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Today: ABBA obscurities!
When the enjoyable radio show/podcast “Sound Opinions” devoted a recent episode to appreciating ABBA, I was skeptical: Is it really necessary to appreciate one of the most popular musical acts in the history of the world?
I’m so familiar with ABBA’s ubiquitous singles that I’d basically forgotten the group must have made actual records — full of songs I’d never heard! Indeed, they made eight studio albums. (Amusingly, there are at least seven greatest-hits collections.) This implied a considerable cache of music by these cunning Swedish tunesmiths that isn’t already inescapable pop culture.
I wondered: Are any of ABBA’s “deep cuts” (as they used to say in the album-rock era) any good? Once upon a time, answering that question would have been a gigantic hassle; but now it takes just a few clicks. I quickly flung all eight of the group’s albums into a Spotify playlist; I skimmed that and deleted anything familiar. This left me with an 80-song, five-hour playlist. Then I clicked Play.
All in all, I’d say the pop marketplace did an admirable job plucking the diamonds from ABBA’s somewhat rough total output. But, in the end, I settled on a 22-song playlist of lesser-known songs from one of the planet’s best-known pop acts that I hereby dub ABBA Bronze.
In my first spin through the larger list, I had no trouble whittling the listenable tracks down to 40 or so. It was a revealing journey, demonstrating the band’s arc from early sugar-hook goof-pop to its later wallowing in pristine-production ballads of existential despair. (As a Gold listener, this stuff all ran together for me previously.) But it was no great feat to weed out the laughably bad. (“Put on Your White Sombrero” from Super Trouper stands out on this front.)
The second round was more ruthless. I’ll admit I kept some of what always made ABBA a borderline novelty act. Aside from the numerous exercises in childlike gibberish (“Bang-A-Boomerang,” “Dum Dum Diddle”), the delightfully ridiculous “Tiger” is a good example of what I failed to resist: “And if I meet you / What if I eat you? / I am the tiger!” Or the totally preposterous medley, from the album Abba, in which the popsters rollick through a slick mashup of “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Midnight Special,” and so on.
But my playlist is not all camp. A bunch of songs on the group’s final album, The Visitors, are very listenable. The title track in particular is frankly amazing — a seductive mix of Beach Boys melodies and quasi-New Wave production.
But my real sleeper favorite is an earlier track called “Suzy-Hang-Around.” The structure is really interesting, and the guitar backdrop anticipates, to my ears, the 1980s indie wall-of-“jangly” sound. I’ve used this metric before, but I can easily imagine it popping up in a Wes Anderson film and becoming an instant classic as a result.
There’s no official video that I can find, but some enterprising YouTuber grafted the tune onto (confusingly) unrelated ABBA footage:
Technically, ABBA Bronze ought to be characterized as 21 lesser-known ABBA songs, with one bonus track. I thought I had never heard “One of Us,” but that can’t be right: While it topped out at No. 107 on U.S. pop charts, it was a hit elsewhere, and my wife swore she’d heard it. Indeed, turns out it’s actually on Gold. Doh!
Yet I had to keep it in this mix, partly because there may be others like me who missed it. And partly because the video is amazing:
Dating from the period when the band was deteriorating despite (because of?) its global mega-success, it’s a sublime mix of completely pointless special effects and grim footage of the band. Everyone seems to be just back from a funeral, or on the way to divorce court. Or both.
As I re-listened to my final playlist, I concluded that I can’t really argue for yet another repackaging of ABBA’s specific sound. BUT: Imagine, if you will, a collection of contemporary cover versions of these lesser-known deep cuts.
That, I am sure, would be bronze-worthy.