Rising in popularity in the early ’80s, new wave music, sync-pop and other genres became increasingly popular throughout the decade. Whether it’s a chart-topping rendition or an original composition, these tunes remain some of the greatest songs of 1981.
- 1. “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
- 2. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
- 3. “You Drive Me Crazy” by Shakin’ Stevens
- 4. “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” by Sheena Easton
- 5. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
- 6. “Ghost Town” by Specials
- 7. “Woman” by John Lennon
- 8. “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
- 9. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John
- 10. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
- 11. “Being with You” by Smokey Robinson
- 12. “The Best of Times” by Styx
- 13. “Elvira” by The Oak Ridge Boys
- 14. “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band
- 15. “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League
- 16. “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” by Raydio
- 17. “Who’s Crying Now” by Journey
- 18. “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton
- 19. “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s
- 20. “Slow Hand” by The Pointer Sisters
1. “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
Starting this list about frustrated love towards someone else’s girlfriend, Springfield set the tone for a decade of rock anthems. Winning a Grammy for Male Rock Vocal Performance, “Jessie’s Girl” is one of the most popular songs of 1981.
This track is popular for its relatable lyrics and catchy chorus. Nearly two decades after its first release, the song has been featured in multiple movies such as “13 Going 30,” “Suicide Squad,” and “Boogie Nights.” Springfield’s deep vocals complement the overall sound of the song.
2. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
Kim Karne’s raspy vocals have made this track (originally Jackie DeShannon’s song) an iconic hit of the ’80s. The track is interesting with its new wave and rock influences.
The lyrics tell a story of an enticing woman who knew what strings to pull to make guys fall for her. The woman is compared to the iconic actress Bette Davis, who was known for her sultry and alluring eyes. The song became Carnes’ signature hit, winning two Grammy Awards.
3. “You Drive Me Crazy” by Shakin’ Stevens
Rock and roll were at the height of its popularity in the early ’80s, with Shakin’ Stevens as one of its fastest-growing artists. “You Drive Me Crazy” is a prime example of his talents, with its fast-paced beat and catchy chorus.
The song is about a guy who is obsessed with a girl, and he feels like he’s losing his mind. The track was extremely successful in the UK, peaking at number two on the UK Singles Chart. It’s a simple love song with a classic rock sound that you can dance to.
4. “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” by Sheena Easton
The lyrics are about a woman who is daydreaming about her lover as he goes out to work. The song has a smooth, sensual sound that reflects the content of the lyrics.
As the song was released in the US, the title was modified to not confuse it with Dolly Parton’s song entitled “9 to 5.” Easton’s vocal performance is impressive, rich, and natural which made her top the charts in the US and UK.
5. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
Loving rock and roll is all about having a good time, and that’s exactly what Joan Jett’s song is about. Originally recorded by the British band Arrows, Joan Jett’s version with the Blackhearts was released this year and quickly rose to the top of the charts.
It’s an anthem for anyone who loves the genre, with its simple lyrics and catchy chorus. Staying number one for seven weeks in the US Billboard charts, it is one of the most successful covers of all time.
6. “Ghost Town” by Specials
This reggae rock two-tone song was released during a time of high deindustrialization and riots in the UK. The lyrics are about the deserted roads and abandoned shops created by people relocating because of unemployment.
The song reflects the feeling of hopelessness and despair that many people were experiencing during that time. Despite its dark subject matter, the song is catchy and has a reggae beat, making it one of the songs in terms of social impact.
7. “Woman” by John Lennon
This song was released posthumously after John Lennon’s death in 1980. It is a track about his loving relationship with women, particularly his wife, Yoko Ono.
Appreciating everything that the woman in his life has done for him, Lennon created a song that is both sweet and soulful. The song has a classic rock sound with blues influences. It features some of Lennon’s most personal lyrics, which makes it one of his most touching songs.
8. “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
The beauty of love is captured perfectly in this song by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. The lyrics are about two people who are so in love that they will have an infinite love that will last forever.
Two legendary singers came together to create this timeless love song. It was a massive success and has been covered by several artists including Mariah Carey with Luther Vandross and Kenny Rogers. This love song is for anyone who wants to express their boundless love for another person.
9. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John
This chart-topping song is about a woman who is trying to seduce her man with her physical attributes. The song is catchy and fun, with a disco beat that will make you want to dance.
It’s an uptempo song about someone who wants their partner to get physical with them. The song caused controversy due to its suggestive lyrics, but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. The track became certified platinum, having sold over 2 million units in the US alone.
10. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
Originally recorded by the Four Preps, “Tainted Love” was made popular by Soft Cell in 1981. The song is about a relationship that is full of pain and heartache.
The lyrics are cynical, and the synth-pop sound creates a dark tone. As new wave and synth-pop were becoming popular genres, this song helped to cement those genres as mainstream.
11. “Being with You” by Smokey Robinson
“Being with You” is a ballad about leaving everything and everyone behind, just to be with the one you love. Smokey Robinson’s smooth voice is the perfect match for this song about being madly in love.
The song was an instant success, rising to the top of the UK Singles chart and becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Robinson’s album of the same name has been certified gold.
The lyrics are beautiful, and Robinson’s soulful and emotive voice makes it one of the most highly-rated songs of the decade.
12. “The Best of Times” by Styx
“Best of Times” is a rock song released as a single from Styx’s album Paradise Theatre. The message in the lyrics is optimistic, about enjoying life with your loved one despite difficulties.
De Young’s powerful vocals and the band’s anthemic sound make this one of their most popular songs. The lyrics are optimistic and inspire hope, making it an anthem for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up.
13. “Elvira” by The Oak Ridge Boys
“Elvira” is a country song originally sung by Dallas Frazier but was made popular by The Oak Ridge Boys. It is about a man who is attracted to a woman named Elvira.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ version of the song was released in 1981 and was a huge hit, selling over 2 million units and topping the charts. This was a major accomplishment for a country song at that time.
The Oak Ridge Boys’ hit song has fun, lighthearted harmonies with a chorus so catchy, you won’t be able to get it out of your head!
14. “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band
This power pop track was released as the lead single from The J. Geils Band’s album Freeze Frame. It is about a man who saw his innocent high school crush in a magazine.
The song was an immediate success, reaching the number one spot on the US charts and their only hit single in the UK. The upbeat tune and catchy lyrics make it a fun song to listen to, and it’s easy to see why it was such a big hit.
15. “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League
This synth-pop song was originally recorded by the British band The Human League. It is about a man who is asking his previous partner if she wants him back after she becomes successful.
The song was a huge success as it was pioneered during the second British invasion of the US. Topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks. As one of The Human League’s hit songs, it has a catchy beat and lyrics that are easy to sing along to.
16. “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” by Raydio
This love song has a groovy sound and was recorded by the R&B band Raydio. It was written and produced by the band’s leader, Ray Parker Jr.
The track is about women who can play the same cards just like men and how a woman needs love just like anyone else does. As their biggest hit song, it topped several R&B and music charts. The positive message and upbeat sound make this song a feel-good track of its time.
17. “Who’s Crying Now” by Journey
Journey has featured their greatest but underrated bass guitar riffs in this song. As one of their classic rock records, the song is about the constant arguments a relationship can have and how it can eventually lead to a breakup.
It’s one of Journey’s singles that made it to the charts, with the song peaking at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. The song has a powerful message and is enhanced by Steve Perry’s soulful vocals. Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now” is one of the songs that defined the early ’80s.
18. “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton
The Hank De Vito composition “Queen of Hearts” was originally performed by The Hot Band. Juice Newton’s 1981 version was the most successful, topping charts worldwide.
This country song with a rock influence is about a woman who knows she’s being played but can’t seem to stop herself from loving the man regardless. Newton’s country-folk soprano voice has led this song to be one of her most successful hits.
19. “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s
Jane Wiedlin, The Go-Go’s guitarist wrote “Our Lips Are Sealed” as their debut single for The Go-Go’s. Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, also had a hand in writing the song.
The song is about how jealousy ruins reputations and keeping their lips sealed is the best weapon in combating fake rumors. It’s an uptempo new wave song with a catchy beat and relatable lyrics, making it one of the Go-Go’s most famous songs.
20. “Slow Hand” by The Pointer Sisters
R&B soul sisters, The Pointer Sisters recorded “Slow Hand” as the lead single for their eight studio album. The song was written by country songwriter Barry Mann and his wife, Cynthia Weil.
It’s a mid-tempo love song about taking things slow in a relationship and savoring every moment. This well-sung track makes you feel the emotion in the lyrics. The Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” is a timeless love song that will never go out of style.
Music in the early ’80s was all about having fun and enjoying the moment. These songs reflect that mindset and provide a snapshot of what life was like during that time. From catchy synth-pop tunes to love ballads, there was something for everyone.
These greatest songs in 1981 are the perfect way to take a trip down memory lane or discover a new favorite song.