The 80s were a weird time in music, and when you look back at 1981, there was a theme when bands were trying to be different and stick out from previous artists. If you’re looking for some great music, then read on to learn about the 31 best songs from 1981.
1. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
First on our list is a well-known anthem across the globe, which is Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. This song has been used in nearly every sports movie and sung at almost every stadium worldwide. It is their signature track, and the keyboard riff at the beginning of the song is memorable to almost everyone.
This track made it to nine on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released and eight on the Mainstream Rock chart. What’s great about this song is that once you hear it, you can’t help but sing along to the chorus regardless of where you are or what you’re doing.
2. Tainted Love – Soft Cell
Soft Cell released Tainted Love in 1981, which was a huge hit, and it quickly reached the top of the UK Singles chart. This was during the Second British Invasion, and it was a signature song for the band and that era of music. It spent a total of 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has been featured in movies and television shows such as Friends and Coneheads.
3. 9 To 5 – Dolly Parton
Calling all fans of the film 9 To 5, you might remember the signature track for the movie by Dolly Parton of the same name. This song won Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance for a Female at the Grammy Awards and was an anthem for women and workers everywhere. It is thought to be one of the best tracks of the decade and topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts.
4. Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield
Up next is Rick Springfield with Jessie’s Girl, which is all about a guy who is in love with the girlfriend of his best friend. Coming from the album Working Class Dog, the song made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 after 19 weeks on the charts, and when MTV first launched, this was the number one tune.
5. In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
Everyone knows the next song because we all air drum to it, and we’re talking about none other than In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. This was from his solo debut album Face Value and was the first single from the album.
It is thought of as his signature track and is also thought of as one of the best songs of all time. He said he wrote the track after he divorced his first wife, and it made it to number two on the Mainstream Rock chart while hitting 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. I Love Rock ‘n Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
Calling all fans of Charlie’s Angels, the song on our list next was in that movie, which is I Love Rock ‘N Roll by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. This song, which is a cover, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for seven weeks. The track charted higher than any other song she released with the band. In 2016, her version was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
7. Lady – Kenny Rogers
Country star Kenny Rogers lands on this list with his hit Lady, which comes from his album Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits. This is one of his most well-known tracks, and it was written by Lionel Richie for him. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts, and it was named by Billboard to be on the All-Time Songs list at number 60.
8. Super Freak – Rick James
Next up is Rick James with the track we all know, Super Freak, and this is known to be his signature song. It’s about a woman that is adventurous in the bedroom, which is where the term “freak” comes from. This is one of the best tracks of the decade and is also considered one of the best songs of all time. It has been in multiple television shows and movies such as Little Miss Sunshine, Beavis And Butthead, and Suicide Squad.
9. Endless Love – Lionel Richie And Diana Ross
If you’re into romantic ballads, then you may have heard Endless Love by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. This song went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, and Hot Soul Singles charts. As far as duets go, Billboard ranked the original version by Ross and Richie as the best duet of all time.
10. Keep On Loving You – REO Speedwagon
REO Speedwagon is on the list with their hit power ballad Keep On Loving You, which comes from the album Hi Infidelity. On the Billboard Hot 100 chart, this song hit number one, which was the first track for the band to break into the top spot or the top 50. This is one of the most well-known soft rock songs of the 80s, and some consider this to be their best track.
11. Queen Of Hearts – Juice Newton
Juice Newton released Queen Of Hearts, and this became the second song to become an international success for the country singer. She chose to cover this track because she thought it was a really cool song. It hit two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and landed within the Top 10 in multiple countries such as Canada, Switzerland, and Australia. Rolling Stone ranked this version of the track as one of the 100 best country songs ever in 2014.
12. Physical – Olivia Newton-John
Next up is Physical by Olivia Newton-John, which is a song we all know because of its suggestive lyrics and music video. This track was a hit from the start and peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks. You might have heard this song from movies such as Meet The Fockers or Good Luck Chuck, but other people know it just from it being her signature track. Thanks to it, she was able to turn her image from a good girl into a more sensual and seductive woman.
13. Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones make the list with Start Me Up, which was released on their album Tattoo You, and it was the first single from the album to be released. On the Billboard Hot 100 chart, this song made it to number two but hit number one on the Billboard Top Tracks chart where it stayed for 13 weeks. It is often believed to be their biggest song of the 80s, and it’s one of their most well-known.
14. Under Pressure – Queen
You’ve probably heard Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, but did you know that song samples Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen? This was a huge hit in 1981, and on the UK Singles Chart, it went to number one. It is one of the most powerful and recognizable rock tracks out there, and it was an international success since it made it within the Top 10 in multiple countries.
15. [Just Like] Starting Over – John Lennon
Next on our list is [Just Like] Starting Over by John Lennon, and this song was the last track he would ever release before he was murdered. This was the first song he released after coming back into the music business after a five-year hiatus, and it made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and 17 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
16. Every Woman In The World – Air Supply
Air Supply makes the list with Every Woman In The World, which was on the album Lost In Love, and this song has a lot of hooks that contain instruments. This track was a pretty big success for the band, and it peaked at two on the Adult Contemporary chart and hit five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was a hit in other countries including New Zealand, where it made it to number seven on the charts.
17. Elvira – The Oak Ridge Boys
Next is Elvira by The Oak Ridge Boys, which was from Fancy Free. It’s a song that you hear one time and you’ll remember until you die, which is why it’s on our list. The main part of the track is the chorus, which is “Giddy up, oom poppa.” It hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart and made it to five while it reached one on the Hot Country Singles chart.
18. Celebration – Kool & the Gang
Kool & the Gang had a hit with Celebration, which is the only song by the band to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. This track is now in the National Recording Registry thanks to the Library of Congress, putting it into the books in 2021. It has been in multiple movies and television shows such as Wreck-It Ralph, Gilmore Girls, and Ted 2.
19. Slow Hand – The Pointer Sisters
The Pointer Sisters released Slow Hand in 1981, which was on the album Black & White. This song became one of their biggest tracks. It made it to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and it reached seven on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It also was successful internationally and even made it onto the UK Singles chart. It has been featured in the television show Life & Beth, so you might know it if you saw episode 9 of season one.
20. Just The Two Of Us – Grover Washington Jr. Feat. Bill Withers
Next is Grover Washington Jr. with Just The Two Of Us, which features Bill Withers. This track hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and he didn’t have another hit in the Top 40 after this song. It won a Grammy for Best R&B Song, and it’s still a track that gets a lot of radio play today!
21. Angel Of The Morning – Juice Newton
Next on the list is Angel Of The Morning, which was covered by Juice Newton. This was the version that charted the highest and was the best-selling of all artists who sang this song. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reached the top five in countries including South Africa and Canada.
22. Rock This Town – The Stray Cats
The Stray Cats makes our list with Rock This Town, which comes from their self-titled album, which was their debut record. This song landed on the UK Singles and the Billboard Hot 100 at number nine. It has been featured in the movie Cars, as well as in video games such as Guitar Hero II.
23. Urgent – Foreigner
Attention all fans of the movie Jennifer’s Body, rock band Foreigner is next with Urgent, which comes from their album 4. There is a great saxophone solo in the song that music critics really enjoyed. It hit number one on the Mainstream Rock chart and was in that position for four weeks. It also hit four on the Billboard Hot 100.
24. Our Lips Are Sealed – The Go-Go’s
Up next is The Go-Go’s with Our Lips Are Sealed, which comes from their album Beauty And The Beat. This was their debut single, and it peaked at number five in both Canada and Australia. It also hit 15 on the Rock Tracks chart and 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.
25. 8675309 Jenny Jenny – Tommy Tutone
Calling all 80s movie fans, you might remember the song 8675309 Jenny Jenny. This track was one of the biggest songs of the decade and comes from Tommy Tutone on his album Tommy Tutone 2. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and also number one on the Mainstream Rock chart.
Funny enough, people who had this number were changing their number because of repeated phone calls by fans of the song. It has been featured in Family Guy, Timeless, and The Hardy Boys.
26. Down Under – Men At Work
You may remember the track Down Under by Men At Work because it was featured in the movie Kangaroo Jack. This song was a huge hit for the Australian band, and it instantly went to number one in Australia. Eventually, it would make it to number one in America on the Billboard Hot 100 and Top Tracks charts.
27. Being With You – Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson makes the list with the song Being With You. This track was from his album that has the same title. It hit number one on the Hot Soul Singles chart and stayed there for five weeks. It also landed on the UK Singles chart at number one and became one of his most well-known songs.
28. Open Arms – Journey
Calling all fans of the movie Heavy Metal, next on our list is Open Arms by Journey. This song is one of the most recognized tracks and is their highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 song since it reached number two on the chart. It is all about trying to bring back a relationship that’s failing, and it is a song that still gets a ton of airplay today.
29. Who Can It Be Now? – Men At Work
Men At Work make the list again with the song Who Can It Be Now? This is thought to be one of their signature tracks, and it’s off their debut record Business As Usual. It hit one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and two on the Australian Singles chart. You’ll remember this song for its amazing saxophone solo and upbeat tempo. It has been in television shows such as Money Heist and A Million Little Things.
30. Tom Sawyer – Rush
Rock band Rush is on the list with Tom Sawyer, which comes from the album Moving Pictures. It’s easy to say this is their most well-known song, and it’s a track that the band plays during every concert since it’s a fan favorite. It hit number eight on the Mainstream Rock chart and 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. This track has been in movies and television shows such as Family Guy, The Waterboy, and I Love You, Man.
31. Kids In America – Kim Wilde
Lastly, Kim Wilde had a hit with Kids In America, and this song was on her self-titled album. It was her debut track, and because it quickly became a hit and sold so fast, it was suspected fraud had occurred, and they didn’t let it go on the charts for a week. It landed at two on the UK Singles chart and hit 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did very well internationally and made it to number one in multiple countries including Finland and South Africa.
From the time she was little, Florence loved listening to music and quickly learned how music can make you happy and feel fulfilled. One of her favorite memories is being in the garage with her dad working on classic cars with the local rock station blaring in the background. Ever since Florence was 3, she loved grunge music and spent hours listening to bands such as Alice in Chains, Mad Season, Soul Asylum, and Soundgarden.
She also enjoys classic rock, modern rock, nu metal, alternative rock, and old 90’s R&B. Her love of music grew as she got older, and used music to help her get through tough times in her life. More often than not, you’ll see Florence with earbuds in while she’s writing, cooking, cleaning, and doing other tasks. She also loves to debate music with her friends such as which lead singer is the best vocalist, the most iconic guitar solos in music, and what songs are really the best of the decade.