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From Stevie Nicks to The Specials: A playlist of the 40 best songs from 1981

The turn of the decade is a difficult time for any band. The weight of expectation grows dramatically, and the grounding upon which you had tried to secure your footing steadily is suddenly taken away thanks to the societal structures we place around such events. Look back through the years of popular music, and you will note that at almost every turn of the decade, a seismic change of tastes began. If you were to commit to such a sonic scan, then 1981 would be a great place to start.

As we all know by now, the 1980s were a strange place to be. After the glut of economic failures that the previous decade had landed upon the general public, the ’80s promised more. It was the decade that the future felt like a real possibility, and it was a societal feeling that was replicated in music. The dirge of the ’70s rock scene had been somewhat wiped clean by punk rock, but that had still left an unwanted taste in people’s mouths. Disco had also felt like a positive change in the prior decade but now had to evolve into something new. A new decade, new sounds and new techniques were all on the cards.

It means that, across the board, the music on offer in 1981 was vastly different from what had come before but also rarely assimilated itself with the rest of the industry. Of course, there were some generic similarities between bands and artists, but the majority of the music industry’s modus operandi was now to “stand out from the crowd”. Proof of these wildly different directions the industry was heading in can be found in our perfect playlist below, where we’ve gathered the 40 best songs from 1981.

With the only rule for our playlist being that no two artists can feature twice, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks should count themselves lucky. The two artists have made our list both with Nicks’ ‘Edge of Seventeen’, perhaps her finest song, and Petty’s Heartbreakers tune, ‘A Woman Is In Love’, as well as their duet ‘Stop Draggin My Heart Around’, which has snuck by on a technicality. Despite the blurring of the rules, each inclusion is worth its spot.

Other big names on the list include The Cure and their rarely heard ‘The Funeral Party’, The Clash and their stupendous punk effort ‘Magnificent Seven’ and Bob Dylan classic ‘Every Grain of Sand’. However, it is hard to ignore that the year was really built for artists establishing themselves. The Stranglers’ song ‘Golden Brown’ will go down in history as one of the greats and, for very different reasons, so will Hall & Oates smash hit ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’. New Order also emerged from the wreckage of Joy Division to share ‘Ceremony’, its final goodbye to the band they were before.

While punk may have been in the rearview mirror, a new off-shoot of the genre was finding its feet. As well as including Gang of Four’s angular jaunt ‘Paralysed’ there is also room for Black Flag and Minor Threat who contribute ‘Rise Above’ and ‘Straight Edge’ respectively. Also included in the punk drive is Dead Kennedys and their charming number ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ and a new brand of ska music from The Specials with their era-defining song ‘Ghost Town’.

However, there can be no doubt that 1981, and the ’80s at large, were dominated by pop music. Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ is arguably the song of the year, while The Human League’s masterful ditty ‘Don’t You Want Me’ is equally beloved. Even rock and roll acts had changed tact; it was the year Psychedelic Furs released ‘Pretty In Pink’ and the Go-Gos shared ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’.

While listening to the 40 best songs of 1981 in our playlist below, one thing will soon become clear, with all the various genres, outlandish performers and unusual styles, there was no musical year quite like it.

The 40 best songs of 1981:

  • ‘Edge of Seventeen’ – Stevie Nicks
  • ‘Stop Draggin My Heart Around’ – Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty
  • ‘Tainted Love’ – Soft Cell
  • ‘Start Me Up’ – The Rolling Stones
  • ‘Champagne & Reefer’ – Muddy Waters
  • ‘Radio Free Europe’ – R.E.M
  • ‘Ghost Town’ – The Specials
  • ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – The Clash
  • ‘Pretty In Pink’ – Psychedelic Furs
  • ‘Under Pressure’ – Queen and David Bowie
  • ‘Paralysed’ – Gang of Four
  • ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ – The Go-Gos
  • ‘Controversy’ – Prince
  • ‘Super Freak’ – Rick James
  • ‘Tom Sawyer’ – Rush
  • ‘I Love Rock & Roll’ – Joan Hett and the Blackhearts
  • ‘Don’t You Want Me’ – The Human League
  • ‘Stand And Deliver’ – Adam Ant
  • ‘All Those Years Ago’ – George Harrison
  • ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ – Hall & Oates
  • ‘Every Grain of Sand’ – Bob Dylan
  • ‘Golden Brown’ – The Stranglers
  • ‘Never Too Much’ – Luther Vandross
  • ‘Over the Mountain’ – Ozzy Osbourne
  • ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’ – Grace Jones
  • ‘Rise Above’ – Black Flag
  • ‘Genius of Love’ – The Tom Tom Club
  • ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ – Ian Dury and The Blockheads
  • ‘Straight Edge’ – Minor Threat
  • ‘That’s Entertainment’ – The Jam
  • ‘The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  • ‘Das Model’ – Kraftwerk
  • ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’ – The Ramones
  • ‘The Funeral Party’ – The Cure
  • ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ – Dead Kennedys
  • ‘You Are What You Is’ – Frank Zappa
  • ‘T Bone’ – Neil Young
  • ‘A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)’ – Tom Petty
  • ‘Ceremony’ – New Order
  • ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ – Brian Eno and David Byrne