Counting Down

U2 Albums From Worst To Best

By / October 1, 2013

People hate U2. OK, people hate a lot of bands. Out of the other Great Artists we’ve covered in this feature, though, U2 elicit ire more than others. Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and the Stones? Maybe they’re not your thing, but nobody hates those guys, right? And maybe you dislike Springsteen, maybe even strongly, but it’s not like he actively evokes anger from you, right? At worst, these bands might bug you because you’ve heard “Start Me Up” 1,000 too many times, or because classic rock radio will never let “Money” go. That’s all just an annoyance, though, a gnat — so maybe you’re indifferent. You recognize these were important artists, you can appreciate what they achieved in the abstract, and sometimes it’s cool when they come on the radio and sometimes it’s not. That’s the most severe dismissal I’ve heard of those bands. U2, on the other hand, is a rare case: all empirical evidence points to them being one of the most beloved and lauded bands ever, and yet bringing them up in conversation seems to yield a groan or an eyeroll or a sneer as often as it does enthusiasm. U2 pisses people off.

To a certain extent, the blame falls on Bono. For whatever reason — and I don’t really know what year this finally snapped — a lot of people do not seem to have much patience for him, even as any concert video will show there’s got to be an insane amount of people somewhere out in the world who still very much adore him. He is an odd figure to still be so in the forefront of our pop-culture consciousness. He’s a rock god from the era where that archetype was breathing its dying gasp, soon to be dressed up or transposed into theoretically fame-averse alt-rockers, or a host of indie-rockers who didn’t have the wide-eyed ambitions to be monolithic, even if the music culture landscape hadn’t shifted and fragmented to the point where there couldn’t be another Bono anyway. Maybe it’s precisely because of that rock god status: as a rockstar in the ’80s, he was like the younger brother of all these other Greats, which results in a sort of peacocking. Once someone puts you in the conversation about those artists, you must feel an immense pressure to prove that you deserve to stay there.

What it boils down to is probably that people find this behavior preachy. That Bono seems too conscious of pop history and his solidified place within it. That Bono’s and U2’s self-awareness of their sheer magnitude reads as smug satisfaction. This seems to be exacerbated when they still try to pass themselves off as being in awe, as having those “aw shucks” moments about how a little bar band in Ireland wound up here. It feels neighborly when Springsteen talks about playing gigs on the Jersey Shore; it feels mythic when the Stones talk about their early club days. For some reason, it comes across as too carefully plotted when U2 indulge in similar reminiscences.

I don’t hate U2. I like them a lot, or else I wouldn’t have spent all the time it took to compile this list. Bono seems like an alright guy to me. They were, and probably still are, one of my favorite bands. But even I have grown weary of the band’s presentation, and it feels like it’s rooted in the fact that when U2 talk about themselves it no longer feels connected to reality. Sure, people might hate U2 specifically because Bono grates on their nerves, but what it feels like we’re really dealing with here is fatigue. Since their ascendance, U2 has never not been popular. They have always been present, almost always been ubiquitous. These other Greats, they broke up, or had long hiatuses, or their careers ebbed and flowed. U2, even now when they take five years between albums, still seem omnipresent. They still make new music a lot of people pay attention to, and their last tour was the highest grossing, ever, of anybody. If you don’t adjust for inflation, their tour record surpassed the Stones’ by about $200 million.

I mean, I’d certainly be in awe of that, but I also haven’t spent my entire adult life as a celebrity. People have known U2 for over thirty years now. You’ve known them longer than I’ve been alive. The cumulative effect seems to be that when U2 talk about their legacy, or their early lives, it feels like self-mythologizing in process, like they’re actively feeding you the legend of U2. I obviously think a lot of U2’s music is great, but it also makes sense why, after three straight decades of all U2 all the time, people might be feeling a bit worn out. In the Counting Down feature on Springsteen, I remarked on how his comparatively inactive ’90s meant that when he returned in the ’00s, it was triumphant. He was a living, functioning legend, and maybe you dislike him, but then there’s this whole big mass of people who unwaveringly, ardently love the guy. I love U2 as well, but it’s a mitigated love. It doesn’t feel like you can trust U2 in the same way. Even their “comeback” moments were from albums or tours that might’ve been disappointments for them, but still outstripped the cultural footprint or commercial success of almost any other artist in existence. They’re playing at a totally different level, but it also feels like they spend too much time controlling all of that. Especially since 2000: you get an album every four or five years, but U2 is somehow always there, so it begins to feel more like you’re just interacting with a distant icon. Sometimes it feels as if they’re hardly in the music business anymore. They’re in the empire business, but their version of that story’s a lot more placid than Walter White’s.

For me, this article comes at something of a wearied time in my life as a U2 fan. They released No Line on the Horizon in 2009, an album that was not as groundbreaking as promised, and proceeded to talk about an immediate follow-up, to be titled Songs of Ascent, that instantly sounded more intriguing. That dragged on for about two years, no album. Then the talk started up about going back into the studio, and that the band had three possible projects in the works: a rock album (this sounded boring), a “club music” album where they’d collaborate with RedOne and will.i.am (this sounded horrifying), and, the one they eventually pursued, with Danger Mouse producing (this, I’ll cautiously say, sounds intriguing). There was definitely going to be an album in 2012, then there was definitely going to be one in 2013, and now Bono says he’d “like to think” there will be a U2 album in 2014. It’s hard to keep believing them, after a five year slog of fake-outs still lacking results. And if you lose faith in one part, others follow, and U2 is not a band that translates well if you don’t believe. In the 20th anniversary piece for Zooropa, and in entries on this list, I make the argument that U2 needs to stop calculating so much about remaining at a certain level of popularity. I’m totally onboard with the idea of them being the biggest band in the world, but I think we’re all tired of being reminded of their specific intentions towards that. I want them to be mythic, but they need to prove it again. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove it to myself, digging back into a discography that’s amongst the most important in my life.

Start the Countdown here.