The Best ABBA Covers Ever

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Sep 282018
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

I’ve been watching early episodes of Saturday Night Live recently. On the fifth episode ever – back when it bore the shorter title Saturday Night – the host was comedian Robert Klein. Two musical guests joined him: Loudon Wainwright III and ABBA.

Wainwright’s performance plays it straight, just him and his guitar on stage. With ABBA, though, the show undermines the Swedish quartet from the start. They have to perform “S.O.S.” on a sinking Titanic set, competing for screen time with Klein and some SNL writers pretending to drown in vintage dining-lounge attire. Even when the camera lands on ABBA, it waves and swoops to indicate they’re going down with the ship too.

The second performance, “Waterloo,” does them even dirtier. Before the first verse even ends, these words pop up on the screen: “Right now ABBA is lip-syncing. It’s not their fault. The tracks didn’t arrive from Sweden.” The band appears to have no idea they are being thus undermined, even as the audience titters. I’ve watched the entire first season now, and haven’t seen any other musical performer treated this way. (The individual videos sadly aren’t anywhere embeddable, but the full episode is on Hulu).

This SNL appearance neatly embodies the ABBA dichotomy. On the one hand, they were such huge stars that the show simply had to book them. On the other, they seemed so irredeemably uncool that the show felt obliged to mock them so it didn’t lose its cultural cachet. And forty-plus years on from that performance, we treat them the same way. We’ll sing and dance along to their songs – particularly after a drink or two – but only the most ardent poptimist would put ABBA anywhere but the “guilty pleasure” category.

True, the productions may be dated, and the outfits ridiculous, but at their core the songs are rock-solid. Songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes aided by band manager Stig Anderson, penned songs that still rise above the cheese-tacular performances. And there’s no better evidence than in the thousands of genre-spanning covers. Everyone from Richard Thompson to Portishead has covered these songs – and not with a wink and a nudge either, but honestly finding timeless lyrics and melodies beneath ABBA’s very of-its-time presentation.

Cher did it too, releasing her ABBA tribute album today to piggyback on the second Mamma Mia! movie’s success (commercial success, that is, as the reviews were not kind – a true ABBA divide, there). So in honor of that, we decided to pick out the best ABBA covers ever. No, none of Cher’s make the list. But thirty other artists do.

30. GABBA – Waterloo

There’s a good market for ABBA tribute bands. Just ask Björn Again. If theirs isn’t enough of a gimmick for you, check out GABBA, who cross Björn and Benny with Joey and Johnny. “Waterloo” is one of the best ABBA/Ramones mixes, racing by in under a hundred seconds and throwing in a few yeahhhhhhs that would do da bruddahs proud. Sure it’s a goof, but it’s a good goof. – Patrick Robbins

29. Judith Nijland – I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

In 2016, Dutch Jazz singer Judith Nijland released A Jazz Tribute To ABBA. While many of the tracks are compelling reinterpretations of ABBA’s music, the opener “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is a real standout. She plays the song at a lighting-fast tempo with the all the piano and percussion fireworks of a hard bop record from the ‘50s. As she skats her way through the endless stream of “I Do”s, it almost makes you think Benny, Björn and Stig penned the song in the Brill Building for Ella Fitzgerald. – Curtis Zimmermann

28. Nils Landgren Funk Unit – Dancing Queen

Nils Landgren brings on the funk with his distinctively different version of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” Enter it mid-song and the tune will be mostly unrecognizable. However, start this jam from the the beginning and, despite the R&B quiet storm vibe that moves things forward, the DNA of the song is clearly present. – Walt Falconer

27. Madonna – Like an Angel Passing Through My Room

When Madonna wanted to sample “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” for her song “Hung Up,” she wrote a letter to Björn and Benny, begging them for permission. They granted it, only the second time they had ever approved a sample. Benny explained that was “because we admire Madonna so much and always have done. She has got guts and has been around for 21 years. That is not bad going.” It couldn’t have hurt that she was also an honest-to-God big fan. Six years earlier, she’d recorded a cover of “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room,” the spare deep cut that closed ABBA’s Visitors LP. She and producer William Orbit put together a thing of real beauty and peace, floating in slow motion in much the way the title character might. It’s a real shame this never found an official release, but it proves that when Madonna drops a track and no one is around, it still makes a beautiful sound. – Patrick Robbins

26. The Rural Alberta Advantage – SOS

Though billed as “The Rural Alberta Advantage,” “S.O.S.” is more a solo opportunity for frontman Adam Edenloff than the whole band. He gives the song an almost Michael Stipe feel on top of the deftly picked backing, transforming faux-baroque into old Americana – a masterful alchemy which would segue well into the band’s more typical plaid-workshirt fare. I would like to hear more ABBA songs deconstructed in this way, certainly more than the tongue-in-cheek facsimiles offered so much by so many elsewhere. – Seuras Og

25. Wilco feat. Lucius – Waterloo

In 2010, Wilco debuted the Solid Sound Festival, featuring music and comedy performances, at the MassMOCA art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. At the 2013 incarnation, Wilco performed an all-covers set (which you can legally download here) that included everything from Television to the Replacements to Daft Punk to Dylan and the Beatles. And, most surprising of all: ABBA. Following a cover of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” with Lucius guesting on backing vocals, singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig stuck around to take the lead on the similarly-titled “Waterloo,” because, as Jeff Tweedy noted, “we really didn’t want people to hear me sing this song.” The original, which was the winner of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest – an accolade far bigger in Europe than it is here – was the beginning of ABBA’s international fame. It compares a woman’s surrender to a man to Napoleon’s capitulation at the Battle of Waterloo, a nice historical reference, if a somewhat politically incorrect sentiment, all set to a peppy tune. The Wilco/Lucius cover rocks a little harder, but plays it pretty close to the original, because, as Tweedy said, at least partly in jest, “We took these things seriously, very seriously.” – Jordan Becker

24. Any Trouble – The Name of the Game


Tossed away as the b-side of an early single, this live version comes over as a prime piece of power pop, all ‘noo-wave” jangle and Costello-lite vocal. Close your eyes and you can see the skinny ties. I loved Any Trouble and their main man Clive Gregson, who went on, after a period in Richard Thompson’s band, to be part of celebrated folk club stalwarts, Gregson and (Christine) Collister. ABBA were still deemed as being irredeemably naff at that time, at least by the cognoscenti of the late 1970s, so I daresay I thought the cover ironic at the time rather than, as it probably was, recognition of a well-crafted tune. Still can’t abide the original, mind. – Seuras Og

23. Nana Mouskouri – I Have A Dream

Greek pop superstar Nana Mouskouri appeared on the Eurovision Song Contest a decade before ABBA and has kept performing for more than three decades after the Swedish Fab Four called it quits. She’s an expert at recording cover songs and making them sound like standards. Mouskouri took the ABBA anthem “I Have A Dream” and with her soprano voice turned it into a folk tune. Though she sings in English, hearing her sing, one could almost imagine that sailors from the Greek Islands have been singing it for centuries. – Curtis Zimmermann

22. Danny Wilson – Knowing Me, Knowing You

Largely remembered for the one hit wonder of “Mary’s Prayer,” Scottish trio Danny Wilson’s followup LP Bebop Moptop found few buyers. A later edition was fleshed out with rarities and live tracks, including this accordion-driven romp through the favorite song of Steve Coogan alter-ego, Alan Partridge. Thankfully, much of the original’s call and response is lost, retaining only the backing vocals of the chorus, with singer Gary Clark squeezing the vocals out in an impassioned yelp. Clark went on to be better known as a producer and songwriter or hire, notably for popstrels such as Natalie Imbruglia and Demi Lovato. – Seuras Og

21. Erasure – SOS

Having reached number two on the UK charts with the single “Sometimes” in 1986, the synth-pop group Erasure finally reached number one in 1992 with their ABBA tribute album, Abba-Esque. The four-track E.P. included four of the major ABBA hits: “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “Voulez-Vous, “Take A Chance On Me,” and perhaps the best of the lot, “SOS.” While certainly keeping it recognizable, singer Andy Belle along with Vince Clarke takes the song on a magic carpet ride adding a bit more synthesizer bravado to the more piano-based original. – Walt Falconer

20. Five Iron Frenzy – Mamma Mia

Given that it spanned the movie that spawned the sequel that spawned the Cher album that inspired this list, the song “Mamma Mia” hasn’t been covered as often as you’d think. Not compared to “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes All,” and “S.O.S.” at least. More importantly, it hasn’t been covered as well. The only major cover of note is the 1999 hit by the A*Teens, a teenage pop group that inexplicably sold six million copies of their tribute album The ABBA Generation (a generation the 14 and 15-year olds decidedly did not belong to). Far, far better is this novelty ska take from Five Iron Frenzy. Given that ska is one of the few genres as frequently derided as bubblegum pop, it’s a match made in guilty-pleasure heaven. – Ray Padgett

19. Mike Oldfield – Arrival

ABBA’s fame is built on catchy pop tunes with catchy pop lyrics. But they also recorded two instrumentals, the second and last of which was “Arrival,” the title track to their fourth studio album, the one that turned them into a global phenomenon. Arrival included three hit singles: “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” “Arrival,” a prog-meets-Swedish-folk-music piece with wordless choral vocals, was not one of them, but it’s been covered more times than you might expect. This cover, by Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame, retains the majesty of the original, but Oldfield’s distinctive guitars and more British folk sensibility bring the song down to earth—in a good way. – Jordan Becker

18. Steven Wilson – The Day Before You Came

I’ve written about this song before, and in the years since I discovered it, my appreciation of it has only grown. I’m no closer to figuring out the song’s mysteries – who is this “You”? Why all the “must have” lyrics? – and I never will be. I give full credit to Steven Wilson’s interpretation, which takes out the ABBA bounce and adds an acoustic guitar that sounds less like strumming than tolling, for opening my eyes and ears to recognize that the song is an enigmatic masterpiece. – Patrick Robbins

17. DALUMI – Dancing Queen


“I always thought that this song is about a sad teenager, standing at the window, watching his popular friends going out to parties, while he’s been left behind,” says Israeli singer-songwriter Nadev Dalumi. His tender duet with Maayan Kaufman beautifully channels that loneliness and longing. – Ray Padgett

16. Black Ingvars – Waterloo

Swedish dance-metal? Swedish dance-metal. Wikipedia calls Black Ingvars a humorist heavy metal group, but their covers seem less like jokes and more like quality metal with knowing nods. Their “Waterloo,” for instance, borrows some extra rocket fuel from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” then finishes by quoting Deep Purple’s “Child in Time.” And it works – even better because the song’s strong enough to hold it up. – Patrick Robbins

15. Mad Caddies – SOS

The Mad Caddies improve ABBA’s “S.O.S.” by going less American Bandstand and more Warped Tour. Released in 2000, the California band’s cover doesn’t go an expected ABBA sound route. With a ska punk sound, the Mad Caddies bring more aggression and heaviness while not blowing up the original. This cover’s rhythm is more pronounced with a driving drum. Also, the Caddies bring in horns and a rocking electric guitar which separate it more from the buttery ABBA hit. Vocally, the Mad Caddies also takes a different direction from the original’s female dreamy vocals. The angrier male voice brings a new perspective of desire for the love signal over the sweet, more passive Swedish sound. – John Lenhardt

14. Sinead O’Connor – Chiquitita

Of course, Ms. O’Connor could sing the phone book, so magisterial are her pipes, carrying this slight ditty into a very much better place, bending and extending the notes in her characteristic way, even if the backing (from early demos, I think) is blandly generic. It actually popped out as a single in 1998, but I don’t recall much impact at the time. More astonishing was when she performed it on a TV comedy show in 1997, over the closing credits, with a seemingly live backing, lost deep in her interpretation. – Seuras Og

13. Bike – My Love, My Life

Flying Nun was the record label in New Zealand, showcasing innovative indie bands since 1981. In the mid-90s, they released Abbasalutely, a tribute album featuring those in their stable who went along with the idea. Their liner notes had a whiff of preemptive strike to them, saying the songs were “sometimes unbelievably corny, sometimes indigestibly syrupy, yet undeniably lasting.” They needn’t have worried – the bands, known and unknown alike, acquitted themselves well. My favorite: Bike’s “My Love, My Life,” featuring Andrew Brough from Straitjacket Fits, who easily finds the heart of the song and then washes it in waves of echoed guitar. – Patrick Robbins

12. The Volebeats – Knowing Me, Knowing You

“Walking through this empty house, tears in my eyes.” If ever ABBA wrote a song that perfectly fit into the trope of country breakup songs, this is it. The Volebeats evidently realized this when they included the song on their album Country Favorites. It’s a total tearjerker and fits perfectly with the Volebeats’ reverb-drenched slide guitars and straightforward, harmonized vocal delivery. Any fan of alt-country should immediately queue this one up – it’s a prime example of countrifying a pop song not just for the gimmick, but because it truly works. – Mike Misch

11. Whitley – Dancing Queen

When we were curating this list, more covers came from Australia’s Triple J “Like a Version” radio sessions than anywhere else. Now, it’s been a while since my last geography class, but I’m pretty sure Australia is nowhere near Sweden. So what’s the story? Turns up I’m not the only one to wonder: witness the 2017 Sydney Morning-Herald article “What made Australians the world’s most feverish Abba fans?” The answer never entirely clarifies, but the article does offer the wonderful scene of a nine-year old Nicole Kidman stalking the band at the Sydney airport. Anyway, those many Australian radio covers I mentioned before this down-under digression? Whitley’s is the best. – Ray Padgett

10. Ash – Does Your Mother Know

ABBA can rock, you know; any number of metal bands wish they’d come up with that “Watch Out” riff. Their “Does Your Mother Know” was one of their tougher singles, but as arena-rock, it was in the arena of pop innocence and dance grooving. The potential for something heavier was always there, though, and Ash realized that potential, laying down a louder sound without neglecting the need to have a good groove to bang your head to. – Patrick Robbins

9. Pale Honey – Lay All Your Love on Me

ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love On Me” is actually a bit of a creepy song. Hidden beneath all the fun, disco-powered grooves are lyrics about a lover whose obsession is a bit on the unhealthy side. “I wasn’t jealous before we met / Now every woman I see is a potential threat.” With their 2017 cover, Swedish rockers Pale Honey reinterpret the song as a slow, disturbing piece of minimalist alternative rock. Singer Tuva Lodmark comes across like the ghostly spectre of a disturbed ex-girlfriend as passively sings out: “And I’m possessive, it isn’t nice.” Be afraid of what you post on Facebook, because Pale Honey is definitely watching to make sure you “don’t go wasting your emotion” on anybody else. – Curtis Zimmermann

8. First Aid Kit – Chiquitita

It may be the law that growing up in Sweden requires that you like ABBA. Certainly the singing Soderberg sisters in First Aid Kit do, and their live cover of “Chiquitita” is a marvelous example of that. The backing track doesn’t have the world-music feel of the original, and their harmonies are less strident than Agnetha and Frida sometimes sounded. It makes the song more organic, more natural, and lifts it up – if not higher, then to its own very special place. – Patrick Robbins

7. Blancmange – The Day Before You Came

I always considered this one of the archer – and therefore better – songs of the ABBA canon. It’s the almost poignant iteration of a life lived dull ahead of love. Or, we presume, love. It could be played completely differently, a song of inherent threat, and Neil Arthur’s deadpan vocal accentuates accentuates this mood of uncertainty. The metronomic tabla-like da-da-dum rhythm was something often present in the band’s oeuvre, adding relentlessly here to the tension. (It should come as no surprise that Arthur later went on to make a record of Indian music with [Brimful of] Asha Bosle.) This song scored a couple of places higher in the UK charts than the original, which gave me great joy, I recall. – Seuras Og

6. Richard Thompson – Money, Money, Money

A somewhat cynical message delivered in typical bouncy ABBA style, the song glorifies a hard working woman’s quest for a sugar daddy to provide her with the wealth that she desires. And who better to cover the song than Richard Thompson, who is known for his dark songs? As a general rule, if Thompson covers one of your songs, he is likely to improve it. His version of “Money, Money, Money,” included in the 1000 Years of Popular Music collection (which you can read about in more detail here) is no exception. Thompson, an avowed ABBA fan, performs the song accompanied only by his virtuoso guitar, with backing vocals from Judith Owen. Does his gender-switch make the song’s quest for a rich benefactor less troubling? I’ll leave that to you to decide. – Jordan Becker

5. The Czars – Angel Eyes

“Angel Eyes,” featured on the 1979 ABBA album Voulez-Vouz, is an upbeat affair that warns against being hypnotized by looking into his angel eyes. In the hands of alternative shoegazers The Czars, one of singer-songwriter John Grant’s original bands, the song takes on a foreboding tone. This dreamy acoustic-based version also answers the question as to what an ABBA 45 RPM single slowed down to 33 RPM would sound like. – Walt Falconer

4. Carla Bruni – The Winner Takes It All

Since it has already ear-wormed its way into your brain, covering a song that has reached number one status on most of the worldwide music charts can be a bit of a tightrope act. This is very much the case with ABBA’s smash hit “The Winner Takes It All.” Resisting the sentiment to play it straight, Carla Bruni walks the tightrope quite nicely in delivering a smoky, sultry rendition from her 2017 album, French Touch. – Walt Falconer

3. Camera Obscura – Super Trouper

One rarely listens to ABBA for the subtleties of the lyrics. While anyone who has been on a dance floor at a wedding can probably belt out the chorus to half a dozen ABBA tunes, few could probably make it through the verse, let alone analyze the lyrics to find some deeper existential meaning. When listening to ABBA’s “Super Trouper,” for example, all one really hears are those two words from the title broken down into a blast of the syllables repeated over and over again. The Scottish group Camera Obscura upended the track with their 2007 cover. They slow the song down and gives it a jangly, alt-pop arrangement that almost seems more suited for a Bob Dylan cover. As singer Tracyanne Campbell emotes the lyrics, it quickly becomes clear that this is ABBA’s “It’s-tough-to-be-a-rock-star-song,” like a sweeter, more romantic version of “Comfortably Numb” or “Turn the Page.” Camera Obscura captures the bleakness of being up on the stage and still somehow being anonymous: “Facing twenty thousand of your friends/How can anyone be so lonely?/Part of a success that never ends/Still, I’m thinking about you only.” In this version, the chorus simply becomes part of the story, rather than the most dominant part of the song. – Curtis Zimmermann

2. Revolver – Lay All Your Love On Me


One of defunct French trio Revolver’s most popular YouTube videos is a cover of “Helplessly Hoping.” Covering CSN seems kind of a no-brainer; the first paragraph of any Revolver review inevitably contained the phrase “vocal harmonies.” Tackling ABBA – now that offers more of a stretch. Yet Revolver made the fit perfect on this 2011 single, stripping almost all the song’s production away to highlight their gorgeous voices. The band broke up in 2013 after having all their equipment stolen, which seemed both tragic and unnecessary: all the equipment this group ever needed was locked away in their breastbones and throats. – Ray Padgett

1. Portishead – SOS

“Critically-acclaimed and immeasurably influential band records their first new material in six years, completely reimagining a classic ABBA track.” While we love to find hidden gems at Cover Me, we also know how to spot an obvious gem. Portishead covering ABBA? Yes, please. The best part is, the song overdelivers on the promising premise, which is how it ended up being our favorite cover of 2016. Beth Gibbons’s voice is beautiful but filled with the desperation, befitting lyrics like “when you’re gone how can I even try to go on?” She’s accompanied by bass-heavy and pitch-shifting synths that could easily have been pulled from Requiem for a Dream’s haunting soundtrack. The result is brooding, disorienting, and, ultimately, sad. This isn’t the song ABBA was trying to write, but Portishead found its true heart. – Mike Misch

Check out the Best Ever Covers of Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Beyoncé, Pink Floyd, and more here.

  3 Responses to “The Best ABBA Covers Ever”

Comments (3)
  1. Honorable mention to Robbie Fulks for his masterful cover(s) of “Dancing Queen,” of which there are several versions on the Youtubes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFJrAGv3_vg is a nice start.It’s simultaneously ironically self-referential and earnest.

  2. Terrific as I said in a tweet.. a honourable mention for me of Lush’s Hey Hey Helen and John Grant did a cracking version of Angel Eyes but then he was in the Czars and its not too revolutionary from their version

  3. Arno
    Knowning me, Knowing you

    https://youtu.be/JMf8iM7_QuY

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