Top 10 Albums of 1981

With new wave yet to break fully, 1981 saw much activity from '70s holdovers and arena rock acts. For that reason, the year witnessed an interesting clash between and confluence of old and new styles of music. The result was a bevy of strong albums that kept pop and rock music alive and kicking in the new decade.

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Squeeze - 'East Side Story'

George Wilkes Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The magical songwriting combination of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook has never received the proper amount of respect for being one of pop/rock's finest artistic tandems of all time. Simply put, this album's effortless eclecticism coupled with the sheer craftsmanship of Difford's lyrics and Tilbrook's melodies compare favorably to much John Lennon/Paul McCartney output, if not in volume then certainly in quality. Everyone knows "Tempted" from this great album, but the record's 14 tracks never outstay their welcome and deliver constant yet surprising bolts of pleasure every listen.

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The Go-Go's - 'Beauty and the Beat'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

This sparkling debut is not only one of the greatest first records of the '80s; it is also quite likely one of the decade's best from start to finish. While some may criticize the glossy production and smoothing out of much of the band's initial punk rock pedigree, that attitude largely misses the point. The Go-Go's didn't sell out to a commercial pop safe haven for cynical reasons; the quintet simply realized in a timely manner its appropriate niche. Familiar tunes like "Our Lips Are Sealed" are certainly solid, but overlooked gems like "How Much More" transform this into an essential pop, rock and new wave classic.

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Hall & Oates - 'Private Eyes'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA/BMG Heritage

While the previous year's Voices turned out be a smash nearly as big as this one, Hall & Oates' unique and potently accessible, soulful new wave pop reached its zenith on this wonderful 1981 release. Like all classic albums, this record relies somewhat heavily but never too much on its signature hit singles, namely the No. 1 pop hits "I Can't Go for That" and "Private Eyes." Exploration beyond the most familiar tunes reveals tremendously strong songcraft (the brilliant hybrid of "Did It in a Minute") as well as eye-opening album tracks. An '80s classic with real staying power.

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Psychedelic Furs - 'Talk Talk Talk'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia/Legacy

This sophomore effort from the Psychedelic Furs, one of the most influential '80s post-punk originators, casts an intoxicating spell from start to finish, floating effortlessly on the contrast between Richard Butler's brooding, stylized British drone and the band's aggressive, pulsating attack. The record's opener, "Pretty in Pink," rose to particular prominence in John Hughes' iconic 1985 film of the same name, but by then the Furs had already produced an astonishing body of work. The recent successes of bands like the Killers and Arcade Fire certainly owe tremendous debt to these early alternative rock legends.

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REO Speedwagon - 'Hi Infidelity'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Some bands labor for years in obscurity waiting for their break, while others, when they are lucky enough to find success, do so without ever reaching greatness. Some may argue that Midwest arena rockers REO Speedwagon fit into both of these categories, but in truth this album represented the one moment when everything came together for the band. What's more, the group was smart enough to realize it. The album spent 15 weeks in the No. 1 spot on the pop album charts, a stunning figure alone, and it also pumped out some of the decade's finest singles in "Take It on the Run," "Don't Let Him Go" and "Keep on Loving You."

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Stevie Nicks - 'Bella Donna'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino Atlantic

Music fans tend to think of the '80s as the decade in which female solo pop music artists truly came into their own. However, it's important to remember that Nicks effectively served as the bridge between the '70s, a relative wasteland for female artists harboring any measure of rock edge, and the age of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. With Fleetwood Mac, Nicks was always careful to enlist others (bandmate Lindsey Buckingham, particularly) to help her songs be the best they could be, and such is the case here as well, as collaborations with Tom Petty ("Stop Draggin' My Heart Around") and Don Henley ("Leather & Lace") confirm.

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Rick Springfield - 'Working Class Dog'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA Records

Known previously mostly as a matinee idol soap opera actor, Rick Springfield proved himself a fine mainstream rocker and songwriter once and for all with this release. Becoming a Top 10 hit on the pop album charts primarily on the strength of the ubiquitous No. 1 hit "Jessie's Girl," the album offered other delights as well. Though the furthest thing from edgy or experimental, the music on this record celebrates youth and romance without shame, and its straighforwardness is actually quite refreshing in light of the irony-drenched age that has followed. "Love Is Alright Tonite" is a particularly joyous '80s classic.

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Ozzy Osbourne - 'Blizzard of Ozz'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic

With this seminal hard rock release, the former Black Sabbath frontman's first record out on his own, Ozzy Osbourne established an entirely new way of presenting heavy metal music to the world. Unlike the music of his former band, the album was slickly produced and arranged in a manner that suited commercial distribution. However, this is not really a negative criticism but rather a statement of the precision and craftsmanship at work here. It didn't hurt that Randy Rhoads' innovative, semi-classical electric guitar work injected its marvel into tracks like "Crazy Train" and "Suicide Solution."

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The dB's - 'Stands for Decibels'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of IRS/Capitol

Though more notable for its significance and influence on college rock and jangle pop later in the decade than how much the band was actually heard, the dB's were an extremely interesting, eclectic power pop band that released one of the most consistent records of the decade. With one of pop music's most stellar if obscure artistic tandems at the helm in Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, the band exerted an enormous amount of influence on underground music in the South particularly, paving the way eventually for the massive success of torchbearers R.E.M.

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Journey - 'Escape'

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic

Though more frustratingly uneven than consistently delightful, the quintessential '80s arena rock band's breakthrough record was a smash in 1981, and a deserving one. For one thing, it utterly transformed Journey, a struggling Bay Area boogie/progressive rock band, into an unabashedly mainstream rock force. Most of the credit for this goes to lead singer Steve Perry, but the fact is that the songwriting of Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon (along with the latter's guitar, of course) had as much to do with the new sound as anything. Beyond the familiar singles, "Stone in Love" and "Still They Ride" are also classics.