its own right and was also used over the opening and closing credits of the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The band also plays Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” at its regular tempo, not the radically slowed-down tempo they employed for the song on More Songs About Building and Food; naturally, it’s quite different this way, but it’s equally effective, and the gospel-infused version here actually may pack more passion and emotion than the version you know from the radio. (The 1999 expanded CD reissue adds seven extra tracks, including a live performance of the dancefloor classic “Genius of Love” by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz’s influential side project, Tom Tom Club.) It’s rare that a live album is actually a must-own, but Stop Making Sense is every bit as fantastic as any of the best Talking Heads studio albums.