You know the story by now. 50 years ago today, a supergroup consisting of two couples released their first album to little fanfare in Scandinavia. Although started as a mere side-project, the group expanded and kept on expanding, until eventually they became world superstars who had their own studio, their own unique look, and even their own jukebox musical. Today, the songs by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad have become universally beloved, both as scintillating dance-pop bangers in their own right and as guilty pleasures to belt out loud when you’re alone. Since rankings lists seem to be pretty popular, I thought I might do my part and celebrate their work by going through their entire discography and separate the wheat from the chaff. Because I’m obviously the only authority you can trust on these things.
Like many of my fellow Zoomers, I first came into contact with ABBA through the Mamma Mia musical: we had a DVD of the film adaptation at home, starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried, and every once in a while I would dig it out and watch it again. The story was a bit silly for me — and it only got worse as I matured — but I always loved the songs, loved how masterfully tuneful and emotionally wild they sounded. They were one of the few bands I could name and sing multiple hits of before I started listening to popular music, and even as I filled my brain with the Beatles, Britpop, Eurovision and electronica, ABBA remained in the background, a dependable comfort for eternity. These days, ABBA’s not one of my favourite bands, and I don’t make a point of listening to them on a daily basis (stares at some of my friends), but I have a huge respect for their songcraft, and they deserve all the credit they’ve gotten this past half-century and more. Hopefully this list will inspire you to discover a little more about them, too.
A couple of parameters before we begin: this list goes through all 9 albums released by the group under the ABBA moniker during their active years, so Agnetha or Frida’s solo albums, although intriguing in their own right, will sadly be shut out. For my listen-throughs of their heyday albums, I used the 2001 version that tacks on bonus tracks (i.e. B-sides and singles from the era) at the end — this meant that I didn’t have to go through a whole bunch of song fragments and remixes, and also that (spoiler alert) I wouldn’t have to put Greatest Hits Vol. 2 at the top of this list. All rankings here are subjective and comparative — they almost always are, but ABBA are so good that you could very easily have a very good time listening to my bottom pick. If you find yourself having a different opinion, the comments section is always open; why don’t you give me a call?
Speaking of which…
9. Ring Ring (1973)
Benny and Bjorn have always been a little iffy about their first outing as ABBA, and indeed there is a lot that’s different about Ring Ring — save for the superb title track, much of the album sounds like as a cross between stoned-out sixties mumblings and some English sentences haphazardly patched together into a “song”. But even if this is ABBA’s “worst” album (and I use that word VERY loosely) there is still much to recommend here: besides both versions of “Ring Ring”, there’s also the contemplative “Disillusion”, Agnetha’s sole contribution to the band’s songbook; the wispy but pleasant “Me and Bobby and Bobby’s Brother”; and then there’s the hugely underrated “People Need Love” — not because the lyrics are any good, but because it has always struck me as the perfect drunken song to bawl out at the top of your lungs. If any readers would care to test out this theory the next time they’re at a pub, I would be eternally grateful.
Favourite track: “Ring Ring”
8. Arrival (1976)
Behold, this list’s obligatory “look at me everybody, I’m an iconoclast” pick. I will preface this low placing for what is near-universally considered to be ABBA’s strongest album, however, by saying that all the singles for this album are good: “Money, Money, Money” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and bonus track “Fernando” are stellar in their unfulfilled frustration, and “Dancing Queen” is worthy of all its overplay (even if I can’t seem to have the same amount of enthusiasm for it as other people have). But the rest of them just sound like overproduced and hyperactive slurry to me: I really don’t like the creepy and unfocused “When I Kissed the Teacher”, and found “Why Did It Have to Be Me?” to be a chore to get through. (I try not to look at the progress bar while listening to songs, but on this song and others on this album it was a frequent occurrence.) ABBA have so many other good albums — why don’t we love them instead?
Favourite track: “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
7. Waterloo (1974)
Just before they launched themselves into superstardom with Eurovision, ABBA decided that they didn’t like turning out normal schlager tunes after all. What we have in this album, then, is a whole potpourri of musical experiments as the group slowly figured out their new musical identity — whether you’re into glam rock, R&B, Motown or even calypso, there is something here for you. The results are variable: I have listened to “Sitting in the Palmtree” exactly once, and I think that is enough, but you’ve got to hand it to them for at least trying out these new styles in the first place. And anyway, when they get it right, they get it really right — much has been said about the title track and “Honey, Honey”, but even “King Kong Song”, a novelty throwaway that’s been practically disowned by Benny and Bjorn, is worth every single last bit of hype it’s been getting from ABBA fans all these years. A truly interesting experience from ABBA, and not for the last time either.
Favourite track: “Honey, Honey”
6. ABBA (1975)
“How,” you may reasonably ask, “is an album with ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘SOS’, ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’ and ‘I Do, I Do (etc.)’ in the BOTTOM half of this list?” I guess that just goes to show how high the standards are when you’re talking about ABBA — even when they’ve found their voice, as they finally did on their third album, there is such an embarrassment of riches that merely “this will do (will do, will do, will do, will do)” is not enough. And there are things that, while pleasant to listen to, just don’t seem very entertaining if you think about them for long enough — “So Long”, for instance, is obviously a forced, awkward attempt to replicate that “Waterloo” magic. But the highs here are very high, and there are times at home when I do nothing but belt out “SOS” like the good drama queen that I am. How could Bono and Glen Matlock ever be ashamed of loving this?
Favourite track: “SOS”
5. Voyage (2021)
Most bands end up turning into a pale facsimile of themselves after decades of existence, and this is even more the case after years of inactivity: trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle, they end up doing an unintentional self-parody instead. I am pleased to report, therefore, that ABBA are not that kind of band. Three and a half decades apart, and yet they still managed to turn out “Don’t Shut Me Down”, a song of rejuvenation that slammed straight into my top 5 ABBA songs upon release and which gets more plays than “Dancing Queen” or “The Winner Takes It All” in my house. Nor is this a pretty single supported by filler — yes there are duds (“I Can Be That Woman”, what is that?) but there is also “I Still Have Faith in You”, “When I Danced with You”, “Ode to Freedom” and so much more. In any case, we can be thankful that the tentative reunion between the four of them blossomed into far more than just a notion.
Favourite track: “Don’t Shut Me Down”
4. The Visitors (1981)
Very few people will admit to having The Visitors, which stood as ABBA’s final statement for four decades, as their favourite album from the band. And to be honest it is hard to love: for every pop-friendly single here there is also a long, alienating tune that sounds like Benny and Bjorn having an existential AND mid-life crisis at the same time. But there is no doubt that everything on this album is the result of carefully considered songwriting, an attempt to articulate a series of incidents that had enveloped the band as 1980 turned into ’81. Children growing up, divorce, stalkers, the encroachment of war — in this album, all of these themes get their time in the spotlight, and none of the resultant songs sound at all boring. It’s definitely not the answer if you’re feeling blue, but when all is said and done this is, without a doubt, the band’s most fascinating album, and one that deserves repeated listens.
Favourite song: “Slipping Through My Fingers” (“One of Us” runs a very close second)
3. Super Trouper (1980)
1980 saw the band enter a liminal stage: not only were Bjorn and Agnetha divorced and Benny and Frida on the verge of following suit, but the disco that served them so well on their previous album had suddenly, violently fallen out of fashion. This is ABBA we’re talking about though, and even in the midst of personal and professional crises they still managed to give us an unflinching, honest look at how love, fame and despair can intersect and intertwine. In fact, you could make the case that Super Trouper shows the ABBA ethos at its most fully-fledged: perfect upbeat pop craft that’s nonetheless shot through with melancholia and impending sorrow, as seen in the title track, “On and On and On”, “Lay All Your Love on Me” — even “The Winner Takes It All”, cataloguing the ultimate collapse of a relationship, is exquisitely formed. Make no mistake, this is obviously a band on borrowed time — but they dragged on with their feet of clay, kept on going anyway. And I think that’s something special.
Favourite song: “Happy New Year”
2. The Album (1977)
If Super Trouper shows ABBA’s ethos at full bloom, then The Album is the band at their most complex. Thematically, of course, it has nothing on The Visitors, but musically this album has some of the most compelling, engaging and amazing tunes that Benny and Bjorn would ever write. “Eagle” may be the longest song of the group’s entire catalogue, yet not one second of its six-minute length is wasted: its sonic canvas is so vast, so expansive, that one can easily imagine Fleetwood Mac listening to this pastiche and nervously snorting some more gold dust. But my appreciation of this album didn’t fully materialise until I listened to the last two songs of the album: I didn’t like them at the time, still don’t, but it’s only because the writers make the horror of fame and fortune so explicit, so visceral: the mini-musical jolts me out of my comfort zone, and makes me confront new, unpleasant emotions. You might not enjoy the experience, but you can’t deny that it’s magic.
Favourite song: “Eagle”
1. Voulez-Vous (1979)
What is “the best” ABBA album? Is it the album with the best songwriting? Is it the one with the most hit singles? Or is it the album with the most thematic complexity? As with the Beatles or Taylor Swift, the joy of debating ABBA’s “best” album lies in how you can have nine different answers and still be right for almost all of them — framed from different perspectives, you could argue for Arrival or The Album or even The Visitors. But while there is no question that The Album is their best in terms of songwriting — and came very close to grabbing my top spot — I decided that the best album would always be the one I enjoyed listening to most, and for me, that was Voulez-Vous.
On paper, Voulez-Vous is one of the band’s weaker efforts. It took a whole year for Benny and Bjorn to come up with just ten songs, and you can see glimpses of their writer’s block on the album: there are songs that are just slightly longer than they need to be (as the Mamma Mia musical’s version of “Chiquitita” showed, there is absolutely no need to run through the whole song twice as ABBA do on the album), and some songs sound suspiciously similar to each other (it might as well be “As Good as the Kisses of Lovers Who Live A Little Longer”). But it is also a fact that all of them are thoroughly and immensely enjoyable, chirpy and crisp: even if the sentiments of “Does Your Mother Know” are a little bit icky nowadays, it is simply impossible to stop tapping your feet or even bouncing along to the very, very infectious beat and melody.
And on this album, ABBA do more than that too: sometimes they make me think I’m in paradise. “As Good as New” might occasionally stumble over itself as it drives along relentlessly, but it’s so much more endearing for that, and the “ma-ma-ma-ma” is a touch worthy of ELO or Elton John — as longtime readers of this blog will know, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. The “aha” in the title track, no matter where it’s been deployed, is a thing of effortless wonder and beauty. And a lot of people dislike “Angeleyes”, basically a throwback to 60s tropes and sounds, but I think it’s one of their best songs: as the protagonist struggles to articulate everything she’s gone through, the peaks just keep on coming and leave you breathless and gasping for air. “And the look that he gave her made me SHI! VER! Cause he always used to LOOK! AT ME! THAT WAY!” I’m a simple man, and if a song rocks me, gives me that kick, then it has my allegiance forever. “Angeleyes” rocks me.
But the best songs from this period — and for my money the two best songs from ABBA’s entire catalogue —weren’t even on the album when it first came out. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” is at its heart a song about being horny, but my God is it one of the most elegant and dazzling songs ever to have graced popular music: the layering of Agnetha and Frida’s angelic voices, the synth riff that’s been engineered to perfection, and the chorus that reaches for, and for a few seconds touches, eternity. And then there’s “Summer Night City”, a wide-eyed paean to the vibrance of a city and its nightlife that’s one of my favourite songs. There’s been a lot of speculation on whether the band are talking about Stockholm here, but it doesn’t really matter: their description of the city is so vivid, so exciting, that it’s the sort of place that can only exist in a dream world. I’m an introvert who’s never even laid eyes on a disco before, but I want to move to this city, lose myself in its nightlife, spend time discovering its every secret. “Summer Night City” is basically ABBA in a nutshell: a bittersweet, ephemeral dream that spirits you away, and leaves you pondering your hopes, your dreams, your every desire. The perfect pop experience.
Favourite song: “Summer Night City” (bonus tracks included — if only on original release, “Angeleyes”)
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