Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1981

1981 was a big year in the history of rock music. First, it was the year that arena rock exploded. Escape (Journey). 4 (Foreigner). Paradise Theater (Styx). Hi Infidelity (REO Speedwagon – released at the end of 1980, but went on to become ’81’s best-seller). These album, and their attendant monster smash hit singles, set the basic mainstream rock template for the rest of the decade. And you know what? I actually like it. Not enough to afford it space in my Top 5 (although, of the aforementioned, Paradise Theater would come closest), but still. Second, and ultimately more epoch-making-ly, it was the year that video killed the radio star. On August 1, 1981, MTV went live; for better or for worse, the music industry would never be the same.


Moving Pictures

On the whole, the 1980s was not a great time for progressive rock. But the fact that “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” are still classic rock radio staples is a testament to how ideal Rush’s particular brand of prog was for the their time and place: lean yet muscular, distinctive yet adaptable to the technologies and sonic conventions of the day, more complex than Asia but not quite as esoteric as, say, King Crimson’s Discipline.


Alturas de Macchu Picchu

A Chilean progressive folk group stages an album-length adaptation of Pablo Neruda’s epic poem Cant0 General for panpipes and rock band. What could go wrong? Very little, actually. The band’s fusion of traditional Andean music and symphonic prog is mesmerizing, and Neruda’s Nobel Prize-winning poetry (in Spanish, natch) ensures that Alturas de Macchu Picchu doesn’t succumb to the pretentious pitfalls of so many high-concept prog records.


The Visitors

From the wreckage of the romantic relationships at the core of the band, ABBA crafted one of their finest albums. It’s certainly their most mature, as the clear-eyed “When All Is Said & Done” and the tear-jerking “Slipping Through My Fingers” attest. Meanwhile, dramatic numbers like “I Let the Music Speak” foreshadow Ulvaeus/Anderson’s burgeoning theatrical ambitions. The more you think about it, the stranger it is to hear Agnetha and Anni-Frid sing their former lovers’ lyrics about their own breakups; but it doesn’t detract one iota from The Visitors‘s substantial charm.

2. TIME (Electric Light Orchestra)


ELO always made heavy use of keyboards. But Time brings them into the 21st century (or, at least, what we thought the 21st century might sound like back in 1981) – this record plays up the “electric” part of the band’s name, phasing out the band’s trademark string arrangements in favor of synthesizers galore. It only goes to show what I’ve argued elsewhere: ELO is a top-notch pop-rock group, with or without its classical rock ambitions.

1. BAD FOR GOOD (Jim Steinman)

Bad for Good

The original Bat Out of Hell II, Bad for Good is bigger, more ridiculous, and more genuinely affecting than anything the power balladeers managed to cook up in ’81. Many have bemoaned Meat Loaf’s absence from this record, and it’s true that Jim Steinman can’t muster the same vocal power. Steinman himself was never quite happy with it, leading many of these songs to reappear on later projects with Mr. Loaf and others. And yet Meat never got around to reworking “Stark Raving Love,” one of the best songs Steinman ever wrote. Oh well. We still have Bad for Good, and it’s still terrific.

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1 Response to Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1981

  1. Okay – you have included Time, by ELO. This is just a wonderful album – my favourite by them. And Rush – again, often overlooked, but a great rock band. ABBA – you can’t really go wrong with them – even late on they were a solid group that produced quality songs.

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