I don’t know if I would call the Talking Heads the best American band. What makes a band the best? Is it influence, creativity, skill, record sales, or some sort of combination? It’s hard to decide what American band is best without being biased towards whatever bands you happen to like. Whether or not they’re the absolute best, the Talking Heads deserve to be considered.
I would argue that, of all the bands mentioned so far, the Talking Heads are the most unique. Their sound can’t be placed into a genre of rock music as easily as the Doors’, the Cars’, or Aerosmith’s. It seems to be a combination of the genres of music that were popular during their heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They are clearly influenced by punk, especially in their messy-sounding first album, but a quick look at their expressions and attire in the picture above makes it clear they aren’t a punk band. Many of their songs, such as “Found a Job”, have the beats and erratic basslines of disco. After their first album they recruited the legendary Brian Eno as producer and their sound became more New Wave. You can hear this in the classic “Once in the Lifetime.”
The Talking Heads’ songs are often about strange topics, and have strange lyrics. Their 1979 album Fear of Music, for example, includes the songs “Air”, “Heaven”, “Animals”, “Drugs”, “Paper”, and “Mind”. They rarely sing about love, the favorite topic of most bands. Their songs aren’t obviously political, but usually offer some commentary on modern American life. Their second album, for example, is titled Songs About Buildings and Food, and their song “Once in a Lifetime” includes the lyrics:
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?
Their performances and music videos are as quirky as you would expect, and I would argue that they are one of the band’s most important legacies. The indie music of today owes some of its defining qualities – quirky lyrics, eccentric frontmen, world music influences, prominent basslines – to the Talking Heads, especially the lead singer, David Byrne.
One of the things that makes the Talking Heads great is that they never went into a serious decline, unlike lots of bands out there. I think this is one of the reasons you could never call Aerosmith the greatest band. I don’t think the greatest American band is allowed to have put a song on the Armageddon soundtrack, and to lend their name to a roller coaster at Disney World.
Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!