RANKED – U2’s discography from worst to first
Last week, I queued up in cyberspace to drop the better part of a week’s pay on tickets to see U2 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. Much like they did 30 years ago, U2 are selling out stadiums and playing songs from The Joshua Tree. For a band so wary of using nostalgia to remain relevant, taking The Joshua Tree on the road represents an unmistakable shift in the band’s thinking. Perhaps. The political and social climate of America that influenced so much of The Joshua Tree seems to have returned in a new guise and the band has expressed a sense of coming full circle with the material. Regardless of the reason, the tour will rake in obscene amounts of money and many music fans will continue to hate U2.
I get it. Bono can be preachy and he’s been at it a long, long time…
The musically hip have grown tired of U2 and a general disdain for Bono in particular has rendered the band often uncool in conversations. While I’ve found myself sympathetic to this mindset at times, it does not change the fact that U2 has been the biggest band in the world for most of my adult life. As I found exploring their discography for this premier installment of Rank, the catalogue has aged quite well. Furthermore, the band’s altruistic tendencies are seemingly always done for the right reasons – even when the actual execution falters (the iPhone debacle being Exhibit A). I get it. Bono can be preachy and he’s been at it a long, long time but that’s a credit to their ability to continually create music that manages to be challenging, but inclusive. From misfire to classics, here is the U2 discography ranked. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments!
#14 – No Line on the Horizon (2009)
The welcome return of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno isn’t enough to shake U2 out of their shells on No Line on the Horizon. It feels like a careful step towards the ethereal atmosphere of The Unforgettable Fire by a band a little too hesitant to shake up a late-career formula that sells concert tickets by the truck load. “White as Snow” sounds promising at first but quickly dissipates into nothingness. The single “Magnificent” gets the formula right, but who cares? The law of diminishing returns haunts any band when the hunger to create is no longer a matter of life and death. For this record, U2 sounded content to produce a U2 album for the sake of releasing a U2 album.
#13 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
The problem with this album is that to this day, I cannot remember which singles are on it and which were on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Opener “Vertigo” sounds like a cut/paste of “Elevation” from the previous album and the rest of Atomic suffers in much the same way. Closer “Yahweh” is a long way from War’s “40” and should have been saved for the obligatory “deluxe” or “expanded” edition that almost every band dangles in front of fans these days.
#12 – October (1981)
Adding to the pressure of following up a successful debut album, Bono’s lyrics for the sophomore effort went missing when someone stole his suitcase after a gig in Portland, OR. As a result, the album serves more as a transition record between Boy and War with opener “Gloria” fading in as if a continuation from the debut. “I Threw a Brick through a Window” makes for interesting post-punk, but there aren’t enough of these moments to compare to the album that would follow. It felt incomplete and rushed – which it was. Whatever happened to those stolen lyrics? Funny you should ask.
#11 – Pop (1997)
The most underrated aspect of U2 has always been their sense of humour; and nowhere is that more evident than on Pop. Criticized at the time for trying to be a dance album, it now sounds unexpectedly modern. If you poured bleach all over “Discotheque,” it could fit on a recent Maroon 5 album. The driving “Mofo” sounds like U2 covering the Chemical Brothers, which I think is what they were going for. Where the album falters is in the delivery of the thematic darkness. Pop revels in just how quickly a night at the club can evaporate into loneliness. Closer “Wake Up Dead Man” leaves the listener haunted as the band says goodbye to their most experimental decade with a swing for the fences that isn’t quite a home run (or a strike out).
#10 – Songs of Innocence (2014)
If you already disliked Bono and U2, the bungled release of Songs of Innocence is certainly damning evidence that the band has lost all touch with reality. Dropping it for free into every iPhone on earth may have sounded like a generous move by a band fully aware that concert tickets, not album sales, pay the mortgages. But what message did that send to consumers who have already come to expect music for free? For a struggling musician, selling a CD for $10 at a show might be the only way they fuel the beat-up van and make it to the next gig. I think the backlash was still overly harsh and at the end of the day, U2 slipped a really good U2 album into my phone while I was asleep. So thanks for that! Of all their work this century, this album holds the most intrigue. The stab at a stadium anthem –“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” – and the Lanois/Eno vibe of “The Troubles” (with Lykke Li) are reminiscent of all their 2000s material but this album digs a bit deeper. “Volcano” possesses the same post-punk spirit that drove the first three albums; albeit with the tempered fire of guys in their ‘50s. “California (There Is No End to Love)” sparkles on the horizon and makes you want to hit the highway with The Joshua Tree in the speakers.
#9 – Rattle And Hum (1988)
I loved this album (and the accompanying film) in 1988, maybe more than even The Joshua Tree. As a young high school student, the signposts to Dylan, Beatles, Bo Diddley and B.B. King were a path into music history that I was anxious to explore. For older music fans, this was probably one of the first “roll your eyes at Bono” moments. The band was using a heavy hand to sew themselves into the fabric of music history and that lack of subtlety is far more noticeable now that I’m older. The cover songs are weak approximations of the originals – which may explain why U2 has typically avoided cover songs. A bit messy throughout, closer “All I Want Is You” redeems the entire project and remains one of the most beautiful songs the band has recorded.
#8 – Under A Blood Red Sky (1983)
I’ll always remember my best friend coming back from Italy with this cassette expecting Bono to be singing in Italian. That stupid moment alone makes me love this EP; which effectively summarizes their first three albums. For many of us in America, this EP – especially the videos from Red Rocks – introduced us to U2 and helped us understand the political fervor boiling over in their work. The “this is not a rebel song” version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” found here is the definitive version and closer “40” captures the sense of community that I’ve experienced seeing them in concert. I’m not sure if the EP has aged well if you found the band later, but it’s a solid example of what the band sounded like before they took over football stadiums.
#7 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Released less than two years after War, The Unforgettable Fire marks the first seismic shift in the band’s sound. Employing Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno for the first time, U2 allowed new atmospheres to seep into their songs; giving the music more room to breathe. Having honed their skills on the road, the band doesn’t have to hide behind a forceful urgency. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the first of the many stadium anthems in the band’s career but the album is far more nuanced than that. More interesting than essential (serious U2 fans probably hate me for that), The Unforgettable Fire represents a band moving towards something truly great. The live version of “Bad” on 1985’s Wide Awake in America is actually far stronger and that song took on historic importance in the U2 canon when the band played it at Live Aid.
#6 – Boy (1980)
If post-punk had an artistic peak, it was somewhere around 1979/1980 as The Cure, Wire, Gang Of Four and Talking Heads all released seminal works. In walks U2, sounding fully-formed from the first notes of “I Will Follow.” However, this album is firmly rooted in post-punk with Adam Clayton’s bass lines offering melodic counterpunches to The Edge’s urgent guitar work. The band would soon move beyond the post-punk template and as a result the band’s early work gets buried under the weight of their own catalogue. When contemporary tastes again embrace U2’s legacy, songs like “The Ocean” will be treated with the same reverence as early material from The Cure. Until then, Boy merely lives on as an incredibly focused debut.
#5 – Zooropa (1993)
After pushing into new sonic territory with Achtung Baby, U2 pushes it even further on the eclectic Zooropa. Perplexing at the time, no album has aged more favorably in their catalogue. Zooropa’s spirit of electronic exploration hinted at a future many of us wouldn’t recognize until Radiohead dropped Kid A and it all suddenly made sense. Buried inside the humming wires of Zooropa are classic U2 songs like “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” and “The First Time” draped in the familiar atmosphere of producer Brian Eno. U2 seem to follow-up landmark albums with less focused recreations (October, Rattle & Hum, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), but avoid that pitfall with Zooropa – a quirky, weird piece of pop trash that would be hailed as genius if an indie band released it in 2017.
#4 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
Fans always love it when the band says they are getting “back to their roots” and All That You Can’t Leave Behind was quickly embraced by even the most casual U2 fans. Interestingly, the opening electronic beats of “Beautiful Day” are more Zooropa than The Joshua Tree but the stadium-shaking chorus quickly reminds everyone why they originally fell in love with U2. “Elevation” adds another anthem to the setlist, while the tender “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” wears its heart on its sleeve. Referencing all periods of their history, All That You Can’t Leave Behind works because U2 sounds happy with simply being the biggest rock and roll band in the world.
#3 – War (1983)
The first “classic” in the U2 canon, War realizes the band’s fervent ideals and musical ambitions. “New Year’s Day” combines one of Adam Clayton’s most memorable bass lines with the increasingly atmospheric guitar work of The Edge to form the foundation of the band’s sound. However, it is the album’s political themes that made it sound so revolutionary. Unlike the more academic politics of post-punk heavyweights such as Gang of Four, U2 are stepping off the campus and into the violent streets on songs such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” After the bloodshed and tears, War ends in a place of hope with the beloved “40.” Certain records never seem to age and the brittle border between youthful ideals and bleak realism that War embodies will speak to future generations.
#2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
The band’s growing obsession with all things Americana is perfectly realized on The Joshua Tree, an album that became a pop cultural event and elevated them to the most important band in the world. After thirty years, the album has lost none of its power (“Bullet the Blue Sky”) or grace (“Running to Stand Still”). Side Two of the record (songs 6-11 if you are streaming) is where the richest rewards are buried. If you’ve ever driven across the Mojave Desert and past all the Joshua trees, this album becomes even more relatable. The band manages to capture the magic of the landscape and uses it as a metaphor for the emptiness of the modern world. Incorporating elements of American roots music without descending into minstrelsy, U2 added new textures to their sound and came away with a masterpiece of popular music.
#1 – Achtung Baby (1991)
The Joshua Tree is undeniably the biggest moment in the band’s career, but Achtung Baby remains the band’s finest album and one of the most significant albums in rock history. Like Bowie before them, the band retreated to Germany to escape the insanity of success (both were smart enough to bring Brian Eno along). While Bowie’s Berlin trilogy pushed boundaries further, Achtung Baby feels revolutionary for a band coming down from the Americana wave of The Joshua Tree. New sound, new image and more personal songwriting breathe new life into a band unsure of where they wanted to go at the time. From the naked ache of “One” to the overdriven guitars in “Mysterious Ways,” Achtung Baby is a master class in musical re-invention. Echoes of Bowie’s Berlin work mix with the Madchester sound (Stone Roses) and a small dose of shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine) to create the new template for popular music in the 1990’s and beyond.
Here’s a killer little playlist featuring one song from each album: