The year 1981—I began my senior year in college that fall—sounded good while we were in the middle of it. Several of the biggest rock acts of the time had albums out, and given that our college station was an album station, it meant we were playing what seemed like some pretty good music. But at a distance of nearly 30 years, albums that seemed so essential then are quaint little footnotes to history now. We’ll lift a few from the chart of AOR station CFOX in Vancouver, dated August 14, 1981.
1. Long Distance Voyager/Moody Blues. At one point in 1981, the college station’s music director (whom I considered a twit) dumped all of the strongest cuts from the hot-rotation albums and substituted tracks we hadn’t been playing. Which on this album meant “Veteran Cosmic Rocker.” There’s a reason this cut wasn’t getting much airplay—it’s the height of pretentious nonsense (and since we’re talking about the Moody Blues, that’s really saying something). The big singles, “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice,” haven’t aged well, but several other tracks still sound good to me on those rare occasions when the album finds its way into the player, “Meanwhile” especially—how did it miss becoming a hit?
4. Hi Infidelity/REO Speedwagon. This record had been in heavy rotation across the country all year, expanding REO’s audience beyond its Midwestern stronghold, although if I’m recalling correctly, we didn’t dig it as much as the two albums that preceded it, Nine Lives and You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish. By late summer, radio stations would have been down to “Don’t Let Him Go,” which bears a resemblance to the REO of old, followed by “In Your Letter,” in which the band cuts all ties with everything they’d ever done before. As for the bigger singles, I’m not sure anybody needs to hear “Keep on Lovin’ You” or “Take it on the Run” again. The latter never fails to flash me back to the college dorms, and not in a good way. As I wrote four years ago, “I still can’t hear that without wanting to go out in the hall and kill somebody.”
6. Hard Promises/Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I liked this better than Damn the Torpedoes in 1981, and I still do: I’d rank “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Kind” among the best things Petty ever did. It’s always seemed odd to me that the Petty/Stevie Nicks collaboration “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which would fit perfectly with the tracks on this album, was on Stevie’s Bella Donna, while their collaboration “Insider,” which would fit perfectly on Bella Donna, appears here. In any case, Hard Promises is one of only two albums on this chart that I would miss if I never heard them again.
11. Arc of a Diver/Steve Winwood. This is the other one. I was still a synthesizer geek in 1981, so I was drawn to the keyboard sounds on this album, but since then, I’ve become a major Winwood fan. Having listened to his output going back to the Spencer Davis Group, I’d rank “Spanish Dancer” among my very favorite things he’s ever done. (Our music director preferred “Dust” and “Slowdown Sundown”—the two weakest tracks on the album.)
14. 4/Foreigner. I remember writing in 1981, in my campus newspaper column, that Foreigner was the most important band in America. Hyperbolic in an empirical sense yes, but from my vantage point—as a radio guy—they really were. When “Urgent” was released to radio in June, it was an event, and after the album came out, nearly every cut got played somewhere. (I am tempted to say that that our station played the crappiest ones, but my conscience won’t allow it because I don’t remember.)
Let’s put it this way: 1981 was a year when there was a lot of music that sounded good on the radio. To those of us deeply involved in our college radio station, that mattered more than whether the music was good by some objective standard of quality. And it shows.