Graded on a Curve: ABBA,
The Best of ABBA, The Millennium Collection

Celebrating Agnetha Fältskog on her 71st birthday.Ed.

I love ABBA. I love them so much I contacted the Swedish ambassador last week to see if I could buy them. “ABBA are a national treasure,” the ambassador informed me. “But a thousand kroner would probably do it.” I was rather taken aback really, given ABBA are Sweden’s biggest export behind Swedish Red Fish and Swedish meatballs.

ABBA’s frothy brand of Europop and disco bring back fond memories of my first and last visit to a discotheque. The experience was unforfeitable insofar as it ended with me throwing up in the parking lot, but it wasn’t ABBA’s fault–staring at the revolving glitter ball above the dance floor gave me vertigo.

From disco classic “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo,” ABBA’s songs were good, innocent fun. Who can resist their infectious melodies and perfect harmonies? Lots of people, evidently. ABBA were anathema to the “Let’s burn down the disco crowd,” and none other than Robert Christgau saw fit to describe their “real tradition” as “the advertising jingle.”

Formed in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, ABBA first made their mark by winning the 1974 Eurovision Contest–a sure step to superstardom, as evidenced as by such memorable bands as Teach-In and Herreys. It took awhile for ABBA to catch on with US listeners, but when they did they did it big—in the years between 1974 and 1981 they placed a dozen singles on the American Top 40.

The ABBA sound is a study in contradictions. On one hand their music is as frothy as it’s frosty; detractors will tell you their music is as cold as a dip into a Hellasgården ice bath. But to pop and disco lovers their music is something you’ll want to warm your hands over—especially if you spent your formative years listening to “Dancing Queen.”

A quick word on album selection. Abba compilations are as common as moose in Bergslagen forest, but 2000’s 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of ABBA is the one for those who want only to hear the essentials. Its short list of 11 tracks means there’s no filler, and folks looking for such classics as “Bang-A-Boomerang,” “Put on Your White Sombrero,”and “King Kong Song” are advised to look elsewhere.

As for the songs on the comp, I love all of them except but “Chiquitita”—a Spanish-flavored tango that tries but fails to live up to the high standard set by of “Fernando”—and “The Winner Takes It All,” which wanders into Debbie Gibson territory and never finds its way back.

Most everybody who’s listened to seventies radio knows—for good or ill—the rest of the songs on 20th Century Masters. “Waterloo” is the best ever pop song about the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the hands of the armies of the Seventh Coalition, but it’s more than a history lesson—it’s real subject is the defeat of the heart. “SOS,” meanwhile, boasts a chorus worthy of the Go-Go’s, while “Knowing Me, Knowing You” boasts a Motown opening that gives way to swelling chorus.

“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is Euro-kitsch at it’s finest—when I spent Christmas in Germany the TV stations bombarded viewers with songs like “I Do,” while a studio composed of geriatrics sang and clapped along, “Mamma Mia,” meanwhile, is yet another template for the Go-Go’s, but its drum crash and hard rock guitar would make it the perfect cover by a schmaltz-loving metal band.

And then there’s “The Name of the Game,” which is undoubtedly the funkiest song ABBA ever recorded, which is to say it’s as funky as your average Carpenters song. The verses don’t do much for me, but the vocal harmonies and trumpet fanfare on the choruses give me goosebumps every time.

The dance-floor friendly “Take a Chance on Me” brings Donna Summer to mind, while ABBA’s career topper “Dancing Queen” is pure disco perfection. I put it right up there with the best of the likes of the Bee Gees, Sisters Sledge, and KC and the Sunshine Band–hell, even Redd Kross saw fit to cover it.

The day after my phone call to the Swedish ambassador she called me back to inform me that the Swedish government had reconsidered their offer to sell ABBA. They were, however, amenable to selling me fishing rights to private waters along the Swedish coast and the lakes of Vänern, Vättern, Mälaren, Hjälmaren, and Storsjön. I asked her how much said fishing rights would cost normally, and she replied “Nothing.” I reserved a ticket to Stockholm on Scandinavian Airlines the next day. You can’t beat a bargain like that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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