Thursday, May 03, 2012

Rock Solid: Talking Heads

"If you only own one album by Talking Heads it's gotta be ____________________."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Back in 2005 I reviewed every single Talking Heads album, but that predated the Rock Solid feature. So here it is retroactively.

Maybe it's just my fanboy ardor talking, but one would think that Talking Heads would have a fairly competitive catalog when it comes to declaring a best album. Well, as has happened many a time in the Rock Solid (and Rock Bottom) process, my expectations have clashed sharply with reality.

According to the All Music Guide, only 3 Talking Heads albums achieved perfection: 77 (1977), More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), and Remain in Light (1980). The latter album was no surprise, as it is generally considered a masterpiece. But the first two? I'm dubious. And where are Fear of Music (1979), Speaking In Tongues (1983), or either of their live albums?

Even more surprising is the album that actually won out. No, it wasn't Remain in Light. It was the band's debut, 77. Really. It stands as the only TH album to receive perfect 5 star ratings from both the All Music Guide and Amazon.com reviewers. I know David Byrne implored us to "stop making sense", but I don't know that he meant it so literally!

Here's what I said in my 2005 review: "In artistic terms this is a rough sketch for the larger masterpiece." In other words, it's got a certain tossed off charm to it, but it's hardly suitable for framing. The band became so much more than what you hear on 77. Upon relistening with my 2012 ears, I find that opinion largely unchanged. But let's hear the justifications from the All Music Guide and Amazon.com and reviewers. Let's see where their heads were at.

AMG's William Ruhlman looks at the album largely in historical context. He said the songs used
"existing elements in an unusual combination to create something new that still managed to be oddly familiar." He also labels 77 a "landmark album", most likely because of its role in redefining punk and new wave.

In what might be the most coherently-written set of 5 star reviews on Amazon.com, fans fell into three camps.
1) Those that agreed with Ruhlman about the album's greatness dwelling in its influence:
  • "Though in some ways the influence out ranks the music, this is still a fun listen and an essential addition to a person's music collection." - BeatlesFan3287
  • "77 is an incredibly original album; it essentially made post-punk a credible 'sub' genre." - C.Cross
2) Those that feel the album's simplicity trumps later incarnations of the band.
  • "This is actually my favorite talking Heads album; some of their later albums tend to sound kind of sterile to me, but this record has soul, hooks and a punky New York attitude that won't wait." - Randy "Randy" 
  • "Here we see the early Heads, prior to Eno, African rhythms, extra musicians; and what we get is a beautifully tight, engaging quirky little band with great tunes." - JOHN SPOKUS
3) Those that just dig it.
  • "I wasn't expecting every moment of the album to be so darn memorable though. Definitely a complete surprise when I found myself falling in love with every single song selection."- B.E. Jackson
  • "Even after all the greatness that came later, I have to say that the Heads never topped 77." - trickc@aol.com

I don't hate 77 by any stretch of the imagination (Psycho Killer and Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town alone would prevent that), but I do certainly believe that Talking Heads made better albums.

My personal pick would be the 1999 expanded edition of the soundtrack to Stop Making Sense. Nearly verything that's wonderful about the Talking Heads' music is there. But since that treads dangerously close to violating my "no greatest hits" rule, I'd go with Speaking in Tongues (an album that shamefully didn't even make the top 6 finalists) as a close second. It's more light-hearted (and danceable) than Remain in Light, while still holding on to the forward-thinking ambition. It's got a big hit (Burning Down the House), great album tracks (Girlfriend is Better, Pull Up the Roots), and a bonafide stunner (This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)).