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Best a-ha Songs: 20 Synth-Pop Classics From Norway’s Finest
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List & Guides

Best a-ha Songs: 20 Synth-Pop Classics From Norway’s Finest

From widescreen pop to eerie melancholy, the best a-ha songs prove there’s more to the self-proclaimed ‘reluctant pop stars’ than Take On Me.

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The rehabilitation from teen stardom to critical acclaim follows an uneven path. Allowing the passing of time to scuff away at ingrained prejudice does some of the work, and, just occasionally, there’s a latent understanding that the critical dismissal might have been unfair in the first place. Such is the case with a-ha. Catapulted to fame on the back of an era-defining music video and the photogenic appeal of its players, a-ha never served up the lightweight pap packaged to shift singles or copies of Smash Hits magazine. Theirs was a modern, melodic pop – sweeping, ambitious and ever so slightly weird. That’s why artists as revered as Chris Martin and U2’s Adam Clayton credit the Norwegian trio as an influence. The self-proclaimed “reluctant pop stars” eventually settled the critical debate and continue to tour to this day, releasing new material as recently as 2015. Across ten studio albums and more than 40 singles, there’s a wealth of the familiar and plenty of the somewhat surprising among a vindicated and now celebrated catalogue. Here, then, are the 20 best a-ha songs.

Listen to the best of a-ha here, and check out our 20 best a-ha songs, below.

20: Scoundrel Days (1986)

Just 18 months after their breakthrough, Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy were already finding the teen hysteria a bit much. Following their hit debut album, 1985’s Hunting High And Low, was always going to be a challenge, so the decision to (largely) record again with veteran hitmaker Alan Tarney, who had produced Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On TV, plays it safe. But opening their second album, Scoundrel Days, with this anthemic title track, is anything but – all sweeping drama swirling through an icy synthscape and a confident statement away from the chirpy pop of the song they will forever be remembered for. Not designed to put younger fans off so much, but certainly a confident statement that sticking with them would be a journey to something more challenging than the hits first suggested.

19: Love Is Reason (1985)

This bubbly synth track, which was picked as a single in their homeland (and the Philippines, of all places) in April 1985 – some months ahead of their breakthrough with Take On Me – is revered by a-ha collectors as one of the hardest discs to find today, with copies of the picture-sleeve 7” occasionally reaching silly prices online. Sometimes overlooked among the best a-ha songs, it’s a real earworm of a track that hadn’t been completed with the band’s first producer, Tony Mansfield, of New Musik fame, when money on those sessions came to end. It was finished later, just in time for inclusion on the band’s first album, alongside the Alan Tarney recordings that gave a-ha their first successes.

18: You Are The One (1988)

Perhaps one of a-ha’s most obvious pop anthems, You Are The One comes from a melody written by Paul and Magne in their band bridges (which predated their forming a-ha and released the cult album Våkenatt. Picked as the final single from Stay On These Roads, You Are The One was released as the band toured the album and did reasonable business across Europe, peaking at No.13 in the UK after an appearance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops.

17: Dark Is The Night For All (1993)

This haunting ballad is a brooding, melodic delight – steeped in the Americana that the band admits was a fascination for them towards the end of an exhausting decade-long run at the height of their careers. One of the best a-ha songs of the 90s, you can still imagine any number of rock acts performing this. Issued as a single in 1993, it was produced by David Z at Prince’s Paisley Park studios.

16: The Living Daylights (1987)

Artists as legendary as Adele, Paul McCartney and Madonna have tackled Bond theme songs with varying success. For Timothy Dalton’s first shot at the iconic role, the franchise’s producers were no doubt looking to repeat the formula that saw Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill top the US charts just two years earlier. By 1987, a-ha’s stateside career was flagging, so this pairing should have been a win-win. In fact, the band clashed with veteran producer John Barry on the treatment of Paul’s composition, and the single failed to chart in America, despite being a big European hit. No matter, it’s a gorgeous slab of brass-heavy atmosphere that’s not only up there with 007’s finest, but also stakes a claim to being one of the best a-ha songs of all time.

15: Shapes That Go Together (1994)

Never issued on any a-ha album until 2004, when it appeared on The Definitive Singles Collection, the 1994 single Shapes That Go Together was the last material the band released ahead of a hiatus that saw out the remainder of the 21st century. The trio wasn’t getting on at that stage, but could still sound as if they were: this euphoric, uplifting anthem was chosen as the official song of the 1994 Winter Paralympics, held in Lillehammer, Norway, and became a modest UK hit the same year.

14: Cry Wolf (1986)

Picked as the second single from Scoundrel Days, Cry Wolf actually ended up being the biggest success of the album, especially in the US, where a-ha never really built on their strong opening. No doubt the genius of Steve Barron, who had directed Take On Me and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean videos, played its part in shoring up this single’s potential, with his neat video riffing on the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s a solid slab of melodic pop-rock that has matured nicely in the years since its 1986 release to comfortably sit among the best a-ha songs.

13: Analogue (All I Want) (2006)

When Swedish superstar producer Max Martin first heard the chunky title track of the band’s eighth studio album, Analogue, he sniffed a hit and reworked the material, changing its original title of Minor Key Sonata (Analogue) in the process. His instincts were right and, in 2006, this single took its place among the best a-ha songs when it returned the group to the UK Top 10 for the first time since the 80s.

12: Minor Earth Major Sky (2000)

a-ha recorded some demos in late 1994 and then… nothing. It took a reunion for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Concert to spark their interest in returning to the studio, and this track’s parent album finally got released in 2000. Work in New York on those abandoned demos also led to this gem, issued as the parent album’s second single in July of that year. This sweeping ballad went on to open many nights of the tour in support of Minor Earth Major Sky.

11: Touchy! (1988)

This song had been demoed by the band as far back as 1983, but it took five years before it finally turned up on the Stay On These Roads album. Picked as the summer single from the record, Touchy! belatedly emerged as one of the best a-ha songs: a frothy, throwaway pop cut that’s perfectly complemented by the band’s tongue-in-cheek music video. a-ha at their happiest, perhaps?

10: Crying In The Rain (1990)

Cover versions seemed – and still seem – an oddity for a band such as a-ha, so driven by their own musical instincts. But this was no lazy shortcut by a group desperate to score a hit. “We had a connection with The Everly Brothers through our manager, who played bass with them in the 60s,” said Paul. “We went to see them in [London’s] Albert Hall and that song was our favourite. It was easy to see it could be done in a different way.” The surprise first single from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon reimagined the track as a brooding wave of melodrama that rewarded the group with another chart-topper in their home country.

9: Foot Of The Mountain (2009)

The widely documented discord between a-ha’s band members has, at times, threatened to splinter the trio for good, but the stop-start nature of their working relationship appears to act as an efficient professional circuit-breaker. Such was the case in 2009 with Foot Of The Mountain, then billed as the final a-ha album. This collection was a return to pure synth-pop, and this gorgeous midtempo treat – one of the best a-ha songs of the 2000s – opened the album’s promotional campaign as the first single and was a big hit in continental Europe.

8: Under The Makeup (2015)

Five years after announcing there would be no more, a-ha came back – not just the trio themselves, but also producer Alan Tarney, who returned to the recording studio with the group for the first time since 1988’s Stay On These Roads. The sessions’ opening single was a lush, sting-drenched affair with more than a nod to those James Bond theme epics. Perhaps picking up from where The Living Daylights left off, a-ha had passed their commercial peak by 2015, but Under The Makeup’s parent album, Cast In Steel, was a critical triumph, with Alan Tarney triumphantly drawing out the band’s gift for atmosphere and melody.

7: Summer Moved On (2000)

Invited to perform at the December 1998 Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, a-ha were reluctant to confine their appearance to a greatest-hits set after such a long absence. “We thought it would be boring to perform two old songs,” says Paul. “It was inspiring to me and I wrote Summer Moved On as an explanation of what had happened to the band.” The gentle, brooding ballad captured the moment perfectly and became the band’s comeback release in May 2000, immediately taking its place among the best a-ha songs.

6: Stay On These Roads (1988)

If there is such a thing as the perfect a-ha formula, the trio had certainly perfected it by 1988. The final pairing with Alan Tarney until 2015, Stay On These Roads was another brooding epic, superbly produced and accompanied by an atmospheric video. The lyrics hinted at a narrative that was high on drama: sophisticated yet still, surprisingly, accessible. It has much in common with the arch theatricality of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights or the emotional ballast of Toto’s Africa, but few were willing to credit the song with such comparisons back at a time when the group’s stock in the teen market was still so high.

5: Lifelines (2002)

Arguably the bleakest song in a-ha’s canon, this is the sound of the band ratcheting the melancholy to maximum and scaling another creative peak. It didn’t do massive business when issued as a single, but certainly deserves to stand among the best a-ha songs. The stark video was filmed in a fishermen’s village in the north of their homeland and opens with an extract of a poem by the late King Olav V of Norway. It’s true that Scandinavian acts have a winning way with happy-sad pop – think no further than ABBA – but this gorgeous melody is a masterpiece up there with any from the Swedish supergroup.

4: The Sun Always Shines On TV (1985)

It’s a question almost guaranteed to catch out all but the most committed of pop “anoraks”, but ask people to name a-ha’s only UK chart-topper and the vast majority will pick Take On Me. They’re wrong. That song did make No.1 in the US, but its follow-up is a-ha’s only UK equivalent, clawing its way to the top of the pile in early 1986. What was it really all about? Hard to tell at the time, but it sounded epic on radio and was even reissued as a live recording to promote a-ha’s 2003 concert album, How Can I Sleep With Your Voice In My Head.

3: I’ve Been Losing You (1986)

As with Scoundrel Days, a-ha’s first single from their second album was a measured attempt to recast the band’s appeal with a far rockier track than anyone expected at the end of 1986. Even the video pitched the band as a live draw rather than the cartoon pop personas then being promoted by the European teen magazines. I’ve Been Losing You wasn’t the enormous hit anyone was expecting (though it made No.1 in the band’s homeland), but it was the strongest sign yet that a-ha were in it for the long haul.

2: Take On Me (1985)

Certainly the most famous a-ha song, Take On Me is the embodiment of the proverb “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Originally released in 1984 with a lightweight synth-laden treatment by a-ha’s first producer, Tony Mansfield, it failed to chart in any major market, though it did OK in the band’s homeland. Drafting in Alan Tarney helped bathe the now-familiar earworm in a richer production, but again it inexplicably failed to catch light. A third attempt, this time assisted by that famous video and a substantial push by the band’s US record label, saw Take On Me become a-ha’s international breakthrough, topping the US charts and reaching No.2 in the UK. Destined to be remembered as one of the best a-ha songs of all time, Take On Me is almost as omnipresent today as it was in the 80s; in 2000, boy band A1 finally took the track to No.1 in the UK, righting an injustice caused by Jennifer Rush, who had refused to vacate the top spot 15 years earlier.

1: Hunting High And Low (1986)

On the album of the same name, you’ll find the fine original production by Tony Mansfield, but in its orchestra-saturated remix for single release, you have the perfect a-ha song: a gorgeous soundscape of high drama, a nagging melody that burrows its way into your consciousness and some of the best vocals Morten Harket has ever committed to record. That it was the fourth single from the parent album speaks volumes about the quality of songs on the Hunting High And Low album, all of whose ten tracks are contenders among the best a-ha songs.

Hunting High And Low contains strong echoes of The Killers, Coldplay and Keane long before any of those bands were even in existence. It’s perhaps foolish to suggest a-ha are the genesis of any of them (or much of the bombastic pop-rock that caught light from the late 80s), but there’s no doubting their influence… True innovators, a-ha are the pop act even rock royalty respects.

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