Top 10 Songs of 1981

There's always a debate to be had about exactly when a decade begins, in the year ending with "0" or the year ending in "1." You don't need to worry about that too much here. Just know that, by the time 1981 rolled around, the new musical decade was well into motion. As disco faded, musicians found new applications for keyboards and guitar, launching new wave as a brand new style. And pop music would never be the same when upstart cable channel MTV began its dominion.

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Hall & Oates - "Kiss On My List"

Hall and Oates
Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images

1981 was a hell of a year for this legendary hitmaking pop duo, as singles from two different highly successful albums ( and ) spent significant time near the top of the charts. It's difficult, in fact, to suss out the best Hall & Oates song from even this year much less their entire career, but for my money "Kiss On My List" is a sterling selection. One of the duo's best distillations of its many influences, this tune sparkles and succeeds wildly with a clever and unique lyrical conceit. It's also richly nostalgic not only through its somewhat dated production style but also its mastery of throwback pop music innocence. This may be bubblegum pop in essence, but it has a flavor that lasts and lasts.

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Rick Springfield - "Jessie's Girl"

Rick Springfield album cover


Simply one of the best pop songs of all time, Rick Springfield's most well-known tune really stands the test of time and repeated airplay. Armed with a killer guitar riff - which is actually quite nifty - and dripping with the real but fickle emotions of envy, lust, and passion, this song is a tour de force that alone proves Springfield's value as a songwriter. It is also equally effective as both a rock and pop song (pay attention to the guitar), which is a rare feat indeed. The only problem to be had with this famous track, in fact, is that its prominence tends to detract from the deeper catalog of a mainstream rock genius. "What Kind of Fool Am I?" would have received some deserved airplay, perhaps, if not for this song's omnipresence.

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REO Speedwagon - "Keep On Loving You"

REO Speedwagon album cover


One of the first '70s classic rock bands to cash in on the new decade's emerging taste for power ballads, REO Speedwagon (and particularly lead singer and songwriter Kevin Cronin) displayed in this tune a tremendous savvy for crafting a memorable and accessible melody. Beyond that, the song stands as a realization of a band's potential that had formerly labored within the shadows of arena rock success. REO's hit album became a huge smash this year, helped by similar pop gems "Take It on the Run" and "Don't Let Him Go." Still, this song will never be anything less than a slow-dance favorite and a perfect encapsulation of the power of a great song to transcend band anonymity.

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Santana - "Winning"

Santana album cover


This entry from Carlos Santana's storied career is undoubtedly the great guitarist's namesake band's strongest and most memorable pop song, but it also functions as a fantastic showcase for some of the decade's best, most blistering guitar leads. The tune itself is a rousing crowd-pleaser that has since found a place in sporting event montages, but structurally and musically it is as sound as can be. Great keyboards at the beginning give it its '80s feel, but the song has much more within, provided mainly from the ingenious songcraft so generously supplied by crack rock songwriter Russ Ballard. It's an absolute crime against pop music that this great song barely made the Billboard pop charts top 20.

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Journey - "Don't Stop Believin'"

Journey album cover


Journey's breakthrough album yielded several big hits in 1981, but this combination power ballad/rocker/contemplative examination of lost souls clinging to hope simply has it all. Boasting one of Steve Perry's best, most world-weary lyrics not having to do rather exclusively with a romantic relationship, the song features several sublime components, including a great, foundational guitar and bass riff, an unforgettable sing-along chorus, and the introduction of a new existential phrase in "streetlight people." There's a good reason why this tune keeps popping up on film soundtracks or even as the accompaniment to sports championships. It's a pretty damn good song.

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The Go-Go's - "Our Lips Are Sealed"

The Go Go's album cover


Very few bands that started out in the punk rock scene could ever say they had the ability to craft pop music anywhere near as good as this. Even fewer perhaps would be willing to admit such a thing. More importantly, most pop artists have never been able to reach this level, either, and that's really saying something. The song's brilliant groove and inescapable melody should have announced with authority from the start that this all-female band was unique in the annals of rock music. Unfortunately, only lately have the Go-Go's begun to receive proper respect as a genuine band that shouldn't have to apologize for an overarching pop sensibility. Though she doesn't sing lead here, co-writer Jane Wiedlin has helped deliver a pop classic.

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Squeeze - "Tempted"

Squeeze album cover

A&M Records

While this song is far from the quintessential offering from this great British band, it is undoubtedly a near-perfect pop confection that excels in several compelling ways. Although I've always loved Paul Carrack, the fact that he sings lead on this tune is a bit unfortunate, only because that means the low-voiced, somewhat novelty-sounding Chris Difford sings as much lead as the incomparable Glenn Tilbrook. The song's organ and piano lines buoy the song through its loping progression from chorus to verse to bridge. But ultimately, as usual for the Difford-Tilbrook songwriting combination, sophisticated storytelling drives the success of Squeeze's pop/rock majesty. Try not to be "alarmed by the seduction" of this one.

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The Tubes - "Talk To Ya Later"

Tubes album cover


In a decade full of happy marriages between guitar and keyboards, this underrated classic takes that combination to the promised land. Although most people won't remember it as well as the band's deserving hit "She's a Beauty," this song crystallized positive '80s rock impulses far more skillfully. Just give a listen to the keyboard break in the middle, the great vocal harmonies during the pre-chorus, or the wonderfully snotty delivery from singer Fee Waybill. As they say in professional wrestling, this song is the total package - in this case a savvy blend of '80s rock tropes ranging from new wave to arena rock to hard rock and all the way back over to the strength of positively magnetic pop hooks.

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Climax Blues Band - "I Love You"

Climax Blues Band album cover


Despite or perhaps because it is such a complete exercise in simplicity, this song strikes a memorable chord as a document of the '80s. Coming from a veteran band that had previously operated as a blues and R&B outfit, this tune definitely feels like a bit of an aberration. But that doesn't make it any less enjoyable, as somehow the simple lyrical tale of a wayward man set straight by the love of a woman works beautifully. Even the criminally simple guitar solo manages to be effective, although fans of the group's rootsier efforts of the '70s must have seen the adult contemporary nature of the track to be a far cry from the shuffling classic "Couldn't Get It Right."

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Eddie Rabbitt - "I Love A Rainy Night"

Eddie Rabbitt album cover


In this song that managed the highly impressive feat of hitting No. 1 on the pop, country and adult contemporary charts, Rabbitt proved that his talents were not restricted by being labeled as a country music artist. This tune was justifiably everywhere in 1981, and it still works today as a basic rock song that succeeds because it so completely embraces more traditional rock and roll influences that always combined country, R&B and rock styles anyway. Country-pop crossover artistry may not have always left room for genuinely talented songwriters and eclectic but sincere performers like Rabbitt, but luckily the pop music world of 1981 embraced this song for all the right reasons. Nostalgia aside, this is a song that contains dimensions.