Calling something underrated is a bit of a minefield. A song may have been underrated in your experience, in your circle of friends. But over in Argentina, everyone loved it. So what the hell are you talking about?
Like any list, it’s subjective. The criteria could vary wildly. It’s a single that wasn’t as big a hit in the charts or on the radio that it should have been. It’s an album track that the average person should listen to. Or maybe it’s just a feeling – goosebumps, heart flutter, a dry mouth. Of course that could also be a medical condition so it’s probably important you make that distinction.
Purely by chance, the list spans 8 of a-ha’s 10 albums. And the other two albums are represented in the Honorable Mentions section. And let’s start there.
Er, the Honorable Mentions Section that I just mentioned
Album: Stay on These Roads |Year: 1988 | Words and music: Paul
But, nearvanaman, wasn’t this a hit single with a cool video filmed in Paris featuring strange blue filters, Magne and Morten aimlessly walking/driving across the city, Paul looking pensive while writing something (probably lyrics) – and a Dobermann?
Indeed it was. But it was a minor hit. In 1988, “The Blood That Moves the Body” (TBTMTB) failed to trouble the upper-reaches of the chart in most countries – with the odd exception of Iceland where it was #1 – peaking at #23 in Germany and #25 in the UK. At the time it was the first a-ha single not to reach the UK top 20 – only the second single not to reach the top 10. But when I first heard “Stay on These Roads”, I picked it out as my favourite song. On an album that featured a Bond song, it was maybe an even better Bond song.
A-ha were itching to show the world they were serious artists. TBTMTB was a dramatic, moody, mid-tempo number that dragged the listener in to the dark existence of the protagonist – “Red stains on ‘Eyes of a Blue Dog’/My pain fades as the interiors fog/The blood that moves the body/Now covers the ground“.
So what does that mean? Well when you’re 15, you don’t know that ‘Eyes of a Blue Dog’ is a 1950 novel by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez which – and I took this verbatim from enyclopedia.com – “takes place entirely within its narrator’s dream, using the logic of the unconscious and the unique contradictions of the dream world to portray a frustrated relationship between a man and a woman”.
What initially sounds like a lyrical trick to contrast the red (blood) with a book name that contains a contrasting colour (blue), now takes on a completely different level of genius. That’s Paul Waaktaar-Savoy for you.
I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t point out that the song was curiously re-released four years later as a remix (The Gun Mix) with “bass beats” and electric guitar. The song is still great but was greeted by utter indifference.
Album: East of the Sun, West of the Moon |Year: 1990 | Words and Music: Paul
As you would expect for a career that spans, at this count, almost 4 decades, there are multiple a-ha eras. This era – the early 1990s – was the start of maybe the Mature Era or the Dark Era. After the excesses and, shall we say, questionable artistic decisions of the late 80s, the band members threw out the synthesisers, went shopping at thrift stores, and got ready to show the world that they could grow with their audience. And while “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is occasionally dreary, it did have a couple of real high points.
And, you guessed it. One of those high points is the oddly-titled “(Seemingly) Nonstop July”. And the oddness does not stop at the title. It begins with an utterance of ‘yeah?’ as if to give this impression that we’re just having a bit of a jam.
The theme seems to be of time, or lack of it: “we talk of the future, between you and me … it’s hard to conceive it, all comes to an end … we’re fools to believe it, we’re fools to try/to slow down this seemingly, non-stop July”.
It could have ended up being a bit depressing but there’s more an air of pragmatism, of acceptance. We get a restrained piano and synth melody, while Paul deliberately squeaks his acoustic’s strings enhancing this feeling of resignation.
The last minute of the track introduces a new dynamic – a “man in the park” yelling about “endless pain or endless pleasure” and adding at the end “you better wisen up“, It’s interesting – bit wild, but interesting.
They did a great version way back in 1991 on Norwegian TV if you can find it.
Album: Cast in Steel |Year: 2015 | Words and music: Magne
If you’re like me, you Googled “Mythomania” (‘an excessive or abnormal propensity for lying and exaggerating’) as soon as you saw the track listing for a-ha’s 2015 album, “Cast in Steel”. Some might say it’s a bit soon to start suggesting that a song from a six year old album is under-appreciated. Perhaps so. In fact the band included the song five times in its “Cast in Steel” tour setlist which suggests they liked it. But it was dropped during the Russian leg in 2016 and never re-appeared. Perhaps it didn’t sound right or the audience were not responding. But if it were the latter reason, it would lend weight to my argument that the song is not appreciated as much as it should be.
On my 2015 “Cast in Steel” review I wrote:
Magne’s brooding “Mythomania” might be the most interesting track, a standout with its Depeche Mode-like synth, beat and dark lyrics – “Cold crescent moon on a red cross/It’s happening soon, it’s coming for us” – bridged by a memorable military-style percussion, piano and synth hook.
Let me expand on my original thoughts above. Six years later, I remain addicted to this track on an album that I still hold in high regard. As much as I love a-ha’s “awkward adolescent period” (longer hair, baggier shirts, sax and guitars), I’ve grown to appreciate the return to the electronic sound of the past few albums.
“Mythomania” introduces itself with an electronic beat, joined four bars in by a piercing synth riff before we return to the beat with occasional guitar note interruption. And so it begins – the instruments spar, Morten doles out some truths (“Words on your tongue, a mechanical song/Your face is lined with disappointment“) and we reach a more bombastic chorus with (“You’re safe in here/Inside your castle/In mythomania“).
And that middle eight – the backing vocals, piano, military beat – and we’re off again with the thumping electronic bass and sweeping synth.
A fantastic song and one that deserves to sit in that semi-classic tier in their catalogue.
Onwards to the top 10
Album: Scoundrel Days |Year: 1986 | Words and music: Paul
My younger brother’s babysitter – although, true, I was home at the same time – was a girl who loved a-ha. And maybe she thought it was weird that this boy who was only a few years younger than her was also in to a-ha.
But she used to bring “Scoundrel Days” over and we’d talk about how much we loved the album. But, get this, she would get to the end of “I’ve Been Losing You” and then say “the next two are crap” and flip over to side 2 (ask you parents, kids). Those two songs? “Manhattan Skyline” and “October”. Now I loved both those songs and, of course, “Manhattan Skyline” went on to become a classic now recognized as maybe ahead of its time.
But “October” was a bit of a curiosity. If you were impatient you might wonder if it was really necessary to spend the first 40 seconds with what are, I guess, the sounds of a “sleepless English town of coloured gray”.
“October” is a contradiction. The gentle mid-tempo melody is lifted by a pleasant trumpet-sounding synth until Morten’s sigh and low-key vocal set the scene (“Here I roam the streets without you/As summer fades away/Down in the city at nights/The cold wind blows.”). The magic here is in Morten’s delivery. You can see him slouched on a park bench, lamenting his loss while resting his forearms on his legs to keep himself relatively upright.
I could reproduce every lyric for you but I’d rather you go listen to it yourself. I’ll simply say that he sums it all up when he says “Loneliness can be ignored/And time has shown me how“.
A really great piece of work. And if you want to hear it sounding a little different, check out Paul doing his own version. Different instrumentation, same arrangement, but just as affecting.
Album: Analogue |Year: 2005 | Words and music: Paul
I’ll admit that I paid virtually no attention to the MTV Unplugged recordings so I only heard the acoustic version as I’m writing this. And, got to be honest, didn’t do a lot for me.
However, let’s go back to the studio version because there’s a few wonderful elements to this song that lift it from being a mere pleasant pop song to being a hypnotic earworm.
Firstly, it sounds very contemporary with a mainly-acoustic guitar intro before the percussion and bass kick in for the verse and then a brief two-bar string break between the verse and chorus.
All the while there’s a nineteen-sixties, carefree, top-down, summer time feel to it all (“Stop calling her restless/She moves in the sun/Gets out of bed past noon/Closer to one“). But, those vocals. Oh, those vocals.
Legendary British singer Graham Nash – who somehow became friends with the band – chips in with backing vocals. And while I’m not certain, it sounds like it’s basically a duet with he and Morten for the entire song (as opposed to them double-tracking Morten’s vocals for the verse).
Our middle-eight is the pinnacle. Both vocalists climb the scale to harmonize on the repeated lyric (“A trip is a fall/To fall is to trip“) before Paul’s distorted guitar guides us back to the verse where the vocalists and the buzzing licks bring us home.
I love it. This is my go-to track on “Analogue”, even ahead of the hit title track. It’s even made my “jogging mix”.
Album: Minor Earth Major Sky |Year: 2000 | Words and music: Paul
I know some might argue that there are 50 better a-ha songs than some of these newer ones that I’m calling out. And maybe that’s a fair position. But millions of people have heard the first three albums whereas a far smaller number of people have heard albums from 1990 onwards.
So when I’m spinning (you know what I mean) my favourite a-ha songs now, I’m not typically putting on “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale”. I’m putting on something like “You’ll Never Get Over Me”.
“Minor Earth Major Sky” was the big comeback (well, the first one) in 2000 – and it was a surprising critical and commercial success. It was a little uneven, yes. But there are probably 2-3 songs on here which I believe could qualify as being “underrated”.
But I’m going for “You’ll Never Get Over Me”, a spiky, slow-tempo pop song which tells the story of an in-progress break-up. The verses are vague – “you say you wanna run/you’re not the only one…you say you want some/you’re not the only one” – but the chorus pulls no punches – especially in the second chorus when the protagonist trades barbs with his former lover.
Just as he’s declaring “You’ll never get over me/I’ll never get under you/Whenever our voices speak/It’s never our minds that meet“, a female voice counters “I will get over you” repeatedly. I’m not sure if they took the idea from somewhere else but apart from being great storytelling, it sounds fantastic. The female voice in this instance is Paul’s wife, Lauren Savoy.
If you’re lucky, you may be able to still find the 2001 tour version of the song from Oslo which features Anneli Drecker on backing vocals. Beautiful song and probably would have been a huge chart hit for one of those acts the kids like these days.
Album: Foot of the Mountain |Year: 2009 | Words and music: Paul
I was in HMV the week that “Foot of the Mountain” was released. Imagine my surprise to hear the album being broadcast in-store. As I was checking out, I made a comment to the cashier about them playing an a-ha album and the young man replied that it was “actually very good”.
Whether he was just paying lip service or not, he was making this remark during “Mother Nature Goes to Heaven”, a-ha’s latest invoking of the environmental crisis (see also “Oranges on Appletrees“).
In 2009, I dropped five stars on the song and wrote:
The guitar-tinged “Mother Nature Goes to Heaven” throbs with a powerful bassline and a melodic chorus chord sequence. Dealing with a life that’s gone off track a little (“Things you could do asleep/In a not too distant past/Are trying your patience/Harder now”) the message is that these difficulties are nothing compared to the big picture (“It pales somewhat to the fact/That Mother Nature goes to heaven”). Completely hits the mark and probably the best song on the record.
In the decade-plus since, the song has not gone down in my estimation. In fact the band belatedly included it in their 2016 tour setlist which maybe indicates their own fondness for it. I still find the lyrics curious – paralleling someone’s individual decline with the far broader issue of a natural world in decay. It hits its apex with the vocal “And there will be no sadder day/When all the birds have flown away” but the hook is a pleasure from start to finish.
Album: Lifelines |Year: 2002 | Words and music: Paul
“Lifelines” was a sprawling record that seemed like an experimentation in laissez-faire artistry. Only four of the 15 tracks featured a collaboration between two band members and no less than seven producers worked on the album. While it lacks cohesiveness, it’s not a bad record. And it features two tracks in this list, the first of which is “Did Anyone Approach You?”.
Sonically, it’s a great sounding song. The verse is driven by a rugged beat and intermittent guitar chord, the probing electronica melody coloring Morten’s restrained near-spoken vocal. The bridge and chorus turns the volume up with Paul having the (far too rare) opportunity to knock out some lead licks.
The lyrics offer no clues to what it’s all about, Morten listing off a bunch of accusations about the unknown antagonist (“You never look up/You never look back/You never say anything based on fact“), and in the chorus he simply says “Hopeless, it’s not hopeless/Doubtful, but not hopeless“. It would be nice to have more insight in to what happened here (“I’ve got this feeling something happened here“) but we are none the wiser by the end.
A fine song, and one of those tracks that was on repeat when I first got the album and did not lose its luster. The live version from “How Can I Sleep with your Voice in my Head” is tremendous.
5. A Little Bit
Album: Lifelines |Year: 2002 | Words and music: Paul
Three tracks later on the same album, we have “A Little Bit”, another Paul composition.
“A Little Bit” is an expert dose of classic a-ha melancholy that starts gently and gradually pervades with increasing instrumentation (and I’m borrowing from my prior review here) until a final crescendo that will raise hairs on your neck.
True, the lyrics are not of the caliber that Paul produced on earlier records but there’s still plenty of meaning in lines like “Broken up and bruised/A loser born to lose“, particularly when you have someone like Morten Harket singing them and Paul adding significant weight with his mournful harmony.
If you haven’t heard the album, you’ve probably never heard this song. That’s why it features so high on the list. One of a-ha’s best, a real hidden gem.
Album: Stay on These Roads | Year: 1988 | Words and music: Paul
“Out of Blue Comes Green”, was an album track that, according to setlist.fm, was played live only once (in Rio, 1989). Oddly, I heard the song played on Irish radio station 2FM who were featuring “Stay on These Roads” as their album of the night or hour, or something. It was unusual to hear an almost-seven minute song on the radio. But I guess the station manager had probably gone home by 10.40 on a Sunday night.
The song itself was another mature marker by Waaktaar-Savoy who in some ways was starting to outgrow his own band. I’m sure he would have loved to have had the whole world hear this song but considering that the band and/or their record company reacted to the relative failure of the TBTMTB single by releasing two 100% pop singles complete with humiliating videos (“Touchy!” and “You Are the One“), there was no way this was getting an airing outside of an unsupervised late night DJ.
The song is a fascinating mix of synth, piano, thumping rhythm, Harket’s incredible range and a sweet electric guitar underbelly. It really sounds amazing. And the lyrics are affecting – “Time’s frozen flame/Seems to linger in the rain…I know I can lose it/Part of life, you can’t choose it/As I touched the horizon/It just felt like I’d die soon…Don’t matter, my eyes have seen/For better, out of blue comes green.”
The last 90 seconds is an instrumental outro which is something the band had toyed with before but went full out on this record (along with “This Alone is Love“). “Stay on These Roads” was not as well-received as their first two albums but I think time has been kind to it.
Album: Foot of the Mountain |Year: 2009 | Words: Paul Music: Magne, Paul
After the more eclectic “Analogue” (2006), a-ha made a pronounced shift back to electronic music with “Foot of the Mountain” three years later. I was a little resistant when I first heard the hype but, thankfully, the cuts sounded more contemporary than retro.
“The Bandstand” opened the album with layers of electronica, a tight riff and a little flavour from Paul’s guitar. Morten delivers those precise details Paul likes to share in his lyrics (“You stand in the doorway, a block up the street/Ringing the doorbell, there’s tapping of feet“) before he flies in to falsetto territory in the chorus (“Cold and windblown on the old bandstand/You and I walking hand in hand/Neon glow shining down on us/Don’t wait up for us“). A wonderfully punchy outro brings us to a close.
When Universal released 30 second snippets of each track ahead of the album release I’m not sure what fans made of it. We had gone from the grimy “Celice” opening “Analogue” to what seemed to be something from a time warp. But, worry not. I think the phrase is “what a banger”.
“The Bandstand” made many appearances on their 2010 tour although notably was left off the “final” live album, “Ending on a High Note”. Which is a shame because it sounded like great fun.
Album: Memorial Beach |Year: 1993 | Words and Music: Paul
While a-ha’s recording career begun with the peppy “Take On Me”, it could very well have ended in 1993 with that song’s antithesis, the mournful and haunting “Memorial Beach”. In some ways it would have been a fitting bookend to a highly-successful but ultimately declining career.
The title track from their fifth album is slow and smoky, a restrained drum pattern getting our attention so that the sale can be completed by some absolutely beautiful guitar and piano parts. Overlaying it all are some of the best vocals Morten Harket ever laid down. He mostly stays at the low end of his range while he describes “leaving the womb, into the rain“, recalls how “we never found a place to hide/Some piece of mind“, then seduces us with the mystery of how “we walk down to Memorial Beach, where things began/Honey, days and nights without sleep, lost in the sand“.
The band went on hiatus the following year and it was upon their return in 2000 that I bought the “Memorial Beach” album. I still remember lying on my bed with headphones on, listening to this track for the first time. And, frankly, I was speechless.
Album: Hunting High and Low |Year: 1985 | Words and Music: Paul
Oh, boy. Well let’s open up a little bit here. My grandmother bought the “Hunting High and Low” tape for me. Memory’s a little hazy but I assume it was for Christmas 1985. And at that time, a-ha had one hit single – “Take on Me” – and had just released a song that was about to become another worldwide smash – “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. But this is the first time I remember listening to a band’s entire album. Would I just play “Take on Me”, rewind back to the start and play it again?
Well, no. Given that the aforementioned track’s lyrics were, at best, lightweight, I could not have imagined what was going to happen to me when I listened to this entire album. I could probably write for hours about them but take your pick – “His thoughts are full of strangers, Corridors of naked lights“, “Do you know what it means to love you?“, “I’m older than my looks, older than my years/I’m too young to take on my deepest fears“, “I reached inside myself today thinking/There’s got to be some way to keep my troubles distant“.
And then, the piece de resistance – the final song on the album, “Here I Stand and Face the Rain”.
We start off with an eerie, Gregorian-sounding chant before launching – via an acoustic stepping stone – in to a dramatic synth riff and Morten’s gradually increasing wail. Wait, what’s this?
“Help me, I need your love/Don’t walk away, the dark scares me so/We’re nothing apart, let’s stay friends forever/Here I stand and face the rain/I know that nothing’s gonna be the same again/I fear for what tomorrow brings.”
Hairs standing up on my neck. I’ll never forget it. It was an excess of feelings. an overload. It was emotional but sinister, vulnerable but chilling. I could not get enough of this song. These lyrics were meaningful to me. That’s when I realised who I was and understood, even at 12 years of age, how lost I really was. This song made me feel comfortable.
And here it is performed live in my presence at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019.
If I was to put this list together again in a few years, it’d probably be a little different. There are some bubbling-under tracks that were wrestling for my attention – the one that was the most painful to leave out was “Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count“, for example. I’ll leave it here as a bonus.