Ace of Base – Happy Nation (US Version)

She leads a lonely life. Mmm.

If you really want to feel old, why not spend a moment contemplating the fact that Ace of Base‘s debut Happy Nation is twenty-five years old this week? Well, actually it isn’t – the reissued and misleadingly titled US Version is, though, which seems a good excuse to relive those happy summery days of underproduced Swedish reggae-pop.

It opens with the UK and Europe-wide number 1` All That She Wants, which might be the only thing you remember from here now. Honestly, it is a great song, pulled together with the kind of simplicity that characterised the plinky plonk pop of the early 1980s. Even in 1993, this sounded outdated, and now, a quarter of a century later, the production is frankly pretty lacklustre, but the vocals are good (apart from that pained “mmm” sound that she makes in the middle of the first line) and it’s a strong song. It’s interesting to wonder how this might perform on the charts now.

Don’t Turn Around dials the reggae up to 11, and unsurprisingly so, as they’re heavily channelling Aswad‘s 1988 version and adding relatively little in the process. It’s not bad, though, and there’s still something uplifting about the “I will survive, I’ll make it through, go on and go,” message.

Young and Proud wasn’t one of the album’s seven singles, and probably rightly so, but it’s a pretty good album track. It’s also nice to see that they can do something other than reggae, as that was starting to wear a little thin after the first two tracks.

Next is The Sign, and if the four reggae-free minutes that preceded it were leading to withdrawal symptoms, never fear – this follow-up to All That She Wants, a UK number 2, but actually a bigger hit in some parts of the world, brings it back with a vengeance. Billboard observed that this was one of the key tracks to propel Swedish pop into the popular imagination for the decades to follow, and I’m inclined to agree, as Abba had left a bit of a vacuum throughout the 1980s in that regard. Then Living in Danger was the final single from this album, but still comfortably scraped into the top twenty in most countries. This is reggae too, in case you were wondering.

Confusingly, this wasn’t actually the US version of the album – The Sign was released the following year and in a triumph of editorial controls, dropped two of the total drivel tracks, Here Me Calling and Fashion Party. For some reason it left this next track on, Voulez-Vous Danser, perhaps because it isn’t quite as bad as the others, or perhaps because of the slight nod to Ace of Base‘s compatriots Abba. With those omissions, this was the USA’s biggest selling album of the year. Voulez-Vous Danser is disco, by the way, because it’s easier to dance to than reggae.

Happy Nation takes things in a more techno, and consequently rather better, direction. The UK was pretty burnt out with Ace of Base by the time we got it as a single, and so it stalled at number 40, but it topped the charts in some countries. Then Hear Me Calling comes next, a thoroughly misguided attempt to do some kind of electronic dance music which changes key unpredictably and just ends up sounding a bit of a mess. You’ll probably find yourself tapping your foot, and you’ll be a little embarrassed about it.

If you’re counting the genres here, Waiting for Magic is disco. It’s also complete rubbish. Surprisingly, Scandinavia and Finland decided to release it as a single, and it was a decent sized hit. Maybe there was just too much reggae in those territories at that point. You could probably guess from the title that Fashion Party is going to be pretty awful too, so no disappointments here. They keep saying something about having a good time, but frankly by this point, I’m really not.

Fortunately, debut single Wheel of Fortune is strategically placed at this point to re-inject some quality. A moderate hit in most countries when it was released as a single, it’s actually up there among the better tracks on here. It’s reggae again, but I suppose if we’ve learnt nothing else, we’ve learnt that Swedish reggae sells.

The last proper track on here is Dancer in a Daydream, which isn’t too bad. If it had been the actual album closer, it might have worked pretty well – it hinges on dance at times (it’s definitely not reggae, anyway), but it’s fairly laid back for the most part. But it’s hard to resist the urge to throw random remixes on the end of an album, and so we get three, starting with the appallingly bad My Mind (Mindless Mix). That’s followed by the awful and chronically misspelt All That She Wants (Banghra Version) and the pointless Happy Nation (Remix), and then the album is finally over.

Happy Nation (US Version) is a mixed bag, really – it’s definitely better than the non-US version, and frankly it’s also better than most of what followed. But there are some good things on here, and viewed as the album that set the blueprint for Swedish pop, it’s certainly important.

At the time of writing, you can purchase a second-hand copy of Happy Nation (US Version) for just nine pence. Which is definitely a bargain, however much you like reggae.

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Preview – Dubstar

Words that I never thought I would type here: Dubstar are back with a new album – their first in eighteen years. Well, two-thirds of them are back, anyway. The album is called One, and this is the lovely You Were Never in Love:

Chart for stowaways – 18 August 2018

Here’s the latest album chart:

  1. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  2. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  3. The Human League – Secrets
  4. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  5. Sparks – Hippopotamus
  6. Underworld & Iggy Pop – Teatime Dub Encounters
  7. Gorillaz – The Now Now
  8. Jon Hopkins – Singularity
  9. Depeche Mode – Violator
  10. Saint Etienne – Tales from Turnpike House

Q Awards 2018 – Nominations

Time now to look at the decidedly mundane list of nominees for this year’s Q Awards, which will take place on 17th October.

Q Breakthrough Act presented by Red Stripe

  • Amyl & The Sniffers
  • Goat Girl
  • Tom Grennan
  • The Magic Gang
  • IDLES
  • Bugzy Malone
  • Nakhane
  • Novelist
  • Nadine Shah
  • Jorja Smith
  • Rejjie Snow

Q Best Track presented by Firestone

  • Love It If We Made It – The 1975
  • This Is America – Childish Gambino
  • Girlfriend – Christine & The Queens
  • The Man – Goat Girl
  • Make Me Feel – Janelle Monae
  • Bells & Circles – Underworld & Iggy Pop

Q Best Album

  • Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – Arctic Monkeys
  • Hunter – Anna Calvi
  • Who Built The Moon? – Noel Gallagher
  • Joy As An Act Of Resistance – IDLES
  • Marauder – Interpol
  • I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma

Q Best Live Act presented by The Cavern Club

  • David Byrne
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  • Liam Gallagher
  • Stefflon Don
  • Taylor Swift
  • Wolf Alice

Q Best Solo Artist presented by Absolute Radio

  • Christine & The Queens
  • Drake
  • Noel Gallagher
  • Janelle Monae
  • Ed Sheeran
  • Sophie

Q Best Act In The World Today presented by Rocksteady Music School

  • The 1975
  • Arctic Monkeys
  • Florence & The Machine
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • St Vincent
  • Paul Weller

Q Best Festival/Event presented by Pretty Green Clothing

  • All Points East
  • British Summertime
  • Isle Of Wight Festival
  • Latitude Festival
  • RIZE Festival
  • Spotify Presents: Who We Be

You can vote for your favourites here, until October 5th.

Karl Bartos – Communication

After a gap of twelve years, the year 2003 delivered not one but two Kraftwerk comebacks, as Tour de France Soundtracks appeared just months before Karl Bartos‘s third solo outing, and his first to use his real name. A lot of fans took the opportunity to argue about which was better

But Communication certainly has a lot of energy – it opens with The Camera, which absolutely embodies the spirit of Kraftwerk – pick some generic inanimate subject matter, write some very mechanical lyrics around it, add some electronic instrumentation and processed vocals, and you have a good song. So it is here – The Camera is, bluntly, great.

I’m the Message was the lead single, and after The Camera is disappointing at best – the inanimate subject matter is supposed to be “a message in sound and vision,” which might have worked if it had only been realised better. It’s not bad, but there’s just something a little off here; something that isn’t quite working. You can’t quite put your finger on it yet, though.

15 Minutes of Fame is next, Karl Bartos‘s comeback single from three years earlier, and having been very much in non-electronic form for his previous release Electric Music (1998), it does feel a bit like a homecoming. It’s really rather excellent, and it’s not hard to see this as the blueprint for the rest of the album.

Bartos appears to be of the opinion that Communication was overlooked at the time it came out, although it’s difficult to sympathise with that viewpoint when you realise that at the time it was actually his best charting work since leaving Kraftwerk – Communication peaked on the German charts at number 85, while the more introspective follow-up Off the Record (2003) peaked at 44. Neither of the Elektric Music albums made it onto the top 100.

More importantly, there’s a bit of a quality control problem here. That might seem a controversial view – if you search online for reviews of this release, you’ll find evidence of almost cult-like hero-worship, but honestly large swathes of it are very average – Reality and Electronic Apeman, for instance, contain plenty good ideas, but they just don’t appear to be particularly well pulled off. The “there is a big black rectangle” part in the latter track might have seemed a clever nod to 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but it really doesn’t work. Contrast with the simplistic, rhythmic, and unusually contemporary perfection that Kraftwerk had again achieved with Tour de France Soundtracks, and it’s hard to get too enthusiastic here.

But when it’s good, it’s very good. Following his frustrations about the original release, Bartos reissued it in 2016, now with an added track Camera Obscura, and led by Life as the new lead single. This is crucial to note, because while singles might not be as important now as they were in 2003, picking the right one as the lead proves that his head was in the right place now. Life is fantastic – it’s an uplifting song, with a great message. It is, of course, introspective and anchored in the past, as all of Kraftwerk‘s output has been in the last three decades, but this song seems to represent Bartos coming to terms with the past (specifically, being fired from the group that gave him his career) and starting to think about looking forward.

Cyberspace is good, although we’re really very much doing things by the numbers now, and neither Interview nor Ultraviolet really have much new to offer. With the excellent debut Elektric Music album (1993) and his production of Electronic‘s Raise the Pressure (1996), Bartos’s latter career has definitely had some better moments, but the pair of releases either side of the turn of the millennium appear to have presented him with a few challenges. Try not to laugh too much at his pronunciation of “potato chips”.

If you don’t have the new reissue, which I don’t, the album closes with the strangely sweet Another Reality. As with much of the album, it feels a little forced and awkward, but it’s a good closing track anyway. Communication definitely isn’t up there among the finest albums ever made, but it still makes its mark, and I’m glad it’s on wide release again.

The remastered version of Communication is still widely available.