20 Songs Released in 1981 You Must Hear

My rules:

  • Only one song per artist/group
  • The song must be released that specific year
  • Songs from live albums not allowed
  • Restricted to only 20 songs

Here are my 20 chosen songs released in 1981.

Every Grain of Sand – Bob Dylan

Written by Bob Dylan, recorded in Los Angeles in the spring of 1981 and released in August of that year on Dylan’s album Shot of Love.

The love in “Every Grain of Sand,” though firmly rooted in Dylan’s conversion experience and his Bible studies, immediately and obviously reaches beyond its context to communicate a deeply felt devotional spirit based on universal experiences: pain of self-awareness, and sense of wonder or awe at the beauty of the natural world.
-Paul Williams (Bob Dylan, performing artist:The Middle Years )

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair

Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones

Featured on the 1981 album Tattoo You. Released as the album’s lead single, it reached number one on Australian Kent Music Report, number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number seven on the UK Singles Chart.

If you start me up
If you start me up I’ll never stop
If you start me up
If you start me up I’ll never stop

Champagne & Reefer – Muddy Waters

From “King Bee”, the fourteenth and final studio album by Muddy Waters. Released in 1981, it is third in a series of records done for the label Blue Sky Records under producer/guitarist Johnny Winter.

Yeah bring me champagne when I’m thirsty.
Bring me reefer when I want to get high.
Yeah bring me champagne when I’m thirsty.
Bring me reefer when I want to get high.

I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Going to Be a Diamond Someday) – Billy Joe Shaver

Released on his Columbia debut album with the same name in 1981.

I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face

Point Blank – Bruce Springsteen

First released on Springsteen’s 1980 album The River. In Europe, it was also released as a single in 1981, backed by another song from The River, “Ramrod”. Although it was not released as a single in the US, it did reach #20 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

Do you still say your prayers little darling, do you go to bed at night
Praying that tomorrow everything will be alright
But tomorrow’s fall in number, in number one by one
You wake up and you’re dying, you don’t even know what from

Clubland – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

From their 1981 album, Trust. Written in 1980, the song was performed live in festivals before the album’s release. The lyrics, inspired by the band’s most recent tour, describe life in night clubs, while the music includes inspiration from the Police.

With a handful of backhanders and a bevy of beauty
You’re going off limits
Going off duty
Going off the rails

Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.

Released in 1981 as the band’s first single. A re-recorded version appeared on their 1983 debut album.

Beside yourself if radio’s gonna stay
Reason, it could polish up the gray
Put that, put that, put that up your wall
That this isn’t nothing at all

Ghost Town – The Specials

Released as a single on 12 June 1981. The song spent three weeks at number one and 10 weeks in total in the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart. Addressing themes of urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence in inner cities, the song is remembered for being a hit at the same time as riots were occurring in British cities.

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more

The Magnificent Seven – The Clash

The third single from their fourth album Sandinista!, released April 19, 1981. It reached number 34 on the UK Singles Chart.

Ring, ring, it’s 7:00 A.M.
Move yourself to go again
Cold water in the face
Brings you back to this awful place

Tainted Love – Soft Cell

“Tainted Love” is a song composed by Ed Cobb, formerly of American group the Four Preps, which was originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964. It attained worldwide fame after being covered by Soft Cell in 1981 and has since been covered by numerous groups and artists.

Sometimes I feel I’ve got to
Run away, I’ve got to
Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere

If You Think You’re Lonely Now – Bobby Womack

From “The Poet”, the thirteenth studio album by American musician Bobby Womack. The album was released in November 1981, by Beverly Glen Music.

I wanna dedicate this song to all the lovers tonight
And I expect that might be the whole world
Because everybody needs something or someone to love

Pretty in Pink – The Psychedelic Furs

A song by the English rock band The Psychedelic Furs, originally released in 1981 as a single from the band’s second album, Talk Talk Talk. The 1986 film was named after the song and a re-recorded version of the song was included on its soundtrack.

Caroline laughs, and it’s raining all day
Loves to be one of the girls
She lives in the place in the side of our lives
Where nothing is ever put straight

The Once Over Twice – X

From Wild Gift, the second album by the American punk rock band X, released in 1981.

I just heard the sad song by another band
Sung by another man he gave me the once over twice
I said when
He said okay so long
He hung me with the endless rope

For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) – AC/DC

The song was first released on AC/DC’s eighth studio album For Those About to Rock We Salute You in 1981

Stand up and be counted
For what you are about to receive
We are the dealers
We’ll give you everything you need

Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie

A 1981 single by the British rock band Queen. The song was written and recorded in collaboration with the singer David Bowie.

Mm ba ba de
Um bum ba de
Um bu bu bum da de
Pressure pushing down on me

Paralysed – Gang of Four

From “Solid Gold”, the second album by the British post-punk band Gang of Four, released in 1981.

Blinkered, paralysed
Flat on my back

Over the Mountain – Ozzy Osbourne

From “Diary of a Madman”, the second solo studio album by British heavy metal vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. It was released on 7 November 1981, and re-issued on CD on 22 August 1995. This is the last Osbourne studio album to feature guitarist Randy Rhoads and drummer Lee Kerslake.

Over the mountain, take me across the sky
Something in my vision, something deep inside
Where did I wander, where d’ya think I wandered to
I’ve seen life’s magic astral plane I travel through

Our Lips Are Sealed – The Go Go’s

From “Beauty and the Beat”, the debut album from Californian new wave band the Go-Go’s. Released in 1981 on the I.R.S. Records label.

Can you hear them?
They talk about us
Telling lies
Well, that’s no surprise

Controversy – Prince

A song by American musician Prince, the lead single and title track to his 1981 album. The song addresses speculation about Prince at the time such as his sexuality, gender, religion, and racial background, and how he could not understand the curiosity surrounding him.

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?

Single version:

Computer World – Kraftwerk

Title track from the eighth studio album by German electronic music band Kraftwerk, released on 10 May 1981.

Interpol and Deutsche Bank
FBI and Scotland Yard
Interpol and Deutsche Bank
FBI and Scotland Yard

These came close:

  • Please Don’t Touch – Motorhead/Girlschool
  • You Better You Bet – The Who (Face Dances)
  • Super Freak – Rick James
  • Give the People What They Want – The Kinks (Give the People What They Want)
  • Tom Sawyer – Rush (Moving Pictures)
  • I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll – Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll)
  • Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic – The Police (Ghost in the Machine)

Spotify Playlist:


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