The 50 Best Songs of 1981
Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our final list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff, so don't (entirely) blame Chuck. Please enjoy.
As years go, 1981 was a pretty darn transitional one. Ronald Reagan taking the oath of office in January signaled a sea change in American politics and economics, and MTV going on the air in August sorta did the same in terms of American popular culture. Just as the latter happened, a stagflationary recession was kicking in across the United States; all through the year's first half, racial strife had been spurring riots throughout England's inner cities. All of which affected some of the year's best music, though not necessarily the music you remember most. This playlist aims for a cross-section: Both giant hits and great cuts you might've missed.
Three songs dominated the U.S. charts in 1981, all by adult-contemporary acts who'd been around since well before the age of music video. The Diana Ross/Lionel Richie duet "Endless Love," which held the U.S. No. 1 spot for nine weeks, was a conservative, middle-of-the-road ballad. But the other two -- Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" (actually a Jackie DeShannon cover; No. 1 in the U.S. for nine weeks) and Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" (No. 1 in the U.S. for 10 weeks) -- were fairly audacious attempts to keep up with dance-oriented New Wave rock. Kim and Olivia weren't alone. Once-pompish '70s AOR gods like Rush ("Tom Sawyer"), Foreigner ("Urgent," with Junior Walker on sax) and Queen ("Under Pressure," with David Bowie on bloated crooning) were also tightening up with a touch of post-punk, post-funk bounce. Classic rock in general was learning the joys of pop concision -- not just prog veterans like Journey (with "Don't Stop Believin'," not their biggest hit but certainly the one with the longest afterlife) and longtime also-rans like Rick Springfield (with "Jessie's Girl," easily his commercial summit), but shamelessly crafty new schlock-rock combos like Loverboy and Quarterflash (the latter of which didn't sound all that far from pop-crossing Urban Cowboy-era country newcomers like Rosanne Cash and Juice Newton).
'Twas a good year for saxophones, too. Along with "Urgent" and Quarterflash (a Portland married couple's band whose singer, Rindy Ross, honked her own), there was a hot one (introduced by the phrase "Blow, daddy!") in Rick James' "Super Freak," while smooth-jazz sax man Grover Washington Jr. hit big with his lovely Bill Withers collaboration "Just the Two of Us." Still, to paraphrase "Super Freak," the kind of girls and boys you read about in New Wave magazines were a bigger story: The Go-Gos, Joan Jett, Soft Cell, U2, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, Squeeze tempted by the fruit of your mother, and Billy Idol, who hadn't quite left Generation X yet.
Most of those New Wavers didn't have quantifiable pop hits yet in '81, at least not huge ones, though most offered clear hints of future stardom. Blondie's "Rapture," on the other hand, was that shape-shifting band's fourth No. 1 single. And both that song and "Genius of Love," from the Talking Heads spinoff Tom Tom Club, were explicit attempts to pay homage to and keep up with the even newer rap wave exploding out of New York's streets. Twelve-inch singles by Grandmaster Flash (who mastermixed Blondie's Flash namedrop) and Funky Four Plus One still sound as epochal as anything to come out in 1981, if not ever. Older-school ensembles like The Gap Band and Kool & the Gang were still alive and funking, but this was the future. Outliers -- blue-eyed-soul diva Teena Marie, Nuyorican zoot-suiter Coati Mundi, Detroit jazz-punk beatniks Was (Not Was) -- were stirring rap into their mix, too. Disco eccentrics like Prince and Grace Jones, conversely, were learning tricks from the New Wavers. And in Detroit, things went even further -- Germans in Kraftwerk and Italians in Kano scored on black radio, in turn inspiring locals A Number of Names, whose "Sharevari" is said to be the first Detroit techno record.
All of which is to say: Stuff was getting weird. Out in California, where Reagan already had a legacy, hardcore gangs like Black Flag and Flipper were cranking out punk rock that felt even more caged-in and dead-end – and also, not coincidentally, more metal. L.A.'s X and Ohio's Human Switchboard were led by smart young couples just like Quarterflash, but sounded way more desperate about it, though not necessarily more desperate than country geezers Merle Haggard worrying that good times were over for good or Dolly Parton barely getting by while putting money in her boss-man's pocket. That last occurred in a No. 1 U.S. pop single, no less; in the U.K., chart-toppers included The Specials' Brixton riot soundtrack "Ghost Town" (reggae-matched here with Black Uhuru's comparably pointed "Youth of Eglington"), while avant-garde performance-artist Laurie Anderson's eulogy for America, "O Superman," made it to No. 2.
So, there you have it. A quick disclaimer: Not every last one of these tracks ranks with my own personal 1981 favorites, though a significant chunk do -- as stated above, other Rhapsody editors helped narrow the field. I still think, though, that this is as rounded a summation of the year as you'll find. Dance with yourself and work for your weekend like you just can't get enough, and don't stop believin'.