Music has considerably evolved over the turn of the century—but no era lives on in the public imagination like the 1980s.
1981 marked a transitional moment for music: from the launch and popularization of the 808 to the emergence of synth-pop and electronic dance music. Use this guide to learn all about the best songs from 1981—and how each forever changed the course of music history.
1. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
When most people think of ‘80s music, they think of Phil Collins.
The lead singer of Genesis left the band in 1981 and released his first single from his first solo album that same year.
This single was “In the Air Tonight,” which would characterize the 1980s as no other song has since.
Although the song only reached the teens on the Billboard charts, it has since gained timeless popularity. The meaning of the lyrics remains a mystery, though Collins wrote it during a period of grief and anger. An urban myth speculated he wrote it about someone who could’ve saved another from drowning.
2. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
Soft Cell’s only hit single is a rendition of a 1964 song released by Gloria Jones. Marilyn Manson later released a version of “Tainted Love” in 2004.
With its themes of toxic relationships and unhealthy attachment patterns, this song has enduring relevance with music lovers.
3. “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang
This iconic song was a number-one hit on the US Billboards charts in 1981 and has dominated wedding and graduation playlists ever since.
Saxophone player Khalis Bayyan wrote the song after reading the Quran, explaining that he intended it to commemorate the creation of humankind.
Despite the song’s religious affiliations, its generic lyrics make it suitable for any occasion. Indeed, officials played the music upon returning 52 American hostages from Iran in 1981.
4. “Leather and Lace” by Stevie Nicks
In 1981, Stevie Nicks and Don Henley, the lead single of The Eagles, released the hit single “Leather and Lace.”
The song touches on an intimate yet incompatible couple and is presumably based on Nicks’ relationship with Henley.
It was a productive time for Stevie Nicks. Later that year, she wrote her most famous hit, “Edge of Seventeen,” in a state of profound grief over the loss of her uncle.
5. “Endless Love” by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
“Endless Love” is more than just a song—it’s a moment.
The song emerged from the eponymous 1981 movie starring model Brooke Shields and marked the end of Ross’ superstardom and the beginning of Richie’s solo career.
Although both musicians were allegedly ambivalent about the song—and rush-recorded it while busy with other endeavors—the song’s laser-focused celebration of love made it a massive hit.
6. “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
“Jessie’s Girl” is the quintessential 1980s hit and is one of the best upbeat love songs in history.
From its soap opera-famous singer to its innovative use of power-pop synthesizers and cheery vocals, this song has come to represent the 1980s in the public imagination.
The song centers on the narrator’s desire for someone else’s girlfriend. This track was Rick Springfield’s only hit.
Since then, it has been featured in such movies as Suicide Squad and Boogie Nights.
7. “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Gos
This song remained a hit for longer than most, topping the charts for nearly 30 weeks.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” is a power-pop/new-wave classic about keeping secrets—and its appeal transcends the ‘80s. Many artists, from Fun Boy Three to Aly and A.J., have remastered it.
8. “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates
This uplifting pop anthem peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts in July 1981.
According to Oates, the song was too happy and straightforward with its uncomplicated themes about love and joyful electric piano; the music was too pleasing and clear.
In defiance of the tortured artist stereotype, Oates decided to leave it as it was, proving that good music need not be overly complex.
9. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
Kim Carnes’ hit reigned at the top of the charts for nine weeks in the summer of ‘81—and Carnes later won a Grammy for her album.
Many people loved this song for its experimental use of synthesizers and its resemblance to early electronic music. Others fell for Carnes’ gritty, eerie vocals.
But this song’s lyrics prove most fascinating to most; Bette Davis, a 1940s starlet, had blue eyes, but because she acted in black-and-white movies, they always appeared gray.
As a result, many speculate that Carnes’ song was about the underappreciated beauty of women in that era.
10. “Just the Two of Us” by Grover Washington Jr.
This smooth jazz ballad has gone viral on TikTok—but it originally appeared in February 1981.
The song represented a deviation from traditional soul/R&B tempos and was well-regarded for its unique form and heartwarming lyrics about a loving relationship overcoming life’s challenges.
It won a Grammy for Best R&B Single later that year and has appeared in countless movies and shows.
11. “Stand and Deliver” by Adam and the Ants
Bridging the gap between punk and new wave/glam punk, Adam and the Ants released their second most acclaimed single, “Stand and Deliver,” in 1981.
The lyrics and the music video heavily reference Monty Python and its themes of rebellion. This track played a central role in the band’s popularity and public perception of them as eccentric and playful.
12. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
The 1970s band, The Arrows, wrote and performed this song in 1975. However, it became popular after Joan Jett released her remake, which became one of the best songs from 1981.
The flirtatious track recounts two teens meeting at a bar and touches on themes of rebellion in the face of tradition.
Fans immediately recognized it as a punk rock anthem, and the band sold over a million copies of the affiliated album, releasing the song as a single that next year.
In 2002, Britney Spears famously covered the song.
13. “Controversy” by Prince
It wouldn’t be the ‘80s without Prince, and “Controversy,” released in 1981, remains one of the defining songs of the 20th century.
“Controversy” was Prince’s hit single from an album of the same name, and the song touches on essential themes of social justice and political change unique to this tumultuous era.
The album marked the iconic association between Prince and the color purple.
14. “Woman” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
This list wouldn’t be complete without some mention of John Lennon.
Lennon died in December 1980—just days before the new year—and his single with Yoko Ono, “Woman,” emerged a month after his death.
The song, which received considerable acclaim, is an ode to all women—particularly Lennon’s wife, Yoko. Its lyrics showcase Lennon’s admiration of the women who supported him throughout his career.
John Lennon reflected on his inspiration, noting how one day while in Bermuda he realized all that women do. A promotional video featured Lennon and Yoko Ono walking through Central Park.
15. “Rapture” by Blondie
The American new wave band Blondie released “Rapture” in the early days of 1981. It became a certified gold single and hovered at number one on the charts for two weeks.
This song owes its existence to the band attending a rap concert in the Bronx. Inspired, they decided to meld hip-hop and pop in what has become a timeless classic. “Rapture” was the first hip-hop single to use original music instead of sample tracks.
16. “Morning Train (9 to 5)” by Sheena Easton
This hit single catapulted Sheena Easton to fame.
Although Easton released the song in 1980 in the U.K., it appeared on the U.S. music scene in 1981 and became a top hit in both countries.
Easton’s single was initially called “9 to 5.” Coincidentally, Dolly Parton had just released a song by the same name, so Sheena Easton revised the title to avoid confusion.
Easton’s song recounts the tale of a woman awaiting her husband’s return home. It touches on themes of 20th-century feminism by suggesting that the woman is bored at home.
17. “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton
This list wouldn’t be complete without a nod to country music, as the 1980s witnessed the birth of country pop.
“Queen of Hearts,” initially written by Hank DeVito, was Juice Newton’s second country-pop single on the Juice album. Newton sings about the dangers of seduction and flirtatious manipulation, warning against unwanted attention.
Her single immediately topped the charts and received a Gold certification.
18. “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters
Michael Clark and John Bettina wrote this song—and never intended it for The Pointer Sisters.
However, the track sounded similar to their previous hit, “Fire,” and the songwriters agreed to give it to the group when they heard the band sing “Slow Hand.”
The ballad discusses the value of patience and gentleness in intimate relationships. Referred to as “countrypolitan-tinged soul,” this track birthed a new genre that, despite its popularity, was short-lived.
19. “Champagne and Reefer” by Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters was a lead figurehead of the Chicago Blues movement of the late 20th Century, and his song, “Champagne and Reefer,” captures the genre’s mournful sound and rich vocals.
The song has become representative of Delta blues, the particular style of music that Muddy Waters introduced to the scene. His lyrics explore the advantages of harm reduction and speaks to how the musician has been humbled throughout his life.
20. “Over the Mountain” by Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne released Diary of a Madman in December of 1981, and “Over the Mountain,” the opening track, debuted at number 42 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart.
“Over the Mountain” is about death since the song refers to the soul leaving the body. However, many speculate it is about astral projection, an out-of-body experience typically associated with hallucinogenic drugs and extreme meditative states.
21. “Ceremony” by New Order
The lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division, Ian Curtis, wrote “Ceremony” shortly before committing suicide.
This poignant love song touches on themes of vulnerability and loss, and many speculate that the “ceremony” in reference is a funeral.
New Order picked up the song as a homage to Curtis. It catapulted this new wave band into timeless fame and recognition.
22. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Hip-hop legend and disc jockey Grandmaster Flash released this groundbreaking hit in late 1981. It represents one of the earliest examples of soon-to-be-popular live DJ mixes.
This song includes snippets from The Official Adventure of Flash Gordon and sounds from songs by Blondie, the Sugarhill Gang, Queen, Chic, and more. It introduces the members of the Furious Five, interweaving references to partying with personal struggles.
Today, the song—and Grandmaster Flash—represent the collaborative creativity of Black musicians in the 1980s.
Legendary hip-hop artist Dr. Dre credits this song—and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—as inspiration for his later work.
23. “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League
British synth-pop trio, The Human League, released “Don’t You Want Me” in 1981.
It was the 23rd most successful single in British music history and topped the charts for nearly three weeks.
Songwriter Philip Oakey was allegedly inspired by the famous movie A Star is Born. Much like the movie, countless producers have since picked it up, hoping to capitalize on its initial acclaim.
24. “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon
Widely considered one of the most romantic songs in music history, “Keep On Loving You” is a heartbreaking ballad about a man who is determined to remain faithful to his wife despite her infidelities.
REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin wrote the song about actual events in his marriage. Although he promised to go on loving her, the two divorced several years after the single’s release.
25. “The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA
The Swedish pop quartet reached the apex of their fame in the 1980s when their use of moody synth sounds shaped an entire movement.
“The Winner Takes It All” is one of the most heartbreaking breakup songs. The song supposedly concerns a divorce between two band members, though speculations remain unconfirmed.
ABBA is a figurehead of the 1980s, and their music lives on in the musical Mamma Mia, performed on Broadway to this day.
26. “Being With You” by Smokey Robinson
“Being With You” is the original rebellious love anthem—and has inspired countless other songs since its release in 1981.
The song is about a forbidden relationship with a woman who has a reputation for breaking hearts. Although the narrator brazenly dismisses the judgments of others, the woman appears not to care enough to stay. Robinson earned a Gold certification on his album by the same name.
27. “Believe It or Not” by Joey Scarbury
“Believe It or Not” was the theme song to the hit comedy-drama series The Greatest American Hero, a show about aliens granting superpowers to an ordinary school teacher.
Mike Post initially wrote only one minute of this song, but the show’s growing popularity led him to complete the piece and re-release it as a single. Scarbury’s single topped the charts in 1981.
The song has since appeared in countless commercials, shows, and movies—including Seinfeld.
28. “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police
The Police’s -album, Ghost in the Machine, came out in November of 1981 and immediately received rave reviews. “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” was its hit single, and uniquely features a piano and elements of reggae, pop, punk, and new wave.
The lyrics focus on a tragic instance of unrequited love. It reached number three in the US and topped the charts in countries worldwide, proving that the Police were here to stay.
29. “Sat In Your Lap” by Kate Bush
Kate Bush is the epitome of the 1980s. Though “Sat In Your Lap” didn’t top any charts, it merits mention as one of Bush’s early singles.
The song touches on the timeless theme of finding happiness and fulfillment in one’s life. Bush wonders whether she can learn from the mistakes of others or if she must forge her path. This single marked Bush’s iconic entry into the experimental music scene for its depth and experimental sound.
The song appeared on an album that received some critical ambivalence, but it has since earned a place among the best albums in history, ranked by NPR, The Slant Magazine, and The Word.
Renowned musicians Bjork and Big Boi credit this album for significant inspiration.
Top Songs From 1981, Final Thoughts
Although music has changed since the early 1980s, one can trace many modern trends back to this era. This list of the best songs from 1981 represents some of the most influential music of the decade. Many of these songs revolutionized musical history and shaped the work of countless renowned artists since the 20th Century.
They live on in the hearts and minds of millions—and will undoubtedly continue to do so for years to come.