The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1981

Much like the 70s, the 80s set in quickly across the cultural landscape. 1981 brought about three seismic shifts in American life. The first was the election of one Ronald Wilson Reagan, a strong contender for the single most malignant force in the history of modern politics and the public face of the hyper-capitalist deregulation and slashes to public spending that characterized the decade economically. The second was the discovery of clusters of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia by doctors among gay men in several metropolitan areas around the country- what turned out to be the first clinical observations of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The third was the launch of a new cable channel called MTV- and yes, it was as big a deal as AIDS or Reaganomics. MTV changed everything. The simple addition of widely-circulated promotional videos into the pop ecosystem completely upended every previously-held truism about how an artist could market themselves and how they could find an audience, and suddenly it wasn’t just about your music, but about your image, presenting a compelling artistic vision in both audio and video formats. If video did not, in fact, kill the radio star, it certainly dealt them a grievous injury that they never fully recovered from. With much of the industry still reeling from the disco bubble bursting, music videos just starting to warp the landscape away from its 70s self, and several key technologies still a few years off, it’s easy to see why the ‘81 year-end is such a mess- but it’s a fairly interesting mess, with plenty of new-wave oddballs sprouting up like weeds, and plenty of established acts taking hesitant (yet occasionally fruitful) stabs at new styles. Things are heating up awful quickly, but before we leave all traces of the 70s behind for good, we’ve got a weird, unpredictable transition year to cover, starting with the best of the bunch. On with the show!

#10: Diana Ross- I’m Coming Out

Massive props to Nile Rodgers for essentially tricking Diana Ross into singing a gay rights anthem with this one. Supposedly Ross was very distraught upon realizing what “coming out” actually refers to, fearing the song would ruin her career, but Rogers, who penned the song after seeing drag queens dressing like Ross in New York clubs, knew her audience better than she did and the song wound up a hit with people of all orientations. Regardless of the quibbles you might have with a straight pop star singing a song like this (let’s chalk it up to “the 80s were a different time”), purely as a proclamation of self-love and a throwing-off of the shackles of the world, “I’m Coming Out” crushes. It’s everything a song like this ought to be- a sunny, bouncy dance track laced with the same crisp soulfulness Rogers brought to his work with Chic. Mostly, though, it succeeds because Ross sounds outright elated. She originally connected with the song through the lens of her recent departure from Motown, and on record she projects every ounce of the newfound freedom she felt away from the exacting management of Berry Gordy. And that, at its core, is what coming out is about, no? Freedom, living your life the way you want to live it and following your own heart, that’s the soul of the gay rights movement, and even if she wasn’t explicitly intending to speak to The Queers with this one, Ross managed to perfectly tap into an emotional vein that’s very near and dear to those communities. 

#9: Pat Benatar- Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Pat Benatar might actually be the rock artist who got the most mileage out of just getting it. Plenty of rockers rocked harder, many were better lyricists or better singers or more impressive songwriters, but across her early singles, Benatar just intuitively understood what made the genre tick: straightforward guitar bombast, hard-hitting hooks and enough attitude to stand apart from the straight pop it shared the airwaves with. Her breakout single “Heartbreaker” from last year was a fine enough example of that, but “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” really ironed out all the kinks in the formula. “Heartbreaker” hamstrung its barreling momentum with a half-time chorus, seemingly in search of a Led Zeppelin-esque stomp that never fully coalesced. “Hit Me…” solves that by setting into a head-bobbing midtempo groove and never letting up with it. It’s still fast enough to actually rock a bit, while never forcing you to readjust your ear with a needless tempo shift. That leaves the whole song open to focus on those riffs and that chorus, and both are served up without fuss or fracas. I love a good noodly guitar part as much as anyone, but the main riff here packs the sheer brutish impact to be a real prizewinner nonetheless. Notice how it carries its own melody without aping either the verse or chorus vocal melody? That right there is the difference between simple-good and simple-lazy. It’s not a mere substitute for something that might have just taken more effort to come up with or execute, but a strong musical idea stripped of any needless frills. Benatar isn’t taking shortcuts here, she’s avoiding detours. And that hook? Not just an instantly hummable tune, but the perfect musical expression of the lyric’s blend of romance and fisticuffs. You want to write a song about beating up a crappy romantic partner, either metaphorically or literally? It had better sound like a proper fight anthem, something a WWE wrestler could make their entrance to, and that’s precisely what Benatar delivers here. With “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, the groundwork was fully laid for a whole decade of punchy, action-y rock with big choruses and bigger attitudes, and it made for a damn fine starting place.

#8: Bruce Springsteen- Hungry Heart

Bruce Springsteen is an artist with a lot of mythology and backstory to unpack. Luckily, by limiting the scope of this project to only massively-successful pop singles, I can conveniently ignore all that crap and pretend this guy is just a nondescript heartland rocker with a handful of pretty good hits! Look, I’m far from a naysayer when it comes to “The Boss”, but I also have very little investment in him, either as an artist or as a public figure. Far as I’m concerned, he might as well have actually been just another Bob Seger-type gruffly intoning the woes of the American working man. But even pretending that’s all Springsteen ever was, I can’t deny the man had a wickedly sharp ear for pop hooks and a preternatural gift for sympathetic narration. Drill down into the core of any great Springsteen tune, and it’s those two skills forming the engine that powers his music. Anyone else would have a Herculean task in making a man who abruptly abandons his family seem like anything other than an irredeemable prick, but Springsteen manages it here in just two lines: “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing / I took a wrong turn and I just kept going”. Therein, also, lies the viscera that gives this song weight: the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes what it wants is shitty and destructive and it tears us away from the things and the people that we care about. The thing about hunger is that you can never permanently satiate it; even the most decadent feast will eventually be fully digested. If the heart is, indeed, something that hungers, then what is love if not a resource to be consumed? A bleak notion, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s an unintentionally-conveyed one. With all the bar-band singalong swagger they can muster, Springsteen and his band both sweeten this song’s bitter hypothesis and enhance it- fallible human nature as a poetic tragedy rather than a nihilistic death spiral.

#7: Devo- Whip it

In many ways, “Whip It” is representative of the sea change MTV ushered in. Discussion of this song is impossible (or at the very least incomplete) without mention of its iconic music video- The image of Devo dressed in sleeveless black turtlenecks and funny little ziggurat-shaped hats, stiffly and jerkily rocking out while Mark Mothersbaugh uses a whip to undress a woman. For much of the next two decades, this will become the norm: the music video as an integral part of a hit single’s cultural perception. It also exemplifies the artistic ethos of very early MTV. In the incredibly narrow window between the channel’s debut and its point of total cultural dominance, the videos that populated it resembled quirky, experimental student films more than flashy advertisements or pulse-pounding action flicks. Its first heroes weren’t chart-topping superstars like Def Leppard or Madonna, but gangly art-school dorks like Talking Heads and the Buggles. “Whip It” represents a sort of balancing of MTV’s commercial aspirations with its vast artistic potential: a catchy little earworm just odd enough to get lodged in your head forever, and an off-kilter visual presentation underpinned by envelope-pushing sociopolitics. Even if music videos would generally wind up just another head on the music industry hydra, it was songs like this that set the standard for what the format could offer: music that didn’t sound quite like anything that had come before, and visual accompaniments that highlighted all that made it unique.

#6: Grover Washington Jr. & Bill Withers- Just the Two of Us

Aw man, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve gotten to talk about Bill Withers, eh? His early hits “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” got a lot of their mileage out of a sort of timeless, primordial sound, out of seeming like they had existed since the dawn of music itself, so despite my love for those songs I was actually a little apprehensive to see how Withers would adapt his sound to the 80s. The answer is “not perfectly, but still pretty damn well”, which is about as much as I had hoped for. No, it doesn’t have the timeless quality of his other hits, but he keeps the concessions to modern pop fairly tasteful and in-step with his mellow, thoughtful songwriting style. It’s a simple, sweet tune about getting some quality time with your special someone, and the firm bassline, breathy backing vocals and jangly auxiliary percussion all maintain an appropriately romantic atmosphere without distracting from Withers’ subtly commanding vocals (the one slight exception being the percussion, which is mixed a mite too loud in some spots). Of course, co-star Grover Washington Jr. steals the spotlight a bit with his trademark sexy saxophonin’, but even that doesn’t feel too intrusive, and his solo in particular brings a welcome splash of jazzy smoothness to the proceedings. Like “Cruisin’” from last year, “Just The Two of Us” is the sound of a seasoned veteran proving he’s still got it, and it’s more than enough to just hear him do his thing and do it well.

#5: Hall & Oates- You Make My Dreams

The phrase “a total bop” gets tossed around a lot nowadays, and there are doubtlessly a huge number of songs it accurately applies to. But when I think of what the ultimate bop is, the platonic ideal of a catchy, energetic ray of musical sunshine that you simply can’t resist cheerily bopping along to, it always comes back to “You Make My Dreams”. Sure, there are other worthy contenders- “ABC”, “Semi-Charmed Life”, and “Hey Ya!” to name a few- but I feel pretty confident putting my money on this one as the bop to end all bops. It perfectly exemplifies what I think of as “boppiness”: not too driving and uptempo, not too laid-back and mellow, bright and peppy while also being just content enough to not outright burst with joy. It may not be a rockin’ facemelter like something by Queen or Prince might be, and it may not strike into the depths of your soul like the best of Elliott Smith or The Cure, but it’s the kind of immaculate radio staple you can listen to a thousand times and never get sick of, and dammit, we need songs like that! That’s exactly what “You Make My Dreams” is. I think it may actually be my favorite Hall & Oates song for that exact reason- where “Maneater” is, for better and worse, unmistakably 80s, this song seems strangely timeless, like it could come out tomorrow and sound every bit as fresh and fun. It’s certainly one of Daryl Hall’s best vocal performances; he manages to absolutely give it his all and belt out that chorus without compromising the breeziness of the track in the slightest, and that ability to get real volume and presence without sounding like you’re even breaking a sweat is, in my eyes, one of the hallmarks of a great soul singer. For anyone who dreams of pop music at its most ebullient and melodically rewarding, this is one that may, in fact, make your dreams come true.

#4: Queen- Another One Bites the Dust

As with “Come Together”, this is one where I have to just kind of shrug and say “I’m a bassist”. Sorry, say what you want about Queen, say what you want about this song, but that bassline is just undeniable, very possibly the single best rock bassline of the entire ‘80s. In fact, this song’s greatest achievement might be that it manages to actually live up to the initial promise of that stalking, strutting “DUN. DUN. DUN. DA-DUN-DUN DUN DA-DUN”- and that it does so in just about the least predictable way imaginable. To call it “structureless” would be inaccurate, since it does have a distinct verse and chorus that it alternates between, but how on earth do you even classify that part after the second chorus? Is it a breakdown? It takes too long to actually break it down for that to feel right. It’s sure as hell too long to be a middle 8, it’s too instrumentally sparse to be a solo… It’s kind of just a moment. It’s a full minute of Queen proving that they can be totally captivating even when they’re pretty much just messing around. The heart and soul of glam rock is not caring at all how ridiculous you look, powering through the undeniable corniness to circle all the way back around to absolute kickass. That’s exactly what Queen does here! The revving motorcycle sound effects, the scatting- Who could possibly take this seriously? The answer is: me, and probably you too, when you hear it performed with this much conviction and this much flair. Queen may have simplified their sound and scaled back on the explosive bombast in the 80s, but it’s songs like these that prove they never fully lost sight of what made them such a pleasure to listen to.

#3: Kool and the Gang- Celebration

Kool and the Gang were pretty much total outliers in the pop scene of the early 80s, making perhaps one of the most unexpected comebacks in Billboard history. As trend-hoppers scrambled away from dance music and black musicians in general were muscled back towards their own little enclave, a long-running funk band only just starting to recover from a serious commercial slump wasn’t exactly a safe horse to bet on. Then again, the disco explosion was arguably the cause of the Gang’s popular decline in the first place; they had a lot of superficial similarities to the genre, but at their core they were a much looser, jammier band than the rigid disco sound called for, and only in its aftermath were they able to find a version of it they could comfortably call their own. “Celebration” is exactly what it says on the tin. None of the sexual tension or physical strain of the dancefloor, no real force or firepower behind it, just a party- stress-free and safe for all ages. There’s hardly a whiff of danger or edge here, but that’s exactly why it feels so universal. They relax the tight, controlled groove of the late 70s for something much more pliant, and the catchy, upbeat melodies and instrumentation get your head bobbing without commanding you to get up out of your lawn chair. Kool & the Gang doesn’t play to the hipsters and kids any more than they do to the squares and the parents here, and the result is the rare crowd-pleaser that comes off totally indifferent to who’s actually in that crowd. 1981 may have been a bad year to be boogieing, but this song is proof that people are always and forever down for a celebration.

#2: Kim Carnes- Bette Davis Eyes

It’s saying a lot that in a year that literally had a song called “I’m Coming Out”, “Bette Davis Eyes” might actually be the gayest pop hit of 1981. Though a quick trip to Wikipedia confirmed that Kim Carnes has, in fact, been happily married to a partner of the opposite sex for over 50 years, “Bette Davis Eyes” nonetheless features some of the most powerfully sapphic vibes to hit the pop charts to this point. That same trip to Wikipedia also revealed that this song is actually a cover, and listening to Jackie DeShannon’s 1974 original wound up doing a lot to illuminate what’s going on with Carnes’ rendition. DeShannon’s version is very different, an uptempo, honky-tonk R&B sort of thing powered by jaunty saloon piano, and even though all the lyrics are the same, it does not sound in the least like DeShannon is pining for the woman she’s singing about. Kim Carnes totally transforms the song into a sleek, pastel-hued new wave tune, and in doing so she casts the lyric in a completely new light. The steady, pulsing beat and the gleaming synths are catchy and uplifting, but they aren’t exactly “fun”. It doesn’t sound like a frivolous romp in a bar, it doesn’t really wink at the camera. No, it sounds longing and awestruck and totally, completely smitten- especially that chorus, where the unrequited love is practically palpable. Intentionally or not, Carnes turned “Bette Davis Eyes” into a capital-L Love Song, the kind of starry-eyed synth-pop that John Hughes would soon turn into the eternal soundtrack to teen romance. I’m a sucker for cinematic, heart-on-sleeve earnestness like this, and especially with Carnes’ Rod Stewart-esque rasp, it has just the slightest outsider, scrappy edge to set it apart from the more polished fare that would follow in its wake. And make no mistake: many, many songs followed in this one’s wake over the next 10 years, but few if any managed to sound as fresh- or as disarmingly vulnerable- as “Bette Davis Eyes”.

#1: Neil Diamond- America

This is gonna be a tough one.

I try not to needlessly insert my personal politics into these write-ups, but I make no particular effort to hide them either, so if you’ve been following along with this project for a while it probably won’t come as much of a shock that I am not a very patriotic person. Neil Diamond’s “America” can’t really be engaged with without interrogating one’s own values and feelings about their country. On the surface, I suppose it’s pretty hard to take issue with: a sort of fairy-tale version of the old “nation of immigrants” song and dance. It’s about people coming to America, about those people’s unshakeable conviction that something better awaited them in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s good-hearted and optimistic in a way patriotic pop generally isn’t, and for that I truly respect it. But it’s also a fantasy- a fantasy I often struggle to buy into with the naive gusto Diamond clearly does. In wholly overlooking the trials and mistreatments immigrants have endured in this country, both historically and now, this song engages in a very real, albeit probably unintentional, historical revisionism. I wouldn’t blame anyone who heard this song and was reminded of Hillary Clinton’s shockingly out-of-touch insistence in 2016 that “America is already great”. “America”, one could argue, offers no challenge to the listener, does nothing to inspire a fight for a better tomorrow. ‘We’re a melting pot’, whoop de friggin’ doo. Sit back and watch the fireworks, everyone, no need to think about how we’re currently keeping 25,000 immigrants in detainment camps.

And yet.

And yet, I cannot bring myself to reject “America”’s message. I cannot stop desperately wanting this song to ring true. I want to live in an America that makes me feel the way the intro to this song does, with those keyboards twinkling in over the strident, uptempo beat. I want to be able to sing about my country the way Neil Diamond does here. Writing this song off entirely as a revisionist fantasy is just too damn cynical for me; I have to believe its vision of America can still be aspired to- a nation where people of all colors and creeds can live together in harmony, free from tyranny and subjugation. Somehow, with its innocent, cheeseball guilelessness, this song does challenge me, to believe that the America Diamond sings about is possible, to dig through all the atrocities and corruption trying to find some kernel of goodness that we as Americans can call our own. The America in this song, largely imaginary though it may be, is a country I think is worth fighting for. That’s as close to patriotism as I may ever get.

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