Home Genres Pop Robyn dances to her own beat: five essential songs

Robyn dances to her own beat: five essential songs

Robyn dances to her own beat: five essential songs
Image: Aija Lehtonen / Shutterstock.com

Robyn is a force not entirely of nature. Her signature brand of cyborg pop revels in pairing crushing heartbreak and bare vulnerability with razor-sharp hooks that take no prisoners—think “Indestructible” and “Call Your Girlfriend.” On her hotly anticipated new album, Honey, that garnered critical acclaim far ahead of its release, the Swedish pop star has pushed this winning formula even further.

The singer-songwriter born Robin Carlsson has been on the frontlines of pop music for more than 20 years now. Her 1995 debut, Robyn is Here, and its quintessential ’90s R&B singles “Do You Know (What it Takes)” and “Show Me Love” launched her onto the international stage and set the template for American pop darlings like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

But it was only after Robyn leaned into her love of the club and dance music that she started to truly blaze a trail for herself, beginning with her eponymous 2005 album, through the instant classic “Dancing on My Own” up until today’s Honey.

Explore that trail with this list of five career-defining songs.

“Who’s That Girl?” (2005)

As Robyn’s star rose early in her career, so did her frustrations with the music industry and its narrow conceptions of a young female pop artist. That conservatism reared its head when Robyn refused to alter lyrics in her 1999 sophomore album, My Truth, that grappled with an abortion she had. As a result, it wasn’t released outside of Sweden.

Things took a turn, though, when avant garde Swedish duo The Knife sent Robyn a copy of their 2003 album, Deep Cuts. She teamed up with Karin and Olof Dreijer on the assertive, thoroughly percussive “Who’s That Girl?” that gave voice to her defiance of the status quo.

Jive Records, the label she was signed to at the time, apparently—and perhaps unsurprisingly—hated the song. Robyn took that as a sign that she had to break free, buying out of her contract and founding Konichiwa Records, the label that has released all her music since 2005.

She explained her state of mind at the time in a recent New York Times profile: “I made this music that I really love, and it’s something different than I’ve done before. And you don’t like it? Like, how are we going to work together? It’s impossible.”

“Be Mine!” (2005)

“Be Mine!” is another classic of the Robyn canon: a dose of desperate desire, topped off with emphatic punctuation. But the reason this track will go down in Swedish pop history books is not at all musical. It marked the first time Robyn and Klas Åhlund concocted magic together.

When Åhlund first met Robyn through her manager, he was a greenhorn who hailed from punk and rock spaces. As The Guardian chronicles, his contributions to “Be Mine!” were initially made on guitar, which Robyn indulged briefly before pushing for the energetic, even frantic strings that define the song.

Now, Robyn counts Åhlund as one of her closest and most consistent collaborators. A key architect in her contemporary sound, he’s co-written and produced a good chunk of Robyn, Body Talk and Honey. They share an approach to music he describes as “Kubrickian” in its meticulousness and perfectionism.

“Dancing on My Own” (2010)

“Dancing on My Own” is without a question the Robyn song—and, in many ways, the perfect pop tune.

Over throbbing synths and forlorn keys, she sings of neglect, unquenched desire and loneliness. The steady, feel-the-bass-in-your-chest beat evokes Robyn’s steely resolve to forge ahead alone, since her ex has clearly moved on. But the quiver in her voice speaks to the well of emotion she’s repressing.

The first single from her Body Talk series—two EPs and an album collecting the best songs from those shorter releases, supplemented by new material—“Dancing on My Own” became Robyn’s first number-one single in Sweden, and charted high in Denmark, Norway, the UK and the US.

But its pride of place in pop culture is best discerned by its timelessness—such as the soundtrack to an iconic scene in the 2012 season of Girls, or as a cover-turned-hit for British singer Calum Scott in 2016.

“Love is Free” (2015)

Robyn has built up such a formidable body of work and partnered so many collaborators that it’s easy to miss her smaller but no less enjoyable side projects.

In 2014, she put out the Do it Again EP with her tourmates Röyksopp, and a year later she released the Love is Free EP with La Bagatelle Magique, also known as keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt and the late producer Christian Falk. Its title track, which features Dominican-American DJ Maluca, is a sexy house tune designed to dominate clubs—not charts.

The trio formed La Bagatelle Magique after Falk was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The EP was released a year after his death, one of the crushing losses that defined Robyn’s life from 2014 to 2016. With Falk—she had known and worked with him since her 1995 debut—Robyn had an “endless fountain of ideas,” as she wrote in a note accompanying the release, and a kindred spirit: “He always did things on his own terms, he couldn’t do it any other way. It was all on feeling, all on desire.”

“Honey” (2018)

Robyn’s new album couldn’t have been named anything but Honey. The stunning title track, oceanic in its emotional depth, ushers in a fresh era. Instead of diamond-hard determination to sing and dance through pain, “Honey” upholds softness and vulnerability.

The song arrived in September already having secured a special place in fans’ hearts. Lena Dunham had played an unfinished version of the song in the sixth season of Girls, sending Robyn fans crazy with need. They created a vehement hashtag: #RELEASEHONEYDAMNIT.

The roots of “Honey,” like much of Robyn’s music, lie in the club. But its ebb and flow speak more to a philosophy towards music than a style or sound. She explained to the New York Times: “When you’re listening to club music, there’s no reward… You have to enjoy what it is. You have to enjoy that there’s no conclusion… It’s a hypnotic thing.”

Listen to Honey here.