A little while back, you might recall, Dan wrote a paean to Billy Joel’s 100 Greatest Songs. Naturally, as a male, my first reaction was: I have to equal or surpass his work–by providing a list of the top 100 songs from my favorite (probably) artist, U2. As someone whose number of U2 concerts is in double figures, I feel fairly qualified for the job.
But then I performed some advanced math; ignoring B-sides and the like, U2 has released just 139 songs in their career, and that number includes the extraneous nonsense on Rattle and Hum…plus, you know, all of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Therefore, I had to tap out at 50. The unfortunate mine’s-shorter concession is mitigated by the delightful fact that I don’t have to articulate thoughts on “Get On Your Boots.” (For the sake of fun and snark, I’ve also included a few tangential thoughts on popular songs that didn’t make the cut.)
50) All I Want Is You, Rattle and Hum (RH)
This love song might have gone horribly, horribly wrong if it weren’t for Bono’s earnest delivery and warm, chiming chords from Edge. A surprisingly welcome addition to a live show.
49) Breathe, No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH)
Bono opens with a what-the-hell free-form melody (that doesn’t really work) before seguing into a gorgeous coda (that does), where his vocals and the Edge’s old-school guitar seem to wink at each other as the former extols the virtue of music itself: “I found grace inside a sound / I found grace, it’s all I found.”
48) Into the Heart, Boy
A lovely early song with a great, passionate, un-encumbered Bono vocal.
* Notable Song That Missed the Cut: Bullet the Blue Sky *
It doesn’t feel like they ever totally figured out what they wanted with this one, and the result is clunky and kind of a drag.
47) Exit, The Joshua Tree (JT)
A heavy look into the mind of a serial killer. Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums are killer, but Edge’s guitar work doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the song. Best line: “He used to stay awake to drive the dreams he had away.”
46) FEZ-Being Born – NLOTH
On No Line, songs like “Fez” suggested a new direction for the band, one not geared with the radio audience in mind. They returned to being unafraid to write six minute songs you could fade away with, to refusing to end songs exactly where they began, to writing whatever felt most organic. Unfortunately, they aren’t taking it as far as they could, which leaves “Fez” a little muted.
44-5) I Will Follow & Twilight, Boy
Tracks 1 and 2 off album #1 land at number 44 and 45 in our hearts. At this point, U2 was little more than reckless energy and aimless passion, but they rocked harder than now, and the Edge had already solidified his signature sound.
43) Elevation, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (ATYCLB)
Their only song where my favorite version is a remix—the Tomb Raider mix sounds slimier, more fun—’Elevation’ plays shockingly well live even today. “A mole, digging in a hole, digging up my soul” may not make a lick of sense, but this one consistently draws a reaction from the crowd that only 2-3 others can match.
42) Heartland, RH
Amidst the clusterf*** that is Rattle and Hum lies this pretty little number that would have fit better on almost any other album.
41) Surrender, War
Everyone knows War for its rockers, but the quiet songs were nearly as effective.
40) Two Hearts Beat as One, War
Uninhibited U2, amping up the tempo and having a blast. Every member contributes here.
39) Vertigo, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDAAB)
Modern Green Day filtered through U2 cheekiness, a lot of bass, and some bad counting. Nobody would openly admit to liking it, but the chorus genuinely uplifts you, the “Swinging to the music / Oooohhh” lead-in feels sublime, and they’re having way more fun than they ever do anymore. And, yes, I liked the iPod commercials. I’m a sap sometimes.
38) Last Night on Earth, Pop
A prime example of U2’s pop instincts keeping their experimentation in check—for the better.
37) Running to Stand Still, JT
One of the many tracks on its album to feature a more diverse palette of sounds, RTSS is a hymn-like folk song about a heroin-addicted couple. A slide acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica form the underpinning of a great track that I nevertheless want to love a little more than I actually do. It’s a little sparse, but undeniably haunting, and the lyrics shine: ‘You’ve got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.’
36) Mysterious Ways, Achtung Baby
If you see go to a U2 concert with a hot date, there’s not a single song you want to hear more.
35) Miracle Drug, HTDAAB
Bono, as is his wont, writes about a specific, real-world situation here; unfortunately, he’s a little too direct here for the lyrics to feel versatile enough to relate to you. Still, he sounds emotive, and the Edge’s ecstatic guitar break in the middle—which almost, kind of, sort of reminds me of Explosions in the Sky—covers up a lot of flaws.
34) One Tree Hill, JT
An elegiac track that has death coursing through its veins. This is one of the classic second-half Joshua Tree songs that make the album so great, but which the novices—who only know the album’s first three singles—don’t ever get to. Strong Bono lyrics: “I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky / And the moon has turned red over one tree hill.”
* Notable Song That Missed the Cut: Pride (In the Name of Love) *
Too consciously ‘big’ and ‘anthemic’ without being edgy or interesting enough. Needs to be retired from concert setlists.
33) Indian Summer Sky, The Unforgettable Fire (UF)
Our first entry off this amazing album melds its atmospheric vibe to a conventional pop/rock song. As on the album’s title track (to be examined later), Bono combines abstract lyrics about the external world with personal failings, all put together with perfect production.
32) Wire, UF
A hard-rocking smorgasbord of sounds that got too little attention because the more standard ‘Pride’ became the album’s big single. It’s not quite as edgy as it thinks it is, but Bono and the band are all-in with a rollicking flow that keeps you engrossed throughout.
31) Red Hill Mining Town, JT
A top five Bono performance. (Interestingly, I read once that drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. thinks this song is “over-produced and under-written.” Well, screw you, Larry!) Bonus points for one of my favorite U2 lines: “I can lose myself / You I can’t live without.”
30) Mofo, Pop
This is a doozy—the electronic and underrated Pop album at its grimiest, flinging distortion and dirtiness and danger at you from all directions, the kind of song that U2 neophytes are shocked by. I’d like to see this version of them return at least once more.
29) Beautiful Day, ATYCLB
Oh, ‘Beautiful Day.’ I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about you. The beginning feels slow, but the second half makes it all worth it: “Touch me, take me to that other place / Teach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case.” Yeah, I can work with that.
28) Out of Control, Boy
It’s about waking up on your 18th birthday and wondering what the hell is out there. U2 with their most raw energy, but as far as punk goes, it’s fairly safe, warm-and-fuzzy punk. Doesn’t make it any less fun, though.
* Notable Song That Missed the Cut: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For *
Fairly ponderous and bloated. A song your mom likes.
27) Stuck in a Moment, ATYCLB
The first U2 song I loved—so long ago that I hadn’t discovered girls, or much music, or music about girls, or anything of the sort. It’s too self-conscious, but the lyrics are effective, and it doesn’t feel shlocky.
26) Moment of Surrender, NLOTH
7 ½ minutes of strangely hypnotic bliss, featuring Bono’s best lyrics in years. By this point in their career, they’re trying a little too hard, but what can you do.
25) Walk On, ATYCLB
On ATYCLB, the band moved into the 2000s free of political rants, cultural rants, and the intensely personal songs; the eleven tracks there speak to the simple pleasure of being alive, the feeling of accepting that even life’s little frustrations make it worth living. “Walk On” epitomizes that. Just a lovely track.
24) So Cruel (Salome Version)
This is it: here is where I’ll officially lose people (whom I haven’t already), as I’m championing as deep of a deep cut as you can possibly imagine. We’re not even in B-side territory here; this sucker wasn’t even released. Like, at all. It barely exists.
During the recording of Achtung Baby, tapes of early versions of songs, made to give the producers a sense of the band’s ideas, were stolen, bootlegged, and turned into ‘album’ form. Thus, in an unprecedented situation, fans got a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an album before it was either released or discarded, in the presence of a 36-track set called Salome: The Achtung Baby Outtakes. (Allmusic has a track-by-track breakdown.)
Bono didn’t like this, just as a writer would feel uncomfortable about someone criticizing his rough drafts—and, sure, much of Salome is repetitive and boring. It’s for the die-est of diehards, but the obsessed faction will find fascinating glimpses into AB songs before they became what we know now.
And buried late on the set’s second disc is this track, which fans dubbed an early version of “So Cruel” even though it doesn’t really sound like it and the key line was ultimately given to ‘Ultraviolet.’ It’s clearly unfinished, but that’s part of its charm. It hasn’t been tightened up into an anthemic production, but it has a gorgeous, haunting sound that makes it a top 5 U2 song to go to sleep on. You feel like you’re fading away into nothingness when you hear it, which isn’t something you can say about them very often.
23) Zoo Station, Achtung Baby (AB)
The juicy AB opener comes at you in all directions with techno beats, grinding bass, and naughty whispers, stomping a distortion-filled line of demarcation between all that came before and after. Turn it up loud, and you’ll take off with a song that demonstrates just how much more daring they used to be. Bono’s slinky murmurs that “I’m ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal / Ready to let go of the steering wheel” introduced a world that we all wanted to get lost in.
22) Gone, Pop
All kinds of yes. Their best pure rock song since 1991, ‘Gone’ kills live whenever it’s played, which isn’t often enough. Back when they weren’t afraid to be different.
21) Where the Streets Have No Name, JT
Not as high for me as for others because I don’t really connect with it emotionally, but it’s so passionate, so earnest, and so invigorating that it can’t go any lower. I still remember the first time I heard it and hoped that the intro would just keep going and going forever.
20) No Line on the Horizon, NLOTH
Has more life in its first sixty minutes than the entire second half of Atomic Bomb. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois add a whoosh of oceanic haze as the Edge re-creates a choppier version of his “Fly” riff, and Bono sounds loose and uninhibited in ways he hasn’t for years.
19) Love is Blindness, AB
Whew. Laden with a sepulchral organ and possibly Bono’s most depressive lyrics ever, ‘Love’ makes you want to swear off relationships forever: “Love is clockworks / And cold steel / Fingers too numb to feel / Squeeze the handle, blow out the candle / Love is blindness / I don’t want to see / Won’t you wrap the night around me.”
18) New Year’s Day, War
On War, U2 built skyscrapers upon the foundation of their debut album, Boy. Adam Clayton’s instantly recognizable bass line, mixing with the piano, underscore the Edge’s penetrating guitar, which seems to fill up vacuums of space, whether in an arena or your head. Soaring over it all, Bono delivers a sneakily passionate and pure vocal. It all rocks, and it all works.
17) Even Better Than the Real Thing, AB
Over their career, U2 has not exactly been known for writing songs that encourage sexy time. A few Achtung Baby songs are the exception. Over the Edge’s impossibly high-pitched, piercing guitar and a swinging rhythm section, Bono coos, “You’re honey, child, to a swarm of bees / Gonna blow right through you like a breeze.” Rawr.
* Notable Song That Missed the Cut: The Sweetest Thing.*
For reasons passing understanding, this song gets the occasional spot in concert rotations to this day. Flaccid, cloying, and lacking anything resembling a melody, ST resides in ‘bad Death Cab for Cutie’ territory. I’ve never heard keyboards sound so chintzy, and Bono does that annoying Ben Gibbard thing where he can’t sing more than 6 words in a row without stopping. God I hate this song.
16) Kite, ATYCLB
In my last year of high school, every senior was asked to provide his own personal epitaph, a brief quote or inspirational message, to be collected in one book. I chose the chorus of this song. (Note: I wasn’t very popular in high school.) I love the way Bono sounds both resigned and hopeful in it, how he recognizes the ambiguity of the future but still wants everything, and the way Edge adds just the right amount of texture. Points lost only for the bizarre final verse.
15) Like a Song…, War
Even more feral than ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ this sucker moves; when Bono cries, “Angry words won’t stop my fight / Two wrongs won’t make it right / A new heart is what I need / Oh, God, make it bleed,” it’s pretty damn impossible to deny his sentiments.
14) With or Without You, JT
There’s not much original you can say about WOWY, but the specific trait I always admired is the way it builds without ever feeling like it is; you don’t notice the change, but then you look up and realize you’ve progressed from the hymnal beginning to that cathartic drum fill at 3:03. Bono’s vocals in the climactic build-up are my favorite of his career, and this line almost achieves the same honor: “You’ve got me with nothing to win / And nothing left to lose.” Brutal.
13) A Sort of Homecoming, UF
Kicking off The Unforgettable Fire, this song epitomized U2’s new direction after War. For UF, the Edge’s guitar got blurred and buried, Bono whispered more than he wailed, and the production gave the songs a more open, spacious feel. The melancholy idea of walking through a snowy field, alone and fiercely uncertain about the future, is balanced by just a hint of optimism: “And your heart beats so slow, through the rain and fallen snow / Across the fields of mourning, to a light that’s in the distance.”
12) Sunday Bloody Sunday, War
This fearsome rocker is U2 without the bullshit—just Larry Mullen Jr.’s speaker-blasting drumbeat, the Edge’s angry snarls, and Bono’s most impassioned anti-war cries. “The battle’s just begin / There’s many lost, but tell me, who has won?” A top three live song (when they don’t screw it up with an inexplicable acoustic version).
11) Ultraviolet, AB
This one only truly works at night; Bono knows it, too, singing “I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen” and imploring his lover to “light my way.” It opens with quiet synths underpinning Bono’s preamble, before the Edge’s classic riff propels us forward. The bridge is the killer segment, as Adam Clayton’s bass takes over while Bono cries out, ‘I remember when we could sleep on stones / And now we lie together in whispers and moans.’ It’s an incredibly powerful, sexy, and disturbing moment, and it carries the rest of the dynamic track through its “baby, baby, baby…” outro.
10) So Cruel, AB
A quiet breather in the middle of Achtung Baby’s explosiveness, ‘So Cruel’ relies almost exclusively on its lyrics. This is an honest, unflinching work about a break-up that didn’t happen soon enough, and the words are laced with bitterness and regret. The complete picture painted of a corrupted pairing—and the protagonist’s desire to free himself from its destructive clutches—will haunt you.
9) City of Blinding Lights, HTDAAB
Other than ‘Streets,’ its obvious parent, I don’t think any song is more likely to be played at every future U2 concert than this elegiac gem. Prettier and more cathartic than the aforementioned, ‘City’ shines a flashlight on the entire bland Atomic Bomb album The climactic “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight!” exclamation can’t be beaten for a) in-concert sing-alongs, or b) its potential for impressing a girl. And, really, what else do you need?
8) Until the End of the World, AB
U2 firing on all cylinders, just effortlessly doing exactly what they want to, ‘World’ personifies what makes Achtung Baby so damn compelling. Another exuberant Edge riff doesn’t make this track sound any less heavy, as the thunderous rhythm section still exudes a dark mystery. The electronic touches only exacerbate the undercurrent of foreboding, as though danger always lies just around the corner. (That’s the Joy Division in them.)
The lyrics have their direct interpretation—a conversation between Jesus and Judas—but Bono skillfully makes them readable from the point of view of any failed relationship. “Waves of regret, waves of joy / I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You said you’d wait until the end of the world,” he sings, as the band launches into a sly, mischievous coda that satisfies while still feeling anticipatory. With “Wild Horses” up next, that anticipation is warranted.
7) Stay, Zooropa
It’s buried in the middle of a weirdly experimental album, but let’s not get things twisted—‘Stay’ is a masterstroke, a flawless ballad that should put to rest any notions about U2’s superficiality. Over a stripped-down band, Bono sings as though the target subject is the only person in the world who needs to hear him, and you believe everything he says.
His killer lyrics remain open to multiple interpretations, but it’s hard not to see at least part of them explaining the point of view of someone who knows he has to leave someone he doesn’t want to. “If I could stay…then the night would be enough,” he sings—but deep down, he knows that he can’t, and it isn’t. At the end, as the Edge fades in with incisive guitar lines, Bono starts to warn about the fall: “If you listen, I can’t call / And if you jump, you just might fall.”
In the final verse, he completes the arc: The target jumped—and no one was there to catch her.
6) Acrobat, AB
An absolutely breathtaking downer that burns with the emotional immediacy of a faster-paced Joy Division. Like most JD tracks, ‘Acrobat’ picks up on dangers both internal and external, and it understands that the most dangerous ones are those that paralyze our actions: “What are we going to do when it’s all been said / No new ideas in the house and every book has been read.” This is the kind of song U2 just can’t write anymore.
5) The Unforgettable Fire, UF
Here, U2 lives up to the great song title by incorporating hints of dream-pop and shoegaze into their spacious sound. Play this one as you lie next to someone you like, preferably outside, staring at a starry sky.
4) The Fly, AB
Yes, yes, all kinds of yes. In many ways, this is my definitive U2 song. Numbers 1-3 on this list have the whole ‘broken heart’ thing going for them, which always helps a song stick in your consciousness forever; but ‘The Fly’ is my #1 play for U2 newbies, the song I most want to hear in concert, and the one that has stayed relevant through more disparate circumstances than any other. (Naturally, they’ve stopped playing it live.)
I can’t even imagine how this must have sounded as the teaser single for Achtung Baby to fans who’d never heard anything besides 80s U2. Suddenly, those wide-open, traditional 80s rock songs were no more. In their place were heavy industrial beats, dirty guitars, long solos, and heavily-processed vocals warning you about slipping into hell. This is U2 with the edge that most people thought they haven’t had for a while, and I don’t know how anyone who likes rock music could dislike it.
3) Bad, UF
Although diehards love this track—one that Allmusic calls “stunning in its control and mastery” —‘Bad’ doesn’t really encapsulate ‘mainstream U2.’ The patience, the subtle dynamic changes, the anti-anthemic nature place it in a different stratosphere than the one critics cling to. The centerpiece of the atmospheric masterpiece The Unforgettable Fire, the chilly, wintry ‘Bad’ subsists on simple, radiant chords from the Edge for its first half, until producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois add synths and the merest hint of a bass melody while still maintaining that wide-open feel. The climactic drums circling around your head—from left to right and back again—complete the thrilling puzzle.
And that visceral rush is enhanced by the emotional heart underpinning the song, which directly addresses drug addiction but indirectly calls for us all to strip away our defense mechanisms and feel whatever it is that we will: “If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind…leave this heart of clay…” By the end, Bono rattles off a list of things he’d like to be free of—the isolation, desolation, temptation—and he sounds like his heart is going to burst out of his chest. It feels about the same for the listener.
2) Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, AB
The group’s all-time prettiest tune, ‘Wild Horses’ trades on a hypnotic glaze from the Edge’s My Bloody Valentine-esque guitar, beauty that underscores darkness. Just like Ride’s landmark song ‘Vapour Trail,’ ‘Horses’ manages to sound both despondent and uplifting, lovely and depressing, all at once; U2’s ability to make resignation sound so pretty is the biggest reason Achtung Baby resonates so strongly.
Nothing here is done for mere effect; it’s all earnest, all intense, all overwhelming. The line, “You lied to me, ‘cause I asked you to” describes seemingly every relationship I’ve ever been in. It’s an exquisite love song put together with one of Bono’s best vocals and their best all-time melody, highlighted by the ‘Don’t turn around…’ segment of the bridge. Give it a spin or two, and it will knock you out.
1) One, AB
I may have weird taste in many ways, but I can’t avoid this cliche. This is my all-time favorite song. It almost single-handedly got me through high school, it almost single-handedly got the band through its near-collapse in the early 90s, and there are very good reasons for all of that. Over an expertly-produced, haunting bed of guitar, bass, and synth, Bono lays everything on the line, turning out one mind-blowingly poignant couplet after another.
‘You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl / And I can’t keep holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt’ slays me the most, but every line—detailing the complicated end of a relationship and its after-effects—is memorable. It’s all depressive, hopeful, and draining at once, and the coda represents my favorite thing Edge has ever done.