1976: It’s The Best I Can Do

With no firsthand memory of it (being one year old at the time), for me, 1976 will always evoke the US Bicentennial, the ascendancy of disco and Stevie Wonder’s monumental (if not best*) album Songs In The Key Of Life, whose still-dazzling first single leads off this year’s playlist. Another prime ’76 totem remains Wings’ sublimely daft “Silly Love Songs”, over which I’ve chosen its follow-up hit “Let ‘Em In” if only for its sheer weirdness—the precise moment Paul truly began making pop directly geared towards potheads (give or take a “Hi, Hi, Hi”.)

Rather than blending everything together like a fruit salad (or, this being the ‘70s, a health shake laced with alfalfa sprouts and some ‘ludes because why not), I chose to get a few extended grooves goin’. Thus, the first dozen tracks gradually shift from funk to disco, finding common ground between Boz Scaggs and ELO, or squeaky-clean Tavares and real-life porn actress Andrea True. Moroder’s Euro-sleaze version of a Moody Blues (!) song isn’t that far removed from the Bee Gees’ banger (the one so brilliant it practically gave Saturday Night Fever a reason for existing a year later.) And of course, fellow SNF soundtrack fixture “A Fifth of Beethoven”, pure cheese that has somehow taken on a transcendent cast in recent years, thanks in no small part to its use over the opening credits of last year’s fantastic Mrs. America miniseries.

ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is not only peak ’76 (from Arrival, but a hit single the next year) but also the Swedish foursome’s crowning achievement (“Dancing Queen” a close second), encompassing infinite shades of heartbreak in an immaculate pop song where the cracks still show but never fully give way to chaos amidst the steady beat and melodic hooks. Not even Elton and Kiki’s impassioned duet can top it.

While disco nears its artistic summit (but doesn’t quite reach it—check back next year) with extended jams from Donna Summer, The Spinners, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Miss Diana Ross (her best single of the ’70s), there’s also new sounds to behold: punk via The Runaways and The Ramones (albeit at their cuddliest here with “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), new wave from Blondie and The Modern Lovers (I don’t know where else to slot the latter; Jonathan Richman is more defiant dweeb than mere punk) and the newfound resilience of their antecedents (Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie.) 

The lingering ennui of “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart (the proto-Stuart Murdoch) is as good a place as any to go out on, although I debated placing The Langley Schools Music Project version of “Rhiannon” at the end: when those kids suddenly go loud at the chorus, it’s spookier than anything even Stevie Nicks could’ve come up with.

My favorite songs of 1976 on Spotify:

*Innervisions, of course.

ABBA, “Gold: Greatest Hits”

abba gold

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #33 – released September 21, 1992)

Track listing: Dancing Queen / Knowing Me, Knowing You / Take A Chance On Me / Mamma Mia / Lay All Your Love On Me / Super Trouper / I Have A Dream / The Winner Takes It All / Money, Money, Money / S.O.S. / Chiquitita / Fernando / Voulez-Vous / Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) / Does Your Mother Know / One Of Us / The Name Of The Game / Thank You For The Music / Waterloo

In the decade following their 1982 breakup, Abba was perhaps as verboten a four-letter-word as any you couldn’t say on television. Not that the Swedish quartet was exactly perceived as hip or cool in its heyday, but they arguably defined the 1970s as much as the Bee Gees or Elton John, selling as many records (and in some places, more) throughout the world—except in the US, of course, where they were a little too European and unselfconscious to reach such a level of mass saturation. Thus, over here, Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid (Frida) were confined to a single number one hit (“Dancing Queen”) and three other top-tens (compared to nine number one singles in the UK). Still, their domestic sales were respectable to the point where I faintly remember seeing a TV commercial for a K-Tel like Abba greatest hits album at an early age.

Apart from an occasional spin of “The Winner Takes It All” on the adult contemporary radio station my parents favored, I can barely remember hearing any Abba growing up, not until after graduating from high school in 1993. I do recall one incident during my freshman year—a girl on the bus belittled by her friends for listening to Abba on her Walkman, none of us familiar with the band, one person even remarking with disdain that it sounded like “church music”. What none of us knew at the time was that the girl who liked Abba was ahead of the curve. Over the next few years, as the 1980s melted away and the preceding decade slowly started coming back in fashion, people began talking about Abba again. As usual, the UK led the charge, with U2 covering “Dancing Queen” on their Achtung Baby tour and a certain duo (a few entries away from appearing on 100 Albums) scoring their sole number one on the UK Singles chart with an EP of four Abba covers. There was even a popular Australian tribute act calling itself (ahem) Bjorn Again.

Building on this resurgence in visibility, in autumn 1992, Polygram issued this 19-track compilation, Abba’s first greatest hits album of the CD era. It entered the UK album charts at number one; twenty years later, it was the third highest-selling album there of all time. Released in the US in 1993, it never charted higher than #36, but it achieved the unlikely feat of dramatically rehabilitating the band’s image in this country, allowing them back into public consciousness at a greater degree than ever before. It has since sold six million copies in the US, which accounts for over one-fifth of its worldwide sales total of just under 30 million. Aiding this was a gradual, growing prevalence of Abba across various pop culture channels: for instance, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, two mid-90s indie films from Australia (where Abba was particularly huge) both heavily featured the band on their soundtracks; both also became crossover hits. Later in the decade, Mamma Mia!, a jukebox musical centered on Abba songs broke attendance records in London’s West End and later on Broadway (and later still, as a hit film starring Meryl Streep).

Although Gold: Greatest Hits was not singlehandedly responsible for the great Abba revival, it undeniably provided the spark inspiring everything that followed. As an introduction to the band’s catalogue, it’s near impossible to top. By collecting all of their most popular and iconic worldwide hits, it effortlessly makes the case for Abba by highlighting their genius as a mostly consistent and dexterous singles act. Unlike the other two compilations I’ve written about so far, Gold is not chronologically ordered. The earliest selection (and album closer), “Waterloo” would’ve made a superb opener, but truthfully you could put the album on shuffle and your listening experience would not be any lesser than if you had played it in sequence. However, Gold goes for maximum impact (and easily clinches it) by putting Abba’s most quintessential hit in the pole position.

I’ve already mentioned that “Dancing Queen” was the band’s only American chart-topper, but if I asked you to identify which song in their catalog held that status without naming it, you’d likely pick the correct answer. I’ve also written over 700 words and not yet one about what Abba really sounds like—admittedly, not an easy task, for it’s like asking what as ubiquitous and iconic a band such as The Beatles sounds like. Fortunately, “Dancing Queen” sums up everything distinctive and compelling and effective about Abba: the recognizable but supple appropriation of a current musical style (in this case, soft disco), its irresistible orchestral sweep, Benny’s dramatic piano filigrees (almost like Liberace gone pop), Agnetha and Frida’s impassioned, Nordic-accented vocals, minimalist-but-not-dumb lyrics a five-year-old could fully comprehend and overall, a sustained sense of unadulterated glee.

Gold is frontloaded with a few of the band’s best (and biggest) hits. On the surface, all of them seem nearly as elated as “Dancing Queen” because the band simply can’t help but exude cheerfulness—it’s as essential to Abba’s nature as brooding and gloom are to The Cure’s—but it’s deceptive. Beneath all that pleasant chirpiness is utter desperation often increased to operatic levels when placed next to the music’s relentless, jaunty merry-go-round pull. Both “Take A Chance On Me” and “Mamma Mia” try to mask this with an excess of sugarcoated but maddeningly catchy hooks (the men’s incessant “Take-a-take-a-chance-chance” in the former, the boisterous, repeated two-note opening in the latter), but the utter pleading in each song still comes through loud and clear. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” attempts an even trickier balancing act, making fully palatable the conflicting emotions that arise at a relationship’s destruction yet also not shying away from such a situation’s very real, heartfelt consequences.

From there, Gold skips all over Abba’s discography, placing universally beloved sing-alongs (“Fernando”, “Money, Money, Money”) next to slightly less-remembered diversions (“Chiquitita”, with its insane percussive rolls; the Bjorn-sung “Does Your Mother Know”), jumping from 1977 (“Take A Chance On Me”) to 1975 (“Mamma Mia”) to 1980 (“Lay All Your Love On Me”) without smoothness of transition even being an issue. The compilation also finds places for all the genre outfits the band tried on over the decade, including glam by way of ‘50s rock n’ roll (“Waterloo”), Studio 54-ready disco (“Voulez-Vous”), campy Eurodisco (“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”), grandiose aspirations to the musical stage (“Thank You For The Music”) and even straight-up schmaltz (“I Have A Dream”, perhaps the only Abba hit I absolutely detest).

Despite Gold’s stylistic diversions, Abba always remains identifiably and recognizably Abba—their aesthetic is completely singular, despite their musical love of all things pop and their eager willingness to try and court as large of an audience as possible. Both the band’s most ardent fans and detractors could site Abba’s utter simplicity and accessibility as an overarching reason for loving/hating them. The repetitive song titles, the occasional English-as-a-second-language lyrics (“You’re so hot, teasing me / So you’re blue but I can’t take a chance on a chick like you” from “Does Your Mother Know” is my favorite example of this), the emphasis placed on blatant hooks running the gamut from easy-to-pronounce phrases (“Ma-ma Mi-a”) to bellowing, grin-inducing oompah-pah beats (“Chiquitita”)—all of them ploys Benny and Bjorn craftily utilized to get a song stuck in your head. Haters probably still gasp at the shamelessness inherent in them, but all these things helped make Abba one of the world’s biggest-selling bands.

However, listen closely and you’ll detect hidden but significant complexities present in some of the band’s best songs. “S.O.S.” is an early example of Abba’s growing ambition: note how the minor-key verses suddenly but naturally transform into a major-key chorus without depleting any of the song’s urgency—in fact, it ramps it up even more at the “when you’re gone / how can I / even try / to go on?” part. “The Name of the Game” initially comes off as an attempt at mid-tempo, quasi-soulful Southern California rock a la Fleetwood Mac. Midway through, the music’s languorous strut almost entirely drops out, apart from a minimal beat and Frida’s vocal, accompanied by backing doo-doo’s from the rest of the band. Then, the full arrangement returns and suddenly, there’s far more tension arising from less certainty as to what one can expect going forward.

Gold’s selections from the band’s later years are even more elaborate. “The Winner Takes It All” is “Knowing Me, Knowing You” made flesh and blood as the circular piano lines and propulsive beat support Agnetha lamenting a relationship in its aftermath, her doing so a mere year after divorcing Bjorn. “One of Us” roughly covers similar themes set to a more genteel, light reggae beat, but the intricate, overlapping harmonies add grace and heft of the sort you wouldn’t find in a UB40 tune. “Super Trouper”, the band’s last number one hit in the UK is Gold’s secret highlight. From its simple and sweet a capella opening to more of those heavenly overlapping vocals to the fun “Sup-pa-pa, Troop-pa-pa” choral chants, musically, it’s bubblegum of the highest vintage given a serious tint by a lyrical ambivalence regarding fame and performance. Still, as Frida and Agnetha sing about “Feeling like a number one,” you can’t help but both cheer them along and stand in awe of their poise and self-awareness. It wipes away any argument that Abba trafficked in nothing but mindless pop.

An ideal gateway, Gold does not render the rest of Abba’s catalog irrelevant. While they only made one truly consistent studio album (their last, The Visitors (1981)), there are enough minor singles and album cuts to make up a compilation as solid as Gold. In fact, the inevitable sequel, More Abba Gold is a pretty good effort, although it excludes such gems as “Hey Hey Helen”, “Tiger” and “I’m A Marionette”. No matter—thanks mostly to Gold, Abba’s presence in pop culture will never, ever fade again. They are now as vital a chapter in 20th Century music as Gershwin, Sinatra, The Beatles and Michael Jackson, albeit with slightly worse sartorial sense.

Next: Maybe the most important album on this list.

“Super Trouper”: