It seems to have all started with ABBA.
The first indications of the genetic mutation which predisposes the Swedes to being absolutely brilliant pop songwriters could be seen in the stream of albums released by Anni-Frid, Björn, Benny, and Agnetha during the 1970's. Nobody else could write songs as cunningly catchy as "Waterloo" or, lest we forget, "Dancing Queen". After they broke up in 1982, the mutation went dormant for about 15 years, but they were clearly an indicator of what was to come. Think of them as the Magneto or Charles Xavier of the Swedes.
The new class started to make themselves known with the Boy Band craze at the close of the last millennium. I could have said century, but Max Martin, the Swedish Svengali responsible for a remarkable array of hits ("...Baby One More Time", "It's My Life," "Since U Been Gone," "Raise Your Glass", and "I Kissed a Girl" are but a meager portion of his contributions to radio's Top 40 over the last 15 years), wrote half of the songs on Backstreet Boys' Millennium, one of the more successful albums of all time. I'm aware of Martin's contributions to pop music, and I'm still stunned every time I read his curriculum vitae.
One of Martin's first successes was in 1997 with, naturally, a fellow Swede, pop siren Robyn. Their powers combined to give the world "Show Me Love," which remains one of the better singles of the era. After a weak second album, Robyn took some time and returned five years later firmly in control of her own career. Working primarily with Swedish writer Klas Åhlund, the self-titled album she released remained an unequaled piece of art-pop perfection until her own series of Body Talk albums came out last year. It seems that the only person in Robyn's league at the moment is Robyn herself.
Martin is unapologetically commercial, and there's nothing wrong with that. ("It's Gonna Be Me" by 'N Sync just popped up on shuffle. It's Martin.) Robyn is beating out her own path, making music that should, by all rights, be hugely successful, but manages to stay just below the radar. Commercial viability aside, they are both clearly touched by the same blessed mutation as the mighty ABBA.
With her new album, Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li makes a serious argument for being granted membership into this formidable and exclusive assemblage. While her first album, Youth Novels, was very good, and very catchy, it lacked the clear display of ambition necessary to gain full rights. If she wanted to bring any guests in to use the pool, Robyn, Max, or Klas would have to sponsor them. Wounded Rhymes is a different beast entirely. Where Youth Novels had a delicate, almost mock-low-fi aesthetic, Wounded Rhymes is a pop leviathan. It is loaded with dense, elephantine beats, perfectly conveyed by opener "Youth Knows No Pain" and standout "Get Some." Tucked in between the rumblers, the are gentle songs such as "Unrequited Love," a song in 6/8 which is played with appeasing lack of precision and cast Lykke as a girl at the corner of the bar, bemoaning her misfortune. The title is derived from the lyrics of "Sadness Is a Blessing," a sublime Phil Spector pastiche. It is loaded with unique electro-pop touches, some tucked way in the back of the mix. It is ear candy with a serious brain. It may be my favorite album to come out so far this year. Whether or not it holds that distinction until the end of the year, it makes me grateful for whatever those Swedes have been putting in the water.