1981 was a pretty big shake-up for the music world. As I said in my best list intro, it was an interesting year for pop, but for the first time in a while I would be hard-pressed to call it a “good” one. Sure, there were enough forgotten micro-trends and unexpected triumphs to make my journey through the hits of this year far from bland, but even those can only make up for so much played-out arena rock and tedious balladry. In many ways, it was a disappointing year- previously-stellar artists delivered middling to outright awful material, and a handful of undeniably iconic singles missed the cut for the year-end list entirely. Sure, four decades of hindsight has definitely distorted my sense of what music was really making waves in ‘81, but that didn’t make it any less disheartening to reach the end of this year’s hot 100 without so much as a “Once in a Lifetime” or a “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, let alone an “Ace of Spades” or a “Radio Free Europe”. Even those disappointments, however, pale in comparison to the worst of the worst this year had to offer- a wide array of stupid, obnoxious, boring, and everything in between. Before the charts are swallowed whole by gated snares and cheesy synths, we’ve got 10 duds from the dawn of the Reagan era to burn through. On with the show!
#10: Dan Fogelberg- Same Old Lang Syne
I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, so for how much I still don’t like it, I will admit that “Same Old Lang Syne” shows Dan Fogelberg getting closer to a musical niche he might have been able to call his own. Where “Longer” was really only notable for being a particularly overwrought attempt at romantic folk-pop, this song is both better geared towards Fogelberg’s strengths as a performer and more sturdy and substantive as a piece of songwriting. Artistic growth! Okay, all that said, “Same Old Lang Syne” is crap crap crap, absolute crap, the kind of song I can barely tolerate for five and a half seconds, let alone its full five and a half minutes. That hook ought to be the subject of a university course on how to write the most ugly, misshapen melody possible, somehow eluding both catchiness and sophistication. The lyrics tantalize me with a bittersweet chance meeting between two former lovers, but in Fogelberg’s hands, with his syrupy-sweet singing and his swelling orchestration, it just ends up sounding like a scene from a Hallmark movie. I want to connect to the inkling of real emotion here, that reluctant acceptance that regret can’t turn back time, but whenever it approaches that inkling it veers off into something overly twee and choreographed that doesn’t feel nearly as earnest. The worst of this comes when Fogelberg takes a verse to humblebrag about his successful music career, a posture he’s possibly the least equipped man on Earth to pull off as a singer, and the whole song tilts towards seeming more like a narcissistic recounting of a totally mundane encounter than the melancholic, poignant slice-of-life he’s clearly shooting for. Look, I won’t say there’s nothing at all good about this song. I can see why it might appeal to someone who isn’t me, but this dude just has a knack for rubbing me the wrong way from the word Go, and for all the minor improvements made here, “Same Old Lang Syne” still does just that.
#9: Barbra Streisand- A Woman In Love
17 years out from “People”, and I still find myself unable to muster any kind of enthusiasm for Barbra Streisand’s music. Even backed by Barry Gibb’s considerable songwriting and production skills, “A Woman in Love” falls completely flat for me in much the same way nearly every other song of Streisand’s does: I have no idea whatsoever how I’m meant to feel listening to it. I’m even willing to forgive Gibb’s slightly jumbled lyricism here, because I think a more engaging singer could have brought out something substantial in it. Lines like “the road is narrow and long / when eyes meet eyes, and the feeling is strong” can be read any number of ways, but in Streisand’s hands they just come off as empty platitudes, because everything she sings comes off as an empty platitude! Yes, she has a very nice singing voice! She sure can hit those notes! She’s a lovely vocalist, but as a performer, what does she bring to the table? What does she do to elevate the material, make it come to life in a way that feels personal to her? The answer, for me at least, is absolutely nothing. She’s a total blank slate, but she also lacks the everywoman relatability to take advantage of that. I can’t say the song itself is awful, though it certainly can’t manage to overcome Streisand’s limitations as a performer, but middling, inoffensive balladry is a lot harder to forgive when it’s this hollow and this anonymous.
#8: Diana Ross & Lionel Ritchie- Endless Love
Lionel Ritchie ruined Motown.
Okay, that’s needlessly harsh, and at least partially untrue. There were a lot of factors that played into soul music’s decline throughout the 80s, and Ritchie himself is only really guilty of doing what sold records. Still, it’s awfully tempting to cast him as an avatar of Motown’s fall from grace in the post-disco era, their overall move from energetic, passionate pop to drippy, faceless balladry that could have just as easily come from Peter Cetera (but of course had the benefit of being sung by better vocalists). It’s no coincidence that by far my favorite song by Ritchie’s band The Commodores is one of their only singles not written or sung by him: their funky 1977 smash “Brick House”. That song was much more of a piece with the uptempo material Motown was still excelling in around that time, but as Lionel’s ballads began to prove the real cash-cow for the band, Motown quickly turned their attention entirely to him. When Ritchie inevitably struck out on his own, there was no real reason to expect a substantial stylistic departure- after all, as far as the radio market was concerned, The Commodores were effectively a solo project at that point. But even then, it’s somehow disappointing to hear him strip away any remaining scraps of soul in his style and just make outright adult contemporary music. “Endless Love” is, like most adult contemporary, dreadfully bland and joyless, and like most Lionel Ritchie songs, it has the uncanny ability to pass through your ears a dozen times and leave only the faintest impression. It’s insidious, really, the way his songs are barely even noticeable until they’ve become a fact of life, just another pop song you somehow know the melody to despite never once consciously realizing it. I have no need for generic love songs that can’t even make love sound especially appealing, I have no need for music that gets by purely on being innocuous, and even if I can never bring myself to fully hate anything Diana Ross sings, I have absolutely no need for “Endless Love”
#7: Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb- What Kind of Fool
We’re really on a tear through 1981’s crappy ballads, so what the hell, let’s dip back into my seemingly bottomless well of ire for Barbra Streisand. Like “A Woman In Love”, “What Kind of Fool” is mostly the brainchild of former Bee Gee Barry Gibb, but ends up markedly worse by being an actual duet with Gibb. As I’ve said before, Barry Gibb’s voice is an awkward fit for slower, less groove-oriented material, and when contrasted with Streisand’s annoyingly flawless showtunes voice, he sounds especially shrill and muppet-y. However, where “A Woman in Love” was, true to its name, a love song, this is a breakup song, and it’s heavily implied that the reason why they’re breaking up is that the man cheated on the woman. Again, there’s an inkling of something that could have worked here. In particular, I think the woman expressing remorse and wondering what she did wrong is quite an interesting angle, and one that you don’t usually see in breakup songs. However, it’s the execution that lets the concept down. The song being a duet robs the woman’s perspective of much-needed room to breathe while doing very little to establish a more even-handed tone, and any potent feelings of isolation or confusion are only muddled by trying to make it a conversation between two people. The more pressing problem, however, is how little bite it has. I’ll even admit that Streisand does her damnedest to try and put some angst and anger into her words, but the composition is too pokey to let it through, and she winds up in the same generic belting territory she always seems to. Ultimately, it fails first and foremost by being kind of boring and sluggish, but sadly the songwriting behind it fails to even rise to the inoffensiveness of Lionel Ritchie.
#6: The Manhattan Transfer- The Boy From New York City
It’s not that I hate doo-wop. For a minute there, I really thought that might be it- maybe I just can’t vibe with that kind of pre-rock sound. But upon doing a little research, I discovered that “The Boy From New York City” is actually a cover, originally a hit in ‘65 for the Ad Libs. I checked out the original out of curiosity, and I honestly can’t say I dislike it. It’s not the kind of thing I’d ever seek out in my free time, sure, but it’s still fine enough for what it is, an innocuous but enjoyable tune that I have no real objections to. That leads me to one conclusion: the 1981 cover of this song by The Manhattan Transfer is just fuckin’ lousy as a doo-wop song! Hearing the original- hell, just hearing an actual 60s doo-wop single- instantly throws everything wrong with this rendition into stark relief. The Manhattan Transfer sap the song of any sense of looseness or groove. There’s no life to it whatsoever, no humanity or warmth to endear me to the performer. The instrumentation is too crisp and the production is too sterile and all the vocalists are hideously over-rehearsed and the whole thing is just no fun at all. The Manhattan Transfer’s whole image and vibe points to a sort of ritzy, vaudeville slickness, all evening gowns and cummerbunds and silk top hats, and I’m sorry, but that’s just not how I like my vocal jazz, not in the early 60s and sure as hell not in 1981.
#5: Blondie- Rapture
In 1981, Blondie was on top of the world. No other band was managing their level of combined commercial success and critical adulation. They were the hippest thing around, hot off the heels of a half-dozen pitch-perfect singles and their newest album Autoamerican, their most diverse and ambitious studio outing yet.
18 months later, Blondie had fallen completely apart, splintering under the strain of their flop follow-up The Hunter, and they would never come within spitting distance of the top 40 again.
What on Earth happened? How did this band that seemingly had the entire music world eating out of the palms of their hands implode and vanish practically overnight? Three words: “Debbie Harry rapping”. “Rapture”, their final number-one hit, can, I think, be pretty fairly seen as the moment it all went wrong. In less than 5 minutes, it completely obliterates everything cool and captivating about this band. Before we get to the hippity-hop elephant in the room, it must be acknowledged that the music is also a substantial step down from the band’s earlier work. The only real star player here is bassist Nigel Harrison, who ably anchors the song in bouncy, disco-flavored funk. The rest of the band ends up feeling like an afterthought, contributing fairly minor background details while the majority of the instrumental is handled by Blues Brothers saxophonist Tom Scott. It’s not awful by any stretch, but hardly something you’d think twice about; it lacks the spark and the rock edge that animated their best songs and made them feel vital and alive. Sadly, there’s no more avoiding that this is, in fact, a song in which frontwoman Debbie Harry attempts to rap, and in doing so becomes the first in a long, lamentable line of pop starlets trying their hand at this Urban Street Music all the kids are so into. I’m sure Harry’s appreciation for rap music came from a genuine place (it would have had to, given how underground rap still was in the early 80s). That doesn’t make her come off as any less an oblivious, out-of-touch rich girl with absolutely no idea what makes for a good rap. From her painfully stiff, awkward flow to Chris Stein’s insipid lyrical content, it’s a performance that permanently shatters the image of Debbie Harry, effortlessly badass rock goddess. It’s too quaint to be anything close to offensive, thank God, but this is a song that could only have been a hit as the “first number-one single to feature rap vocals”, and in 2022, it feels a lot less “Rapper’s Delight” and a lot more “American Life”.
#4: Christopher Cross- Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)
The greatest flaw of “Arthur’s Theme” is, in all honesty, a fairly minor one, but it’s one that gets right up under my skin for some reason. Two minutes in, at the end of the chorus, Chris Cross employs some sort of tape-looping technique to make it sound like his voice is stuck repeating “best that you can do” several times over, as though the track is skipping in your CD player. I do not know what sort of effect Cross and his producers were trying to achieve here, but every single time I hear it it just fills me with inexplicable anger. It sounds like a mistake! It sounds like they just accidentally looped that one vocal snippet two times and forgot to fix it! Yeah, Tame Impala did the same thing on “Let It Happen”, but that song used looping to segue into a whole different section- it sounds like a mistake at first, but as the song keeps going you quickly realize it was totally intentional, and in fact a pretty cool and creative way to transition into a new musical idea. Not so here! Nope, they just finish the chorus like normal after those two pointless, stupid repetitions and then keep going as though nothing happened. It might be forgivable if the rest of the song was any good, but it’s just limp soft rock fluff, total Bacharach-for-dummies, and Cross is a pretty weak vocalist to boot. “If you get caught between the moon and New York City / the best that you can do is fall in love” is one of those lyrics that probably sounds deep and insightful to some people with no interest whatsoever in the craft of lyricism, but to anyone who’s ever given real thought to a pop chorus, it just comes off as the corny, barely-coherent platitude it is. “Caught between the moon and New York City”- give me a break. What do I look like, an astronaut?
#3: Air Supply- The One That You Love
The nice thing about Air Supply is that all of their songs sound the exact same, so I don’t have to bother writing a whole five-paragraph essay with citations on why one song or another is a sucky boring waste of time and vinyl (these songs were pressed to vinyl!). The lead singer whose name I can’t remember is a shrill, charisma-free sap, the lyrics are whiny lovelorn drivel, and the music is all pompous orchestration with nothing of musical interest backing it up. Am I describing “Lost in Love” or “Every Woman in the World”? No, but how far off could I possibly be from doing so? If “The One That You Love” is worse than either of them, then it’s only by a hair- a melody that’s a smidge less inoffensive, or an arrangement that’s slightly more eye-rollingly cheesy. For all their many shortcomings, I can’t hate this band, because that would require me to care about them at all. This song is just another reason why I can scarcely imagine doing so.
#2: Stars on 45- Stars on 45 Medley
I really try hard not to wear out my complaints about hitmakers cynically pandering to the lowest common denominator. After all, this is pop music, and at the end of the day, even the most inspired and uncompromising artists are still trying to sell something. If you’re intelligent enough to turn on a device with internet capabilities and navigate your way to these words, surely you’re also aware that the top 40 is not, and never has been, some great bastion of artistic integrity. But there’s cynical pandering, and then there’s incompetent cynical pandering. Which brings us to “Stars on 45 Medley”. The medley is already a musical format ripe for cheap hackwork, and especially in the context of a pop single I struggle to see how a medley could be anything but a series of butchered fragments of better songs. But hey, I like plenty of mashups, and even a good dance megamix can be fun now and again, so it’s not like the concept is just rotten to the core or anything. “Stars on 45 Medley” certainly hews much closer to the latter, a bunch of songs all crammed over the same stomp-clap disco backbeat. What songs did they use, you might ask? Surely a disco megamix would be marrying all the best of the recently-concluded disco era- a little Earth, Wind & Fire here, a little Bee Gees there, what could go wrong? No, the galaxy brains behind Stars on 45 decided to take their DISCO MEGAMIX as an opportunity to introduce the charts once again to the music of… the Beatles. “We Can Work it Out”, “Nowhere Man”, and “Drive My Car”, among several others, all make appearances here, plus the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” because I guess any kind of actual cohesion was too much to ask for. This is a song for absolutely no one. I can’t imagine clubgoers jamming out to mid-period Lennon/McCartney tunes, and Beatles fans don’t want to hear a bunch of snippets of mediocre Rubber Soul covers over a disco beat. Every part of this thing casts every other in the worst possible light, the transitions are clumsy and abrupt, and the bits of original material bookending it amount to little more than “hey, remember the Beatles guys? The Beatles sure were good!”. From start to finish, it’s a sloppy, lazy attempt to stitch together two unrelated and out-of-date musical trends, and a complete misunderstanding of the original appeal of either.
#1: Billy Squier- The Stroke
At the intersection of terrible 70s hard rock and terrible 80s hard rock, we have “The Stroke”, quite possibly the most insultingly hollow piece of neanderthalic bombast the genre ever produced. If your fondest wish is a song that sounds like “I Love Rock & Roll” only slower, less tuneful and with more masturbation references, or a “Young Lust” with no ironic distance or self-awareness, then I suppose this is capable of scratching those particular itches, but otherwise “The Stroke” is truly dire. Here, Squire attempts to synthesize the warmed-over dregs of glam and arena rock with the nascent sounds of hair metal, but it falls totally flat, mostly because it just doesn’t have the production to back it up. Squier and frequent Queen collaborator Reinhold Mack try their damnedest to make it stomp and shred the way Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe would be stomping and shredding in only a scant few months, but whatever secret sauce Mutt Lange and Tom Werman used to make those bands sound so titanically huge completely eludes Squier and Mack here. They’re still beholden to 70s rock production- it sounds like they’re trying to sound like Queen, and if you’re going with a Queen production sound you had better be bringing Queen-level chops. Billy Squier is no Freddy Mercury and he’s no Brian May. He doesn’t have rock star charisma and he can’t get away with the sleazy come-ons he tries to pull off here. I mean, the chorus literally goes “stroke me, stroke me”! That would be a stretch even for a band like AC/DC, let alone a yutz like this guy.