In 1981 Raider of the Lost Ark debuted, Reagan was voted into office, Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, and researchers found the Titanic. While all of those things were happening, the musicians of the early 80’s were busy setting the tone for generations to come. Music that we now call pop, takes its roots in the experimentation of the 80’s, although the “pop” music of the 80’s lacked any of the negative connotations now associated with term. Below we have compiled a list of the 10 essential albums from 1981. Check em out and let us know what your favorite albums of ’81 are.

 Abacab – Genesis

Genesis’ eleventh album Abacab marked a major turning point for the band. Although the band had already been moving towards more radio-friendly pop songs, Abacab was the album where Genesis showcases their full artistic potential. It’s reported that Genesis had initially came up with and entire albums worth of material before they threw it out, wishing to avoid making any music that sounded like their previous work. Founding member Mike Rutherford called the material “a caricature of themselves”, so they started over, and brought in producer Hugh Padgham to help them find the right sound. Inspiration for the album can be credited to Brian Eno (who Phil Collins played for), The Police, The Talking Heads, and Earth Wind & Fire, who had appeared on Phil Collin’s solo album Face Value. In AllMusic’s review of Abacab, Stephen Erlewine writes, “Truly, only ‘No Reply at All‘, the rampaging title track (possibly their hardest-rocking song to date), and the sleek and spooky ‘Man on the Corner‘ (which hides a real melancholy heart underneath its glistening surface) are immediate and accessible — although the Mockney jokes of ‘Who Dunnit?‘ could count, it’s too much of a geeky novelty to be pop. The rest of Abacab is truly modern art rock, their last album that could bear that tag comfortably.”

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Moving Pictures – Rush

Moving Pictures is the eighth and most popular album Rush as ever released. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard Top 200, went quadruple platinum, and is ranks #10 on Rolling Stones‘ list of “Your Favorite Prog Rock Albums of All Time“. Like many bands at the time, Rush began moving towards more radio-friendly songs, accounting for their departure from long epics, to shorter, more pop style songs. As Greg Prato of AllMusic notes, “While other hard rock bands at the time experimented unsuccessfully with other musical styles, Rush were one of the few to successfully cross over. The whole entire first side is perfect — their most renowned song, ‘Tom Sawyer,’ kicks things off, and is soon followed by the racing Red Barchetta,‘ the instrumental ‘YYZ,’ and a song that examines the pros and cons of stardom, ‘Limelight.'” The album cover is a clever triple entendre of the title. As Rush’s website points out, “Movers are physically moving pictures, people are crying because the pictures passing by are emotionally “moving,” and the back cover depicts a film crew making a “moving picture” of the whole scene.” The album is such a classic that Rush played it, in its entirety, to open their 2010-2011 Time Machine Tour. If that doesn’t tell you how timeless this album is, I don’t know what will.

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Tattoo You – The Rolling Stones 

Tattoo You is the 16th (British) / 18th (USA) studio album from The Rolling Stones. The album was a huge commercial and critical success, selling over 4 million copies in the US alone and reaching the #1 spot on the Billboards Top 200. Tattoo You marked the end of an era for The Rolling Stones, becoming the last of their albums to top the charts, ending a run that started in 1971 with the release of Sticky Fingers. “Start Me Up“, one of the Stones’ most well known songs, sparked the albums initial success, but neither the single, nor the rest of the songs on the album were new. The album is composed of studio outtakes and demos from the 70’s, re-worked with new vocals and overdubs. Guitarist for the band, Keith Richards said, “The thing with Tattoo You wasn’t that we’d stopped writing new stuff, it was a question of time. We’d agreed we were going to go out on the road and we wanted to tour behind a record. There was no time to make a whole new album and make the start of the tour.” An interesting aspect of the album is the separation of the two sides, “It features an ‘up’ side of rockers such as ‘Start Me Up‘ and Little T&A‘ and a ‘slow’ side of ballads and softer numbers such as ‘Heaven‘ and ‘Tops‘ so the listener can choose the side according to their mood.” ( Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic calls Tattoo You, ” an essential latter-day Stones album, ranking just a few notches below Some Girls.” Rolling Stone (the magazine) adds, “Like all of Tattoo You, it begs the listener’s trust. And, for the first time in years, the Rolling Stones deserve it. Deserve it in spades.”

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My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Brian Eno & David Byrne 

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a collaboration project between Brian Eno and  David Byrnethe lead singer & guitarist from The Talking Heads. In Pitchfork’s retrospective review of the album, they note that:

At one stage of the project, they dreamed about documenting the music of a fake foreign culture. They largely pulled it off, and you can tell a lot about this far-off place from its music: It’s a futuristic yet tribal town made of resonant sheets of metal and amplified plastic containers, that the populace has to bang constantly in perfect time to make the traffic move, and the stoves heat up, and the lights flicker on at night, and to coax mismatched couples into making love and breeding new percussionists.

In order to accomplish this Eno & Byrne not only created extravagant rhythm sections with a new drum machine, but they used various samples from music and religions around the world. AllMusic’s John Bush explains that “The songs on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts present myriad elements from around the world in the same jumbled stew”, sampling everything “from radio talk-show hosts, Lebanese mountain singers, preachers, exorcism ceremonies, Muslim chanting, and Egyptian pop, among others”

My Life in the Bush received very mixed reviews. It was very strange for people of the early 80’s to hear something so “out there”, but it paved the way for future generations of electronic and ambient music, and for that reason the album is best viewed retrospectively, as opposed to trying to compare it to the traditional pop music of the time.

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Fire of Love – The Gun Club 

Dubbed “The watermark for all post-punk roots music” by Thom Jurek, Fire of Love is the explosive debut album from American post-punk band, The Gun Club. Lead singer Jefferey Lee Pierce seamlessly combines punk and blues, creating a powerful musical force that had never been heard before, and hasn’t really been heard of since. According to Jim Green and David Sprague, although The Gun Club “Isn’t terribly successful when it tries to preserve the letter of the blues” what they do exceedingly well is, “transposing the genre’s spirit to a snarled punk framework proving the Gun Club’s purity of essence.” Every song hits hard, leaving you no time between the end of one song and the beginning of another to gather your thoughts, and reflect on what just happened. Only until the record is over are you able to really understand what just happened, and even then all you really want to do is hop back into the experience. As Thom Jurek declares:

As if the opener weren’t enough of a jolt, the Gun Club follow this with a careening version of House’sPreachin the Blues,” full of staccato phrasing and blazing slide. But it isn’t until the anthemic, opiate-addled country of “She’s Like Heroin to Me” and the truly frightening punk-blues of “Ghost on the Highway” that the listener comes to grip with the awesome terror that is the Gun Club. The songs become rock & roll ciphers, erasing themselves as soon as they speak, heading off into the whirlwind of a storm that is so big, so black, and so awful one cannot meditate on anything but its power.

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Fair Warning – Van Halen 

Fair Warning is the fourth studio album from Van Halen. During the time of its release, the band had a been struggling with a relentless work schedule, and tensions between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth were running high. As a result, Fair Warning is darker record, and doesn’t feature any radio hits, a stark difference from their upbeat and fun previous records. As Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic explains, “Gloomy it may be, but dull it is not and Fair Warning contains some of the fiercest, hardest music that Van Halen ever made. There’s little question that Eddie Van Halen won whatever internal skirmishes they had, since his guitar dominates this record.” Eddie at the time felt that the direction the band was being led was restricting his creative expression, so he took it upon himself to secretly change the songs. As Eddie himself explains, “I would sneak back into the studio at 4AM with Don Landee, the engineer, and completely re-record all the solos and overdubs the way I wanted them. The f—ed-up thing was, no one even noticed.” Eddie’s frustration becomes so well expressed through his guitar, that it really becomes the most striking feature about the album, leading the way for the darker themes heard throughout.

Whatever spawned it, that nastiness is the defining characteristic of Fair Warning, which certainly doesn’t make it bunches of fun, but it showcases the coiled power of Van Halen better than any other album, which makes it worth visiting on occasion. (Erlewine, AllMusic)

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Bella Donna – Stevie Nicks 

Bella Donna is the debut studio album from Fleetwood Mac vocalist, Stevie Nicks. It is her best selling album to-date, selling over 1 million copies in just 3 months, and over 4 million copies overall. A lot of the album is composed of demo recordings that Nicks had never fully completed. In order to get the most out of her concepts, she called upon many of her musician friends, listing over 20 musicians on the credits, including the likes of Tom Petty, Don Henley, Roy Bitten – the pianist from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Waddy Wachtel. AllMusic’s Alex Henderson details, “The album yielded a number of hits that seemed omnipresent in the ’80s, including the moving Leather and Lace‘ (which unites Nicks with Don Henley), the poetic ‘Edge of Seventeen,‘ and her rootsy duet with Tom Petty, ‘Stop Draggin My Heart Around.‘ But equally engaging are less exposed tracks like the haunting ‘After the Glitter Fades.'” The album, which was recorded between session for Fleetwood Mac’s third album Tusk, cemented Nicks as a fully capable solo artist, and paved the way for her subsequent 8 solo records.

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Ghost in the Machine – The Police 

Ghost in the Machine is the fourth studio album from The Police. The widely successful album topped the charts in the UK and hit the #2 spot in the US, going double platinum, and having a few songs also top the charts. The album contained various hit singles including “Invisible Sun“, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic“, “Spirits In The Material World“, and “Secret Journey“. The Police had previously been labeled as a “white reggae” group, a title they did not like, and had come to a cross roads of doing what they loved, and trying to meet commercial demands. Lead singer Sting spoke of the significance of the album, telling us that:

Ghost’ was, for us, a please-yourself album. In it we pleased ourselves. Our last records were experiments in commercialism. I’d been obsessed with the idea of coming up with a commercial record. ‘Ghost’ doesn’t have that concern. After our first three albums, we wanted to go as far away from the sound we’d already created. I was determined to play some saxophone. Generally we wanted to go off the beaten path, to take a fresh new approach and see what happened. I think the material that came out on the next albums was stronger. It was something we all believed in. By our third album we realized it came too close in sound to the albums before it. The balance had been tipped too much toward commercialism. We’d become almost obsessed by it largely because the only group who was selling any records in Europe for a year or so was The Police.

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Juju – Siouxsie and The Banshees 

Juju is the fourth studio album from British rock band Siouxsie and The Banshees. Hailed as “One of the band’s masterworks” by Tim DiGravina of AllMusic, “Juju sees Siouxsie and the Banshees operating in a squalid wall of sound dominated by tribal drums, swirling and piercing guitars, and Siouxsie Sioux’s fractured art-attack vocals.” Juju was the first album from the group that featured guitarist John McGeoch who’s riffs propelled that record forward. As bassist Steven Serverin explains, “Juju was the first time we’d made a “concept” album that drew on darker elements. It wasn’t pre-planned, but, as we were writing, we saw a definite thread running through the songs; almost a narrative to the album as a whole.” Everything seemed to fit together perfectly for this album. DiGravina’s review continuesSiouxsie’s mysterious voice emerges from dense guitar picking, Budgielays into his drums as if calling soldiers to war, and things get more tense from there. “Into the Light is perhaps the only track where a listener gets a breath of oxygen, as the remainder of the album screams claustrophobia, whether by creepy carnival waterfalls of guitar notes or Siouxsie’s unsettling lyrics.”

Though I would argue that Bauhaus’ Mask is a better introduction to Gothic rock for the unfamiliar, simply for it being one of the most fun Goth records I know, there’s still no denying the utter rocking strength of Juju and the perverse enjoyment I get out of it. – Austin,

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Face Value – Phil Collins 

Face Value is the long-planned solo debut album from Phil Collins. The album was well received and charted higher than any previous release from Collins’ band, Genesis. The album’s draws its inspiration from the troubled marriage and divorce from his wife. Tim Sendra of AllMusic adds some detail:

This range of sound and emotion is part of what helps the album succeed as much as it does; so does the feeling that Collins felt driven to make this album to help him heal. It’s not a career move or a cash grab; it’s a transmission from a wounded soul delivered with a soft touch and sensitivity. As such, it’s Collins’ most honest, most compelling work.

Some of the most notable hits from the album include “If Leaving Me Was Easy“, “I Missed Again“, and the legendary “In The Air Tonight“, which has one of the nastiest drum breakdown/solos known to man.

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