It was 1970 when I heard my first New Year’s Eve radio countdown, and it was transfixing—hearing all the best songs of the year ranked in order of popularity appealed to the same part of my kid brain that poured over the agate type on the sports pages. I can remember listening to radio countdowns on the last night of several years during the first half of the 1970s. By the end of the decade, I was partying with my friends on New Year’s Eve, but the countdown likely would have been on the radio wherever we were.
Only once did I ever host the New Year’s Eve countdown on the radio, 30 years ago, at KDTH in Dubuque. I have forgotten most of the details—how many records were on the list, how long the countdown took, how the list was compiled, or what our top song of 1981 was—it’s all gone down the memory hole. The only thing I do remember is that at midnight, the board operator on the other station in the building came over to my studio with a split of champagne, which we shared.
It’s understandable why a person might forget the top songs of 1981. Take a look at the Cash Box magazine singles chart for the year and tell me there’s anything you’d really care to hear again this instant. (I count only two among the top 40—“Who’s Crying Now” by Journey, which might be the best thing they ever did, and “All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison.) The chart is overflowing with limp R&B ballads and vapid country crossovers, and much of what still gets played on the radio today has been played to death. (If you hear “Private Eyes,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” or “Take It on the Run” today, that’s three or four minutes you’ll want back when you’re on your deathbed.) Air Supply, Christopher Cross, Sheena Easton, Neil Diamond—somebody smarter than me will have to figure out why our thirst for tasteful adult ballads and other forms of colorless pop music (limp R&B ballads and vapid country crossovers, for example) reached a peak in 1981, higher than it had been since the early 60s. Reaction against the anything-goes 1970s? The squeaky-clean values of the nascent Reagan era? The existential cry of anguish that caused the universe to birth MTV?
The album chart for the year rocks harder, although it’s easy to see why the early 80s are sometimes disparaged as the years of “corporate rock.” Among the top albums of the year are radio-friendly records by superstar brand names REO Speedwagon, Styx, Foreigner, and Journey. Several other highly polished and carefully calculated albums are in the upper reaches of the chart as well, by Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, the Police, and Phil Collins. But a couple of survivors of the pre-corporate age, the Moody Blues and the Rolling Stones, make the Top 10, and Steve Winwood sneaks into the Top 20. (And John Lennon, no longer a survivor in 1981, ranks in the Top 10 as well.) The point is that although there was still room among the year’s top albums for Diamond and Barbra Streisand, album buyers were not quite so infected by whatever wuss virus had struck Top 40 buyers and listeners in 1981. Rush and AC/DC appear in the Top 20, and AC/DC’s Back in Black nearly made it, at #22.
If I go through the top 100 singles and disqualify everything overplayed, dull, or trivial, I’m left with only a bare handful of songs. Here’s the best of the lot.
Posting will continue to be light here into next week. Happy New Year to all, and thanks for your continuing—albeit occasionally baffling because it sucks a lot of the time—support for this Internet feature.