Well, never will that be more true than for today’s entry.
Grant is a bigger fan of U2 than most people are a fan of anything. He has reviewed a few of their albums, chronicled his affection in his Everything Music entry, and made a list of their 50 best songs.
So rather than write a retrospective of their career here, I’m going to keep it simple: Five things I like about their music, and my ten favorite songs by the band.
Five things about U2 that I like
1. Those sounds
U2 has had a bunch of different sounds through their 3+ decades (which should be obvious, because how can you have a 3+-decade career without growing and changing?), but what’s remained constant is the band’s close attention to its sound. Whether it’s a towering arena rock boom (Joshua Tree), or a polished pop sheen (All That You Can’t Leave Behind), or a messy, hazy sprawl (Achtung Baby), U2 is rarely lackadaisical in their sonic identity.
2. Those lyrics
Bono, who writes U2’s lyrics, has the pen of a poet. Few bands can grip you so powerfully and simultaneously with their tunes and their words. He uses wordplay sparingly and effectively (see the “one”-”two” dichotomy in “One”). He uses imagery effectively, often citing religious (see the opening verse of “With or Without You”) or sexual (see all of “Better Than the Real Thing”) images. It’s just fun to pay attention to the words in U2 songs, which is not something you can say of most classic rock.
3. That voice
I think of Bono’s singing as somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joe Armstrong, more technically skilled than the former and more expressive than the latter. Like both of those vocalists, he has a way of pulling you headfirst into a song and never letting go.
4. That urgency
I was watching a unimpressive performance from an opening act once, and the lead singer introduced one of their songs by saying: “This is our anti-war song.” He said it in such an unconvincing way, and the song was so generic and detached, that I actually laughed out loud. There was no conviction in this band’s attempt to try and say something important.
Well, one thing’s for sure: No one would ever get an impression like that from U2. From the crashing snare drums of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that pierce like gunshots, to the longing for freedom in the shimmering opening to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and beyond — it’s obvious that U2 has, does, and always will give a shit.
5. That heart
…and yet, even more important to me is the intense emotion behind U2’s best songs. Of course, empathetic urgency and emotional affection are both side effects of Bono’s huge, curious, hungry heart. But the point stands that U2 has never let significance stand in the way of meditation on personal connections.
From their first hit (“I Will Follow”) through their huge ‘80s masterpieces (“With or Without You”) through their ‘90s reinvention (Achtung Baby) through their respectable twilight years efforts (“Moment of Surrender”), U2 has almost always created heartfelt, personal reflections and declarations.
Ten songs by U2 that I like
Now is the point you should switch channels over to Grant’s superior Top 50 U2 Songs list. You’ll learn more there than you will in the ensuing paragraphs, I promise.
Anyways, here are ten of my favorite songs by U2. I’m going to call them my ten favorites, and I know I’ll bite my tongue on that because only familiar singles ended up on the list. Whenever I listen to a U2 album, I hear a song that makes me think “This is probably one of my favorite U2 songs” — if only I could keep track of them. Oh well.
Great in a much dumber way than most U2 songs. This is a song I’ll happily blast with the car windows down, and I admit I enjoy it thoroughly.
9. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Not one of Grant’s favorite (“Ponderous and bloated. A song your mom likes.”), but one that still connects with me. A great, emotive vocal performance from Bono pairs well with a composition about romantic — almost spiritual — struggle.
8. I Will Follow
The first U2 CD I ever owned led off with this track (I don’t know what it was; it was burned and a mix of their singles), so this is still one of the first U2 tracks I think of. It sounds less refined than their stuff from even a few years later, but it’s a great one, kinetic and passionate.
7. Beautiful Day
If you trust last.fm, this is their second most popular song behind “With or Without You.” It’s a spirited, uplifting anthem that crescendos to a great climax. The shouted “day!” background vocals are a nice touch.
6. Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
I still remember the first time I heard this song. I was in college. My initial thought was “U2 makes songs like this?” It’s catchy, warm, and jangly with a great sing-along chorus. People use the word “versatility” when discussing music usually to describe acts diverging away from a pop sound, but “Stuck in a Moment” shows U2 demonstrating versatility by doing the opposite.
5. Where The Streets Have No Name
The opener to the legendary Joshua Tree album, “Streets” has one of the greatest intros in rock and roll. A great, galloping guitar riff gradually fades in over organ tones so you feel like you’re racing with an antelope in the savannah. You’re practically two minutes in before the actual song starts, but the remaining three minutes are no slouch: Bono calls for a simpler, unconstrained lifestyle that you can interpret literally — a rallying cry for developing countries — or figuratively — escaping a wounded, emotional weariness.
4. Even Better Than The Real Thing
It’s not quite a sexy song, but it’s certainly erotic. Bono sounds breathless and horny, and the production appropriately has a crazed hunger about it. I love the song for its sonic intensity, its great melody, and its climax (double entendre) of repeated cries of “take me higher!”
3. Sunday Bloody Sunday
Such a perfect song. It’s hard to think of a track that uses percussion better than this, as Larry Mullen Jr. lays down a snare drum beat that’s almost frightening. Wikipedia tells me the song gets it title from an Irish protest event gone violent, but the song is vague enough to feel timeless and appropriate for just about any violent protest. It’s hard to imagine a better battle cry for the brutally oppressed.
2. With or Without You
One of those rare, once-a-decade songs that is a) hugely popular, b) hugely acclaimed, and c) hugely worthy of the hype. It’s a haunted midtempo ballad about a tortured, self-defeating lover. You can feel Bono’s regret when he sings “and you give yourself away,” and it’s hard not to be moved to a mournful place.
One of my favorite songs. This is drinking sour milk and getting stung by a honey bee: a “higher law” gone fundamentally, irrevocably wrong, yet still vibrant and humming. “We get to carry each other, carry each other. One life.” The Edge’s groove is perfect, elegiac. Grant is probably the only person I’ve ever met who loves this song more than me.