The story has always been that David Byrne did everything he could, at first, to distance himself from the Talking Heads. As this list of Top 10 David Byrne Solo Songs shows, however, he never really lost the nervy post-punk attitude that originally hurtled him to fame. In truth, even Byrne's most notable side trips actually didn't go that far afield.
His earliest solo material, for instance, tends to pre-sage where he’d go with the Talking Heads. In the immediate aftermath of their split, Byrne extensively explored world music, but connections remained. It was actually well into the '90s – ironically, after a return to presenting his music in a more conventional way – before Byrne made the most significant shift from what came before: That period saw Byrne turn in some of the most emotionally direct music of his career. Into the next decade, Byrne could again be found working with former Talking Heads producer Brian Eno, completing the circle once more.
Our list of Top 10 David Byrne Solo Songs traces that evolution, as he journeyed away from – and then right back to – the sounds that made him famous.
"My Big Hands"From: 'The Catherine Wheel' (1981)
At this point, David Byrne's solo projects tended to inform rather than depart from his principal duties with the Talking Heads. Arriving fresh off the breakthrough success of 1980's Remain in Light, The Catherine Wheel found Byrne scoring a dance production by Twyla Tharp as he sought to match a newfound fascination with "serious rhythm" to physical movement. Ideas flowed both ways between Byrne and Tharp, even as the Talking Heads began to filter back into Byrne's life. Jerry Harrison played on the album, as did touring members Adrian Belew and Bernie Worrell. Remain in Light producer Brian Eno co-wrote two songs, and appeared on another. By the time the Talking Heads returned to the road for dates eventually featured in Stop Making Sense, tracks like "My Big Hands" – a sly piece of funk recorded almost completely alone – were part of the setlist. Two songs from The Catherine Wheel appeared in the documentary, as well.
"Empire"From: 'Grown Backwards' (2004)
After moving through Afro-Cuban and Brazilian song styles, then back to a nervy, more familiar small-band sound, Grown Backwards found Byrne going off-script again. He remains in a confessional mode, but works throughout the album with the Tosca Strings, a Texas-based chamber group. Here, the band expands to include trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tuba and a French horn. That gives "Empire," which seems to reference an deep-seated mixture of anger and sadness about unjust wars, a darkly elegiac tone. When Byrne reminds us that "the weak among us perish," it provides one of his most startingly raw statements as an artist. Elsewhere, Byrne dabbles in a pair of less-involving opera arias, but even those occasional missteps take nothing away from the best moments on Grown Backwards – starting with "Empire."
"A Million Miles Away"From 'Uh-Oh' (1992)
You have to figure American fans had grown weary of Byrne's fidgety muse. How else to explain why a varied, remarkably consistent album that scored a best-ever No. 26 finish in the U.K. somehow failed to even break Billboard's Top 100? Between 1989's Rei Momo and the Byrne-curated Brazil Classics compilations of similarly themed music, they must have figured Byrne had completely abandoned his art-pop roots. Only, he didn't. Uh-Huh, the first album released after the official breakup of the Talking Heads, keeps some of the exotic sounds but also often recalls his old band's best-known period – in particular on "A Million Miles Away." With its layered pulse and open-hearted outlook, this sounds like an outtake from early-'80s projects like Speaking in Tongues and Little Creatures.
"Lie to Me"From: 'Rei Momo' (1989)
Time for a reevaluation of this album. The Afro-Latin themed Rei Momo isn't the out-right repudiation of the Talking Heads that it's often made out to be. First, you'll find it's powered by the same bubbling zouk rhythms as the final Talking Heads album, 1988's Naked. Then there's his theme on the stand-out track "Lie to Me," as Byrne excoriates mass-media religion: "Making up stories that you know aren't true ... Talk show religion, and soap opera love / Whatever happened to the heavens above?" Byrne took up the same mantle on both the Talking Heads' 1981 favorite "Once in a Lifetime" and through the clergyman character in 1986's True Stories. That it's all built on top of an infectious merengue structure is intriguing, but hardly the defining element in this similarly biting commentary.
"I Feel My Stuff"From: 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today' (2008)
A long-awaited reunion with Brian Eno, producer of three straight Heads albums beginning with 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, was bound to tread some familiar ground. In keeping, "I Feel My Stuff" is of a piece rhythmically with inventive, yet propulsively fun stuff like "I Zimbra." The difference lies in David Byrne. Having grown immeasurably as a composer, he's now able to give songs a far more expansive narrative sweep. Listen as "I Feel My Stuff" becomes ever more confrontational, a hardening that plays out in the increasing echo of Byrne's vocal and then a skittering guitar solo. The song ends up with no soft corners musically. Lyrically, it's another story. This meditation on a world gone wrong still finds a path to the beginnings of a smile.
"Regiment"From: 'My Life in the Bush With Ghosts' (1981)
The last in a trilogy of polyrhythmic Eno collaborations that included Remain in Light and The Catherine Wheel, this one is – by far – the weirdest. My Life in the Bush With Ghosts was recorded just before the Remain in Light sessions, and notably included Chris Frantz and touring band member Michael "Busta Cherry" Jones on "Regiment." That's where the similarities end on an endlessly fascinating but very dense project that used samples and sound collages to make a nascent comment on the then-still emerging global media blitz. "Regiment," a particularly knotty piece of funk, is completed by Robert Fripp and Lebanese singer Dunya Yusin, who add a Middle Eastern-influenced excursion into Frippertonics and these haunting, wordless vocals.
"Back in the Box"From: 'David Byrne' (1994)
Gone were songs about buildings and food. Also, the exotic elements found on both 1989's Rei Momo and 1992's Uh-Oh. Instead, songs like "Back in the Back" – part of an eponymous effort that arrived in the wake of his sister-in-law Tina Chow's AIDS-related death – reveal a human side of Byrne that we'd rarely seen in the past: "The sun shines on the evil; the sun shines on the good," he sings here. "It doesn't favor righteousness, although you wish it would." The music was just as tough, uncompromising and unadorned. Not for nothing was this album simply called David Byrne. As he moved forward without his familiar sardonic detachment or more recent musical gimmicks, Byrne produced his most honest album.
"Like Humans Do"From: 'Look Into the Eyeball' (2001)
A song that combines Byrne's more confessional recent work with the lovably goofball perspective of his early years, "Like Humans Do" seeks to reconcile our innate need to love people alongside the disappointment of their sometimes unbearable failings – as told by a Martian. This buoyant collaboration with Thom Bell, the Philly soul producer, doesn't necessarily mesh with the rest of Look Into the Eyeball, which elsewhere delved even more deeply into Byrne's newfound fascination with string arrangements. It didn't fare well as a single, either. But that doesn't mean you didn't hear "Like Humans Do" everywhere back then. The song was used as sample music to demo the XP edition of Windows Media Player, and was also a sample track on the Rio Karma media player, as well.
"Who"From: 'Love This Giant' (2012)
This collaboration with St. Vincent was built after a period of emailing song fragments, arrangements, partial lyrics and stray ideas back and forth – and it sounds just like that, really. They ultimately created a party record for pop introverts. Filled with weird observations, glinting horn stabs and off-kilter beats, the highlight moment is "Who." Complex and propulsive, there's no better example of how Byrne and St. Vincent go back and forth on Love This Giant, near each other but not really together. Along the way, that provides its own smart subtext for communication in the internet age. This is a song, and an album, where Byrne and St. Vincent don't try to play one off of the other but instead work completely in tandem.
"Angels"From: 'David Byrne' (1994)
The over-sized suit in Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense worked as a metaphor for David Byrne's early career, as he seemed to both seek and shrink from the spotlight. That mindset, like the outfit, was firmly tucked away for this self-titled project. Byrne uses "Angels" to explore the often-taboo idea of death, expressing our shared desires for a better end – be that via a virgin birth or something less cerebral like "a perfect drunk." (The latter of which would be "when you’ve just had enough to release inhibitions and feel happy," Byrne said in 1994, "but not enough to be falling down.") Free of his own youthful disengagement, Byrne speaks hard truths, and right from the heart. There's no party, and certainly no disco – just David Byrne.