The Top 5 Songs of 1981: A Year of Sonic Breakthroughs

today15 March 2024

1981, iconic artists of 1981, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers. 1980s street with retro synthwave colour theme

The Top 5 Songs of 1981: A Year of Sonic Breakthroughs

As the calendar flipped to 1981, the music scene found itself at a crucial juncture of richness. This year was defined by an eclectic mix of sounds that not only defined the era but also set the stage for the musical innovations that would follow. From the raw energy of rock and the smooth grooves of R&B to the emerging digital landscapes of new wave and synth-pop, 1981 was a year that transcended genres and expectations. Artists and bands pushed the boundaries of creativity, experimenting with new instruments, lyrical themes, and production techniques, crafting tracks that resonated deeply with audiences worldwide. It was a year where the charts were as diverse as they were dynamic, hosting a blend of established stars and rising newcomers, each contributing to the tapestry of sounds that characterized the period.


“Betty Davis Eyes – Kim Carnes”

Kim Carnes, a distinctive voice of the early ’80s music scene, had been navigating the industry with moderate success for over a decade before hitting it big. By 1981, Carnes had already released several albums that showcased her raspy, soulful voice and knack for storytelling through music. Despite her talents, widespread recognition remained elusive until she recorded “Bette Davis Eyes,” a track that would catapult her into international stardom.

“Bette Davis Eyes” was originally penned in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, the latter already known for her hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Carnes’ rendition came about when producer Val Garay presented her with the song, believing her unique vocal style was perfect for its revival. The recording and production process brought a modern, synth-driven arrangement to the forefront, diverging significantly from the original folk-rock composition. The track was characterized by its distinctive use of the Oberheim OB-X synthesizer, which played a critical role in crafting the song’s iconic sound.

Musically, “Bette Davis Eyes” features a minimalist yet compelling synth-led backdrop, over which Carnes’ gravelly voice delivers the lyrics with a mix of cool detachment and emotive intensity. The song’s lyrics paint a portrait of a captivating woman with “Bette Davis eyes,” alluding to the actress’s renowned intense and seductive gaze. The song cleverly intertwines themes of allure, mystery, and power, encapsulating the enchanting yet dangerous appeal of its protagonist.

Upon its release, “Bette Davis Eyes” soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, holding the number one spot for nine non-consecutive weeks. It became the biggest hit of 1981 in the United States and achieved similar success worldwide. The song’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, praised for its innovative sound, Carnes’ vocal performance, and its catchy yet haunting composition. It won the Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1982.

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The success of “Bette Davis Eyes” not only defined Kim Carnes’ career but also left a lasting imprint on the music scene of the early ’80s. Its synthesis of pop and new wave elements helped shape the sound of the decade. The song’s enduring popularity is evidenced by its frequent use in movies, television shows, and covers by artists across various genres. Furthermore, it underscored the influence of visual imagery in music, a trend that would become increasingly significant in the MTV era. “Bette Davis Eyes” stands as a testament to the power of a song to transcend its time, remaining a beloved classic that captures the essence of an era.


“Lady – Kenny Rogers”

Kenny Rogers, by 1981, had firmly established himself as a giant in the country music scene with an ability to cross over into pop territory like few others. His warm, raspy voice and knack for storytelling had endeared him to millions worldwide. Rogers’ career, spanning the late 1950s onwards, saw him evolve from a member of the First Edition to a solo superstar. By 1981, he had already amassed a significant number of hits and was known for his versatility, covering genres ranging from country and pop to rock and jazz.

“Lady” was penned by the legendary Lionel Richie, marking a significant collaboration between two artists at the top of their respective games. Richie, primarily known for his work with the Commodores and his burgeoning solo career, wrote “Lady” specifically for Rogers. The song’s creation marked a unique crossover between country and R&B/soul, genres that rarely intersected so directly at the time. The recording process highlighted Richie’s smooth, soulful influence and Rogers’ country roots, blending them into a ballad that was both emotive and universally appealing. The studio experience was reportedly a harmonious one, with both artists contributing to the final product’s polished, heartfelt sound.

Musically, “Lady” is a sweeping ballad that builds from a gentle piano introduction to a powerful orchestral climax, showcasing Rogers’ vocal range and emotional delivery. The lyrics speak of unconditional love and admiration, themes that resonated widely with listeners. Richie’s influence is evident in the song’s soulful melody, while Rogers’ country sensibilities bring a sincerity and warmth that made the song accessible to a broad audience.

Upon its release, “Lady” soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, Country, and Adult Contemporary charts, cementing its status as a crossover hit. The song’s universal appeal and timeless quality led it to become one of Rogers’ signature tracks, admired by fans across genres.

“Lady” set a precedent for future collaborations between artists of different genres, showing that music could transcend traditional boundaries to touch the hearts of a diverse audience. It has been covered by numerous artists over the years, each bringing their own interpretation to the beloved ballad. For music fans, “Lady” remains a poignant reminder of Rogers’ versatile talent and his ability to convey deep emotion through song. Its legacy continues to influence new generations of musicians, demonstrating the power of collaboration and the enduring appeal of well-crafted balladry.


“Celebration – Kool and the Gang”  

By this year, Kool & The Gang had firmly established themselves as pioneers of the funk genre, infusing their music with elements of jazz, soul, and R&B. Since their formation in the mid-1960s, the band had evolved from their jazz roots to become one of the most influential funk bands of the 1970s and early 1980s. Known for their dynamic brass section, catchy hooks, and irresistible grooves, Kool & The Gang had already amassed a collection of hits that got people dancing and contributed significantly to the soundtrack of the era.

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“Celebration” was inspired by the feeling of pure joy and the universal spirit of unity and love. According to the band, the song was written after a moment of reflection on their success and the desire to share a positive message with the world. The making of “Celebration” highlighted the band’s cohesive creativity and their ability to craft songs that resonated with a broad audience. One of the challenges in creating the track was ensuring that it maintained the band’s signature funk sound while also appealing to pop and disco audiences. The result was a song that highlighted their musicianship and ability to create an anthem that transcends time.

Musically, “Celebration” stands out for its fusion of funk with pop sensibilities, characterized by a prominent brass section, an unforgettable bass line, and an infectious rhythm that invites listeners to dance. The song’s structure is designed to build up excitement, leading to a chorus that is both anthemic and uplifting. The lyrics of “Celebration” are simple yet powerful, emphasizing themes of togetherness, joy, and the universal desire to celebrate good times.

Upon its release, “Celebration” quickly climbed the charts, reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming a staple on radio stations worldwide. The song’s commercial success was matched by critical acclaim, praised for its infectious energy and positive message. “Celebration” became one of Kool & The Gang’s most recognizable and enduring hits, played at celebrations and significant events across the globe.

The legacy of “Celebration” extends far beyond its initial success, solidifying Kool & The Gang’s place in music history. The song’s enduring appeal is evident in its continued presence at weddings, parties, and significant events, symbolizing joy and unity. “Celebration” has also been featured in countless films, commercials, and TV shows, further cementing its status as a cultural touchstone. For Kool & The Gang, the song marked a peak in their career, showcasing their ability to create timeless music that crosses generational and musical boundaries. Its success opened new doors for the band, leading to more hits and continued relevance in the music industry.


“Kiss on My Lips – Hall & Oates”

By the time 1981 rolled around, Daryl Hall and John Oates, known professionally as Hall & Oates, had already established themselves as significant figures in the pop-rock scene. Their journey began in the early 1970s, navigating through the complexities of the music industry and experimenting with various musical styles. By the late 70s, they had honed a distinctive sound that blended rock with soulful pop elements, leading to a string of moderate hits. However, it was their refined approach to pop music and keen sense for catchy melodies that set the stage for their breakthrough into mainstream success in the early 80s.

“Kiss on My List” was the result of both creative experimentation and a personal touch, co-written by Daryl Hall and Janna Allen. The song originated from a simple melody that Hall had been playing around with, eventually evolving into a full-fledged track after Allen suggested the title phrase. The recording process highlighted Hall & Oates’ meticulous approach to their music, carefully crafting the song’s layers and harmonies to create a polished, engaging sound. The final mix successfully combined synthesizers and guitars, showcasing the duo’s ability to blend traditional rock instruments with emerging technology in music production.

Musically, “Kiss on My List” is characterized by its synthesizer-driven melody, catchy chorus, and smooth vocal harmonies. The song effortlessly mixes elements of pop and rock, creating a sound that was both accessible and innovative for its time. Thematically, the song speaks to the significance of love and how it ranks above all other life experiences, a relatable and enduring message that resonated with listeners.

Upon its release, “Kiss on My List” became an instant hit, securing the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the duo’s most successful singles. Critics praised the song for its catchy melody, polished production, and the seamless blend of genres. It was hailed as a perfect pop song, further cementing Hall & Oates’ reputation as hitmakers.

The success of “Kiss on My List” played a pivotal role in Hall & Oates’ career, propelling them to the forefront of the music scene in the 1980s. The song’s influence extended beyond the charts, becoming a staple on radio playlists and in pop culture. Its enduring popularity is evident in its frequent use in films, television shows, and commercials, introducing new generations to the duo’s music. The legacy of “Kiss on My List” lies in its timeless appeal and the way it encapsulates the essence of early 80s pop music, demonstrating Hall & Oates’ significant contribution to the genre’s development.


“9-5 – Dolly Parton”

Before this year, Dolly Parton had already established herself as a country music icon, known for her distinctive voice, storytelling songwriting, and charismatic presence. Her journey began in the 1960s, but it was the 1970s that saw her achieving significant success with hits that blended traditional country with a pop sensibility. Parton’s ability to craft songs that spoke to the human experience, combined with her keen business acumen, had made her a beloved figure in music and beyond.

“9 to 5” was inspired by Parton’s role in the film of the same name, in which she starred alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The song’s development is famously tied to Parton’s use of her acrylic nails to mimic the sound of a typewriter, which became a distinctive rhythm track for the song. This inventive approach, coupled with Parton’s firsthand insights into the working woman’s world, influenced both the song’s lyrical content and its upbeat, catchy melody. The production process highlighted Parton’s creativity and her ability to seamlessly merge country elements with a broader pop appeal.

Musically, “9 to 5” is an upbeat, pop-infused country track, characterized by its catchy melody and Parton’s clear, vibrant vocals. The song’s arrangement smartly incorporates the typewriter sound, creating a unique rhythmic foundation. Lyrically, “9 to 5” offers a biting critique of the corporate world, discussing the exploitation and monotony faced by office workers, with a particular focus on the female experience. Its empowering message and relatable themes struck a chord with a wide audience.

Upon its release, “9 to 5” quickly climbed the charts, reaching the top of both the Billboard Country and Hot 100 charts. The song’s crossover appeal was undeniable, receiving significant radio play across country and pop stations alike. Critics lauded “9 to 5” for its catchy tune, Parton’s performance, and its socially conscious message, highlighting it as a pivotal work in her career.

Over the years, “9 to 5” has grown to become more than just a hit song; it has evolved into an anthem for workers and a cultural milestone. Its significance lies in its ability to encapsulate the zeitgeist of its time while remaining relevant to future generations. The song has been covered by numerous artists across different genres, featured in films, television shows, and even inspired a musical, underscoring its enduring influence. “9 to 5” not only cemented Parton’s status as a versatile and influential artist but also contributed significantly to the dialogue around workers’ rights and gender equality in the workplace. Its legacy continues as a testament to Parton’s genius and the power of music to inspire change.


Chart-Toppers That Shaped a Musical Era

Each of these songs stand as hallmarks of a year that was rich with musical innovation and diversity. These tracks not only dominated the charts but also reflected the eclectic tastes of the era, blending genres from new wave and rock to country and pop. The success and enduring popularity of these songs underscore their collective impact on music history, demonstrating how 1981 was a crucible of creativity. The legacy of 1981 as a pivotal year is evident in its contribution to the evolving soundscapes of the 80s, marking a period of bold experimentation and the emergence of new styles that would shape the music industry for years to come.

Written by: Brandon Lawson