In May, I will be attending my fifth U2 concert. It was the first band I ever saw perform live, and I was immediately drawn to its catchy rhythms, soulful lyrics and impeccable musical craftsmanship. Since then, my appreciation for the boys from Dublin has only deepened. Bono’s deeply emotional vocals. The Edge’s searing guitar playing. Larry Mullen’s peerless drumming. Adam Clayton’s rockin’ basslines. Together, they have created a remarkable musical legacy that has lasted 35 years and is still going strong. The band refused to die, completely reinventing itself several times in order to stay relevant but never giving into the crasser commercial tendencies of the various musical eras it has found itself passing through. U2 is also, to my mind, the quintessential Christian band. The members have never been particularly shy about their Irish Catholic faith, but what’s even more brilliant is that they’ve managed to convey that devotion without alienating secular folks who enjoy good music. But, for the faithful, their songs contain some of the most powerful spiritual lyrics in all of rock.
But, do all of their records hold up today? And, with several classic albums to their name, which one is truly U2’s greatest? I took a journey through the band’s 12 studio albums and came up with my answer. Here are U2’s albums, ranked from worst to best (I’ve also included a video with each album highlighting one of its best songs).
*Note: While the album Rattle and Hum contains some excellent original studio songs, it is primarily a live record, and thus I chose to exclude it from this list. You should totally listen to it, though.
12. ZOOROPA (1993)
After the brilliant and stylish reinvention that was Achtung Baby, U2 had a bit of trouble holding onto its identity and fan base for the remainder of the 1990s. Albums like Zooropa are why. Essentially a direct continuation of the style of Achtung Baby, this mess of an album did nothing as well as that far superior work. But, like anything the group has produced, there is some stuff worth mentioning here. The title track is a sleepy, moody piece, but the lyrics put listeners in the mindset of the frustration of the singer, living in overstimulated excess and feeling more lost and confused than ever. “And I have no compass/And I have no map/And I have no religion/And I don’t know what’s what.” The song cleverly repeats advertising lines from popular commercials. “Numb,” one of the album’s more recognizable tracks, is pretty bad, completely wasting a rare Edge vocal by making him sound like a robot. This may have been intentional, but it doesn’t make it good. “Lemon” is also awful, with the most grating, screeching Bono vocals ever. “Stay” is far and away the best song on the album, but its excellence only further reveals the inconsistency of the rest. I suppose I have to admire the bold experimentalism of a track like “Daddy,” but I don’t have to enjoy it. “The First Time,” a great song about losing faith and finding it, is an album highlight. I don’t quite know how to explain “The Wanderer,” except that it’s sung by Johnny Cash. If that sounds like an odd choice for what is billed as an alternative album, that’s because it is. I absolutely love the song, mostly because Johnny Cash can do no wrong, but it deserves to be on a much better album than this bad but ultimately intriguing record.
11. OCTOBER (1981)
Let me get this out of the way right up front: “Gloria” is an incredible track, a powerful, worshipful anthem. I love Bono’s lyric, “Lord, if I have anything at all/I give it to you.” It also has one of my favorite Edge guitar intros. Alas, a good track does not make a good album, and U2’s follow-up to its stunning debut album Boy is pretty much more of the same. There’s no discernable identity here to set it apart. For a band that has made a career off of taking risks, there’s little else here to court controversy or even much interest, despite the fact that this remains one of the band’s most overtly Christian albums. A song like “Rejoice” comes off like a worship song: “I can’t change the world/But I can change the world in me/Rejoice, rejoice.” The song “October” is a welcome surprise, a beautiful piano ballad, but it’s over after two minutes and kind of feels like half a song. October is light years away from a bad album, but it is, on the whole, a bit disappointing. Thankfully, that word wouldn’t come anywhere near the band again for a long time to come.
10. POP (1997)
If I were to judge Pop based upon its first half, I would absolutely despise it. U2’s last gasp of its 90’s experimentalism, it’s hokey and dated in all the wrong ways. Imagine my surprise, then, that it contains two of the most spiritually potent songs the band ever wrote. The album opens with its supposed anchor track, “Discotheque,” which may be the worst U2 song ever. It’s what I imagine a headache might sound like if it were put to music. To think that the boys thought their fans wanted them to turn into a crappy club group is almost insulting. The horrendous music video makes me think that maybe they were kind of making fun of their new identity. They were certainly having fun, but surely no one else was. The band mixes up vulgarity and religious imagery in songs like “Mofo,” which is further insulting given the fact that they’re normally so tactful and judicious about their spiritual over and undertones. Like most dance music, the songs here are unnecessarily long. The shortest clocks in at around 4.5 minutes. The band’s spiritual disillusionment continues on “If God Will Send His Angels.” Bono sings, “Jesus never let me down/Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it’s hard to get in the door.” That’s a pretty great lyric. “Staring at the Sun” is one of the most maligned U2 songs ever, and it’s easy to see why. The sound and the lyrics are both incredibly cheesy. “Miami” is just painful, and “The Playboy Mansion” sounds like a cheesy porno song (again, probably the point, but the parody is lost on me if the song doesn’t sound good).
Then we get to the end. “Please” addresses the conflict in Northern Ireland occurring at that time. It’s a powerful call to move past prayer into action in order to stop the violence. “Please, please, please/Get up off your knees,” Bono sings. The final track, “Wake Up Dead Man,” is a pleading with God to do something about human suffering, to help make sense of all the chaos the singer sees around him. “If there’s an order in all this disorder/Is it like a tape recorder?/Can we rewind it just once more?” It’s a surprisingly potent and powerful end to an album that hardly deserves it. Pop is not good, and yet, I don’t think any serious U2 fan can ignore it, either.
9. SONGS OF INNOCENCE (2014)
This album has the unenviable position of being the newest U2 album, so I will admit it’s hard for me to get a feel for it. The band’s most personal album, it chronicles their rise, from the influence of The Ramones to early traveling experiences and struggles with faith and death. It’s heavy stuff, and Songs of Innocence is a fairly heavy album, featuring some of the group’s most profound lyrics. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is a great opening track, describing the band’s revelation at hearing The Ramones for the first time. It’s got a great beat and shows off the group’s underrated vocal harmonies. Bono’s voice has a remarkable softness here that I really appreciate. The epic, full sound of “Every Breaking Wave” really complements the song’s searching lyrics. The background noise in “California” sounds like the ocean, which is a nice touch, and the song also has my favorite Edge guitar solo on the album. “Song for Someone” is about Bono’s first love Ali, his eventual wife. “Iris” is about Bono’s mother, who died when he was a teenager. It’s a highlight—sad and devastating, but also hopeful. “Volcano” is a break back to the band’s gritty, edgy sound, moving from grief and remorse to rage. The singer, having lost what he loves, is determined to wrap up the rest of his identity in rock n’ roll. “Raised by Wolves” is a reflection on the fact that “my teenage life was largely dominated by memories of violence,” Bono told The Observer. It’s a bitter, powerful track, anchored by a passionate cry, “I don’t believe anymore.” “Cedarwood Road” is a great, grungy mix of electric and acoustic sounds. “Sleep Like a Baby” is a haunting track about attempting to come to terms with child abuse in the Catholic Church. “The church is where the war is/When no one can feel no one else’s pain.” The Edge’s seething guitar back Bono’s subdued vocals effectively. “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” uses the band’s chant-like chorus to good effect. “The Troubles” is backed by guest Lykke Li’s haunting refrain, “Somebody stepped inside your soul.”
I like every song here, but I don’t quite love any yet. While I appreciate the deeply personal lyrics, I don’t feel the tunes themselves are particularly memorable. Again, that may change with time, but for now, the album is going to stay in solid “good, not great” territory for me.
8. NO LINE ON THE HORIZON (2009)
Arguably U2’s most overtly “Christian” album, No Line on the Horizon has, strangely, the opposite problem from Songs of Innocence. Most of the songs (with a few notable exceptions) sound spectacular, and there’s tons of variety here. But the lyrics occasionally cross the line from cheesy to straight-up stupid. They’re even, on occasion, distractingly bad, and yet other times the band’s songwriting is so brilliant that I can’t decide of a lyric is idiotic or genius.
The title track features interesting tonal dissonance and some expressive bass work by Adam Clayton, but Bono’s voice is too screechy and strained for my liking. Things take a dramatic upswing when “Magnificent” starts. Fans have healthy debates over many U2 songs, pondering whether they’re about God, something else, or both. There is no controversy here; it’s a straight-up worship song, and it’s beyond spectacular. Bono explores the wonders of God’s majesty in a transcendent odyssey that ranks as one of the band’s very best. “I was born to sing for you,” Bono croons, and sing he does. It’s backed by one of my favorite Edge guitar riffs and one of the profound lyrics in U2 history. “Only love can leave such a mark/But only love can heal such a scar.” I could write an entire blog post about this song, but I’ll spare you.
The rest of the album struggles to maintain that intensity, but it’s still quite good. “Moment of Surrender” is a beautiful ballad; a bittersweet reflection on how loneliness can find us even in a crowd. It effectively brings us back to the dreamscape U2 frequently haunts. It also shows off the band’s continued creative experimentation with both electronic sounds and orchestral accompaniment, something that really stands out on the album on a whole. I don’t like “Unknown Caller” at all—the members sort of half-sing, half-shout in unison, and it’s not very effective. I really like “Stand Up Comedy;” it has great rhymes and either one of the best or one of the worst lyrics ever: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.” Even if it is terrible, I think I still love it. “Get on Your Boots” is probably a bit deeper than it first appears, but is still fairly nonsensical and silly. Still, it’s a nice aggressive track to help break up a reflective album. “Fez” is the most experimental track, but features more of the full-band chanting that I don’t really dig.
The last section of the record really knocks it out of the park. “White as Snow” is told from the perspective of a soldier dying in the Afghan snow and his last words. He wonders if God could wipe his sins clean and forgive him. “Once I knew there was a love divine/Then came a time I thought it knew me not/Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/Only the lamb as white as snow.” Taking on the motif of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” it’s a haunting and beautiful track—the band members’ voices take on a ghostly quality. This highly underrated song is one of U2’s very best. “Breathe” finds Bono singing in impressionistic verse inspired by a Cormac McCarthy book he was reading at the time, which means we get some really stupid lines, but I do like the lyric “I’m running down the road like loose electricity.” The closing track “Cedars of Lebanon” is absolutely, dead-stop amazing. Told from the perspective of a war correspondent, it’s one of the band’s most original and cynical songs. Bono “speaks” the lyrics, barely above a whisper, as if he’s letting us in on a secret. “This shitty worlds sometimes produces a rose/The scent of it lingers, but then it just goes.” Far from the worshipful praise the album opens with, the song exemplifies just how much variety U2 can manage to shove onto one CD; some of it is amazing, some of it head-scratching, but all of it is worth listening to.
7. BOY (1980)
The fact that U2’s stunning debut album doesn’t end up higher on the list is not a knock against it, but rather reveals just how stunning the band’s career has been. Still, as far as debut albums go, Boy is pretty high up there. It opens with the song that started it all, “I Will Follow.” The song perfectly captures the group’s incredible ability to ebb and flow from relentless rhythm to more introspective, ethereal flights of fancy, even on a single track. There’s a raw, unpolished edge here; something the group would be accused of abandoning later in its career. “An Cat Dubh” reveals a penchant for the hypnotic. With songs like “Into the Heart,” U2 showed it wasn’t afraid to dabble in experimental instrumentation. “Out of Control” is one song that helped to establish the group’s classic “sound,” and is a personal favorite of mine. Larry Mullen’s drumming is highlighted particularly well on “A Day Without Me,” and The Electric Co.” is also an album highlight. The songs of Boy flow into one another, creating a remarkably cohesive “album” sound. Oddities like “The Ocean” do little to drag it down. Its only flaw may be that some of the songs start to sound similar after a while, but their sum total creates a powerful mood that can’t be denied.
6. ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND (2000)
After U2’s mixed 90’s experimentalism, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a very welcome return to the things that made the band great in the first place. Marking the group’s second major reinvention, it features the clear bass lines, killer guitar riffs, clean rhythms and soft-but-powerful Bono crooning that put it on the map. And yet, this is not an album content with living in the past.
When L.A.-based radio station 100.3 The Sound asked its listeners to pick their favorite U2 songs, “Beautiful Day” came out on top. It’s easy to see why. Celebrating the beauty of living God’s creation, it’s an epic song with lyrics that literally travel around the world. The result is nothing short of transcendent. “Stuck in a Moment” is an exhortation to live a decent life; to enjoy the moments, big and small, that define it. It also celebrates the ways in which we touch each other. It’s stirring stuff, and shows off how great the band members are at vocal harmonies. It also reveals Bono’s reinvented voice; while he may not be able to reach the insanely powerful highs as he used to, he proves here that a soft whisper or subtle intonation can be just as powerful. “Walk On,” dedicated to Burmese activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is a true powerhouse track, an encouragement to persevere in the face of hardship. If you focus on “all that you can’t leave behind,” then you can “walk on” from this world unburdened by all the things that you can’t take with you anyway. I’ll admit to tearing up listening to “Kite” most times I hear it. It’s about “saying goodbye to someone you don’t want to say goodbye to,” Bono said during the 2001 tour. In this case, it was his father. It’s also about the large shadow that someone can cast upon our lives. But there’s also a hope of reunion. “I know that this is not goodbye,” Bono sings. The Edge called “Peace on Earth” the band’s bitterest song ever, but I sense a great hope that things can be better someday underneath the pain. It’s a sad, achingly beautiful track, one that affirms the immense power and importance of the individual life. I see “When I Look at the World” as a conversation with God. Bono asks what we see when we look at the world. Do we give into despair or hold out for hope? One day, might we be able to see the world not though man’s eyes, but as God sees it—clear and unblemished? “I can’t wait any longer/To see what you see/When I look at the world.”
Ending song “Grace” is both beautiful and important. It’s one of the clearest and most expressive reflections on God’s grace ever written. Grace is personified as “the name for a girl” but also “a thought that changed the world.” She’s got “the time to talk” and “travels outside of karma,” or man’s ways of thinking. And, ultimately, she heals us. “What left a mark/no longer stings/Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” Silly, self-indulgent tracks like “Elevation,” “Wild Honey” and “New York” do little to drag down this wonderful, intimate, resplendent album.
5. THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE (1984)
In case the album War wasn’t enough of an indication, The Unforgettable Fire proved that U2 was here to kick ass. And boy, did they ever. This thrilling album rocks hard. If War was grounded in gritty reality, Fire often floats toward the ethereal. This is made clear in the first track “A Sort of Homecoming.” “And the earth moves beneath your own dream landscape,” Bono sings. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” may be my single favorite U2 song. The lyrics highlight the difference “one man” can make “in the name of love,” showing that an act of love can change the world. The lyrics discuss Martin Luther King Jr. before moving onto Jesus Christ himself. It’s a powerful anthem that’s beyond inspiring. In songs like “Wire,” we sense Bono’s voice quaking with so much passion that it seems like it might give out completely, but it doesn’t His vocal control is unmatched, and I think his voice was never as powerful as it was here. “Bad” proves this further. The song is so good it almost defies comprehension and certainly categorization. It’s a yearning for spiritual transcendence, to “leave this heart of clay” and reach a place where “I’m Wide Awake/I’m not sleeping.” Bono’s rebellious scream is complemented perfectly by The Edge’s guitar, which sings out like a bell. “Elvis Presley and America” is a challenging track—it may be nonsensical or profound. Either way, it shows that the group was not interested in being “commercial” artists in the musical sense. Closing track “MLK” comes off like a haunting lullaby, soothing but with a sense of unease to it as well.
There are a few odd tracks here (“4th of July” is just an extended bass solo), but The Unforgettable Fire more than lives up to its title. It’s searingly memorable, and proof that U2 still had a lot of surprises up its sleeve.
4. ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
I’m not sure the world was quite ready for Achtung Baby when it released in 1991. Marking the band’s first major reinvention, this is a wild, insane, brilliant album, with a staggering amount of variety that leaves it feeling remarkably fresh and exciting even today. When making the album, U2 expressed interest in getting as far away from the sound of Joshua Tree as possible, and they succeeded without sacrificing everything that makes them so great.
“Zoo TV” reveals a more minimalist U2, but also a more stylish one. The grungy introduction indicates that there’s a very different band in town. Bono’s distorted vocals offer a different kind of mesmerizing from what the world had heard before. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” confirms a startling fact—U2 can be really sexy. This is probably one of the more sensual rock albums ever made, if in sound more than lyrics. “One” is easily one of their best, a bittersweet ode to the ways love can simultaneously build us up and break us down. The lyrics continue to show off the expert balance between the epic and the breathtakingly intimate. Sometimes, they can be one and the same. I used to hate “Until the End of the World,” but now I see it as one of U2’s more rewarding songs—not to mention it sounds amazing, with some of The Edge’s best guitar work ever. Its subtext is a conversation between Jesus and Judas, his eventual betrayer. The concept is potent and absolute genius. “Baby” goes on to showcase the album’s variety—every song here feels different and unique. The sensual longing that tracks throughout the album continues on the underrated “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” “The Fly” is a clever critique of the group’s own superstardom. It features a man having a conversation with himself (or perhaps with the devil). The lyrics feature multiple conversations singing in unison. “Mysterious Ways” is the album’s high point, proving that “fun” U2 can be every bit as awesome as “profound” U2. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” shows the band’s penchant for bizarre wordplay. It features the immortal lyric “A woman needs a man/Like a fish needs a bicycle,” definitely one of the group’s funniest lines. “Ultraviolet” is a beautiful song about the redeeming power of love. Bono could be singing to a woman here, but more likely, he is singing to God. “Your love was a lightbulb hanging over my bed.” “Acrobat” seems to be a song decrying relativism and hypocrisy. “I’d join the movement, if there was one I could believe in.” “Love is Blindness” adds an ominous organ. Eerie and haunting, the album ends on a somber note, eschewing the group’s previous practice of ending on a more hopeful tone. The Edge’s wailing guitar acts as a pointed question mark.
Achtung Baby is one of the more complex U2 albums, both lyrically and musically. It has inspired many conversations over the years over whether its songs are more religious or sensual in nature. I wonder why they can’t be both. Oftentimes, our relationship with God can only be personified in earthly love, something we tend to be more familiar with. And the Bible itself contains all that “bride” language when talking about the church. If you see the album as a shallower celebration of excess, that’s fine. But I think there’s something much deeper, and more unforgettable here for those who are really looking.
3. HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB (2004)
I’m always a bit baffled when I hear people criticize U2’s post-millennial output as being too commercial or too artistically safe or just, all in all, not very good. Clearly those people did not really take How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb seriously. The album is a soul-stirring masterwork, filled with the kind of music that makes you want to be a better person. It’s also a true guitar album, and the result is an exquisite mix of the band’s older and newer styles, as well as lyrics that rank with its very best.
Vertigo is as dizzying and thrilling of an opening song as that on any U2 album. It has all the complex rhythms and powerful guitar work we’ve come to expect, as well as some great lyrics that are very much left open to interpretation. Rather than make a club song, this song actually takes place in a club, or so we’re led to believe. I think it could be a metaphor for purgatory. It’s a very cool song. Backed by a killer guitar riff, “Miracle Drug” is an excellent track about the strength of love that sets the inspirational tone for the album. It was apparently inspired by the Irish author Christopher Nolan, a man paralyzed with cerebral palsy who was given a drug that allowed him to move his neck. He eventually learned to type using his head, and ended up being quite the poet. It has some incredible lines about the desire to be inside the mind of someone you love to “see your thoughts take shape and walk right out.” “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own,” dedicated to Bono’s father, is a passionate call for reconciliation. It reflects on the power of love despite the power our loved ones often have to hurt us as well. Bono’s voice is more sensitive and passionate than it’s ever been, and the result is deeply emotional. “Love and Peace or Else” shows that despite the sensitive tracks, the band is still very much interested in rocking. I don’t think any U2 album is complete without an anti-war song, and this one is fantastic. It’s got a nice build-up and a really gritty sound. “City of Blinding Lights” is an all-around great song—the stadium anthem the group so desperately needed at this point in its career. Thanks especially to some beautiful piano work, it’s definitely a song to lift your lighter to. The Edge’s guitar work at the start of “All Because of You” makes me happy, but so to the lyrics, which seem to suggest that God is the one who can restore us when we fall. “I’m not broke but you can see the cracks/You can make me perfect again.” “A man and a Woman” is a heartfelt ode to romantic fidelity, with the great lyric “I could never take a chance/At losing love to find romance/In the mysterious distance/Between a man and a woman.” I also love the acoustic guitar work, and there’s a vulnerability to Bono’s lyrics that is truly mesmerizing.
“Crumbs From Your Table” features another great Edge introductory riff, and Larry Mullen’s drumming is particularly outstanding here. It’s a critique of first-world nations offering “the crumbs from your table” when giving relief aid to nations in need. That message is backed by the powerful line “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die.” “One Step Closer” is a gorgeous, subtle song about holding on to hope in the midst of chaos. It’s also about coming to terms with the fact that we can’t know everything. “Original of the Species” was apparently written to The Edge’s daughter, but it’s more generally an encouragement to young people to be themselves in a culture that praises conformity. It’s also got some great string accompaniment. “Yahweh” is, obviously, about God. It’s a moving and emotional prayer as the singer asks God to guide his direction: “Take this soul, and make it sing.” The lyric “This love is like a drop in the ocean” is a picture of how deep and how wide God’s love is for us. Even the so-called bonus track, “Fast Cars,” kicks ass here. It’s a pure adrenaline shot, relentlessly paced and bolstered by a cool Middle Eastern sound. The wordplay here is top-notch, but so fast it’s hard to catch it all in one listen. It’s about holding onto what matters in the midst of our information-overloaded culture. It’s a pure blast, one of U2’s most underrated songs for sure.
Atomic Bomb is one of those albums you keep thinking has given you its best, until the next song starts. Every song here hits, either in its creative instrumentation or its insanely brilliant lyrics. There is not one second of this stellar album that fails to knock it out of the park. I could go on about it all day, but when I think of the definition of a “great” album, some of these songs start playing in my head.
2. WAR (1983)
While we’re on the subject of what defines a “great” album, my working definition is one where no song feels inessential. I think you could maybe have an album with a few misses that could still be considered great, but it has been rare for me. Albums should, first and foremost, be a cohesive whole, one where each song builds off of the previous one and contributes something meaningful. It’s a hard thing to do, which is why it’s so mind-boggling that U2’s third studio album did this so perfectly. The album that rocketed the band into the stratosphere, this is as deep, fun, thrilling, heartbreaking and memorable as rock music gets.
What really strikes me about War is how much passion is put into every song. These are musicians that had something to say and knew exactly how to say it. Yes, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is overplayed, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is amazing. U2’s passion for social justice comes shining through here, as the band decries the infamous massacre of Irish protestors by British soldiers. The lyrics are biting and convicting, the kind designed to jolt the listener out of apathy: “We eat and drink, while tomorrow they die.” But, as always, the lyrics move beyond criticism as they hope “to claim the victory Jesus won.” “Seconds” is a great early indication of how well the band members could sing together using vocal harmonies. “New Year’s Day” might be even more overplayed than “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but it still remains a great track—it’s a showcase for how effortlessly they pair the achingly intimate with the grandly epic. It’s also gets to show off The Edge’s clean, searing guitar solo, one of my favorites. This album does a great job of letting us notice what an underrated bass player Adam Clayton is as well; his clear, expressive lines are the driving force behind the tunes here, but they never overpower any of the band’s other elements. His part on this song remains one of his best. “Like a Song” is a great introduction to how soulful Bono’s voice could get—we hear the breathless but powerful desperation in the cry “Is there nothing left?” “Drowning Man” is a haunting track that drops some scripture on us: Isaiah 40:31, specifically. “Rise up, rise up with wings like eagles/You run, you run/You run and not grow weary.” It’s an encouragement to hold on in the midst of a relentless tide: “Hold on, hold on tightly/Hold on, and don’t let go of my love.” It’s powerful stuff.
“The Refugee” easily makes my list of all-time great U2 songs; thrilling doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s electric. And that cowbell…oh man, it’s good stuff. The refugee in the song dreams of a better life in America: “Her mama say one day she’s gonna live in America.” “Two Hearts Beat As One” lays out U2’s repeated theme of reconciliation—of reaching out across divides and finding common ground, even amidst confusion and disagreement. “Red Light” has some amazing harmonies, featuring female background singers and even a trumpet solo. “Surrender” is a suitably epic climax—taking the musical themes introduced throughout the album and brilliantly smashing them together. The album’s powerful coda is “40,” a recitation of Psalm 40. It’s undeniably inspiring and powerful, but the true gut punch comes in the ending. The singer recognizes that repeating scripture isn’t enough to alleviate the pain he sees in the world. He knows he must move beyond it, but sometimes he is powerless. He wonders, “How long to sing this song?” The album leaves us pondering that question.
War is pretty much a perfect album. Every song has meaning, both musically and lyrically, and each one contributes to the sum total effect of the work. It’s powerful in ways the group hasn’t ever fully replicated, although they’ve certainly come close. Words can’t really do it justice, and so I’m going to stop trying.
1. THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)
When I think of the quintessential U2 album, I think of The Joshua Tree. It represents everything good about the band and nothing bad. It also happens to be one of the best albums ever made. I can’t think of a single criticism to level against it. How many albums can you really say that about?
“Where the Streets Have No Name” may be the best opening to an album ever. The song builds for two minutes before Bono’s vocals slide into the track. The right word for the song is epic, far beyond anything U2 had attempted before. It’s a patented effort to convey every single emotion in a concentrated 5 ½ minutes. What turns a great song into a legendary one is the fact that it nearly succeeds. The song smoothly transitions into the intimate soul searching of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which contains one of the most beautiful and pure lyrics in rock history. “You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/Of my shame, you know I believe it/But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Everything great about U2 is present in this song. “With or Without You” wraps up one of the most incredible three-song sets in the history of rock. After Bono’s high-pitched wails on The Unforgettable Fire, it’s nice to hear him exploring his lower register here, and he does so expertly. The singer here is tortured, singing about someone he can’t live with or without. It’s a song that can be interpreted in a million different ways, without anyone actually being wrong. That’s what great art can do; no matter the intention of the artist, their creation will impact everyone differently. I’ve read amazing Christian interpretations of the song, but you don’t have to read into any religious connotations to recognize its brilliance. In case you thought the band was going too soft, “Bullet the Blue Sky” brings back its guttural, gritty energy roaring back, featuring The Edge’s groaning, overwhelming guitar and Bono’s unique spoken dialogue. This immediately transitions into the soft acoustic sound of “Running to Stand Still.” It features a killer harmonica part, and makes clear the album’s themes of the tension between spiritual stagnation and the possibility of running after something greater.
“Red Hill Mining Town,” apparently about the U.K. miner’s strike of 1984, is also a beautiful reflection of a man “wound by fear, injured in doubt.” There is something broken in the man that needs fixing. He cries out, “I’m hanging on/You’re all that’s left to hold on to.” “In God’s Country” is another highlight, with one of my favorite lyrics. “I stand with the sons of Cain/Burned by the fire of love.” The indecisiveness of the narrator continues in “Trip Through Your Wires,” this time about a woman. Is the woman who “put me back together” an “angel or a devil?” She was kind but trapped him in her “wires.” “One Tree Hill” is apparently named after an island in New Zealand, but I think it’s a larger reflection on the fact that there is only one place we can truly call home, wherever it may be. However, that home can be hard to find for a restless spirit. “We run like a river runs to the see/ We run like a river to the sea.” “Exit” is told in a haunting whisper. Bono has said it’s about a religious man who becomes dangerous. He “wanted to believe in the hands of love,” but he ends up with a gun in his pocket. What he chooses to do with that gun is not explained, but it ends on the haunting lyric, “So hands that build/Can also pull down/The hands of love.” “Mothers of the Disappeared” is a haunting final track, a somber meditation on loss. “Midnight, our sons and daughters/were cut down and taken from us/Hear their heartbeat/We hear their heartbeat.” Like the album itself, the song is so beautiful it almost defies comprehension.
The Joshua Tree ends on a similar note of insecurity and longing as the beginning, but, along the way, we feel we’ve learned something indescribably beautiful and essential about ourselves. There is no person this album would not speak to on some level, even though it may speak to everyone differently at different points in their lives. This, above all else, is ultimately what makes The Joshua Tree the greatest U2 album. It’s essential listening for anyone with a heartbeat.
*All quotes and citations used in this post are from the excellent songfacts.com.*