Bono is at his most preachy and ego-splosive. The band is at their least inspired. With two shopworn classic rock covers, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter,” RAH completes the evolution U2 started on Joshua Tree from post punk pioneers to baby boomer suck-ups. U2 tries out Bo Diddley beats, blues, soul and gospel and it feels like a school project. The only way to save this one is to strip it down to its one good song, “All I Want is You,” and issue it as a single.
After the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 were feeling cocky and it shows. They went full bore into samplers and sequencers and ended sounding like they were trying to remake Filter’s “Trip Like I do” on every song. They’re too angsty and baggage-laden for Chemical Brothers electronics. It’s like taking molly with a recently divorced Dad.
1a. Joshua Tree
This album is terrible. More information here.
10. No Line on the Horizon
How much is Bono bothered by Coldplay? Is it weird to still try to be a hit pop group when there’s another massively successful superstar group so indebted to your sound? Is that how Keith Richards felt when he heard the Black Crowes? I’m only asking because I have nothing constructive to say about this pedestrian late period release.
There are a lot of funny jokes on “U Talkin U2 to Me” but the most cutting one is that a better name for this album would be “one good song and a lot of fucking around.” “Gloria” is great. The rest is is skippable.
8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
One, two, three, fourteen! Your enjoyment of this record on your tolerance for “Vertigo,” a song that seems equally indebted to the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth. I appreciate that they tried to rock out a little more than usual and think it’s a qualified success despite some filler.
7. All that You Can’t Leave Behind
“Beautiful Day” is probably the cheesiest song I truly love. They cleared a lot of garbage out of their sound after Pop but retained a surprising amount of electronics for what’s sometimes touted as a back to basics album. The whole album is a testament to their mastery of dynamics, with almost all songs featuring a finely crafted peak. Side two is mostly a write-off, but the first half is among U2’s best.
6. Songs of Innocence
This album isn’t bad. More information here.
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 New Romantic edgy with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”* and new wave angularity on “Twilight” and Flock of Seagulls faze on “A Day Without Me.” They sound like Souxsie and the Banshees with a better singer and a band willing to write songs in major keys.
*CORRECTION: “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was a single and not on the original version of Boy. It’s on the special edition re-release, though.
4. Unforgettable Fire
This album is a battle for control between Bono and producer Brian Eno. Soaring vocals vie for dominance with ambient guitar soundscapes. The final result hits higher peaks than U2 had ever hit before. It’s not an unqualified success; the album’s undercooked and long stretches seem like Pink Floyd outtakes but the raw sincerity, charisma and instinctive sense of dynamics on tracks like “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” more than make up for it.
3. Achtung Baby
It’s surprising how well this album holds up. U2 were out on a limb with this one, using new technology like sampling and loops. It could have easily been a dated-sounding record. They were soaking in the music from then-current Manchester “baggy” sound and added the requisite bongos and electro drums. But, almost certainly thanks to Eno’s meddling, the album is tempered by strange sounds that could be on a ‘70s Bowie record or OK Computer.
Everything good about Achtung Baby is improved on their Zooropa victory lap. The sounds are harsher and the songs are better. It seems like a throwaway at first, but it’s as heavy as the rest of their catalogue, just approached differently. Almost every song turns from silly to somber and back again. I think U2 felt like the stakes were low and so they loosened up and made a masterpiece so casual that people overlook its greatness.
“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. Every song is a classic, punchy rock tune. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the one song I never, ever want to hear again from this album), Bono is at his least annoying. Unforgettable Fire is rightly remembered as an experimental break from traditional song craft, which obscures the weird sounds on War like the almost atonal trumpet solo at the end of “Red Light” or the shimmering background vocals on “40.”
NOTES: I am not including E.P.s, live albums or the Passengers soundtrack.