It’s official: this is the summer of ABBA. The blockbuster Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again brought the spectacle of Cher belting “Fernando.” That probably sent you back to the original Mamma Mia— yes, even the scene where Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan duet on “SOS.” Yet that somehow that just leaves you hungry for more. The Swedish pop savants ruled 1970s radio, invaders coming from the land of the ice and snow to become the top-selling act of their time. Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were like a Scandinavian model of Fleetwood Mac, two married couples in white pantsuits and platform boots who racked up hit after hit about breaking up and falling apart.
Under the glitzy surface, these Björn-to-be-wild Swedes were full of angst and despair. But their hits are just the beginning — their albums are full of buried treasures. They just announced they’re reuniting and releasing their first new album in 40 years, something ABBA freaks thought would never happen. So let’s break it down with a salute to the Nordic gods: ABBA’s 25 best songs, ranked. The hits and the flops, the deep cuts and the fan faves, the sublime and the ridiculous. The night is young and the music’s high.
- “SUPER TROUPER” (1980)
Björn was the one with the bangs. Benny was the one with the beard. Anni-Frid was the brunette. Agnetha was the blonde. Björn and Benny wrote the hits; Anni-Frid and Agnetha did most of the singing. Björn married Agnetha. Benny married Anni-Frid. Both couples got divorced and poured their hearts out into melodic tearjerkers like “Super Trouper,” the ballad of a diva on the road who suffers through her lonely life (“All I do is eat and sleep and sing/Wishing every show was the last show”). But the moment she hits the stage, she swallows all her pain and fakes it for the fans, because that’s what stars do. Mid-life angst behind a gleaming mask: that’s the whole ABBA story right there.
- “DISILLUSION” (1973)
Who else would put a song called “Disillusion” on their first album? The world should have known from the start how dark ABBA could get. It’s the first — and last — time Agnetha got a songwriting credit on an ABBA track, and she sings “Disillusion” like she already sees the bad times coming.
- “UNDER ATTACK” (1982)
Enter the Eighties. “Under Attack” is their last stand, the farewell single released at the end of 1982, just as the group was falling to pieces and the music was getting decidedly creepy. They recorded it for their swam song The Singles: The First Ten Years, though they already knew there wouldn’t be a second 10 years. With both divorces in the books and their sales slipping, “Under Attack” is a chilly synth-pop hallucination about getting chased down the street by a phantom lover, with that evil vocoder hook.
- “HOLE IN YOUR SOUL” (1977)
A proto-industrial synth/guitar blast with the headbanger chorus chant: “It’s gotta be rock & roll! To fill the hole in your soul!” Could it be possible the young Trent Reznor was taking notes? (It’s damn near unthinkable he wasn’t.) A deep cut from their 1977 art-rock album, hilariously titled The Album, “Hole in Your Soul” grinds like a pretty hate machine.
- “WHEN I KISSED THE TEACHER” (1976)
ABBA’s ouevre is full of alienation (“Sitting in a Palmtree”), misery (“Tropical Loveland”), and morbid dread about the extinction of the entire human race (“Happy New Year”). But in “When I Kissed The Teacher,” they take on the Swedish educational system. It’s an innocent bubblegum tune about a schoolgirl who can no longer handle her thirst for the foxy geometry teacher. Yeah, the Seventies were weird.
- “GIMME! GIMME! GIMME! (A MAN AFTER MIDNIGHT)” (1979)
The dark side of ABBA’s nightlife — those eerie electronic strings hint at all sorts of desperate sex-crazed capers in the after-hour bars of Stockholm. The death-disco sound of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” was influential on the Euro-sleaze dance music of the Eighties, as typified by the Leather Nun, who covered this song in 1986 and turned it into a filthy underground club banger. (The Leather Nun was most famous for “F.F.A.,” an ode to fisting with slogans like “Let’s fist again!” and “Fist and shout!”) Madonna sampled the synth hook for her glorious 2006 comeback smash “Hung Up,” capturing all the frantic decadence of the original.
- “DUM DUM DIDDLE” (1976)
A typical ABBA love triangle: a mousy girl falls in love with a boy who doesn’t even notice her, because he’s too busy playing his trusty fiddle. (“You’re so sad/And you’re only smilin’/When you play your violin.”) Will she ever take the fiddle’s place in his heart? Or will she just keep on singing, “Dum dum diddle, your darling fiddle”? “Dum Dum Diddle” sums up the vulnerable charm that made ABBA heroes to Seventies kids like Kurt Cobain; he famously invited the tribute band Bjorn Again to open for Nirvana.
- “ONE OF US” (1981)
In 1977, ABBA manager Stig Anderson told Rolling Stone he asked the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman why he didn’t use his homeland’s pop music in his films. “He didn’t say anything. But his next film was called The Silence.” The Ingmar/Agnetha collabo never happened, tragically, but “One of Us” is the group’s most Bergman-esque melodrama: Scenes from a Marriage over a perky tropical beat that single-handedly invented Ace of Base. (Not coincidentally, it was the first single Abba released after both divorces were final.) Cher has already announced she’ll do “One of Us” on her upcoming album of ABBA covers — talk about a song that’s perfect for her.
- “KING KONG SONG” (1974)
A demented glam-rock power-chord stomp: “We do the King Kong song, gotta sing along/Can’t you hear the beating of the monkey tom-tom?” This is the kind of glitter blockbuster that was ruling the U.K. charts from bands like Slade or the Sweet, except (as always) ABBA did it their own way. They warn, “What we’re gonna sing is kinda funky,” stretching the definition of “kinda” forever.
- “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” (1976)
Björn got his start in the squeaky-clean Swedish folk group called the Hootenanny Singers. “The worst name any group has ever had,” he once said. “It’s just so ugly, possibly beaten only by ABBA.” In “Money, Money, Money,” you can really hear that central European schlager sing-along sound that made ABBA so alien and exotic to American ears. But even when they’re cheesing it up schlager-style, they’re characteristically cold-eyed about the lust for loot, chanting, “It’s a rich man’s world.” A fitting topic for the highest-grossing Swedish export this side of Volvo — cash rules everything around Mamma Mia.
- “THE DAY BEFORE YOU CAME” (1982)
Traditionally, the final song recorded by a great pop group tends to be a dud—think of the Beatles’ “I Me Mine” or the Smiths’ “I Keep Mine Hidden.” But ABBA’s last moment in the studio together is a bizarro darkwave gem. Agnetha narrates the minute-by-minute banality of a day in the life of an Swedish office worker who watches Dallas and reads feminist novels. (“The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style.”) She has no idea her humdrum life is about to change. For better? For worse? We never find out. “The Day Before You Came” sounds uncannily like Depeche Mode circa Violator — it could be a rough draft for “Policy of Truth” or “World In Your Eyes.” Agnetha recorded her vocals in the studio with the lights out — and then, having finished the track, she slipped out the exit. Perfect.
- “TIGER” (1976)
Some of the finest ABBA tunes are the rockers where Agnetha and Anni-Frid warn innocent bystanders about the ferocious power of their sex drive. (See also “Rock Me” or “Bang-a-Boomerang.”) In “Tiger,” they’re a pair of rampaging feline man-eaters, prowling through the concrete jungle of Stockholm on the hunt for fresh blood. “If I meet you/What if I eat you/I am the tiiiigerrrrr!” It ends with a bang, too — those hair-raising screams.
- “THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC” (1977)
What an opening line: “I’m nothing special — in fact, I’m a bit of a bore.” ABBA sum up their philosophy with their most sincere love song — a ballad pledging their devotion to music itself, the one lover who never let them down. If you compare “Thank You For The Music” to Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio,” you may note some intriguing affinities between these two seemingly opposite bands. Were Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid the Swedish Rush? Or were Geddy, Neal and Alex the Canadian ABBA?
- “FERNANDO” (1976)
Can you hear the drums, Fernando? This smash was one of their hugest ballads, the tale of guerrilla comrades strumming guitars around the campfire under the stars, fighting a revolution in a country somewhere along the Swedish/Mexican border. In Mamma Mia 2, Andy Garcia plays a guy named Fernando just to give Cher an excuse to belt this one — as if she needed one. Before ABBA’s version, Anna-Frid originally sang “Fernando” on her 1975 solo album, which also had her Swedish-language versions of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”
- “DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW?” (1979)
The Björn-core blast “Does Your Mother Know?” is that rarity of rarities: a Seventies song about turning down a groupie because she’s too young. Talk about being out of step with the times. (This was a radio hit around the same time as Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs,” Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City,” and several thousand other morally unacceptable hits with “hot” in the title.) All over Sweden, every village has at least one sixty-something grandma who still swears she was the temptress who inspired Björn to ask, “Does your mother know that you’re out?”
- “WATERLOO” (1974)
When they began, ABBA were a folkie foursome exactly as promising as any other Swedish group, i.e. not at all. Until this blatant Bowie tribute became their homeland’s 1974 entry in the annual cheese-fest known as the Eurovision Song Contest. “Waterloo” not only won the prize, it won ABBA global fame — it became their first American hit, crashing the Top Ten. These kids were still a little out of their fjord when it came to singing in English (“The heeeestory booook on the shelf/Is always repeating itself”) but that just added to the charm. They performed on the fifth episode of a new American TV show called Saturday Night Live, lip-syncing “Waterloo” on board the Titanic.
- “TAKE A CHANCE ON ME” (1977)
Many a pair of old-school stereo headphones got blown out by kids zooming in on that 20-second intro, an a cappella rush of intricately layered boy/girl vocals. “Take a Chance on Me” is a burbling invitation with some of Agnetha’s sultriest pleading. Especially when she whispers, “Come on, gimme a break, will you?” “Take a Chance on Me” sums up their technocratic precision in every detail. Erasure scored a hit with their brilliant version from their 1992 hit ABBA-esque, a turning point for the huge Abba revival of the Nineties.
- “THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL” (1980)
The break-up ballad to end all break-up ballads, and a solo showcase for Agnetha, who torches it up over the weepy piano. “The Winner Takes It All” is a show-stopper in the original Mamma Mia movie, yet it also has a poignant moment in another film: The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are two middle-aged English twits driving down the highway, crooning the lyrics to each other, trying to figure out how their youthful dreams got so defeated. Proof that there’s an ABBA song to go with every emotional crisis.
- “THE VISITORS” (1981)
ABBA kept getting weirder, spookier, and more nihilistic with every record, right up to this lost classic of Eighties creep-wave synth-pop paranoia. “The Visitors” is six minutes of frigid-pink electro-jitters: the girls sing about being trapped in a haunted house (“These walls have witnessed all the anguish of humiliation”) and chant “cracking up!” over the robot beats. “The Visitors” was never a big hit, and didn’t make the soundtrack of either movie, but it’s proof ABBA kept experimenting to the end.
- “HEY, HEY HELEN” (1975)
A glam-rock anthem for the divorced moms in the house—not a demographic that got much love on the radio before ABBA showed up. “Hey, Hey Helen” is one of the earliest pop tunes to catch up with the 1970s feminist explosion (“The price you paid/To become a woman of today”). Anni-Frid and Agnetha explode out of their bell-bottoms as they cheer on Helen in her quest. If you ever doubt ABBA’s rock power, note how this riff was heavy enough for Kiss to swipe for “Calling Dr. Love.” (What can it mean that Björn and Benny’s most explicit feminist song got jacked by Gene Simmons? It might just mean Gene had good taste, since he’s a shameless ABBA freak.) “Hey, Hey Helen” was a shocking omission from the first Mamma Mia—but damn, it’s definitely the best ABBA song to get left out of both of them. Let’s hope they’re saving it for a full-on Cher/Meryl/Baranski blowout in Mamma Mia 3: If I Could Turn Back Time.
- “MAMMA MIA” (1975)
Björn and Benny, masters of the xylophone power move. “Mamma Mia” shows off their genius for packing so many sonic twists and turns into one song — it’s a greatest-hits album in three and a half minutes, a lovesick rave that leaves you exhausted and dizzy and fiending for more. “Mamma Mia” sounded too foreign for U.S. radio at the time — too Euro, too hyper. It barely cracked the Top 40, a surprise considering how it looms so large in their legend now. But it was truly avant-garde pop. If you drop the needle anywhere on David Bowie’s Low or Heroes, it’s obvious the Thin White Duke was just another fan who couldn’t get this one damn song out of his head.
- “SOS” (1975)
Play this back to back with anything by Joy Division or the early Cure and you can hear how goth ABBA were. “SOS” defines the high-gloss Nordic melancholy that made them so influential for the new wave and postpunk artists who followed, as those lonely piano notes build up into an overload of synth bombast. (Trivial geek detail: It’s also the only chart hit in history where both the song title and the performer are palindromes.) “ABBA was one of the first big, international bands to actually deal with sort of middle-aged problems in their songwriting,” unlikely fan Pete Townshend confessed to Rolling Stone in a 1982 cover story. “I remember hearing ‘SOS’ on the radio in the States and realizing that it was ABBA. But it was too late, because I was already transported by it.”
- “THE NAME OF THE GAME” (1977)
Having tried everything else a time or two, ABBA made their big prog statement on the 1977 opus that they modestly titled The Album. The result: “The Name of the Game,” an over-the-topic epic with flugelhorns, church organ, and a spooky goblin choir whispering “doo-doo-doo.” But like so many of their songs, it’s the tale of a shy girl working up the nerve to strut with a little more confidence. It also has their most proto-Taylor Swift lyric — this “bashful child” spends the whole song obsessively brooding over a crush object she’s met exactly twice. When the the ladies hit the payoff — “I wanna know! Oh yes, I wanna know! The name of the game!” — it’s ABBA at their most open-hearted.
- “KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU” (1976)
Skintight Lycra pantsuits and tragic heartbreak: the ultimate ABBA combination. Like Carole King on Tapestry or Fleetwood Mac on Rumours, ABBA layer their lush 1970s harmonies to kiss off a broken marriage. Agnetha and Anni-Frid walk through an empty house full of memories, saying goodbye to the rooms where their kids used to play. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” leaps from hushed silence to mega-tingle melodrama in the chorus — that “aaah-haaaaa” clinches it. The climax: that turn-around at the three-minute point, the sound of a woman pausing to take one last look at that house, then spinning on her heel to get the hell out before she changes her mind.
- “DANCING QUEEN” (1976)
Sometimes a band’s most famous song is also their best. Since ABBA were the poppermost of pop stars, making music that belonged to absolutely everybody, it makes poetic sense their most brilliant moment is also their most universally beloved. “Dancing Queen” is a mirror-ball anthem for every dreamer who’s a disco goddess in her mind, even if everybody else in town just sees a gawky kid on the dance floor. Oh, the way the ladies’ voices burst with joy as they hit the line “tambourine…oh YEEEAAAH!” (Nobody will ever caress the word “tambourine” like Agnetha and Anni-Frid.) That opening piano swirl can trigger a pheromone rush in any human who knows what it means to (1) dance (2) jive, and/or (3) have the time of their life, on a floor where girls run the world and boys are just disposable props. (“Anybody could be that guy” — such an on-brand ABBA burn.) See that girl. Watch that scene. Digging the dancing queen, forever.
From Rolling Stone US