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)

A unique thing. Read the review.

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)

Read the review.

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

Read the review.

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)

Read the review.

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)

Read the review.

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)

Read the review.

23. X: Wild Gift (7/10)

Read the review.

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

Pretty good, pretty good, Even if it is derivative. Read the review.

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

Read the review.

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

Read the review.

27. Pretenders II (7/10)

Read the review.

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

Read the review.

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

Read the review.

30. The Police: Ghost in the Machine (7/10)

My least favourite Police record. Read the brief review.

31. New Order: Movement (6/10)

Sub Joy Division.

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.


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

Read the review.