Thirty-five years have already passed since the release of Talking Heads’ magnum opus LP Remain in Light, an album that blended Cold War paranoia with irresistibly dance-y world beats. Now seems like the ideal time to countdown our favorite tracks from possibly the greatest and most important act of the late-’70s new wave movement.
10. “(Nothing but) Flowers”
David Byrne’s vocals always reflect an unease with the modern world, an unease which is more or less turned on its head in this late, great masterpiece from Talking Heads’ final album Naked. Byrne sings of a world where every modern convenience has been replaced with natural wonders, longing for the industrialism of the past, cheekily singing, “If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawn mower.” The music is so layered with bongos and afro-beats it would be overwhelming if it wasn’t so infectious and fun.
9. “No Compassion”
Talking Heads came on strong with its debut LP Talking Heads ’77, and though many of the tracks don’t match the sheer creative complexity of their later works, they present an exciting band working out the jagged, conflicting beats and tempos that would become their signature. “No Compassion” is the most fully-realized track of the bunch, riding along on a ghostly riff that perfectly reflects the mistrust of Byrne’s lyrics about deciding to forego compassion in favor of his own sanity, if any of it still remains before intermittently shifting to an uptempo part with as much manic brilliance as anything from their later studio albums.
8. “Burning Down the House”
Who would have guessed the Heads could write a house-party anthem? Of course, it begins with a paranoiac acoustic riff and some creepy keyboard noodling before the whole band jams through a track partially inspired by a Parliament-Funkadelic live show. Every instrument chugs along with a percussive energy that mirrors the Heads’ innovative use of worldly rhythms to compliment their new wave riffing. It’s pure ghostly fun from start to finish, complete with some of Byrne’s greatest nonsense lyrics, like “All wet, hey you might need a raincoat/Shakedown, dreams walking in broad daylight.”
7. “Listening Wind”
It’s difficult to tell when David Byrne is being sincere and when he’s being cynical, but “Listening Wind” — the best track from Remain in Light‘s atmospheric side two — presents the singer at his most quietly earnest. The music is weepy and creepy with notes of Arabic influence subtly interwoven by producer Brian Eno, suiting the stark lyrical content about a young man resorting to terrorism to drive the invading foreigners from his homeland. The poignant, difficult subject is given the weight it deserves by Byrne’s strangely subdued singing and the moaning electric guitars. Talking Heads’ most haunting track is also one of their best.
6. “I’m Not in Love”
This spot could easily be occupied by almost any track from sophomore album More Songs About Buildings and Food, but I chose “I’m Not in Love” as it’s the best representation of the jagged yet energetic dynamics of this stellar album. Every element of the song is doing something unique and unexpected that somehow works in coming together as a chaotic and unpredictable whole — one frequently interrupted for a near-whispered chorus. That’s what Talking Heads did best — they deconstructed and rebuilt the standard elements of a rock song to create something new that shouldn’t work as well as it does.
The stripped-back version of “Heaven” from Talking Heads’ amazing live album and film soundtrack Stop Making Sense is almost certainly the superior one. Removing all the extraneous elements from the Fear of Music-version lets one of Byrne’s greatest vocal performance shine properly, along with lovely complimentary backup from bassist Tina Weymouth. It’s simple next to some of the band’s other compositions, but it sounds so lovely and world-weary and tired that it deserves a place among their best songs.
4. “Once in a Lifetime”
When most people think of Talking Heads, they probably think of David Byrne belting out, “You may find yourself…” “Once in a Lifetime” is a well-suited primer to their music, sporting a monster of a hook alongside some strangely simple yet poignant verses. The subterranean-sounding twinkling guitar is a perfectly compliment to the underwater lyricism, along with the bizarre rhythmic configurations incorporated from the band’s afro-funk influences. Even when creating their version of the ultimate pop song, the Heads are looking towards offbeat influences and challenging listeners even as they entertain them.
3. “Life During Wartime”
To be clear, we’re talking about the Stop Making Sense version again. It’s a near perfect blend of David Byrne’s nervous lyricism, here focusing on hiding out in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wartime landscape, and Talking Heads’ still emerging fascination with funk and dance music. The entire band is in peak form, a well-oiled jam machine that would still create transcendental music even without the sing-along choruses boasting “This ain’t no disco!” With those compelling choruses and with Byrne’s energetic vocal performance, however, the song takes off into the stratosphere, along with only the best rock songs of all-time.
2. “Crosseyed and Painless”
Side two of Remain in Light is all eerie atmospheric paranoia, but side one is like one unending groove created from a dozen disparate layers piled on top of each other to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, a tinge of paranoia runs beneath it all (Would it be Talking Heads without it?). “Crossseyed and Painless” is the catchiest of the three amazing tracks, a song wherein every element shines equally and each takes its turn in the song’s forefront. There are hooks and interesting instrumentation choices aplenty, making the song a worthy culmination of all the band’s consistent experimentation with world-funk music.
1. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”
Who knew Talking Heads could write a love song? I sure didn’t, and I certainly didn’t know they could write one of the greatest love songs of all-time. They toned down their pulsing afro-beats while still retaining their commitment to conflicting yet complimentary rhythms in order to support a love song without any sort of narrative push. The lyrics are simply a series of musings on the pain of life and the pleasure derived from a real relationship one that makes the narrator feel like he’s just an animal who’s finally found his home. Even if the lyrics weren’t so touching in their earnest simplicity, the gleaming keyboards and clever pitch modulations would still make for a moving experience.
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