Popular music has always been in constant flux. But the early ’80s were a particularly jumbled time of emerging trends and genre revisionism: new wave, synth-pop, alternative rock, electro-pop and post-punk all rubbing elbows and butting heads.

And, looking back in list form, 1981 is one of the decade’s most disorienting years. We’re wandering through an accidental golden age of production and technology: Many of these albums are noticeably brighter and crisper than staples from the late ’70s, but still clinging to the human touch that widely vanished from pop radio in the mid-decade.