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1981 – A+ List

Willie Nelson: Hasn't aged a day in 30 odd years

Willie Nelson: Hasn’t aged a day in 30 odd years

1. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Willie Nelson. One of Willie’s best – a beautiful lyric of self-less love matched with equally inspiring guitar work. A #1 country hit.

2. “Burnin’ for You,” Blue Öyster Cult. BOC only hit the Top 40 twice, first with their 1976 suicide pace “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and then in 1981 with this gem. Richard Meltzer, an early scribe for Rolling Stone and Creem (who also is the uncle of David Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter) penned the lyrics. Everyone should own a Meltzer book for the mind expanding use of language and ideas. He’s not just a mere entertainment kind of mere guy.

3. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” Hall and Oates. The horse feeding duo Haulin’ Oats tortured me in the ‘70s with “She’s Gone” and “Sara Smile” – the protracted vocals (“she’s go-ww-ooww-ooww-ne”) inspired rock critic Richard Riegel to coin the phrase “constipated rock” in their honor. However, they cut the fat in the early ‘80s and became a nonstop hit machine. The funky drum machine based rhythm on “Can’t Go For That” has been sampled by over a dozen rap artists and, according to Hall, the bass line was an inspiration for Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.”

4. “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” Bobby Womack. Womack, who passed away last month, packed a lot of history into his 70 year life. He penned “It’s All Over Now,” worked as a session musician on hits by the Box Tops and Aretha Franklin, married Sam Cooke’s widow (Bonnie Campbell) three months after Cooke was killed, provided music for the blaxploitation film Across 100th Street, and went pop Top Ten with “Lookin’ For a Love” after it had been covered by the J. Geils Band. On “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” Womack sounds like Joe Tex struck with a case of sincerity – tired of the unending complaints from an unappreciative lover, he decides to walk out the door wounded with the knowledge that he gave more than he got.

5. “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” John Anderson. John David Anderson covers a Billy Joe Shaver composition replete with puppy dog charm. The song went to #4 on the country charts and earned John a Grammy nomination.

6. “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World),” The Ramones. Continuing our parenthetical titles, Joey Ramone name checks Lester Bangs, Stephen King, Jack Nicholson, and Roger Corman while Marky modifies the Bo Diddley beat. Here’s how Ray Wylie Hubbard describes this concept, “It’s the night people’s job to take the day people’s money.”

7. “Jessie’s Girl,” Rick Springfield. Springfield has his first pop hit in 1971 with the bubblegum folk number “Speak to the Sky,” which probably not by mistake had a theme similar to “Spirit in the Sky.” By the late ‘70s, he was primarily supporting himself through acting gigs. In 1981, he landed both a record deal and a regular role on the soap opera General Hospital, giving him a chance to make young woman swoon through two different media forums. In “Jessie’s Girl,” Rick voices the perfect high school jealousy anthem, although a true soap villain would have simply sabotaged Jessie’s relationship.

8. “Just Between You and Me,” April Wine. A hard rock band without a power ballad is like a brothel without a friend in the police department, you have to work the system to maximize revenue potential. Led Zep, Queen, and Styx are given credit for popularizing the power ballad in the ‘70s, but “Just Between You and Me” is an exemplary representation of the form and a much more commercial title that “If You See Kay.”

9. “Just the Two of Us,” Grover Washington, Jr. Everybody needs to know a few fun facts about Grover Washington, Jr. One, he was considered a leader in the smooth jazz genre with six albums that were certified gold. Two, he produced the album A House Full of Love: Music from the Cosby Show. Three, he died from a massive heart attack at the age of 56. And, four, Bill Withers co-wrote and performed the lead vocals on the only GW, Jr. song that you’ll ever need to hear.

10. “One in Ten,” UB40. Before they became an insufferable 1960s karaoke act, UB40 was a solid U.K pop reggae band. The group took their name from the U.K. unemployment form and “One in Ten” takes a bleak look at a broken economy, “Nobody knows me, but I’m always there/A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care.” Later, they had no problems affording that red, red wine.

11. “Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Gos. If you’ve had an affair, it’s probably not too smart to get all “Norwegian Wood” and put it on your next record, but the early ’80s were carefree times for Jane Wiedlin and the Go-Gos. Heck, she even wrote the song with tryst partner Terry Hall, the lead singer of The Specials and Fun Boy Three. “Lips” was the band’s first Top 40 hit and The Go-Gos still tour when they are not busy hating each other’s guts.
12. “Pretty in Pink,” Psychedelic Furs. The Furs incorporated elements of The Velvet Underground, The Sex Pistols, and David Bowie to create a unique post punk sound before they became a watered down pop act. Five years after this release, a re-recorded version of “Pink” was released in connection with the John Hughes film of the same name, but the original has the magic. According to the geeks in the Rock NYC statistics department, there would be a 43.7% decline of men aged 42 to 47 googling “Molly Ringwald” once every three years if this song had never been released.
13. “Radio Free Europe,” R.E.M. Radio Free Europe was a Post World War CIA funded program that provided anti-Communist news to countries that hadn’t nibbled on the sweet taste of briber…um, democracy that has served the United States so well. I’m not sure how that relates to the R.E.M. song, since I can’t understand most of the lyrics, but it gives the chorus a nice fight the power/sticking it to the man vibe.

14. “Shake It Up,” The Cars. For their first few albums, The Cars walked a tightrope between being a serious art band and a commercial pop unit. On the title track of their 1981 release, they went for pure pop candy with this spirited party/dance number. And let’s give Elliot Easton a nice round of applause for his nimble guitar work.

15. “Start Me Up,” The Rolling Stones. “One Hit (to the Body)” and “Mixed Emotions” were fine singles, but “Start Me Up” is the last time the Stones touched greatness that favorably compares to their best work – “Brown Sugar,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women,” etc. Really, the best album they’ve released since Tattoo You is the bonus/outtake disc from the Some Girls sessions.

16. “Super Freak,” Rick James. He called his music “punk funk,” but on “Super Freak” Rick James was riding the crest of the new wave. The late Mr. James was a very kinky boy.

17. “That’s the Joint,” Funky Four Plus One. Before rap became the “CNN of the ghetto,” it was music for parties and this is one of the most joyous pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Everyone should know “That’s The Joint” like everyone knows “The Message.” Robert Christgau rated “That’s the Joint” as the best song of the 1980s. Good call by The Dean.

18. “Tunnel of Love,” Dire Straits. Critics accused Mark Knopfler of ripping off Bruce Springsteen’s grandiose m.o. on “Tunnel of Love,” but it was Bruce that later nicked the song title for his own superb love excavation. Somebody woke Knopfler up for the Making Movies album – “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Skateaway” are all first rate tracks. He’d spend the rest of his career putting me to sleep.

19. “Unchained,” Van Halen. I drink up the untrammeled obnoxiousness of early David Lee Roth like the McGuire Twins (now there’s an old school reference) at a corn syrup convention. I chose not this one but “So This Is Love?” for my 2009 book Shake Some Action: The 318 Greatest Songs of All Time. In giving the book a five star review in October of 2013, C. Evans from Chicago, Illinois stated, “Have a feeling Steve would be a great guy to sit down with in a bar and debate music.” So terribly wrong on that account Mr. Evans, but thanks for the five thumbs up.

20. “While You See A Chance,” Steve Winwood. It’s hard to think of Steve Winwood as a rock star – he’s probably much too polite to desecrate bonbons or throw whiskey bottles or play spin the garden vegetables on the groupie. However, his credentials are unquestionable – from his teen years in the Spencer Davis Group, through Blind Faith and Traffic, and his success as a solo star. “While you see a chance, take it/Find romance, fake it” are wise words, but I’m not sure who is faking what.

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