The 50 Best Pop Singles Of 1994 (Featuring New Interviews With Ace Of Base, TLC, Lisa Loeb, Real McCoy & Haddaway)
1. ACE OF BASE, “THE SIGN”
There are several given facts when it comes to popular music in the modern era, and they go like this: America is tops at turning out R&B; nobody can throw together a kickass girl group quite like the UK; and Sweden is untouchable when it comes to pure pop. So just how did this Scandinavian country come to be the epicenter of cool? Well, it didn’t just start with Robyn and Avicii and Tove Lo.
The OGs of Swedepop were ABBA, the quartet who gave the world “Dancing Queen” and “Take A Chance On Me” in the 1970s, not to mention the Polar Music Prize (so named after their own Polar Studios in Stockholm). Pop-rock duo Roxette were the next big export to hail from Sweden, just as the ’80s were coming to a close. By the early ’90s, grunge and alternative music took hold in America, born as a reaction to the so-perceived plastic pop of the previous decade.
Between the summer and fall of 1993, reigning US bands Smashing Pumpkins, Peal Jam and Nirvana released albums that were easy to categorize at the time as “grunge.” (They were, respectively, Siamese Dream, Vs. and In Utero.) But upon closer, repeated listens, each respective band’s desire to grow beyond the trendy grunge-rock genre was detectable. The then-dominant scene’s crunchy-guitar heyday was coming to a close, and in its wake, new sounds were taking hold.
Hip hop had been steadily growing since the Reagan era and experienced a major boom once the 1990s rolled around. In England, Britpop sprung up as a reaction to America embracing the distorted alt-rock coming out of Seattle. Meanwhile, Germany was exporting Eurodance acts that had a knack for blending Hi NRG beats with rapped verses and catchy choruses. A shift in music was happening, and, dammit, Americans were tired of moping around and wanted to have some fun.
Enter siblings Jonas “Joker” Bergrren, Jenny Berggren and Malin “Linn” Berggren, along with their childhood friend Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg, who made up Ace Of Base, a band out of the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Their name suggested possible rap inclinations, but Ace Of Base were dealing in pop, albeit with a reggae twist. To produce what would become their debut US single, “All That She Wants,” Jonas and Ulf hooked up with fellow countryman Dag Volle, also known as Denniz Pop, a former DJ who founded Cheiron Studios in Stockholm.
“After [‘All That She Wants’] was recorded Ulf, Linn and I borrowed Denniz’s own car and went out to a deserted car park outside and just pumped up the volume and listened to the track many times that night,” Jonas says. “We knew we had done something special.”
Released stateside by Arista in 1993, “All That She Wants” was a reggae-pop oddity (compared to everything else on the radio at the time) about a woman on the prowl (“She’s going to get you!”) for “another baby.” The single reached #2 on the Hot 100, and while it would have been easy at this point for Ace Of Base to slip into the annals of one-hit wonderdom, Arista had bigger plans, and the band had an even better song waiting in the wings.
Ace Of Base’s debut LP Happy Nation was already out in Europe by the time “All That She Wants” crossed over in the States, but Arista president Clive Davis and A&R head Richard Sweret asked the band to record additional tracks for the North American release — mainly “The Sign” and a cover of “Don’t Turn Around.”
“They wanted something different from the European album, to make it more special,” Jonas recalls. “I had ‘The Sign’ only just in my head. The first time anyone heard it was Denniz Pop, who got a rough demo. It was just instrumental and I remember that he thought the verse was the chorus. Arista loved the song!”
Far more high octane than “All That She Wants” and way meatier as a song in general, “The Sign” was a straight-up smash that was tailor made for radio. It shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in March 1994, only to be bump-N-grinded off by R. Kelly in April. Then, in a rare move, “The Sign” returned to #1 a month later for two more weeks. Like with “All That She Wants,” Jonas remembers the recording session for “The Sign” fondly.
“We recorded it rather fast,” he explains. “The chorus was hard to sing since it has no time to breathe in it. We solved it by letting Jenny sing the second and fourth part of it. They wanted Linn to sing because Denniz loved her voice, so she did the vital parts. Denniz, [co-producer] Douglas [Carr] and I were happy with the result. An interesting part is that the song was so loud that we had to reduce the volume by three decibels compared to the other tracks when we mastered the album.”
Happy Nation was re-titled The Sign for its US release, and when “Don’t Turn Around” became their third consecutive Top 5 single in the summer of 1994, Ace Of Base were off and running. By the year’s end, the album had sold 7 million copies in the States alone. The band picked up two American Music Awards, three Billboard Music Awards and found themselves nominated for Pop Vocal Group and New Artist Grammys. Needless to say, Jonas, Linn, Jenny and Ulf found that free time was not an option during this period.
“We all had too much to do to enjoy most of it. Such a pity,” says Jonas. “With the first album we did gigs, promoted the album and recorded many videos for 23 month in a row. Then we read somewhere that Metallica had been out [and promoted] for 18 months and that it was some kind of a record in the music business industry. I remember we thought, hey, what about us then? When the record companies asked us to release ‘Young And Proud’ as the eighth single from the album we just refused to do so. It was time to stop working and take some rest.”
In fact, it was during a rare vacation in January 1994, before Ace Of Base completely exploded, that Jonas came up with the concept for another future hit from the band.
He explains, “I was at the Canary Islands in Spain, and the last evening I just heard the song ‘Beautiful Life’ in my head. I have the ability to hear three different melodies in my head at the same time — it’s very helpful while composing songs. Melody, bass and a flute on a chourus for example. It was melancholic to leave the islands and it was a wonderful evening, with the mood and sunset. It was a beautiful life!”
Incidentally, “Beautiful Life” would become the lead American single off Ace Of Base’s sophomore album, The Bridge, in 1995. It’s a song Jonas co-produced with Denniz Pop and a young musician Pop was mentoring at the time at Cheiron Studios by the name of Max Martin.
Following The Sign and The Bridge, Ace Of Base released a third album and a greatest hits collection before their North American deal with Arista was up in 2000. After the European release of 2002 LP Da Capo, Linn left the band, and Jenny followed suit before the recording of 2010’s The Golden Ratio.
With their unique brand of colorful, tight melodies, it’s clear to see that Ace Of Base left an incredible mark on music two decades ago. The group kicked the door open for not only artists like Robyn and A*Teens, but also for producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, who went on to reshape the sound of pop in the late ’90s by working with Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. As for the generation after that, one need only listen to Lady Gaga‘s 2010 single “Alejandro” or Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream and Prism albums to hear Jonas, Linn, Jenny and Ulf’s influence in current music. And let’s of course not forget Swedish Ace Of Base tribute band A*Base, a group of teenagers who released their first single last week, a cover of “Never Gonna Say I’m Sorry.” (Jonas points out that A*Base’s album will contain “only covers of our songs — some never released actually.”)
Looking ahead, Jonas says he’s not opposed to a reunion with his bandmates — “I wouldn’t mind! I am not the one closing any doors. Maybe something for charity?” — but until then, there is the planned re-release of Ace Of Base’s original albums, plus a collection of unreleased material, coming soon: “We are releasing an album called Hidden Gems in 2015. It was first planned to be released this year to highlight [the anniversary of] our #1 album in the USA, but then the record company wanted to release it on vinyl as well, and since the lead time is eight weeks, it would have been too close to Christmas. The album is a mix of unreleased and rare and songs only known to diehard fans. It feels good to compile them on an album finally. The tracks on the album are prior to 2006 by the original lineup and are original recordings, just mastered. The beginning of 2015 is the worldwide release I have been told.”
He continues, “We are also remastering all of the old albums and putting a twist to them by adding an extra song by us from the actual time of the different albums. The Sign album is the first here and will be available on Christmas Eve this year. ‘Mr Ace’, the first version of ‘All That She Wants’, will be the bonus track on that album.”
When I finally tell him that “The Sign” has topped Idolator’s 50 Best Singles Of 1994 list, Jonas seems genuinely surprised (“Oh, it’s #1? How nice!”). He then says something we probably all think when hindsight kicks in while reflecting on the past: “1994 was the most memorable year of my life, but it didn’t sink in until some years later. So much was happening at the same time. Back then I couldn’t see the forest because of all the trees — it is a Swedish expression. It means you are too close to see things as a whole.” — ROBBIE DAW