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1981 Songs of the Year

Home > Everywhere > Lists | Music | Performing Arts
by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published December 10th 2018
Music makes the year great
The recent death of Pete Shelley had me pull out a song of his I hadn't listened to in a long, long time. It was 'Homosapien', the first single he released as a solo artist (he was the lead singer of the Buzzcocks).

This got me thinking about the songs of that year. I did some hunting through my archives and found an essay I'd written for a magazine in 1997 where I claimed that 1981 was my favourite year for music. In compiling this list, I am hard-pressed to disagree. The article I wrote way back when focused on albums and new artists that made appearances, and had a strange fascination with 'Physical' by Olivia Newton-John (which went on to become one of the biggest selling singles of 1982) and read like it was written by someone who felt that words of five-plus syllables were more important than making it readable.

This will be, hopefully, much more readable.
cassette player, tape
Yes, this was a lot like the one I had...

Now, that time in my life. I was ten, in year six at primary school, and with my favourite teacher ever – Mr Moraw. When I became a teacher, he was the one I tried to emulate. He was the first teacher I had who encouraged my writing for pleasure, and my long-form creative writing. He had a profound effect on me.

It was also the year my father was diagnosed with cancer, dying in December. So to say it was not the most positive time of my life is probably understating it. However, I survived, mainly with the help of a good friend named Sue Jones. I wonder what she's doing nowadays? Anyway, that probably summarises the year.

I lost myself in music. Maybe – putting on a psychologist's hat – that's why the songs of the year have stuck with me. But, even now, pushing forty years later, I am hard-pressed to find a year that I like better musically.

Rules: songs released in the year as singles or came from albums released in that year. Simple. And this is a long list. I really do like the year…

The list!

As usual with these lists, some honourable mentions first. Now, remember, these are just the songs I liked from the year, not the full gamut of songs released in 1981. Even so… (Deep breath.) 'All Those Years Ago' (George Harrison); 'Bad Reputation' (Joan Jett); 'Bette Davis Eyes' (Kim Carnes); 'Celebration' (Kool & the Gang); 'Centerfold' (J. Geils Band); 'Controversy' (Prince); 'Elvira' (The Oak Ridge Boys); 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' (The Police); 'For Your Eyes Only' (Sheena Easton); 'Freeze-Frame' (J. Geils Band); 'Games People Play' (The Alan Parsons Project); 'Gemini Dream' (The Moody Blues); 'Ghost Town' (The Specials); 'Girls On Film' (Duran Duran); 'Gloria' (U2); 'Golden Brown' (The Stranglers); 'Harden My Heart' (Quarterflash); 'Heart Of Mine' (Bob Dylan); 'Hitsville UK' (The Clash); 'I Can't Stand It' (Eric Clapton); 'I Could Be So Happy' (Altered Images); 'I Love Rock And Roll' (Joan Jett); 'I Missed Again' (Phil Collins); 'I'm In Love With A German Film Star' (The Passions); 'It Must Be Love' (Madness); 'Jessie's Girl' (Rick Springfield); 'Just Can't Get Enough' (Depeche Mode); 'Key Largo' (Bertie Higgins); 'Love Action (I Believe In Love)' (The Human League); 'Maid Of Orleans' (Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark); 'Mickey' (Toni Basil); 'Musclebound' (Spandau Ballet); 'O Superman' (Laurie Anderson); 'Only Lonely' (The Divinyls); 'Our Lips Are Sealed' (The Go-Go's); 'Physical' (Olivia Newton-John); 'Planet Earth' (Duran Duran); 'Pretty In Pink' (The Psychedelic Furs); 'Prince Charming' (Adam & The Ants); 'Private Eyes (Hall & Oates); 'Same Old Lang Syne' (Dan Fogelberg); 'Shake It Up' (The Cars); 'Shot Of Love' (Bob Dylan); 'Spasticus Autisticus' (Ian Dury & the Blockheads); 'Stand and Deliver' (Adam & The Ants); 'Stars On 45' (Stars On 45); 'Start Me Up' (The Rolling Stones); 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around' (Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty); 'Super Freak' (Rick James); 'Tainted Love' (Soft Cell); 'Talk To Ya Later' (The Tubes); 'That's Entertainment' (The Jam); 'The KKK Took My Baby Away' (The Ramones); 'The Land Of Make Believe' (Bucks Fizz); 'The Model' (Kraftwerk); 'The Waiting' (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers); 'This Is Radio Clash' (The Clash); 'Tom Sawyer' (Rush); 'Too Drunk To F**k' (Dead Kennedys); 'Tube Snake Boogie' (ZZ Top); 'Urgent' (Foreigner); 'Waiting For A Girl Like You' (Foreigner); 'Waiting On A Friend' (The Rolling Stones); 'Walking On Thin Ice' (Yoko Ono); 'Wired For Sound' (Cliff Richard); 'Working For The Weekend' (Loverboy); 'Wrathchild' (Iron Maiden).


Now, look at that list already and tell me the year wasn't awesome!

'Don't Stop Believin'' by Journey

From the instantly recognisable opening piano to the soaring chorus, this song has "rock anthem" written all over it. A true classic rock song in every sense of the term, and one even the cast of [I[Glee[/I] couldn't mess up.

'Edge Of Seventeen' by Stevie Nicks

Proving she didn't need Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks' Bella Donna album was incredible, and this song was a highlight of it.

'In The Air Tonight' by Phil Collins

Possibly better known now for drumming gorillas and people misinterpreting it as being about drowning people, this song is just simply amazing. The slow build-up to drumming powerhouse ending is superb. Often imitated, never matched.

'Juke Box Hero' by Foreigner

Another classic rock song, one that tells a story and is just fantastic.

'Homosapien' by Pete Shelley

The song that started this list, banned at the time from some radio stations because of its gay sex undertones, this is still a marvellous example of synth-pop greatness.

'Read 'Em And Weep' by Meat Loaf

I've written about Barry Manilow's version of this, but when Meat Loaf gets hold of a song, he wrings it of every bit of emotion he can, and this is no different. A forgotten classic.

'You Better You Bet' by The Who

We all thought this was The Who's last hurrah, and despite the lack of Keith Moon, it is certainly not a bad way to go out. As it was, they have continued, and they have released more greatness, but this is still just superb.

'The Stroke' by Billy Squier

With it's pounding drum beat, this is a song that just drives along. Another forgotten classic.

'For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)' by AC/DC

One of the staples of their live show – often with accompanying cannons – this song is one of the best AC/DC have released.

'Beautiful World' by Devo

When people think of Devo, they normally think of flower-pot hats and the song 'Whip It'. But I prefer this song, for its lyrical content and the synth-pop groove. Yet another forgotten track.

'Under Pressure' by Queen and David Bowie

There is not much more to be said. Both Queen and Bowie are favourites of mine, and this coming together was a perfect melding of energies.

'Nobody Wins' by Elton John

Elton John has had a long and successful career, with a string of hits a mile long. This is one of his lesser remembered singles, and yet, to me, it is definitely one of his very best.

'Young Turks' by Rod Stewart

I didn't understand what this song was about until I was a few years older, but I still liked the song from the first time I heard it (actually, saw it, on some pop music video clip show).

'Flash' by Queen

Yes, another Queen song. I am a fan. And this theme song from the film Flash Gordon is just a fantastic bit of OTT rock-pop.

'Hold On Tight' by Electric Light Orchestra

ELO released some amazing pop tunes, and this is no exception.

'The Breakup Song' by The Greg Kihn Band

Catchy as anything, this is a great song that gets into your head like an ear-worm.

'I've Done Everything For You' by Rick Springfield

Everyone seems to only mention 'Jessie's Girl' when talking about the songs of Rick Springfield. But I prefer this one; it shows his guitar chops much better and, even though its sentiments are not exactly positive, it is still a glorious song.

'Don't You Want Me' by The Human League

What a great story told here, in one of the classic synth-pop songs of the 80s, one the very best exponents of this song style.

'Rock And Roll Dreams' by Jim Steinman

Yes, I have talked about this song before. Yes, it is my favourite song of all time ever. I still think of Clare, I still think of using it to cope with depression, I still think of so much with this song. Again, the video is not the best, but who cares when the song is so damn fine?

And there we have it. A huge list, sure, but it was a huge year.

What did I leave out? What should I have left out? Comments, as always, welcome.

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Why? Some years are better than others
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Your Comment
Love Phil Collins and Elton John. LEGEND songwriters and musicians.
by Gloria (score: 2|545) 1515 days ago
That was fun! Thanks!
by Michael Genrich (score: 3|1870) 1504 days ago
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