The 50 Best Albums of 1981

Popular music has always been in constant flux. But the early ’80s were a particularly jumbled time of emerging trends and genre revisionism: new wave, synth-pop, alternative rock, electro-pop and post-punk all rubbing elbows and butting heads.

And, looking back in list form, 1981 is one of the decade’s most disorienting years. We’re wandering through an accidental golden age of production and technology: Many of these albums are noticeably brighter and crisper than staples from the late ’70s, but still clinging to the human touch that widely vanished from pop radio in the mid-decade.

Maybe it’s partly psychological, but 1981 still feels like a sweet spot. So let’s celebrate it.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra - 'Penguin Cafe Orchestra'

This ambient chamber LP is about as bizarre as its name or the Anubis-like penguin humanoid standing under the doorway on its cover. Simon Jeffes’ un-ornate arrangements seem to stay at a maximum of three instruments at a time; the most prominent, to ear, are the gypsy-jazz-like acoustic guitar, a posse of strings and a sundry of electronics – which play discreetly, eluding boredom with blasé experimentation. Song titles like “Pythagoras’s Trousers” and “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas” reflect the record’s character at large; on their own, both pieces are as zany as their names. “Telephone and Rubber Band” spins a melody from dial-tone as the string section elevates it into the sphere of classical, administering the perfect amount of weird in a really droll way. The aforementioned aside, each track is a concoction of mellow onsets and simple developments tempered by a dash of oddity to save it from somnolence. - Logan Blake

Dün - 'Eros'

Wait — didn’t progressive rock kick the bucket some time between Never Mind the Bullocks… and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack? (Here’s your daily mindfuck: Those albums came out less than three weeks apart.) Anyway, not exactly. Even as prog withered as a commercial force, it continued to mutate and evolve in the avant-garde underground. Eros, the sole LP from warped French sextet Dün, is a good example, melding the entrancing rhythms of the Zeuhl movement with the tuned percussion wackiness of mid-’70s Zappa and Gong. The original, self-released LP is a holy grail piece among prog nerds — as of this writing, the only U.S. Discogs seller is asking $500. (Reminder: I, like everyone, have a birthday every year.) - Ryan Reed

Jaco Pastorius - 'Word of Mouth'

Electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius humbly took a step back (for the most part) with his second solo LP. Rather than orchestrating the frequencies of his hallowed instrument, he arrives at a synthesis of jazz and orchestra — playing backup to his own big band, including icons like Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans. He sheathes the fury of his bass for more collective and restrained harmonies, though sometimes he sneaks a solo in, albeit in clean tone: Take the chromatic intro of “Chromatic Fantasy,” which is swept up by a brass section that then dissolves into flutes, arbitrary autoharp glissandos and prodding percussion. Producing sound for the sake of sound in loose conformance to the arrangements, Word of Mouth lets the instruments speak for themselves under the aegis of an ultimate sonic sorcerer. - L.B.

Def Leppard - 'High 'n' Dry'
While High ‘n’ Dry was the band’s second LP, it was the first to hone Def Leppard’s patented arena-pop-metal aesthetic, largely influenced by ‘80s rock mega-producer Robert "Mutt" Lange (fresh off AC/DC’s Back in Black a year earlier). The album was no commercial landmark, reaching just No. 38 in the U.S., but it produced the enduring power ballad “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” whose music video landed on a fledgling network called MTV and primed the band for its Pyromania explosion in 1983. That album’s success eventually brought more eyes to High ‘n’ Dry, which rumbles like a joyride in your big brother’s Trans-Am: all thunderous riffs (courtesy of co-founder Pete Willis, who was soon replaced by Phil Collen) and frontman Joe Elliott’s general happy-lad exuberance. - Bobby Olivier
Prince - 'Controversy'
Controversy was a transitional record, building on the stark sound and envelope-pushing lyrics of Dirty Mind but still a couple years away from world-conquering crossover success. But only a fool would call it a minor Prince album: The title track alone has enough riffs and hooks to power an entire career, and “Do Me, Baby” is one of the finest, sleaziest quiet storm staples in his catalog. Nobody else could pull off putting an ode to cold war anxiety like “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” on the same record as a rockabilly song called “Jack U Off.” Then again, nobody but Prince would even think to try. - Al Shipley
Fabio Frizzi - 'L'Aldila'

Critics remain divided about The Beyond, Lucio Fucci’s hellish cult horror film. (In his brutal half-star review, Roger Ebert slammed its “bad dialogue.” Meanwhile, it ranked No. 64 on Time Out London’s “expert” ranking of the 100 greatest horror films. You be the judge.) The response has been more favorable for Fabio Frizzi’s chilling score, which flows between grandiose orchestrations and haunted jazz-fusion grooves. The main theme, with its operatic choir, feels like the score to the biblical War in Heaven — if Satan were really into smooth fretless bass. - R.R.

Duran Duran - 'Duran Duran'

“It's just a band that's entertainment,” Nick Rhodes noted in 1981, the year of Duran Duran’s self-titled LP. He’s not totally wrong: Few bands of that era cooked up more dance-rock fun than the slippery grooves of “Girls on Film” or “Planet Earth.” But it’s not fair to write off Duran Duran as fluff — the record’s second side balances the obvious pop singles with arty atmospheres that recall the high drama of Roxy Music (“Tel Aviv”) and Japan (“The Night Boat”). - R.R.

Altered Images - 'Happy Birthday'
These Scottish post-punks — only active for five years during their prime run — started off angsty and disaffected, then slowly evolved into a pop act. But they didn’t fully discard their original sound, sometimes deftly splicing the two in the same song. Their debut LP is full of such moments, like the buoyantly sung but portentously played “Idols” or the derisive but playful “Beckoning Strings,” as singer Clare Grogan hectors some sorry puppet “dictated by those who pull your strings” in a teeny, doll-like lilt. They saunter out with an outro identical to its intro, coming full circle as Grogan chirpily sings the album title overtuned percussion — sealing the experience as the most deranged birthday party ever. - L.B.
Marvin Gaye - 'In Our Lifetime'

In Our Lifetime could — and maybe should — have been a disaster, arriving after a period of marital strife, debt and creative confusion. Marvin Gaye's 16th LP was originally branded Love Man, designed as a return to breezy dance music after the commercial flop of 1978's introspective Here, My Dear. But the Motown veteran switched gears, sort of, for what became Lifetime — blending party vibes with explorations of sin, prayer and armageddon. That thematic tension underscores the album's fractured past, but it also presents both magnetic sides of Gaye's persona. Most crucially, the grooves are sublime — from the sizzling sacred soul of “Life Is for Learning” to the self-explanatory “Funk Me.” - R.R.

The Psychedelic Furs - 'Talk Talk Talk'
If the Psychedelic Furs’ debut presented the band’s arty post-punk/new wave in greyscale, follow-up Talk Talk Talk offers a rainbow. “[Producer Steve Lillywhite] said our first record should be what a really good live gig sounded like,” frontman Richard Butler told The Quietus. “On the second record, we were free to do more overdubs and edits, because we had gone past a live gig in establishing our sound.” Opener “Dumb Waiter” is the sound of a raw rock band fighting beauty with intoxicating ugliness, with Butler snarling halfway in tune over jagged saxophone and chrome-plated guitar. “Pretty in Pink,” meanwhile, was sparkly enough to inspire the title of a John Hughes film, even if the song’s central sexual metaphor didn’t make the final script. - R.R.
Akiko Yano - 'Tadaima'

Few musicians could find common ground with Little Feat, Japan and Pat Metheny. But as Akiko Yano proved on her delightfully disorienting fifth LP, she finds musical connections most of us can’t conceive. Working with pioneering electronic act Yellow Magic Orchestra, the Japanese songwriter consciously crafted the first half of Tadaima as synth-pop with hit potential. She came up short commercially but wound up with something more unique: The avant-garde clatter of “Vet” sounds like the Kate Bush of 1978 collaborating with the Kate Bush of 1984, with a pounding digital kick drum and siren-like vocal giving way to a dissonant guitar solo. The second side is equally experimental in this context, leaning into her jazz chops with a lengthy piano-heavy suite. “That's a very unique album, to combine electro-pop songs with something jazz-orientated,” she told Record Collector. “Not so pop." - R.R.

Elvis Costello - 'Trust'

At the dawn of the ‘80s, Elvis Costello made the first of his many album-length genre experiments, the frenetic ‘60s soul homage Get Happy!! and the country and western covers collection Almost Blue. Sandwiched between was Trust, arguably the closest thing to a platonic ideal of the Costello sound. It came during a difficult time: He was drinking heavily; his marriage was crumbling; and his success on the UK charts was faltering. But he and the Attractions were in peak form, locking into intricate grooves (“New Lace Sleeves”) and prime displays of Steve Nieve’s keyboard prowess (“Clubland”). - A.S.

Pretenders - 'Pretenders II'

Pretenders II was a record of triumph and tragedy. Of course, it was a hugely successful album for Chrissie Hynde and company — “Talk of the Town” and “Message of Love” remain some of firmest bridges between the era’s punk, new wave and FM rock — but it was the band’s last project before the deaths of two founding members, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (1982) and bassist Pete Farndon (1983). Hynde, one of the decade’s most not-to-be-fucked-with bandleaders, is magnetic across these 12 tracks, from the sneering and sexual “Bad Boys Get Spanked” to the lamenting and subdued Ray Davies cover “I Go To Sleep.” Her steely, no-bullshit attitude is woven throughout Pretenders II, a very worthy follow-up to the band’s seminal debut. - B.O.

Funkadelic - 'The Electric Spanking of War Babies'

George Clinton had grand ambitions for Funkadelic’s 13th record, a loosely unified song cycle about Cold War paranoia, Baby Boomers and political conservatism. But due to clouded judgment, disjointed recording sessions and the interference of Warner Bros. (who censored Pedro Bell’s original cover and, according to Clinton, only pressed 90,000 copies of the LP), War Babies never achieved his complete vision. Still, aside from a few sonic quibbles, including a thin drum sound, the funk still reigns in full force — particularly on the swaggering “Electro Cuties” and “Funk Gets Stronger,” with its woozy bass harmonics and clipped horns. - R.R.

Squeeze - 'East Side Story'

Paul Carrack was Squeeze’s keyboard player for less than a year in the early ‘80s — and during his original tenure, he only sang lead on one song: the blue-eyed soul gem “Tempted.” But in a quirky twist of fate, that tune became Squeeze’s first and most enduring U.S. hit. The rest of East Side Story otherwise sticks to their tried-and-true formula, with Glenn Tilbrook pulling bright melodies out of Chris Difford’s dense, erudite lyrics. But the band’s fourth album, co-produced by Elvis Costello, casts a wide stylistic net: flirting with country balladry on “Labelled With Love,” orchestral pop on “Vanity Fair” and psychedelic reverse tape effects on “There’s No Tomorrow.” - A.S.

Electric Light Orchestra - 'Time'

Electric Light Orchestra weathered the disco storm better than most of their contemporaries, given their inclination toward string arrangements and bubblegum melodies. But Jeff Lynne’s hitmaking peak wound down with Time, a good old-fashioned sci-fi concept album. The songwriter envisioned an epic double record, but the final LP was pared down to 13 tunes — including the pulsing, synth-heavy “From the End of the World” — that find melancholy romance in a story where a man goes 100 years into the future and misses his girlfriend. ELO’s grooves have always appealed to crate-diggers, and the synthy confections on Time have been sampled by everyone from Dead Prez and Curren$y to Killah Priest. - A.S.

The dB's - 'Stands for Decibels'