by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Sure, they’ve spawned a wildly successful Broadway musical (and subsequent movie adaptation) in Mamma Mia! and been paid homage to in everything from the Erasure EP Abba-esque and a full-blown tribute-band teen-pop-act in the A* Teens to the films The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, while their 1992 hits package Gold – Greatest Hits stunned everyone by becoming a massive sales success and in-demand catalog item in nearly every part of the world nearly ten years after the group had broken up and gone their separate ways. Still, for all of their gold records and dozens of international hit singles around the globe, the foursome of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad, and Agnetha Faltskog – together known as Abba – strangely remains somewhat underappreciated in the United States. Even in spite of the massive resurgence of interest in the band in the ‘90s and a well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, hardly any of their fourteen American Top 40 hits (with the sole exception of the Number One hit “Dancing Queen”) pop up with any sort of regularity on your average oldies station on this side of the Atlantic and their studio albums don’t command nearly as much attention from critics as those from other ‘70s pop acts like Elton John, Carole King, or the Eagles. Yet, while no one has ever quite tried to replicate the Abba formula and it’s likely we’ll never see another band quite like them (even if a lot of people were quick to make comparisons, most of them non-musical, between them and Ace of Base), it’s hard to imagine what the pop landscape today might be like if not for the influence left by “the Abba sound.” Late ‘90s and early ‘00s teen-pop in particular owes a great deal of gratitude to the melodic and production innovations of Benny and Bjorn; you can hear the influence in cuts like Backstreet Boys’ “Shape of My Heart” and “I Want It That Way,” *NSync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and especially Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time” and “Stronger,” the latter of which has a chorus that is so distinctly and thoroughly Abba-flavored that you would think that Benny and Bjorn had to have written it. But Abba’s music, even at its most frivolous, always had a real sense of craft to it that made it seem much more artistic and more lovingly labored over than your average teen-pop record, and they’d even frequently make some extremely thought-provoking and emotionally-gripping sides like “The Winner Takes It All” and “When All Is Said and Done” that talk about the pain of separation or divorce with an unusual amount of frankness and universality for your average pop song. So, as superficial as Abba might seem at first glance, they truly were artists in every sense of the word. There’s a lot there for even more rock-minded music fans to admire and love, and most pop music aficionados will want to at least have a greatest-hits disc from the band in their record or CD collection. But their individual studio albums are great in their own right and have their share of strong cuts that you can’t find on hits packages, so let us walk you through their catalog.
Ring Ring (1973, Polar; finally released in the U.S. by Polydor in 1995)
Easily the least essential Abba album, most of these songs technically pre-date the Abba name and were released under the billing “Bjorn & Benny with Anna and Frida” or “Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.” The group is still very much in its embryonic stages here, and if you don’t know what you’re getting into, you might be taken aback at just how much of the singing here is handled by Bjorn and Benny. Still, the foursome’s potential is clearly obvious, and while there is an awful lot of filler here, there are some minor gems, including “Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough),” “Nina, Pretty Ballerina,” and “Another Town, Another Train.” But the best cut here is the effervescent pop of “Ring, Ring,” which bears the same distinctive Abba sound that the group would ride to fame with on their later breakthrough single “Waterloo,” but “Ring, Ring” can also be found on many of the band’s various best-of packages, and Atlantic would wisely tack “Ring, Ring” onto American vinyl copies of Waterloo as well, which renders the purchase of this disc less necessary.
Waterloo (1974, Atlantic)
The band still has yet to fully find the sound that fits them best, so this album is a bit all over the place and isn’t the place to start if you want to know what the Abba experience is all about, but there are sporadic moments of brilliance here. The title cut, of course, became a massive hit around the globe and would became the band’s first American Top 40 hit and for good reason – it’s as fun and as catchy as you could possibly want a pop song to be, boasting an impossible-to-resist chorus, an almost Phil Spector-like wall of piano, guitar, and horns as its rhythm section, handclaps, and “woh woh”s punctuating the empty spaces in the choruses. Nothing else on this album comes nearly as close to reaching the sheer pop majesty of that track, but there are still some awfully good cuts scattered here amongst the filler: “Hasta Manana” and “Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)” have their charms, while the catchy “Honey, Honey” would become the band’s second Top 40 hit on these shores. “Ring, Ring” (which had previously been unreleased in the U.S.) would be tacked on to original vinyl pressings of the American edition of the album, which would go a long way towards improving the quality of the overall album and ending it on a stronger note as well. Of the more uncharacteristic tracks here, the most fun is the Bjorn-sung “Watch Out,” which is unusually quite rock-oriented for Abba (it actually sounds like more of a hybrid of Procol Harum’s “Whiskey Train” and Diesel’s “Sausalito Summernight”) but very catchy and very fun listening for more rock-minded listeners who might be unaware that Abba ever did anything this gritty.
Abba (1975, Atlantic)
A much stronger outing than Waterloo, Benny and Bjorn finally seem to have a handle at this point on what the Abba sound is supposed to be, and they can now at last put their focus on crafting the larger-than-life productions that they so seemed to delight in assembling in the studio, and the efforts paid off, resulting in a disc that yielded three American Top 40 hits. “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” – the “Chapel of Love” of the ‘70s if ever there was one – is certainly catchy enough to have been a hit in just about any arrangement imaginable, but its insistent piano, chiming bells, and saxophone fills make the track even more fun. “SOS” is more complex, consisting of multiple sections that make the song fairly unpredictable, its chiming intro giving way to a haunting, minor-key ballad-like verse before segueing right into a sunny acoustic-guitar-powered rock chorus, but it’s all done in a way that makes the final product much more commercial-sounding than you might expect from looking at the sheet music. Best of all, though, is the now-iconic “Mamma Mia,” which sounds years ahead of its time with its elaborate arrangement and immaculate production. (Just the drum sound alone makes it hard to believe the single is from 1975.) The band is also getting more consistent, and the strength of the surrounding cuts is quite impressive, particularly “So Long” (which recalls the fun exuberance of “Waterloo”), “Bang-a-Boomerang,” “Rock Me,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You”; in fact, it’s only the somewhat-out-of-place instrumental “Intermezzo No. 1” that prevents the album’s second side from being a pure slam dunk.
Arrival (1977, Atlantic)
Opening with the fun, bouncy pop of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” which is a fine piece of songwriting made even more remarkable by its brilliant multi-layered vocal arrangement, Arrival doesn’t deviate from the previous album so much as it simply strives to take the band’s already-established sound and elevate it to new heights. The band’s first and only American Number One hit, the elegant disco stylings of the iconic and timeless “Dancing Queen” (propelled along nicely by drummer Roger Palm; disco-styled drumming doesn’t get much better) is here, as is its Top-40-hit follow-up single, the haunting and more rock-oriented “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” which sports some great guitar work from Lasse Wellander, while the European hit “Money, Money, Money” gets the album’s second side off to a solid start. “Tiger” and “That’s Me” are both remarkably catchy for non-singles, while the ‘50s-styled rock of the mostly-Bjorn-sung “Why Did It Have to Be Me” is just plain fun. The overly-strings-drenched ballad “My Love, My Life” doesn’t quite work and the album could also have benefitted from replacing the album-closing instrumental title track with a tenth vocal cut, but everything else here is rock-solid.
The Album (1978, Atlantic)
Mostly comprised of new songs featured in Abba: The Movie and cleverly opening with the swooping synthesizer intro of “Eagle,” this album feels like a slightly more rushed product than Arrival, lacking a little of the vibrancy and the fun over-the-top studio craft that had become a trademark of more recent Abba fare like “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia.” Even if the production seems slightly muted, there are some excellent songs here, though. The fantastic “Take a Chance on Me” (which would reach #3 in America), with both ladies sharing lead vocals just as they did on “Dancing Queen,” boasts a fun arrangement that features the group entirely acapella for the song’s opening chorus and using the song’s title to great syncopated effect. The album boasts a second Top 40 hit in the dreamy gentle grooves of “The Name of the Game,” the arrangement of which takes a few unexpected turns, including a pair of near-acapella breakdowns and a multi-layered vamp-out. Among the non-singles here, “Hole in Your Soul,” easily the fastest track here and the most rock-oriented, makes a strong impression with its instantly-memorable melody and buoyant atmosphere. The album also closes with a three-song mini-musical entitled The Girl with the Golden Hair; “Thank You for the Music” would become a signature tune for the quartet, but it wanders too deeply into more Broadway-esque territory to sound like it really belongs on a mainstream-pop album, and the same could be said of “I’m a Marionette,” but “I Wonder (Departure)” is incredibly beautiful (Benny’s piano intro alone is enough to give you goosebumps, but Agnetha’s vocal elevates it to even greater heights) and fares much better.
Voulez-Vous (1979, Atlantic)
A slightly disappointing album, this is also easily Abba’s most disco-oriented album. Abba did cut some good disco sides at their peak (namely “Dancing Queen”) but it wasn’t necessarily their forte, and unfortunately, their best disco side from this time period (“Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight),” later sampled in Madonna’s “Hung Up”) would unfortunately be used instead as sales bait on the otherwise catalog-oriented Greatest Hits Vol. 2 package. [Abba unfortunately has a history of diverting some of its best songs towards use as non-LP singles, B-sides, or new cuts on best-of packages, which can make collecting their catalog a bit maddening, particularly since not all of their product would see an American release.] Of the more disco-tinged cuts here, the best is the brass-laden title cut. The heavily European-flavored ballad “Chiquitita” might seem like an unlikely candidate for American radio play, but it nonetheless became a Top 40 hit here, while the more obviously commercial up-tempo pop of the catchy “Angeleyes” – wall-to-wall hooks from start to finish – strangely just reached the lower rungs of the Hot 100. Unusually, the biggest American Top 40 hit from this album is sung not by Frida or Agnetha, but Bjorn; for that reason, the song’s been somewhat forgotten and pops up on the radio even less than Abba’s regular material, but the playful rock of “Does Your Mother Know” is actually quite fantastic and very catchy and should not be skipped.
Super Trouper (1980, Atlantic)
Abba’s first album of the Eighties is noticeably a bit more melancholy and a bit more ballad-heavy, and there are certainly hints of tension within the band. (Indeed, Bjorn and Agnetha would divorce just months prior to this album’s release – which was rumored to be the subject matter of the divorce-themed ballad “The Winner Takes It All,” though both parties have denied it – while Benny and Frida would separate just shortly afterwards.) “On and On and On” is a deliciously inventive cut that welds robotic, Human League-like verses to Phil Spector-sized, Beach Boys-tinged choruses; it’s an odd combination on paper, but the song’s elements blend remarkably well, and the song is one of their most underrated singles. The Frida-sung title cut is just as fun, the gentle acoustic strum of the song giving way to a surprisingly playful chorus (“Su-per-per / Troo-per-per”) that recalls the syncopated vocal touches in “Take a Chance on Me” from two years earlier. Frida also shines on the wistful nostalgia of the ballad “Our Last Summer.” The dance-pop of “Lay All Your Love on Me” would be a huge European hit, while “Me and I” is one of the band’s catchier late-era non-singles. The most astounding moment of all – heartbreaking though it is – definitely has to be the Agnetha-sung “The Winner Takes It All,” one of the most painfully honest yet devastatingly lovely breakup songs ever written. The arrangement of the song itself – which consists of little more than a piano and acoustic guitar for its entire opening verse – is well-thought-out, but it’s the incredible emotion and power of Agnetha’s performance (even the little nuances in her delivery on lines like “I was in your arms” and ‘That’s our destiny” are the work of a fine actress) that really puts the song over the top, and it arguably remains her finest moment on record as a vocalist, with or without Abba.
The Visitors (1981, Atlantic)
The foursome’s swan song is an even more tension-filled and slightly less playful album than Super Trouper was, so it’s not the happiest note for the band to have gone out on and it’s a bit regretful in hindsight that the quartet didn’t cut just one more album to end their discography on a more upbeat note more befitting of the band’s legacy as a lively pop outfit. Still, creatively speaking, Bjorn and Benny remain in the finest of shape here as writers (indeed, they’d continue to write together even after the band’s breakup and would join forces on the wildly successful stage musical Chess and its huge international hit, Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok”), and there are quite a handful of knockout cuts here, including the haunting synth-pop of the title cut and the ballad “When All Is Said and Done,” the band’s final Top 40 hit in the U.S.. Even better are the two European hit singles that were passed over for release as 45s entirely on this side of the Atlantic: the bouncy, near-tango-like Euro-pop of “Head over Heels” and the incredibly beautiful – if heartbreaking – ballad “One of Us,” which might rank as Agnetha’s finest vocal performance with the group if not for “The Winner Takes It All.”
There’s no shortage of Abba best-of packages to pick from. The most thorough of their many compilations available on vinyl is the 1982 double-disc The Singles – The First Ten Years. It technically doesn’t include all their singles (the American Top 40 hits “Honey, Honey” and “When All Is Said and Done” are missing, for starters, as are the Hot 100 hits “Angeleyes,” “The Visitors,” and “On and On and On,” sadly enough), but it’s got most of the critical songs and even boasts an excellent new track, the heavily synth-flavored “Under Attack.” If you’re looking for a CD compilation, you certainly can’t do better than to pick up 1992’s Gold – Greatest Hits and its sequel, 1993’s More Abba Gold – More Abba Hits. Together, the two CDs impressively include every last one of the band’s American Top 40 and Hot 100 hits, along with major international hits (“Ring, Ring,” “Summer Night City,” “I Have a Dream” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “One of Us,” “The Day Before You Came”), a well-chosen sampling of better album cuts (“When I Kissed the Teacher,” “I Wonder (Departure),” “Our Last Summer,” “Head Over Heels”) and even some delightful rarities (“Under Attack,” the B-side “Cassandra” and the previously-unreleased wildly-futuristic pop of “I Am the City,” which in and of itself is reason to buy the latter of the two discs). If you pick up those two discs, you’ll be able to get a full understanding of why Abba has the massive cult following that it does and see that their catalog runs so much deeper – and gets even more adventurous – than just “Dancing Queen” or “Waterloo.”
There’s only one official live album from Abba that’s been released in the U.S. – 1986’s Live – but, at a single eleven-song disc, it’s awfully brief, and the import-only 2014 release Live at Wembley Arena (featuring a complete show from November of 1979) is preferable. But Benny and Bjorn are such meticulous studio craftsmen and their productions so masterful that you really can’t get the full Abba experience from a live disc, and you’re advised to collect all the studio albums first.