I never do this but as a lifelong, long-suffering but now and forever Mets fan, I kinda have to today. If you hate baseball you can skip these few sentences, I swear I’ll understand. Right so last night Jacob DeGrom (or as we call him around here, the degrominator) pitched a complete game shutout, got 15 strikeouts as well 2 hits of his own and the Mets blessedly won. It was a pretty spectacular thing to watch (especially as we’d gotten shellacked in the previous 3 games). Last year the franchise’s greatest all-time player, pitcher Tom Seaver passed away so this season the team are wearing commemorative patches with his # 41 on their sleeves. As a sentimentalist I found it to be pretty poetic that as DeGrom was sealing his own legend, offering up one of the all-time greatest Met performances, there was a physical tip of the hat to his legendary predecessor right there on his arm. Anyway, it was awesome. Okay, time for tunes.
Welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs that have come our way over recent days. There are windblown epics, loved up laments plus a bit of dirty ol’ rock. They are all beauties. You can listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify.
ABBA’s best and most popular album is a hits compilation, which begs the question; Is the quality gap between the band’s singles and the deep cuts that surround them on the studio albums as cavernous as it seems ? Join author Matthew Restall and I (Hope) as we ponder the situation in absurdly idiosyncratic detail, assess almost every track on all eight studio albums and daringly separate the killer from the filler. You can jive…
Let The Music Speak: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns exposing our innermost thoughts on the musical offerings of the otherworldly beings known as ABBA and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but our love for Agnetha, Frida, Benny, and Björn is strong enough to last when things get rough.
HOPE: Contrary to popular belief, not all ABBA songs are delectable pieces of candy. No, what they are is spaghetti. Meaning while there are plenty of good pieces that stick to the wall, there are also many inedible bits that land with a damp thud in a pile on the floor. When it comes to ABBA songs, there are only two official classifications that can be applied; it’s either a majestic piece of art or it’s caulking, it’s packing peanuts. There’s no in between.
Okay, so all that stuff you just read summarizes what my general feeling about ABBA has been over the years, that they are a straight up singles band who never actually made a genuinely classic studio album.
And the sales numbers of Gold were what I would frequently serve up to support this opinion. The 19 track compilation of hits has sold 30 million plus copies to date worldwide and is by far the most popular title in the entire ABBA catalogue. It remains as definitive, succinct and perfect an artist compilation as there has ever been. Not a moment is wasted on Gold, its contents are all Oreo creme and the jelly inside the donut with nothing extraneous to hack through. It is designed for pure pleasure. But I always interpreted its success as a covert statement, the world collectively shouting don’t bore us, get to the chorus.
The traditional ABBA studio album was not a safe place for a “just okay” song to reside. Oh pity the lesser ABBA song, forced to compete in the most thankless and brutal pop music beauty contest known to mankind. On an ABBA studio album there were no runners-up, only winners and losers. But then again, were the singles just so transcendently good that they made the just okay stuff sound worse than it actually was? Or were ABBA simply hamstrung by a format of presentation, namely the long-playing album, and simply forced into filling space with inferior songs because they had to?
MATTHEW: Is ABBA dog poop? That was David Crosby’s now-infamous two-word verdict in a 2018 Tweet. When pushed, he doubled down and added “utter complete pop dog poop” and “not one decent song ever.” I’ll resist the temptation to sink to Crosby’s level and use short words to sum up his catalogue, and instead note that his inclusion of the word “pop” is significant. For some people, it makes no difference whether the word has one or two o’s. But it does to us. We love pop in all its glorious variations and manifestations (right, Hope?), and ABBA are unabashedly, fundamentally a pop band. One might argue that they are the ultimate pop band. After all, the Swedish quartet’s songs are rooted in schlager, the traditional folk-pop of central and northern Europe whose origins stretch back many centuries (now that’s deep pop); and no other band channeled their schlager roots so transparently and successfully into glam-pop and disco-pop—and even a little prog-pop and electro-pop. ABBA’s eight studio albums were released between 1973 and 1981, but the 1992 hits compilation Gold is the world’s 23rd best-selling album ever, and by this summer will have spent a record-breaking 1000 continuous weeks on the UK album charts (where it is the second best-selling album ever, after Queen’s Greatest Hits). But if we accept that 30 million people (and counting) have a point, and Crosby is an ignoramus, that still prompts Hope’s question: Were ABBA a singles band, hamstrung by the album format that didn’t really suit them? Were their albums mere vehicles for hit singles, each with a few killer tracks padded out with filler? Will our conclusion be, thank you for some of the music?
HOPE: Those are the questions we will answer here, going through all eight albums, as they were originally issued, classifying every track as either Killer or Filler (keepin’ it pure and accurate!). Although we are not evaluating the various updated re-releases with bonus tracks, we do ponder and consider the free-standing singles in the context of those albums, as well as the handful of key tracks that were only available as part of compilation albums. So, is there such a thing as an ABBA deep cut? Do any of the studio albums qualify as “classic”? Is it Killer or is it Filler? Let’s find out !
*Update!: Since the original publication of this piece, ABBA have released a new studio album! I know. Believe me we were as shocked as you when the news hit the fan. Being the nerdy completists we are, we knew we would have to address the new recordings or else we wouldn’t have been able to live with ourselves. Check out the ABBA-DDENDUM (what else would it be) following the conclusion for our thoughts on Voyage!
Ring Ring (1973)
HOPE:Ring Ring (1973) This album is actually credited to “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” who at this stage were essentially a side project with no grand master plan. With that in mind, part of me wants to cut them some slack. Ring Ring wasn’t meant to be a definitive artistic statement, the group were just trying on hats and uh, yeah, throwing spaghetti…which is why the album features a whole lotta BS aka Björn Singing. Still there is some cohesiveness from a sonic standpoint as the songs do tend to stay in a particular lane on Ring Ring i.e. the corny, all ages, non-threatening middle one, pushing no buttons apart from the one that kicked out sugary gumballs (which were not remotely as cool as the foxy red hot candies offered up by the young lust inciting chart monsters of the time like The Sweet, Bowie and T.Rex). There are a few good songs on Ring Ring, the goofy, schlocky euro-Ronettes title track, “Disillusion” with its overt “Fire And Rain” style instrumentation and “I Saw It In The Mirror” which, nerd reference alert, bears a sweetly striking resemblance to an actual Badfinger song, “Dear Angie”. But the enemy forces outnumber the heroes here; the chorus of “Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother” is the devil himself. As for the patronizing, retrograde “I Am Just A Girl,” I just can’t.
Killer: Ring Ring, Disillusion, I Saw It In The Mirror. Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; Nina Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; She’s Just My Kind Of Girl; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band. Verdict: This album was an experiment, a new adventure, a bunch of songs by 4 people with no conjoined identity, manifesto or sound. Ring Ring is filled with filler and if we were to rank the studio albums from best to worst, this one would be the caboose.
MATTHEW:Ring Ring (1973). Although this wasn’t even released in the US and UK until the 1990s, it did well enough in Australia and continental Europe (#1 in Belgium!) to launch ABBA. The 12 songs, averaging a second under 3 minutes each, are corny ditties rooted deep in the schlager folk-pop tradition. During the group’s late-70s heyday, this stuff seemed comical—at best, amusing juvenilia (like Bowie’s 1968 debut), at worst, an embarrassing joke. In retrospect, it isn’t that bad, and there’s a certain charm to the relative simplicity of the songs. But they tend to plod along and quickly wear thin, their goofy happiness nowhere near as compelling as the disco-pop, divorce ballads, and other sub-genres that gradually take over later albums (with the possible exception of “Disillusion,” which hints at a darker direction; and is the only ABBA song written solely by Agnetha). For me, the most interesting thing about this album is how much it is rooted in the big ‘60s careers that every band member enjoyed, especially Björn, whose Hootenanny Singers were one of Sweden’s biggest bands in their 1964-72 heyday. Side Two of the album looks back to those late-’60s careers far more than it looks forward to late-70s ABBA, especially “She’s My Kind Of Girl,” which isn’t even an ABBA song—it was a hit single for Benny and Björn in Sweden in 1970, reaching #1 in Japan in 1972. I’ve put it in the Killer category because, like “Disillusion,” it is an enjoyable curiosity; but both songs only just slip in there, as does “Ring Ring” (their first stab at a Eurovision song; its remix with sax for the next album is much better).
Killer: Ring Ring; Disillusion; She’s My Kind Of Girl. Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; I Saw It In The Mirror; Nina, Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band. Verdict: I agree with Hope that this is the bottom of the ABBA barrel. It has no ABBA classics, and it is barely even an ABBA album—as reflected in its original Scandavian release under that awkward “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” (BBAF?!). That said, I’d rate it equally with the next album, Waterloo, because it is more coherent. It is not a singles album, lacking that contrast between a couple of hits filled out with packing material. It knows what it is—a meeting of four musicians and their pasts—and is not trying to be anything else.
MATTHEW:Waterloo (1974). From its opening glam-pop chug, and the first “My! My!” from Agnetha and Frida, you know the title track is a leap forward, revealing for the first time a successful mixing of the ABBA formula. “Waterloo” (the song) has it all: incredibly catchy pop with one foot in a related genre of that moment (glam), the seamless blend of the women’s voices, the men’s signature key change, and—crucially—lyrics that paradoxically suggest something a little darker. It is too soon in the band’s double-couple marriage-to-divorce arc to get heartbreak lyrics, so instead we get a massive, bloody battle (Napoleon’s 1815 defeat) as a metaphor for the start of a romance; the music suggests a happy surrender to love, but the words are full of disturbing phrases such as “you won the war” and “couldn’t escape if I wanted to.” It’s brilliant. It also takes me right back to my childhood discovery of pop music, complete with the weekly anticipation of Top of the Pops, the wonderful weirdness of The Eurovision Song Contest, and “Waterloo” as its 1974 winner (and the best song to win it ever) constantly on my tiny transistor radio.
So, how do the other ten songs hold up against this opener? Not so well. “Waterloo” is followed by the ghastly cod reggae of “Sitting in the Palmtree” and “King Kong Song,” probably the worst ABBA song ever. “Watch Out” isn’t great glam-pop, it’s just crap-glam. The rest of the album is admittedly not all bad: “Hasta Mañana” makes me smile, as schlager-pop at its amusing best, complete with the irresistible melody and that oh-so-ABBA mid-point key shift; and I love the sleeper song on here, “My Mama Said”—its lyrics have the triteness of most early ABBA songs (and all of this album aside from “Waterloo”), but it has a killer bass line, deftly treated Agnetha/Frida vocal harmonies, and is just begging for a Voulez Vous-era remix. Two of the filler songs here are right on the killer/filler line, with ”Dance (While the Music Still Goes on)” too clunky with potential to make it, and “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong” just making it for the sheer sweet catchiness of the chorus melody. “Honey Honey,” the minor-hit second single, also just crosses the line into killer category. The UK/US release of the album had a much-improved remix of “Ring Ring” at the end; slightly glammed up, it handily joins the title track as bookends to a real mixed-bag of an album.
Killer: Waterloo; Hasta Mañana; My Mama Said; Honey Honey; Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; Ring Ring (remix). Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around. Verdict: Although this has ambitions to being an album that stands on its own two feet, it is ultimately a vehicle for singles—and only one of them a real hit. At its best, it is way ahead of the debut album, but overall it is more uneven and thus ties for worst ABBA album.
HOPE:Waterloo (1974). Ah yes, I too remember hearing “Waterloo” for the first time as a child, although it was via the video being shown on a kids TV show here in the U.S. called Wonderama. The song and its visual accompaniment remain transcendently wonderful (watch here). As for the rest, I sooooo agree with you Matthew that “My Mama Said” is the sleeper. What blows me away about it is how mind-bogglingly prescient its sound is; it’s straight up proto-disco, albeit with some weird Steely Dan-esque flourishes, and sounds like a demo version of Silver Convention’s megahit “Fly Robin Fly” which dropped only a year later. Frida serves up a particularly sweet vocal on the fabulously melodic “Gonna Sing You My Love Song” which resembles the world’s kitschiest Carole King song and is either about unrequited love or being the proverbial “other woman” depending on your emotional worldview. The song isn’t traditionally Abba-esque in its construction but it is damn good and I just plain sloppy love it. The rest of the album’s tracks are expendable, from the heinous faux reggae of “Sitting In The Palmtree,” to the ill-advised attempt to rock on “Watch Out” to the excruciating “King Kong Song” which yes Matthew is quite possibly the worst thing ABBA ever recorded. Please make it stop.
Killer: Waterloo; My Mama Said; Gonna Sing You My Love Song; Ring Ring(remix). Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Hasta Mañana; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Honey Honey; Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around Verdict: There are three good songs on Waterloo album. They are better than the three good songs on the debut album which is why Ring Ring is the sole occupant of the basement flat in the ABBA album rankings…but it’s really, really close.
MATTHEW:ABBA (1975). This is a step forward from Waterloo, but not yet a leap. The hit singles are better, and there are more of them, bringing ABBA to the brink of their imperial phase. But we are still obliged to lurch from the sublime to the silly, from Killer to Filler. Take the six songs of Side One. Tracks 1 and 4, “Mamma Mia” (to which I’ve been rather overexposed—I know you agree, Hope—but yes, there is no denying its pop craftsmanship) and “SOS” (which is even better, its elements refined to the point where it has a timeless shine to it), are obliged to sit amongst forgettable filler of the kind that rarely appears in later albums (e.g., the cringey cod reggae of “Tropical Loveland”). Side Two is, ironically, less jarring because it lacks anything close to the brilliance of “Mamma Mia” and “SOS,” its singles being second-tier ABBA hits like “I Do [x5]” and misses like “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (which crosses into killer category by virtue of Agnetha’s emotion-packed voice) and “So Long” (which crosses that line on a generous day). But Side Two is weighed down in the middle by the boys, and their inclusion of “Rock Me” (one of two dire numbers sung by Björn) and the prog-lite absurdity of Benny’s instrumental “Intermezzo no. 1” (a B-side at best). It is so clear by this point—ah, the sharpness of hindsight!—that the magic of ABBA lies in the layered, overdubbed harmonies of the women’s voices, but the men cannot yet resist the temptation to keep a few tracks on each album for themselves. It is also clear that ABBA’s borrowing of elements from genres like glam only work when the result is ABBA-glam-pop (like the chorus of “SOS”) not ABBA imitating Slade or The Sweet (like “So Long,” the first of six singles taken from the album, and one of the three that were not big hits).
Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; I’ve Been Waiting For You. Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; So Long. Verdict: This is clearly a better album than the first and second, buoyed by two classic pop singles, a big step closer to real-album status. But as most of the album is filler (and much of it dire stuff), it keeps the band in singles album territory (and 7 of these 11 tracks were released as singles somewhere). Admittedly, in January of ‘76, “Mamma Mia” hit #1 in the UK (it peaked at #32 in the US), and “SOS” had reached #6 a few months earlier (#15 Stateside), meaning ABBA had shaken the one-hit curse of “Waterloo.” And for an astonishing 15 weeks in 1975, three singles from ABBA had taken it in turns to monopolize the #1 spot in Australia (“I Do [x5],” then “Mamma Mia,” then “SOS”). But could that success be repeated elsewhere? After all, in the UK, “Mamma Mia” was the sixth single from the album, following a trio of weak albums and more flop singles than hits. No longer one-hit wonders, ABBA were now a band that made lots of singles—a few of them really great—but not real albums.
HOPE:ABBA (1975) I am thoroughly tired of “Mamma Mia” but its poptastic virtues are undeniable, as is its iconic video which as of this writing has been viewed 218 million times on YouTube (watch here). But make no mistake: the song is also an absolute polarizer; the video also has 44,000 thumbs down votes by pop-hating grinches whom I also somewhat identify with (save me a seat on the fence will you). The schlager-slathered “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is a staggeringly immense piece of cheese but endearing enough and “So Long” is a fun soundalike half sibling to ‘Waterloo.” But forget all that. The uncontested star here is lush, sophisticated heartbreak anthem “SOS” which also stands as the official introduction of “ Sad Agnetha™ ” to the ABBA mythology, a persona that was to be showcased and exploited on every album from this point forward. As for the rest, it’s a tough trawl with many tracks emitting an unpleasant novelty vibe…though I admit to a slight fascination with “Man In The Middle”, a brazen attempt at a Stevie Wonder style song, and how resolutely un-funky it is considering its inspiration.
Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,I Do; So Long. Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; I’ve Been Waiting For You. Verdict: While this album continues the trend of the previous albums and is dominated by cartoonish filler ( and thus not a good album), the four tracks that qualify as “killer” signify a real sonic turning point. The sophisticated singalong heartbreak of “S.O.S.,” in particular, acts as a one song mission statement on what the group were actually capable of.
MATTHEW:Arrival (1976). Whether you hate or love “Dancing Queen” (and I can feel only admiration and gratitude for the song, having danced drunkenly to it a hundred times), there’s no doubting that it is a gold nugget of a disco-pop song. It is their best-selling single worldwide, #1 in over a dozen countries (their only US #1), top five in almost every market on every continent. Its first live (and televised) performance for the King of Sweden and his Queen-to-be the night before their wedding has from the start been part of its legend. As for the rest of the album, there’s good news and bad news. The good? Its hit singles are even better than on the previous album, with three bona fide smashes (four if “Fernando” is included; see below), all packed with hooks and elevated by Agnetha/Frida vocals—including “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the brilliant sophomore appearance of a sub-genre that nobody has ever done better than ABBA: divorce pop. Sure, Fleetwood Mac turned intraband breakups into an entire album. But that’s divorce rock. I’m talking about creating a whole new art form out of the perfect pop paradox: lyrics of emotional anguish set to upbeat pop tunes. “SOS” was the sub-genre’s debut, and although Frida’s “Knowing” vocal hits home hard, it is Agnetha’s ability to “cry with her voice” (as producer Michael Tretow put it) that makes ABBA’s divorce-pop classics such deliciously wrenching doses of schadenfreude.
The hits on Arrival made it ABBA’s biggest studio album, launching their four-year imperial phase. This is the first of five straight UK #1 albums. Starting now and running right through the turbulent years of punk and disco, AOR and New Wave, ABBA were the biggest band in the world. (Classic Pop editor Steve Harnell’s recent gush is worth quoting: “It’s a perfect snapshot of a group brimming with optimism and alive to the diverse opportunities of sophisticated pop.”) So how can there be bad news? Well, let me digress into my own memory of this album. I was a 12-year-old English schoolboy when this came out. My friend James and I taped it from his mother’s vinyl copy (yes, these are the kinds of phrases that appear in a discussion of ABBA). We spent hours debating the relative merits of Agnetha and Frida (he boringly always ended up voting for Agnetha, I irritatingly could never decide). This is therefore the first ABBA record that I remember as an album; when “Knowing Me, Knowing You” ends, I anticipate the opening keyboard chords of “Money [x3].” But there the familiarity ends, because we would fast-forward over the remaining four tracks. And there’s the bad news: half of Arrival is feather-weight filler of the kind that made their first three records singles albums. Yes, the filler is better (“Tiger” is odd in a good way, and “When I Kissed the Teacher” is an amusingly bizarre choice for an opening track—it belongs on the same creepy playlist as Elton’s “Teacher I Need You” and the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” but isn’t nearly as good). But it is still filler (I know Björn later apologized for “Dum Dum Diddle”—Hope has the quote coming up—but I still cannot forgive its inclusion before “Knowing Me, Knowing You”). In most markets, Arrival had ten tracks, but in Australia & NZ it had an eleventh, “Fernando”—which was the band’s biggest hit single to date. So, we are trying to have our cake and eat it here, by evaluating the 10-track album while also tossing in “Fernando” (in parentheses). After all, Australia was the first market to make ABBA truly massive.
Killer: Dancing Queen; My Love, My Life; Knowing Me, Knowing You; Money, Money, Money; Tiger; (Fernando). Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival. Verdict: Their best singles and their best album to date, justifying the launch of a colossal global presence. But if Björn and Benny, as the songwriters, really were keen to become “a good album act” (as Björn put it in 1975), they were their own worst enemies, continuing to juxtapose unique, classic pop singles with, well, some dum dum diddles. So close to a real album, but not quite achieving the—ahem—arrival.
HOPE:Arrival (1976) The famous backstory of “Dancing Queen” is that when Benny played Frida the instrumental demo of the song she was so blown away that she burst into tears at its magnificence, which is completely understandable. And then of course she and Agnetha graced it with a vocal performance that took it even higher; that moment after the songs intro when the two stretch that elongated opening “ooh” into “you can dance” may be one of the greatest moments in pop music history. Right, so “Dancing Queen” is worthy of every pop superlative known to mankind but know what, so is its Arrival roommate “Knowing Me Knowing You” a living breathing god of a break-up song right down to its super schlager-esque post-chorus guitar break (it also features the Best Björn Backing Vocal Ever™). On the flipside let’s hear what Björn himself had to say about “Dum Dum Diddle” in the brilliant band bio by Carl Magnus Palm from 2001, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: “It might as well have been ‘Dumb Dumb Diddle”. Frida weighed in on its merits as well offering a classically cutting “I don’t like it”. And so that’s your nadir right there. The rest of the tracks qualify as just okay. Slick and well-constructed but not necessarily memorable with the exception of “When I Kissed The Teacher” which is memorable but for all the aforementioned wrong reasons. And even if the insidiously catchy“Fernando” had been included, it wouldn’t have tipped Arrival into great album territory; the filler would still outnumber the killer.
Killer: Dancing Queen; Knowing Me Knowing You; Money,Money,Money; Tiger; (Fernando). Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; My Life, My Love; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival. Verdict: Again, filler outweighing killer…but this goes back to what I alluded to in the intro: the good tracks are so good, specifically “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me Knowing You”, they make the lesser songs sound a thousand times worse. That said, Arrival is still only half an album.
ABBA:The Album (1977)
HOPE:ABBA—The Album (1977). That title says it all. Abba—The Album may well have been the band’s first full-length release that sounded cohesive enough to call itself an album. Equal parts sophisticated and weird, The Album features ABBA’s two best rock(ish) songs (“Eagle”, “Hole In Your Soul”) as well as two straight up classics (“The Name Of The Game” with Agnetha absolutely killing on the verses and the swirling, hook hotel that is “Take A Chance On Me”). It also contains three songs from a mini-musical called The Girl With The Golden Hair that the group incorporated into shows during their 1977 tour. “I’m A Marionette” is the best of the aforementioned showtunes that while it sounds like it should be soundtracking a skating routine taking place at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, is full of bizarre, never boring tempo changes and a cool West Coast style guitar break. And I may be ensuring a front row seat in hell for saying this but I can’t freakin’ stand “Thank You For The Music” despite its nice Agnetha vocal. It reminds me of the Whoville Xmas song from the old Grinch TV special, but not in a good way. Nerd reference alert X-treme edition: There are two songs from the ‘80s that I used to really like that in retrospect appear to have brazenly borrowed bits from a couple of The Album’s tracks, hmmm…: 1.Malcolm McLaren’s spoken intro to his 1984 classic “Madame Butterfly” bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in “Move On”. 2.Really sounds like Blancmange nicked some “Hole In Your Soul” for their also fabulous “Lose Your Love” from 1985. Yeah, hmmm.
Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; The Name Of The Game; Hole In Your Soul; I’m A Marionette. Filler: One Man, One Woman; Move on; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder. Verdict: An extremely consistent effort featuring the highest number of quality songs on an ABBA album thus far. But while The Album has a more solid foundation than its predecessors, there still remains a significant gap between the great (2 songs), the good (3 songs) and the unexceptional (4 songs).
MATTHEW:ABBA—The Album (1977). Finally, a real album! This is, for me, a quantum leap forward as a coherent creative achievement; their best album, and the only one—yes, I’m sticking my neck out here—that is all killer, no filler. “Eagle” sets a confident tone with its soaring singalong chorus and its proggy balance of synths and multiple guitars, while the a cappella opening of “Take A Chance On Me” lets us know that this is album is going to be packed with surprising hooks and inventively bespoke production (er, there’s a piccolo trumpet solo on #1 hit “The Name of the Game”!). This is obviously not prog rock, and it may be too much of a reach to call it prog-pop, but it certainly leans that way, and is the only ABBA album to do so. The songs stretch out more, their production is more sophisticated and ambitious, and it is almost a concept album. Defend that bold claim? Ok! The theme of the last trio of songs, billed as that The Girl with Golden Hair “mini-musical” Hope mentions, is about reaching for fame and then feeling trapped by it. The elements of that simple story arc also appear in the previous six songs, like sneak previews of the emotions laid out in the mini-musical—with romance/marriage and artistic fame serving as metaphors for each other. The personal lives of the two couples were now on relentless display (the Abbamania of their Australia tour earlier in the year, harrowing tales of fans traveling to Sweden to walk into their homes, Agnetha craving privacy for her pregnancy but the band under intense pressure to record and tour); and thus the stage musical feel of that closing trio works as a concept within a concept. (I can see I’ve not convinced you, Hope, but it’s worth a try—and the album is worth another listen!)
Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; One Man, One Woman; The Name Of The Game; Move On; Hole In Your Soul; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder (Departure); I’m A Marionette. Filler: none! Verdict: The ABBA pinnacle: a great pop record with four excellent singles and a further five tracks that add to the album’s coherence rather than just filling it out. There’s no silly schlager shite on here; it’s a complete 40-minute pop-pleasure experience that never gets old. (But could they keep it up…?)
MATTHEW:Voulez-Vous (1979). How do you follow a prog-pop album that sold millions worldwide? Well, it’s 1979, so you make a disco-pop album. And here’s the thing: it works! Because Voulez-Vous is still very much an ABBA album. It’s not just disco, it’s disco-pop with ABBA mixed-bag lyrics, schlager roots, catchy melodies, irresistible Agnetha & Frida harmonies, and that signature key change to carry us to the final chorus. Like The Album, there is nothing silly on here, no “Dum Dum Diddle”-type filler. Also like its predecessor, Benny and Björn had a rough few months coming up with songs—this time the main problem was Björn and Agnetha’s imploding marriage—and those difficulties seem to have forced them to work harder and raise the bar higher. Björn later confessed that once he and Agnetha had decided to split, the tension in the studio was lifted, and the album came together. Ironically, it lacks a divorce-pop classic (the best of them would come on the next album). Ok, the children’s choir on “I Have a Dream” may be one layer of cheese too far, and “Lovers” is frankly awful. But the album as a whole wears well, not thin, even down to the non-single album tracks (“If It Wasn’t For the Nights” is a true deep-track delight). It’s a shame that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” were not included on the original album (they were pre-album singles, and were then added to later CD and streaming releases); they’re the best of up-beat late-period ABBA, one muscular rock-disco (reminiscent of the same year’s “Hot Stuff”), the other a strong candidate for the band’s catchiest dance track (deserving of its status as a straight wedding favorite and a gay anthem!).
Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; I Have a Dream; Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Does Your Mother Know?; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire. Filler: Lovers (Live A Little Longer). Verdict: A real album? Absolutely! This is a coherent, high-quality disco-pop album, packed with upbeat radio- and club-friendly ABBA-bangers, with each vinyl/cassette side pinned in the middle with an expertly crafted schlager-cheese ballad. It is as much of an album as, say, its Bee Gees contemporary, Spirits Having Flown (which is arguably the most coherent Gibb album, sharing some musical characteristics with Voulez-Vous—whose title track was partly recorded in the Miami studios used by the Bee Gees during this era). Even the one filler track is not terrible; I just wish it had been used as a B-side and that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included instead (yes, such a swap would have still fitted on a single vinyl record), as that would have made this hands down ABBA’s best album. As originally released, it shares that crown with its predecessor and with their swan-song album.
HOPE:Voulez-Vous (1979). Being a curmudgeon means when given a choice of listening to kitschy, happy, cartoonish ABBA or heartbroken, world-weary, adult ABBA, I tend to gravitate toward the latter. The weird part is that while Voulez-Vous leans heavily on the former, I think it may actually be one of the best ABBA albums, meaning the overall standard of quality is pretty high. For one thing it’s home to 3 of the absolute most beloved and popular ABBA songs ever, the title track, “Chiquitita” and “I Have a Dream”, as well as one of the cuter runts of the ABBA singles litter, ”Does Your Mother Know.” Though I should clarify that while I recognize the supreme craftsmanship on display in those tracks, as a curmudgeon, I’m not really in love with any of them. In fact I believe that as far as ABBA hits go, they are all strictly B-team. The most intriguing tracks on Voulez-Vous are actually, wait for it, the deep cuts, the unicorns that prior to this essay I didn’t believe existed. “If It Wasn’t For The Nights” is a fab piece of soul-disco, with an embraceable ‘70s Spinners vibe, full of clever melodic twists and home to a wickedly brilliant vocal arrangement. The manic “Kisses Of Fire” with its tripping chorus, and the propulsive, disco-fied “As Good As New” are also ridiculously fun ( listen to Agnetha throw down in the coda of “As Good…”, yes girl, yes). Yup, when it comes to Voulez-Vous the album, I’d much rather hang out with the non-single weirdos than the popular kids. P.S. I agree Matthew, oh if only “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included on Voulez-Vous, sigh. Not only are they both kinda bangers but maybe we would’ve been spared the shrill nightmare that is “Lovers (Live A Little Longer)”.
Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; Does Your Mother Know; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire. Filler: Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Lovers (Live A Little Longer). Verdict: A solid album, with a minimum of filler, and perhaps one of the lightest and least demanding in the discography. What keeps it from being great? Well it lacks a key element, namely the anchor/foundation of a classic ABBA heartbreaker (or two). Where are our divorce pop anthems (right Matthew)?! Throw a couple of those into the mix and Voulez-Vous would be heading into the maybe great album zone.
Super Trouper (1980)
MATTHEW:Super Trouper (1980). Melancholia is one of the cliches that foreigners attribute to Swedish culture, but it is a very real thread running through this album. Its causes are no mystery; they are displayed in the openers: the alienation of fame (the title track); and marital breakdown (here inspiring the band’s divorce-pop masterpiece, “The Winner Takes It All”). “On and On and On” rounds out the power trio of poignancy and pop production with which Super Trouper begins. But after that, it soon slips into being a sequel not to Voulez-Vous but to Arrival. ABBA works best when they retain a connection to their schlager roots without fully embracing them, but most of Side Two (especially “Happy New Year,” “Our Last Summer,” and “The Way Old Friends Do”) have more than a foot—more like nine toes—in the simple melodic sentimentalism of schlager. They should have put club banger “Lay All Your Love on Me” on Side One, and “Andante, Andante” (the least sexy song about tantric sex ever) on Two, subtitling the side “Nostalgia.” That said, I’m surely one among millions of Europeans who drunkenly sang along full throttle to “Happy New Year” whenever midnight brought January 1st in the early ‘80s—and likewise me and my friends can’t have been the only teenage partygoers to lie down on the ground and play dead to the song’s final line. The song may not do this album a big favor, but it sure as hell beat singing “Auld Lang Syne” and “Mull of Kintyre” yet again.
Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Me And I; Happy New Year; Lay All Your Love On Me. Filler: Andante, Andante; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do. Verdict: A flawed album, but still a real album. Comparable in mixed-bag quality to Arrival, but whereas the earlier record’s contrast between killer singles and dire filler made it a singles album, Super Trouper is consistent enough—as wistful as it is tuneful— to be an album.
HOPE: Super Trouper (1980). This album is frustrating. The first three songs,the sweet ‘n goofy title track, heavenly heartbreaker “The Winner Takes It All” and punchy gumdrop “On And On And On,” all hint at great things. Also present and welcome are the resolutely fun disco banger “Lay All Your Love On Me” and majestic synth-pop oddball “Me & I”. Plus this album is home to some of Björn’s most wonderfully batshit lyrics, inspired by everything from Stephen King’s novel of fascism and influenza, The Stand ( “The Piper”) to a type of spotlight (the title track) to bi-polarity (“Me & I”). Unfortunately the five good song heroes are countered by an equal number of vile enemies. There is a particularly cloying, syrupy melodic quality and unpleasant novelty vibe to the baddies and the aforementioned “The Piper” ( title says it all), “Andante, Andante” (“let your body be the velvet of the night”, wtf) and “The Way Old Friends Do” (just ugh okay) are all afflicted. I hear these songs and completely understand why ol’ David Crosby isn’t feeling this ABBA thing, because honestly in those cases, neither am I.
Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Lay All Your Love On Me; Me And I. Filler: Andante,Andante; Happy New Year; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do. Verdict: This one is pretty black and white, definitively half killer, half filler, though I should add there is only one genuine classic present on Super Trouper, “The Winner Takes It All”.
The Visitors (1981)
MATTHEW:The Visitors (1981). Is it fair to say this is the sleeper album in ABBA’s catalogue? After all, if the millions who assume ABBA was a singles band know any studio album of theirs, it would be Arrival; certainly not this. Yet it is not only a bona fide album, it does what the best old albums do: it reflects the moment in which it was created (in this case, pop’s embrace of new electronic instrumentation and production) while resting on enough songcraft to hold up decades later. It has a distinct feel to it, but remains an ABBA album, complete with an upbeat pop hit (“Head Over Heels”), a masterful divorce-pop classic (“One of Us”), a few tracks to remind us how badly Benny & Björn were dying to write musicals (“I Let the Music Speak” is almost operatic), a sweet slice of Agnetha-sung sentimentality (“Slipping Through My Fingers” is ABBA’s “She’s Leaving Home”), and even a goofy and creepy reminder of all those early summer variety show songs that filled early ABBA albums (“Two For the Price of One”). Of all eight albums, The Visitors is the one that keeps growing on me most, after all these years.
Originally a record of 9 tracks, 4 of which were singles, this was one of the very first albums released worldwide (in 1982) on CD. It was followed by two singles (“The Day Before You Came” and “Under Attack”), part of a possible ninth album that never happened; as of 1981, the band comprised two divorced couples, and the whole thing was rapidly becoming untenable. So the 9th album never happened, and those two final songs were included on a 1982 compilation called The Singles. They’re also included, along with a pair of B-sides, on some later reissues of The Visitors (such as the version on streaming services now). It is a shame “The Day Before You Came” was not written and recorded in time to be included on the original Visitors, because it is an extraordinary song: almost six minutes of building verses with no chorus, hypnotic and haunting, dark and dystopic, a triumphant meeting of divorce-pop and early ‘80s electro-pop. Is it about the band? Or about God?! Or about divorce, seen through a nostalgia for the mundanity of life before the relationship ever began, thus tossing a blanket of pain over it all—even the joy of romance and early marriage? If so, it is the capstone of ABBA’s run of divorce-pop masterpieces, from “SOS” to “Winner” to “One of Us,” but musically closer to contemporary synth pioneers like John Foxx and Gary Numan (closer, not close!). Substitute “Price of One” with “The Day Before You Came” and The Visitors might well be ABBA’s best album.
Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said and Done; Soldiers; I Let the Music Speak; One of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. Filler: Two For the Price of One. Verdict: Without any doubt, a real album, and a swan song of which to be proud. Elegantly poignant, surprisingly rewarding, with more deep tracks than filler. Even the singles are sophisticated. As much as I love The Album, I’d be hard pushed to argue with someone trying to persuade me this is better.
HOPE:The Visitors (1981). “Here’s to us, one more toast, and then we’ll pay the bill, Deep inside, both of us can feel the autumn chill” sings Frida in “When All Is Said And Done”. That line pretty much encapsulates what is happening on The Visitors, the final ABBA studio album. The album is often characterized as the official ABBA divorce record as both couples had officially split by this point (reductive and true). But to go back to that lyric in the first line, the album isn’t only documenting ABBA leaving each other, it’s the physical manifestation of the behemoth beloved ABBA breaking up with their old sound and identity. The Visitors isn’t a moonlight snuggle session in “Tropical Loveland”, no, it’s being surprised by KGB or STASI agents trying to force their way into your home (the title track). With its chilly synths, spare arrangements and world weary world views of the sort present on early Ultravox albums, The Visitors sees ABBA exiting their bouncy castle bubble and stepping forthrightly toward the future (in their own lustrous ABBA way of course, meaning as icy as it is, every single track remains inherently radio friendly).
And so The Visitors is a curious egg, a disorienting place where Barbra Streisand on Broadway style vocal flourishes ( “I Let The Music Speak”) rub shoulders with dreamy acknowledgments of Robert Palmer’s fab early ‘80s eerie electronic era (“Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”). It is also home to two of the finest and most undervalued ABBA singles in the band’s history; rousing anthem of amicable parting “When All Is Said And Done” and self-pity oompa loompa sing-along “One Of Us”. Alas while both are resolutely fine, neither ever seem to appear within the bands Top 10’s on the streaming services or YouTube. Even more egregious is the fact that the former didn’t even feature on Gold. Oh sure there was plenty of room for “Does Your (freakin’) Mother Know” but no room at the inn for the undeniably gorgeous “WAISAD”. Yup. Over the years it’s become abundantly clear that frank, forthright ABBA doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance against frothy, frivolous ABBA, no matter how sweet a tune the sentiments are wrapped in. Mamma mia.
It’s unfortunate that both the bona fide cult classic “The Day Before You Came”—which features basically the Best Björn Lyrics Ever™—and infectious little wonder “Under Attack” were not part of The Visitors. Beyond the fact that they’re great songs, the album itself has always felt oddly short to me at 9 songs. And “Under Attack “ in particular would have injected a welcome bit of melodic candy into the darkness. And as you so perfectly and cuttingly noted Matthew, it wouldn’t be an ABBA album without at least one piece of vintage cringe present, that being the twee and excruciating “Two For The Price Of One”. As it is about a ménage involving a Mother and her (adult) daughter I feel strongly compelled to share an ironic and slimy observational sidenote; it’s not a patch on David Crosby’s 1971 song on the same subject “Triad”. And so on the ménage pop front, if you are keeping score, it is in fact Crosby- 1, ABBA nil.
Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said And Done; Soldiers; I Let The Music Speak ; One Of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. Filler: Two For The Price of One. Verdict: The Visitors is an intrinsically sad, often weird, completely hypnotic piece of pop music art. A downbeat and drug-free Rumours. A poptastic and efficient Here My Dear. It is a really good album. Yes, I said it. Album. I bow to its sugar icicle tears.
Now it’s history: Our Final Verdicts…
MATTHEW: So, were ABBA just a singles band? When I started this conversation with you, Hope, I guessed I would reluctantly conclude “yes.” But I was surprised by the second half of the catalogue: all four records are real albums, each with its own distinct feel, filled not with filler but with great album tracks (many of which just happened to be smash singles). I’m glad you didn’t ask me to rank them, as I find it impossible to separate out the best three, tied at the top: The Album, Voulez-Vous, and The Visitors; with Super Trouper a clear fourth. As for the first half of the studio catalog, I’d rank them in reverse order of release, with Arrival fifth, then ABBA, and Waterloo and Ring Ring at the bottom. Hope, what’s your ranking and verdict on singles-album vs real-album?
HOPE: It’s weird because in the pass/fail sense I do ultimately consider them to be a singles band…but I admit after really spending time with everything there is some grey area. As you point out, Matthew, the overall quality of the albums started to pick up from 1976’s Arrival onward. The Visitors is a damn fine album, easily my favorite followed by Voulez-Vous in second. I’d consider those two to be full-fledged albums, satisfying, immersive and virtually filler free. The others though are too inconsistent to qualify as great albums. I’d rank ‘em like this: The Album, Super Trouper, Arrival in that order with the triumvirate of ABBA, Waterloo and Ring Ring sharing each other’s clothes and bringing up the rear.
MATTHEW: Our verdicts prompt the question, why do ABBA have that singles-band rep (even with us)? I think that the weakness of the first three albums laid the groundwork for that image; after all, they were albums that packaged singles with filler. Then Arrival sealed it, by being a mixed killer-filler bag that sold so well—bought for its huge singles by consumers who could hardly ignore the filler (unless they had a good fast-forward feature on their tape decks). If any doubt remained a decade after ABBA split up, it was quashed by 1992’s Gold, one of the most successful singles compilations in music history. The phenomenal success of the Mamma Mia! musical and movie surely led fans back to Gold and its follow-up More Gold, not to the studio albums. As for serious fans awakened by the rehabilitation of ABBA in the 90s, they were likely drawn less to the old studio albums and more to the 1994 4-CD box set, Thank You For the Music, which—in my view—reinforces the singles band image by throwing in dodgy B-sides along with all the singles. Ironically, their comeback reinforced that old prejudice. So, if you know Gold, but we’ve made you curious, I’d suggest trying the albums in reverse order, starting with The Visitors and going back to Ring Ring (which is also not far off our loose ranking, if you crunch our two final verdicts); and if you don’t get further back than Arrival, we wouldn’t judge you. What do you think, Hope?
HOPE: What’s funny is that when I was a kid, before I’d ever heard of the term “singles band”, even if I liked an ABBA song I was never motivated to buy a whole album. Not even once. I only ever bought the 45s. And believe me when I tell you I seriously loved “Take A Chance on Me”, playing it repeatedly as I pranced around my room. Why wasn’t I interested in hearing or owning the album it came from? I had no such reservations over say ELO or the Bee Gees or any of my other kid faves. Yet something always held me back from investigating any further, a faint inner voice whispering no girl, it’s not gonna get any better than that 45 you’re holding.
And that voice wasn’t technically wrong. When it comes to ABBA the singles were the finest jewels they had to offer, their most meticulously built and perfectly crafted creations. And so in terms of the eight studio albums, nothing comes close to Gold as a listening experience because nothing can, the deck is stacked with endless transcendence, it’s impossible for them to compete.
On the surface ABBA seemed frivolous and fun which, fair or not, implied that albums were not the priority. And the first three albums support this (understatement). They weren’t interested in securing a lingering emotional investment from the listener or spreading their wares over a whole album side to slowly seduce and convince people. Every ABBA song was a now or never proposition, a characterization that they never really shook. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. You can feel it in every fiber of “Waterloo”. There was no cohesive Dark Side Of The Moon style mission statement being made on an ABBA album, all that mattered was the spaghetti that stuck to the wall. The quality disparity between the songs seems to uphold this idea. And that general perception never really went away, in fact Gold pretty much cemented it for all eternity.
But you know what else? The Visitors is a great freakin’ album. Weird yet welcoming. Sad but celebratory. And there are some wickedly cool deep cuts within the other seven studio albums that land firmly on the “killers” side of the ledger. But as rewarding as it was for Matthew and I to experience those hidden in plain sight treasures, it was equally as fun to marvel slack-jawed at just how f-ing good those hits were. I am listening to “When All Is Said And Done” as I write this and even after all these years, it is still making me involuntarily shake my head in awe and wonder. Dig in dancing queens…
MATTHEW: Voyage (2021).
Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down; Just a Notion; No Doubt About It; I Can Be That Woman; Bumblebee; Ode to Freedom Filler: When You Danced With Me;Little Things; Keep an Eye on Dan Verdict: There’s good news and bad news here (as befits an ABBA album). The good news is that there are four stone-cold instant ABBA classics, sounding like long-lost gems from their late-’70s albums or hits from the early ‘80s albums that never happened; they are the first four I’ve listed above as “Killer.” I tried inserting them into a playlist of their classic 1992 compilation, Gold (I imagine it as Gold, Old and New, or maybe Still Golden; perhaps you can do better!), and these four new songs slip seamlessly right in. As has been noted in most of the reviews, the old boys of ABBA deliberately tried to be “trend blind,” so we are spared the embarrassment of phoned-in guest appearances by the pop starlet or hip-hop hero du jour. As a result, those four songs make it seem as if four years, not four decades, has passed since the last album. And, hey, doesn’t that make us all feel younger? Now for the bad news: there are six more tracks that don’t pass the gold test; we can be generous and say that three are silver, and three are bronze. The three silvers (“Woman,” “Bumblebee,” and “Ode”) I have also included as “Killer,” because I like them and they certainly belong on my imaginary More Gold, Old and New (More Gold came out in 1993). But the three simply don’t go anywhere: that is, they start well, but then instead of building, instead of giving us those corny ABBA chord changes or a bridge packed with catchy harmonies or any of the other sonic tricks in the BB bag, the songs just end. And suddenly, it does feel as if it has been four decades. As for the three bronzes: well, there is a dog in at least three songs on Voyage, so having one in the title and chorus (“Dan”) takes the album’s dominant theme of post-divorce domesticity a tad too far. As does the aspartame Christmas song (“Little Things”), whose placing as track 3 (after the grating “When You Danced”) is unfortunate. Shuffle them both to the end and they become more tolerable. In sum, this isn’t up there with the best ABBA albums, but nor is it down there with their weaker early ones. It falls somewhere in the middle, notable for its Killer and Filler, as one would expect. So, do I still have faith in the AAs and BBs? Absolutely. Bring those ABBAtars to life!
Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down;Just A Notion; I Can Be That Woman; No Doubt About It;Ode to Freedom Filler: When You Danced With Me; Little Things;Keep An Eye On Dan;Bumblebee Verdict: I’m with you Matthew, so much so that our Killer and Filler picks only differ by one damn song! To be honest I was okay with the fact that ABBA were done and would likely never release a new album again. While no album by anybody is technically “necessary”, their existing catalog is of such a particular standard and has achieved such ubiquity that a new album seemed kind of, I don’t know, pointless. And so when Voyage was announced my first reaction was concern, as in, do you want to possibly besmirch the legacy you created with something sub-standard knowing all the attention this thing’s gonna get? But then I remembered the millions of post-break up ABBA fanatics, many of whom were not alive during the band’s heyday, and ultimately thought it was kind of cool that they were going to get to hear new ABBA music in real-time.
This album is…okay. I too utilized my inner default button while listening, mine being a “pretend it’s 1977 and these are new ABBA songs” button. And yes, there are a few that stand tall in that context ( and that could comfortably slot into Gold as you say Matthew).
Opening track “I Still Have Faith In You” with its stark and supremely moving Frida vocal and laid back twin cheeseballs “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Just A Notion”, are all fabulous and worthy of spots on future reissues of Gold or, as we are officially calling it here, Still Gold (go Matthew). To my ears, these three songs are the stars of Voyage. Amongst the “Killers”, I have semi-grudgingly included both “No Doubt” and “Ode” because while neither are exceptional, they meet the general quality standard required of a good ABBA song. The former has a compellingly cool tempo change, the latter a sweetly wistful string arrangement ( though it does veer dangerously close to the flame of an Olympic torch lighting ceremony theme song ).
My “it could go either way” choice is wtf gaslighting ballad “I Can Be That Woman” which is as weird and disturbing a song as ABBA have ever released which is the sole reason I am categorizing it as “Killer”. Its power trio of pathetic microaggression, Tammy the dog and Agnetha singing”screw you” cannot be denied.
Bringing up the rear are “When You Danced With Me” (a painful hybrid of Big Country and “It’s A Small World”), “Bumblebee” (another track with that unwelcome Olympic opening ceremony theme vibe), “Little Things” ( a b-side studio scrap at best) and the genuinely cringeworthy “Keep An Eye On Dan” (ugh).
Is Voyage the last new music from ABBA we will ever hear ? Frida has insinuated that it may not be. In a recent interview with BBC2 she said, “I have learned to say never say never. We have probably said this must be the last thing we do – think of our ages, we are not young any longer. But you never know – don’t be too sure.”
I miss the pop world of the ’80s. I was absolutely entrenched in at as a teen, consumed with both MTV and WLIR radio, spending every nickel of my pocket $ on records and questionable clothing (neon baby neon), waiting outside all day at to get into those general admission shows at the Pier in NYC so I could be as close to Boy George or Richard Butler as humanly possible. I long for a time where when you saw someone on the street with blue hair you knew they were into the same music as you (now that’s some passive-aggressive “get off my lawn-ing right there…sad, truly sad).
And so unsurprisingly I still find myself drawn to sounds that remind me of those from that time. Songs with synths and guitars. Fat chorus’s and massive hooks. Vocalists who just plain wail. Tunes that exude color. Which brings me to Caroline Kingsbury whose debut album Heaven’s Just A Flight was released this week. When I first stumbled upon her stuff a few years ago I was staggered by how freakin’ good it was. Her songs possessed those aforementioned nerve-center triggering elements but they still sounded “now”, not remotely dated. They brought to mind ’80s pop Madonna (the best Madonna), Cyndi Lauper (who could wail and pop), Missing Persons (underrated), Human League (genius) and New Order (better than Joy Division) in various combinations. Every single song had that familiar, wondrous, shiny and okay, neon heartbeat, every one sounded like a single. Caroline’s “In My Brain” is one of my absolute favorite tracks of the whole freakin’ 21st century. Crazy but true. I sometimes fantasize about Madonna finally getting off her interminable dance tip and making magnificent pop songs again and Caroline writing them with/for her.
And with that I welcome you to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs we’ve heard over recent days. This week was stuffed with stuff, sonically scattered with blinding pop, bombastic anthems, behemoth beauteous prog and epic heartbreakers. What I’m saying is there were a lot of great songs this week. Not only can you check them all out below ( on Soundcloud or Spotify) but you to can also hear Caroline Kingsbury’s exquisite album Heaven’s Just A Flight, just below those playlists. Open your heart…
Listen on Soundcloud
Listen on Spotify
Listen to Caroline Kingsbury Heaven’s Just A Flight
There’s a moment in the video of Fleetwood Mac’s thundering chant “Tusk” (circa 1979), where Stevie Nicks struts around the Dodger Stadium infield and serves up some truly ace baton twirling (go to 3.40 of the video’s outtakes right here and join in the worshipful basking). While all of us children will get older, watching Stevie march around twirling that thing never will. It may well be the ultimate GIF. This past week saw the release of the deluxe version of Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 “Live” album which as a completist nerd I had to buy whether I really wanted to or not. Listening to it in all its remastered glory invariably pushed me back in the arms of the live Mac experience and led to the creation of an extravagant playlist with no less than 17 different versions of the song “Sara”. Which is excessive and sick…but you know, it’s “Sara” so…
And know what else, there was also wondrous new music to compliment the stunning sounds of the Mac’s 1980 tour. Welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the sweetest and finest new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. You can listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify. Never change, never stop.
It was Vincent Van Gogh’s 168th birthday last week (!) and so there were a lot of news stories about the two touring virtual shows of his work. Both feature massive wall projections of paintings and are going for that complete physical immersion thing. The actual painting of “Starry Night” lives at MOMA in NYC. It is surprisingly unassuming in person being only 2′ 5″ x 3′ 0″ in size. But it’s also a superstar with a full time guard keeping an eye on it as endless “Starry” fans/stans take turns standing reverently before it and communing.
I took the pic above about 10 years ago at MOMA, of this couple spending a minute with “Starry”. Just before I took it, the companion of the woman in the wheelchair had pushed her up next to it and taken a photo of her smiling alongside it. She was ecstatic. Her companion then took her to view it from the front where she stared at it for a few minutes with complete, unabashed love. It was beyond moving and nearly made my heart explode (okay, I almost cried but held on and thankfully spared everyone). To this day, whenever I hear Van Gogh’s name, this is the first thing that pops in my head. Right, I hope you are feeling as misty as me right now.
Speaking of gorgeous and heart-squeezing art, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the best new music that crossed our path this week. It was a very plush, lush, neon lit, glow pop kind of week. Come get immersed below…
While I wasn’t ever an ’80s glam-hair-pop metal hater, I was definitely never a fan. There’s only one song from the era I could say I ever spent genuine quality time with; the windblown, overwrought, mountainous power ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Kix which is slathered in all kinds of genius (watch here). “Don’t close your eye-eee-eyes!”. Anyway, I was one of those elitist new wave people back in the day (ugh) and could not have been less interested in the rest. Yet here I am immersing myself in the new book “Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion” by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock. It features all the usual suspects including Mötley C, Poison, Ratt, Quiet Riot and yes a fair number of triumphantly offensive incidents are recounted (I’m 100% here for that). What’s weird is that it hasn’t made me want to listen to or revisit the actual music (though, okay, I like to watch the Mötley video for “Home Sweet Home” at least once a year just because). Still, I’m only halfway through the book so I suppose there’s still a glimmer of hope. “Don’t close your eye-eee-eyes!”
Welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. I know every week I say the songs within it are amazingly, heart-squeezingly good but I especially mean it this week. They are all surely occupying the # 1 spot in another galaxy. Listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify.
This is the last weekend of existence for the RoughTrade Shop In Brooklyn before they make the big move to NYC this summer. Over the years I’d scribbled a bunch of chalk drawings on the extremely bumpy walls there like a Rock and Roll cave person & wanted to post ’em one last time before they get hosed down forever. And there’s never a bad time to honor Poly Styrene (1st pic), Prince (2nd pic is lyrics to ‘I Would Die For You’) & smoking sheep (my spirit animal). And hey, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. They are handsome & lustrous heart barnacles & currently tied for # 1 in a glorious alternate universe. You can hear ’em all below on Soundcloud or Spotify.
Right, that’s one of my actual grade school spelling tests from when I was already a staggering 10 years of age. Troubling indeed. I also misheard my 7th grade Health teacher use the word “hores” instead of “pores” and naively, innocently and absolutely wrote an essay about skin that was basically full of whores (that I wish I still had). I’m trying to do better I swear…though if I ever form a band we are definitely gonna be called The Wendsday Whores.
But hey, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the best new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. This weeks batch is simultaneously ethereal, dirty and windblown and righteously beautiful in every way. Listen below on Soundcloud or Spotify.
Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) have a running list of artists whose respective catalogues we want to break down (figuratively) because our commitment to nerdiness is boundless. Welcome to the latest installment of this madness, This Is My Investigation where we will attempt to rumble through and rate the discography of dad rock kingpins Dire Straits. Wheels on…
The Game Commences: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Dire assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but we are united in appreciation of the behemoth known as Dire Straits.
Here’s Mark Knopfler shredding, just because…
MATTHEW: With a catalogue of only six studio albums—and not a single one of them bad—Dire Straits may seem like an easy band to chat about and rate (hey, we just wrote 16k words rating the entire Macca catalog so we deserve a break! Read that here). And maybe that would be the case, were our opinions matched by those of most record-buyers and music critics—who helped make one of those six records, Brothers in Arms, responsible for a third of the band’s 100 million worldwide album sales. But they don’t. So there.
HOPE: I have a weird relationship with Dire Straits. They aren’t one of my all-time favorite bands…but I do genuinely like them. Okay true confession; I am not a guitar aficionado. Not an axe girl. Which is to say that while I’m appreciative of great playin’, elongated solos generally aren’t my thing. Fact is Mark Knopfler’s virtuosic skills have never been the most appealing thing about Dire Straits for me nor the magnetic force that made me want to listen; it’s always just been the songs themselves. I like their cinematic moodiness and how the average running time of a typical track is a fulsome 5 minutes allowing for complete headphone immersion. Put simply, I like how you can get lost in them. That’s what I like about Dire Straits.
Dire Straits (1978)
MATTHEW: Dire Straits (1978, UK #5, US #2, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in two of them, sold 10m): 8/10. Deceptively simple and solid, this stunning debut is crafted to be so timeless that at the peak of the punk-vs-disco era, it simply sounded right, and still sounds right today. There isn’t a duff track on it, and arguably not even a duff note. Side B—“Sultans of Swing” to “Lions”—is an amazing 22 minutes, brimming with restrained energy. It was cued as Side A on most cassette editions, including the one I flogged into submission the year it was released. I was then 14 years old, torn between The Sex Pistols and ABBA (how was it possible to love both? Was something wrong with me?!), and therefore relieved and grateful for an album that offered refuge from the “cool” minefield. Neither too edgy nor too poppy, but still hip and tuneful, Dire Straits was safe but not dull. It only gets 8/10 from here because in retrospect, and compared to what followed, its safeness seems relatively…well, safe. The potential of all its influences and elements is incipient here, yet to be explored and developed—from the elements I love, such as prog-rock long-form rock jams and moody blues-based ballads, to those I don’t (but others do), such as rockabilly and country.
HOPE:Dire Straits (1978): 4/10. Bluesy, dusty and endlessly twanging Dire Straits is built to soundtrack both lengthy journeys across desert highways or slow walks through either saloon or pub doors. But okay, I find this album a bit samey (Hey Matthew, is that the same as “dull”?). On the upside,“Wild West End” possesses an appealingly horny charm, its laid back ogling offering a more romantic spin on the sentiments expressed in Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s more sinister observational anthem from the previous year “Street In The City”(listen here). And “Lions” has the sweetly appealing gait of a Thin Lizzy deep cut. But of course the undeniable star of the album is “Sultans of Swing”, the band’s signature song and eternal sonic specter (literally, as its infectious guitar figure haunts a solid handful of other DS songs in the discography)…still, as cool as those 3 tracks are, I just, can’t, quite, latch, onto the rest.
MATTHEW:Communiqué (1979, UK #5, US #11, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them, sold 7m): 9/10. Along with millions of others on both sides of the Atlantic, I was primed by my love of the first album to either be disappointed by the sequel (ooh, just not as good?) or thrilled by it (another great album so soon?). For me, it was the latter: I thought this was a brilliant sophomore album, and from the very start I loved it even more than the first; I still do. Without a “Sultans of Swing” to overshadow the album, it struck me as having more balance, a sibling to the first album, for sure, yet hinting ever so slightly at a musical development that—little did I know in ‘79—would be fully realized in the two albums to follow. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, as the last album before Mark’s brother David quit (he left during recording sessions for the next one), the album has a warmth of tone unique to the band’s catalogue. In retrospect, the tendency to rank this at the bottom of the catalogue is mystifying; some critics seemed to see the lack of a hit single (“Lady Writer” failed to repeat the success of “Sultan”) and the album’s release on the heels of the debut as signs that this was a second-rate rush-job.
Listening to the two albums now, I see zero drop in quality. In fact, the more I listen to them together, the more convinced I am that Communiqué is the better of the two, an evolutionary step forward in song-writing. I see why you find some of the debut album boring, Hope (even if it doesn’t bore me), but I think there’s nothing nondescript in this one. There’s a tension here both in the story-telling (Knopfler is a troubadour at heart) and in the guitar-picking laid-back groove that runs from the opening lick of “Once Upon a Time in the West” to the blissfully soporific lilt of “Follow Me Home.” And in the middle, the menacing masterpiece that is “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” Unlike you, Hope, I adore a ridiculously long guitar jam, and I wish the minute-long solo that ends this song was more like ten minutes (even if the change in tempo disturbingly suggests that the narrator has gone from threatening to actually chasing; oh yes, this is narrative pop-rock at its best!).
HOPE:Communiqué (1979): 4/10. These early albums feel like a journey to get to the next place, developmental in a sense. The western film theme/pub sound is still fairly dominant here which is to say my favorite track is the (slightly) weirdest one, closer “Follow Me Home” (crickets, lapping waves, sinewy, subtle and dark, yeah, I’ll have that). And “ Where Do You Think You’re Going?” possesses a pretty nifty riff and a nice snarling vocal from Knopfler…but both this and the self-titled album are just not sticky enough for me, not melodically memorable and are ultimately a little too meandering to inspire endless listening. There are a few genuinely good tracks on each but to my ears they both wither in the wake of what came after. P.S. My inner musical conspiracy theorist believes that Gordon “Sting” Sumner brazenly pilfered the guitar figure from “News” for “Fragile”.
Making Movies (1980)
MATTHEW:Making Movies (1980, UK #4, US #19, Top Ten in six nations, sold 7m): 8/10. I adored this when it came out, and I have often returned to it for the same reason: it is a bigger, brighter, more melodic version of the formula from the first two albums. The addition of keyboardist Roy Bittan (from the E Street Band) feels like a natural step forward, and is it my imagination that there is a hint of Springsteen/E Street on here? On a different day, I might rate Making Movies a 9. Today, it’s an 8/10 because I’m bothered by something that has periodically nagged at me for forty years: isn’t this a concept album about lost love, five great songs over 30 minutes, but with two misfit tracks at the end to bring it to 38”? It’s infuriating because that first half-hour is sublime, an evolution of that troubadour style into poignancy and beauty. Stick to the first five tracks, all classics, and skip the last two clunkers.
HOPE:Making Movies (1980): 9/10. Unlike the previous 2 albums, there are no songs on Making Movies that would work to soundtrack a Western duel. No, this album is fueled by more modern day machinations…in other words, meet the new Dire Straits featuring less twanging and more grooving. The album is a perfect intermingling of wistfulness and desire ( and okay, a handful of horniness) and so yes, it could rightfully be characterized as Springsteen-esque. My first interaction with this album came not via beloved evergreen epic “Romeo and Juliet” but with the now iconic video for “Skateaway” starring the late Jayzik Azikiwe as Rollergirl (watch below). Not only did I think she was simultaneously one of the coolest and hottest humans I’d ever seen, I found the song itself intoxicating and appealingly weird, unpredictable and groovy. It also features one of my absolute favorite Knopfler scenery chewing talk-singing vocal performances. But to be clear the 4 songs that surround it are equally sweet ( need to call out that coda in “Romeo and Juliet” with its “you and me babe how about it?” because yes, it just plain rules). The last 2 tracks “Solid Rock” and “Les Boys” are straight up sub b-side scraps and so, in my heart, Making Movies will always be a handsome, top down 5 song EP.
Love Over Gold (1982)
HOPE:Love Over Gold (1982, UK #1, US #19, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in five of them, sold 8m): 7/10. Why do I sort of love Love Over Gold ? Allow me to oversimplify and generalize : 1-It sounds good in the rain, 2- There are only 5 songs, each of which are 5 minutes plus making it ideal for complete aural immersion, 3- As such the whole thing feels very cinematic, epic and widescreen making it a fine soundtrack for lengthy daydreaming sessions. “Telegraph Road” is both fist-pumpingly melodic and tear-jerking poignant…and for a song that is the musical equivalent of War and Peace in terms of length (14 plus minutes), it still feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. Oh “Private Investigations”, I think you are very beautiful, standing under that streetlight, all monumental and majestic, full of resignation and sadness. But hey, hey, not ignoring you “Love Over Gold”, you are also ravishing and lovely especially your literally 3 minute rainswept instrumental outro/coda. Sidenote; to this day I still get a kick out of hearing the seeds of “Private Dancer” the future megahit Knopfler wrote and gifted to Tina Turner in the song’s chorus.
Why do I only sort of love Love Over Gold i.e. not full on?…well there are 2 tracks I’m not nuts about namely the album closer “It Never Rains”, a just okay, kinda perky sub-standard Springsteen-style song and, ugh, “Industrial Disease”. I’ve tried to rationalize its inclusion by reminding myself that The Police did this kind of thing on all 5 of their otherwise immaculate studio albums, namely including at least one genuinely cringey “comedic” song amongst the stellar ones. The half full mentality says the cringers ultimately make the better songs shine even more brightly…but when an album is only 5 songs in length and 2 of them are not great, their presence becomes painfully magnified. This is why my love for Love Over Gold will always have a heart-shaped asterisk next to it.
MATTHEW:Love Over Gold (1982): 9/10. Why do I unabashedly love Love Over Gold? Sometimes one is lucky enough to experience love at first listen; and that’s how it was with this record. I can still remember the first time I heard “Private Investigations”: I was listening to BBC Radio 1 in my mother’s MG, flying between the hedgerows along a tiny country road, and Tony Blackburn played the song twice in a row, because it was that good, and he didn’t care that his program manager was yelling at it him; then he said, if you like this song, you’re going to love the other track on Side A, its over twice as long! Old Tony was right. That’s the epic “Telegraph Road,” of course, and I’ve not stopped playing their combined 21” (Side A on the record) for almost four decades. The whole record is masterful.
Well, except perhaps for Side B’s “Industrial Disease,” which hinted too strongly (for my tastes) at the retro-rockabilly virus that would infect the later albums. At first, I skipped it, to go straight to the bliss of the title track and “It Never Rains.” But then I caught one of the final concerts of the Love Over Gold tour—in London in the summer of 1983—and “Industrial Disease” was great played live (as you can hear on Alchemy; see below). That helped me to see how the song serves a useful purpose, as a sort of lightweight relief in the middle of the wonderful but arguably earnest prog-rock pretentions of the two tracks before and two tracks after. That said, I’ve never completely embraced its inclusion on the album. As you note, Hope, there are echoes of “Private Dancer” in this album’s title track, making rather confounding Knopfler’s rationale for giving to Tina Turner what would become the title track to her comeback album. Wouldn’t the song have been a great way to start Side B of Love Over Gold, instead of “Disease”?!
Brothers In Arms (1985)
MATTHEW:Brothers in Arms (1985, UK #1, US #1, #1 in ten nations, sold 31m): 6/10. At 30 million units sold, and one of the ten best-selling albums of all time in the UK, this is their biggest record by far, typically cited as their best. But while it has some great tracks—like the beautiful title song—it is marred by intolerably artless and irritating tripe like “Walk of Life,” which turned me off the band for so long they’d broken up by the time I forgave them. Apparently, the producer wanted to toss “WoL” in the B-sides bin, but he was overruled by the band; if he’d had his way, he wouldn’t have been forced to edit down every track on Side A except “WoL” for the vinyl version, which only added insult to injury. The offending single is preceded by “Money For Nothing,” which is a classic example of an overexposed song: it is a brilliant rock/pop single, I understand why it remains so popular, and I don’t skip it when I’m playing the album; but I would be fine with never hearing it again.
“WoL” is then followed by “Your Latest Trick,” the fifth (!) successful single from the album, and a wonderful example of that soft rock style that would characterize Mark Knopfler’s solo records (and indeed the B-sides were both Knopfler solo recordings). I love the trumpet and sax licks by the Brecker brothers. And that is the thing with Brothers: it lurches between the annoying and the sublime, the overexposed and the timeless. Instead of a further step towards prog-ish, blues-rock theatricality, this was a step sideways from the theatre to the arena. I realize that this is a treasured artifact from the childhood or youth of millions, but for me this was always less compelling and coherent than any of its four predecessors, all of which I always preferred.
HOPE:Brothers in Arms (1985): 5/10. Goodbye adventurous idiosyncratic weirdness, hello expensive stadium-ready sleekness. It’s disappointing that Brothers, an album nowhere near as good as its 2 predecessors and the most sonically polite and plush release in the entire Dire Straits discography is the album that has come to define the band. I wholeheartedly agree with your 3 points Matthew; the title track is lovely, “Walk Of Life” is literally tripe and “Money For Nothing” has absolutely worn out its welcome. As for the rest, “Your Latest Trick” with its “sexy sax”, the swaying palms of “Why Worry”, the faux Peter Gabriel vibe of “Ride Across The River”, the positively Clapton-ish (ugh) “So Far Away” are not a patch on painterly, riveting tracks like “Private Investigations” or “Skateaway” or “Love Over Gold”. Lastly we need to address the elephant in the room, namely the legendary Knopfler headband, immortalized in glowing neon glory in the “Money For Nothing” video and whose ascent as key cultural artifact peaked right about here. Along with the Mercury and Oates mustaches, MJ glove, ZZ Top keyring and Madonna’s giant crucifix necklace, it is unquestionably one of the ‘80s most iconic pop accoutrements, in other words, #knopflersheadband.
On Every Street (1991)
MATTHEW:On Every Street (1991, UK #1, US #12, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in eight of them, sold 9m): 6/10. The success of Brothers in Arms kept the band touring so heavily that it essentially broke them up (they were officially “inactive” or disbanded, depending on what you read, from 1988 to 1991). This therefore sounds more like a Mark Knopfler solo album for that reason; sadly, that means none of the prog-ish ambition of the early 80s, but more of the country incipient on the late 70s ones, with a touch of the retro-rockabilly that infected the 1982-85 material. Still, aside from two of its five singles—“Heavy Fuel” & “The Bug”—being as annoying as the two big hits on Brothers, this is a fine swan song, intricately crafted and played; I completely ignored it at the time, not bothering to give it a chance for over a decade, but I’m glad now that the band had one last go of it (I love “Planet of New Orleans,” for example).
HOPE:On Every Street (1991): 3/10.There’s an old scrapbook of memories vibe to this album; it sounds like a sentimental tribute to younger days. I like the bones of the title track (tune, words) but the woodwind infusion feels intrusive and the overall orchestral feel brings to mind trawling grassy mountain tops with a walking stick as opposed to roaming the lonely city which to my ears always feels at odds with the lyrical sentiment. The retro-rockabilly tracks, the self-consciously noirish blues of “Fade To Black” as well as the Eddie Cochran/Roy Orbison flavored throwback “Ticket To Heaven” are also lacking that intrinsic mystical something for me. In conclusion On Every Street is pleasant and tasteful and features the usual virtuosic musicianship…but it’s missing all the epic weird, romantic storytelling and dirtiness that made the first 4 Dire Straits albums if not all equally awesome, compelling and listenable.
MATTHEW: Some readers will have called me a crazy fool for ranking Communiqué over Dire Straits, and others will throw their arms up at my ranking On Every Street even with Brothers in Arms. But as I go back and forth between the two, I cannot escape the conclusion that the latter two really are very close to being as good as each other—and, incidentally, very close in quality to Mark Knopfler’s best solo album (that is not a film soundtrack), 2000’s Sailing to Philadelphia.
HOPE: You know what I’ve always kind of wished, that more women artists would cover Dire Straits songs. I love the idea of turning certain tracks sideways and yeah, just think it would sound so damn cool. While there’s been some “Romeo And Juliet” action ( most notably by Indigo Girls, listen here) there hasn’t been much coverage in relation to the deep stuff. Would love to hear a little “Private Investigations” for one…go on girl(s).
MATTHEW: Yes! Brilliant idea! (But not including Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”)
Live Albums, Compilations and Side Projects
MATTHEW: There are also three live albums worth considering. Here they are, in order of their release, which also happens to be how I rank them, from must-own to don’t-bother. Alchemy, 9/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album, UK #3, US #43, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in one of them) is one of the best live albums of all time, with a stunning 10-minute version of “Sultans.” This would be the album to take to the Desert Island if only one from the band were allowed. Drawing heavily on Making Movies and Love Over Gold, Alchemy comes close to rendering both redundant. The CD version (remastered in 2001) is preferable to the LP one, because it includes “Love Over Gold” and none of the edits and fades necessitated by vinyl. I give it 9 instead of 10/10 because I always thought the use of “Going Home”—the Knopfler solo hit from the Local Hero movie soundtrack—was an odd way to end the album; and, when it was reissued, why not include from the outtake bin the full “Portobello Belle,” an edit of which appeared on the 1988 Money For Nothing hits compilation?
Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. And maybe I’m over-compensating for my personal connection to these live versions, because I was almost at the Hammersmith Odeon concerts where they were recorded. Instead, I saw them at the Dominion (also an old London theatre) a couple of nights earlier. Half the audience left after the encore (including my girlfriend), but then the band came back out with Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy) and played an amazing half-hour second encore. (My memory of some details may be fuzzy; if you were at the London gig where Lynott joined Dire Straits—not the legendary Rainbow Theatre one in ‘79, but this Love Over Gold one—let us know!)
On the Night, 7/20 (1992 concert, 1993 album, UK #4, US #116, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them), on the other hand, is somewhat pointless, because Alchemy is better, and this begins by showcasing three weak songs that were late-period hit singles (unfortunately, in my view, but fortunate for Knopfler’s bank balance)—“Calling Elvis,” “Walk of Life,” & “Heavy Fuel.” That said, the 10-minute version of “Elvis” is far superior to the studio version, and the rest of the album is pretty awesome. In all their incarnations, Dire Straits were a superb live act, and so it is great to have these concert versions of late-period classics like “Brothers in Arms” and “On Every Street” (which obviously weren’t yet written when Alchemy was made).
The third concert album, Live at the BBC, 5/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release, UK #71, did not chart US), strikes me as being for fanatics only (and I’m clearly not fanatic enough). It comprises decent live versions of six tracks from the debut album, but not to the standards of Alchemy; one so-so song written by both Knopfler brothers that was never studio recorded because it evolved into the far better “Lady Writer”; and an early version of “Tunnel of Love” (played live in Germany in 1980, despite the album’s title, so an odd misfit).
There’s also a 1996 live set, but it was only released as part of a 1998 “best of” compilation, so see our paragraphs on comps albums below.
HOPE:Alchemy, 7/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album). Back in ‘83/84 I was eagerly attending exactly the sort of shows you might expect a teenage girl to see. Duran Duran. Culture Club. Psychedelic Furs. As you can probably imagine the crowds at these events were as hyped up as living breathing humans could possibly be, totally high on pop music and lust and screaming their freakin’ heads off. In the context of things, that behavior made total sense, the whole experience felt sugary, hot and exotic. Which is why when I first heard Alchemy I was a little taken aback at how expressive and vocal the audience was. The whistling, the hooting, the clapping. I was fascinated that people could get as worked up over a Knopfler guitar solo as I would get watching Simon LeBon “dance” or Richard Butler “twirl”.I was mystified that they could love something that didn’t involve “pin-up-ability” so intensely ( I clearly had some growing up to do). But to this day, that’s what charms me most about this album, I mean just listen to how completely invested and loved up the crowd is during “Telegraph Road”; it’s really kind of beautiful. I adore this version of “Romeo And Juliet” (the instrumental coda is particularly swoon-worthy)…and especially dig how it segues into “Love Over Gold” which then leads on into “Private Investigations”. The 3 greatest Dire Straits songs played consecutively and the unabashed, spoken out loud love on display ?…yeah, I’ll take it.
As far as On the Night, 4/10 (1992 concert, 1993 album) goes, it seems like a completely superfluous release. It’s nowhere near as embraceable as Alchemy and the damage inflicted on “Romeo And Juliet” by my personal nemesis, the aforementioned dreaded “sexy sax” is absolutely criminal. On the whole, things are just a bit too slick, shiny and stadium and I would definitely categorize it for fans only…as I would Live at the BBC, 3/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release), an archival curio which as Matthew says is “decent” but not remotely compelling.
MATTHEW: Finally, what of the compilation and hits albums, and Mark Knopfler’s solo output? There are three compilations, the first of which, Money for Nothing (1988) is worthless save for one track: half its tracks are edited down, with the full-length originals all superior; only the live version of “Portobello Belle,” left off all versions of Alchemy, is worth accessing here—for hard-core fans. The compilation was replaced in 1998 by Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits, which made the same error, with 6 of its 16 tracks edited down. Half of its tracks are from the last two solo albums, mostly the singles that—in my view—aren’t the best songs on those albums. So, again, worthless. But (a big but), there were deluxe editions in ‘98—with a second CD, containing 7 tracks from a 1996 Royal Albert Hall concert—and in 2002, when a DVD was added to that second CD. The live set cannot match Alchemy, and is similar to On the Night, so it’s not bad and certainly not worthless—but really of interest to serious fans only.
The third and so far latest compilation is Private Investigations: The Best of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler (2005). The addition of solo numbers is interesting, but beware of the single CD and vinyl versions; yet again, these contain some edited versions, and are thus also worthless. To make room for solo songs (four on the single CD version), the first two Dire Straits albums are ignored beyond “Sultans.” The 2-CD version is better, although it likewise ignores the first two albums, and includes the inferior edit of “Private Investigations”—sadly ironic, considering the album’s title. It offers 9 solo tracks, and they are a reasonable introduction to Knopfler’s 22 albums outside Dire Straits—that’s nine solo albums, from 1996 to 2018 (so far), nine film soundtrack albums, from 1983 to 2016 (again, so far), and four collaborative albums (two in 1990 and two in 2006—a studio and a live album with Emmylou Harris). Note that roughly a third of all those were made before Dire Straits dissolved, with most of that early work being soundtracks. There isn’t therefore a clean break between Knopfler’s Dire Straits, solo, and soundtrack work (his best soundtracks are arguably the 80s ones, during peak Straits years); nor is there one in terms of styles. We haven’t rated the non-Straits albums, as they are a different species. But there is DNA overlap. As a generalization, the solo albums are singer-songwriter records in the related genres of country and British/Irish folk music. The best of them—for me, that’s Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) and The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)—come closest to Straits albums at times, but never that close. And when they do, they sound more like the late-period Straits songs that anticipate Knopfler’s solo work. I think that’s called Dirony. (Sorry!)
If there must be a “best of” compilation, I’d prefer it be 3 CDs, the first all Straits, the third all solo work, with the middle CD mixing the two with some of the songs that overlap in style—-like “Fade to Black” from the final Straits album, and solo gems like “What It Is” from Sailing to Philadelphia, and “Terminal of Tribute To” from Tracker (2015). I’d want on that third CD the Sailing title track, plus “Hard Shoulder” from Get Lucky (2009), and “A Place Where We Used to Live” from The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002). Heck, how about a 4th CD of live tracks, and a 5th of soundtrack pieces. But such a 3-CD (or 4 or 5!) compilation doesn’t exist, so you might as well buy the no-frills Dire Straits Studio Albums box set, a $30 bargain, put on your red head band, and start drinking Portobello Road gin (yes, it’s Knopfler’s brand, complete with a mini red headband on the neck); after a few Local Hero G&Ts, you may see the virtue in also buying Alchemy and a handful of Knoppy’s solo and soundtrack albums. Now that—to cite a track from his Princess Bride soundtrack—is “A Happy Ending.”
HOPE: I concur with Matthew’s points in regards to the compilations! Dire Straits were never a singles band and are just so ill-suited to that type of overview (square peg meet round hole). The ideal way to experience a Dire Straits song is within its natural habitat surrounded by its actual herd via the actual studio albums (with Alchemy serving as the mike drop at the end).
As far as the Knopfler solo stuff, it’s a true mixed bag and admittedly I’ve never latched onto any of the albums as a whole…but there are a couple of tracks within them I find particularly exquisite: The infectious and sticky portraiture of “The Scaffolder’s Wife” from the Kill To Get Crimson album (2007) and the aforementioned and beauteous “Hard Shoulder” which sounds like both an earthbound spin on “Wichita Lineman” and a tribute to old chestnut “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” at the same damn time.
Album Ranking Summary
MATTHEW: 9/10: Communiqué, Love Over Gold, Alchemy 8/10: Dire Straits, Making Movies 7/10: On the Night 6/10: Brothers in Arms, On Every Street 5/10: Live at the BBC
HOPE: 9/10: Making Movies 7/10: Love Over Gold, Alchemy 5/10: Brothers in Arms 4/10: Dire Straits, Communiqué, On The Night 3/10: On Every Street, Live at the BBC
And what have you got at the end of the day? What have you got to take away?
HOPE: When Matthew first suggested we explore Dire Straits I was worried that I didn’t feel strongly enough about them to be able to appraise them fairly or accurately. But of course that crazy (inevitable) thing happened where the more I listened, the more things started to resonate, the more invested I became in the experience. And here I am digging Alchemy in a way I never have before in my life. And playing “Hard Shoulder” and imagining I’m in a ‘60s movie on a greyhound bus watching the rain beat against the window. And so there you go, you got me Mr.Knopfler, mission accomplished.
MATTHEW: Yeah, Knoppy got me too! I thought my opinions were fairly set, especially as my views on music from my teens and college-age years (1977-86) are so infused with emotional and personal associations. But in the course of our deep-diving, I have discovered anew the narrative richness of the Dire Straits and Knopfler catalogs; I’ve heard musical moments I’d missed or forgotten; and I’ve come to better appreciate both Knopfler’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter, and the talents of his band mates. If our conversation leads you to anything remotely close to that, then OUR mission is accomplished! Now where’s that bottle…
Back in the ’90s, like many nerds, I spent an exorbitant amount of time making mix cds. Once the 21st Century arrived and the glorious iPod was introduced into the universe, my indulgent compilation factory pretty much ceased operation ( unless of course there was someone new to “impress”). Now part of the fun of creating these oh so painstakingly curated little monsters was getting to create a spectacular cover to represent their contents. Something iconic like say Sticky Fingers or Sgt.Pepper. An unforgettable image that perfectly captured all the emotion and the intensity of feeling within the disc. I recently came upon this little diamond (circa 199?) which, I don’t know, lands somewhere between Van Gogh and Andrew Wyeth maybe? While the cd itself leads off with New Order’s bouncy “Regret”, it closes with David Sylvian’s handsome, funereal pop dirge from 1987, “Let The Happiness In”, which after careful lyrical analysis appears to be the inspirational source of the sad, sloppy, sharpie cover art. Here’s an actual verse from the song:
I‘m waiting on the empty docks Watching the ships come in I’m waiting for the agony to stop Oh, let the happiness in
I know. It just got dark in here. But I swear it really is a beautiful song. My messy depiction of “sad” in no way represents its genuine majesty. But hey, I tried.
Right enough of that, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs that have crossed our path over recent days. They are the height of loveliness and currently topping the charts over on Earth 2. You can listen on Soundcloud or Spotify below. Let the happiness in…