30 December, 2021

a-ha - ranking highs and lows - Part 2: Rank 125-101

Welcome to the 2nd part of 'a-ha - Ranking Highs and Lows', the complete ranking of a-ha's 147 songs from worst to best. In case you are new here and missed the first countdown: Welcome to the blog! Do feel free to check out the first part where we count down from number 147 to 126. And in case you already did read the first part of the list and have an appetite for more: Welcome back! In any case we're honored to have you here.

In case you need a little introduction to the Ranking Highs and Lows project you can find it here. And if you want to share your thoughts on the ranking so far you are more than welcome to do so on our Facebook page. We'd love to hear what you think.

Also, do not forget that we also discuss the countdown in a series of podcasts. So if you prefer to listen to the ranking rather than reading just search for 'a-ha - Ranking Highs and Lows' in your favorite podcast app and you should be able to find us there. Or read here first and take the podcast with you on a walk, a run or on the train on your way to work ("Disappears into an office / It's another working day" - where are we going to find Train Of Thought on the list??) 

In this part of the countdown we focus on the songs ranked from number 125 to 101 in that order. If you already read the first part you will know that a fair share of early demo songs were placed in the heavy end of the list. But as we continue the countdown we may start to see some more familiar songs as well. And although we're still in the bottom third of the list this is also where we start seeing some rather good songs on the list, which is obviously a testament to the fact that even when a-ha are bad they are mostly still quite good. So, which songs just missed the top 100? And which song from one of the 1990's albums limps in at number 120 as the worst from that era? Let's find out.


Nothing To It (demo)
Hunting High And Low Deluxe Edition (2010)

JP: Possibly the song that inspired the band name: "You've got to get on top of it, a-ha / Nothing to it" and for that alone it's relevant. Included on the bootleg demo cassette that circulated among fans in the early 90s and possibly overrated because of nostalgia. I actually really like Morten's voice on this one a lot. A likeable song, a bit on the light side and and a bit of fun but not more than that. Which can be OK sometimes, I suppose. I wouldn't have wanted to be without this one even if it's not a great song objectively speaking.

JSS: Quite naïve keyboards, but this has early signs of a-ha becoming a-ha, so I like it even if it is not the best of the batch of demos.


Riding The Crest          
Foot Of The Mountain (2009)

JSS: Magne is again reusing a riff from one of his own solo songs, this time Running Out Of Reasons, which I much prefer. The original riff is played with a real acoustic guitar. This one is certainly not, but played on a keyboard with a rather irritating sound. But all in all the song is pretty nice with a great chorus. I can't say that it has stood the test of time, but that is ok for an upbeat pop song anno 2009. The middle eight that holds the initial song title (Sugar To Make The Pill Go Down) is nice and cheeky.

JP: Upon first listen: "This could be their biggest hit since Take On Me!" Upon twenty-fifth listen: "No it couldn't!" Very heavy on the 80's sound and probably the song on any a-ha album from 1986 onwards that would have blended best with the songs on the debut album. It just feels oddly stiff in melody and structure. Still, I like the lyrics a lot, and I can enjoy the song occasionally. To be honest I'm a bit torn when it comes to Riding The Crest. It's better than I give it credit for but I wouldn't necessarily want a non-a-ha fan to hear it or let alone judge the band on it. On its worst days it belongs in this end of the countdown.


Differences (original demo)
Lifelines Deluxe Edition (2019)

JP: We Are The World infused with Norwegian gloom and lack of hope. Hopeless.

JSS: A weak track that can't deliver on the grandiosity that it promises. I like the way Magne sings the backing vocals and I guess that it is a statement of some sort. However, by no means at the level that Magne can deliver - best example being This Is Now America from the 2019 album White Xmas Lies. That was great, but that might come up again later when we discuss other songs...


Living At The End Of The World          
Cast In Steel (2015)

JSS: Some fans like this one and compare it to Stay On These Roads - they should be ashamed of themselves. It is not the worst song Morten has ever done, and it has its moments. But like so many times before, this is a solo project with Morten's collaborator Peter Kvint and should stay that way.

JP: Apparently a favorite among many fans. Morten's vocals are strong, the melody is decent, and the "We're picking up speed on the highway" bit is quite nice, but to me the song is not nearly as epic as some fans make it out to be. The synths sound a bit like a poor copy of Stay On These Roads, and although it does help make Living At The End Of The World sound more like "old a-ha" than many other songs on Cast In Steel it just doesn't sound as fresh or majestic. An OK effort but somewhat overrated.


Analogue (2005)

JP: Solid vocal performance and nice enough melody but also very representative of Magne's output from 2002 onwards. I would probably have put it higher on the list 10-15 years ago, but it hasn't stood the test of time. Among Magne's better lyrics, though. As a whole: Quantity over quality.

JSS: A Time And Again light - even though written by different persons. This one is Magne's, and to me it is just another boring proof that Morten's voice actually does not sound great in all styles. By no means a bad song - just a little boring ballad.


Between Your Mama And Yourself         
Memorial Beach (1993)

JSS: This one hurts. I so want everything from Memorial Beach to be great, but the truth is that this one is too far off compared to the rest of the album. I would have included Bar Room (see later on the list) any given day instead of this one. The lyrics are cheeky in the same way. This one is about a girlfriend with a great looking mother as Pål said when the album came out. This is Pål trying too hard to be simple rock 'n roll. It does not work that well.

JP: The lowest ranked song from before the comeback in 2000 (not counting early demos). Sadly out of place on the Memorial Beach album. Pål described it as something to clear the air during the recording of the album, but it annoys more than it amuses. Forever a stone in the shoe on an otherwise fantastic album.


Maybe Maybe
Scoundrel Days (1986)

JP: Maybe not as bad as the ranking suggests. Or maybe maybe it is. As charming as the song can be on occasions it's also partly what prevents Scoundrel Days from being a flawless album. Magne doesn't appear to be too happy with the final outcome of the song either, but I'm not even sure there's a big song hidden anywhere inside Maybe Maybe. The demo version for sure held more promise but even that wasn't truly great.

JSS: The demo for Maybe Maybe is much better, much more gloomy and would have fitted the album better. This track is the reason why Scoundrel Days is not a perfect album (and a few other factors we'll come back to). Too much happy go lucky sound, and it does not suit the feel of the album as a whole.


You Are The One         
Stay On These Roads (1988)

You Are The One ltd. 7" single cover - it's understandable that a-ha look unhappy with this

JSS: The middle of this song "I've done all I can do..." is genius in the transition from the interlude after the second chorus and back again to the third verse. However, not nearly enough to make it a great song. The video for this one does not work at all either with the guys running around in sailor costumes in New York. Too much fun and happy sounds for a lyric that is actually more melancholic than it appears. It makes the album weaker.

JP: The lowest ranked song on our list with at least some commercial success at the time it was released, reaching number 13 in the UK in January 1989 and top 30 in a number of other European countries. I can muster up some nostalgic love for You Are The One at times, but even though the song has been released or played live in numerous versions over the years none of them are really very good. The lyrics are much darker than the music suggests, and if the band did a slowed down re-worked version like the MTV Unplugged version of Take On Me it could potentially work really well. a-ha, I hereby challenge you!


Halfway Through The Tour
Analogue (2005)

JP: An honest account of the exhausting touring life and the important role concerts play now that bands only make little (if any) money on selling records: "While there's money to be made / Halfway through the tour / From the public eye we fade". A strange but pleasant enough instrumental second half of the song doesn't add much in terms of quality. A glimpse behind the scenes of a-ha on the road with interesting and quirky Waaktaar-ish lyrics but all in all not a very strong song. Not a bad song either. Maybe one of the most difficult songs to place overall.

JSS: Pål does ABBA and steals back what David Lynch took from him. Sounds weird? It is because the song is split in two. The ABBA part is the first minutes of the song. I like it somehow with it being a testament to life on the road - maybe a bit too honest in the lyrics and lies in the tradition of songs like The Company Man. The last part of the song sound like it could have been in Twin Peaks. Pål actually sent in Sycamore Leaves to Lynch, because he was a fan of the show and never heard back from him. Later, there was a melody on the show called Sycamore Trees. It does not sound anything like Sycamore Leaves in my ears, but stealing is stealing. Well, this last part of the song represents the tranquility after a tour, I guess. I like that idea. Not a bad song at all.


Did Anyone Approach You?         
Lifelines (2002)

Did Anyone Approach You? single cover. Focus, guys!

JSS: As much as I like spoken word in songs from time to time, this one never really did it for me. It is by no means near the greatness of the spoken word in Locust. The sound of the song, the feel, the guitar riff - everything. It just isn't there. I never got why they released this as a third single, when they had songs like for instance Afternoon High on the same album. The video by Lauren does not help either. Yes, I am grumpy.

JP: I liked this one a lot when it was released and thought it was pretty cool. Still it was a strange pick for a third single off Lifelines but that's likely a democratic decision as Morten and Magne penned the first two singles from the album. The song features Morten talk-singing (not to be confused with rapping) in the verses which almost 20 years after its release still does sound quite cool to me, I'll admit. The lyrics can be read as Pål slagging of Magne, which rarely makes for good songs and as such a position in the bottom third of our list is well-deserved. And as we shall see later, the slagging off has only just begun and goes both ways. The song as a whole can be summarized by some of the lyrics from the song: "Doubtful - but not hopeless at all"


Dot The I (demo)
The Demo Tapes (2004) / Hunting High And Low Deluxe Edition (2010)

JP: Another of the demo songs that circulated among fans in the early 1990's. I've always really liked this one, but as a demo it obviously lacks proper production which makes it hard to judge the real quality. Still, a more finished version could have had real potential and would not sound out of place on the debut album, or at least as a b-side to an early single. As synth-pop as it gets. Maybe Vince Clarke of Yazoo and Erasure fame could have done great things with it.

JSS: An OK demo of the early bunch. The chorus is nice, and the piano/keyboard is ok - albeit super naïve. It has some nice chord progressions and effects along the way. A lot could have been better, but it is enjoyable on a rainy day.


Cast In Steel (2015)

JSS: Expectations were high. The title sounded cool, and it was supposed to be Magne's great contribution to the album. I liked it at first, and it is the next best song on the album... of the songs not written by Pål. All six songs by Pål are better. Very industrial, Depeche Mode'ish - but by no way near their level. Morten actually tries to sing cool, but somehow it just does not sound cool.

JP: Another contribution by Magne to the Cast In Steel album and one of the better ones. It leans a bit too heavily on Depeche Mode for my taste but that's possibly part of the attraction for others. Cool vocals in the verse and the chorus isn't bad either but all in all nothing extraordinary. It's funny how Magne has accused a-ha in their 1990's incarnation of being 'dishonest', because to me a song like Mythomania actually sounds more like a-ha trying to be something they are not than pretty much any of the 1990's songs.


Don't Do Me Any Favours 
Analogue (2005)

JP: The slagging off continues! This time it's Magne taking a stab at Pål, which is equally as unpleasant to witness as when the knife is in the other person's hand. I don't care who started the fight, kids. Just knock it off already! The song itself is a decent piano and guitar-led track that Keane and Coldplay would likely approve of (even if Magne forgot to write a chorus), but it's certainly not one that makes a fan feel better about the band chemistry - or the lack thereof.

JSS: One of Magne's slaps in Pål's face, but I like it - the song. Very energetic with great vocals and the lyrics are relatable, if you don't know the story between the guys. Nice stops between the parts in the song. Take On Me-like drums. It deserves to be higher on the list.


Real Meaning
Foot Of The Mountain (2009)

JSS: A middle of the road song from Pål. I like the Beatles-like middle part. OK song, nothing more than that. The end of the song sounds like it is borrowed from Hey Luchie, which was on Savoy's second album from 1997 Lackluster Me - Pål's solo project with Lauren and Frode Unneland. This sounds like a love song to Lauren as well, so I might be right.

JP: A love song from Pål to his wife Lauren in which he wishes for things to never change: "And I sure will / Miss us when we're gone". Although Morten in the past has lend his vocals to numerous love songs from Pål to Lauren, Pål should probably have saved this one for his and Lauren's band Savoy. Or just played it to her in their own living room and left it at that.


You Wanted More
Lifelines (2002)

JP: Not a bad song and one that I could see non-fans enjoy as well. Most likely another stab at Pål from Magne about band politics, differences in ambitions and not least songwriting credits, which seemed a recurrent theme after 2000 and certainly a strange thing to put on an a-ha album. But then again Lifelines felt more like two or three separate albums glued together than a coherent piece of work, and You Wanted More was definitely a decent effort.

JSS: Arh, another song that gives Pål a slap. "We had it all, you gave it up, you wanted more", I think with reference to where Pål wanted to take a-ha in a rockier direction in order to more street cred. He did answer back on the Savoy song Rain On Your Parade, where the lyrics go: "Take a good look where we are. Damn right I wanted more". Aside from this kindergarten, the song is pretty much forgettable. It has an anthem feel to it that I am not too keen on, and the production is awful.


You'll End Up Crying
Stay On These Roads (1988)

JSS: This is clearly the odd one out on this album, but somehow it works nicely as a closer. I remember that I liked it after a few spins, but it is not one of the more special songs that sticks in your mind for long.

JP: Legend will have it that Morten always wanted the band to sing this song in harmony when there were girls to impress. Interesting lyrics and arrangement and I can appreciate it for those reasons, but this is one of the weakest album closers a-ha has released. The intro almost sounds Spanish with a wistful trumpet after which the rather sparse arrangement gives room to the - admittedly strong - vocals. Nice use of strings as well. Although it was never a favorite of mine when it was released I'd probably personally still move it a bit higher on the list as I think it's a significantly better album closer than Summers Of Our Youth from Analogue which you can read about later...


Love Is Reason
Hunting High And Low (1985)

Love Is Reason 7" single cover - a-ha proving they were much more than a cartoon band... 

JP: A light and somewhat forgettable song from the debut album. Feels out of place on a record that is far from lightweight despite a-ha being unfairly pigeonholed as a teen pop sensation at the time. But although Love Is Reason seems a bit of a throwaway now I can't honestly claim that I felt that way back when Hunting High And Low was released so it's probably more a case of it not having aged as well as the other tracks on the album. Still, it was a good choice that this was only chosen as a follow-up single to Take On Me in Norway and The Philippines as it could have done more harm than good to a-ha's artistic credentials had it gotten a worldwide release.

JSS: Adding insult to injury coming after And You Tell Me. Those two songs in progression takes Hunting High And Low from perfect to a few steps away. As a 9–10-year-old boy I liked this pure pop song, and it does have its qualities. But the sound of that horn-like keyboard sure does not help a song that is not of the highest quality to begin with. There are later released demos from that era that would that suited the album much much better. And they are higher on this list...


Cosy Prisons
Analogue (2005)

Cosy Prisons cd single cover - did they get four years?

JSS: This is an above average track for me. It is classic Magne both lyrically and with regards to the melody. Lyrics are really good, the piano is really nice, and the analogue production is super nice. Also, layers are added as the song goes along. When the third verse starts with "Your transatlantic shopping spree..." and the drums really kick in, the song leaves the ground and goes in half time rhythm towards the end. I almost forgot how great this song is. I would have had it higher on the list.

JP: Magne seems very pleased with and proud of this song and apparently it's a favourite among many fans, which I in many ways can understand. It's a classic piano-led track but somehow I don't feel the a-ha vibe. To me Cosy Prisons is Magne telling me how to feel rather than making me feel it. Nice crescendo though and change in pace towards the end. Maybe we're too harsh on it and it could possibly have earned a top 100 rank. But that's the thing about a list like this: You start to disagree with yourself already the day after you made it. So let's leave Cosy Prisons here but give it a Shooting Star award as one that could go higher if we repeat this exercise in a couple of years.


The Summers Of Our Youth
Analogue (2005)

JP: Magne sings the verses, Morten does the chorus, and Chris Martin from Coldplay must have been floating in the air around them in the studio when it was recorded. In many ways a logical album closer on Analogue but I just find it a bit boring, to be honest. I like the Analogue album as a whole but there's something in the production choices I struggle with here and there. This also applies to The Summers of Our Youth which I consider the weakest album closer of any a-ha album and therefore would have placed it below You'll End Up Crying if it was just up to me.

JSS: A nice little song, and I always like it when Magne sings a little lead vocal to scratch a bit on the polished surface that Morten creates - and does to perfection most of the time, I should add. The chorus sung by Morten makes the song more interesting. Not the best song they have ended albums with, but enjoyable.


Sunny Mystery
Foot Of The Mountain (2009)

JSS: This song reminds me of Everything But The Girl. It is a bit off compared to the other songs on this album, but it is very airy and driven. Not my preferred style of production for a-ha, but this is ok cool and well-written.

JP: There are rays of sun in the music, but the lyrics have a dark undertone which overall fits the title of the song. It is Magne's only solo writing credit on Foot Of The Mountain and it's actually one of the better songs on that album and one that I do find myself humming now and then. Nice sort-of-chorus. The "Life is the dream that you wake up to / Dreams are the life from which you wake" lyrics on the other hand sound like an Instagram post from a travel blogger slash influencer. #Forgettable.


Giving Up The Ghost
Cast In Steel (2015)

JP: One of the newest songs in a-ha's catalogue to feature some of the mood from the Scoundrel Days era, but unfortunately without matching the lyrical and melodic qualities. Another spoken word part by Magne certainly doesn't help. I could have placed this one a little lower on the list. And I do want to stress that I think Magne has released some wonderful solo albums so this shouldn't come across as a dismissal of his songwriting abilities or his huge contribution to a-ha, which honestly has often been underestimated. But on a-ha's later albums I've too often had the feeling that Magne writes for Magne, not for a-ha. But maybe we just have different views of what a-ha is and should be, which is fair enough. After all Magne is in the band, and I'm not.

JSS: This is to me the best song on Cast In Steel not written by Pål. Dark and cool, but by no means more than that. Morten sings it pretty cool, and I like that the song does not have a crescendo. However, the chorus is weak and does not leave the ground.


Nothing Is Keeping You Here
Foot Of The Mountain (2009)

Nothing Is Keeping You Here cd single cover - did the guys leave, then?

JSS: This is what I consider middle of the road a-ha. Nice aspects with the piano, but the chorus is really bland and boring. The demo version has Morten singing very high notes towards the end. Actually a better version than the album version. And one thing that really rubs me the wrong way is the way Morten sings "shine" (sjain). It sounds bad and is something that he started doing during the later years. Imagine The Sun Always Sjains on T.V....

JP: A song about suicide? There is a demo version with a slower melody which fits the lyrics better (and Morten's vocals on the demo are absolutely insane!), but overall the album version with its lighter melodic touch and more upbeat tempo actually does the song good. The main issue is that it suffers slightly from the lack of a real chorus. Keeping with the theme of strange commercial single choices in later years Nothing Is Keeping You Here was released as the second single from the Foot Of The Mountain album in the UK but as the third single in Europe, and in both cases the single version was different from the song on the album. Just stick to the album version, though. Overall it's the better version.


Lifelines (2002)

JP: First released as a solo song by Magne in 2001 for the Norwegian movie Øyenstikker (Norwegian for Dragonfly). a-ha's version is definitely a quality effort with beautiful instrumentation and sweet lyrics, but Magne's own take is the superior one for those who can appreciate his vocal qualities - and I certainly can. In the case of Magne's version the frailty in his voice gives a remarkable strength to the song which is naked and tender. Some of this is somewhat lost in Morten's more polished vocal performance.

JSS: Made by Magne - destroyed by a-ha. The original version by Magne was cool and had a certain Nordic feel to it. Really cool. The a-ha demo had the same instrumentation, but in the end, the producers decided to dip it into the Germany-oriented sound machine. A shame. It is a good song.


Door Ajar
Cast In Steel (2015)

JSS: This song is much more clever than it is given credit for. The title is a bit weird to a native English person, I have heard. Still, Take On Me is, too. Notice that Morten starts singing on two different beats in the first and second verse, which works really well. The lyrics gives me images in the head. Somehow it is the The Blue Sky on this album. And nice with Alan Tarney back.

JP: Door Ajar re-unites a-ha with producer Alan Tarney who produced the main part of the band's first three albums, and for that reason alone it is fair to have hoped for more. It's a strange song where Pål's songwriting, Morten's vocals and Tarney's production doesn't create the old a-ha magic. It has it's moments and I like it when a-ha get a bit odd, but the song lacks a chorus which is an issue when there's nothing else to really lift it. Still, I do like the fact that a-ha still challenges the concept of what a pop song can be.


And You Tell Me
Hunting High And Low (1985)

JP: Back to the debut album. Here Pål is trying to convince Lauren that he loves her a lot! They are still together to this day, and if And You Tell Me has contributed to this in any way then I don't have a bad word to say about it. Also I do like the very sincere lyrics. Sometimes it's better just to say what you want to say and not wrap it in metaphors, and this is as direct as can be. It's a strange little song which sounds somewhat out of place on the album but not necessarily in a bad way. Still, it's sweet rather than essential.

JSS: I always saw this one as the odd one out on the Hunting High And Low album. A weird little song to come after The Sun Always Shines On T.V. Later I learned to like it a bit more when the demo version came out as B-side to Train Of Thought. Although, the chords are in fact clever and diverse, it never really leaves the ground.

And there you have them: The 25 a-ha songs that rank 125 to 101 on our countdown from the trio's absolute low to the ultimate high. An eclectic mix of songs from the early days all the way up to the latest album from 2015. If nothing else it shows that old is not always gold, but it's probably also safe to say that the countdown so far has been a bit heavy on material released from 2000 onwards. This of course begs the question: Was (almost) everything just better in the old days, or are we just a couple of sentimental fools who prefer our a-ha songs to be drenched in the nostalgic memories of cassette tapes and colourful posters from teen pop magazines? We shall see as we move on and crack the top 100. Or to put it like Pål in the a-ha Live In South America concert video as the band gets ready to go on stage for the encores:

"Alright, 'ere we go!"