22 January, 2022

a-ha - ranking highs and lows - Part 6: Rank 25-1

Welcome to the last part of 'a-ha - Ranking Highs and Lows' where we now reach for the top: a-ha's best song ever! Maybe you've read the previous five parts of the countdown or maybe you've skipped straight to the top 25. In either case it's great that you're here! 

Before we start the final countdown we'd like to remind you that - apart from revisiting the first five blog posts of the countdown - you should take the opportunity to also check out the countdown in podcast format. That's where we get super excited about a-ha, argue why songs should be placed higher or lower on the list, and add some more personal anecdotes that you might also relate to if you, like us, have followed the band's career since what seems like forever. Just look up 'a-ha - Ranking Highs and Lows' on your favorite podcast app, and hopefully that should sort you out.

In case you need a little introduction to the Ranking Highs and Lows project you can find it here. And as we've come to the end of the ranking we'd of course love to hear your thoughts which you can share on our Facebook page.

Now what about the top 25? Well, it was in some ways easy to make and in some ways very difficult. There are a number of songs we both agree are absolutely essential and that we almost can't imagine anyone would disagree with (although you never know). You can debate the ranking of some of the songs but it's almost a given that they need to be in top 25. Even if you haven't read the full countdown so far you probably have a number of qualified guesses as to which ones we are talking about here. And then there are the ones that are a bit off, a bit left-field, the ones that we really love but which may not be everyone's cup of Norwegian tea. We hope you will be pleasantly surprised but also that you may disagree and feel that we've missed at least a dozen songs that YOU would have put on the list. It's personal preference after all!

And with that we've reached our two main goals: Ranking all a-ha songs from worst to best and coming up with the list of the 25 absolutely essential a-ha tracks that each and every person needs to put on their playlist - according to us, at least. You'll miss out if you don't!


Sycamore Leaves
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

JP: a-ha at their rockiest with a bluesy feel to it. The bass hits you right where it should, the drumming is excellent, and the interplay between guitar and organ sounds wonderfully organic. Sycamore Leaves doesn't sound quite like anything else a-ha has done which in some ways is nice because there's no point in repeating yourself, but at the same time I would have loved to see them explore this direction further. I think it would connect naturally to where all three of the band members came from musically before a-ha. Morten's voice certainly suits the style, although Morten and Magne in retrospect seem to have second-guessed the direction they took in the early 1990's, including to some extent dismissing Morten's vocals. When the album was released I remember thinking that the "swooosh" sound travelling from one loudspeaker to the other after the instrumental part of Sycamore Leaves was the coolest thing I had ever heard. It may not be the coolest thing 30+ years later but it's still pretty damn cool. Check out the 1991 live version from the NRK TV sessions as well. It's even better than the studio version! Luckily Sycamore Leaves is still featured regularly on tours and it's never not great.

JSS: This is a rock band playing together and it is not for all fans. I do think though that even most of the keyboard/electric fraction of a-ha fans surrender to this one. I used to play this song to rock and indie a-ha non-believers just to prove that a-ha was much more than they thought. The song starts with a heavy bass and a short riff on the guitar and then a really cool keyboard kicks in in the background. Very gloomy lyrics about bodies buried under sycamore trees/leaves. After two verses comes a long interlude with Hammond organ and everything. So cool and they have played it live in recent years and it is almost the song that works best with Morten's voice these days being relatively low. Normally, most of the audience don't get it, but that is their bad. It's a cool song. Although it has lost a little weight over the years, it is still a worthy top 25.


She's Humming A Tune
Cast In Steel (2015)

JSS: This is a strong contender for the best song on the Cast In Steel album. Alone the fact that this was written by Pål back in early days of the band makes it appealing and interesting. At the same time it is also apparent that the songs written back then were also better in general. The sound of the song is perfect and the chorus is (no discussion) the best they have done in many many years. Everything just sounds so together and well produced. The bass is played by Even Ormestad, and he really lifts that part to perfection - especially in the middle part of the song. The line after "And I don't suppose she knows" sung with a darker voice is one of my highlights on the album. The verse may lack a little, but it sounds great and makes the shift to the chorus very strong. Should have been a single instead of Forest Fire. Who was lacking taste and judgement, I don't know.

JP: A song that, although featured on a-ha's so far latest album from 2015, most likely dates back to 1983. It's therefore no surprise that it sounds both old and new at the same time. In a sense it's like receiving a letter (remember letters??) from an old friend you haven't heard from in ages: strangely familiar but still new and exciting. If there is a sad thing about resurrecting She's Humming A Tune it's that it underlines the fact that a-ha - like many other bands, in all fairness - just wrote more exciting stuff earlier in their career. This doesn't take anything away from the song with its massive bass line, excellent drums and strong chorus - rivalled on the Cast In Steel album only by the chorus on the title track. It is possible that we're being a little too kind by placing She's Humming A Tune in the top 25 as the verses are not as strong as the chorus but it's easy to get carried away when a song in so many ways links back to the early days of the band. Still it's a shining highlight on Cast In Steel and it could easily have been a single. Sadly, in another display of poor judgement from the record company, it was omitted from the vinyl version of the album, which shows an apparent lack of interest in the finished product from the band these days, but that's a different and much sadder story. For now let's just be happy that She's Humming A Tune made the escape from Pål's old notebooks and into the recording studio. Details of how that happened can be found in Barry Page's thoroughly enjoyable book "Down to the Tracks" which is absolutely essential reading if you want to immerse yourself in a-ha's body of work track by track.


Stay On These Roads
Stay On These Roads (1988) 

Stay On These Roads cd single cover - if only they had been good-looking...

JP: A sweeping, melancholic power pop ballad featuring what must be one of the best vocal performances ever committed to tape! Sometimes criticized (also by the band itself) for its lyrics but I've always liked them. There's a certain icy coldness to the whole song even when Morten reassures us that "We shall meet / I know", so it's a strange kind of comfort. A Nordic comfort, perhaps. A rockier version was performed during some of their past tours, but Stay On These Roads works best when it's given the full synth-laden treatment. There's nothing wrong with embracing a grandiose song and production, and this is as grandiose as anything a-ha has released. I suspect many fans would have put the song higher on the list, which is understandable as well. It could have slipped into top 20, I think. Maybe we've just had enough of it for now? I think I have at least. Still, essential listening!

JSS: When I listen to this song, I can hear why I like it so much. Beautiful vocals and a great keyboard melody. A very dramatic song although the lyrics are a bit weird in lots of places: "Stillborn by choice"? Anyway, this is certainly not one that I enjoy too much at concerts anymore. And somehow it has become a little boring over the years. Still, it is a song that you can't just bypass, and the vocals really show off Morten's abilities as a singer.


Manhattan Skyline
Scoundrel Days (1986)

Manhattan Skyline single cover - not the buildings most people associate with Manhattan

JSS: First of all: The 12" for this is the best of all the 12" mixes that was ever done, but that's not the version we are rating here (it has an impact on my rating though). But what a great song. Collaboration at its best: Verse by Magne, chorus by Pål. Beauty that turns into rock. Great keyboard line that sets up and plays throughout the verse, a small bridge and then the explosion into the chorus. It really hangs together well, and the mood of the song changes every time there is a shift. It is very important to listen to the album version as it is not cut short to fit the radio, which means that the post-chorus is long and it is really the gateway back to the verse. The live versions over the years have been great too, and when Pål runs amok on the guitar, it just feels good to be an a-ha fan.

JP: Manhattan Skyline combines all of the things that a-ha do so well when they are best: the soft side, the rock side, great lyrics, stellar production, an earworm of a chorus, perfect vocal delivery and all the melancholy and desperation you could ask for. Like Foot Of The Mountain it's a cut and paste song where Magne contributed the quiet part and Pål the rock part, but in Manhattan Skyline the combination works much better and it definitely deserves its position as one of the corner stones in the band's catalogue. Released as the third single from Scoundrel Days it is no wonder if it further alienated those listeners who wanted a-ha to make another Take On Me. But for the rest of us there was absolutely no reason to complain. It's a song well suited to convince the a-ha sceptics of the band's greatness if they are ready and open to have their preconceptions challenged.


Under The Makeup
Cast In Steel (2015) 

Under The Makeup download-only single - not much care or thought went into creating this cover artwork

JP: This is one of the big compromises on the list as I personally would have put it outside top 30, most likely even outside top 40, so I'm being really kind here. Don't get me wrong: Under The Makeup is a very atmospheric a-ha-sounding ballad soaked in beautiful strings that compete with Morten's vocals for the spotlight, and when the strings and Morten's voice intertwine towards the end and you don't know anymore where one ends and the other starts it's a short moment of pure pop ballad magic. Under The Makeup is both tender and epic at the same time, a trademark a-ha and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy trick, but somehow as a whole it just fails to really grab me or move me. It's still a great song and if life had been fair it would have been a bigger hit, but in part it probably fell victim to the confusing single release plans (or lack of a plan, really) that have haunted a-ha's later album releases where different songs are promoted in different territories at the same time. The video shows Morten giving his best impression of a dead body just like in the video for Velvet and (some would argue) on stage. All jokes aside: Pål luckily hasn't lost his flair for the grandiose. This time it's just me who doesn't fully connect with it.

JSS: It takes a lot to beat She's Humming A Tune as the top track of this album, but I really think this one does. What a great choice for a first single - showing that a-ha is not all keyboards and cold machines. This is an organic, super well-written song that could and should have been a Bond theme. The melody is really great and the bass is played by Even Ormestad, which again adds to the song's feel. The song is written by Pål, and the lyrics could partially be about Pål and Magne's relationship, and knowing that Magne came on board late in the process in the making of the album, there might be something in: "If you wanted out / Didn't I let you go / If you wanted in / Didn't I make it so?", but who knows - the stabbing never stops. Anyway, this is just more grandiose than for instance Stay On These Roads and I am proud that they can still produce material like this. Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl from "The Killing" is in the video - and she kills Morten. Very dark and gloomy.


Lifelines (2002)

Lifelines single cover - great song, not-so-great artwork

JSS: This is a really really beautiful song written by Magne. It reminds me of George Michael ballads in places, and everything is just great. The verses are sung so beautifully by Morten, and I especially appreciate the additional bridge following the second verse, where the chords changes a bit and creates a great atmosphere. In the chorus I can count 3-5 layers of vocals by Anneli Drecker, Magne perhaps and Morten. It just sounds great. The chord structure throughout the song is just amazing, and it is always enjoyable to hear. I am really proud of this track and to me it should have been the first single to lead the album. Magne at his very best. The video for this track was also great. It was based on the Norwegian short film A Year Along the Abandoned Road, directed by Morten Skallerud in 1991, and Morten, Magne and Pål are sort of put in the film in a kind of cool way. One of the best ballads ever done by a-ha.

JP: Possibly the best song Magne has written alone, at least for a-ha but maybe also overall. This version of the song has all the grandiosity and melancholy you could ask for in an a-ha song and the instrumentation is elegant with a wonderful string score. Both the chorus and the break ("One chance to get back to the point where everything starts / One chance to keep it together when things fall apart") are among the best in a-ha's impressive career. A lot of credit should be handed to the production by Martin Landquist and Stephen Hague - Hague famous for among other things "West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys, easily one of the best singles of the 1980's - who turned a rather poor and whining demo into the masterpiece it is today. Take On Me was a prime example of the huge difference the right production makes, and Lifelines is another. Excellent work, hauntingly beautiful and certainly one of the strongest tracks from "the second coming"! Should have been a big hit. Beautiful music video as well.


B-side to The Sun Always Shines On T.V. single (1985) / Hunting High And Low Deluxe Edition (2010)

JP: When I was 12-13 years old I used to go to our public indoor swimming pool where they had a cafeteria with a jukebox with the The Sun Always Shines On T.V. single, because it meant that I could listen to Driftwood on the B-side, a song that I so far only had read about because I didn't own a record player at the time and didn't really know where or how to buy records anyway in the small-town community my family lived in. Luckily and for some odd reason Driftwood was suddenly announced on national radio and I was able to record it on my small cassette player so I could play it over and over again. I can't imagine that it's been played on Danish radio ever since so I put it down to fate and fan karma. Driftwood immediately struck a chord with me and it still strikes one today. Not just because of the memories but also because it's a highly atmospheric piece that shows a side of a-ha that doesn't really fit on any of the first two albums. That's why I keep thinking that Driftwood is the sound of an a-ha album that was never made and which could have bridged Hunting High and Low and Scoundrel Days. Morten's voice when he pleads "Oh, come pity me, a poor mad sailor / Stranded on this love" is mesmerizing. A beautiful example of underplayed vocals as an antidote to the vocal acrobatics on the first singles from Hunting High and Low. Driftwood is a much bigger song than what it sounds like at first.

JSS: It's hard not to love any song that has a crying baby in the intro! This is such a weird and great song that did not make it to the album for some strange reason. B-side to TSASOTV. It stands on its own, and it had a place in my heart from the first time I heard it. Based on 5-chords almost all the way it is not really a contemporary tune. Morten's voice is at its best all the way through - perhaps one of the best performances ever. I also particularly like the clear acoustic guitar part towards the end with a nice flute added as well. The keyboard sound throughout adds an extra layer of mood to the song. A perfect B-side that would have been an amazing A-side in a perfect world.


Slender Frame
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

JSS: Oh god, how I love this song. It really underlines that a-ha was - at the time it was released - now a different band. Still super melancholic with lyrics that paint a picture. This one is about some sort of breakup - I think... sometimes it is hard to tell. The storyteller watches how "your coat is hanging loosely / On your slender frame". Encourages the other person to leave - still showing some kind of doubt. Musically, it starts off with a dimmed electric guitar to fit the mood alongside a great piano, and then Morten's vocals comes in and just brings the listener into the song. The chorus does not go overboard in high notes, but is just fresh and cool. And the middle-eight is super cool with some Spanish guitar as well. Throughout the song, you can hear that Pål enjoys himself on the guitar with many different small and cool licks. It all shows the best of a-ha and they must have thought so too at the time, since it was a regular at concerts in the beginning of the 90's.

JP: A prime example of what Pål and Magne can create together - helped by great production. Beautiful lyrics that meant a lot to me as a teenager who felt every word with all the emotion a young boy can muster. "There's many roads to leave by / But few come back again" sounded like a universal truth to me as profound as anything any philosopher could have come up with (although the grammar always annoyed me because surely it must be "There ARE many roads to leave by", must it not??). To me it's a song that - very similar to Dark Is The Night For All from the following album - is about putting the past behind you and the need to leave, even if you know that you might not be able to come back again. Cut the chord and see what happens. The guitar and piano intro is moving, the chorus is one of the best on the East of... album and the instrumental break is both intense and restrained. The rock elements are dosed just right and fit perfectly with Morten's vocals which are drenched in emotion and melancholy. Slender Frame gets just about everything right. A real classic a-ha song.


Rolling Thunder
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

JP: An absolutely epic song that captures so much of what a-ha means to me: Romantic lyrics with a dark, yearning undertone ("See the rain / It's falling / But I won't be leaving your side / Until all is over"), an unbelievably beautiful melody, a heavy but sensitive production and a chorus that lets Morten unfold his vocal wings. And while it's easy to be impressed by the chorus there is also gold to be found in Morten's vocal delivery in the verses including the build-up to the chorus. My only small complaint is the break ("You hesitate / It's come to late...") where the melody loses a bit of its flow, but that's a minor flaw, because the way it picks up again with Pål's ripping guitar sound woven together with Magne's piano and keyboard line is out of this world! If you can listen to this at full volume and not get goose bumps... well, I don't know then. Per Hillestad's drumming and Jørun Bøgeberg's bass playing should get an honorable mention as well. I'd be willing to pay good money to see a-ha play an East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon album concert and Rolling Thunder would be one of the songs I would look most forward to.

JSS: It is really hard to tell this rainy intro apart from the one on Crying In The Rain - unless your ears are really trained. Anyway, this is bit of a compromise for me. I would have put it a bit further down the list. However, it is a great song that really displays the soaring heights of a-ha. The combination of the dark vocals in the verse and the high notes in the chorus is great. The middle-eight is a bit off with the call/answer vocals and does not fit the mood of the song - even less today than back in the day. But then the guitar solo comes in - and I think that Magne plays a bit of harmonica - and it all comes together very nicely. But not top 25 song in my book. Not anymore.


Living A Boy's Adventure Tale
Hunting High And Low (1985)

JSS: This one is just a defining a-ha song - a cornerstone in my mind. The melody, the vocals that shifts from very dark to insanely high, the D-chord that shifts from major to minor prior to the chorus. It is just great all the way through. It certainly has wings, but it does not go overboard. I really sets the mood for what the whole album is about. When played live, Pål sings a great second melody in the chorus that just makes the hairs on my arms stand. It is not a song that I listen to a lot, but when I really focus on it, it has so much to offer. Co-written by Pål and Morten, which is... well, rare to say the least.

JP: An absolutely incredible song from start to finish. There are certainly days where I would put it in top 10 or maybe even top 5, but it's a close race. What gets me every time is the sheer amount of emotion, melancholy, desperation and beauty in the vocals and the instrumentation. A synth driven song but with a perfectly dosed oboe to balance the synth soundscape in the break before Morten gets ready to deliver the most intense falsetto I have ever heard. The last 90 seconds are among the best ever committed to tape under the a-ha name! I still play this one a lot and proudly use it to remind the casual listener of what Morten is capable of. It really is impossible to describe the beauty of this song and Morten's voice. It's not only the technical delivery that's perfect, it's the emotion it conveys that lifts this to stratospheric heights. I can only hope for everyone that they ever find a song that can give them goose bumps the same way this one does for me.


(Seemingly) Nonstop July
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

JP: In some ways a small ballad, just piano, guitar and vocals. But it has the most tender melody, delicate instrumentation and beautiful, moving lyrics. I also still love the way you can hear Pål's fingers move along the guitar strings as he changes the chords. I've always thought it sounded like you were invited to an intimate studio recording session, almost witnessing the making of the song. The inclusion of the sampled street dialogue is a stroke of genius and helps to convey the feeling of a long, almost unbearably hot - and seemingly nonstop - July. It's not July as in "fun & sun". It's July as in "burning hot concrete pavements in the windless big city". I've loved this song since I bought the Crying In The Rain 7" single and it remains one of a-ha's most atmospheric tracks. If you don't like it or don't listen to it regularly I can only echo what the guy in the sampled dialogue says: "You'd better wisen up!"

JSS: The melody is so stripped down and organic sounding, and that really brings out the quality of the songwriting. I love this song, and the lyrics are great. Morten sings in a mid level, which has so much laid back energy and coolness. This is one of the reasons that it is so painful to hear Morten dismiss this period of the band, because this is where he is at his greatest. I also love that you can hear both piano and guitar being played, Pål's fingers sliding on the acoustic guitar strings, and Magne's fingers on the piano. Plus the additional real life sound from a rambling man in the street that just adds to the melancholy of this song.


Memorial Beach
Memorial Beach (1993)

Memorial Beach album cover - the a-ha logo has never looked more powerful

JSS: Where are you Chris Isaak? Another quiet masterpiece of a song that is simply so well played in all aspects. The loose drum playing that creates an atmosphere in itself, the piano throughout the song that is not repetitive in any way, but just goes elegantly with the flow, the electric guitar that slides nicely between the lyrics - and yes, not least the lyrics sung by Morten, written by Pål. Altogether it almost makes you feel that you are on an actual beach. It is a less commercial homage to Wicked Game.

JP: Already when a-ha gave a little acoustic taste of the first few lines of Memorial Beach on a MTV show in 1991 the song sounded promising, but not even the most optimistic fan could have foreseen how absolutely incredible and heart-wrenching the final result would be. Although written by Pål it is in many ways Morten's and Magne's performances that carry Memorial Beach as Morten's delicate, melancholic yet soothing voice blends together with some of the softest, poetic and moving piano playing ever heard from Magne. When Morten sings "Into the rain / The summer rain" you can almost hear Magne's piano notes falling like little drops of rain. Combined with an unbelievably beautiful melody and chorus, soft jazzy percussions and bass you have the components of a masterpiece. Morten has previously introduced it in concert as "a song to get married or divorced to" and I can see what he means. A stunning song and the perfect closing track on what would be a-ha's last album for seven years. If they had really called it quits after 1993, Memorial Beach would have been a very worthy farewell song.


Soft Rains Of April
Scoundrel Days (1986)

JP: A prime example of the magic that Pål and Magne created together in the early a-ha years. Soft Rains Of April is not only a co-write but is also produced by the duo, and when you add some of the Morten's best vocals ever you have a true a-ha classic on your hands. The song itself dates back to pre a-ha days where Pål and Magne's band Poem recorded a version (released much later in 2018 under the more well-known band name Bridges), but no version of the song is more majestic, sad, longing, wistful and dramatic than the one that closes the Scoundrel Days album. The intro with the intensifying drum sound is repeated as the song's dramatic final minute kicks in and provides one of the most thrilling finishes to any a-ha song or a-ha album for that matter. When Morten sighs the final "Over...!" as the song closes it's pure Nordic noir magic. It's very much thanks to The Soft Rains Of April that the B-side of Scoundrel Days didn't feel like too much of a letdown after the epic A-side.

JSS: Without this song, the Scoundrel Days album would not have had the status in my heart that it has. This song had to be there to make it a-ha. Coming after Maybe Maybe, which without any doubt is the weakest song on the album, it feels chilled, it feels cold, it feels longing and belonging. Morten's voice is in its right element - mid tone with highs and lows during the song. Not least the end where he rasps "Oveeeeeer". It sounds so cool. I much prefer this to phrases like "Staaaaay" in falsetto as in Summer Moved On. The whole instrumentation part with a harp and all makes it extra distinct. It was made in several demo versions and the final version is really the perfect one. The vocals are produced somehow distant that adds to the feeling of Morten being in prison - of all places. Maybe there is a connection with the guy in I've Been Losing You earlier on the album, who shoots with a gun? Anyway, this is a vital song.


Cold As Stone
Memorial Beach (1993)

JSS: When I first heard this song in 1993, I had one feeling: This is exactly the song I always wanted a-ha to make. The album version clocks in over 8 minutes, and on a good day it captures the feeling of what a-ha is and should be to me. Dark, groovy, bass and drums driving the whole song, gloomy and rough vocals and great experimental guitars - they even have a little Indian sounding touch to them in places. Till this day I love that it's 8:19 minutes long, and I really don't need the shorter version that was the B-side to Shapes That Go Together. It needs to be this long. Played live mixed with Sycamore Leaves fits the two songs perfectly, but as a stand alone track, this is a song that creates just the right atmosphere. Mags background vocals are great too. It was recorded live with all instruments at the same time, which really goes to show what that band can do when they actually act like a band.  

JP: a-ha's most epic song? Cold As Stone crosses the eight minute mark, and while song length and quality certainly doesn't always correlate, in the case of Cold As Stone it actually does. The drums and bass sound fantastic, the vocals are chilling to the bone and the lyrics tell a tale of identity crisis or even identity loss, possibly an emotional numbness after years of coming to terms with the fame following the breakthrough ("You're travel-worn / Standing here in the town / Where you were born / It's not your home / The mirror sees you / So alone / Cold as stone"). Great guitar work from Pål as well. The outro may at times feel a bit too long but there's enough mystery there to keep you interested and the last ripping guitar chord is the perfect conclusion. For me it's a corner stone in the a-ha catalogue and an indication of what a-ha artistically could have evolved into after 1993 - and that sometimes breaks my heart.


Over The Treetops
Analogue (2005)

JP: Over The Treetops is one of the few "new era" songs in our top 25. Lyrically there are links to an early version of Foot Of The Mountain as Pål seemed to go through a period of romanticized "what if we moved out of the city?" fantasies about rural life. It also feels like there's a certain kinship to Savoy's song Bovine released the year before. There's a dreamy 1960's aura with tambourine, amazing vocal harmonies (courtesy of Graham Nash - a collaboration not many would have seen coming), fuzz guitar and very literal but at the same time dreamy lyrics to match one of the best melodies ever to have flown from Pål's pen. An absolute gem, horribly underrated and overlooked - also by the band until it was picked up for the 2017 MTV Unplugged album and tour where it was one of the highlights. Over The Treetops is not typical a-ha but it's right up there with the best of their songs. On behalf of the band I'm extremely proud of this one and forever grateful that someone (band members, producer, record company...) didn't find it "too unusual" to be included on Analogue which would have been a much less interesting album without it. Listen without prejudice!

JSS: For many years I considered this song to be a number one contender - at least of the more unknown songs to the broad public. For several reasons: The songwriting, the lyrics that sets the mood with "Hey beautiful farm on the top of the hill", the vocal harmonies with Graham Nash - not that I have a big heart for him as such, but it does sound great. The chorus that is kept down so to speak, which is a breath of fresh air, since a-ha's trademark is choruses with "wings" - meaning that Morten sings very high notes. And to be honest that is not always to be preferred. The production and the mix is great too with fuzz guitars in the middle and all. The middle part ruins it a little from being totally perfect for me, but I so enjoy this song, and I was thrilled when they chose it to be part of the MTV Unplugged set in 2017. It was great with Morten keeping a darker tone in the verses and Pål playing a 12-string acoustic guitar. And one more thing: The two simple drum beats prior to the first chorus are really really cool. Can't explain - just listen..


Early Morning
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

Early Morning single cover - 1991 precise

JSS: Early Morning is perhaps the song with the best bass line in all of a-ha's songs. That groove drives the whole song from A-Z. It is a super organic piece that could have been a much bigger hit than it ended up being. As the third single off the album it almost went unnoticed. But the Doors-like quality of the song and Magne's keyboard playing is just lovely and great. Great slide guitar to complete the feel of the song. I also love that the song does not have a chorus - just three verses that culminates vocally before returning to a cool and ascertaining "Early morning...". Short but sweet it shows that a great song does not have to be long, which coincidently is more or less the norm in today's hit music formula. A song ahead of its time and at the same time 20 years too late. A great little anecdote was this Brazilian girl that came up to Morten and said: "Oh, Morten - I love alimony". The video featured footage from Rock In Rio II in 1991 directed and shot by Lauren and included Morten in tank top and leather vest... a sight to forget. But the song itself is great and timeless. For some strange reason the lyrics includes the gun theme again with "I climbed all the stairways / To find the rooftop clear / Got a shotgun lying with me here". Well, it shot the song into our top 10.

JP: Periodically Early Morning has been my favorite a-ha song. So why is it 'only' number 10 on our list? Partly because of compromise but also because a-ha has released so many fantastic songs that I often joke that my top 3 consists of at least 15 tracks. And Early Morning certainly belongs high on the list. Released as the third single from East of the Sun, West Of The Moon at a time where most of the world (and the band's record company?) seemed to have had enough a-ha for now it was an epic commercial failure in most markets. At the same time it was accompanied by a video shot at the 1991 Rock In Rio II festival where a-ha broke the world record for the concert with the largest paying audience, playing to 198.000 beautiful fans in the Brazilian summer night. The contrast was enormous. It's a strange choice for a single with its lack of a real chorus and there were certainly more commercial songs on the album, but Early Morning has a unique beauty to it. Starting off with Morten's vocals immediately followed by a tight rhythm section with a catchy keyboard theme and perfectly moderated use of slide guitar it just feels like every single element of the song fits together like pieces of a puzzle. Take away one element and it wouldn't sound right. In a funny way I've always felt that the inner sleeve pictures from the Scoundrel Days album were the perfect visualization of Early Morning, and that it in a way ties Scoundrel Days and East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon together. Every August I try to find the perfect morning to listen to the opening lines: "Early Morning / 8 o'clock precise / I see the lonely / August sun arise". I'll be doing the same next summer.


Here I Stand And Face The Rain
Hunting High And Low (1985)

JP: As the closing track on the debut album Here I Stand And Face The Rain set the bar high for future album closers, and although they have come pretty close on a number of occasions nothing quite matches the beauty and emotion of Here I Stand... Fantastic drum programming mixed with acoustic guitars, keyboards, dream-like harmonies and all the youthful feelings of insecurity you can pack into a set of lyrics, expertly delivered by Morten who moves effortlessly between the notes and delivers lines such as "We're nothing apart / Let's stay friends forever" with a sincere sensibility you can probably only hold on to as an artist when you're young and before fame hits you.

JSS: Written by Pål - even though according to Pål Morten almost ruined it because he sang along while Pål was writing it. No other song could have been a better closer of the debut album than this. Moody and dark desperation. The odd rhythm of 3/4 makes the song stand out even more, and the determined strumming of the guitar throughout makes it somehow easy to listen to. Again Mortens vocals reaches heights that most singers can only dream of. The keyboards are great too, and the church/monk choir just adds greatness to the darkness of a song about love and losing it. This is the song I say to people they have to listen to if they only know the singles from this album. It would have been a bold move as a single choice, but it might have worked as they could do almost nothing wrong just after the breakthrough in 1985.


East Of The Sun
East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990)

East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon album cover - Americana, much?

JSS: This is a work of art. So organic and atmospheric and it has it all. A 40 second long soundscape intro that sets the mood for the song. Then the acoustic guitar kicks in with the greatest sound of strumming ever played. Morten's voice is low and perfect - perfect I say! "Money talks / And hey, I'm listening" might be the coolest he will ever sound. Midway in the song it goes one tone up, only to go back down for a short while with Magne playing the Hammond organ aggressively and cool - before going back up again. The strings fitting all the high notes perfectly. I play a little guitar myself and this is the a-ha song I have played most times in my life. Great, great, great track. It really saddens me when Morten claims that this was not really a-ha during the period, because they were never better and could have gotten even greater accolades from peers and music lovers had they followed the path that this song represents. Well, at least Pål feels the same way.

JP: From the eerie ambient intro to the gorgeous string-laden outro East of the Sun represents all the things I love about a-ha's 90s period which mostly has been shamefully abandoned ever since. It starts off as an acoustic track with Pål's guitar and Morten using his deeper register, which is as gorgeous and impressive as his famous falsetto but often underused. As the song reaches the first chorus - easily one of their best - a beautiful string arrangement shimmers and flies above and below the vocals. The break is dominated by a Hammond organ that wouldn't have been out of place on your favorite 1960's psychedelic record as it accompanies a more desperate sounding Morten. But the real highlight comes at the 3:06 minute mark where Morten announces "I know the pain / before the wound" - arguably one of Pål's best lyrics - and launches the song into sensory overdrive with unparalleled vocals, stunning strings and an electric guitar that suddenly rips through everything. Morten has later complained that it didn't feel natural to him to use his voice like this, that it felt forced and that a-ha tried to be something they weren't. Rubbish! This is a-ha at their best and a path they should have explored beyond those fantastic 90s albums.


The Swing Of Things
Scoundrel Days (1986)

JP: For many die-hard fans of a-ha it is probably no surprise that The Swing Of Things is placed securely in our top 10. For many it might even be their top pick and it's not hard to understand why. At the same time it's also not hard to see why The Swing of Things was never released as a single as it has a somewhat odd structure with a difficult rhythm (fantastic drumming by Michael Sturgis, by the way!) that doesn't lend itself to commercial radio. But to many of us, and also to a-ha it would seem, this is among the best songs they have ever put on record. The lyrics are some of the best Pål has written. From the 2:27 minute mark where Morten sings "Oh, when she glows in the dark / And I'm weak by the sight / Of this breathtaking beauty / In which I can hide" over a synth background and faint drums with vocals in layers it's very hard not to feel proud by association: This is my band! This is a-ha, one of the most underrated bands of the past four decades, too often pigeon-holed either as a one-hit wonder or a lightweight pop act or both. They have created this song, and no other band sounds like this! The last 60 seconds of the track may be some of the best they have done. Listen to the drums, the bass, the vocals, the production! There's not a single note that should have been different. Additionally Morten uses a singing style where he adds grunts and sighs between the words and lines as if he cannot contain his energy and emotion. Unfortunately it's a style he largely abandoned after the first couple of albums, but maybe that's just what time and growing older does. Maybe we've just come to the point of no turning back, but as long as I can put this song on and crank up the volume there will always be time to get into the swing of things.

JSS: Certainly a top contender as well. A very distinct song that I have never heard anything similar to. Morten's singing is perfect and is another proof to me that the lower register of his voice actually creates a better atmosphere than the high notes. This song does however have its high notes towards the end, which fits the song perfectly. The drumming by Michael Sturgis is so cool and crisp, and the whole song just comes together. Also the chorus - that is not really a chorus - is played in half time, which just adds to the complexity of the composition when you listen to it. I can't talk about this song without mentioning the live version from South Africa in 1994. Hearing it back, it is not a perfect performance from start to finish, but they were never better and more alive and iconic on stage than during this period, which is a bit ironic since the trials and tribulations within the band never were bigger than at this point. Pål's long guitar solo here is one of the reasons that I am still here as a fan till this day. It is part of the glue that connects me to them. And it is also a sad reminder of how great it could have been had they continued with that raw sound. Anyway, this song is one all three band members can agree on is great, and probably also the reason they named their live album How Can I Sleep With Your Voice In My Head - taken from the lyrics of this song. That live album did not do justice to the live sound of 1991-1994. I think that most fans can agree that this song is great, and I wonder how it would have done as a single. At any rate it is a perfect step 2 to the 1,2,3-rocket that kicks the Scoundrel Days album off.


Memorial Beach (1993)

JSS: My claimed number 1 a-ha track for many years. No other a-ha song (or any other song period) has delivered inner satisfaction and tranquility like this song for me. It's perfect. The bass drives the song with the drums sticks, the bass drum and the special sounding guitar. I find it hard to imagine any other combination of instruments that work better together. The dusty drum part after the second chorus is one of the best moments in the whole a-ha catalogue for me. The vocals in the verses are gloomy and still optimistic somehow. Not sure I fully get the text though, but it creates an atmosphere. The spoken word part in the end has not aged that well, but it fits the song brilliantly. Hearing it live with Pål tapping the guitar strings on the fret board - it does not get any better. Please make another song of this caliber.

JP: Locust seems to be another of those songs that divide a-ha fans. There are those who think it's a symbol of where a-ha took a wrong turn by becoming too serious. And then there are those - like me - who claim that this is a-ha at their most intense, most experimental, most cinematic. Locust isn't a song that automatically opens its doors to you and invites you in. You have to invest yourself in it and slowly work your way into it. For me the key to unlock it was the bassline first, then the dusty vocals, the chorus-that-is-not-really-a-chorus and the strange and unusual guitar solo. Locust is as far removed from Take On Me as a-ha ever got, no doubt on purpose (by Pål at least), and it breaks my heart that we'll never know what a-ha could have evolved into if everything hadn't finally imploded in 94/95. Locust is a mood-piece. It's not one I'm always in the mood for and that I can play at any time, but when the mood is right there's nothing quite like it.


I've Been Losing You
Scoundrel Days (1986)

I've Been Losing You single cover - nice jumping by Magne

JP: Released as the first single off their sophomore album I've Been Losing You opens with quite possibly the best guitar riff of any a-ha song to date, leading into a grim tale of a relationship ending in murder. The bassline is amazing, the drums are hard hitting, the keyboards add colour and texture to tie it all together, and Morten's vocals have the right amount of grit to lend credibility to the lyrics. Lyrically Pål is on top form and "I can still hear our screams competing / You're hissing your s's like a snake" is as imagery creating and evocative as anything some of their more respected peers could have ever hoped to come up with. The add-on outro that is kicked off by intensive drums and then taken over first by bass and guitar and then by a desperate Morten is beyond cool and very unusual as well. Add to all this that the chorus is right up there with the best - not only measured by a-ha standards but by any standard - and I've Been Losing You scores a very well-deserved place in the top 5. Plus it never disappoints in concert!

JSS: This had every right to be the first single of the second album. I have several friends who claim this as their favorite a-ha track. That guitar riff is epic and I've been told that it is actually quite complicated to play. The bass line is among the best ever too. The lyrics are about a murder, which goes to show that a-ha already then wanted to get rid of the teen popstar image that they had after Take On Me. They wanted to be real musicians in their own right - even though they already were. The intro driven by the bassline, the verse and the chorus are just fitted perfectly together and Morten's singing is where it should be here: Low and dark, and at its highest it does not go over board as other a-ha songs do. Pål and Magne produced this themselves, and the album as a whole might have been even better if they had done the whole thing alone. Not to say that Alan Tarney did not do a great job - he did. But the sound on this song is really taking them in the right direction - the rock direction. Speaking of that: This might be a-ha's best live track - especially when it kicks off with the guitar riff alone.


Dark Is The Night For All
Memorial Beach (1993)

Dark Is The Night single cover - apparently not for all

JSS: What a first single to promote the fifth album Memorial Beach. An amazing song with a great bass riff that gives great edge and drive. The melody line is all you ever want in a soft rock song. The arrangement of the song where it begins calmly, peaks and then goes down to calm again in the end is perfect in my ears. However, it might have been standing in the way of the song becoming a bigger hit. But who cares. The production, the bass, the guitars and the vocal - especially when it peaks twice in the middle of the song - makes this song worth listening to again and again. I am tempted to say that if you don't get this song, you don't get a-ha. It's a cornerstone. I will never forget when Morten came by for an MTV interview with the new video for this song. He looked better than ever with a yellow shirt and a cool leather jacket. Hard to comprehend that this was not a good time in the band, but I sure enjoyed those years as a fan - even though I was so eager to get other people to see that a-ha had evolved to this kind of greatness, but for most people a-ha were over the hill already, and they had moved on to other music styles. Well, they lost, I won - especially with this song. 

JP: Lead-off single from Memorial Beach with an incredible build-up to the climax followed by the most soothing descend that brings you safely back on the ground. Lyrically Pål is celebrating change at a time where a-ha was seemingly searching for (but possibly failing to find) a new identity and maybe also a new audience for the band, and the result is as amazing as anybody could have hoped for, including the most die-hard fans. Morten's vocals gives wings to the lyrics and balances between the melancholic and the defiant. Morten has described the Memorial Beach album as "a mix between the animal and the poet" and that is probably as good a description of Dark Is The Night For All as any that I could think of. The single scraped into the UK top 20 where it peaked at number 19. It probably didn't help that the first version of the music video was considered "disturbing" which caused it to be banned by MTV. The original video is stronger and more thought provoking, but the edited version has more shots of a shirtless Morten looking better than ever (which says a lot!) so maybe you want to check out both. Regardless of which one you prefer you'll get the added bonus of listening to a fantastic song twice!


Hunting High And Low
Hunting High And Low (1985)

Hunting High And Low maxi single cover - a-ha apparently had five band members

JP: Hunting High and Low was released as the final single from the debut album and showed a very different side of a-ha after three up-tempo singles. Largely relying on acoustic guitars and piano on a bed of sparse drums and rumbling bass the first half of the track is romantic, melancholic, hopeful with Morten moving effortlessly through his register from low to high, showcasing a sensitivity and nakedness in his voice that the first three singles maybe left hidden. The first two choruses alone should have been enough to earn him a place among the most respected singers at the time and in the same way should have established Pål as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. And if that wasn't enough there is the second half of the song where the desperation in Morten's voice and the strings compete for attention in a finale so dizzying that it makes your head and heart spin every time you hear it. The final minute of the song where the vocal harmonies come in and launch you into space on a rocket fueled by a mix of Norwegian gloom and young love is simply out of this world! I honestly can't think of a more beautiful ballad.

JSS: Probably the best pop song ever written. The bossa nova rhythm in the first part of the song is genius, and the amount of chords in this song are overwhelming, yet it is still easy to listen too - that is music art. The peak after the middle-eight with sounds of seagulls and the tempo shift to 4/4 with extremely high vocals parts and great harmonies takes this track over the top and proves that a-ha had way more to offer than most other (if not all) bands at the time. Also, there are many small details that add extra quality to the song - for instance the bass after Morten sings "She's got to go..." in the last part of the song. Maybe only relevant to the keen a-ha listener, but still. I remember the video as really cool - today the visual morphing effects do not stand the test of time as the video for Take On Me does. But who cares? This is a superior song in all aspects - even the singalong-factor. It is regularly the audience participation song at concerts, creating a great melancholic atmosphere - and some fun as well.


Scoundrel Days
Scoundrel Days (1986)

Scoundrel Days album cover - perfect fit between music and cover art

JSS: This might be the purest a-ha song of them all. It is a defining song in every possible way. The gloomy atmosphere with the keyboard intro and raspy vocals, the build-up with the drums and the simple but highly effective chords in the chorus - the best chorus ever written by a-ha, which is not least due to Morten's perfect vocal. In the second verse the track picks up with drums and hi-hat that help drive this song to almost perfection. And then, when it can't get any better, there is a change in two chords during the second verse that lift it even further off the steep hills. Amazing. Throughout the song there are small instrumental effects that just add to the value of the song. One of the best live tracks too - especially when Magne plays guitar instead of keyboard and the song gets another round in the outro. They could have taken it even further, because it is so pleasant to listen to. The middle-eight was originally even better in an early demo, which was reused on Shadow Endeavors from 2015 - I almost cried when I heard that, by the way. As much as I love I've Been Losing You I wonder if the success of the Scoundrel Days album and of the band as a whole would have been even greater had this song been chosen for the first single. In the end it did not even get to be a single. All in all this could just as well have been no. 1 - but we had to choose.

JP: A strong contender for the top spot! And if we had done the ranking three weeks earlier or if we re-did it tomorrow Scoundrel Days might just as well have been number 1, because there is no doubt that it belongs in the absolute top tier! It has possibly the best chorus a-ha (or anyone else for that matter!) has ever written, and it's delivered with such a vocal punch that it leaves you breathless. If someone came up to me and made the claim that Scoundrel Days is Morten's strongest vocal performance to date I'm not sure I could come up with arguments for why they would be wrong. But while the vocals are off the charts it's the whole package that makes the song the classic it is. The ominous synth intro that leads into the first verse where an eerie tone is set already from the first line (Morten gasping "Was that somebody screaming?") after which the deep bass notes come in and take it to the bridge before the explosion of the chorus where all the stops are being pulled. Scattered voices add to the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia but emancipation comes as Morten triumphantly and almost defiantly claims "I know that I've made it / As I run into the air". Words cannot express the sheer drama and breathtaking beauty of this song, but maybe the best description is really one from the song itself: "We believe through the lies and the hating / That love goes free". That is the feeling I get from this song: An unwavering believe in the power of love in spite of lies and hate. And that's honestly not a bad legacy for any song!


The Sun Always Shines On T.V.
Hunting High And Low (1985)

The Sun Always Shines On T.V. single cover - The future was so bright that they should have worn shades

JP: Could it be any other song that should end up gracing the top spot? Sure, there are days, weeks, months even, where other songs top my personal and ever-changing top 10, but in all fairness a-ha has never sounded better than on this epic slice of symphonic synth pop! From start to finish it's a majestic song, almost like a flagship store where a-ha get to show off all the things that make them special: The songwriting, the production, the lyrics, the vocals... everything fits together in a way that take all the unique components and combine them into something truly remarkable! It's difficult for someone who grew up in the 1980s to judge whether a song still sounds fresh today, but to me The Sun... has all the qualities of a timeless classic with a production that lifts it out of the era it was born in. Take On Me may be a-ha's biggest hit, but The Sun Always Shines On T.V. is a much better representation of what a-ha is to me and why they have meant - and still mean - so much to so many people. The song is of course also a concert fixture, and although most casual concert-goers may think they are there to "hear that Take On Me song" they often seem to go even more nuts when they get sucked into the drama of the intro of The Sun... that builds and builds and builds until the keyboard gives way to the drums and guitar and everything just explodes. The Sun Always Shines On T.V. is a cathedral of a song! And a deserving number 1 on the list.

JSS: My first love. Epic. Timeless. Exciting. Stands to this day and would even sound fresh and new if it was released today. Great variation. Shows you what programmed drums can do in a positive light - work of Pål. You can forever more discover new aspects in this track. All instruments appear gloomy, dark and fresh at the same time. We get the chorus quietly in the beginning of the song and full on rock later in the song. The second verse has a great variation in half time tempo before going back into the chorus. And the guitar riff combined with the keyboard riff complement each other better than any other song I have ever heard. Vocally it is just as high level as it gets: From soft to rough and ending on a high note... When I watched the video at nine years of age I was completely sold and I ran to my room after watching it a few times and turned a poster from a German music magazine so that Wham! was no longer facing the room - Pål, Magne and Morten were. I never looked back from that day. This always reminds me why I fell in love with a-ha. Nordic melancholy for the world to see and hear. It somewhat pains me that the first song I loved is at the top of our list, which means that everything went down hill from there. I don't think that is the case though. The landscape has widened in many directions and given us so much pleasure over the years. But this one is epic and the music video is too.

And there you have it. The complete countdown of a-ha's songs from worst to best, at least in our not so humble opinion. We don't suspect that everyone will agree with all of it, and some may even disagree a lot, but that's why it's still fun to meet fellow a-ha fans after all these years. We know that there are fans who consider Minor Earth Major Sky or Lifelines as a-ha's best albums, some even Foot Of The Mountain or Cast In Steel. As should be obvious from our ranking we consider the band's first two albums as well as East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon and Memorial Beach as the high points in a-ha's career (so far!). Luckily there have been enough good and even great songs on the albums from 2000 onwards to confirm to us that a-ha is still a fantastic band, but we can't escape the feeling that band politics, old grudges and personal agendas have gotten the best of them. And honestly that's a crying shame.

But let's not get too sad. This countdown is not a wake, rather it's a celebration of a wonderful and unparalleled body of work by what we consider to be the best band of all time. Period! Making the list has reignited our love for certain songs, caused us to rethink some of our old favorites, discover unknown differences in our individual preferences and more than anything granted us an opportunity to do some of what we love the most: Discuss a-ha for days on end (pun most certainly intended!). Still, it doesn't even begin to compare with the years and years of joy - and occasional frustration - being an a-ha fan has given us. And now we know that there is going to be another chapter in the a-ha story with plans for a new album release in late 2022 which obviously is very exciting. We're hoping that we'll have to clear a few places in the top 50 for some of the new songs. Just make sure you work as "a-ha the band", OK?

And with that the "Ranking Highs and Lows" countdown is over. Over...

All the best,

JP and Jesper