With Abba returning with their first album (and concerts, albeit in hologram form) in 40 years, our retro resident Matthew Roberts fires up his collection to bring us the, well ok his, top 10 Abba singles. With the warning in advance that there is no place for “Mamma Mia”. AND that it only features four of their nine number ones.
10) Dancing Queen ( 1976 – peak UK singles chart position #1 )
Controversy from the off. Yes, it’s one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Yes, as soon as those opening notes kick in they are guaranteed to get me (and millions of others) off their feet and onto the dancefloor. But as this is my list I have to admit that whilst it’s a joyous and euphoric track it’s not one that is top of my playlist. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous nature of it and the fact that if you have any form of retro music channel or radio station on it you’re probably only ever a few hours away from hearing it. It’s undoubtedly a classic, nevertheless.
9) The Day Before You Came (1982 – peak UK singles chart position #32)
Until the recent announcement of a new album coming in November, this was the last song that Abba ever recorded. Recorded as part of a 9th album that never was this is everything that an Abba song shouldn’t be. Sparse, cold electropop that hinted at what might have been having they stuck around a little longer. As the chart position showed, of course, this wasn’t what people wanted from Abba. But is a hauntingly mundane tale of everyday life that leaves an enigmatic storyline that is open to countless theories. Is the “You” a new lover, a stalker or even death itself? It was a fitting lyrical end to the original Abba run that’s for sure.
8) Waterloo ( 1974 – peak UK singles chart position #1 )
Joyous, infectious, impossible not to sing along with even if all you know of the words is “Waterloo”. Comparing being in love to the historical European battle of the title this was an early indicator that there was a lot more hidden beneath the surface of Abba’s shiny pop songs. The 1974 Eurovision Song Contest Winner sets the scene for what was to come.
7) The Winner Takes It All ( 1980 – peak UK singles chart position #1 )
There’s a lot of “divorce” songs in the Abba hit-list, perhaps inevitably as the two marriages within the group broke down. Written by Bjorn as his marriage to Agnetha was collapsing around them this would be regarded as a post-modern classic if released today. It’s songwriting as a confessional as well as in its own way acknowledging the media storm and speculation around the divorce. Its melancholic but catchy nature (aided by gorgeous piano chords) sure beats a cryptic Instagram post from break-up couples in 2021.
6) Take A Chance On Me ( 1978 – peak UK singles chart position #1 )
The distinctive acapella opening (“takeachancechance…etc) melody apparently came to Bjorn whilst he was our running. The sound of his shoes on the streets led to him repeating a similar rhythm to pace himself. Upbeat and joyous with a sense of carefree flirtiness it’s yet another one in the canon that’s impossible not to sing along with. Fourteen years later, as the lead track on their Abba-esque EP, Erasure would also take it to #1.
5) Lay All Your Love On Me ( 1981 – peak UK singles chart position #7 )
Disco may have somewhat passed its commercial peak by 1981, but that didn’t stop Abba mining the dancefloor in a new decade to great effect. Its relatively low chart position probably stems from the fact that this was packaged up with On And On And On as a 12-inch only double release, although it stayed on the charts for nearly two months anyway. As it ever seems, the pulsating dance sounds hide a song that is anything but joyous. Jealousy and possessiveness (“I wasn’t jealous before we met, now every woman I see is a potential threat”) give way to a carnal desire that could almost be seen as threatening.
4) S.O.S ( 1975 – peak UK singles chart position #6 )
In the years to come, this would prove to become a cornerstone of Abba’s songwriting and the genesis of their ongoing sound. Romantic despair has never sounded so dramatically good. It would also inspire a generation of hit-makers to come. Including, strangely enough, the Sex Pistols as songwriter Glen Matlock lifted the bass line from this for Pretty Vacant.
3) Does Your Mother Know ( 1979 – peak UK singles chart position #4 )
One of the rare tracks in the Abba canon where the lead vocals aren’t headed up by the ladies this stomping mix of disco gone rock gets away with its “troubling” lyrics through sheer upbeat glorious pop. And it’s nice to know there were rock stars in the 1970s who were gentlemanly enough to resist “temptation”.
2) Voulez Vous ( 1979 – peak UK singles chart position #3 )
Of course, everyone who had been around for a while by the late ’70s tried their hand at the disco (see Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy for starters) but few pulled off that Saturday Night Fever thing with the aplomb that Abba did. You could almost argue that they are making it appear TOO easy given how effortless this song is (Although that hides the real-life fact that Bjorn and Benny shelved recording sessions in their native country to fly off to Miami to the world-famous Criteria Studios to get the disco sound right).
1) Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! ( 1979 – peak UK singles chart position #3 )
It’s telling that my top 3 were all released as singles in 1979 within five months of each other. As someone who thinks Saturday Night Fever is one of the greatest soundtrack albums of all time perhaps it’s no surprise that my favourite choices from the Abba oeuvre come firmly from their disco phase. But then again, this song has a hook so imminently catchy that even the Queen of Pop Madonna borrowed it. After begging and pleading for the right to do so. This song perhaps sums up that contrast between the instantly catchy pop melodies that underpinned all their finest work and the lyrical content that was anything but light and fluffy. And again, in the middle of a divorce, Agnetha is singing lyrics about sexual freedom and lust/desire. That adds another layer of intrigue to what is already an absolute banger.