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  • The Joshua Tree Turns 25
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U2

Over the past year, Adele’s 21 has sold a few gajillion copies and sent plenty of music writers on soul-searching journeys trying to figure out why that happened and what it means. My own personal theory: For the first time in a while, a studio album sounds like a greatest-hits collection; it’s not hard to imagine any of the album’s tracks getting serious radio rotation 20 years from now. Over the years, we’ve heard an elite few studio albums that have that distinction; I’d say it belongs to records as disparate as Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Michael Jackson’s Bad, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless (the last one before 21). The first Killers album was about half of a greatest hits album, but it loses momentum as it goes. And then there’s U2, who have four or five of those albums to their credit. The greatest of those is The Joshua Tree, and it turns 25 today.

It’s weird to think that it took less than five years for U2 to get from the wailing sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the monolithic but wry dance-pop of Achtung Baby, but that’s what happened. And maybe it happened because U2 did everything that a huge and sincere rock band could plausibly be expected to do on The Joshua Tree, and after that, they had to embark on the sort of soul-searching journey that first led them to the embarrassing and self-aggrandizing blues toe-dipping of Rattle & Hum and then, finally, to Achtung Baby when that move didn’t work out. U2 were, of course, already a huge rock band by the time they got to The Joshua Tree, and previous efforts War and The Unforgettable Fire already sounded something like greatest-hits albums. They’d already worked with the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They’d already contributed a bunch of songs that will continue to live on classic-rock playlists until long after we’re all dead. But The Joshua Tree represented an absolute refinement of everything they’d already been doing. They dialed back the save-the-world theatrics, dialed up the sensual throb, and they came out sounding more calm and confident than ever before. They loosely patterned the album around the vague theme of America, and Americans rewarded them by buying 10 million copies of it.

It’s easy to make fun of U2 for their messianic tendencies, tendencies that are on full display on the album, but the final product is just bulletproof. The opening salvo (“Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You,” “Bullet The Blue Sky”) is one for the ages, and the album doesn’t really fall off in quality after it. “Trip Through The Wires” is the sort of honking-harmonica bar-rock anthem that only Springsteen and maybe (maybe) Mellencamp were doing this well at the time, and it’s a good indicator of why the band felt like they could pull off the BB King experiments of Rattle & Hum. “Exit” is an overwrought stomp-wail that somehow comes off way better than it should. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” is one of the prettiest, most graceful moments in a catalog rich with them. Bono tried out goddam spoken-word on “Bullet The Blue Sky” and ended up sounding elemental and prophetic rather than ridiculous. The big stylistic leaps don’t feel big here, since the band sounded like nothing was outside its reach. It’s a band at the precise moment where they can’t fuck anything up, and there’s not a single weak part in the album’s 50 minutes. That’s really something. And to this day, the album is a huge part of the reason that the band gets to earn ungodly sums of money with gigantic stadium shows. Respect is due.

So: What’s your favorite song from The Joshua Tree? Or your favorite memory from the album? Does “With Or Without You” just give you Ross and Rachel flashbacks, or is there something more substantive there? Or maybe Ross and Rachel flashbacks are enough? Share with us in the comments section, and check out some videos from the album below.

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Comments (32)
  1. This past Monday, when I recorded my radio show, I played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” for my sister’s birthday.

    She’s the one who actually bought The Joshua Tree on vinyl, so I dusted it off and let it spin. It really is crazy looking at that track list and in your mind going, “Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit…”

    Also, you mentioned bands with albums that kinda play like greatest hits (you mentioned The Killers). I think Coldplay’s seconds, maybe even first album, falls into that category. I mean, you can’t deny those albums made them superstars.

    Anybody ever actually been to Joshua Tree? (I have not; am curious)

    • If you are within a few hours’ drive, Joshua Tree is worth definitely a weekend trip. I’m not much of a deserty person, but the rocks and the plant life especially during spring are definitely photo worthy. Great place for bouldering, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

      • wow never thought i saw someone mentioned bouldering on Gum. cool dude ! ( i accidentally pressed the downvote though , sorry!)

    • If you are referring to THE Joshua Tree on the album cover, it fell back in 2000 and it was no where near JT national park (a common mistake). It was out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Some U2 fans found it a while back with the help of a Park Ranger and the “secret” directions were shared amongst the U2 fan community. I did get to see it 1999 before it fell.

      • I should correct myself, the Joshua Tree is not on the album cover (that would be Zabriskie Point in Death Valley). Joshua Tree was in the gatefold photo.

        • I think there are better examples of albums that are “greatest hits” than Taylor Swift and Adele.

          Maybe Nirvana’s Nevermind? The only song on that album that doesn’t play on the radio is “Something in the Way.” Or Led Zeppelin’s IV.

          Something about reading Taylor Swift compared to U2 in their prime (who still aren’t really a favorite of mine, but talent is talent) just doesn’t bode well for me.

  2. 25 is pretty damn young for a fucking tree.

  3. >>>>What’s your favorite song from The Joshua Tree?

    One Tree Hill>Where The Streets Have No Name>Still Haven’t Found>In God’s Country>Running To Stand Still>everything else.

    One Tree Hill slays me, it’s so amazing. When Bono launches into “And when it’s raining”, well, it all comes down.

    And Where The Streets Have No Name sounds like sunrise in heaven.

  4. 25? It looks like 60, maybe 55 with a shower and a shave.

  5. This is where my music geekdom started — the album that changed everything for me.

  6. Oh, and favorite song: One Tree Hill.
    I miss 1987 Bono.

  7. This is one of the first albums that turned me onto the idea of an “album”.
    I think Urge Overkill’s Saturation is another, underrated, greatest hits album, and agree with the Coldplay comments. Their second album is great from beginning to end.
    “One Tree Hill” is, definitely, one of the best songs on an album of great songs.

  8. In a Latin American history class, I told the class how U2′s Mothers of the Disappeared was written as a tribute to those kidnapped in Argentina. Felt smart. Teacher wasn’t very impressed.

    Anyway, nicely deconstructed.

  9. I think My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is another greatest hits album (Power, All of the lights, Monster, Runaway, Lost in the world…).

    • I don’t know if I’d agree with that. MBDTF is probably Kanye’s most critically acclaimed collection but I don’t consider any of those tracks among his most popular.

      In indie circles, Silent Alarm fits that description pretty well. Ignoring the debate over whether Intimacy or AWITC were strong albums, it is undeniable their discography is and will be defined by Helicopter and Banquet and later on with So Here We Are. And I almost forgot This Modern Love. Greatest hits indeed.

      • Silent Alarm props.

        She’s Hearing Voices, Positive Tension, LIKE EATING GLASS. Yeah man, greatest hits indeed. Sometimes a band only has one classic in em.

    • Sorry but in no way is that a greatest hits album. Its a great album, but only in its experimentation and daring songwriting.

  10. I’m glad Stereogum doesn’t totally ignore U2.

  11. Obviously, the songs rank exactly best to worst in the order that they are sequenced – because that is exactly how Kirsty MacColl did it…

    • Best to worst? No way the entire album is good. “Running to Stand Still”, “Trip through your wires”, “One Tree Hill”. The album has AT LEAST 7 classics.

  12. Weird. I just watched this episode of “Classic Albums” last night. Like, not on cable, but on a burned disc I have with a bunch of “Classic Albums” episodes.

    Also…. ugh. So many musical things making me feel old lately. The Beastie Boys being around long enough to make it into the RRHOF. Metallica celebrating their 30 year anniversary. Now The Joshua Tree is 25.

  13. In God’s Country…

  14. I skipped class (college freshman) to go to the record store and wait for the UPS truck to deliver the copies of this on the day it came out. I remember being in my Honors English class with the cassette on my desk and some classmate poking fun at it. “This is going to be the biggest album of the decade,” I told the guy. His response was, “Oh, yeah. ‘Cause that ‘Unforgettable Fire’ really burned up the charts!” Well, history proved me right. That was a long time ago…

  15. The most badly written article of the day. Interesting thoughts but I got lost half way through.

  16. I had my first kiss with a girl dancing to with or without you in the gym auditorium for my 8th grade graduation dance. Then I went to see them at RFK stadium in DC in early September for my first ever (major) concert. Sigh.

  17. The Joshua Tree turned me on to music.

  18. “It’s weird to think that it took less than five years for U2 to get from the wailing sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the monolithic but wry dance-pop of Achtung Baby”

    What’s weird is it took them that long (to basically go back to their post-punk roots), pop music moves at a snails pace these days with big bands only putting out albums every few years. It took The Beatles only five years to get from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day In The Life’ – that’s what I call rapid progress.

  19. I really don’t like U2 (it’s mainly Bono’s fault), but goddamn, I can’t deny how great this album is.

  20. In high school, say a year after this album hit….EVERYONE liked the album. It didn’t seem to matter who you were or what you were into, it seems like it was universally loved at my high school. Which is funny as the school was very cliquey and uptight. I would disagree with the author’s assessment of Rattle and Hum however. That album was the zenith of that era…the period to the sentences that started with Unforgettable Fire through Joshua tree. A mini album/experimental americana album/live album, I think it was as perfect a way to end that era of their career. My opinion I guess. I was at the Joshua Tree show and it was HUGE. When I see the movie and they show Sun Devil Stadium from the helicopter circling overhead…I get the goosebumps.

    Achtung Baby was good, but in a different way, as was Zooropa. POP was awful. Their middling albums after though were good. I’d say “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on your Own” is a great song.

    Anyway, YES. Joshua Tree is an amazing album. Top to bottom, its solid all the way through. It will live forever, long after Adele and the disposable music of the current generation. It will remain and I expect that in the next 10 years, it will see a revival. A new generation will discover it and realize how great it was. I think the album’s only detractions are Bono’s continued messianic attitudes.

    But I will say this…and I’ve pondered this as I, like a lot of people, stopped listening because of the politics and his save the world pontificating. In the 90′s people like me were wondering where the next Bob Marley was going to come from. Some one who’s music went across generational and stylistic boundaries. Someone who could use his fame and power for good in the world. And while I wouldn’t say Bono was the next Bob Marley, I realized that this was his lot and his aim.

    He is the singer for the biggest band on the planet. He sees that he can take some pages from the Bob Marley playbook and accomplish them. It wasn’t about money, it was about change. He felt he could enact change and make things happen…and really he did. He got heads of state to meet with warring factions and he raised awareness to apartheid (sp) and all these things that I think people overlook. Was he/is he a pompous ass? YES. But he took his fame and decided to make change with it. And really, in this shitty, complicated world…that has to be admire at least a little bit. Like him or not, he did what few have done. He made his career and his fame his vehicle for change and used his influence to get things done.

    I have to say that, in my old age, I tip my hat to the man.

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