Tag Archives: Ace of Base

The QH Blend’s “100 @ 30”: [21 thru 40]

100-2-1

Janet Jackson (21) / Diana Ross (22) / Gloria Estefan (23) / Solange (24) / Paula Abdul (25)

20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006): Control (1986) or Damita Jo (2004) easily could have made this list.  But 20 Y.O.’s veteran precision was just too strong to ignore. It was a great vocal showcase in Jackson’s discography―it didn’t hurt that the first half of the album was black dance music done to the nines. Despite its silly title, this was adult R&B with a pinch of youthful spirit.

The Boss (Motown, 1979):  Dress rehearsal for diana (1980)? I think not. Ross’ second-to-last Motown album had her slip into disco with soul. Jams like “It’s My House” and hushed valentines like “I’m in the World” bore Ross’ interpretive streak like no one’s business.

Alma Caribeña (Epic, 2000): The album that opened me up to non-English music. Recalled certain critics observing that Estefan’s voice supposedly shone better in her native tongue. I enjoyed Estefan in-and-out of English myself. However, there is some truth to their statement as the liveliness present on Alma Caribeña poured from every note played and sung.

Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dreams (Geffen, 2008): Who would have thought that Solange could pull this rabbit out of popular music’s hat when she did? Her fix on a vintage / modern vocal attack kept my ears glued to this in the late summer of 2008.

Head Over Heels (Virgin, 1995): The musicianship for this? Grade A, top shelf and every other adjective you can plug in. Even if on you don’t like Abdul’s voice―which was exceptionally versatile on Heads Over Heels―the arrangements on the LP were so intelligent. You had jazz, you had hip-hop, you had funk all wrapped together. You just don’t hear that kind of diversity on pop albums anymore. 

Hall & Oates () / Phyllis Hyman () / Randy Crawford () / Jamiroquai () / Michael Jackson ()

Hall & Oates (26) / Phyllis Hyman (27) / Randy Crawford (28) / Jamiroquai (29) / Michael Jackson (30)

X-Static (RCA, 1979): X-Static. The frenzied send-off to Hall & Oates’ patchwork 1970’s era before their 1980’s dominance. That isn’t a knock, Hall & Oates jumped around to every conceivable sound on their initial albums. I adore genre jumping, it’s so pop. Anyway, X-Static was funky and playful―definitely a record for those that like a myriad of music.

Somewhere in My Lifetime (Arista, 1979): God, this woman’s voice. It’s phenomenal. She has many different phases in her discography, but her “bright period” was exceptional on Somewhere in My Lifetime. The right amount of jazz and disco on this offering was a welcome backdrop for a Saturday afternoon.

Everything Must Change (Warner Brothers, 1976): Crawford’s voice possessed kick, but she never fell into gratuitous singing. She complemented the crisp production at play throughout this piece with patience. Everything Must Change made no (sales) ripples, but was a true hidden treasure when I found it.

A Funk Odyssey (Sony, 2001): In light of the “disco revival” that has been raging over the last three years, many forgot that Jamiroquai spearheaded it as far back as 1996. I think they hit their stride with it on A Funk Odyssey. Though their acid jazz had disco at its roots, this was full blown floor killing music. 

Off the Wall (Epic, 1979): The greatest black dance album ever? For once I can actually agree with the masses on this score. Michael Jackson kept making great music post-Off the Wall, but the joyousness evinced on this LP wasn’t present in his later output. 

100-2-3

P.M. Dawn (31) / Ace of Base (32) / Emma Bunton (33) / Swing Out Sister (34) / George Michael (35)

The Bliss Album…? (Island, 1993): My Dad played this album a lot in the car when I was kid; it would be years before I realized how ahead of the curve P.M. Dawn was with The Bliss Album…?. Truly a black alternative brainchild, it pains me how this act has been relegated to 1990’s nostalgia. This record, along with their other three LPs, are the best alt-soul spinners you’ll hear.

The Bridge (Arista, 1995): Much stronger and wider in its scope than what Ace of Base hinted at with The Sign (1994). When people ask me what my favorite “follow-up” album of all time is, I answer with The Bridge. The world music textures on this transported me to places unseen, their goal I assume. Though I think they improved even more with Flowers / Cruel Summer (1998) and Da Capo (2002), the magic and mystery of The Bridge lives.

Free Me (Universal, 2004): I knew when this record dropped it was going to change the game―for British pop and the overall Spice Girls legacy. Bunton was not the only Brit to dip into the mod-pop pot, but she wore it well. Beautifully sung and produced, Bunton’s second album reset what a former Spice Girl could do artistically (and commercially).

Filth and Dreams (Mercury, 1999): Mentioning 1960’s pop revivalists, Swing Out Sister arguably stamped that movement. What I liked about Filth & Dreams was its modernity mixed with retro pop appeal. While Swing Out Sister were no strangers to melancholy, they courted a solemn air on this project. Personally, I thought the gravitas was pretty.

Older (DreamWorks, 1996): Though Michael wouldn’t come out for another two years, Older played close to the confessional hilt. Michael adjusted the temporal frequency for Older to add hip-hop textures on “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” which suited Michael well like his previous black music forays.

100-2-4

Will Young (36) / Duran Duran (37) / The Supremes (38) / Hikaru Utada (39) /Joni Mitchell (40)

Echoes (RCA, 2011): For my money, Will Young was the real deal when it came to reality show produced talent. The first winner of ‘Pop Idol’ in England, Young took quick creative control of his music. His fifth album caught my attention and I went back to discover his other stuff. But, Young’s understated blend of blue-eyed soul and pop with Echoes made my ears very happy in late 2011. 

Notorious (EMI, 1986): Starting with this funky entry, Duran Duran became a group based in the sound of the period―even if it was not what critics or fans wanted. Slimming down to a trio didn’t halve Duran Duran’s abilities, not to my ears. If anything the division gave them clarity to dress up and get down.

Touch (Motown, 1971): The 1970’s were very kind to The Supremes from an artistic stance. As the album format dawned at the start of that decade, The Supremes shifted away from the singles approach and became a “back-to-front” recording act. Touch was was an ideal play for a rainy day or a bright morning. 

Heart Station (EMI, 2008): The clean production lines on this album were fantastic, and there was a reason why. The LP had taken and applied everything Utada learned from 2002 through to 2006; that stretch of time contained her bravest music recorded. As a result, Heart Station was aware of its structure, but not impeded by it. Utada’s lyrics and vocals synced up and painted a picture of a woman that was in complete control of her artistic expression.

Hejira (Asylum, 1976): Mitchell’s guitar took on many different shapes on Hejira. I’d never known the guitar to possess that kind of versatility displayed―most of the instrumentation was centered on it during the LP’s run time. It was an album that put the listener on a journey through Mitchell’s aural soundscapes of love and life.

[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]

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Wheel of Fortune: Soundtracking Ace of Base

L to R: Jonas, Ulf, Malin, Jenny.

L to R: Jonas, Ulf, Malin, Jenny.

In the midst of the ABBA revival and Roxette’s diminishing grip on American radio, another Swedish outfit moved to the frontline. Ace of Base―composed of Ulf Ekberg and the Berggren siblings (Jonas, Malin and Jenny)―crept from the European dance underground with their debut Happy Nation (1992).

With its sensuous youthful appeal Happy Nation was something of a sensation. Distribution and representation for this quartet was initially owed to Mega Records, a smaller Danish label. As the record picked up traction across Europe and England, Ace of Base caught the eye of shrewd Svengali Clive Davis.

"The Sign" single cover.

“The Sign” single cover

Seeing Ace of Base as a modern ABBA―later a point of contention for Ace of Base―Davis secured them a deal with Arista Records. Slightly retooled for the American market, but retaining its European appeal, Happy Nation appeared 20 years ago Stateside as The Sign (1994).

Their soundscape was comprised of reggae-dub, electronic and dance based pop music; sisters Jenny and Malin’s harmonies on top of this sonic print defined a decade: “The Sign,” “All That She Wants,” “Don’t Turn Around” and “Living in Danger”. At their start, the quartet was darker than ABBA (pre-Voulez-Vous, 1979) and clubbier than the pop-rock of Roxette; Ace of Base were the third in line to inherit the Swede pop crown.

Twenty years removed from the dizzying success of The Sign, many don’t recall Ace of Base outside of a ’90’s nostalgia context. Current pop singers Lady Gaga and Katy Perry cite them as “influences” but their knowledge of Ace of Base’s broader discography doesn’t extend past the singles from The Sign.

Ace of Base has struggled to shake off the Euro-pop stigma. Thankfully, Ace of Base’s four additional records allowed them to restructure their sound and that of their Swedish pop lineage.

"Beautiful Life" single cover

“Beautiful Life” single cover

Take The Bridge (1995)―one of the sharpest sophomore follow-ups in pop―it staged the entire group’s democratic position as creators in their sound. Additionally, The Bridge featured contributions from Max Martin and Denniz PoP. Both men went on to streamline their native pop DNA for American pop consumption at the tail end of the 1990’s.

A blend of holistic lyrics and world music textures, Ace of Base graduated from dancefloors to globe-trotting with The Bridge. Remembered for its charter “Beautiful Life,” there were deeper selections such as “Strange Ways,” “Ravine,” “Que Sera” and “Blooming 18” that had them at the height of their abilities.

Their junior record was bolder; Flowers (1998) was a step further into pop and farther away from dance music. Motown, J-Pop, hip-hop and other influences were thoughtfully structured throughout the long player. Ace of Base was rewarded with one of their biggest pop hits in “Life is a Flower”.

"Cruel Summer" single cover

“Cruel Summer” single cover

Clive Davis did not view “Life is a Flower” as a viable U.S. marketplace hit however. Supposedly,  American audiences would not “understand” certain song themes. “Cecilia”―which bore the same name and character as detailed in the 1970 Simon & Garfunkel hit―and the Jules Verne inspired “Captain Nemo” might have been too artful for Stateside listeners. Davis had Ace of Base redesign Flowers into Cruel Summer (1998); they scored their final U.S. Top 10 single with a cover of the U.K. girl group Bananarama’s 1983 jig of the same name.

In spite of Davis’ meddling, and Malin Bergrren’s growing agoraphobia, the Flowers / Cruel Summer period was diverse as mentioned. In fact, if one were to compile songs from both the European and American versions, one would have a fantastic Ace of Base album.

The QH Blend’s Flowers / Cruel Summer Tracklisting*

  1. “Life is a Flower”
  2. “Always Have, Always Will”
  3. “Cruel Summer”
  4. “Travel to Romantis” (Flowers version)
  5. “Adventures in Paradise”
  6. “Dr. Sun”
  7. “Cecilia”
  8. “He Decides” (Cruel Summer version)
  9. “I Pray”
  10. “Don’t Go Away”
  11. “Everytime it Rains” (Cruel Summer version)
  12. “Donnie” (Cruel Summer version)
  13. “Captain Nemo”
  14. “Into the Night of Blue”
  15. “Cruel Summer” (Big Bonus Mix)

The returns for this period were fair, if not the astronomical figures of their first and second recordings. Ace of Base persevered and began recording their fourth LP. In the interim, at the insistence of their various labels, Ace of Base issued their first hits package, Singles of the 90’s in 1999. The slightly inferior U.S. counterpart followed entitled Greatest Hits (2000). Between the collections, three new Ace of Base songs emerged emitting the pop radiance of the Flowers / Cruel Summer epoch: “C’est La Vie (Always 21),” “Hallo, Hallo” and “Love in December”.

"Beautiful Morning" single cover

“Beautiful Morning” single cover

Da Capo debuted in 2002 to indifference despite it being Ace of Base’s most realized project. Buoyed by two fine singles (“Beautiful Morning,” “Unspeakable”) and a plethora of strong album fare, Da Capo (an Italian phrase for “from the beginning”) allowed the group to return to their roots without losing their growth.

The LP was the last record to feature the original quartet as Malin quietly retired from public life. Label wrangling and the birthing pains of their fifth record filled the remainder of 2000’s. Jenny would take on high-end session work and record her own solo album. Even with her side gigs, Jenny continued to work alongside Ulf and her brother Jonas on their fifth record.

When an impasse was reached, Jenny decided to depart and recording for The Golden Ratio (2010) commenced with Julia Williamson and Clara Hagman. Hagman was already working on the Swedish entertainment circuit (‘Melodifestivalen’ 2002, ‘Swedish Idol’ 2009) when Jonas and Ulf recruited her.

The Golden Ratio played worn, if interesting in spots (“Southern California,” “Juliet”). The record did not make waves or illicit too many positive responses from longtime Ace of Base fans. As of 2014, the remaining members Ulf and Jonas have celebrated their breakthrough with The Sign―via social media―and reunion questions are once again swirling.

Ace of Base Through the Years

While one is not certain what the future holds for Ace of Base, it has become clear that their brand of engaging pop is in need of appreciation. That a discography as lyrically and musically rich as ABBA’s remains shoved in the closet of the 1990’s is  a crime. Ace of Base may need to reform and remind people of an act that soundtracked a generation like none other.

[Editor’s Note: The entire Ace of Base discography is in print digitally and physically; some recordings may be imports only. *―See the respective tracklistings for Flowers and Cruel Summer to find out which songs were omitted from my playlist. For current information on Ace of Base, visit their official Twitter page.-QH]

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