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Sweden's Music Machine
If the only Swedish band or musician you can name is ABBA, then there's a little bit of catching up to do. Over the past several decades, Sweden has been quietly cultivating future songwriters, producers, musicians, and DJs—particularly in the realm of pop and electronic dance music (EDM)—then exporting music to the rest of the world.
Sweden is a music machine. Almost all Swedes speak English as at least a second language. Combine that with the generous government support of after-school music programs, plus subsidies for professional music endeavors, and you have a booming Swedish music industry.
When pop band ABBA hit it big on the worldwide stage in the 1970s and early 1980s, the group provided a role model for the country's youth. The so-called "Swedish Music Miracle," or the years between 1990-2003, saw Swedish musicians make strong inroads on the US Billboard Hot 100 and dance charts.
Then, with the melding of technology and music in the new millennium, much of the Swedish contribution moved behind the scenes to songwriting, music production, and DJing. What is for sure is that the unassuming Scandinavian country has grown into a powerhouse of musical talent. Learn what Swedish musicians have made it big in America and what they're famous for.
Swedish electronic dance artist Tim Bergling was known as Avicii, signifying "the lowest level of Buddhist hell." Although he also performed under the monikers Tom Hangs and Tim Berg, the stage name Avicii was a harbinger of the personal demons that the artist would face as he acquired ever-increasing global acclaim.
Avicii was a songwriter, record producer, musician, and prolific remixer who is credited as being one of the most influential forces behind the rise of EDM in early 2010s popular music. He began making music at age 16. Although Avicii enjoyed music, as a teen the Swede didn't play any instrument particularly well. However, when he discovered house music and what he could musically create with computers, his career quickly took root. Examples of his hits include, "Wake Me Up" (2013) and "Hey Brother" (2013). Avicii collaborated with a wide range of artists across multiple genres, including Madonna, Chris Martin, Lenny Kravitz, Gavin DeGraw, and Wyclef Jean. He was also nominated for Grammy Awards and earned up to $500,000 per gig (money that he often donated to charity).
In 2016, the stressed and overworked artist retired from the breakneck pressures of touring. He suffered from acute pancreatitis and underwent subsequent surgeries for his gallbladder and appendix. Additionally, he had been facing years of escalating mental health concerns: depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Then, in 2018, Avicii died from self-inflicted wounds from a broken wine bottle. He was only 28 years old.
If Sweden had never contributed anything else to the world, we would still have been perfectly happy with their generous offering of ABBA, with their campy, heartfelt songs that anyone can sing along to. Powerhouse pop group ABBA was Sweden's most successful musical group ever, and they are honored in America's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group was comprised of two married—and subsequently divorced—couples:
- Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus
- Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad
(Technically, Lyngstad was born in Norway, but the other members are Swedish through and through.)
Musically the foursome first began to work together in 1969. They were originally known as Festfolk (meaning "party people"), thereafter performing under the name of Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid, before settling on the more memorable term, ABBA. The band's name is derived from each member's first initials.
After winning the 1974 Eurovision song contest with "Waterloo," the Swedish pop group catapulted to worldwide fame and enjoyed consistent success throughout the rest of the 1970s and into the early 1980s until the group disbanded in 1982. While ABBA landed only one single, "Dancing Queen," atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, they made a significant impact on the sound of mainstream Top 40's music in the era. Top 40 charted songs include:
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- "Waterloo" (1974)
- "Honey, Honey" (1974)
- "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" (1975)
- "SOS" (1975)
- "Mamma Mia" (1975)
- "Fernando" (1976)
- "Dancing Queen" (1976)
- "Knowing Me, Knowing You" (1977)
- "The Name of the Game" (1977)
- "Take a Chance on Me" (1978)
- "Chiquitita" (1979)
- "Does Your Mother Know" (1979)
- "The Winner Takes It All" (1980)
- "When All Is Said and Done" (1981)
ABBA remains one of the most successful musical acts in history. A 2008 major motion picture, Mamma Mia!, features the Swedish supergroup's hits, thus introducing a new generation to the magic of their sound.
Both couples composing the Swedish group have long since divorced, and ABBA's members have pledged never to perform together in public again, even though they were once offered a billion dollars to do so. Note, however, that there is new music coming from the group in 2021. Stay tuned!
Two friends, Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle, began performing together as the Swedish pop duo, Roxette, in 1986. They quickly found success in their native country. Roxette became global chart setters shortly after an American exchange student studying in Sweden heard their song, "The Look" and purchased the 1988 album Look Sharp!, bringing it back to the States to share with an American DJ.
The Swedish duo enjoyed the following Top 40 hits that included four chart-topping Billboard Hot 100 tunes:
- "The Look" (1989)
- "Dressed for Success" (1989)
- "Listen to Your Heart" (1989)
- "Dangerous" (1989)
- "It Must Have Been Love" (1990)
- "Joyride" (1991)
- "Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)" (1991)
- "Spending My Time" (1991)
- "Church of Your Heart" (1992)
Additionally, their song, "It Must Have Been Love," appeared on the soundtrack of the major motion picture Pretty Woman (1990). Roxette is Sweden's second-best-selling music act after ABBA.
4. Ace of Base
Swedish pop band Ace of Base prides itself as one of the first internationally popular bands to have heavily incorporated technology in their music. Formed in 1990, the group grew out of a school project. In their heyday, the band's lineup consisted of three siblings–Jonas Berggren, Malin "Linn" Berggren, and Jenny Berggren–plus their friend, Ulf Ekberg. Together, they were previously known as Tech-Noir until a Swedish magazine panned another band with the same name; they quickly changed their name to differentiate themselves.
Pop songs by Ace of Base charted well globally through the 1990s, including in the United States where several of them were Top 10 hits. Songs that reached the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 included:
- "All That She Wants" (1992)
- "The Sign" (1993)
- "Don't Turn Around" (1994)
- "Living in Danger" (1994)
- "Lucky Love" (1995)
- "Beautiful Life" (1995)
- "Cruel Summer" (1998)
Linn departed the group in 2007, whereupon the band performed as a trio. However, two years later, Jenny left Ace of Base as well. In 2010, the two remaining members recruited two new female members as replacement vocalists. Although they have never disbanded, Ace of Base has been rarely active since 2012.
5. Swedish House Mafia
The future of electronic dance music (EDM) received a big boost when three solo DJs joined forces in 2008 to create progressive house supergroup Swedish House Mafia. Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso had known one another as children and collaborated under various aliases. When they found themselves booked at the same event as another Swedish DJ, Axel Hedfors (known as Axwell), the trio decided to collaborate creatively under the name Swedish House Mafia. Although a fourth Swedish DJ, Eric Prydz, was briefly also a member, he quickly bowed out because he was too much of a self-described "control freak."
From 2008-2013, Swedish House Mafia released EDM music and remixes that filled the club scene across the globe, including the US. The group landed only one hit on the Top 40 chart of the mainstream US Billboard Hot 100, "Don't You Worry Child" (featuring John Martin) in 2012. However, their hits on the US Billboard Dance charts included:
- Miami 2 Ibiza (2010)
- Leave the World Behind (2009)
- One (Your Name) (2010)
- Greyhound (2012)
- Antidote (2012)
Swedish House Mafia went on hiatus in 2013 and members pursued their own projects. The group reunited in 2018.
Known mononymously as Robyn, Robin Miriam Carlsson made her first foray into professional music when she impressed a Swedish pop star who was visiting her middle school. Robyn subsequently grew to become a pivotal international pop star, incorporating edgy political and feminist themes into her work. Stars like Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Charlie XCX, Tegan and Sara, and Lorde cite the Swede as an influential force in their development as artists. Additionally, the LGBTQ community considers her an ally and an icon.
As a teen in the 1990s, two of Robyn's R&B songs made the US Billboard Top 40 chart: "Do You Know (What It Takes)" (1996) and "Show Me Love" (1997). Her success paved the way for a sudden wave of white female R&B singers.
The Swedish singer then re-emerged in the mid-2000s under her own record label as a fiercely independent artist with a synthpop groove. As such, she placed a string of hits on the US Billboard Dance chart—songs like:
- "Do It Again" (featuring Röyksopp) (2014)
- "Love Is Free" featuring (La Bagatelle Magique and Maluca) (2015)
- "Missing U" (2018)
- "Honey" (2018)
- "Ever "Again" (2019)
- "Impact" (featuring SG Lewis and Channel Tres) (2020)
Although you may love "The Final Countdown," the 1986 glam metal track has been named to several lists of the worst rock song ever. (Crazy, right? I can think of so many others that are worse.) Whatever your opinion, "The Final Countdown" is the signature song for the Swedish band Europe, formed in 1979.
The group was originally named Force until 1982, when the girlfriend of lead singer Joey Tempest entered the band in a national talent search contest and they successfully competed against 4,000 other bands. At the last moment, the group changed its name to Europe, then won the competition as well as a recording contract. Over the next several years, Europe landed the following rock and glam metal songs on the Top 40 chart of the US Billboard Hot 100 list:
- "The Final Countdown" (1986)
- "Rock the Night" (1986)
- "Carrie" (1987)
- "Superstitious" (1988)
After taking a hiatus in 1992, the band reassembled on New Year's Night 1999 for one show. Subsequently, in 2003, Europe reunited with a different membership lineup. In 2015, GEICO featured the band and their hit, "The Final Countdown." in their tongue-in-cheek commercials.
8. Tove Lo
Who can forget Tove Lo's vivid lyrics about binging on Twinkies and puking them up in the tub? The uninhibited Swedish singer-songwriter with the funny-sounding name (pronounced "Tovah Loo") was born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson and granted her nickname by her grandmother.
By age 11 she was writing her own poetry and songs. Then as a teen, the singer made certain that a demo of her self-penned music came to rest in the right hands at a music industry party. She found herself in LA with Swedish singer-songwriter and producer Max Martin as her mentor.
Her career blossomed as she developed her confessional "TMI" style depicting a hard-partying way of life centered on casual sex and illicit drug use. That's where those barfed up Twinkies come in. The line appears in "Habits (Stay High)". Either as the lead artist or as the featured artist, Tove Lo has seen several pop and EDM songs make the Top 40 list of the Billboard Hot 100, including:
- "Habits (Stay High)" (2013)
- "Heroes (We Could Be)" by Alesso (featuring Tove Lo) (2014)
- "Talking Body" (2015)
- "Close" by Nick Jonas (featuring Tove Lo) (2016)
Additionally, the Swedish musician has become a sought-after songwriter. Aside from writing her own songs, she has authored songs recorded by Ellie Goulding, Dua Lipa, Zara Larsson, Victoria Justice, Cher Lloyd, Icona Pop, Hilary Duff, Charlie XCX, and others.
9. Zara Larsson
Zara Larsson's experience with pop stardom began in 2008, when she won a nationally televised talent show at only 10 years old. During her teens, the Swedish songstress collaborated with a variety of other musicians and gained the international spotlight. Her pop sound is one with R&B and electro influences.
Larsson was named to TIME Magazine's "30 Most Influential Teens of 2016," Billboard's "21 Under 21" of 2017, and Maxim's Hot 100 of 2018. Clearly, the Swedish songstress has made it big in the US.
Together with MNEK, the Swede has enjoyed several minor hits in addition to placing one song on the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart: "Never Forget You" (featuring MNEK) (2015). (Technically, this makes her a one-hit wonder for now.) She is also an outspoken feminist who is vocal on social media. Watch her for more to come.
10. Icona Pop
Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo met at a party in 2009, formed a band together called Icona Pop, then booked a sold-out gig for the following day featuring some mostly-finished songs. Who does that? Their adventurous approach paid off with a management deal.
The Swedish duo's indie pop and EDM sound has been called "effortlessly cool." Icona Pop's first major song, "I Love It" (featuring Charli XCX) (2012) became a megahit for them, but this was the only tune the Swedish duo has been able to advance to the Top 40 of the US Billboard Hot 100. They remain a one-hit wonder until they can repeat their Top 40 success. Not to worry, however. The Swedish duo have a string of ditties on the US Dance charts and show staying power in the world of music:
- "All Night" (2013)
- "In the Stars" (2013)
- "Get Lost" (2014)
- "Let's Go" (Tiësto featuring Icona Pop)
- "Someone Who Can Dance" (2016)
- "X's" (Grx and CMC$ featuring Icona Pop) (2018)
- "Right Time" (with Hayden James) (2020)
- "Spa" (with Sofi Tukker) (2020)
11. Eagle-Eye Cherry
When this Swedish musician first looked at his father, American jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, he did so with only one eye open. That's how he acquired his unusual birth name, Eagle-Eye Cherry.
With initial hopes of pursuing a career in acting, Eagle-Eye attended the same performing arts high school in New York City as Jennifer Aniston and Chaz Bono. When his father died in 1995, however, the young Swede's rock music career began in earnest. His acclaimed single, "Save Tonight" (1997) was the only song the Swedish musician has ever placed on the US Billboard mainstream pop chart. The song reached the #5 position. Until Eagle-Eye is able to repeat his success with breaking the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, he will remain a one-hit-wonder.
Regarded as the female Elvis in her prime, sultry Swedish redhead Ann-Margaret (Olsson) could sing, dance, and act. As a triple threat, she was rewarded with a Hollywood career that spanned six decades.
With only a single song on the Top 40 of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, "I Just Don't Understand" (1961), Ann-Margaret remains a one-hit-wonder. However, there were several hits on the US Dance charts with her name on them:
- "Love Rush" (1979)
- "Midnight Message" (1980)
- "Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes" (1981)
Together with Al Hirt, Ann-Margaret also delivers my favorite rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (1964).
Moreover, the Swedish talent has starred in movies such as Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Grumpy Old Men (1993), winning five Golden Globe Awards. (Who can forget Ann-Margaret opposite Elvis? In her autobiography, the red-headed Swede claimed that her love affair with the King of Rock 'n Roll lasted from the filming of Viva Las Vegas until his 1977 death.)
(co-written and co-produced by Max Martin)
13. Max Martin
You didn't think Taylor Swift wrote and produced "Bad Blood" and other hits all by herself, did you? You've probably never heard of him, but there's an enigmatic Swedish man behind a LOT of American music. And when it comes to writing chart-topping pop songs, only John Lennon and Paul McCartney surpass hitmaker supreme Max Martin. He's a Swedish record producer, songwriter, and former singer who dropped out of high school to pursue singing in a glam metal band. But Martin quickly discovered that his talents were more aligned with songwriting and production.
After collaborating on Ace of Base's album, a huge career boost came for the Swede with two back-to-back successes. Martin wrote, cowrote, and produced 7 of the 12 songs on the Backstreet Boys' Millennium (1999) album. He also wrote and co-produced Britney Spears' debut single, "...Baby One More Time" (1998).
Over the years, he has written and produced music for major pop stars in need of Top 40 earworms and chart-toppers. Martin's list of clients reads like a "Who's Who" in the music industry: Britney Spears, Pink, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Kesha, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Cindi Lauper, Pitbull, Shakira, Selena Gomez, Adele, Justin Timberlake, Lana Del Rey, The Band Perry, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Tove Lo, Sam Smith, The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, Lara Larsson, Zac Brown Band, and others.
With a track record like that, it's easy to see how the talented Swede has won the prestigious ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award so many times! Just a few examples of the many #1 hits that Martin has written, co-written and/or produced include:
- "So What" (2008) by Pink
- "My Life Would Suck Without You" (2009) by Kelly Clarkson
- "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" (2012) by Taylor Swift
- "One More Night" (2012) by Maroon 5
- "Roar" (2013) by Katy Perry
- "Can't Feel My Face" (2015) by The Weeknd
- "Can't Stop the Feeling!" (2016) by Justin Timberlake
Max Martin frequently works with the fellow Swede, Karl Schuster, known professionally as Shellback. Shellback is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist.
Swedish DJ and EDM producer Alesso was introduced to DJing by Sebastian Ingrosso of Swedish House Mafia after Alesso self-released an EP as a teenager. Ingrosso has served as his mentor ever since and has watched the younger DJ's star rise in the world of music. Known for both his own productions and his remixes, Alesso blends progressive house music with pop and K-pop, however he has also worked with country artists. His contributions to the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 include:
- "Heroes (We Could Be)" (featuring Tove Lo) (2014)
- "Let Me Go" (with Hailee Steinfeld featuring Florida Georgia Line and Watt) (2017)
15. Eric Prydz
At the corner of music and technology stands Eric Prydz, a Swedish DJ, record producer, and musician. For years he has been pushing the limits of where these two realms intersect, working primarily as a lone wolf under both his own name and a handful of aliases (e.g., Pryta, Cirez D). (Note that Prydz was the musician who decided against joining Swedish House Mafia because of control issues.)
He is known for his specialized concerts which are sheer entertainment spectacles held in front of crowds of thousands. One such concert in 2019 involved an enormous multi-sensory holographic LED sphere, laser beams, and mindbending animations, all set to electronic dance music. Prydz goes full tilt on the wow factor.
Although Prydz has not had any songs cross over to the mainstream US Billboard Top 40 chart, he has enjoyed considerable success on the US Billboard Dance chart. His string of hits there has consisted of both singles and remixes, including the following:
- "Call on Me" (2004)
- "Proper Education" (vs. Pink Floyd) (2006)
- "Every Day" (2012)
- "Allein" (2012)
- "Liberate" (2014)
- "Tether" (vs. Chvrches) (2015)
- "Generate" (2015)
Even More Swedish Musicians Who Made It Big in America
|Artist||Examples of Popular Singles||Genre(s)|
16. The Cardigans
Lovefool (1997), My Favorite Game (1998),
17. September (Petra Marklund)
Satellites (2005), Cry for You (2006), Can't Get Over (2007)
18. The Hives
Hate to Say I Told You So (2002), Walk Idiot Walk (2004), Tick Tock Boom (2007), Go Right Ahead (2012)
19. Snoh Aalegra
I Want You Around (2019), Whoa (2019), Dying 4 Your Love (2020)
20. Neneh Cherry
Buffalo Stance (1988), Kisses on the Wind (1989)
© 2021 FlourishAnyway
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 13, 2021:
Adrienne - What vivid memories that will last forever! Thank you for sharing them and for reading. I'm glad this brought back pleasant childhood memories. Have a wonderful week.
Adrienne Farricelli on April 13, 2021:
In 1984 through 1999 I was living in Italy and I was only about 10 when the Swedish band Europe became popular there. My best friend and I were big fans and bought all their albums and had their posters on our walls. When they went for the first time to the USA for concerts, we were glued to the TV watching!
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 11, 2021:
Heidi - I have sometimes thought about a "Worst Songs Ever" playlist with my opinions and then reader participation, but without the comment feature working like it should, it's hard to make that work. I hope you're enjoying a wonderful Spring weekend. Have a great week!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 11, 2021:
I too thin it would be a great comparison to the rest of the artists
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 11, 2021:
I thought of Roxette and ABBA right away, of course. Love both. Also like Robyn (my fave of hers is Dancing On My Own). And can't believe Europe's Final Countdown is even rated "the worst rock song." Oh, c'mon.
So where we going next? Have a great new week!
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 11, 2021:
Devika - I love to see how American music is influenced by artists from around the world and in turn how we market American music globally. I hope you have a wonderful week. Stay safe and healthy.
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 11, 2021:
gyanendra - ABBA is a tried and true favorite. I'm glad I triggered some good memories.
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 11, 2021:
Ravi - I'm sure you're not alone, but I'm glad you were able to learn of some other artists. Hope you found a few you enjoyed.