The 20 best albums of 1981

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While 1980 was single-handedly responsible for producing some of the best albums of all time, the year that followed was no slouch either. Sabbath ruled without Madman Ozzy; Motörhead didn’t sleep; the Stones pulled out a blinder; the Crüe emerged; and Venom spawned black metal. But there was more to music in 1981 than heavy metal, as The Pretenders, Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett all proved with ease.

Here, we round up the best albums to be released in 1981.

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

With their Back In Black still spot-welded to the turntables, AC/DC casually delivered another full-blown masterpiece. While not quite as consistent as …Black, it still has some rambunctious riches, including the title track and Let’s Get It Up. The last truly great AC/DC studio album.

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Black Sabbath - Mob Rules

Sabbath were on a roll at the start of the 80s. Heaven And Hell had introduced Ronnie James Dio, and Mob Rules consolidated his position as the rightful, slight-ful, heir to Ozzy. The album begins with three unqualified stormers – Turn Up The Night, Voodoo and The Sign Of The Southern Cross – and Sabbath’s future seemed secure. But with Ian Gillan waiting in the wings, it didn’t last.

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Def Leppard - High ’N’ Dry

Leppard’s 1980 debut album, the flat-sounding and uninspiring On Through The Night, was a disappointment. The Sheffield band needed to pull something out of the bag for the follow-up – and did they ever deliver. 

High ‘N’ Dry marked the beginning of Def Leppard’s association with producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. But while Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987) were more glossy and commercially successful, High ‘N’ Dry has an undeniable steely grit and determination.

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Foreigner - 4

’Mutt’ Lange weaves his production magic again on this all-time great record. Despite the presence of Waiting For A Girl Like You, this album is tougher-sounding than you might remember. Juke Box Hero is a supreme slice of chest-thumping commerciality, and Urgent is a mega-pulsing masterpiece. Foreigner never sounded better; this was a No.1 album in the US and reached No.5 in the UK.

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Iron Maiden Killers cover

Iron Maiden - Killers

Vocalist Paul Di’Anno’s swansong with Iron Maiden is an underrated album in the band’s catalogue. While not as focused as their 1980 debut, Killers still has plenty to recommend it, as long-time live favourites such as Wrathchild finally emerged from the studio on the first Maiden album to feature guitarist Adrian Smith. Meanwhile, tracks like Murders In The Rue Morgue and Genghis Khan indicated the more overblown direction Maiden would take once new vocalist Bruce Dickinson took the helm.

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Japan - Tin Drum

We at Classic Rock have got a soft spot for Japan’s early days, when they tried for success as an arty glam band. But albums such as Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives (both 1978) barely raised a ripple, so David Sylvian’s band reinvented themselves as a sort of soporific Roxy Music. This gameplan finally paid big dividends with Tin Drum, which reached No.12 and gave Japan a top five hit single with the floaty and chilling Ghosts.

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Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - I Love Rock’N’Roll

It’s amazing to think that the title track was originally a minor hit for cheesy British 70s glamsters The Arrows. But Jett reinvented it for this, her second solo album – and reinvigorated her flagging career in the process. I Love Rock’N’Roll became a guitar-crunching anthem, and Jett’s resuscitation of Tommy James & The Shondells’ Crimson & Clover was, if anything, even better.

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Journey - Escape

Hot on the heels of 1980’s Departure comes another all-time American AOR classic. It’s impossible to resist such lachrymose blockbusters as Don’t Stop Believin’, Stone In Love, Who’s Crying Now and Open Arms. Journey, who also released their live album, Captured, in ’81, were completely untouchable at this point in their career.

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Mötley Crüe - Too Fast For Love

Released on Leathür Records, and later remixed by Roy Thomas Baker when the Crüe signed to Elektra. But it’s the raw-as-hell original that really captures the band in all their smudged-up, scumbag glory. No one had ever heard glam rock that was quite as sleazy as this. The Crüe came out of nowhere with a brand new sound, and with big hair and spiky boots to match. A killer, and killer-heeled, debut.

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Motörhead - No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith

London’s old Hammer-smith Odeon was a metal Mecca in the 80s, and Motörhead capitalised on the aura surrounding the venue with this superlative live album. Lemmy, ‘Fast’ Eddie and Philthy rattle through their greatest hits as though their lives depended on it. And, knowing Motörhead, they probably did.

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Rainbow - Difficult To Cure

Having elbowed vocalists Ronnie James Dio and Graham Bonnet out of Rainbow, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore turned to Joe Lynn Turner for the band’s fifth studio album. The record was, ironically, more successful in Britain than the US, and spawned the hit singles I Surrender and Can’t Happen Here

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Stevie Nicks - Bella Donna

While at her wispy and waif-like peak, Stevie Nicks took time out from fronting Fleetwood Mac to make this solo record. The highlight is her duet with Tom Petty, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, while Leather & Lace still fuels adolescent fantasies. Bella Donna has its straightforward AOR moments, but there’s a ghostly presence about it.

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Ozzy Osbourne - Diary Of A Madman

Ozzy was on top dove-baiting, bat-biting form for this album, consolidating his position as a heavy metal monster. His partnership with guitarist Randy Rhoads was on fire, and tracks such as Over The Mountain and Flying High Again quickly became huge Ozzy classics. Sadly, Rhoads died in a plane crash the year after the album’s release.

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Pretenders - Pretenders II

Another consummate collection from the band fronted by Chrissie Hynde, following on from 1980’s remarkable debut. This one has got Message Of Love, I Go To Sleep and Talk Of The Town on it – what more do you need to know? Oh, and there’s also the steamy The Adulteress and a track called Bad Boys Get Spanked. Hit me, Chrissie, hit me!

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Rolling Stones - Tattoo You

The Rolling Stones’ best album of the 80s. Opening track Start Me Up swiftly became a concert regular, while Waiting On A Friend, Little T & A and Hang Fire are all excellent songs that help spark this surprisingly raw record. Compared to everything else the Stones have released since 1981, Tattoo You should be regarded as one of the cornerstones of the band’s back catalogue.

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Rush - Moving Pictures

A number-three album on both sides of the Atlantic, Moving Pictures bristles with hyper-commercial, left-field songwriting expertise, characterised by opening track Tom Sawyer. Some fans bemoaned Rush’s over-reliance on keyboards for the record, but the band were on irresistible form – and anyway, the 80s was a time when the boundaries between music and technology were blurring. Rush embraced both aspects in impeccable style.

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Saxon - Denim & Leather

By the time 1981 came around, Saxon had identified their target market down to a tee: hence this album’s title. The elegiac track And The Bands Played On was written about the first Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival, where Saxon had appeared. The song touched the hearts of the greasy headbanging fraternity in a way that no one would’ve thought possible.

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Van Halen - Fair Warning

Van Halen were at the point of imploding when they recorded Fair Warning, as the tensions between guitarist Eddie Van Halen and frontman David Lee Roth increased to near-intolerable levels. But the pressure created by that tension also helped to fuel the intensity of the recording process, and the end result was this dark and uncompromising album. While it might be one of Van Halen’s least commercially successful releases, it’s also their heaviest and most brutal.

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Venom - Welcome To Hell

The album that invented both thrash metal and black metal. Venom have got a lot to answer for. But bear in mind that this bone-shattering record preceded releases from the likes of Mercyful Fate by a year, Metallica by two years and Slayer by three years. Even today Welcome To Hell sounds genuinely frightening, especially tracks like Sons Of Satan and Witching Hour.

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ZZ Top - El Loco

With the ground-breaking techno-boogie of the Eliminator album still two years in the future, El Loco was the last ‘traditional’ ZZ Top record and it should be cherished as such. Combining raw blues (Tube Snake Boogie) and cheap smut (Pearl Necklace), this is a great reminder of how hot, blue and righteous the Top were before they became staples of the MTV generation.

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