1981 was a strange year in music for me. I had was coming out of a rock only phase and embracing some of the music I liked but wouldn’t admit that I liked. Below is a list of my top albums for 1981, some from the time they were released and some in retrospect, that I discovered later. It is all, as always, just my opinion and if you think there is glaring omission then tell me.
45 Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks – Hanoi Rocks
This may not be viewed as an auspicious start but in 1981 I was 14 and this sort of thing still appealed to me. I actually saw them a couple of years later and they weren’t all that good to be honest, but about 5 albums later they did a great Creedence Clearwater Revival cover so they are sort of here on the strength of that.
I had always thought they were from Sweden, but I just looked it up and it turns out they are from Finland, I wasn’t far off. So below is the track ‘Tragedy’ taken from this album and I’m not recommending it, I don’t think it’s very good. This is a terrible way to start a best of year, sorry.
44 Future Shock – Gillan
I really should have listened to this again before including it, one of the lyrics is a contender for worst ever, it’s in the video below, see if you can spot it, it’s early on.
So I did really like Gillan before this album, and there were parts of this I liked as well, at the time, but I can pinpoint this release as the point where I completely lost interest in him, being annoyed when he fronted Black Sabbath at Reading Festival a few years later, where once I may have been intrigued.
I do realise that I’ve just said that the first two albums on this best of list aren’t very good. Let’s just accept that they are here mostly due to nostalgia and move on
43 Mob Rules – Black Sabbath
Changing your singer can be a difficult thing to pull off, but Sabbath managed it by becoming a different band to some extent. The predecessor to Mob Rules, Heaven And Hell, was a triumph, this album ever so slightly less so but still containing some great rock tracks and, in ‘Sign Of The Southern Cross’ an epic. It’s down below, you can listen to it if you like.
From opener Turn Up The Night to the closing track, Over and Over, you know what you are in for and the two albums fronted by Ronnie James Dio may not be as venerated as those by Ozzy Osbourne but they are part of the Sabbath catalogue and shouldn’t be ignored.
42 Lord Upminster – Ian Dury
This is a long way from being the best album Dury released. I wrote about it Here and gave it a rating of 6.4, which is low for me. The album recording was a shambles with Dury writing the songs on the flight to Jamaica to record with Sly and Robbie. It’s not the method to get his best work but it did result in ‘Spsticus Sutisticus’ which is still one of my faviouroite Dury tracks. The Body Song is pretty good as well.
If you were looking for an introduction to the work of Dury then start elsewhere would be my advice.
41 Marauder – Blackfoot
I loved Blackfoot and this was and still is what I consider to be their best album. If you haven’t heard them then to find them you would be looking in the category ‘Southern Rock’ alongside the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd (who lead singer Ricky Medlocke later joined).
I went to see them at the Hammersmith Odeon and it was a great show with tracks taken from this and their previous two albums, Strikes and Tomcattin’. They plyed what the fans wanted to hear and, from my position in the balcony, I enjoyed every minute of it.
40 Intensities in 10 Cities – Ted Nugent
I don’t necessarily agree with his politics, but I knew about none of that when I was buying his albums from the late 70’s and early 80’s. This was a live album, ten songs s suggested by the title, that weren’t on any of the studio albums.
I no longer have a copy but I my pick one up if I see it cheap as I loved it at the time, and pretty much everything that preceded it, well, I was probably the target demographic at the time.
39 Fair Warning – Van Halen
The first Van Halen album is one of the best debuts in the genre and the two subsequent albums hd their highlights, but it was this, their fourth, where they managed to again put together a consistently good album that drew on everything they had done before but moved them forward. Unfortunately, after this, they were done. The next album, Diver Down, was dreadful and 1984, while it no doubt made them a lot of money, didn’t sit well with me as it just had too many keyboard driven tracks. This, for me, was the pinnacle of their development as a band and everything after was pale by comparison.
38 Diary of a Madman – Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy made two great albums, this and its predecessor, Blizzard of Ozz. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the albums that followed but after the death of guitarist Randy Rhodes the songs just never seemed s good to me.
Opening with Over the Mountain it starts strong and maintains that all the way through to the final track. The image is bollocks of course and I tend to ignore all that in favour of the music itself, which most who like this sort of music would agree is right up there with the best.
37 Walk Under Ladders – Joan Armatrading
And now for a change of pace. I have said many times that the work of Jon Armatrading is under-appreciated, because it is. The re-sale value of her many early albums is between £1 and £2 generally, which demonstrates that there is no real demand for it.
The opener, I’m Lucky, was the single from the album, and is possibly it’s best known track, but there are others here worth exploring, such as The Weakness In Me, a beautiful song.
36 Signals, Calls, and Marches – Mission of Burma
An album that I discovered later based on hearing the brilliant opening track That’s When I Reach For My Revolver that I my well have first heard as a cover version by Graham Coxon of Blur.
It my well be considered an E.P in certain catalogues but I’m including it as an album, because I can, and it is more than worthy of inclusion.
35 The Electric Spanking of War Babies – Funkadelic
I don’t know that much about Funkadelic really but I like this, even though it is not, from what I know and have read, the peak of their output it still has a really good feel about it. It was the last album from them that included George Clinton.
As one would hope it is as funky as hell and although the title of the album sounds like gibberish it is, apparently a reference to the vietnam war. Warner Bros. didn’t want to release this Funkadelic record as a double album, so George Clinton whittled it down to a single disc. It also wouldn’t approve the Pedro Bell cover art of a naked woman inside a phallic spaceship: Bell covered most of it up with a big splash of green and the message “OH LOOK! The cover that “THEY” were TOO SCARED to print!”
34 Tattoo You – The Rolling Stones
There are people who like anything the Stones release, I’m not one of them, generally I find most of their albums to be patchy, certainly those after the 70’s. This album was culled from about 10 years of outtakes so that they had an album out to coincide with their 1981 American tour. It opens with Start Me UP, which I seem to remember was the first of their songs to be used in an advert, for Windows 98. The album closes with Waiting on a friend, which sounds better without the visuals in the video below I think! Everything in-between is perfectly acceptable but doesn’t shine like the aforementioned tracks.
33 Raise! – Earth, Wind & Fire
How could anybody resist album opener Let’s Groove, it is a classic by almost anybody’s standards and the soulful grooves and pop hooks carry on throughout the album.
They have been described as one of the most innovative and commercially successful bands of all time with Rolling Stone calling them “innovative, precise yet sensual, calculated yet galvanizing” and declared that the band “changed the sound of black pop”. All this is probably true.
32 Dance – Gary Numan
This was not, in my opinion, one of Numans best releases. While it had the hallmarks of his previous work it always sounds to me as though he was drawing too heavily on the sound of Japan, the band not the country. This is perhaps not that surprising as Japan Bassist, Mick Karn, plays on much of the album, and plays well, but it doesn’t all fit together that well as a whole for me.
If you look at the previous three albums, Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon, then this doesn’t stand up well against them, not that it is a bad album as such, more that it suffers from the legacy of these other albums. This was a time when you could measure the success of an album by how many singles were released from it, this had one.
There is a Top 50 Gary Numan that I did, the best track from this was in at 47.
31 Abacab – Genesis
I feel a bit mean sticking this at number 31 but console myself with the knowledge that it is here at all. I really liked predecessor Duke, but for me this marks the decline of the groups musical output, and to some extent the end of my association with them. After this album, which I will very occasionally listen to, the others that follow are pretty much dead to me.
The album was released with four different embossed covers simultaneously across the country, all depicting the same collage but with the paper shapes in different colors. The four different cover variants are usually identified by the colour of the largest upper shape adjacent to the title lettering; this shape being coloured navy blue, red, peach, and yellow.
The album sold a lot, there were several singles taken from it and many people love it. I don’t, I find it listenable.
The whole back catalogue is discussed and rated here: Genesis – Not with a bang but with a whimper
30 Dare – The Human League
Possibly the most unavoidable song of 1981 was taken from this album, Don’t You Want Me? which, if memory serves me correctly, was at Number 1 in the singles charts for 103 weeks that year. Five of the ten tracks were released as singles and all were hits to different degrees.
I think that this was right place, right time, right sound as it seamlessly aligned with the zeitgeist of 1981. The only thing I’d really heard of theirs before this was Being Boiled, which is a completely different proposition to this more pop oriented chart friendly feast.
29 Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret – Soft Cell
I had pretty much discounted this album but a couple of months ago I went to see Jools Holland at Warwick Arts Centre and Marc Almond came on and did a few songs, he was much better than I expected and I picked up a cheap copy of this from the used record store as a result. I don’t like all of it to be honest, but it is a solid release, including Bedsitter, included below, which I’d completely forgotten about. Obviously the two big singles were the Gloria Jones Cover ‘Tainted Love’ ans ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ but there’s plenty more here to like. Extra kudos as the album was created on a very low budget; it was supposedly recorded almost entirely with a ReVox tape recorder, a borrowed Roland drum machine belonging to Kit Hain, a small, preset Roland bass synthesizer, and an NED Synclavier, belonging to producer Mike Thorne.
28 Trust – Elvis Costello
Costello’s original intent with Trust was to cross the melody of Armed Forces with the rhythm of Get Happy!! The songs on the album dealt with a general sense of disenchantment he felt during the time, with the recent election of the Conservative government as well as tensions within his first marriage, which gave them an overall cynical tone. As a result, the general lyrical content of the songs describe a world that is essentially the opposite of what the album title implies. Earlier working titles were “Cats and Dogs” and “More Songs About Fucking and Fighting”
The singles released from this album weren’t hits, the highest chart position being #60 but this is not an indication of quality in this instance, the writing and performances are of the highest order.
27 Wha’ppen? – The Beat
NME named this the 4th best album of 1981, they were wrong, however, despite it’s lack of hit singles it is still a jolly fine album, with a mellower sound and, arguably, better song writing than its predecessor. I’d argue against that to be honest though.
I saw The Beat supporting P.I.L at Oxford O2 a little while back and they were really good, although missing Dave Wakelin. Rankin Roger did a wonderful job, with his son, of fronting the band. I don’t remember them playing any tracks from this album though.
26 Still – Joy Division
Still is a 2 LP compilation album consisting of previously released and unreleased studio material and a live recording of Joy Division’s last ever concert, performed at Birmingham University. It was released on 8 October 1981 by Factory Records, and was intended to both combat the trade in bootlegs and give fans access to recordings that were not widely available at the time.
It’s Joy Division, so of course it’s good. My main complaint is that the cover is a sort of cardboard material and seems designed to become increasingly crap over time, well my copy has at least. Oh, and no, Love Will Tear Us Apart isn’t on it.
25 La Folie – The Stranglers
Yes, it’s the one with Golden Brown on it, which is a fabulous track in itself but you get all the other tracks as well, a bonus!
I’ve just had a look and I have seven Stranglers albums, without doubt the first two are my favourites, with their debut being top of this list, and by the time this came out I had cooled on them somewhat but despite not necessarily fitting in with anything that proceeded it, Golden Brown is so good it drew me back in.
24 Tom Tom Club – Tom Tom Club
This may appear to be a rather controversial choice at first, but it is husband-and-wife team Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, who are both also known for being members of Talking Heads, and, to be quite frank, this is a great album of its time.
Wordy Rappinghood, Genius of Love, a cover of Under The Boardewalk, what the hell more could you possibly want? Listen to it, love it!
Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam
Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam
Haykayay yipi yaykayé
Ahou ahou a nikichi
23 Controversy – Prince
The fourth album from Prince, and the one prior to real breakout 1999, or it was from my perspective as this album didn’t touch the UK charts.
While not eschewing the overtly sexual lyrics of earlier releases, it adds different subject matter such as religion, work, nuclear war and Abscam (this was an FBI sting operation).
There were four singles drawn from the album, the title track, Sexuality, Let’s Work and Do Me, Baby. Again, the UK charts were not particularly trouble by these but it is still one of the better albums in the Prince catalogue.
22 Discipline – King Crimson
I know this is not everybody’s favourite King Crimson period but I’m really rather fond of the trilogy of this, Three of a Perfect Pair and Beat. The musicianship is masterful, the song construction complicatedly wonderful and I find it highly listenable.
It certainly isn’t for everyone, I can see that, but having bought this on its release I’ve been listening to it for nearly 40 years (which seems ridiculous to me) and I am yet to grow tired of it.
21 Shot of Love – Bob Dylan
Dylan albums are often patchy, usually from a production or performance perspective, rarely from a songwriting perspective and this album is no exception. It has good songs throughout and it ends with, I believe, one of Dylan’s very best in Every Grain Of Sand, but not this version. The version from Bootlegs Volume 1 -3 is far superior but the song is the song and it’s on here and it is quite brilliant.
I couldn’t find a studio version so below is a later live version but I recommend visiting your favourite streaming service and giving it a proper listen.
20 No Sleep ’til Hammersmith – Motörhead
This is an album that, back in the day, I really wanted. A friend had it and we played it LOUD! But only at his house when everybody was out.
While Motorhead had a long career and put out a lot of albums, for me it is everything leading up to this live album that is the best they ever did. Everything after this doesn’t really hold much interest for me at all. Here we have Ace Of Spades, Bomber, Motorhead, all live all brilliant on one of the best live rock albums ever pressed to vinyl.
19 Evangeline – Emmylou Harris
This isn’t a very good album. So why is it up here at number 19 then? Well, Mr. Sandman and a reworking of Robbie Robertson’s haunting “Evangeline” with outstanding harmonies from Dolly Parton raise it up as does “Spanish Johnny,” sung with Waylon Jennings, and a dazzling version of the standard “How High the Moon”
The rest is not good at all but those 4 tracks are wonderful.
18 Stray Cats – Stray Cats
I liked the Stray Cats at the time but wouldn’t admit it to anybody and I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of their tracks in the last few years. This, their debut, was released following two hit singles “Runaway Boys” and “Rock This Town,” both energy filled rockabilly songs that hearkened back to the 1950s era of pure rock & roll. It was a high watermark for them in terms of chart success but it was a very good period for them with “Stray Cat Strut” being released as the third single and doing well. It’s rockabilly, but has elements of The Clash in places and even the odd bit of 2 Tone. Don’t dismiss it, give it a listen, it’s really good.
17 Go for It – Stiff Little Fingers
I think everybody knows by now that Green Day are basically a Stiff Little Fingers tribute band, don’t they?
This album was a bit of a progression for them and I think it’s fair to say that the previous albums contain their better known songs, but this is a solid pop-punk release that pre-dates what is essentially a revival in the 90’s by a decade. There is that scene in the film High Fidelity that references SLF, and it’s there because it’s right. Enough of that though, really good album, really good band.
16 For Those About to Rock We Salute You – AC/DC
After Back In Black, the return with a new frontman, Brian Johnson, following the death of Bon Scott, I had low-ish expectations of this. Back in Black is an almost perfect rock album, so how could they possibly even come close to doing it again? Well they did, FTATR is about 0.001% off being as good as Back In Black, the width of a fag paper.
After this, I completely lost interest, there is a possibility that they reached the heights of these two albums again but I somehow doubt it.
16 Talk Talk Talk – The Psychedelic Furs
I initially discovered the album Forever Now in 1982 and worked my way backwards through the two prior releases and loved all three of them. While this album does contain probably their best known track in Pretty In Pink, it has much better songs on it and there was a period where one of the first three albums took up the majority of turntable time and any mix tape I made had a track from one of the albums on it.
Things dropped off a bit quality wise in future years but those first three albums are just wonderful.
15 Movement – New Order
“Movement exists almost exactly in between Joy Division’s post-punk sound and the synth-pop style that would come to define New Order ” – Slant Magazine.
It’s true, it does, probably because it was the first release of the band after the demise of Joy Division and contains tracks they worked on from that earlier period. It’s also quite difficult to just suddenly become something else and it wasn’t until the next album that the more Synth laden sound really emerged. On a few of the tracks one could imagine Ian Curtis taking the lead vocal and it fitting in seamlessly with the Joy Division catalogue, and on some, well, no.
14 Juju – Siouxsie & the Banshees
The very first track I heard by Siouxsie & the Banshees was, I think, The Staircase (Mystery) which would have been 1979 and then heard debut single Hong Kong Garden after that. I loved it from the beginning and was still buying albums in 1991. This one, their 4th, contains a couple of absolute stunners in Spellbound and Arabian Nights, which were the singles taken from it. The other tracks are no slouches and it is a good album from start to finish
It is, for me, one of those albums where the singles draw you in and there is plenty more to discover once you step over the threshold.
13 Almost Blue – Elvis Costello and the Attractions
The first album released in this year, the second being Trust, which I remember causing a bit of fuss at the time as it just wasn’t what people were expecting. It is basically a country album. I remember watching TOTP and thinking, ‘WTF is this?’ as they performed A Good Year For The Roses, and it was only later that I came to appreciate just how good a song it was, and still is.
The songwriting is strong throughout with Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down and Success being a couple of highlights for me.
12 Face Value – Phil Collins
This is an album of songs built around the emotions felt when separating or going through a divorce. It is honest, and sometimes it feels like an open wound, but it launched a ridiculously successful solo career for Collins when, originally, he had never intended to release the songs as a solo album at all.
It is very much in the Duke camp, sonically, ratyer than aligning with Abacab that was released by Genesis in ’81, incuding as it does, Behind the Lines, which also appears on the former.
Solo albums can often be rather disappointing affairs but Collins really hits the mark, and keeps hitting in throughout every song on this album.
11 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Brian Eno & David Byrne
The first time I ever listened to this was last year whenI saw a copy at a record fair, bought it, took it home and played it right away.
It is a load of samples of snippets of radio broadcasts and Middle Eastern music set against percussive, repetitive mind-funk and is an undeniably incredible feat of tape editing and rhythmic ingenuity. It’s an album for listening to, the sort of thing you give your attention to, and, to me, listening to it so many years after its release, well, it still sounds new.
10 Japan – Tin Drum
Having just listened to this I may now be regretting putting it at 14, the track Ghosts alone is forcing me to rethink, and that’s without even considering Visions of China. Yes, I got it wrong, I’m moving it.
As you can see, it is now in the top 10.
I remember seeing Japan on the news and there was no interest in the music, it was all about whether David Sylvian was a man or a woman, absolutely ridiculous looking back on it now.
This was to be their last proper release, and it was a high point to go out on.
9 Heaven Up Here – Echo & the Bunnymen
This is the second album from The Bunnymen and an album album, by which I mean it isn’t singles album. It had a couple but they aren’t particularly well known. It is a collection of really very good songs, but is perhaps the least accesible of their catalogue.
All Of My Colours is a particular favourite of mine but it is a solid collection and well worth digging out if you’ve not given it a listen before.
8 Wilder – The Teardrop Explodes
There was a time, not that long ago, where this album would have been higher up in a chart of 1981 but it definitely would always have been higher than the album that proceeds it at number 9. There was a rivalry between the two bands and I always sided with the Teardrops. Time changes things though and, while I still love it, I can see with a wider lens nowadays and appreciate this album while understanding that those albums that follow it in this chart, by small margins, deserve to be where they are.
7 Ghost in the Machine – The Police
This was at number 12 but I just listened to it again after not having done so from start to finish for quite some time, I’d forgotten just how good it is. So now it is here.
Critically it has been well regarded over the years, In 2000 Q magazine placed Ghost in the Machine at number 76 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. In 2012 the album was ranked number 323 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the band’s highest-ranking work on the list. Pitchfork Media ranked it at number 86 in their list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s. It will appear again further up this list, well part of it will.
6 Red – Black Uhuru
This is quite a recent discovery for me. I’d heard of them but it was not until I bought a job lot of random 7″ singles that I listened to them. Then I bought this only a couple of weeks ago and like it so much that it appears all the way up here at number 6.
Black Uhuru were formed in 1974 in Kingston, Jamaica. They are one of the most popular reggae acts ever and were the first to win a Grammy. Founded by Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, Don Carlos and Rudolph “Garth” Dennis they rose to international fame in the ’80s, when they were joined by the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare and aldo Michael Rose as leadsinger. Since I bought this it has hardly been off the turntable.
5 The Flowers of Romance – Public Image Ltd.
This is nasty, menacing, head-spinning music built mostly around the drum patterns and it is really very different to anything else that was around at the time. It had little bass, possibly as Jah Wobble had departed at this point and what bass duties there were had to be taken up by guitarist Keith Levine.
It’s a challenging record, but if all music was easy then it would be boring as hell. I have to say that I need to be in the right mood to listen to this, usually a fairly dark one
4 Faith – The Cure
A dark record, which is one would think the opposite mood in relation to the album title, if you have it, it would be joyous surely, so we can conclude that here there is a search or a loss or a complete absence.
There was a desire from Robert Smith for the songs to sound funereal and several studios were tried before Morgan Studios provided the required atmosphere. The front cover, designed by former and future member Porl Thompson, is a picture of Bolton Priory in the village of Bolton Abbey in the fog,just ic case you had ever wondered. There was only one single taken from the album, ‘Primary’, have a listen, it’s brilliant.
3 Moving Pictures – Rush
There are many reasons why this particular album appears so high up the chart, one of which is that I saw the band at Wembley during this period and it was one hell of a gig, also it contains one of my favourite rock instrumentals, YYZ, named after the international code for Toronto airport. Also, opening track, Tom Sawyer, is still a firm favourite of mine. I did a top 50 Rush songs and it did rather well in that.
The musicianship, writing and performance is spot on and the resulting album is still regarded as one of their best.
2 Computer World – Kraftwerk
Anything by Kraftwerk is going to figure pretty highly in any chart I put together and this is no exception. Pocket Calculator is still one of my favourite tracks, possibly because it is actually rather simple and humorous, to me, which is not something people generally expect from them.
I’m the operator of my pocket calculator. They were amazing things at the time, computers you could carry in your pocket, amazing, and everybody spelt 80085 on it as well of course, which was its main purpose.
You know those old films where jetpacks and flying cars are supposedly the future? With this album Kraftwerk had a narrower focus and give us their vision of what was going to happen to music and to the world, it really is rather prophetic.
1 Nightclubbing – Grace Jones
For some this may be quite a surprise, but Grace Jones has been vastly underrated over the years and, at times, even mocked. There’s a video on youtube where she is introduced by Paverotti on stage to sing a duet and the crowd actually laughed, and then she sang. I’ll pop it down below, judge for yourself.
In 1980, Jones headed to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas to work with producers Alex Sadkin and Island Records’ president Chris Blackwell, along with top session musicians and the renowned reggae duo of Sly & Robbie. The album they created has a clear influential link to Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., Grimes, FKA twigs, and more. It can alos be felt in the work of Massive Attack, Todd Terje, Gorillaz, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem, they all owe a debt to the template set down by Jones on this album.
5 of the tracks were cover versions ( Not included on the original album is a brilliant version of Tubeway Army’s “Me! I Disconnect From You”) and Jones owns them all, inhabiting the songs as though they never belonged to anybody else. There’s Walking in the Rain by Flash in the Pan, Demolition Man by The Police, Use Me by Bill Withers, Nightclubbing by Iggy Pop and I’ve seen that face before, a reworking of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango”. In such company it would seem an almost impossible proposition to write an original that could stand shoulder to shoulder with them, but we have Pull Up To The Bumper which, it could be argued, outshines them all.
This is a a brilliant and influential album that, in my opinion, could sit nowhere else but at the top spot.