12 Great International Rock Albums Released 40 Years Ago This Year

12 Great International Rock Albums Released 40 Years Ago This Year

The Police
The Police, 1981. Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. 

Some of the finest rock albums of the ‘80s turn 40 in 2021 – here are some of our favourites! 

1. Phil Collins – Face Value

Phil Collins moved swiftly from Genesis’ 1980 album Duke into recording his first solo album Face Value, even bringing along the Genesis song "Behind The Lines" for a re-recording less than a year on from its original release. The Hugh Padgham-produced album, which featured the classic "In The Air Tonight", was recently reissued as a picture disc to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The LP was a massive success, but Collins didn’t pause long to celebrate the plaudits: he and Padgham were back in the studio to work on Genesis’ 1981 album Abacab - named after a chord progression – within weeks of Face Value’s release.

2. The Police - Ghost In The Machine

Hugh Padgham was a popular guy in 1981: as well as working with Collins and Genesis, the British producer also oversaw production on The Police’s fourth album, Ghost In The Machine. In spite of their growing rifts the trio still had an enviable skill for catchy melody, with the release opening with a triple whammy of singles: "Spirits In The Material", "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and the brooding menace of "Invisible Sun". Ghost In The Machine’s cover art was similarly memorable, with the profiles of the band’s three members rendered in a digital calculator style.

3. Prince – Controversy

Also releasing a fourth album in 1981 was young Minnesotan star Prince Rogers Nelson, whose provocative, sexual music was finally making an impact on Aussie shores. The title track, a synth-funk cauldron of sex, religion and provocation, reached #15 on the local singles chart. Prince’s blueprint for superstar success was locked in place…

4. Van Halen – Fair Warning

Barely creeping into the Australian album chart upon its release in April 1981, Fair Warning’s status as a formidable VH album from the David Lee Roth-era has improved with age. The band's fourth album covers a range of styles, from the dick-swinging swagger of "Dirty Movies" through the disco sleaze of "Push Comes To Shove" and "Sinner’s Swing" providing the missing link sound between ZZ Top and Bon Jovi. Within three years, they were topping charts globally with 1984’s joyous synth-rock classic "Jump".

5. The Cars – Shake It Up

They might not have had the hair, the glamour or the sexual frisson of David Lee Roth, but what The Cars lacked in chutzpah they made up for in timeless synth-pop melodies. After taking a more sombre turn with 1980’s Panorama LP, fourth record Shake It Up saw the Boston group return to lighter pop hooks (as well as the Roxy Music-indebted formula of featuring sexy models on each record sleeve - this time a young blonde named Mary Ann Walsh). Lead single "Shake It Up" was a top 10 in the US as well as in Australia, with the band’s videos becoming popular on the recently launched MTV platform. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker (by this point, a veteran of multiple Queen, Foreigner and Alice Cooper albums), Shake It Up offered a sonic touchstone for The Killers’ brilliant Hot Fuss debut album more than 20 years later.

6. Pretenders - Pretenders II

Chrissie Hynde might have been born in Akron, around 600 miles from the members of The Cars, but it was on the other side of the Atlantic in her adopted home of London where her musical pursuits flourished. Second album, Pretenders II didn’t scare the horses and change the formula too much from 1980’s self-titled debut, but singles such as "Message Of Love" and "Talk Of The Town" remain highlights of their catalogue. This was the final album recorded by the ‘classic’ Pretenders line-up: guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon both succumbed to drug-related deaths within 14 months of Pretenders II’s release.

7. The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You

They might have been ridiculed by sniffy new wavers for being musical dinosaurs (a mere 19 years after forming), but this collection of refurbished ‘70s studio offcuts did the business for The Rolling Stones in 1981. To overcome a period of feuding between ‘Glimmer Twins’ Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the album was built out of a grab-bag of ideas and backing tracks dating back to 1972’s Goats Head Soup. Lead single "Start Me Up" was the Stones’ final number-one single in Australia, coming eight years after "Angie" hit the top.  Keith’s Tattoo You contribution "Little T&A" was an obvious influence on Primal Scream’s 1994 "Rocks" composition (compare “the bitch keeps bitching/the snitcher keeps snitching” to “bitches keep bitchin’/clap just keeps itchin’”), while "Start Me Up" was memorably reworked by The Folksmen (AKA Spinal Tap members Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) in the mockumentary A Mighty Wind.

8. Echo & The Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here

Released a year after the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here captured a similarly bleak, poetic and menacing sound to Curtis’ former group. Fascinating cover art helped sell the Bunnymen’s aesthetic, with Heaven Up Here’s silhouette Welsh beach shot followed in 1983 by Porcupine’s similarly engaging frigid Icelandic portrait and Ocean Rain’s cave shot in 1984. Heaven Up Here marked the Liverpool quartet’s first UK top 10 and followed their critically acclaimed 1980 debut Crocodiles. While it might not be as well-remembered as that of their Goth pop colleagues, the music stands up better today than The Cure’s gloomy 1981 album Faith.

9. Foreigner – 4

Before they sunk into AOR quicksand with 1984’s sappy hit "I Want To Know What Love Is", US-based group Foreigner had already proven they knew a thing or two about dishing up bloody good rock songs. 4 was home to three hit singles, with "Jukebox Hero", "Urgent" and "Waiting For A Girl Like You" all charting locally – the latter even reach #3. With Lou Gramm’s Robert Plant vocal chops matched by Mick Jones’ (no, not The Clash one) guitar skills, 4 remains a solid monument to the era of Faberge denim, XD Fairmonts and Choc Wedges.

10. ZZ Top – El Loco

ZZ Top’s first LP in a decade which saw the gonzo blues band sell more than 15 million albums, 1981’s El Loco is loaded with enough double entendre titles to even make AC/DC wince ("It’s So Hard", "Pearl Necklace", "Tube Snake Boogie" – what could they possibly mean?). What makes El Loco more memorable is the fact it showcased the band’s move towards incorporating synthesisers, a shift said to have been influenced by the band witnessing a Devo performance. It set the tone for their follow-up album, the career-defining hot-wheels-and-hot-wenches MTV favourite, Eliminator.

11. Devo – New Traditionalists

Speaking of Devo, their fourth LP New Traditionalists was released in the wake of the massive success of 1980’s Freedom Of Choice album. Swapping their red ‘energy dome’ headgear for black plastic wigs on the New Traditionalists’ cover photo, the album found the Ohio group once again wrapping their cynical and venomous messages in sprightly electro-pop Trojan horses. As well as featuring the hit "Beautiful World", the 1981 pressing also included a bonus 7” of the band’s "Working In The Coal Mine" cover, which was originally included on the Heavy Metal soundtrack just a month earlier.

12. Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna

Fleetwood Mac’s mystical muse Stevie Nicks also featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack, donating the track "Blue Lamp" to the album. Nicks’ debut solo album was released in the same month, with Bella Donna proving the songstress remained a musical force when stepping away from the Mac bubble. Featuring members of Eagles, The E Street Band and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bella Donna reached number one on both the Billboard and Aussie album charts. She returned to Fleetwood Mac for the recording of 1982’s Mirage without an opportunity to internationally tour on the back of her global solo success, but Bella Donna tunes such as "Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around", "Leather And Lace" and "Edge Of Seventeen" remain perennial favourites in Nicks’ considerable catalogue.

Which classic rock albums from 1981 did we miss? Add your own favourites on the I Like Your Old Stuff Facebook page.

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