Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1981

Let me start by saying 1981 might've been one of the weakest years ever for rock music. It makes perfect sense, though; from 1977 to 1980, the sound and feel of the genre had changed so dramatically, spawning varieties and subgenres that still are still referenced to this day, that after such a long renaissance period all parties involved needed a breather. The creative vacuum of 1981 was probably intentional, and for most music critics this is where the '70s truly ended the '80s began. That's not to say the sounds of '81 are completely worth overlooking, as implied by the albums, singles, and videos below. Disco was finally dead, punk was heading back underground, new wave was slowly gaining mainstream acceptence, and Top 40 radio was a wasteland of cheesy power ballads, insipid country-pop, and commercial rock.

That aesthetic hangover was felt for much of the first half of the year, but in the wee hours of August 1st, everything changed. It wasn't a sudden shock to the system, as the number of people that watched its debut were estimated in the low thousands, but its aftereffects changed the music industry forever. Long before it became a spawning ground for attention-hungry teen moms and mentally disabled Italian stereotypes, MTV was all about music; this fledging, low-budget cable channel was the greatest marketing tool the music industry never knew they had. We wanted our MTV, we just didn't know it yet.

Typically when I listen to albums for my monthly list, I mentally rate them by letter grade. The majority of the discs that make the final cut earned an "A," with a few scattered "B+" and "B's" toward the bottom. On this particular list of albums, the B's outrated the A's by a 2-to-1 margin. To drive my point home: there were plenty of good, memorable albums of 1981, just not that many great ones.


1. Damaged, Black Flag. Of all the gritty, visceral bands that came from the California hardcore-punk scene, Black Flag shined the brightest, and their full-length debut Damaged was their definite statement. After going through the parade of frontmen in their early days, the band settled on Henry Rollins, whose furious growl belied his odd charisma and startling intellect. One of many punk and metal albums that fell into Tipper Gore's family-friendly crosshairs in the mid-80s, Damaged has become an enduring document of a particular place, time, and mood.
2. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, David Byrne and Brian Eno. Continuing the brooding high art of Remain in Light --at least, in spirit-- Byrne's kinda-sorta solo debut is a collage of audio samples and demented rhythms. Similtaneously worldly, anxious, and insular, Ghosts preceded the development of cut-and-paste production methods that would dominate the music industry from the late 1980s onward.
3. Dare!, The Human League. Synth-pop's first international superstars set a blueprint of sorts with their third and far away best effort. Known mostly for the infectious single "Don't You Want Me," this record is heavy on pop hooks and what was then state-of-the-art production values. The beats are cold yet danceable, and the band is more concerned with form than content. The sound of Dare! may reek of Reagan-era indulgences, yet this album is a Polaroid snapshot of New Wave's ascent and conquering of FM radio.
4. Tattoo You, The Rolling Stones
5. Talk Talk Talk, The Psychedelic Furs
6. Ghost in the Machine, The Police
7. Wild Gift, X
8. Juju, Siouxsie and the Banshees
9. Hard Promises, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
10. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club. With the Heads on hiatus (see album #2), the husband-and-wife rhythm section of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth found light tropical breezes as partner-in-crime David Byrne uncovered dark, disturbing sonic patterns. On that opposite end of the spectrum, TTC's initial release was probably just as fun to listen to as it was to produce. Tossed off on a lark during a two-month jam session in Barbados, TTC seemlessly fuses New York alternative with the growing hip-hop scene just down the street at a time when both genres were cribbing each other's notes.

Honorable Mentions: Face Value, Phil Collins; Beauty and the Beat, The Go-Go's; As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays; Signals, Calls, and Marches (EP), Mission of Burma; Moving Pictures, Rush; Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell.


"Don't Stop Believin'," Journey
"Sirius/Eye in the Sky," The Alan Parsons Project
"Hold On Tight," Electric Light Orchestra
"Crazy Train," Ozzy Osbourne
"Switching To Glide/This Beat Goes On," The Kings

"Bette Davis Eyes," Kim Carnes
"Edge of Seventeen," Stevie Nicks
"Stand and Deliver," Adam & The Ants
"Ghost Town," The Specials
"6," Neats

"For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," AC/DC
"Dancing with Myself," Billy Idol
"Bad Reputation," Joan Jett
"You Better You Bet," The Who
"Young Turks," Rod Stewart


1. "Whip It," Devo. No context necessary-- just crack that whip!
2. "Genius of Love," Tom Tom Club. Elvis Costello's "Accidents Will Happen" was probably the first animated music video, but this bright, energetic, and unforgettable clip proved that cartoons can make or break a hit song if the beat's just right.
3. "O Superman (For Massenet)," Laurie Anderson. If "Genius of Love" made animation a viable form, why not avant-garde installation pieces? This video was probably way too weird even for MTV, though it gave Anderson come college-rock notoriety.
4. "Rapture," Blondie. It would probably be unfair to dub Debbie Harry the Pat Boone of hip-hop, but this was the first rap-influenced song to #1 on the Billboard charts, and the video itself was not without its somniferous charm.
5. "When Things Go Wrong," Robin Lane & The Chartbusters. Apparently inspired by "The French Lieutanant's Woman," the LA-based singer-songwriter scored her biggest (i.e. only) hit with an Anglo-centric visual for her doleful girl-power anthem.

Honorable Mention: "Big Brown Eyes," The dB's.

Your thoughts?


  1. "insipid country-pop" - you must be talking about Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts". I hated that song every time I heard my parents blast it on the stereo back in the 1980s. It has melodies & hooks that make your skin crawl and burn like Noxzema cream. Funny how I still think of Peggy Hill botching the lyrics to this while she was driving in KOTH.

    I don't remember much from 1981 other than "this burnt-orange turtleneck sweater is making me itchy!"

  2. Yep. That song, plus "Elvira" by the Oak Ridge Boys.