[feature] New Year’s Count-Up: 1981 in five songs

Punk gets prescient, hip-hop gets some staples, and Queen & David Bowie write maybe one of the best songs ever.

- Dec 3, 2012

As the new year draws closer, we’ve decided to take a look the music that’s gotten us to where we are today. So in an effort to broaden our musical horizons and our understanding of contemporary artists, we’re counting down 2012 by counting up from 1952, taking a look at a handful of songs from a different year every day until January 1st. You can find the full list here. Today we’re heading back to 1981!

Tom Tom Club – “Genius of Love”

Tom Tom Club - Genius of Love

The side project of Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, Tom Tom Club had two major hits that helped shape the face of hip-hop. “Genius of Love” is one of the most heavily sampled tracks of the decade; in even casual fans of hip-hop, it's sure to a ring a few bells, this one probably being the loudest.


Rick James – “Super Freak”

Rick James - Super Freak

Speaking of iconic samples. Part funk maven and part glam rock loverboy, Rick James burst out of the funk scene and into mainstream consciousness with “Super Freak,” a propulsive and probably sexist ode to a kinky woman that only sounds tongue in cheek. The song's first few bars were sampled by MC Hammer for “U Can't Touch This” in 1990, which became the subject of a lawsuit issued by James, who eventually won a co-writing credit and huge financial windfall.


Human League – “Don't You Want Me”

The Human League - Don't You Want Me

There's something fascinating about massive hits whose creators can't stand them. For better or worse, “Don't You Want Me” will always be Human League's most visible achievement, which is somewhat tragic considering bandleader Phil Oakley hated it. He even  fought tooth-and-nail with the band's label to prevent its release as a single, which went on to sell a million and a half singles in the UK and top the charts in the States. Oakley was totally dumbstruck by the song's commercial success, which might help explain why the band never saw anything quite like it again.


Black Flag – “T.V. Party”

Black Flag - TV party

Just because we exist in a post - “The Wire” TV landscape doesn't mean this tirade against the idiot box is any less relevant. There's just more kinds of idiot boxes. If hanging out with your pals usually means staring at your iPhones for a couple hours, “T.V. Party” is directed at you. It's a biting attack on those who would escape the world through a screen, whether through “Honey Boo Boo” or Tumblr, and the fact that it stings harder than ever highlights the scary and unfortunate reality of the message's enduring timelessness.


Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”

QUEEN & DAVID BOWIE: Under Pressure

It feels reductive to call “Under Pressure” a pop song, which it of course is. But it also feels like a culmination of everything in the 25 years of pop history prior to its release. Pop that had a political slant, pop that wanted to heal, pop that wanted to sell, pop that wasn't afraid to present bold solutions to very human problems...“Under Pressure” managed to be all these things while dismissing the music's modern conventions and tropes with something as simple as a bit of jazz scatting. John Deacon's bassline will ring forever in the halls of pop history, but the band and Bowie both agree that the principal songwriter was Freddie Mercury, whose voice that made every note a firework. For some bone-rattling chills, watch Queen actually perform the song.


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