In celebration of U2’s headlining 2017’s Bonnaroo festival, BTRtoday presents a series on how our editor-in-chief learned to stop worrying and love U2. Read the intro here. Want to see Bono and the boys at Bonnaroo? BTRtoday is giving away tickets. Click here for info.
U2 has dropped a payload of 13 albums, a handful of EPs, singles and a soundtrack over the course of three decades. Looking at their body of work as a whole, it’s kind of shocking how consistent it’s been. Other bands have classic periods offset by fallow ones. Not all of U2’s albums are great, but many of their later ones are as good or better than their early ones.
This list, which is the only good, true and correct ranking of U2’s output, bounces freely throughout time to find the best of U2. Number one is not The Joshua Tree. Don’t look so shocked.
13.Rattle and Hum
With two shopworn classic rock covers, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter,” RAH completes the evolution U2 started on Joshua Tree. The former post-punk pioneers became baby boomer suck-ups and it is tired as hell. When U2 tries out Bo Diddley beats, blues, soul and gospel it feels like a school project. Strip the album down to the lean of “All I Want is You” and toss away the classic rock fat.
After Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 were feeling cocky about electronica and irony. That cockiness was misplaced. They went full bore into samplers and sequencers and studio toys. It’s a weird listen. U2 were too long in the tooth and baggage-laden to pull off Chemical Brothers electronics. The end result feels like taking molly with a recently divorced dad.
11.No Line on the Horizon
They hit a couple of pretty good grooves and offer some interesting textures on this record but don’t have the hooks to back it up. It’s boring until it gets irritating on songs like “Get on Your Boots,” a limp retread of Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up.”
On “U Talkin U2 to Me,” Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman joked that a more accurate name for this album would be “one good song and a lot of fucking around.” That’s slightly unfair—there are two good songs on the album, “Gloria” and “Rejoice.” But overall, it sounds like U2 were flying into a cliff on their sophomore release and pulled out of tailspin with War.
9. The Joshua Tree
Every U2 song you’ve been sick of for twenty years—collected in one convenient package. Sometimes cultural products become too popular to view objectively or even enjoy. Maybe the first thousand times you hear “With or Without You” it’s transcendent. But after serving billions, it’s the McDonald’s of echoey ballads and now offering nothing more than empty calories.
8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
The creaky old Irishmen shook off some dust and rocked it out. It turned out better than anyone had a right to expect. Their renewed sense of purpose is obvious from their energy, momentum and hooks. Your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for “Vertigo,” a song that’s equally indebted to the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth. Despite some filler, HTDAAB is a (qualified) success.
7. All that You Can’t Leave Behind
“Beautiful Day” is probably the cheesiest song I truly love. But 1) some days are beautiful and deserve to be recognized as such and 2) the song’s a studio crafted masterpiece. Listen closely it on headphones—there isn’t a single sound falling out of place. “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” are testaments to their mastery of dynamics. They peak and peak hard. Side two is mostly a write-off, but the first half is among U2’s best.
6. Songs of Innocence
U2 plays to their greatest strength: their knack for writing stadium-sized hooks. The album’s lyrics are strong with great lines like “eyes as red as Christmas” and “dreaming is a dirty business” floating over Eurythmics-inflected trip hop and beautiful electronic swirls and swooshes. The synth-pop, B-52s organ and jagged new wave guitar hints at what U2 would sound like attempting a full ‘80s flashback album. It’s a solid release that deserves a place on everyone’s iTunes library. Wait, you own this album too? What a coincidence.
U2’s first album has two of their all-time greatest songs, “I Will Follow” and “Out of Control.” They’re struggling to find a unique sound, and it’s fun to listen to them get with new wave edgy on “Twilight” and borrow sounds from the Flock of Seagulls on “A Day Without Me.” They sound like Siouxsie and the Banshees with a more tuneful singer and a band willing to play in major keys and write hooks.
4. The Unforgettable Fire
Bono and producer Brian Eno battle for control throughout the album. Soaring vocals vie for dominance with ambient guitar soundscapes. The result hits higher peaks than U2 had ever hit before. It’s not an unqualified success. Long stretches seem like Pink Floyd outtakes but the raw sincerity, charisma and dynamics of tracks like “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” more than make up for it.
3. Achtung Baby
It’s shocking how well this album holds up. U2 were in uncharted territory, using new technology like sampling and loops. It could have easily been stuck in time. They were soaking in the music from then-current Manchester “baggy” sound and added the requisite bongos and electro drums. But thanks to producer Brian Eno’s meddling, the album is a collection of strange sounds that could be on a ‘70s Bowie record or even OK Computer, only somehow processed into tight pop songs. Moments like the electronic slide whistle sound at the start of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” are pure, distilled Eno.
Everything good about Achtung Baby is improved on Zooropa. The sounds are harsher and the songs are better. Almost every song turns from silly to somber and back again. “Lemon” is low key the best song U2 ever recorded. With nothing on the line, U2 loosened up and made a masterpiece so casual that people forget it exists. But come on. This is the album where Johnny Cash wanders into an electronic old west holding a Bible and a gun. Acting like it isn’t great is very, very weird.
“Seconds” and “Refugee” are deep album cuts. That’s how deep this bench is. U2 would never again be this consistent or as high energy as they are on War. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the one song I never, ever want to hear again from this album), Bono is barely even annoying. Unforgettable Fire is rightly remembered as an the moment U2 broke away from tightly constructed new wave songcraft. But they were already getting weird sounds on War. Check out the almost atonal trumpet solo at the end of “Red Light” or the shimmering background vocals on “40.” Every song is good or great.