Why Sweden has Abba to thank for the music

In his latest column on Swedish music, Paul Connolly finds out how Abba paved the way for other Swedish music and offers up his choices for Swedish album and gig of the month.

Why Sweden has Abba to thank for the music

Other than being Swedish musicians, what do Abba, Robin Stjernberg, and The Knife have in common? Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, Robin Sternbjerg, to these ears at least, has barely any chance of winning it in 2013 and Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the siblings behind The Knife, would probably rather jam a piece of cutlery in their ears before even acknowledging the Eurovision.

But they’re all destined to be at least a footnote (hi there, Mr. Stjernberg) in the history of Swedish music. They’re also all in the news at the moment – Abba for the opening of their Stockholm museum, The Knife for the release of their long-awaited fourth album Shaking The Habitual, and Stjernberg for his presence in May’s Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö.

For better or worse (Mr. Stjernberg, we must stop meeting like this), they are all part of one of the world’s most extraordinarily successful local music industries, and they are all, whether they like it or not, inextricably linked. Stjernberg could not exist without The Knife and The Knife could not exist without Abba.

Abba set the tone – they took the music of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, blended it with a big dollop of the new harmony-laden folk music pioneered by the American group, The Kingston Trio, and came up with something so special, so incredible, they became the biggest band in the world. If someone ever tells you that Abba were ‘just pop music’ remind them that they made music that nobody had ever heard before. Even now, their sound is so utterly identifiable you could probably hear a long-forgotten early seventies b-side and immediately identify it as being by Abba. That is the mark of a great band.

IN PICTURES: Abba throughout the years

So too with The Knife. The blend of Karin’s husky-child voice and Olof’s off-kilter synth lines is not easily mistaken for anyone else. But The Knife have so far fallen short of true greatness. Why? Because Shaking The Habitual has underlined their distrust of pop music. Their last album, Silent Shout, was a masterpiece of deranged pop – one listen to the title track confirmed that here was a singular and brilliant band at work.

However, the new album has seen them take a step back into the dreary, unadventurous thicket of “experimental” music. Any old fool can fall asleep face down on their Roland synth, record the result and claim to be pushing boundaries. Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized, the laughable seventh track on their new album, could easily be a 20 minute recording of a malfunctioning air conditioning system. It’s insulting. Adventurousness in pop is only ever really worthwhile when it comes wrapped in a melody. It’s much harder to break free of constraints over 3 minutes than it is over 20. And nobody will ever listen to the 20 minute track. It’s creative cowardice.

However, Swedish pop music would be much the poorer without The Knife’s huge influence. Artists such as Robyn, Niki and The Dove, and Kate Boy owe them a debt. So too do less interesting pop acts (Robin! How lovely to see you again!), who have co-opted The Knife’s off-balance chorus structures and skronky keyboards, toned them down, and nailed drab songs to the flimsy frame in the wild hope they can win a song contest. It’s a forlorn dream, of course. But it still demonstrates that Swedish pop needs its mavericks as much as its masters. And they all feed off one another.

May’s Album of the month

Artist: Junip

Album Junip

(Mute) ****

Whatever the many faults of their fourth album, Shaking The Habitual, you can’t escape the influence of The Knife this month. Argentine-born Swede Jose Gonzalez had his breakthrough hit with a gentle, whispery cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats, but his work with Junip has always been more interesting than his Nick Drake-obsessed solo career.

His bandmates in Junip, Tobias Winterkorn and Elias Araya, add grit and substance to Gonzalez’s often beautiful but occasionally insipid songs. Line Of Fire, the lead song on this, Junip’s second album, would have doubtless sounded lovely with just Gonzalez on his acoustic guitar – the melody is swollen with hope and beauty – but Winterkorn and Araya bring drive and power to bear on a song that is transformed from ‘pretty’ to ‘stunning’. Good heavens, you might even attempt to dance to it.

On Villain, Junip even get scuzzy, with a low-slung bass buzzing away and drums being belted – it’s quite a surprise. The success of this very satisfying album, does however lie ultimately with Gonzalez’s songwriting. Winterkorn and Araya can huff and puff as much as they like but without songs as good as After All Is Said And Done, Suddenly, and So Clear, their efforts wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. With great material, however, all three shine brightly.

Also out

Artist: The Knife

Album: Shaking The Habitual


Yes, it’s mostly nonsense but there are two great songs on here, Full Of Fire and A Tooth For An Eye. Not a great strike rate but still worth investigating. As an aside, they’re also touring Sweden this month.

Artist: Håkan Hellström

Album: Det Kommer Aldrig Va Over For Mig


Another terrific album from the hugely prolific maverick Swede.

IN PICTURES: Five things you didn’t know about Håkan Hellström

Artist: Fishermen

Album: Delirium Tremens


This is only an EP but this techno duo make stirring, propulsive stuff. Recommended.

May Gig of the Month

Artist: Miss Li

Date: May 9 & 10

Event: Berns Salonger

Venue: Berzelii Park 11147 Stockholm, 08 566 322 00

Miss Li (Linda Carlsson to her mum and dad) is a delightfully transgressive artist. Her odd mix of folk, polka and showtunes really shouldn’t work but there is a real intelligence at work and her live shows are always special.

Paul Connolly

Read more from Paul here, including his Northern Dispatch column

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What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.