There certainly were lively and eclectic strains in music back then, many from urban or college-town scenes, but “American Top 40″ tended to be the absolute last place where you would hear them. So in the early ‘80s, while the show was (like the rest of the radio dial) playing a lot of Captain and Tennille and Kenny Rogers and Air Supply and REO Speedwagon and Survivor and Billy Joel’s heart attack-ack-ack and Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” there were actually smart, vivid songs you probably didn’t hear. The Clash’s “London Calling” came out in the States in 1980, the same year Elvis Costello put out “Get Happy,” The Jam released “Sound Effects,” and the Pretenders dropped their debut. It was the era of the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” U2′s “Boy,” Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Kaleidoscope,” Kate Bush’s “Never For Ever” and “The Dreaming,” of the Cocteau Twins and King Sunny Ade, the English Beat and the Cure and the Funky Four Plus One. Not to mention what was happening in jazz or old-time music or the better singer-songwriters; Lucinda Williams’ second record came out in 1980 and made no impression on the radio or the charts.
None of this stuff would catch on much in “American Top 40.” But you sure got to hear a lot of “Eye of the Tiger.”
I would add that Damaged and Minor Threat also came out in 1981, and could go on for a while in that vein.
While the Top 40 has mostly sucked for at least 40 years, it is hard to remember just how horrific that, for example, the Billboard Top 100 from 1981 truly was. I don't spend a lot of time being a pedantic indie rocker any more, for a variety of reasons, but there is an element of "indie rock" which is completely lost on anyone younger than 40 -- those youngsters never experienced the complete and utter failure of the major record labels in the early 80's.
Also, I forgot just how big Blondie was for a while. "Rapture" was #15 in 1981, which confirms to me that pretty much every explanation I've seen of the spread of hip hop to the white masses greatly underestimates the exposure that even white small town middle school nerds had. Robbie Daum even had a copy of the Sugar Hill Gang cassette!