U2 Albums From Worst To Best
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.
Rattle And Hum (1988)
Rattle And Hum is a sister project to The Joshua Tree. Released just a year later, in 1988, it took its name from The Joshua Tree track "Bullet the Blue Sky," and furthered the band's newfound interest with American roots music. In spite of or because of that, it wasn't exactly a full-fledged follow-up album. Rather, Rattle and Hum was packaged with a movie of the same name that chronicled the band's travels through America during their tour for The Joshua Tree, and their growing interest in gospel, blues, and old school rock music. Consequently, it became a more or less lumbering mess of covers, live performances, and new songs. It's their classic rock moment not just in matters of taste and style but in structure: the whole thing has a very '70s bloat to it, between the movie tie-in, its aimless length, and the fact that it passes itself off as earnest and looking to pay tribute but comes off as pretentious nonetheless.
There is some great stuff on Rattle And Hum, but it's littered with mis-steps that seem all the more glaring with it being released in the shadow of one of their classic albums. The covers of "Helter Skelter" and "All Along the Watchtower" are more or less pointless, the band not necessarily adding any of their own DNA to them; the inclusion of a live cut of "Pride" is mainly perfunctory. Where they'd seamlessly incorporated roots elements into their already existing trademarks to come up with something brilliant and singular on The Joshua Tree, a lot of it feels like dead weight here. The gospel rendition of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the total drag of "Love Rescue Me" don't go anywhere, and the B.B. King collaboration "When Love Comes to Town" is just kind of an anomaly. It wasn't all bad, though. U2's take on the classic Bo Diddley rhythm resulted in "Desire," still one of their most infectious singles. I've always had a soft spot for "Heartland," a leftover from The Unforgettable Fire; it's far more interesting in both melody and atmosphere than most anything else here. You could almost picture how different it could have been if U2 had released an EP instead featuring these songs, the studio version of "Silver and Gold," and "All I Want Is You," the closing track here that's so good at being an archetypal U2 song it almost single-handedly legitimates the existence of Rattle And Hum.
Maybe there was just too much scrutiny. The nature of Rattle And Hum seemed to beg for a casual one-off, a notebook experience of their tour, but coupled with the movie it felt like an overblown vanity project. It was the first real stumble in their career, and they felt it -- a several year gestation would follow before the band returned having retooled their entire look, sound, and ethos in order to embark upon the Zoo TV era. In a way, that's great. U2 got the whole "botched follow-up to your biggest album yet" thing out of their system with something that was more of a sidestep, but it still gave them enough of a slap on the wrist to inspire an overhaul that produced their most interesting work. What's less great is the fact that it's probably the last time (aside from Zooropa or Pop, perhaps) where the band was able to put something out there not necessarily randomly, but certainly with less second-guessing than they do now. Rattle And Hum feels overstuffed and mislead, but not necessarily overly-considered. Ever since, they're paranoid about falling on their face, and it's held them back at times. There are some albums ranked ahead of Rattle And Hum here that might be a bit more problematic, but they're also worth more of a listen. The most important thing about Rattle And Hum remains the fact that it pushed U2 into a situation in which they had to recreate themselves, which makes it important, sure, but also defines it as a failure.
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)
Despite the fact that How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is going to be ten years old next year (!), it is only the second most recent album U2 have released as I write this. On one hand, these big gaps in between albums are understandable. After starting this band as kids, the members are exiting middle age and balancing U2 with other interests. It's just that if you're going to go four or five years between albums, they would hopefully be memorable and distinct. Alright, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is actually distinct amongst U2's catalog. As Bono put it, it's in many ways the truest "rock" album they've recorded, featuring more straightforward songs and less production flourishes than their '90s work. But it doesn't feel too distinct from any other anthemic pop-rock bands that were recording in the early '00s. A song like "Miracle Drug" bears all the U2 signatures, but if you put someone else's voice on the track it would also just sound like some bargain bin group U2 had inspired. That, ultimately, is the quality that sinks How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (not the faux-rock mugging of "Vertigo"): much of this is U2 sounding like others aping U2, traipsing through a succession of lazy by-the-numbers melodies.
Aside from rock-oriented moments like "Vertigo" and "All Because of You," a lot of album actually sounds like U2 going full adult-contemporary. The mid-tempo songs largely sound generic ("Crumbs From Your Table") or entirely throwaway ("Yahweh," a ridiculously forgettable song from a band that usually closes their albums with very strong, underrated tracks). That being said, there are two songs from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb that I still turn up whenever I come across them. The first -- and I think I'm more or less in the minority on this one -- is "Love and Peace or Else." As inert as so much of the material is here, "Love and Peace or Else" is one of the more unflinchingly rock songs here, but still does something interesting with the arrangement. An adept display of the band playing with dynamics, it features the Edge in an uncharacteristic mode, soaking his guitar in a fuzz not so often heard in U2's music. It's one of the few times a sound in a U2 song could be described as "dirty," and it lends a believable modicum of grit to a song that has some real swagger. The only other thing with a pulse is "City of Blinding Lights," which is prime '00s pop-mode U2, and was rightfully the only How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb track aside from the obligatory "Vertigo" to still be in regular rotation when the next tour cycle rolled around. Thanks to some effortless but inevitable pacing, the song grabs you and forces you to follow through all its ebb and flow. When it soars, it feels earned, not like the clumsy wallop of "Here's the U2 moment!" instructions that dominate the rest of the album.
Aside from those two tracks, if I never heard something from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb again I wouldn't know the difference. It's not offensive, it's just utterly forgettable. It feels weird to still be annoyed about it almost a decade later, but like Rattle And Hum suffers due to its proximity to The Joshua Tree, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb suffers due to its proximity to nothing. It has the burden of being one of only three albums U2 has released in thirteen years, and it's nowhere near accomplished enough to carry that weight. I'll admit, part of this might be personal annoyance; for relatively younger fans like myself, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is one of the only U2 releases we've experienced firsthand as music fans in that moment, and it feels like a rip-off when others got War or Zooropa. So maybe a few years down the line it'll age alright, and sound a bit better. Right now, it's a thorn, a ten-year-old specter hanging around as I hold out (maybe vain) hope that this bland affair doesn't go down as one of U2's last releases.
Passengers -- Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)
Released under the name Passengers, Original Soundtracks is easily the most marginal album included on this list -- so much so that most casual fans are probably entirely unaware that it even exists. With Brian Eno fulfilling a more extensive collaborative role, the album features U2 playing with loops and soundscapes, positioning the album as a set of songs soundtracking imaginary movies (except for a handful that were attached to real films). Very much a transitional, experimental effort, Original Soundtracks 1 received more mixed reactions from fans and critics alike, and in hindsight some of this is understandable. Some of the more ambient tracks -- namely "One Minute Warning," "Plot 180," and "United Colours" -- feel very dated, like the sort of things you'd hear in forgotten '90s action movies or now associate with an aged video game. Others have fared better. "Always Forever Now" could've been a great segue track had U2 recorded a full album between Zooropa and Pop and "Corpse (These Chains Are Way Too Long)," one of few tracks to feature vocals, beat Radiohead to the Hail to the Thief punch by eight years, and is an interesting oddity for U2. Mainly, though, a lot of it really does feel minor and as if the band were just trying some things out. The fact that some of it just sounds so old really hinders it, considering how well most of the band's other work has aged. Oddly, Zooropa, which also dabbled in '90s electronic music, still sounds great. Original Soundtracks 1 almost sounds like it preceded that album.
While there's no way getting around the Passengers detour's status as a curiosity, the main reason I included it on this list at all was to bring attention to some of the best U2 songs you (might) have never heard of. Out of the more traditional songs, "Miss Sarajevo" is by far the most recognizable, having lived on in their live shows and becoming a classic '90s U2 track. The real hidden gems on Original Soundtracks 1 are "Slug" and "Your Blue Room." The former is unlike anything else the band ever recorded, even on their most electronic-based detours on Zooropa or Pop. It fades in, unwavering on a bed of synthesized tribal rhythms and celestial synthesizers. Bono only comes in almost two full minutes in, and amongst the haunting serenity of the song's currents, calmly walks through a list of confessions about what he doesn't want. It's perfect for driving on the highway late at night, it's perfect for walking down a LCD-drenched street in the early morning, and if in my lifetime they get that whole commercial space flight thing going, it's the song I'd listen to as we exit the atmosphere.
Then there's "Your Blue Room" which is just... well, it's not a well-known U2 song, but I feel like there's a small corner of the fanbase that knows it and loves it all the more fiercely with the knowledge that it'll go on being so under-appreciated in the grand scheme of U2's work. I can't entirely explain why it has the effect it does. The most distinctive elements of "Your Blue Room" are an organ figure and Mullen's drum pattern, neither of which vary much through the song. Bono spends the song alternating between his rich lower register and falsetto. All the little pieces that make up "Your Blue Room" seem simple enough, and yet it doesn't sound like 1995, nor does it really sound like any other year. It doesn't sound like U2's other work either, and it's hard to think of a band it does sound like. It seems to exist entirely outside most of their music. With their whole stockroom of affecting ballads and anthems alike, they never got as subtly beautiful and devastating as on "Your Blue Room." On one hand it makes you wonder what Original Soundtracks 1 could've sounded like as a full-fledged U2 album, what form that 1995 hinge point between Zooropa and Pop would've taken. In the absence of such a thing, "Your Blue Room" is all the more powerful for the way it stands out without any real context, utterly singular.
U2 is a band known for going all-in with whatever their current interests happen to be. A common trait amongst these lower-ranked albums happens to be not that they're weaker musically -- much of October holds up remarkably well -- but that they feel less committed than the band's other work. October is an always enjoyable listen, with only a few duds, but it's very much a transitional work. Perhaps its most distinguishing quality is how prominent a theme their religion had become. Bono, the Edge, and Mullen were all experiencing an increasing fervor in their devotion, which yielded a crisis of faith in their profession. Later in their career, U2's (or, at least, Bono's) struggle with religion would produce some of their most complex and interesting work. With October, the crisis of faith was one of paralysis, leading to an album that didn't go as far as it could have, while the band tried to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives.
Released, fittingly, in October, U2's sophomore album followed Boy within a year. As a result, October is in many ways a logical extension of what they'd done so far, it just plays as a slight alteration rather than an expansion. U2 were still influenced by post-punk, though this time around the occasionally gothy atmospherics of Boy were traded in for something a bit more angular, even if it wasn't anything quite as sharp-edged as what'd occur on 1983's War. Despite receiving the whole deluxe reissue treatment a few years ago, October actually garnered fairly mixed reviews when it was first released. Even so, some fans have come to regard it as a classic of early U2 -- a friend of mine actually claims it as his favorite U2 album -- and the highlights do an admirable job of blending their early post-punk leanings with the growing incorporation of all the tricks that'd become certified U2-isms as the decade wore on.
The standout is obviously the classic "Gloria," a song where the band uses a few simple moves to achieve a feeling that's every bit as epic as more structurally complicated work from their mid-era albums, and more epic than a lot of their trying-too-hard '00s would-be anthems. This and songs like "I Fall Down," "I Threw A Brick Through the Window," and "With A Shout" are actually all examples of moments where the transitional nature of October is pretty interesting. You can hear each member figuring out how to manipulate their instrument to craft the kind of drama the band would become known for, whether it was Bono's voice taking on more confidence and shape, Clayton and Mullen beginning to lock into one of the most steadily propulsive rhythm sections out there, or the Edge starting on his path to becoming an absolute master of an unreal range of textures.
Outside of those refinements, some of the other uptempo songs aren't all that interesting, and the small gestures towards true palette expansion are timid and don't really go anywhere, such as the piano interlude of a title track and the seemingly interminable first half of "Tomorrow." When I first got into U2, it was the mid-'00s and a crop of buzzy indie bands -- particularly Interpol and Editors -- bore a resemblance to the same kind of post-punk these early U2 albums had trafficked in. I feel like this may have contributed to a bit of a revival of interest in this era of U2, which coincided neatly with the band's incorporation of a bunch of Boy tracks into the Vertigo tour. This stuff sounded fresh again, and I grew up with the assumption that the only U2 narrative out there was: '80s were a straight run of classics, '90s were a big mess after Achtung Baby. That doesn't really hold up. October isn't a failure and it has its moments, but it's also far from the band's most interesting work and it doesn't quite rank among their classics.
No Line On The Horizon (2009)
No Line On the Horizon is such a frustrating experience. Not because it's bad -- it's actually quite a bit better than a lot of people (well, critics, at least) seem to believe -- but because it could have and should have been so much better. Maybe it was partially a matter of expectations. The press cycle preceding No Line On the Horizon was the first time I'd paid attention to such a thing leading up to a U2 album release, and as we get the first bits of it for this next album, I'm beginning to recognize the patterns. Someone promises it's "as much of a left turn as Achtung Baby!"; Bono goes on about how “The Edge is on fire.” After a few weeks recording in a riad in Fez, Morocco, the band began going on and on about how experimental the new album would be, how they were picking up all this influence from the streets musicians and the Arabic scales they'd hear echoing in the markets. And, well, No Line on the Horizon is weirder than its two immediate predecessors, but it's not as adventurous as we'd been lead to believe, and ultimately that proved to be its detriment.
Where U2's previous stylistic change-ups had been severe to the point of "let's just push this thing off the cliff and assume it'll fly," No Line on the Horizon seemed to hedge too much, and the result is that it never quite coheres even as all the songs do roughly make sense around each other. At one point the band had toyed with the idea of releasing two EPs entitled Daylight and Darkness, and you get the sense that they sort of did that anyway. The first four tracks of No Line on the Horizon work well together, the last four work well together, those two sets more or less make sense together, and then there's this three song run in the middle that destabilizes the core of the whole thing and pretty much demolishes any chance of the album having a consistent flow or character.
Two of these -- "Stand Up Comedy" and "Get On Your Boots" -- actually had roots in those Morocco sessions, but make no sense on the album. The former isn't terrible but was subjected to dozens of different versions, and the hodgepodge of a final cut still shows it. "Get On Your Boots," on the other hand, was the lead single that marred the whole experience of No Line On the Horizon, a complete mess of a song whose driving riff seemed both a crass attempt at another "Vertigo"-level rock hit as well as a foreboding signal that each subsequent U2 album will now be obligated to have such a track. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" isn't as demoralizing, but it clearly has no business being next to these other songs and begins to feel like another cynical attempt at a hit as well. Those latter two tracks received Fish Out of Water remixes that essentially did away with their instrumentation and stuck Bono's vocal melody over entirely different backing tracks that, though synthier than most of No Line On the Horizon, would have fit more logically into the album. At any rate, they were infinitely better.
Elsewhere, the supposed experimentation is evident, but you can't help but wish the band had pushed further. The album does have some great moments though. Eno played a large role in writing and arranging this album, and nowhere is his presence felt more than on the dark, churning "Fez -– Being Born," one of the highlights here that makes me wish we had gotten an album full of this kind of stuff. "White As Snow" suggests that once U2 gets the urge to maintain their world-conqueror status out of their system, they could make a convincing go at a spectral folk turn for a late-career mortality meditation. Stuck towards the end is "Breathe," a moment where U2 write a classic U2 song in a way we haven't quite heard before. It's bittersweet to hear this material this good still fall short of the promise the album seemed to hold before its release, especially when there are songs out there that could've brought it closer something of a concerted whole. The eerie then triumphant "Soon" (also known as "Kingdom" or "Kingdom of Your Love"), a song the band used as entrance music during the U2 360 tour, and "Every Breaking Wave" seem as if they could have filled out that middle section properly. The latter's only appeared in a stripped down live version, but it's one of the better latter day U2 songs lyrically and melodically. No Line On the Horizon had disappointing sales by U2 standards. It remains to be seen what effect that will have on this next album -- whether they'll continue pulling their punches, or whether they'll learn to go all-in again.
"Shadows and Tall Trees," the closing track from U2's 1980 debut, is named for a chapter from The Lord of the Flies. Everything about that is fitting, from the fact that it's nabbed from a book about boys stranded on an island and their at times animalistic behavior, to the fact that it's a novel most often associated with your old high school reading list. Boy is easily the most youthful U2 album, both in demeanor and in theme. It was released when no member was older than twenty, and they'd yet to find their own identity as artists. After a certain point, even when U2 was absorbing contemporary influences, they still sounded inescapably like themselves (this is true of all their '90s work). With Boy, it was all a bit more unrefined, and they wore their influences a little more obviously. At the time, this included bands like Television and Siouxsie and the Banshees; U2 went as far as to tap Siouxsie's producer Steve Lillywhite, thus starting a relationship that would continue on and off throughout their career. Beyond that, the album is filled with a young man's anxieties and frustrations, dominated by nascent observations on identity and sexuality.
To that end, there was the nervy punk energy of uptempo tracks like "I Will Follow," "Out of Control," "Stories for Boys," and "The Electric Co." These, as well as the rest of Boy, hold up extremely well now, over thirty years on. In fact, though Boy was generally well-received, it probably sounds even better now than when it was released, when U2 were sometimes written off as New Wave also-rans. Part of its staying power is some of the nuance lurking beneath its surface. True to one Boy song's title, much of the album sounds like and is in fact stories for boys, but there was already the sense that these guys had lived a bit. Bono lost his mother when he was 14, and her death is a recurring theme on Boy, adding weight to the youthful fury throughout. Before spirituality briefly overtook their music with October, Bono was already flirting with mingling sexuality and religion on Boy, a mixture that'd prove more complex when revisited on Achtung Baby. These little tinges colored the edges of Boy, though, hinting at something more tortured lingering behind it all. On occasion, this darkness seeped more directly into the music, as on the standout "An Cat Dubh."
Even with Boy remaining a worthwhile listen, though, there are some things that keep it from reaching the same levels as later triumphs (though, to be fair, many assert that it is a classic). U2 would go on to change drastically, even within just three or four years from their debut's release, and there's some essential part of their nature that hasn't yet developed here. It sounds like exactly what it is: these guys as kids. It's cool to see the starting point, and for the songs to be so good, but there isn't as much to dig back into upon return listens as there is on some of the later U2 releases. I liked Boy a lot more when I was in high school, which might be partially attributable to shifting tastes, but it feels like that's part of the album's nature: that it's one you love, but maybe grow out of eventually, just as the band did.
Out of all the rankings of the list, having Pop this high will likely be the most contentious. That's because Pop is probably U2's most contentious release. A lot of people write it off entirely and would have it dropped unquestionably at the bottom of an album countdown. I'm convinced this is partially because we've internalized the story of the album now: a delayed release, rushed out in time for the 1997 PopMart tour, the band trying to disassociate themselves from it as an unfinished project in the wake of mixed critical and fan reaction and some of their lowest sales (which, again, is a relative qualification considering this is U2 we're talking about). So the narrative is set: U2 take it too far, get too excessive at the end of their excessive decade, and the stage is set for the big return-to-form comeback at the opening of a bright new millennium. Maybe it's precisely because of how many people either ignore or detest Pop, but it stands as the U2 release that perhaps still has the most surprises.
Looking back, it's sort of confusing why fans would've been put off by the experimentation of Pop. Yes, it sounds different than a lot of other U2, but there's really only three or four that are really electronica-indebted -- the first three, then the mostly-maligned "Miami." A lot of the other songs actually prefigure the kind of stuff that'd populate All That You Can't Leave Behind, "Gone" or "Last Night On Earth" being darker-tinted precursors to "Elevation" and "Staring at the Sun" being a psychedelic older brother to "Kite." That's what's odd about a continued dismissal of Pop. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that it makes a lot more sense in U2's progression than it might've seemed back in '97. At any rate, let's get the concessions out of the way first: true, some of the dance-oriented stuff sounds definitively of its era, but I'd argue the songs still hold up. As far as the band feeling as if they'd put out an under-realized album, you can see evidence of that in the back half of Pop, which gets sort of blurry and a bit uneven. Even with that, there's strength of the bleary-eyed beauty of "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" and the gut-punch of closer "Wake Up Dead Man," a majorly underrated song in U2's catalog, and one of the darkest they've recorded.
Depending on whether you're up for the intentionally goofy "Discotheque," the first seven songs (or if you're not up for it, "Do You Feel Loved" through "Gone") is as strong as any other run in U2's catalog. I like Bono's description: Pop "begins at a party and ends at a funeral." He was getting at the fact that it begins with some uptempo dance-inflected songs, and ends with a set of bleaker or slower tracks. Really, though, even the party of Pop is a pretty bleak affair. "Do You Feel Loved" is one of the great unsung pop songs of their career, but as infectious as its rhythms are it also has a desperate sadness about it. "Mofo," meanwhile, tackles once more the subject of Bono's deceased mother, this time through the exorcism of a careful chaos of loop upon loop. That's sort of beautiful and fitting if you think about it, the unrelenting gurgle of its tight, elliptical synths mirroring the way Bono's grief keeps boomeranging back into him and his songwriting, the release of the song a sort of sonic primal scream.
With a mixture of the super-produced and the under-cooked, the album feels frayed around the edges. Like, for the first time, the band had lost its way -- not with musical direction as in Rattle and Hum, but in the sense that they were now entering middle age and were closing in on having been famous rock stars for half their lives. Personal demons and conversations with God are, fittingly, filtered through the language of their trade turned up to a lurid Technicolor 11. Confessions sit alongside garish pop iconography: Miami, the Playboy Mansion, the dancefloor, the glammed out Warhol quote of the cover. If Zooropa was a night album, Pop might start as a party album, but mostly takes place in the few, searing, sun-drenched hours between when you've stumbled out of the club and when you collapse on the beach alongside the demons you thought you'd left behind in the discotheque.
This U2, the one that employs willful contradictions and tensions, is the one that's most rewarding. Some people just never took to '90s U2, arguing that irony never fit them properly. By that metric, the intentional kitsch (or attempted, because though the album sounds ragged in places it is not as trashy as the band would seem to have liked) of Pop is a step too far. After thirteen years of U2's over-earnestness teetering into messianic complexes, I think we could do with a U2 that doesn't take itself too seriously, and is willing to dive so deep into their souls that something a little misshapen, but more honest, might be the result.
Appropriately carried in on the most aggressive music U2 ever recorded, War was where things really began to come into focus. Released in February 1983, the album's thematic center came out of Bono's fixation on various wars being waged across the world the preceding year. This marks the moment where U2 started to become politically engaged, obvious in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but also evident in tracks like "Seconds" or "The Refugee." Turning their anger to events in the outside world benefited the band musically. Where Boy had the brashness of youth, the harder songs of October didn't work with the big abstract questions U2 wanted to ask on that album. Taking stock of what was occurring around them seemed to help them hone in on what this band would be.
I mentioned in the October entry that you could hear the band starting to figure out how to use their instruments the way they wanted. War is where that process reached full realization, and has a lot of the moments that became archetypal templates for U2's sound. Mullen in particular came into his own. The martial drums of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" established the beginnings of his style, which would frequently make use of similar hi-hat technique and syncopated snare parts. Clayton, whose bass parts are often interesting melodies on their own, was locked in with the intensity of Mullen's drumming throughout. And though the Edge's playing here is a bit different than he'd sound going forward, his predilection for atmospherics and using guitar towards the overall benefit of the song was never clearer than the way he works his way through multiple textures against the main piano riff and Clayton's prominent bass in "New Year's Day." He did this without the usual adornment or softening of his favored echo or delay effects, and hearing the always serene-looking Edge play with that kind of ferocity boldly underlines the energy of War.
War was not without its brief respites. Amongst all the topical and musical rapid fire, there was a love song with "Two Hears Beat As One," musically no less emphatic but driving towards a catchy, triumphant chorus. It's all the more striking coming after the barks and tom strikes of "The Refugee." There was also the final song, "40," an off-the-cuff, last minute addition when the band felt they didn't have a proper song with which to end War. Named for Psalm 40, it does have a sort of hymnal quality about it, a bit of peace amidst the wreckage left at the end of the album. It's become a fan favorite, and remains an emotional performance when it's played live.
Despite negative press in the UK when it first came out, War went on to be U2's first #1 album there. The album where U2 began to reach a wider audience, and the one with the undying "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," it's also since come to be rightfully regarded as one of the band's most essential albums. It's required listening not just for the strength of its music, but also for where it falls in the band's history. While nothing before or after War sounded quite like it, the album was also the logical end game to the territory the band had staked out on the preceding two albums. U2 began to make their mark with this album, and now they'd have to totally change it up the next time around. Consequently, War maintains the weird double identity of being the album where the essence of U2 started to crystalize, while also having a sound and energy the band would never again try to replicate.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
The Unforgettable Fire occupies a weird space in U2's history. Beloved by fans, it ranks amongst the quintessential U2 albums, but it's also profoundly weird in a way you might not remember or expect. Feeling that they'd gone as far as they could for the time being with Steve Lillywhite, they sought out a new producer, and wound up working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the duo that would become the guiding forces behind U2 becoming a major commercial and artistic force in subsequent years. Wanting to try something different than the rock sounds of War, U2 hoped that Eno would be able to help them incorporate more ambient textures into their music. Released in October 1984, a year and a half after War, The Unforgettable Fire became the first major stylistic shift in U2's career.
OK, so The Unforgettable Fire has "Pride (In the Name of Love)," which somehow might still be the most recognizable U2 song out there, and as of right now seems as if it'll never not be played at a U2 show. Because of this song's ubiquity, it's somewhat impossible to hear it in the context of the album anymore, but I have a feeling that it must've been just as misleading a representation in 1984 as it is now. Where "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is essentially the genesis point for every stereotypical idea people have in their heads about what a U2 song is, most of the rest of The Unforgettable Fire is a much more experimental record. As much as Bono likes to cheekily write-off the '90s as their art rock phase, The Unforgettable Fire has plenty of art rock moves in its own right.
Partially because deadline pressures, The Unforgettable Fire is maybe the most impressionistic U2 album. Certain songs feel impeccably crafted, others are half-finished, and others are mood-setting segues. After the still-amazing title track, the album dips into a weird detour of a mid-section, first with the pensive "Promenade," then the instrumental "4th of July," and finally into "Bad." There's no arguing that "Bad" is an absolute warhorse live, deservedly one of the band's most popular songs amongst their fans. The version here is a mere sketch of what it would become onstage, never quite approaching the perfect push and pull, hills and valleys, of its live counterpart. The album never regains the sharpness of its first four tracks, instead presenting you with the six minute meditation "Elvis Presley and America" and the almost acapella coda of a closer "MLK." The Unforgettable Fire is a bit more experimental than you might remember, but the other weird aspect about it is how it's become one of the designated classic albums in the band's catalog while also being very, very loosely structured.
U2 isn't really a band that does casual or small-scale, which is maybe why the impressionistic character of The Unforgettable Fire remains so appealing. Eno's atmospherics were starting to give the band the expansive sound it needed to tackle subjects as varied as drug addiction ("Bad," "Wire"), the Hiroshima bombing (the album was named for a traveling art exhibit of the same name), and dual tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. ("MLK," "Pride (In the Name of Love)"). Themes aside, The Unforgettable Fire also remains one of U2's more ethereal albums, possessing an almost exotic beauty. Whether completed song or segue, the whole thing has the gorgeous blur of watercolor paints running into each other before being able to settle.
I already wrote something like 3,000 words on Zooropa for its 20th anniversary back in July, but some days it's my favorite U2 album, so, as it turns out, I actually have more thoughts on it. The interesting thing about when U2 eventually got around to experimenting with dance music and electronic flourishes is that they used it to write their darkest music, and to cloak perhaps their deepest, most personal songs in a supposedly shiny veneer. When ebullient but nostalgia-laced '80s synth-pop was in its heyday they had no interest, ditto apparently for rave music's effervescence. Instead, their electronic music has always been about the comedown and the hangover.
In reality, Zooropa sustains its experimentation much more than Pop, possessing fewer traditional U2 moments than its follow-up. It's easily the strangest release actually put out under the U2 moniker (Passengers obviously surpasses it). But while the songs vary in nature from one to the next, they all contribute to one cohesive aura. Zooropa is the band in a loopy headspace, reeling from celebrity culture and technology, but also pushed to a limit where all their dance music is about the night out turning bad. The image of a car crash shows up twice, three times if you want to intuit there'd be a burning car on the side of the highway at some point in the apocalyptic Americana of "The Wanderer." First, it's in "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" ("Dressed up like a car crash/ Your wheels are turning but you're upside down") and then, of course, in "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." The former is one of the more standard U2 songs on Zooropa, but it's sandwiched between the shimmering disco of "Lemon" and the claustrophobic loops of "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." It's also references domestic abuse, but there's a way to hear that song and picture Bono (or the narrator) sitting in a bar, still hungover from the last night, wreathed in cigarette smoke, idly fingering the rim of his glass and with two beleaguered circles under his eyes. Like U2 has finally arrived at the party, but are totally unable to enjoy it not so much from physical exhaustion as from world-weariness.
You're the car crash in "Stay," but you're the one crashing the car in "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." These images are two of many similar ones scattered throughout Zooropa, images of information saturation and material obsession, icons of rich Western life at the end of the 20th century. So U2 comes around to using dance music, and they bend its artificiality into lesser-explored corners of their own conscience, dismantling and critiquing the privileged life of being handed a brand new car or of thinking it's a logical way to spend your week by going out to clubs each morning till daybreak. And then, of course, being blasé enough to crash the car, or crash yourself. Given their state of their fame at the time, the excess they had access to, you'd have to imagine these sorts of takedowns would be directed inwards as much as at whomever is supposed to be at the center of "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." This is why I'll fight for Zooropa time and time again -- most of U2's other work just doesn't possess this same complexity.
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
In my experience, opinions on All That You Can't Leave Behind are split. There are fans that adore this album, maybe partially because it was sort of a reset button: album number ten, twenty years in, the first of the new millennium, and the one where they were "reapplying for the job" of being the best and/or biggest band in the world and (supposedly) going back to basics. There also seems to be a contingency of fans and critics -- even though All That You Can't Leave Behind was very well-received -- who rail against all things '00s U2, and it's easy to have some sympathy for that standpoint. The success of All That You Can't Leave Behind, combined with the relative disappointment of Pop, seems to have taught the band dangerous lessons. The album's success translates to: people like U2 to have the anthemic guitars and the big chorus, to be an everyman rock and pop band, not to experiment stylistically or with more challenging subject matter -- hence, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon. So it's easy to look back at All That You Can't Leave Behind and to criticize it for what it begat. It makes 2000 feel twice as long ago as it is, and in the wake of people's U2 (or Bono)-fatigue, it can be retroactively read as self-congratulatory with all that "reapplying" business.
While it's understandable that these qualities and the perennial live presence of "Beautiful Day" has worn some listeners down, All That You Can't Leave Behind forms the definitive trifecta of U2 albums with the next two on this list. With these three albums, you have each decade of U2's existence summed up, you get signposts illustrating the spectrum of their sound (War is the only other album that'd belong in this conversation, in that sense). As I've alluded to elsewhere in this list (and a few other lists, as it happens), All That You Can't Leave Behind was the album where U2 became U2 in a way they had never quite been before. They inhabited a certain understanding of what their music was supposed to sound like, but never exactly had, and somehow U2 coming around to making the exact music that was expected of them clicked at that moment and produced some of their most enduring and emotive pop songs.
As far as "back to basics" goes, that is one way to describe All That You Can't Leave Behind, but it's not entirely true. After the heavy experimentation with synthesizers, effects, and looped beats on Pop, there was a conscious decision to strip down for All That You Can't Leave Behind, getting back to writing U2 songs with guitar, bass, and drums. The band getting back to their core musical elements also meant they got back to a certain core element of their personality. People use the dichotomy of earnest and ironic U2, which, again, is a reductive way of splitting U2 in '80s and '90s versions, and also a gross over-simplification of their '90s work. But since it's a common assumption, let's go with it for a second: All That You Can't Leave Behind was certainly a tonal call-back to '80s U2, using brighter and bigger melodies for more straightforward expression than they'd allowed for throughout the preceding decade. This is why some people seem to draw a bold line directly between The Joshua Tree and All That You Can't Leave Behind, even though the albums don't really sound anything alike; they just operate similarly.
Writing about U2 as having an essentially split personality also misses the fact that while All That You Can't Leave Behind did return to all these facets of U2's old self, it didn't dispose entirely with the '90s. U2 might've wanted to go back to being a rock band, but they learned to use electronics to add subtle embellishments. There's the dramatic force of the live instruments crashing in for the chorus of "Beautiful Day" after the synthetic beat of its first verse. The lesser-known and somewhat underrated "New York" essentially draws out the same trick to similar success. "Elevation" feels like a logical successor to Pop in every way, it's just now updated with a victorious rock swagger. Stylistically, All That You Can't Leave Behind wasn't entirely a reset button then. The band just returned to their trademark tone with a more varied bag of tricks.
When the band did go more traditional, they came armed with the hooks to carry it. "Walk On" and "Kite" are two of the most perfectly predictably U2-ish songs out there, high-water marks for the band's pop sensibilities of which later attempts like "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" or "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" are pale imitators. Those later songs have underlined how U2 is best when they capture something just right the first time, then tear it all up for the next go round (i.e., The Joshua Tree then Achtung Baby). Where Zooropa and Pop felt like a continuation and an expansion of the possibilities laid out by Achtung Baby, U2's subsequent '00s work has existed in reaction to All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's a mid-career classic whose shadow now hangs over diminishing returns. The band members are nearing their mid-fifties; this particular brand of U2 lightning is never going back in the bottle. Their re-application was successful, but hopefully they won't continue to keep trying to sell something we've already bought, inadvertently marring that moment thirteen years ago when U2 briefly impersonated themselves, and did it brilliantly.
The Joshua Tree (1987)
Actually, here's another way The Joshua Tree and All That You Can't Leave Behind are a little similar: though it's weird to think of it this way, The Joshua Tree was also positioned as a back to basics move originally. After the the intentionally gauzy texture and European-stylings of The Unforgettable Fire, the band wanted to return to a more rock-oriented sound. Combined with their increasing fascination with America -- as concept, image, and pop-cultural force -- this ambition meant that The Joshua Tree might have had the band focusing their sound and writing more direct songs, but the process would take them to a whole new level artistically and commercially.
It seems absurd to think of any album this massive, this cinematic, as something that had been planned to streamline their sound. Where U2's earlier work had been informed by tight Dublin streets and sharp lines between North and South, The Joshua Tree was an album that for the first time acknowledged the far away places and wide-open landscapes the band had found themselves traveling through as rock stars. Coming to The Joshua Tree in the '00s, it was impossible not to carry some baggage. You couldn't hear this thing removed from the knowledge of its stature. Everything, even in its most intimate moments, feels like an event through and through. Even without the associations of what it has come to represent, there is a natural expansiveness inherent to its nature. The band had seen the world, and they were ready to try to hold it all in their music.
As has already been alluded to a few times in this list, this was the U2 album where they became fascinated with Americana. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" has gospel elements, but it's most overt on the harmonica-rocker "Trip Through Your Wires." The thing about The Joshua Tree is that the rest of it doesn't really sound that American at all (it doesn't sound Irish at all either; it just sounds U2). America inspired the album more so as an icon -- specifically, the American desert. Another major turning point in U2's history occurred in 1985 when Bono went to Ethiopia with his wife on a humanitarian visit. That's obviously the start of Bono's advocacy for issues in Africa, but it's also the beginning of him being able to crystalize his view of life in the Western life, now that he had a very different place to compare it against.
It was partially this trip that lead to Bono finding the American desert to be such a fascinating concept. "I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, 'They may have a physical desert, but we've got other kinds of deserts,'" Bono told Rolling Stone in 1994. He now saw laid out before him the spiritual desert of Western civilization, and even as God looms large on October, it's The Joshua Tree that is U2's most spiritually concerned work. Even if it didn't sound American, Bono made skilled use of America's symbols as a channel for some the most ambitious topics he'd ever take on (this subtle combination was another reason so much of Rattle and Hum feels like a smack in the head in comparison). They'd go on to write more big songs dealing with big ideas, but the concerns never seemed quite as universal as they did on The Joshua Tree. It was the kind of album you might be lucky to arrive at a few records into your career: you're still young and growing as an artist, but you're mature enough to start taking on questions of mortality, on the souls of men and women.
That's a lot of heaviness for a rock album, but U2 is one of the few bands out there uniquely equipped to handle it, and nowhere was that talent more evident than on The Joshua Tree. You know those first three songs: "Where the Streets Have No Name" into "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into "With or Without You," impeachable classic next to impeachable classic. Despite that, sometimes the impact of such songs can be a bit diminished by sheer over-exposure, which makes it all the more rewarding when you discover the rest of The Joshua Tree. There's the already-furious "Bullet the Blue Sky," which would become more enraged live, and there's "Running to Stand Still," another song on addiction that remains one of the band's most understated and moving works. There's also the criminally underrated closing song "Mothers of the Disappeared," and the fan-favorite "One Tree Hill." Those first three songs might be what made the album iconic, but all the others still feel immortal.
Here's one more similarity with All That You Can't Leave Behind. The Joshua Tree also feels like a moment where U2 got it perfect the first time around, and should never try to imitate it. The kinda follow-up of Rattle and Hum was all the more disappointing for the way it took what The Joshua Tree had done, and sapped all the mystery and nuance out of it to the extent that it felt like a banal walk through an Americana songbook. Moreover, it showed that just because U2 has made a few things that have connected with millions of people, that doesn't need to be the mission statement of their work. They did it one way with The Joshua Tree, they did it a much different way with Achtung Baby. Both were successful, but The Joshua Tree in particular feels like the sort of album you just happen to be good enough to make, and to have everything fall into place along with it, and you never try replicate it too closely. It was when U2 tried their hand at being everything to everybody, and for one glorious moment, that urge didn't seem cloying or over the top, because it worked.
Achtung Baby 1991
It's more or less an objective qualification that The Joshua Tree is the paradigmatic U2 album. Achtung Baby is, on the other hand, their best and most interesting, densest and most mature, and perhaps a different album than how it's often discussed. After the backlash to Rattle and Hum, the band felt like they needed to take a breather and "dream it all up again," resulting in the longest hiatus they'd had between albums up until that point. When U2 did reemerge, it was as an entirely different band, one intent on blowing up its old image with dance beats, processed and mutated guitars, and sly winks and self-deprecating humor supplanting their full-throated earnestness of the '80s.
They almost never made it there, though. Recording for Achtung Baby began in Berlin, the band believing they needed to remove themselves from the usual family routine of their lives in Ireland, and that it'd be an inspiring time to be in Germany as the Berlin Wall finally came down. What resulted was one of the most difficult phases of the band's life. There was a sharp division among those involved regarding what direction this new record should take and it was Bono and the Edge who were pushing for starting anew with a fresh sound and aesthetic. Each had grown fascinated with club culture and dance music, and the Edge was inspired by the mechanistic nature of industrial music as well as the way bands like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth were breaking new ground with the sounds they coaxed out of their guitars. Daniel Lanois had come onboard expecting to produce the same U2 he'd worked with just a few years earlier on The Joshua Tree and was confused by this new direction. His frustrations were shared by Clayton and Mullen, who preferred to stick with what U2 had been doing. Mullen was particularly lost, as he'd been listening to classic rock and felt threatened by the idea of incorporating dance elements into U2's music. The inter-band strife was compounded by the fact that it was becoming difficult to make songs cohere into finished products, and the fact that the Edge and Bono had taken to writing more just the two of them, where the band had previously written by jamming together.
As the story goes, the Edge crammed two leftover chord progressions together and came up with the bare bones of "One," which the band then improvised into existence. The ease of its creation changed the timbre of the sessions, and the members often credit it as the single song that wound up keeping them together. The process was far from over, but when Achtung Baby finally saw release in 1991 it was one of the most successful reinventions in 20th century pop music.
A lot of the album was an intentional put-on. Fixated on distancing themselves from the ponderousness of their late '80s image, the band eventually embraced the trashy pop pastiche Bono and the Edge were advocating. The album's more sardonic title was chosen specifically to avoid it seeming another solemn U2 album in the mode of The Joshua Tree. In this regard, all the things people say about '90s U2 are true. They became more performative, with Bono becoming interested in creating characters like the Fly to impersonate during live performances. They became ironic, abandoning the lofty symbols and spirituality of their previous work and trafficking in all the crasser qualities of pop culture.
Some have suggested that this means U2's '90s work was disingenuous in some way. This is the reductive behavior I was referring to before. Achtung Baby announced a reinvention that'd define the band's second decade, but rather than their postmodern hijinks being a signal that U2 had become a self-detached cartoon, they actually pointed to how complex their music had become. Achtung Baby might've marked where U2 got less serious about their image, but their lyrics were never as introspective as they were here. Personal issues (the Edge had separated from his wife) and major life changes (Bono had become a father) turned their gaze inward, eschewing the big political visions of their past. Like the title, the beginning of the album was designed to confront. The distorted snarl of the Edge's guitar was just one instance of what Bono described as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree." But, like Achtung Baby as a whole, while its intention was to provoke, its heart was honest: it's a song about new beginnings, Bono narrating another birth for U2 at the start of a new decade under the metaphor of Berlin. While other songs like "The Fly" or "Even Better Than the Real Thing" pushed the band's sounds in similar ways, other tracks felt like vintage U2 updated with a new sheen. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" and "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" felt different, but also like they made sense in the larger context of the band's work; tracks like these were not jarring, but were a definitive progression. "Until the End of the World," perhaps the best song the band ever wrote, is somewhere in between, a definitively '90s U2 track that is nevertheless devoid of any of the wicked smirks of that era, preferring instead the complicated narrative of combining a conversation between Jesus and Judas with questions of sexuality in order to form a overarching story of betrayal and the malleability of identity.
Achtung Baby is the kind of album that has any number of reasons it shouldn't have even happened. Everything seemed to be working against it, and it should have been at least a mild failure. And yet, it's remained U2's most engaging album for over 20 years now.