Top 10 Albums of 1981
The top albums of 1981 are the soundtrack to a transitional time in rock music. MTV launched Aug. 1, 1981, and as you can see from some of the names on this list, bands began to live and die on their looks and image just as much as they did on their music. As part of ‘Time Travel‘ week, let’s look back to that fast-changing, feathered-hair time with the Top 10 Albums of 1981.
The songwriting chemistry between Ozzy and tragically departed guitarist Randy Rhoads was so strong that they rush-recorded the follow-up to Osbourne’s 1980 debut ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ during a brief break from touring. Songs like ‘Over the Mountain,’ ‘Flying High Again’ and the epic title track solidified Ozzy’s solo career and remain classic rock radio staples to this day.
‘Don’t Say No’
Long-time dues payer Billy Squier (remember Piper?) broke through to the top of the rock pile with one of the biggest albums of 1981. He may not have stayed up there all that long — talk about a guy who got tripped up in the MTV era — but he gave us glorious songs like ‘In the Dark,’ ‘The Stroke’ and ‘Lonely is the Night’ during his brief reign.
There was no escaping Journey on the radio or TV in the summer of 1981. This album bested Nicks’ impressive singles tally by having all four of its hit singles land in the Top 20. The album even led to the band’s very own Atari video game. (We thought it looked primitive back then, too, kids.) Together with 1983’s ‘Frontiers,’ it helped Journey rule the early ’80s, and made them the kings of arena rock in 1981.
The frothy ballad ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ is the song your mother and everybody else will remember from this album, but if you’re like us, it’s the pulsating tale-of-rock-stardom ‘Juke Box Hero’ and the perfectly-titled, saxophone-charged ‘Urgent’ that earn this album a spot in our top albums of 1981 list.
Nicks stepped out from her Fleetwood Mac bandmates and proved to be almost as big a success on her own as they were together. She did have some help — from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ and Don Henley on ‘Leather and Lace’ — but for the most part this was a one-woman tour de force, which spawned four Top 40 hit singles and a solo career that remains strong to this day.
Really, if the topics are “Rush” and “1981,” then we should be talking about Geddy Lee’s vocal performance, and impressive comedic chops, on Bob and Doug McKenzie’s ‘Take Off.’ (“Decent singing, eh?” “Yeah, he’s good!”) But even the most fervent Rush-hater can’t deny the power of ‘Tom Sawyer’ or ‘Limelight.’ How do I know? Well…
‘Ghost in the Machine’
The punkish origins of this British trio were a distant memory by the time ‘Ghost in the Machine,’ their fourth LP and clearly one of the top albums of 1981, was released. Songs such as the irresistible ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ showed that Sting’s songwriting had grown so sophisticated that he had nearly outgrown the band’s mission statement. They’d stay together for one more even more refined album, the incredible ‘Synchronicity,’ and then it was off to the worlds of jazz-rock, lutes and orchestras for Mr. Sumner.
Van Halen’s fourth album in as many years reportedly began life as an Eddie Van Halen solo project, but David Lee Roth and the rest of his bandmates joined in and helped create the group’s darkest, most complex set of tunes ever. ‘Unchained’ was the only major hit, but over time ‘Fair Warning’ has been acknowledged as one of their best albums ever.
We may get slagged a bit here, but some of us think ‘Abacab’ was not only one of the top albums of 1981, but also quite possibly Genesis’ best album: the sweet spot between their arty-farty progressive rock and pre-programmed hit-making eras. It’s the perfect blend of weirdness, structure and melodic sensibility. (Singer-drummer Phil Collins also had a massive hit solo album this year with ‘Face Value,’ featuring the undeniable ‘In the Air Tonight.’)
The Stones dig through their closets for old songs and come up with a stone-cold stunning classic of an album. The A-side rockers, such as the rescued-from-reggae ‘Start Me Up,’ got most of the attention, but the flip side’s sultry, dreamy ballads — check out ‘Heaven,’ for starters — are equally worthy of your time.