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“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter.”
— High Fidelity

Etcetera

Best Songs of 1981

This was easily the most difficult list I’ve compiled thus far. I really had to scour far and wide to find 100 songs from a year that always felt lacking, not just in music, but in all of pop culture. I thought for a while that I might even have to settle on a smaller number than 100, like say, 81, out of fear that I would not be able to locate enough quality tunes.

In the end, I was able to fill out the full list, and did not have to skimp on quality to get there. In hindsight, my theory as to why it was so difficult lies in the story of the music itself. 1981 (and the year that followed it, as you’ll see) were periods of almost violent transition between musical trends and genres. The birth of hip-hop is there, the slow ascension of punk toward the mainstream is there, the (purported) death of disco is there, the emerging cheesiness of ’80s pop production is there.

All of those stories are evident, but few lie anywhere near the surface of what was actually popular at the time. Sure, like always, my list has plenty of that, but probably because I was a just-barely-speaking baby at the time, so little of it comes from my memories of that time. If anything, most of these songs that I knew in my youth were ones that had solidified themselves as classics only as the decade progressed.

Meanwhile, plenty of this stuff went unnoticed for a long, long time, at least by the general public (and I would include myself in that group). With the passage of time, through samples and shout-outs by later, often more popular artists, we are able to dig up these old, once-lost gems and reconsider them anew. I would guess that nearly half of this list consists of songs I never heard before a few years ago, making it one of the most unusual Best of lists in this annual experiment.

For these year-end lists, I like to undertake the seemingly impossibly task of creating an hours-long mix. The order you see below represents that effort, which you can listen to via Spotify. Sadly all 100 tracks aren't available—just 3 shy of complete!—but you get the general idea. Track notes to come eventually or maybe never.

  1. Tattoo You

    Start Me Up

    The Rolling Stones

    Tattoo You

    Rolling Stones

    Notes

  2. Pretenders II

    Message of Love

    Pretenders

    Pretenders II

    Sire

    Notes

  3. Ghost in the Machine

    Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

    The Police

    Ghost in the Machine

    A&M

    Notes

  4. Time

    Hold on Tight

    Electric Light Orchestra

    Time

    Jet

    Notes

  5. Shot of Love

    The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar

    Bob Dylan

    Shot of Love

    Columbia

    Notes

  6. Somewhere in England

    All Those Years Ago

    George Harrison

    Somewhere in England

    Dark Horse

    Notes

  7. Hard Promises

    The Waiting

    Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

    Hard Promises

    MCA

    Notes

  8. Tommy Tutone 2

    867-5309/Jenny

    Tommy Tutone

    Tommy Tutone 2

    Columbia

    Notes

  9. Working Class Dog

    Jessie’s Girl

    Rick Springfield

    Working Class Dog

    RCA

    Notes

  10. I Love Rock N' Roll

    I Love Rock N’ Roll

    Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

    I Love Rock N’ Roll

    Boardwalk Entertainment Co.

    Notes

  11. Dancing With Myself

    Dancing With Myself

    Generation X

    Dancing With Myself

    Chrysalis

    Notes

  12. Pleasant Dreams

    The KKK Took My Baby Away

    Ramones

    Pleasant Dreams

    Sire

    Notes

  13. Blizzard of Ozz

    Crazy Train

    Ozzy Osbourne

    Blizzard of Ozz

    Jet

    Notes

  14. Youth of America

    Can This Be

    Wipers

    Youth of America

    Park Avenue

    Notes

  15. Damaged

    Rise Above

    Black Flag

    Damaged

    SST

    Notes

  16. Prince Charming

    Stand & Deliver

    Adam & the Ants

    Prince Charming

    Epic

    Notes

  17. Dreamtime

    Always

    Tom Verlaine

    Dreamtime

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  18. Wild Gift

    Some Other Time

    X

    Wild Gift

    Slash

    Notes

  19. Fire of Love

    Preaching the Blues

    The Gun Club

    Fire of Love

    Last Call

    Notes

  20. Stray Cats

    Rock This Town

    Stray Cats

    Stray Cats

    Arista

    European release

  21. The Blasters

    So Long Baby Goodbye

    The Blasters

    The Blasters

    Slash

    Notes

  22. Juice

    Queen of Hearts

    Juice Newton

    Juice

    Capitol

    Notes

  23. Evangeline

    How High the Moon

    Emmylou Harris

    Evangeline

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  24. Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack

    Honey Dripper

    Dr. John

    Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack

    Clean Cuts

    Notes

  25. Boodle Boodle Boodle

    Anything Could Happen

    The Clean

    Boodle Boodle Boodle

    Flying Nun

    New Zealand release

  26. Songs of Pain

    Like a Monkey in a Zoo

    Daniel Johnston

    Songs of Pain

    self-released

    Notes

  27. Abacab

    Man on the Corner

    Genesis

    Abacab

    Atlantic

    Notes

  28. Some Days are Diamonds

    Easy, on Easy Street

    John Denver

    Some Days are Diamonds

    RCA

    Notes

  29. Songs in the Attic

    She’s Got a Way

    Billy Joel

    Songs in the Attic

    Columbia

    Notes

  30. On the Way to the Sky

    Yesterday’s Songs

    Neil Diamond

    On the Way to the Sky

    Columbia

    Notes

  31. Every Home Should Have One

    Baby, Come to Me

    Patti Austin & James Ingram

    Every Home Should Have One

    Qwest

    Notes

  32. Never Too Much

    Never Too Much

    Luther Vandross

    Never Too Much

    Epic

    Notes

  33. Love Byrd

    Love Has Come Around

    Donald Byrd and 125th Street, N.Y.C.

    Love Byrd

    Elektra

    Notes

  34. Walking Into Sunshine

    Walking Into Sunshine (Special Mix)

    Central Line

    Walking Into Sunshine

    Mercury

    Notes

  35. Children of Tomorrow

    Double Dutch Bus

    Frankie Smith

    Children of Tomorrow

    WMOT

    Notes

  36. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

    The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

    Grandmaster Flash

    The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel 12"

    Sugar Hill

    Notes

  37. Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman

    I Wish You Would (Tell Me Something Good)

    Klymaxx

    Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman

    Solar

    Notes

  38. Raise!

    Let’s Groove

    Earth, Wind & Fire

    Raise!

    Columbia

    Notes

  39. Carl Carlton

    She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)

    Carl Carlton

    Carl Carlton

    20th Century Fox

    Notes

  40. The Many Facets of Roger

    Do It Roger

    Roger

    The Many Facets of Roger

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  41. Nightclubbing

    Pull Up to the Bumper

    Grace Jones

    Nightclubbing

    Island

    Notes

  42. Street Songs

    Super Freak

    Rick James

    Street Songs

    Motown

    Notes

  43. Business As Usual

    Who Can It Be Now?

    Men at Work

    Business As Usual

    Columbia

    Notes

  44. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

    Tainted Love

    Soft Cell

    Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

    Some Bizarre

    Notes

  45. Tom Tom Club

    Genius of Love

    Tom Tom Club

    Tom Tom Club

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  46. Questionnaire

    Glad to Know You

    Chaz Jankel

    Questionnaire

    A&M

    Notes

  47. Private Eyes

    I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)

    Daryl Hall & John Oates

    Private Eyes

    RCA

    Notes

  48. Homosapien

    Homosapien

    Pete Shelley

    Homosapien

    Arista

    Notes

  49. Chariots of Fire

    Titles (Chariots of Fire)

    Vangelis

    Chariots of Fire

    Polydor

    Notes

  50. Computer World

    Computer Love

    Kraftwerk

    Computer World

    Elektra

    Notes

  51. Thirty Thousand Feet Over China

    I’m in Love With a German Film Star

    The Passions

    Thirty Thousand Feet Over China

    Polydor

    Notes

  52. Duran Duran

    Girls on Film

    Duran Duran

    Duran Duran

    EMI

    Notes

  53. Dare!

    Don’t You Want Me

    The Human League

    Dare!

    Caroline

    Notes

  54. Speak & Spell

    Just Can’t Get Enough

    Depeche Mode

    Speak & Spell

    Mute

    Notes

  55. Physical

    Physical

    Olivia Newton-John

    Physical

    Geffen

    Notes

  56. Don't Stop

    Mony Mony

    Billy Idol

    Don’t Stop

    Chrysalis

    Notes

  57. Word of Mouth

    Mickey

    Toni Basil

    Word of Mouth

    Chrysalis

    Notes

  58. Shake It Up

    Shake It Up

    The Cars

    Shake It Up

    Elektra

    Notes

  59. Get Lucky

    Working for the Weekend

    Loverboy

    Get Lucky

    Columbia

    Notes

  60. Freeze Frame

    Centerfold

    J. Geils Band

    Freeze Frame

    EMI

    Notes

  61. I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts

    Square Pegs

    The Waitresses

    I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts

    Polydor

    Notes

  62. Beauty and the Beat

    Our Lips Are Sealed

    The Go-Go’s

    Beauty and the Beat

    I.R.S.

    Notes

  63. Happy Birthday

    Happy Birthday

    Altered Images

    Happy Birthday

    Portrait

    Notes

  64. It's a Condition

    Myself to Myself

    Romeo Void

    It’s a Condition

    Columbia

    Notes

  65. Ceremony

    Ceremony

    New Order

    Ceremony

    Factory

    Notes

  66. Embarassment EP

    Celebrity Art Party

    The Embarrassment

    The Embarrassment EP

    Cynykyl

    Notes

  67. Two Halves for the Price of One

    Only the Stones Remain

    The Soft Boys

    Two Halves for the Price of One

    Armageddon

    Notes

  68. Rituals

    You Can’t Be Funky

    Bush Tetras

    Rituals

    Fetish

    Notes

  69. Playing With a Different Sex

    We’re So Cool

    Au Pairs

    Playing With a Different Sex

    Human

    Notes

  70. Party Mix

    Private Idaho

    The B-52’s

    Party Mix

    I.R.S.

    Notes

  71. Signals, Calls, and Marches

    Academy Fight Song

    Mission of Burma

    Signals, Calls, and Marches

    Ace of Hearts

    Notes

  72. This Is Radio Clash

    This Is Radio Clash

    The Clash

    This Is Radio Clash

    CBS

    Notes

  73. Something Special

    Get Down on It

    Kool & The Gang

    Something Special

    De-Lite

    Notes

  74. Controversy

    Controversy

    Prince

    Controversy

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  75. The Time

    Cool

    The Time

    The Time

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  76. In the Pocket

    Lady (You Bring Me Up)

    Commodores

    In the Pocket

    Motown

    Notes

  77. In Our Lifetime

    Heavy Love Affair

    Marvin Gaye

    In Our Lifetime

    Tamla

    Notes

  78. Black & White

    Slow Hand

    Pointer Sisters

    Black & White

    RCA

    Notes

  79. Walk Under Ladders

    No Love

    Joan Armatrading

    Walk Under Ladders

    A&M

    Notes

  80. Law and Order

    Trouble

    Lindsey Buckingham

    Law and Order

    Asylum

    Notes

  81. Bella Donna

    Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around

    Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty

    Bella Donna

    Atlantic

    Notes

  82. East Side Story

    Tempted

    Squeeze

    East Side Story

    A&M

    Notes

  83. I Love This Life

    I Love This Life

    The Blue Nile

    I Love This Life

    RSO

    Notes

  84. Tonight I'm Yours

    Young Turks

    Rod Stewart

    Tonight I’m Yours

    Warner Bros

    Notes

  85. Whomp That Sucker

    Funny Face

    Sparks

    Whomp That Sucker

    Lil Beethoven

    Notes

  86. Stands for Decibels

    Black and White

    The dB’s

    Stands for Decibels

    Albion

    Notes

  87. Waiata

    History Never Repeats

    Split Enz

    Waiata

    A&M

    Notes

  88. Of Skins and Heart

    The Unguarded Moment

    The Church

    Of Skins and Heart

    Parlophone

    Notes

  89. October

    Gloria

    U2

    October

    Island

    Notes

  90. Still

    Dead Souls

    Joy Division

    Still

    Factory

    Notes

  91. Heaven Up Here

    A Promise

    Echo & the Bunnymen

    Heaven Up Here

    Sire

    Notes

  92. Wilder

    Passionate Friend

    The Teardrop Explodes

    Wilder

    Mercury

    Notes

  93. Talk Talk Talk

    Pretty in Pink

    Psychedelic Furs

    Talk Talk Talk

    Columbia

    Notes

  94. The Bulrushes

    The Bulrushes

    The Bongos

    Bulrushes

    Fetish

    Notes

  95. Trust

    Clubland

    Elvis Costello & The Attractions

    Trust

    Columbia

    Notes

  96. La Folle

    Golden Brown

    The Stranglers

    La Folle

    Epic

    Notes

  97. Positive Touch

    Julie Ocean

    The Undertones

    Positive Touch

    Harvest

    Notes

  98. 4

    Waiting for a Girl Like You

    Foreigner

    4

    Atlantic

    Notes

  99. Face Value

    In the Air Tonight

    Phil Collins

    Face Value

    Atlantic

    Notes

  100. Under Pressure

    Under Pressure

    Queen & David Bowie

    Under Pressure

    Elektra

    Notes