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Music by VICE

Why Is Swedish Pop so Damn Good?

Elliphant, NONONO, and Kate Boy weigh in.

by Liza Darwin
Nov 1 2005, 5:45pm

Sweden’s storied musical history is one that goes far beyond platinum pixie queens, slick producers, or EDM breakout wunderkinds. It might be small, but the Scandinavian nation has proven for decades that it’s damn good at making pop music. This is a super specific type of sound, one that mixes euphoric, sing-along melodies and electronic backbones into an icy cool blender—and the result is so addictive, it makes the tracks almost feel like they’re a guilty pleasure. (But they’re not, of course. They’re just good.) Sweden is currently the third largest exporter of pop music behind the US and UK, and we have ABBA to thank for that.

Although there were certainly pop acts pre-ABBA, it wasn’t really until the quartet exploded upon the scene in the 1970s when the rest of the world cranked up the volume and actually listened. When a band sells 380 million albums worldwide throughout their career, everyone with ears and who likes to dance has no other choice but to tune in.

ABBA not only put Sweden on the map musically, but they also helped pave the way for other artists much later. As Hampus Nordgren Hemlin of Stockholm’s Kate Boy puts it, “We have a history in our favor, with ABBA and the big stuff that has come out of Sweden in the past. It’s inspiring to do music because you think you can.”

The country is one that relies on musical role models, whether it’s ABBA, Robyn, Miike Snow, or even Ace of Base. “There are a lot of eyes on Sweden, and with each one that makes it, the doors open a little bit more for everyone else,” Hemlin explained. He credits these bands for giving Kate Boy the inspiration to create their debut album, out next year on IAMSOUND Records.

There’s been a steady influx of Swedish pop after ABBA. Ace of Base lead the “Swedish music miracle,” a period of time from 1999 to 2003, in which the country reached its highest peak of musical exports. Since then Sweden has dominated the pop sphere, with both artists as well as hit-making producers like Max Martin (who counts Katy Perry and Taylor Swift as collaborators).

While the sheer number of pop acts has grown massively, there’s been a noticeable sonic shift into a more independent scene. This evolution can be explained both by the boom of indie record labels—including Robyn’s Konichiwa Records, which champions local artists—as well as Sweden’s self-determining culture. “Sweden is a small place, and most everyone that is an artist knows each other,” Markus Dextegen, also of Kate Boy, told us. “It makes you feel like, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ It’s a small enough country to make you realize that, but big enough to actually make some sort of footprint so that people notice it.”

After all, creative atmospheres breed free thinkers. As Michel Rocwell from Stockholm trio NONONO explained, “People are really sensitive to trends here and most people are also really free in the creative process.” While Rocwell acknowledged that Swedes can easily get swept up in “the trends and hype things” in music, there are enough unique artists to push the genre forward. The definition of Swedish pop isn’t as hard and fast as it used to be, and, as the latest generation proves, that’s a good thing.

Just take Elliphant, the Stockholm breakout who blends 90s-inspired pop melodies with dubstep, reggae, and in-your-face lyrics. “We’ve got big artists like Tallest Man On Earth and Yung Lean that you actually never hear about in Sweden, but that are doing really good outside of the country,” she said of the diverse Swedish music community. “We’ve also got a big hip-hop scene that’s almost like a religion to many people. And obviously, we’ve got all these pop princesses like Zarah Larsson, Icona Pop, Tove Lo and Robyn, who are probably our biggest music export.”

The waves of Swedish pop stars keeps coming like clockwork—and beyond the recent crop, like Icona Pop, Little Dragon, and Lykke Li, there’s a whole new class of artists about to creep on the horizon. In fact, some are even already there. From those you (hopefully) already know to those you’ve never heard of, get briefed on the best of new Swedish pop below.

Continuing her golden streak of soundtracking all your weekend bad decisions, this month Tove Lo dropped her debut LP Truth Serum. And surprise! It’s filled with more sex, drugs, and shadowy pop choruses.

From the same school of Swedish hard-partying pop as Tove Lo comes Elliphant. The Stockholm singer croons about “waking up in a pile of shit” and, weirdly enough, makes the whole situation appealing enough to hum along.

They’re still new, but the combined experience of Amason is enough to quiet any critics—and even earn indie all-star status. This Stockholm-based quintet includes Pontus Winnberg of Miike Snow, Gustav Ejstes of Dungen, Nils Törnqvist and Petter Winnberg of Little Majorette and Amanda Bergman of Idiot Wind. Supergroup, much?

She might be a Rhode Islander by birth, but Mapei grew up in Stockholm (and has the underground Swedish rap background to prove it). Her debut album Hey Hey dropped this fall, and she’s about to head out on tour with another Swede, Lykke Li.

Seinabo Sey has already hit the US Billboard charts for the Kygo remix of her single “Younger” and there’s plenty more there that came from on her debut EP Madeline (out now). With molasses-smooth vocals and a haunting vibe, the 24-year-old is a refreshingly soulful antidote to all the throbbing dance-pop. Even Elliphant agrees. “Seinabo Sey is very important for Sweden; she’s a real soul diva with big quality productions and sounds, and for me that’s a fresh breeze.”

When it comes to pure, glimmery Swedish synth-pop, it doesn’t get any more addictive than Marlene. Somehow her debut EP Indian Summer managed to cruise under the radar, but don’t sleep on this one—100 bucks says by the time the weather heats up again, she’ll be everywhere.

We first intro’d you to half-Barbadian, half-Swedish singer Naomi Pilgrim in February with her debut EP House of Dreams. The former Lykke Li backup singer straddles the line between soulful melancholia and blissed-out R&B perfectly.

Zhala sings what she calls “cosmic pop.” And considering the Stockholm native is the first signee to Robyn’s Konichiwa Records label, she can label herself whatever she wants. Her breakout single “I’m In Love” comes packed with haunting melodies, glacial pop backbone, and danceable vocals to keep the whole thing club-approps.

Liza Darwin is a writer living in NYC. She's on Twitter.