Talking Heads

TrackAlbum   
Don't Worry About The GovernmentTalking Heads: 77
Found A JobMore Songs About
Buildings And Food
CitiesFear Of Music
Life During WartimeStop Making Sense
Born Under PunchesRemain In Light
Once In A LifetimeRemain In Light
Crosseyed And PainlessStop Making Sense
Burning Down The HouseSpeaking In Tongues
This Must Be The PlaceSpeaking In Tongues
Totally NudeNaked

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Talking Heads photo

l to r: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison

 

Contributor: Annie Oehler

I was one of those kids who always ended up having more to say to my friends’ parents than to my actual friends. This proved especially true when the subject of music came up. If invited over to a (potential) new girlfriend’s house to talk about boys and makeup, I’d fake interest for about 20 minutes, and then end up scouring her dad’s record collection. Parents loved me. Kids? Not so much.

One of these dad-conversations resulted in me being invited over for a parental hang to screen a film called Stop Making Sense. I was only vaguely familiar with Talking Heads and my curiosity was fully piqued.

If you are a faithful Toppermost reader, it’s likely because you are the kind of person who understands how fundamentally music can change your life. So I know you’ll understand I’m not overstating matters when I say that what I saw and heard that night absolutely changed my life. It permanently affected the way I experience music and even shaped my idea of what music should be.

Talking Heads is my favorite band of all time. I don’t make that statement lightly. To me, saying a band is your favorite of all time is like saying a person is the love of your life. This love runs deep. So trying to distill their sizable catalogue into ten favorite songs is a form of torture. Somewhat pleasant torture, but torture nonetheless. But, alas, those are the rules of this game. So without further delay, here is my Talking Heads Toppermost:

The first LP, Talking Heads: 77, is a record full of giddy, fidgety energy. For a young band, they sure sound sure of themselves. This confidence is especially apparent on tracks like the most popular and well-known song from the album, Psycho Killer. Hard to believe stuff of that quality came from a band making their first record. Even so, my favorite track from this record, Don’t Worry About The Government, is the one that makes my list. The music on this track can only be described as … friendly – as welcoming as the (ostensibly) cheerful lyrics. It’s a tough song to listen to if you’re committed to a bad mood. I dare you not to smile when you listen.

Speaking of which, the second song on my list, Found A Job, from Talking Heads second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, is perhaps the most joy-inducing song I can think of. The lyrics, about a couple who solve their marital problems by making their own TV show, perfectly encapsulate everything that is wonderful about David Byrne’s lyricism – he is the master of heartfelt absurdity. The instrumental portion at the end of the song, chords repeating over and over again, are meant to induce a sort of trance-like pleasure. It works a treat on me every time, that’s for sure.

Their third album, Fear Of Music, is the band at their most paranoid. It’s a decidedly less open, friendly album. But the dark edges suit them just fine. Even so, my favorite track, Cities, is also probably the most accessible track. Urban paranoia never sounded so fun. My fourth selection, Life During Wartime, also comes from this album, but I must add a strict caveat: the live version of this song from Stop Making Sense is far superior to the version recorded for Fear Of Music. The song, about urban guerrillas, is free of irony – at least that’s the way I’ve always heard it. It’s hard not to keep using the word “paranoid” when talking about these songs, but it’s the best fit. This song will make you dance, but also give you the distinct feeling you might want to look over your shoulder a little more often.

Their fourth album, Remain In Light, is regarded by most fans as the band’s magnum opus. I’d argue that the opening track, Born Under Punches, alone could qualify as the band’s magnum opus. This is certainly Talking Heads greatest song. A perfect song. A song so good it seems impossible to me that classes aren’t taught about it and books haven’t been written about it. Given space constrictions and my own propensity to wax a little too poetic, I’ll simply say that listening to this song is like being transported to another level of consciousness. The opening note of the song sends a shiver up my spine every time I hear it, and that’s saying something given that I listen to it, no joke, at least a couple of times a week. If you check out (or re-visit) only one song from my Toppermost list, please let it be this one.

I also included on my list Once In A Lifetime and Crosseyed And Painless from this album. Regarding the former, a song that only those who perhaps actively avoid music may not know and appreciate, I probably don’t need to say much. Same as it ever was. Regarding the latter, I will once again add the caveat that the Stop Making Sense version is even better than the one on Remain In Light. The slow-burning intro that finally explodes into full tilt is a thrill every time I hear it.

Speaking In Tongues was the first Talking Heads album I bought as a teenager. There are no wrong choices here, but I narrowed it down to Burning Down The House and This Must Be The Place. Much like Once In A Lifetime, I don’t need to say much about why Burning Down The House makes this list. I’ll only say that the first twenty seconds of the song alone would’ve qualified it for inclusion. This Must Be The Place, however, requires a few more words. I said earlier that Born Under Punches is their best song and I stand by that. But even so, This Must Be The Place is my favorite. Not just my favorite Talking Heads song – my favorite song, period. It is everything I want music to be. As free, and even dangerously chaotic as Born Under Punches feels, This Must Be The Place feels perfectly controlled – everything is in its right place and no words are wasted. How can they be so good at such disparate ends of the spectrum? Oh, I do love this band so.

It’s painful for me to say I was unable to include any songs from the 6th and 7th studio albums – Little Creatures and True Stories – on my list. I’m fond of both albums, especially Little Creatures, but such is the cutthroat nature of this Toppermost business, something that becomes even more difficult when a band has such a large catalogue.

The last song on my list is from the last Talking Heads album, Naked. This will constitute my most out-of-left-field choice, but Totally Nude, not unlike most of the other songs I’ve listed so far, puts me in such a state of whirling delight. This song came at a period of time when David Byrne was really discovering the full range of his voice and he sings with such joyful abandon that I’m pulled into this arcadian tale each time I listen.

The list of also-rans that didn’t make my Toppermost could go on for a mile, but my most honorable mentions must go to: Uh-Oh Love Comes To Town, Pulled Up, Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, Seen And Not Seen, Making Flippy Floppy, Pull Up The Roots, What A Day That Was, And She Was, Television Man, Road To Nowhere.

You can find more of my ramblings on music at my blog, (where I wrote a bit more about Found A Job, too.) It’s not terribly filled out, a work in progress, but I plan to write more this year, and you know that will include more about Talking Heads! I’ll also be back on Toppermost before long with a post about my favorite David Byrne solo songs.

The Name Of This Site Is Talking Heads

David Byrne official website

Tom Tom Club official website

Talking Heads biography (iTunes)

Annie Oehler writes about music these days, (“albeit sporadically”) at Annie’s Music-y Thoughts and Annie on Annie (a blog dedicated to the music of Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent) and you can also find her chatting about music on Twitter at @anniemusicblogs.

TopperPost #447

8 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    May 26, 2015

    Magnificent Annie, I could never have done justice to Talking Heads in the way you have. I have a number of Talking Heads CDs and your 10 will inform my listening on my train commute over the next few days – and beyond. Thank you.

    • Annie Oehler
      May 27, 2015

      Hi Ian – Thank you so much! Let me know if you re-discover any favorites during your commute. I could’ve gone on for days!

  2. Glenn Smith
    May 26, 2015

    Annie, well done I completely get what you’ve gone for here, really interesting. I’d pick a bone on the better version of Life During Wartime, I remember being blown away when I saw the film, but the edgier Gang of Four flavoured version on Fear of Music has always been the best, although I love the funkier feel on the live version. I’d also have Artists Only in here as i’m a big fan of More Songs,it being my first and favourite TH album. But like Ian I’m going to make your toppermost my car playlist for the next few days as it is a cracker.

    • Annie Oehler
      May 29, 2015

      Hi Glenn – Thanks! I like all versions of LDW (the version on The Name of This Band is Talking Heads is also quite good), but doesn’t it drive you crazy that the Fear of Music version cuts out the last verse?? It’s still great, though. And I too love Artists Only. More Songs is great top to bottom. I hope you enjoy the playlist!

  3. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 28, 2015

    This was an interesting departure for popular music. Talking Heads had a true artistic approach. I saw the abstract lyrics as a ‘story-painting’ in a way I had not seen since Dylan’s 1965 songs (Visions of Johanna, Queen Jane Approximately, Desolation Row etc.). I cannot count the number of times I have listened to ‘Remain In Light’. Thank you for a well-thought out expression of what to me was the best of what the late 70’s-early 80’s offered us.

    • Annie Oehler
      May 29, 2015

      Hi Jerry – Thanks so much! Have you ever read David Byrne’s book “How Music Works”? He talks quite a lot about how he crafted lyrics in those early days. Fascinating stuff. The whole book is magic. And yeah – Remain in Light is about as good as music gets.

  4. Alex Lifson
    May 30, 2015

    Great essay Annie. While I was familiar with their music and at one point owned “More songs About Buildings And Food”, I bought it because of their cover of “Take Me To The River” which I thought was great and showed fine taste. However, it was several years later when I saw them in concert in a giant package stadium show with the Police, Peter Tosh, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, that they truly shined for me. They played to the cameras but more importantly, played their music well and looked like they were enjoying themselves. In my mind, they stole that show. Thanks again for posting this.

    • Annie Oehler
      Jun 5, 2015

      Wow, color me jealous, Alex! I would give anything to be able to travel back in time and see them perform live. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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