There’s seemingly always been a certain amount of sniffiness around compilations, as if they are somehow unrepresentative of the musical act they allegedly represent. This is particularly the case across the Atlantic, where they are often dismissed as, at best, being poor value for money, or at worst, being a cynical attempt to rip off the fans, often by including one song which is simply unavailable elsewhere.
Compilations are often perceived to be for fair weather fans, lightweights who don’t need every album by an act, just the highlights. You know, those individuals who buy their CDs with their weekly shop in the local supermarket, and who just need a bluffers guide to a certain act. There’s actually some legitimacy to that perception, but it does overlook the fairly obvious fact that not all of us have a tremendous amount of disposable income, and that sometimes, we do just want a taster of an act’s output before we part with a significant amount of our hard earned. Maybe it’s because we otherwise don’t know where to start, and a compilation will give us the best idea of what phase of an act’s career we will favour, or maybe it’s because we are already familiar enough with an act, that we know that all we want and will ever need by them will be ‘Greatest Hits’, ‘Best Of’, or ‘Singles Collection’.
Of course, for clarifications sake, we’re not referring to ‘box sets’ here. Initially those were compilations for the fevered completist, but more regularly in recent years, they are becoming a literal ‘career in a box’, where every album released by an act is gathered together and sold for eye watering sums, usually to those fans who already have everything, but just have to hear the ‘new improved remasters’, read the 70 page essay, ogle at the previously unseen photographs and appreciate the slightly flimsy cardboard box they all came in before never listening to any of it again outside of the core albums which they already owned anyway. That is if you actually open the packaging, because, you know, if it remains sealed, it might have increased in value in another forty years time… Neither are we talking about the B-side and rarities collections which used to regularly get released to slate the curiosity of the completist, or the two for one repackaging of a pair of albums. No this is about the single, or maybe double disc, collections of music that do their best to provide enough evidence that you should admire the output of a certain act, be it their whole career, or just part of it.
So where to start this A to Z celebration of career highlights?
ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, is first and foremost a celebration of great pop music. It’s been pointed out many times that there is no form of music more under appreciated than the pop single. As broad and diverse as pop music is, many have dipped their toes into the churning oceans of commerciality, but few have managed to expand that into enduring commercial success in the singles chart in the same way that ABBA did.
ABBA were absolute masters of blending dramatic narratives, commercial hooks, cutting edge production methods and icily enunciated vocals, and from the moment they stepped on to the stage at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, until they disbanded in 1982, they released an unparalleled series of irresistible hit singles, which were collated in the early 90s in non chronological, but oddly pleasing order on ABBA Gold.
It wasn’t all plain sailing of course. Following the huge success of “Waterloo” in 1974 (still an absolutely brilliant pop song and enough justification on its own for existence of the Eurovision Song Contest), they had minimal success with their subsequent singles until 75’s “S.O.S.”, a fantastically dramatic tune which lodged ABBA into the collective conscious of single buyers. The rest of the 70s would see ABBA reign supreme at the top of the single charts, as their career outlasted those of many more ‘serious’ acts and quietly inspiring everyone from Elvis Costello, to Echo and The Bunnymen. Hell, even the mighty Led Zeppelin recorded In Through the Out Door at ABBA’s studio, because it was pretty much the finest in Europe and had the best ‘sound’.
Arguably, the only reason ABBA stopped having hit singles was that they split up – Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s later success in writing hit musicals is proof enough of that – but despite a minor blip in the latter half of the 80s, the ABBA brand remained consistently popular, once again peaking with the original release of ABBA Gold, and to be honest, it’s been going from strength to strength since then. A few years back, Agnetha Fältskog returned to the music scene after a number of years of self-imposed exile, and Andersson and Ulvaeus have been riding their collective vaults for archival material, the first evidence of which was a well received live album. While it was Fältskog who always had the reputation for being elusive and enigmatic, it is Frida who has managed to largely evade the public eye in recent years, despite being a co-shareholder along with Andersson and Ulvaeus in their mega-successful Mamma Mia musical.
Only a sour-faced killjoy would dispute the greatness of ABBA as a singles act, and the majority of ‘serious’ musical acts would happily hack off limbs to create as perfect an intro to a song as that to “Mamma Mia”. Too frequently ABBA have been dismissed as disposable froth-pop confectionary, when in reality, their material frequently had considerably more depth and scope than their critics would like to admit, and despite precious few of the acts that they inspired having even a fraction of their individual talents, their influence on Europop has been all encompassing. While ABBA’s studio albums certainly have their fans, it was the format of the pop single that they absolutely mastered, and as such, ABBA Gold is pretty much all the ABBA that many of us will ever need, and the fact that, almost 25 years after it’s initial release, it remains unsurpassed as one of the great singles compilations, and contains all the evidence required to demonstrate that only a fool would underestimate ABBA.