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Music

Ranking every U2 album from worst to best

I am going to go out and say it: I absolutely believe that U2 were the best band since The Beatles. They were the most inventive, most versatile and most impressionistic outfit that poured their heart and soul into everything they produced. Their success wasn’t just triumphant, it was more than well earned.

In an interesting parallel to The Beatles, U2 were a group that applauded effort over virtuosity, and together, it was the friendship that led to many of the most impressive albums of the 20th and 21st century. They were tight, brave, and deeply committed to their work, much as The Beatles.

But unlike The Beatles, U2 were able to overcome their differences to create million-dollar selling albums, spearheading a career that has gone beyond the realm of average popularity for a band. Best of all, they put Ireland on the map, which was crucial at a time when Britain and America were conflating the island with the bombs that were being dropped all around London.

It’s hard to compare 15 albums of such varying quality, but U2 are deserving of such attention, creating a body of work that is as expressive as The Beatles’ work. But there’s no need to tell Bono that he’s as good as John Lennon- his ego is big enough as it is.

Ranking every U2 album from worst to best:

15. No Line On The Horizon (2009)

The one truly bad album in the band’s canon, the record momentarily salvages its reputation with the breathtaking ‘Moment of Surrender’, which boasts one of Bono’s most impactful vocal deliveries. The band sound united behind the singer, letting the melody and the singer do the heavy lifting, while they fill out the frame. Indeed, the song is awash with invention and flair, but it’s a shame that the band couldn’t find it in themselves to replicate the effort elsewhere.

The worst thing about No Line On The Horizon isn’t the lack of ideas, but that too many go unfulfilled. The title track is lazy, ‘Magnificent’ is boring, and ‘Get On Your Boots’ is simply embarrassing. Brian Eno is credited on some of the tracks, but sadly his ambient influence is wasted on the tawdry rock anthems.

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14. Boy (1981)

This would be the worst if it was anything but their debut, but since it was the sound of four inexperienced lads from Dublin, we’ll give them a pass for effort. If they sound hesitant, it’s because they still haven’t harnessed their sound properly, but Bono does give it some backbone, particularly on the genuinely exciting ‘I Will Follow’. Adam Clayton’s bass playing is pedestrian, and The Edge goes through a series of recycled riffs that gives the album an enjoyable, albeit unoriginal, flair.

If the album can claim a hero, it’s Larry Mullen Jr., the band’s founder and most accomplished musician. From the tom-tom rolls on ‘Twilight’ to the cymbals that are heard all over ‘Stories For Boys’, Mullen Jr. plays with admirable conviction, and luckily for him, the other three were able to match him by the time they recorded their underrated sophomore album.

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13. Songs of Experience (2017)

Released three years after Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience was always bound to suffer from the comparison to the more textured prequel, and the album suffers from too many producers, robbing the album of a discernible marker by which to make its own. But it’s also a bonafide narrative, letting the lyrics speak to the audience, as Bono addresses the gaps in his childhood, and praises the gifts his children give him.

It’s the band as fathers, and although the songs are solid, the production is ropey, which begs the question of why they spent so much time producing a work that would have benefitted from a sparser recording schedule. Nonetheless, there are moments of studio invention, not least the genuinely dazzling ‘The Blackout’, while ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ recalls the trappings of love with tremendous pathos.

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12. Pop (1997)

The band’s most experimental work is also one of their more controversial, and tellingly, the band have been reluctant to venture into uncharted waters since. In its own way, Pop holds a flavour that’s as singular as The Unforgettable Fire, and although it isn’t as good as the 1984 effort, it does hold enough spark to merit a listen or two. Think of Pop as a noble failure, as opposed to an indulgence the band should rightfully have abandoned midway through production.

The bad tracks are bad, but there are some strong moments, not least ‘Discotheque’, which is a giddily inventive dialogue between songwriters Bono and The Edge. Adam Clayton lets the bass rip on ‘Do You Feel Loved’, invoking The Stone Roses at their jauntiest and most carefree. For listeners aching for something more traditional, the yearning of ‘Please’ should satisfy them, as it’s a pleasant alternative to ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.

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11. Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)

Yes, we hear you now: “This isn’t U2, this is a Passengers album”. Sure, it was released under a pseudonym, but nobody was fooled by the conceit, and the album features U2 producer Brian Eno on songwriting duties, embellishing their melodies with a sonic invention that’s strangely admirable to listen to. The album boasts the genuinely magnificent ‘Miss Sarajevo’ which showcased opera laureate, Luciano Pavarotti, during the chorus. Bono calls it the band’s best song, and he’s right, but there are a lot of interesting tidbits on this album that you won’t find elsewhere.

Take ‘Slug’, an ambient techno rocker that shows the band at their most restrained and imaginative; take ‘Corpses’, a macabre ballad that could easily have wound up on a Radiohead album in 1995; and then there’s ‘Your Blue Room’, which features the one and only vocal Adam Clayton committed on record. How can you resist?

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10. Rattle and Hum (1988)

This one divides people: It’s either the band at their most haughty, or it’s a genuine expression of creative liberation that shows the band at the peak of their abilities as a stage lineup. They open with a belting rendition of Beatle standard ‘Helter Skelter’ before taking it upon themselves to write a sequel to John Lennon‘s excoriating ‘God’ (tellingly titled ‘God II’). Bono’s decision to write an added verse to ‘All Along The Watchtower’ raised eyebrows, but Bob Dylan was unbothered by the move, as he sings with the band on ‘Love Rescue Me’.

Coming directly after The Joshua Tree, the band were running on empty, which might explain why they recorded so many cover versions. And yet the band are clearly firing onstage, as is evident from the drum-heavy rendition of ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, performed with more flair than the version that the public heard in 1987. The album is a bit too long, but the band were entitled to some levels of extravagance after releasing two of the greatest albums of the 1980s.

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9. Songs of Innocence (2014)

Embarrassed by their efforts on No Line On The Horizon, U2 de-camped to consider where they were going next on their journey. It took them six years, but the album was a decided improvement, and although it wasn’t the giddy re-invention some were hoping for, U2 decided that evolution was more important than revolution at this point in their career. The album is replete with strong hooks, and Bono has suddenly rediscovered his lyrical voice, as ballads ‘Every Breaking Wave’ and ‘Iris’ show the singer in a greater place than he had been for some time.

Standouts include the keyboard-centric ‘Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’, the pounding ‘Raised By Wolves’ and the haunting ‘The Troubles’, detailing domestic abuse with a surprisingly high level of sensitivity. Sadly, the album holds ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’, which is everything The Ramones rallied against in their efforts to tear down pop. But it’s only one bum note.

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8. October (1981)

This record is considered by many to be the band’s weakest. It shouldn’t be. Still in their early 20s at the time, U2 were brave enough to write a dissertation on the failings of the soul, measuring the importance of integrity against the trappings of success. In many ways, it was a tidy update of George Harrison’s Living In The Material World, but the album was more palatable than the Beatle’s effort, partially because the hooks were so dense and infectious. ‘Fire’ is the most obvious rocker, but ‘Gloria’ is also noteworthy because the piano is so shimmering and sincere. The band were growing as writers, but they were wise enough to realise that they needed to tone down some of their predilections toward apostles.

Tellingly, the album’s most successful effort is the jaw-dropping honesty of ‘Tomorrow’, very much the cleansing of the soul Bono needed after losing his mother in his teenage years. He sings from the bottom of his gut, calling out for the woman who had taught him to speak, walk and dress, understanding that by doing so, he’s letting a part of himself go in the process. Incredible.

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7. Achtung Baby (1991)

The band began the 1990s as they meant to continue: They were determined to challenge any preconceived notions of the band through a series of blinding records, each one more esoteric than the one that came before it. By Pop’s standards, Achtung Baby is basically a stadium rock album, but it’s so confident in its resolve that it more than earns its place in the band’s top ten. ‘One’ is the obvious highlight, but ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ is another standout, and The Edge enjoys experimenting with feedback on the piercing ‘Mysterious Ways’. The band lean on David Bowie’s lead a little too heavily on ‘The Fly’, but ‘Acrobat’ – perhaps their most successful tribute to John Lennon – is a better effort.

The band were anxious to reinvent themselves in the eyes of the music presses. “Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy, and industrial (all good),” producer Brian Eno admitted, “And earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hifi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2.”

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6. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

We’ve barely mentioned The Edge in this article. Well, the Essex born guitarist can take this moment to take a bow, considering his guitar ebbs and flows on the band’s only true rock album. Although they were now in their 40s, the band were happy to showcase their penchant for hard rock and riffs. The songs are turbo-charged and razor-sharp, and The Edge enjoys the chance to play Jimmy Page on ‘Vertigo’. Bono emulates Mick Jagger ‘All Because Of You’, and the promo celebrates The Rolling Stones for all of its glory.

Bono commemorates the death of his father on ‘One Step Closer’, stemming from a conversation he enjoyed with Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher, and the band enjoy the wackiness of ‘Love and Peace or Else’, particularly Clayton, who effectively plays the central hook. Bono opts to explore Judaism on the gently lyrical ‘Yahweh’, and the album was tailor-made for the live stages, which might explain why their 2005 shows are among the most fondly remembered of their career.

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5. Zooropa (1993)

Where Achtung Baby dipped in the waters of experimentalism, Zooropa plunged listeners into the abyss of esoteric pop. The band abandoned the American and British textures of their earlier work to embrace the sounds of continental Europe. There’s something pleasantly German about the title track, much as there’s enjoyably Italian about the bass-heavy ‘Lemon’. The Edge sings on ‘Numb’, making it one of a handful of songs that he sings, and Bono delivers the most confident vocal of his career on ‘Stay (Far Away, So Close)’. Germany, Ireland and Spain were embracing change during the 1990s, and the band felt it was their duty to replicate the change in their music

Zooropa is U2’s most impressive work from the 1990s, largely because it’s so uncompromising and daring. But the band were savvy enough to imbue the bass tracks with melody, making it one of the most impressive exhibitions of Clayton’s talent and time. Best of all, Johnny Cash guested on ‘The Wanderer’ and sings it very nicely too.

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4. War (1983)

The third time’s a charm, eh? The first out and out a masterpiece in the band’s canon, War started the band on an impressive ten-year run that ended with this release, and provided the building blocks for seismic albums The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. The band were enjoying their newfound popularity, but were happy to tackle political topics, admonishing the violence in Northern Ireland with the impressive ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. The gentle ‘Seconds’ gives an impressive respite, before the barrelling ‘New Year’s Day’ kicks in, chasing the band’s appetite for revelry and destruction.

That’s not to say that War is a dumb album, as the evocative ‘Drowning Man’ so expertly shows. Producer Steve Lillywhite guides the band to deliver some of their more impressive numbers, especially Larry Mullen Jr. who skips and hops on ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’, one of the few danceable songs the band recorded during the 1980s. Lillywhite served the band well, but it was time for the group to work with more artful producers for the next stage of their career. Boy, did they.

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3. The Joshua Tree (1987)

It’s hard to write something about an album that has been written about a million times before, but it’s worth justifying why this album still holds a place in the lives of so many. The Joshua Tree is a deeply soulful record, creating a safe space between artist and listener, letting the messages and aphorisms wash over the audience in an effort to create a sense of unity. Bono comes across best on the album, but The Edge’s organ line on ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ is one of his more impressive and original, and Clayton enjoys the chance to play a melodic hook on ‘With or Without You’. The songs are among the best of their career, but the tracklisting is woolly, highlighting the album’s best work before delving into more esoteric material.

And yet there’s great beauty heard on ‘Mothers of The Disappeared’, the band’s probing final track, and the blues tinted ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ boasts some impressive harmonica playing from the band’s singer and primary songwriter. There are one or two missteps on the album which is why we can’t rate the album higher than the number three spot, but it’s inarguably the band’s most important album, and one they deservedly celebrated in 2017.

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2. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

If the band can boast an Irish album, this is the one. Bored with studio equipment, U2 decamped to County Meath, where they wrote and recorded in Slane Castle. Brian Eno was impressed by their resolve and joined them in an effort to capture the essence of their day to day lives. ‘Bad’ commemorates a changing Dublin; ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ celebrates the unwavering spirit of the Irish traveller returning from overseas; ‘Elvis Presley and America’ aches for mythology that was more modern than the fairies and leprechauns that surrounded U2 in Ireland.

The band luxuriate in the open space of the castle, giving the band an added boost and heft, but the group were understandably wary of stadium rock, which explains why they took such a cerebral route with their fourth album. “With Steve [Lillywhite], we were a lot more strict about a song and what it should be,” Clayton recalled, “If it did veer off to the left or the right, we would pull it back as opposed to chasing it. Brian [Eno] and Danny [Lanois] were definitely interested in watching where a song went and then chasing it.”

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1. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)

Yep, this is the big one. It has everything you want from a U2 album, and more, earning them credibility and plaudits galore. It starts off with ‘Beautiful Day’, an unofficial rugby anthem for the triumphant Irish team, before veering into more sombre territory with ‘Kite’ and ‘New York’. The band adopted the words of Salman Rushdie for the euphoric ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, although they ultimately discouraged from releasing it to the public at large. Nevertheless, the song featured on the British and Irish pressings of the album, bringing context and pathos to the album.

We could write a whole article on the album, but we’d rather focus on three highlights that make it the band’s best: there’s the liturgical ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, written after Michael Hutchence’s death; there’s the bouncy ‘Wild Honey’, proof that the band had a genuine sense of humour; and there’s the monster ‘Elevation’, which flitted happily between the world of rock and hip-hop. What a band.

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