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.