As with the last couple of years, the second week of our seven weeks of How to Collect… will look at the essential acts of the place we’re focusing on. This year we’re doing the Nordic countries, but while assembling these essentials I worried that the focus is too much on Sweden. A bit disproportional, but then, Swedish acts have been more prominent than its neighbors. You’ll have to forgive that so-called transgression, but you’ll find a good spread of acts this week, and in the coming weeks, when we focus on one country at a time. Starting with, well, Sweden, next week.
We’ll start with Sweden, too, and with perhaps their best known musical children, ABBA. Yep. I won’t believe you if you tell me you haven’t heard, at the very least, “Dancing Queen”. But there’s more to them than that, of course – if you’ve seen Mamma Mia! you’d know, also at the very least, that song. While they were only together ten years, their depth of their work has seen them release songs from pure (cheesy?) pop delights to those that tackle more mature themes, such as “The Winner Takes it All” and “One of Us” – that last one was written just as the two marriages between the four members began to disintegrate.
However, I am posting “Waterloo” as this was arguably their breakthrough. ABBA tried to represent Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest many times, finally make it through with this song in 1974 – and winning the contest altogether. While that gave them a happy audience in Europe, it didn’t immediately bring them huge success: their trajectory was more of a slow burn, with a stream of singles soon warming over critics and audiences with their keen sense of pop and sharp musicality. (It was “Dancing Queen” which brought them over the line.) They could have faded into obscurity after splitting in 1982, but a series of events – British band Erasure releasing an EP of ABBA covers; a few soundtrack appearances; and eventually the rerelease of their albums in the 1990s – introduced the group to new audiences and cemented their place in the pop parthenon.
It’s much harder to find a starting point for Björk, whose work is similarly vast, stretching many decades and even more styles. While you may know her for being that “weird” artist, her music has always had a keen sense of pop – and, in later years, a fierce determination that can only arise from complete creative control. And yet she’s done it all. Learning music from a young age (and inspired, perhaps, by her stepfather, who was a guitarist) she released her first album in 1977, thanks in part to her teachers sending a recording of her vocal recital to Iceland’s then only radio station. She then joined many (many) bands, from punk to jazz, before finding fame in the mid-1980s as the frontwoman for the Sugarcubes. (That links to “Birthday”, one of their biggest hits, which actually sounds better in Icelandic than English.)
In 1992 the band split up and Björk moved to London to go solo; her debut, named Debut, saw her play with different styles even as her songs would easily slot into the dance genre. The release of 1997’s Homogenic saw her shift towards a more experimental stance, a pattern that would continue in her succeeding records: a mixing of electronic effects and more, um, organic instruments like strings and, in the case of 2004’s Medúlla, the human voice. Her themes also saw her move continuously inward, with Homogenic being inspired by her home country, and her most recent Vulnicura inspired by her split with her long-time partner. Through all the perceived inaccessibility, there is something… common, even visceral, across Björk’s oeuvre.
Perhaps I’m cheating when I include the Cardigans on this list. I’m putting them here because I like the group, to the point that I sort of binged on their songs right after graduating from college. It’s not because of “Lovefool”, their biggest hit: it’s because of “For What It’s Worth”, which I first heard on a Japanese television channel, and liked because it somehow appealed to me. Turns out this was when the Swedish band shifted their sound, somewhat ditching their poppier tunes in a bid to express maturity. It worked for some, but not for others – but that makes for a weird starting point.
But then, what made the Cardigans popular internationally were still there: the keen musicality, those really good hooks (think of how “Erase/Rewind” or “My Favourite Game” wriggled their way into your head at some point) and Nina Persson’s voice, sensual yet not intimidatingly so. It took them a while, though: their debut, 1994’s Emmerdale, was only released in Sweden and Japan, and it took until their third album, 1997’s First Band on the Moon, for the group to make their breakthrough across the Atlantic (and make them staples of 1990s soundtracks). That said, it’s been a long while since they released new stuff: 2005’s Super Extra Gravity was their last new record, and there’s been nothing since (except for a Nine Perrson solo record). Please come back. It’s been too long.
Robyn is unique in that people probably remember her from two distinct phases in her career: the straightforward pop of “Show Me Love”, which had a degree of cool that appealed to everyone (and came before Britney Spears and her ilk turned things, err, inward) and later, the hipster-friendly electropop of “Dancing On My Own”. She did begin young, signing her first record deal at 14 and releasing her debut single, “You’ve Got That Somethin'”, in 1994. An early collaborator with Swedish producer Max Martin, they (alongside another Swedish producer, Denniz Pop) were behind her US breakthroughs, “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)”.
The American grind proved to be too much for her, however; she was diagnosed with exhaustion and returned home to Sweden to recover, and her later albums were only released in Europe. But by then she was looking for more creative control, moving away from BMG and moving to Jive… which would be bought by BMG as consolidation in the music industry started swinging. Her label didn’t take kindly to her first attempt at electropop, so she started her own label and started a renaissance of sorts, from 2005’s “Be Mine!” to 2007’s “With Every Heartbeat”, a collaboration with Swedish (again) producer Kleerup, and then, her acclaimed Body Talk series.
Told you this list will be very Swedish. The last act even has it in their name! But, again, I cheat. Swedish House Mafia is a supergroup of sorts, and its three members – Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso – have had success before touring and recording together. But I remember a time when their kind of dance music were limited to niche circles, those who partied hard on Friday nights, or could sit through the dance shows on pop radio on Friday and Saturday nights. Their work was already gaining steam in Europe halfway through the noughties, but their emergence helped tip the balance – and now house music (which I cannot really explain, not yet) is a staple on daytime pop radio.
The trio only toured together for five years, but their impact in bringing house to the mainstream was such that they paved the way to Swedish pop’s seeming domination of the international pop landscape these days. They have even inspired another Swedish powerhouse, Avicii, who would go on to work with a lot of artists of different genres on both sides of the Atlantic. But that’s for next week, when we start country-hopping and begin with Sweden. It isn’t all pop of this kind over there, but you know. [NB]
[Next week: we go country-to-country, beginning with Sweden.]