Read my reviews of albums of Talking Heads.
1977: Talking Heads ’77 (9/10)
This is a much rawer version of the band, understandably. They lack a lot of the musical and lyrical polish they had later (even the next year) and they seem to lack as clear an identity. Don’t get me wrong, this is still really, really New Wave compared to, say, Classic Rock of the same year, or even British New Wave at the time. But beyond “Psycho Killer” there are no obvious classics, it’s easy to see why a lot of this got dropped from their shows later.
I sound like I don’t like this, and I don’t mean that. I’ve just come at this bass-ackwards and it’s weird hearing such a primitive version of the band. Hell, the lead off track barely sounds like this band at all.
My poor listening habits aside, this is a central early document of New Wave, pointing out an alternative approach than punk to revitalizing music. I wasn’t born so I have no idea what it was like to see these bands in New York before they put records out, but it must have been a shock to come upon records like this, when everything on the radio sounded very, very blues (or country) based. Then you get this and you’re like “whaaat?”
They definitely got a lot better as a band (and Byrne got better as a songwriter), but this is still pretty great.
1978: More Songs About Buildings and Food (10/10)
I came to the Heads through Remain in Light – an album I would put right near the top of my short list of the best pop rock of the eighties – and the albums of that era and, a little later, Stop Making Sense. And so the band I know as the Heads is the band they became not the band they were originally. (With the possible exception of their cover of “Take Me to the River,” which has been played often enough on classic rock radio that I probably heard it before I even knew there was a band called Talking Heads.)
This is about as late seventies American New Wave as it gets. It’s textbook. It’s not quite Devo herky jerky – it’s a little too traditional for that – but it’s definitely more so than, say, Television. Even before going all funk / world music / dance fusion on us, the Heads clearly knew what they were doing. Pretty much everything here is note-perfect in terms of balancing clearly identifiable rock music and quirkiness. And the lyrics obviously help, as Byrne avoids the typical rock topics better than most songwriters.
1979: Fear of Music (9/10)
This is the point at which Talking Heads’ sound began to shift to the sound that they would inhabit in the 1980s, particularly on the opening track which feels almost entirely alien to the music they were making before. (Perhaps that’s why it was first?) The rest of the record is substantially less of a departure from their earlier records but there’s still a noticeable change in the vibe of everything.
For me, this is a transitional record, caught somewhere between their new wave sound and their more funk- and dance-informed sound of their later records. But I still really, really (really!) like it and some of my favourite Talking Heads songs are here (including “I Zimbra”, “Cities”, “Heaven”). I just think it’s not quite up to the standard of its predecessor or, even more so, to the record which succeeded it, which is on my short list of best albums of the 1980s.
1980: Remain in Light (10/10)
I don’t know anything about “dance” music. Nothing at all, really. At some point (in the ’70s), “dance” music moved away from other popular music and became its own thing.
But given my ignorance, I’m still willing to say that has to be the most artful and accomplished integration of “dance” music into rock music and, in particular, the sound of Talking Heads – a nervy, antsy, arty sound that, in theory, shouldn’t have meshed at all well with dance music.
They had already been heading this direction, but this is complete integration. The music is not only danceable but it’s insanely complex. (There are a lot of overdubs and loops, to put it mildly.) Repetitive backing vocals and the loops make it accessible while Byrne’s idiosyncratic lyrics and Adrian Belew’s brain-destroying guitar solos make it way more artsy fartsy than probably any other record that tried to get people to dance before it.
Even years after first hearing this, I have heard nothing else like this, within their catalogue or without. It remains an absolute classic. One of the few best albums of the ’80s and utterly inimitable.
Read my reviews of albums released in 1980. This is my #1 album of 1980.
1982: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (8?/10)
I have only listened to this once and haven’t written a review. Read my reviews of 1982 albums.
1983: Speaking in Tongues (9/10)
In 2010, I wrote the following:
I can’t help but see this as a lack of progress. Yes, it’s hard to follow up one of the best albums of the 80s. I understand that. But it still seems almost like a step back. That’s not to say that it’s bad in anyway. Obviously it’s pretty good (given my rating). But it feels somewhat slight after Remain in Light. I can’t really place the “why” just yet.
I can’t really agree with that exactly. What I will say is that this is the point when Talking Heads went from danceable art music to arty dance music; the focus is significantly more towards getting people to dance.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there are still a number of all time classic songs here, including the simplest ballad they maybe ever did. It’s still a great record. But it is not Remain in Light, which, as I noted in 2010, is one of the best albums of the decade.
Talking Heads music from 1984:
Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme (9/10)
I was fortunate enough to watch this on the big screen, which certainly makes you feel a little more like you are there.
This is a straight up concert movie, and there’s nothing else to it, but as such it is fantastic.
Though I would have preferred to see the version of the band with Belew on guitar, this is still a real treat, as I was 3 when this was made and had no idea who Talking Heads were (or what rock music was, probably).
So this is a little like being there, and it’s exciting. Their show was pretty amazing, and it’s a great concept that features lots of changes from the album versions.
But you can certainly see why the rest of the group got sick of Byrne
Anyway, a great experience for the fan.
Stop Making Sense Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)
I love the film. I got a copy of it not that long after I saw it – in a theatre! though one with only about 6 people in it – and it’s become one of only a few staple rock concert films I have.
But half the appeal of this movie is that it’s a movie. The Heads’ show is unique and is literally half the fun.
Divorced from the film the performances are alright, but most Heads fans agree that the earlier official live album is better. And I can personally attest that there are better performances available on Youtube.
This is still great stuff, it’s just that the visuals are really key and they’re missing when you just listen to the soundtrack.
Also, somehow listening to “Genius of Love” on its own, without the visuals, makes me dislike the Tom Tom Club even more, if that was possible.
1985: Little Creatures (8/10)
Talk about a left turn.
For much of my life, I have enjoyed the artistic left turn. But I’ve also struggled with those bands that turn into more conventional music after making unconventional or pioneering music. I have more tolerance of it the older I get, but it’s still a struggle.
First, Talking Heads were one of the pioneering New Wave Bands. (They might be the pioneering American New Wave band.) Then, they reinvented their sound to create a unique version of Post Punk that sounded like basically nobody else. And then they made this.
This album is such a conventional pop rock album it’s shocking. It’s like a different band made it. Sure, there is percussion here and there, but the intricate rhythms are gone. As are the bonkers guitar solos by guests. And though there are still backing vocals, they are not the chants of earlier albums.
Instead, there is an accordion, and a little bit more steel guitar, and a fairly distinct change in genre even on the songs without those accoutrements. The album is relatively free of the intricate arrangements and overdubs that defined the band for so long.
And should all be a disappointment, right? They’ve regressed, made something conventional for the first time.
But the songs are pretty damn strong. (Two of them I knew already but didn’t realize they were Talking Heads songs because, you know, they don’t sound like Talking Heads songs.) The songs save the album given how conventional it is.
But also I think you do have to admire them for trying something different for them. Sure, it sounds like plenty of other bands in a way they never sounded before. But what else were they going to do at this point? Keep putting out the same record over and over again?
1986: True Stories (???)
I think I’ve already listened to this but I never reviewed it. Read my reviews of music from 1986.
1988: Naked (???)
I believe I’ve listened to this only once. No review written. Read my reviews of 1988 albums.