1981 in Music

Music reviews for music originally released in 1981.

1. Glenn Branca: The Ascension (10/10)

Amazing. I don’t know if the title is a deliberate reference to Coltrane or not. “High-art” music on steroids.

2. Henryk Gorecki: “Miserere” (10/10)

“Miserere” is an incredible piece of music. I know choral music a lot less well than I know concertos, string quartets or piano sonatas, for example (so that means I really don’t know them), but this feels massively significant – in addition to it being greatly affecting – even without knowing the structure, which, once I read about it, is kind of cool. This piece is exactly the kind of thing one would hope for in the face of tragic events. For me the text is rather irrelevant – though obviously the history of the setting is not, and it’s pretty interesting – and it’s the power of the massed voices, and their original juxtaposition, that makes this so compelling. Otherwise, I’m kind of at a loss for words about it.

3. Mauricio Kagel: Finale (10/10)

Finale is so named because the conduct has a heart attack in the middle of the piece. Yes, I said he was a weirdo. It’s among his most famous works and it’s easy to see why. It starts out as relatively conventional “avant garde” music. It takes a turn into much more traditional territory as the orchestra presumably mourns the conductor’s death (that’s a guess, because I don’t know when he dies), but it resumes it’s more out there nature soon after. And it gets progressively weirder as it goes on (there’s likely stuff happening on stage, like when the bike horn comes in…). There’s a quote of a famous piece of music right at the end which I can’t quite place right now. It comes out of nowhere, of course.

This is a deservedly famous piece that I suspect is even more enjoyable live.

4. King Crimson: Discipline (10/10)

At one point, the idea of progressive rock wasn’t just a particular genre of music, it was the idea of moving rock music forward into new areas. But by 1981 most of the Big 6 prog rock bands had long stopped trying to do that. To wit:

  • ELP barely existed as a functioning band
  • Genesis had fully embraced pop music
  • Jethro Tull put out the same album over and over again
  • King Crimson didn’t exist any more
  • Pink Floyd was in the process of drastically altering their sound to the extent that they would soon nearly break up
  • Yes had gone through so many lineup changes as to be a totally different band, and were trying to make their sound more accessible.

So for Discipline to decide to carry on the moniker of King Crimson with this radical, “progressive” record, that takes New Wave to new places, incorporates gamelan and just generally sounds like nothing before it, is something really cool. (Is this the birth of Math Rock? Probably.) King Crimson always played around with the limits of their sound, but this is not something that sounds like the same band. (Of course, it really isn’t.)

An incredibly inventive combination of new wave and prog rock without equal, I say. Also, possibly the birth of math rock.

5. Black Flag: Damaged (10/10)

This is one of the essential hardcore records. I prefer Minor Threat only just, but this is pretty much equally essential. (And, hey, there’s a sense of humour.)

My favourite track remains “TV Party” all these years later.

6. The Raincoats: Odyshape (10/10)

I loved the debut, a seemingly perfect combination of naive rock and punk energy. But this is another thing entirely – shockingly different.

To call this music post punk is to admit that we don’t know what to call it. It’s not post punk in any sense, except that, once upon a time, maybe The Raincoats were a punk band, and they put this out later.

The world music influence here is on the magnitude of Eno/Talking Heads, but the approach is so far from that you’d be forgiven for thinking that a crazy comparison. This is, for the most part, a sedate, almost folk record that has more in common with the Incredible String Band than it does with Post Punk and New Wave. (But I like this Raincoats record more than any ISB record I’ve heard.)

Really just a unique, beautiful thing that is a remarkable departure from their debut.

Listen to me rave about The Raincoats.

7. The Birthday Party: Prayers on Fire (9/10)

Imagine the ’80s Bad Seeds but even more anarchic, even more chaotic, even more aggressive. That’s The Birthday Party. It’s as if The Bad Seeds were a concession to accessibility.

Years after first hearing it, this remains their only record I’ve ever heard. But it remains a post-punk classic in my mind, combine the energy and provocation of punk music with an extremely arty bent, with a heavy dose of theatre. And it stands out from so much of the other great post punk of its era, managing to put a unique spin on a sound that was too often wannabe Joy Division.

A great record.

8. This Heat: Deceit (9/10)

This Heat’s debut album is a challenging, difficult record but it is one of the great experimental rock albums of the 70s, full of all sorts of crazy ideas, paired with a DIY attitude that frees it from some of the more academic trappings of previous experimental rock.

So imagine my surprise when listening to this record, to hear that they’ve brought that crazy fusion of ideas to post punk. The result is surprisingly great and probably even more successful than their debut. Frankly, I cannot think of another band that started out so radical and managed to jump onto an emerging genre while maintaining their avant garde roots. It should be a lesson to every other band that seeks to gain a little more commercial appeal while remaining creative.

This is just a great record. I like it so much.

9. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju (9/10)

I quite liked Kaleidoscope but this record takes that sound to its logical conclusion, creating something that is simultaneously dark and post-punky and also bright and shimmering. They really found a unique spin on British post punk that no other band (that I’m aware of) really had. Of the records I’ve heard of theirs, this is the best, I think it’s pretty clear – consistent songs and an impressive display of a signature sound.

As an aside: it’s kind of a crime that The Edge is utterly adored the world over for his okay guitar playing and obsession with effects while most of us are completely unaware that McGeoch exists. His work on this album (as well as Kaleidoscope and with Magazine) really distinguishes him as perhaps the great post punk guitarist, despite The Edge’s fame.

10. Echo and the Bunnymen: Heaven Up Here (9/10)

This is very strong early ’80s British post-punk.

They sound a lot like some their contemporaries – albeit rawer – which isn’t really a good thing, but the thing that, to my ears, distinguishes them from the pack is that they have way better lyrics on the whole. I don’t have to worry about listening to these lyrics, which is nice and a relatively rare thing for a young band. The strong lyrics helps elevate the music, which is often more creative – or at least more forward and backward looking – than their contemporaries.

To explain the forward / backward thing: I feel like Slint liked these guys; I also feel like there are traces of psychedelic rock here.

11. The Gun Club: Fire of Love (9/10)

It may seem obvious now to combine the blues and punk, what with the White Stripes ruling the world for half a decade it probably seems like an obvious match. But it wasn’t in 1981. The only thing I can think of back then that would have counted as a mixture of punk and roots was psychobilly and that was more indebted to early rock and roll.

So this record is something of a landmark, bringing the blues fully into punk and opening up the possibility that other bands could bring other forms of roots into punk (as happened throughout the subsequent decade).

It’s a fiery re-imagining of the blues through punk, something that’s far more in the spirit of the blues, in my mind, than all those awful combinations of blues and R&B that occurred in the ’80s. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Eric Clapton.)

It’s worth your time if you’re a fan of the blues or of punk. And it’s a landmark.

12. Rush: Moving Pictures (9/10)

Virtually every other prog rock band that sought to make their music more commercial in the ’80s went with a pop approach, they completely dropped the complicated music, or they added vocal hooks, or they brought on some hot producer. Everyone but Rush.
Here, Rush has reined in their impulses to record side-long suites and write knotty riffs (well, mostly). Even the longest track here is accessible and not particularly daunting for a hard rock listener.

The fact that Rush was able to make their music so much more accessible (on this record and on the previous one) without losing much of what made them a great prog band is pretty incredible.

It’s rare to complement a prog rock band for showing restraint, but they do so here. And it’s probably their most consistent set of songs.

It may not be my favourite Rush album, but it’s their best.

13. The Human League: Dare (9/10)

I wrote the following in 2015:

I have rarely ever sat down and listened to synthpop. Really, the only album I’ve ever listened to is Violator. And listening to Dare, I really want to go back and downgrade my rating of that Depeche Mode album because, though I think the songs are better, it’s rather shocking how little the genre progressed in 8 and a half years. Shocking.

Read the review

I think this record is just too seminal to rate lower. I don’t love it by any means and I’ll likely never listen to it again. But it set the template for synthpop, far as I know.

14. Rip Rig + Panic: God (8/10)

It’s no secret the influence American funk had on post punk. But Rip Rig + Panic take that influence to extremes not seen in the rest of the movement. And the influence isn’t limited to funk, but extends to many different forms of African American music, including jazz, which should come as no surprise given that the band is named after a Roland Kirk album.

The result is certainly the funkiest post punk record I’ve ever heard, as well as the most soulful. It’s also far and away the most jazz oriented, even more so than a band like The Birthday Party. (I mean, there are actual horns on this record and piano solos!)

I really like the mixture a lot, though I do find the final result a little inconsistent, which is unsurprising for a debut. But this is still an original take on the genre that manages to pack more musical ideas into it than most records, and manages to be much truer to the spirit of its influences than some of the other post punk bands when they incorporated other forms of music into punk.

15. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (8/10)

Gang of Four’s debut is everything I think people would imagine it to be: sterile, punky funk music married to lyrics full of political statements and social comment. To me, that’s what Gang of Four conjures up. It’s a seminal sound which was arguably the most prevalent of influences when New New Wave / Post Post Punk was a thing at the beginning of this century.

I find myself pleasantly surprised with their second record, as it sounds to me that they have (relatively) expanded their sound. There’s a greater artiness here (to my ears) that makes this record feel like a step forward from their debut, rather than just another album of their brand of post punk.

Good stuff.

16. Oingo Boingo: Only a Lad (8/10)

Oingo Boingo’s debut is like Devo if the music were written by someone who went to music school, and who missed the memo that punk bands have to be left wing. It’s new wave but it’s reactionary new wave…if he’s being sincere…)

The music is more musically inventive than your average new wave and there’s a distinct “classical” influence at times, especially on some of the breaks and bridges. Its’ clear Elfman is a talented guy.

The only thing that keeps me from rating it higher is the sheer Devo-ness of the record. I mean, yes, Devo influenced most American new wave bands, but it’s kind of out of control here.

17. Henryk Gorecki: “Wislo Moya, Wislo Szara” (8/10)

“Wislo Moja, Wislo Szara” is a serene piece, which contrasts greatly with the other music on the disk. It still has neat little tricks in it that wouldn’t exist in a similar arrangement from another era.

18. The dB’s: Stands for Decibels (8/10)

This is kooky power pop record with so many weird detours that it’s borderline new wave. Individual verses and choruses (and, occasionally, whole songs) sound like they belong to a typical power pop group, but then there’s a weird effect, or weird, unpredictable time change or left turn. It’s no wonder it wasn’t a big success at the time, as it’s rather weird. But the idiosyncrasy helps a lot.

It’s wacky, in a good way.

19. 8 Eyed Spy (8/10)

A little less avant garde than it thinks it is, me thinks. Read the review.

20. The Cramps: Psychedelic Jungle (8/10)

I think imposing my silly ideas about artistic growth on a psychobilly band is foolish, so I’m trying not to.

The songs are weaker this time out, for sure. But the performances are just as good and there is, dare I say it, almost more variety to the sound.

But basically, this is The Cramps doing their thing, and doing it pretty well. It’s not the debut – nothing is, really – but it’s a pretty good follow up.

21. Iron Maiden: Killers (8/10)

I like this record, I do. But I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve heard this all before. This record sounds a lot better than their debut and that is great. But it’s no surprise to learn a lot of the music was written earlier and didn’t make the cut of the debut. It’s like their Strange Days – the band sounds more self-assured, everything is better produced, but the material just isn’t quite as good.

22. Discharge: Why (8/10)

I didn’t even know the UK had a hardcore scene until I listened to these guys. The music is brief and loud and fast. It is significantly less musically interesting than many of the American hardcore bands I know, as it focuses very much on a particular style. (It’s essentially a super angry and loud, but slightly more professional version of The Sex Pistols.)

But listening to this, it’s pretty easy to hear the roots of a lot of what came after in both punk and some forms of metal (and the areas where they overlapped) and that makes it a bit more important than you might guess, given the uniformity of the music.

23. X: Wild Gift (7/10)

This is another strong set of literate, traditional punk songs from that most New York of LA punk bands. It is very much a repeat of the debut record but, if you can get past that (and I’m not sure I can), it shouldn’t matter, as the songs are as good. X’s connection to rock and roll tradition is about as strong as it gets for a punk band of their era, but this makes them rather unique and lets their songs stand out a little better than they would if they were more noisy.

24. Martha and the Muffins: This Is The Ice Age (7/10)

Yes, this is second wave New Wave, and it sure sounds like a lot of other bands and musicians. (The guitar lead on “Swimming” is so wannabe Robert Fripp it’s not even funny. A bunch of tracks sound like Eno-lite.)

But this is a strong set of songs with good lyrics and a commitment to New Wave in a way that many of these later New Wave bands were unable to match. (I mean, it’s still quirky.)

Also, I am a sucker for any song that gently mocks anything I know, so the song about Ontario Cottage Country hits home more than it likely does for anyone who didn’t grow up going to a cottage in Ontario.

25. Cabaret Voltaire: Red Mecca (7/10)

I guess this is what happens when an Industrial band makes minimal concessions to accessibility.

I can’t say I know these guys (or know Industrial well at all) but this feels much more accessible than the little Industrial I know; there are actual melodies rather than just rhythms and the whole thing feels “tight” for lack of a better word. My guess is that it’s a good entry point for people who are interested in the genre but can’t handle the harsher sounds from the more experimental Industrial bands (or, perhaps, Cabaret Voltaire at an earlier date).

26. The Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash (7/10)

As someone who has come at The Replacements backwards, this is a bit of a surprise. I mean, I’d read they were a hardcore band before, but it wasn’t really something I got until I heard this record. And it’s still a surprise.

Listening to this record finally lets me understand why so many people were impressed by their transition to a more traditional rock band because you might not have guessed it listening to them in 1981. I mean, Westerberg’s lyrics are considerably more literate than some hardcore bands. But there are few inclinations that there was something else here.

As hardcore, it’s more literate than average but, for me, it doesn’t hold up to the very best of the genre, and so I’m glad they went another direction.

27. Pretenders II (7/10)

I have no idea why, but I’ve never had any interest in listening to The Pretenders. I don’t know what it was exactly but they never seemed like a band I should listen to. Maybe a little too mainstream rock for their own good, or something like that.

So imagine my surprise when I hear this album and I actually like it. I like Hynde as a songwriter more often than not (something I was not expecting) and, on the whole, the record is grittier than I was expecting (and is much more “rock” than some much other 80s rock).

It’s still punk-inspired and new wave-inspired, rather than the real thing, and so I don’t think it’s a classic by any means. But it’s much better than I thought it would be.

28. Phil Collins: Face Value (7/10)

Read the review.

29. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (7/10)

I prefer Nicks’ songs to many of her bandmates’ songs. But I still don’t absolutely love her songs (there are a few I really like, but not a ton). The advantage she has over a lot of her contemporaries (at least on this record) is that she and her producer have not yet realized it’s the ’80s. The result is that the sound of this album hasn’t dated like so much ’80s soft rock and pop and that makes it a lot more likable than some contemporary mainstream music.

But this is still not music I’ve ever going to return to.

30. The Police: Ghost in the Machine (6/10)

This is, for me, the weakest Police record: it’s top heavy-  the first three tracks, the singles, are far and away the best ones – it’s the first record to really emphasize the growing musical divide between Sting and the rest of the band and it’s just their weakest set of songs.

I’d say that it’s certainly the least essential of their albums and the album that most makes me feel like they were deserving of the title of “singles band.”

31. New Order: Movement (6/10)

Sub Joy Division.

It’s exactly what you’d imagine Joy Division without Ian Curtis would sound like. Though I don’t know New Order well, I imagine that their more popular records feature a sound that moved beyond this pale imitation of a great band.

6/10 because it’s still better than what was on the radio.

32. The Cure: Faith (5/10)

Like many, I came to The Cure through their singles. I got their excellent compilations of their first decades and…I stopped. For some reason, I haven’t dug deeper, as I have with nearly every other band I discovered when I was younger. I don’t know why. I guess I sort of assumed they were a singles band, whether or not that’s true.

Listening to this album, it sure sounds like they are a singles band. The only memorable songs are the singles. There are a couple indistinguishable instrumentals. Smith sure hasn’t provided a lot of memorable music.

But just as importantly the music feels stuck between their earlier, punkier music and their elaborate later arrangements. It really feels transitional; like they weren’t sure what they are. And most of it comes off as second- or third-rate post punk that just pales in comparison to what a lot of great bands were doing at the same time.

I know this record isn’t considered one of their classics, so I remain optimistic that when I finally get to one of them, it’s not as disappointing as this bland and boring thing.

33. David Lindley: El Rayo-X (5/10)

Such a disappointment since he was in one of my favourite bands of all-time (Kaleidoscope). I don’t know where this came from but it’s weak.

EPs

1. Mission of Burma: “Signals, Calls, and Marches” (10/10)

The missing link between post punk and alternative rock. I don’t say that lightly.

When I first heard their debut album, I was underwhelmed – too much hype. But this EP (along with their debut single, included here) is pretty much the blueprint for a lot of American alternative rock in the ’80s (minus the roots element). I hear echoes of so many later bands in this music. But it still retains enough of what you might call “American post punk” that it is still recognizable as post punk.

I need to listen to their debut album again.