For new artists and their audience, 1981 was disappointingly fallow. But sometimes that signals preparation for new growth. Pop music, hammerlocked by high prices and the low aspirations of radio execs, made strained and piteously small progress in 1981. But old artists never die, they just play away, and the economic woes faced by fledgling performers presented an opportunity that was promptly seized by many artists of the '60s and '70s, with mixed success. From Alice Cooper to Alvin Lee, Gladys Knight and the Pips to Grand Funk, Badfinger to B.J. Royal, the comeback artists left no genre unturned in their efforts to take advantage of music's current doldrums. If the Moody Blues' commercially successful "Long Distance Voyager" pointed up the prudence of returning to basic values, King Crimson's critically lauded "Discipline" proved the excitement that results from doing just the opposite. And if Elton John, Miles Davis and Humble Pie showed how formula can grow unattractive, certainly the Four Tops, the Searchers and the Rolling Stones revealed how gracefully formula can age. Most astounding of all was the resurrection of Doors music, a phenomenon that has yet to peak. A vast international audience discovered not only how well the late Jim Morrison's musical vision has withstood the decades, but also what a rich rock heritage emerged from the confusion of the '60s. And the indications are good, from Rossington- Collins' Joplinesque boogie to the Hendrix- style musical inquisitiveness of the Stones, the Police and the Cars, that that noble era will continue to be explored. It remains for a younger generation -- working under constraints of tighter playlists, smaller budgets and mounting label demands -- to carry pop to new levels. Even a dead artist has a limited career span, and neither record companies nor artists can mine the same musical sources indefinitely. Part of the problem is an audience as fragmented as it is sophisticated to the wiles of record promoters. Not only is the modern pop consumer less inclined to pay $9.98 and up for an album; he also wants to be sure of getting a proven product. Accordingly, the most imaginative and talented newcomers of 1981, like the Brains, Was (Not Was) and Hurricane Jones, went largely and lamentably unheard. Even David Lindley, whose signature inventiveness has enhanced hundreds of other people's records, and Rickie Lee Jones, whose debut album enjoyed unprecedented success, couldn't seem to coax a wary public into loosening its pursestrings. Responding in kind were radio program directors, who showed an increasing refusal to allow airplay to music that failed to make record-store cash registers sing. As a result, mediocrity and metallurgy monopolized the airwaves with numbing monotony. The failure of programmers to take risks provided a last-gasp opportunity for also-rans who had pounded the tour circuit for a decade with modest success, among them Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, Journey and REO Speedwagon, whose record-setting chart reign must have come even to them as somewhat of a surprise. Completing the circle of self-defeat were the record companies themselves, who, in the face of high vinyl costs, tape pirating and confusion over copyright laws, showed a reluctance to introduce new artists or offer tour support. In 1981, we saw a Rolling Stones tour sponsored by a perfume company and -- irony of ironies -- a Rod Stewart tour sponsored by Sony, whose manufacturing line includes, among other things, many of the tape recorders used to pirate his and others' records. Still, the year was disco continued to die a quiet, if undignified, death. Rhythmic forms, on the other hand, retained an impressive growth pattern, as exemplified by King Crimson's "Discipline," the Police's "Ghost in the Machine" and the delayed-action success "Remain in Light" by Talking Heads, who seem to have created an entire genre out of Warren Zevon's "Nighttime in the Switching Yard." Garland Jeffreys, J. Geils Band, the Neville Brothers and Squeeze proved that determination and integrity still pay, and Was (Not Was), the Kinks and Steve Winwood showed that humor and intelligence translate into any language. And instead of being buried along with Bob Marley, reggae experienced a surprising rebirth with Black Uhuru's "Red," which is high among the year's best recordings.