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100 Albums: "The Sign" by Ace Of Base

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Ace Of Base
Title: The Sign
Released: 1993
Genre: euro club pop


Circa 1992, a Swedish pop quartet sent their "Mr. Ace" demo tape to an up-and-coming producer named DenniZ PoP. He hated it. It was basically unlistenable. But his car radio broke and the tape got stuck, so he had to hear to it over and over for weeks, at which point he decided that there was something salvageable in the song and he agreed to work with the band.

Music. It's a glamorous biz, yo.

The resulting album was called Happy Nation, which was released in the U.S. with some slight alterations as The Sign. It was not only a commercial juggernaut, but it became the template for an entire wave of pop music. After The Sign was released, PoP would found Cheiron Studios and hire songwriter Max Martin, and together the would launch the careers of N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, Robyn, and Britney Spears. Ever wonder why a generation of pop songs have lyrics that sound like they were written by someone who doesn't quite understand English idioms? Odds are, it's because they were either written or influenced by Max Martin. According to Ace Of Base, "all that she wants is another baby," which sounds like a woman wants to get pregnant, but in the context of the song "baby" here clearly means "lover." See also Britney Spears' breakout ...Baby One More Time. "Hit me" is supposed to me "call me" and would probably have been more naturally rendered as "hit me up." No natural English-speaker would phrase it that way. But you know who would? Max Martin. Ever wonder why The Backstreet Boys want you to "believe when I say 'I want it that way'" but also "don't ever want to hear you say 'I want it that way'" and never bother to talk about what that way is? It's because Max Martin wrote it. For a full treatment on the Swedish Pop machine, I recommend Slate's Hit Parade episode on the subject.

I enjoy this album without any irony. For as much as it is prototypical of the late 90's pop renaissance, it's not as formulaic as you might expect. It takes the early 90s fast-but-brooding dance club sound (think Real McCoy or Everything But The Girl) and blends it with bright bubblegum pop melodies and reggae instrumentation. In my most recent re-listen, I was surprised at just how much reggae is in there. The keyboards favor organ and horn sounds over piano. The bass is forward in the mix with the higher-end instruments mostly accenting upbeats. The tone of the bass and drums are clearly reggae-influenced--the song The Sign even has timbales in it. It doesn't have quite the same leisurely pace of a reggae song or the high-tempo drive of a club hit, but instead bounces jauntily in between. The Sign, All That She Wants, and Don't Turn Around were big radio hits in the U.S., and that club-with-reggae vibe is evident in non-radio (in the U.S. anyway) songs like Happy Nation, Wheel Of Fortune, or Living In Danger, but my favorite tracks are the ones that just go full-tilt into trashy eurodance mode, like Dancer In A Daydream, Waiting For MagicYoung And Proud, or Voulez-Vous Danser. It peters out a bit towards the end with a weird and not-great dance mix of a song called My Mind and a not-terribly-interesting remix of All That She Wants, but for the most part it moves along merrily between aggressively dancey or danceably poppy without fully committing to--or getting bogged down by--either.

Further Listening: Nothing else the band did would be as popular as The Sign, but they did have modest hits with Beautiful Life and a cover of Cruel Summer.

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