Nov 04, 2014
Welcome to Ranked, our recurring series in which one of our writers takes an artist's catalogue and ranks all of their official studio albums from most essential to least essential. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Dan Lucas ranks U2.
There can be few bands who suffer as much opprobrium in these Internet days as U2. Sure, the likes of Beady Eye and Nickelback perhaps attract more vehement attacks, but the sheer scale of everything about U2-their album sales, sound, and frontman's persona-means that they surely stand alone. Much of this is deserved, be it for increasingly diminishing returns on the quality of their music or for their questionable marketing. The average online hater though is a person of short memory: over the course of 13 "proper" albums they produced records that either defined an era or went all out and changed it. There are duds, sure, mostly towards the latter part of their career, but the task of ranking said 13 albums reveals-as if such a fact needed revealing-that U2 are a band with a rich, varied and brilliant history that's worth celebrating... no matter how many "Elevations" they release. By Dan Lucas
U2 at their best were among the most ambitious bands out there. Riding on one of the biggest waves of success in rock history-the double-whammy of that Live Aid performance and The Joshua Tree, how many other bands in their position would rip it up and start again? Relocating to Berlin, the home of Krautrock, and making a record inspired by European industrial dance music risked alienating the tens of millions of fervent fans the band had so recently acquired but it resulted in one the very finest rock albums ever recorded. The jagged opening to "Zoo Station" thrills and the musicianship never abates from there. What's more, you have Bono's finest performance both lyrically and vocally, with the likes of "One" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" as gut-wrenching as they come. U2 were now the biggest thing in the world and this was an eloquent deconstruction of everything that entailed: faith and religion are covered on "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Until the End of the World," love on "One" and "Ultraviolet," fame and riches on "The Fly" and "Acrobat." Twenty-three years on from its release and it still excites this writer more than anything before or since and it probably will 23 years from now. One of the great feats in the history of rock music.
You know what everyone hates? Bono being all preachy and banging on about political causes. Except that's stupid, because as a 22-year-old-22!-Bono wrote one of the 1980s' finest protest albums. It has a personal note, inspired by The Troubles in Ireland, but at this stage U2 were still consumed by punk's rage and you can feel the weight of wider global injustices in the singer's voice, The Edge's angry guitar lines, and the relentless rhythm sections. "How long?" asks Bono twice with screaming rage at the start on "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and apparently crushed by the weight of it all on the closer "'40.'"
The natural encore to Achtung Baby saw U2 stray as far from their widescreen rock sound as they ever would. Accompanied by the absurdly overblown, yet brilliant, Zoo TV tour, Zooropa was a sharp satire of the commercialised '90s, with gaudy excess contrasted with the band's most experimental music. It owed much to Bowie, with the minimalist techno of "Numb," "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car," and "Zooropa" sounding like loving tributes to the Berlin trilogy while retaining Bono's intelligent outlook from the summit of pop culture. It also features two of U2's best songs: the deeply weird and wonderful "Lemon" and the beautiful 6 a.m. insomniac city grey of "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)."
The Joshua Tree
Oh here you are, way down at number four. That an album widely regarded as one of the best in music history is only the fourth best by this band speaks more to the quality of U2's discography than it does that of the album itself. In the 15 years since Springsteen's Born to Run, it took four Irishmen to as perfectly capture the widescreen, cinematic nature of America. Akin to its namesake National Park, The Joshua Tree is a vast album. Its brilliance is built around The Edge, whose chiming guitars wrought more from a single note than a thousand fretboard virtuoso's gained from millions. The album's opening lines shout of ambition: "I wanna run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside, I want to reach out, and touch the flame," sings Bono on "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the imagery never abates. The river flowing to the sea on "One Tree Hill," the lights going down on "Red Hill Mining Town"; like the great cinematic epics you feel you're living the same whirlwind journey as the singer. "You've got to talk without speaking, cry without weeping, scream without raising your voice" on "Running to Stand Still" might also be the greatest lyric about struggle ever written.
The Unforgettable Fire
With a sound that was hinted at on War's closer "'40,'" The Unforgettable Fire was a turning point for U2. It demonstrated their confidence in turning for a subtler, more nuanced ambient sound. Larry Mullen left his brashness behind and demonstrated a new, more intriguing sound that was in stark contrast to the militant beat of the previous record. Bono retained his righteous anger, visiting the subject of Martin Luther King's assassination on both "Pride" and "MLK," but was now happy for him and The Edge, the band's "other frontman," if you like, to retreat into the background. The result was arguably the band's most Eno-sounding album, eschewing obvious hits for their hitherto warmest, most cohesive record.
U2's debut album is perhaps the last truly great album on this list. Released when the band were aged between 18 (Larry Mullen), 19 (The Edge), and 20 (Bono and Adam Clayton), it's fresh and invigorated by their youth. "I Will Follow," their first hit single and the album opener, arrives on pounding, building drums and showcases immediately The Edge's wonderful ear for a riff. It's not the most original album, clearly inspired by the band's post-punk predecessors such as Television and Magazine, but it's one chock-full of warm melodies and vigour. The band would go on to scale greater heights, but this is still a wonderfully assured adolescent debut with the likes of "I Will Follow," "The Electric Co.," and "Out of Control" standing up strongly even on the band's most recent tours.
Pop has earned itself a poor reputation over the years. The camp "Discotheque" tipped the band over into self-parody, as did the infamous "stuck in a lemon we can't get out of" moment on the accompanying PopMart tour. It is, nonetheless, an ambitious album that saw the band continue to stretch themselves. Synths, beeps, and loops were more prominent than at any other time during their career and, while the likes of "Please" and "Gone" may lack the hooks that characterise the band's best work, it's still good to hear the band's nuanced, subtle brilliance on "Miami" and "If God Will Send His Angels."
Clichés are, by their nature, tired and hackneyed and so shouldn't have much bearing on anyone's career. Still, the number of bands whose futures have been abruptly killed by the notorious Difficult Second Album is borderline innumerable. U2 could have so easily fallen into their ranks. October is loud, bombastic, and little more. It feels plain and uninspired, with just the weight of Bono's personality carrying it above forgettable mediocrity. It would be unfair to say that they were lucky to follow this with the mighty War, because there was no luck involved in producing an album that brilliant. It's fair to say though that that third album was the follow-up they needed to avoid being consigned to rock's landfill site.
All That You Can't Leave Behind
Don't listen to the haters, Bono. Sadly listen to the haters Bono did, and the result was that the weirdness of Pop, the interesting bits of the previous three albums, were all thrown away as U2 looked to go back to their stadium rock roots. All That You Can't Leave Behind may have appeased those turned off by the band's '90s output but it largely felt soulless. For the odd moments of brilliance-"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is spectacular and "Kite," about Bono's father, is genuinely heartwarming-the album feels too disconnected. For the first time, it felt like this was a group of squillionaires who could no longer reach you. "Beautiful Day" sounds not as though it's written with any honesty but rather calculated to become a mega hit. It's also the album that gave us "Elevation."
Rattle and Hum
I did question whether or not I should include Rattle and Hum, but it's listed as an official LP release so in the list it must go. It's not a proper album though, or at least it certainly doesn't come across as one. It has its high points: "All I Want Is You" is among their very best songs, "Desire" is bristling with energy and I like "Angel of Harlem," the mix of live songs and a smorgasbord of genres among the studio material makes for a directionless mess. "God Part II" lacks conviction and the BB King collaboration "When Love Comes To Town" is completely different but suffers the same problem. As for the live material, the inclusions of "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are pointless and the cover of The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" is butchery worthy of Charles Manson.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
This album suffers from essentially the same problems as All That You Can't Leave Behind. Replace "Elevation" with the nonsensical "Vertigo," substitute "Beautiful Day" for "City of Blinding Lights." For "Kite," see "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." The reason that How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb sits a couple of places lower on the list is because there was no progress from the last album, but rather a sense that the band were content with the millions they'd made from that and now resting on their laurels. From being one of the most daring stadium rock bands of their era, U2 had now slipped into a big comfortable bed made of money and were content to rest in it.
Songs of Innocence
I covered this album in depth in my review, but in brief it's a very corporate-sounding record. It's essentially a record celebrating the anniversary of U2's iPod commercial and it sounds as much; whereas "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" evoked the headache grey of an insomniac in the big city, this evokes sleek, shiny Apple stores. It's corporate rock at its most corporate. Is there anything that screams "sell out" more than collaboration with the world's biggest cell phone retailer?
No Line on the Horizon
At its best, No Line on the Horizon is utterly forgettable: the songs dreary, damp farts of nothing that Coldplay would consider vacuous. The album's centrepiece is "Moment of Surrender," easily the most forgettable epic in U2's oeuvre and therein lies the problem; when your album ripples out from seven-plus minutes of nothing happening at all then you're on to a loser. The album's crappiness is epitomised on the title-track, which threatens raucousness on the verses but is ruined by a damp squib of a chorus, which sees Bono at his most generic. The album is like a pastiche of U2's post-2000 sound, recognisably them but with all the warmth and soul of a spreadsheet. U2 tried and failed at the pop-rock stomper on their previous two albums in the form of "Elevation" and "Vertigo," but here the third time didn't prove the charm as they reached a nadir with the woeful "Get On Your Boots." The worst song U2 have ever written? Probably, yep.