On the occasion of the release of U2’s 14th studio album, Songs of Experience, it is worth noting how remarkable it actually is that this band has remained a going concern for over 40 years, since Larry Mullen Jr. put up a notice at Mount Temple Comprehensive School: “Drummer seeks musicians to form band.” U2 is, at this point, the only rock band of its stature that still has its original lineup. No one has overdosed, no one’s been fired, and no one’s left the group in pursuit of a solo career. Yes, they own houses in the south of France, they show up in the occasional gossip column, and Bono jets off to Davos every year, but they are still very much a band.
The traditional path to success in the music business pretty much no longer exists, and even if it did, a band like U2 would never, ever have gotten the creative control they asked for and received. No record label still in business today would have let them release a third album after the battles around the second one, October. And even after achieving international fame and fortune with The Joshua Tree, their fifth album, back in 1987, they came crashing back to earth with its follow-up, Rattle and Hum, which every rock critic in the world interpreted as U2 trying to teach America about American music.
By the end of the ’80s, U2 could have just kept moving forward with their existing formula, maybe eked out another few years with that pattern. Record companies certainly want bands to keep doing the thing that made them all that money, over and over again. It took tremendous foresight for U2 to take a break, and a fair amount of fortitude to stand onstage and inform your audience that “this is the end of something for U2 … we have to go away and … dream it all up again.”
In the search for that dream, Bono decided that if U2 decamped to Berlin with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, something had to happen. And it did, but for a while there, it almost didn’t. Every single of member of U2 was convinced at one moment or another in the early days at Hansa Studios — the same place that David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and others have gone to find magic, or at least inspiration — that this was the end of U2. And then one day Lanois suggested to the Edge that he combine two separate guitar parts. Those guitar melodies became the start of “One,” and the beginning of what would become Achtung Baby — what Bono called “the sound of four men cutting down The Joshua Tree.”
U2 would come roaring back at the turn of the millennium with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, just at the moment when no one would’ve blamed any of them for sitting back on their piles of money, pursuing “side projects,” and touring every couple of years behind their catalogue. While the ’00s had some of that, U2 still conducted themselves as a rock-and-roll band that goes into the studio to make a new record, then devised some elaborate production element to take on the road. They do not have to do any of this, and the fact that they insist on continuing to do so, over and over again, comes from the same stubbornness and dogged determination that got them a record deal in the first place.
So, in tribute to the release of Songs of Experience and the band’s general lasting power, what follows is a list of every song* U2 has released, ranked in order from worst to best. The criteria for doing so took into consideration the strength of the songwriting and the success of the final recorded result; extra credit can be given for a composition’s presence in concert and/or its live evolution over time.
*THE GROUND RULES: This list consists of officially released U2 songs only. This excludes covers, Bono–Edge or Larry Mullen Jr.–Adam Clayton outings (so no Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and no “Mission Impossible,” which is a cover anyway). Live versions and remixes are treated as the same song and covered in that song’s entry if relevant. Passengers is excluded except for “Miss Sarajevo” and “Your Blue Room,” for obvious reasons. The list also excludes Songs of Experience, as it hasn’t had enough time to breathe yet. This leaves us with 218 songs to discuss.
THANKS TO/SOURCES: U2 by U2, Niall Stokes’s The Stories Behind Every U2 Song, and atu2.com’s lyrics and tour sections.
218. “Boomerang II,” B-side to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
No. Really. Not every experimental thought needs to be recorded and released, especially if you’re considering it to be part two to another throwaway.
217. “Boomerang I,” B-side to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
I like the idea of U2 trying to be the Talking Heads, but not all of these experimentations needed to be recorded or released. (It is fun to sing the chorus of “Psycho Killer” to it, though.)
Another non-LP B-side the fans continually rally for. This is quite possibly the most overrated track in the entire U2 repertoire. I get it; it’s the jam that the “Beautiful Day” riff originated from. But so what? It is otherwise flat and featureless, and nowhere near adjacent to its final form. It’s a bedroom demo, a napkin sketch at best. Demoted.
215. “J. Swallo”
They needed a B-side for “Fire.” “It was done in a mad panic,” the Edge notes. “It was a case of two hours to go, let’s do it.” It sounds like that.
214. “Big Girls Are Best”
This is so bad it’s embarrassing, an attempt to work something out in the studio that should have been erased by the tape op. Reasonable beat, but stupid lyrics and inane title.
213. “Yahweh,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
The title to this song is meant to be the unspoken name of God, so of course Bono wanted to write a song and have it in the chorus. The tune is vague and unsatisfying, and the lyrics are stuck in that no-man’s-land between Bongolese and the actual finished lyrics. It is a terrible way to end an album.
212. “The Refugee,” War
They sound like some third-rate New Wave band trying to be relevant. This track is awful, made worse by opening side two after the graceful end on side one with “Drowning Man.” Bono would comment later, “I think it’s probably in the wrong key and is trying to be exciting and not quite pulling it off.”
211. “Flower Child,” Unreleased & Rare
An acoustic, Beatles-esque leftover from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “Wild Honey” occupied the same general theme, although the Edge said that “Flower Child” is a song he feels is waiting for a rewrite.
210. “Saturday Night,” Boy (2008 deluxe edition)
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it was another basic demo that got dismembered: The guitar solo is the fade-out at the end of Boy, and the rest of it got reworked into “Fire” from October. The Edge is right on with his observation that “listening back now I can’t help feeling that we lost some of the power and directness of the original.”
209. “Bass Trap,” B-side to “The Unforgettable Fire”
It’s a pretty instrumental that originated from a bass line from Adam Clayton that Eno fed through some kind of processor. Perfectly acceptable as a B-side.
208. “Down All the Days,” Achtung Baby (20th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” and “Uber Deluxe” editions)
A proto-version of Zooropa’s “Numb,” with familiar instrumentation, but much more traditional lyrics. “It’s this quite unhinged electronic backing track with a very traditional melody and lyrics,” the Edge told Rolling Stone in 2011. “It almost worked.”
207. “Native Son,” Unreleased & Rare
Proto-“Vertigo,” with different lyrics about jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier. “The lyrics were about something I care deeply about,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2004, “but the song didn’t vibrate. It didn’t change the room temperature.”
206. “Another Day”
The second single released by the band, this stands head-and-shoulders above other early material because of its consistent focus, its authoritative execution. If they weren’t the next big thing they were going to try their hardest to sound like it. Fake it till you make it. It worked.
205. “Disappearing Act,” The Unforgettable Fire (2009 deluxe edition)
It’s a rough sketch from early in the recording process for the album, which the band reworked in 2009 for the record’s reissue, although it is very difficult to understand why.
204. “Soon,” Fan Club release/U2 360° Live From the Rose Bowl
This outtake from No Line on the Horizon was used as the intro music for the 360° tour, and was released with the deluxe edition of Live From the Rose Bowl DVD and was made available as a stream on u2.com for about five minutes.
203. “Oh Berlin,” Achtung Baby (20th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” and “Uber Deluxe” editions)
Bono wrote a tribute song to Berlin before he realized the entire Achtung Baby album was a tribute. The lyrics are wince-inducing, but the melody has a monochrome intensity, thanks to Edge’s precise, choppy hooks that make it feel like Berlin traffic back in the day.
202. “Is That All?,” October
“Scarlet,” the track that precedes “Is That All?” on October was a light send-off that echoed the theme of the album and closed the door on that particular period of U2. For some reason, the band decided they needed to add one more song, and one that they wrote in the studio. The lyrics are so empty they’re not even worth discussing.
201. “Love Comes Tumbling,” Wide Awake in America
From the outtake pile for The Unforgettable Fire, resurrected for various B-sides and the EP. It’s certainly atmospheric, and an interesting waypost on the upcoming journey to Death Valley.
200. “Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come,” B-side to “The Unforgettable Fire” single
More outtakes dug out of of the pile in service of filling 12-inch singles.
199. “Deep in the Heart,” B-side to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” single
Another one of the missives to love and lust resulting from missing wives during the Joshua Tree sessions, it’s a remembrance of youthful indiscretions in Bono’s childhood home. Note the “You can’t return to the place you never left” line, which would get borrowed later for “Cedarwood Road” in 2015.
198. “Endless Deep,” B-side to “Two Hearts Beat As One”
An atmospheric, almost tribal instrumental that’s basically a bass solo. Adam also sings lead vocals, such as they are.
197. “Cartoon World,” Boy (2008 deluxe edition)
It’s U2’s version of a Ramones song, performed live in Dublin in 1980. Succinct and delightful.
196. “Rise Up,” The Joshua Tree (20th Anniversary deluxe edition)
The Edge characterizes this track from an early recording session for the album as, “It was a contender for a while, but never had the substance.” Indeed.
195. “Angels Too Tied to the Ground,” War (2008 deluxe edition)
Outtake from the War sessions, but the reissue states that it was originally recorded in 1982, with additional nonspecific recording in 2008. If that additional recording was meant to improve or finish the outtake … let’s just say it did not help much.
194. “Race Against Time,” B-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name” single
During the recording of The Unforgettable Fire, the Edge discovered King Sunny Ade and juju music, a cross between Western pop and African rhythms. Juju is, at its core, a bouncy, highly danceable music form, and it definitely influenced this polished outtake from the TJT sessions. It would not have fit anywhere on the record, but it’s at least a complete thought.
193. “One Step Closer,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
As you get older and start to lose relatives, and then parents, it tilts your perspective of life and how to live it in a way that you don’t appreciate until you’re there. The loss of Bono’s father is all over HTDAAB, and here specifically. Bono was talking to Noel Gallagher, who asked if Bob Hewson believed in God. Bono said, “I don’t think he knows.” Noel responded, “Well, he’s one step closer to knowing now.” Bono: “I’m going to write that song.” “It started out kind of Velvet Underground and headed off into the country,” Edge said about this track, which is right, except that Bono channeled Lou Reed and not, say, Gram Parsons.
192. “Speed of Life,” Boy (2008 deluxe edition)
An early instrumental that sounds like it could be a coda to the Who’s “Amazing Journey.” Part of the set in the early (1979-’80) years of the band.
191. “Near the Island,” Achtung Baby (20th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” and “Uber Deluxe” editions)
This Achtung Baby outtake is a soft, delicate instrumental on piano and acoustic guitar. You can just imagine this coming together under the chandeliers in Hansa Studios’ Meistersaal.
190. “Heaven and Hell,” Achtung Baby (20th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” and “Uber Deluxe” editions)
It’s impossible to listen to this outtake and not envision it as U2’s affectionate remake of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” The cadence of the vocals and the ennui in the inflection, the languid pace of the instrumentation are wonderful, but the lyrics on this officially released version, while improved from the (bootleg) studio outtake are still not strong enough, which is unfortunate.
189. “Are You Gonna Wait Forever?,” B-side to “Vertigo”
Loud, noisy guitar, another song channeling the Who (this is not a bad thing). Not strong enough to make the album.
188. “The Playboy Mansion,” Pop
“The original lyric was much more emotional. I am not sure the best version ended up on the album,” Bono said. You can see glimpses of what he’s talking about in the lyrics, but otherwise, it’s convoluted and ham-fisted, and the vocal delivery lacks emotion.
187. “Window in the Skies,” U218 Singles
If your first thought when you hear this is, “Sounds like a Sgt. Pepper outtake,” wait until you see the video.
186. “Mercy,” Wide Awake in Europe
Probably the most popular outtake among the U2 fan base, Wide Awake in Europe, released in 2010 (a nod to Wide Awake in America, an 1985 release meant as a stopgap between The Unforgettable Fire and the upcoming album). WAIE, however, was a release for Record Store Day; there were 5,000 pressed, and if you want one now, it will cost you upwards of $140. The only song on there you do not have is “Mercy,” an outtake from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that was played less than a dozen times on the back half of the 360° tour. It’s difficult to comprehend the rabid reaction to this particular track, except for its relative rarity. (It was leaked on the internet, probably when a CD of rough mixes was stolen from a photo shoot in France.) It is much better live, but honestly would still need a lot of work lyrically before it would be worthy of all the hype.
185. “Rejoice,” October
“I can’t change the world / but I can change the world in me” is a reasonable observation, but the rest of the lyrics feel unformed; Bono has said it’s meant to be the same story as “I Will Follow” with a house falling down. The title isn’t accidental and also ties into the religious revival 75 percent of the band was going through at the time the album was recorded. There are graceful sweeps and arpeggios of Edge-ness from end to end, but it’s not enough to give this song legs.
184. “Babyface,” Zooropa
An ode to the many supermodels who began keeping company with U2 in the ’90s. It’s a sweet little love song.
183. “Elvis Presley and America,” The Unforgettable Fire
If U2 had given this song any other title, it would have saved them from so much abuse. It’s easier to forgive this song as part of the experience of listening to the album in order. There, this fits into the abstract expressionism, the watercolors and charcoal sketches that coast you up to “Bad” and out to “MLK.” But the title gives the track airs it does not possess. “A jazzman could understand that piece,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 1987. No, a jazzman would ask how the hell they thought this should go on the record.
182. “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience,” The Joshua Tree 20th Anniversary edition
An early Joshua Tree demo that illuminates much about the band’s creative process. The lyrics are literally the Introduction to William Blake’s Songs of Experience.
181. “With a Shout,” October
“We don’t want to be the band that talks about God,” Bono said in 1980, before joining a Christian revivalist movement and writing an album with undertones of the New and Old Testaments threaded throughout the lyrics. “With a Shout” is a reasonably powerful song from an instrumental perspective, but starts to feel like Bono is yelling about glory and righteousness yet again, with really nothing new to add. “If we’d been with a different label I think they might very well have decided to drop us,” manager Paul McGuinness said at the time.
180. “Miami,” Pop
If there’s a less interesting premise for a song than “bored millionaires who can’t finish their album go take a vacation at a luxury destination,” not sure what it is.
179. “Original of the Species,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
It was originally about Bono’s goddaughter (Edge’s daughter), then Bono changed it up so it wasn’t a song for a child, and there are some vague mumblings about maintaining innocence. It has an engaging, expansive melody, but the lyrics just do not hold up to scrutiny, and the synthetic strings are cringeworthy.
178. “4th of July,” The Unforgettable Fire
Another Adam Clayton in-studio improvisation that the Edge joined in on, except this time Brian Eno had tape rolling, so what you hear is what they did in the studio, no overdubs, no multiple takes. It fits, slightly eerie and plaintive, and provides a necessary pause for the listener before the next track, back when records had deliberate sequences that informed most people’s experience of the album.
177. “The Hands That Built America,” Gangs of New York soundtrack
This song was “written to order for Martin Scorsese,” Bono said. So it’s surprising that what U2 delivered for this film in particular was a bland, uninspiring soundscape.
176. “God Part II,” Rattle and Hum
“God Part II” is meant as a direct a response to the 1988 Albert Goldman bio of John Lennon, following his then-shocking Elvis biography in the early ’80s. Not all windmills need to be tilted at, and a line like: “I don’t believe that rock’n’roll / Can really change the world” seemed pretty misplaced.
175. “Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova 1”
Written upon request for a theatrical production of A Clockwork Orange, the director was advised by Edge that while he might want a hit musical, “We warned him we weren’t very good with hits.” On the other hand, if you view this Berlin gothic-pop instrumental through the lens it was created for, it fits pretty damn well. It ended up as the B-side to “The Fly,” a good home for it.
174. “White As Snow,” No Line on the Horizon
The melody is ancient; Daniel Lanois was digging into 12th- and 15th-century hymns — as one does, if you’re Daniel Lanois — but when it came time for lyrics, Bono and the band were able to craft a story that could be modern or extremely old. The concept revolved around a soldier in Afghanistan, but the lyrics could have come from one of those hymns. There are also some uncharacteristic ’60s-influenced harmonies.
173. “Street Mission,” Early Demos
This outtake, released on the Early Demos project, has had a legendary reputation among fans as one of the holy-grail outtakes — one of those should’ve-been-released-whatever-were-they-thinking kind of things. The truth is that “Street Mission” is absolutely vital and important to the band’s history, but that doesn’t mean it is a very good song. It is loud and brash and shouty and ever so earnest, and you just want to pinch its freshly scrubbed, rosy-pink, punk-rock cheeks.
172. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” Songs of Innocence
U2 does not need to write a song in tribute to Joe Strummer; they already did that, with “Out of Control” or “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” or even “Street Mission.” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is well-intentioned but completely devoid of the impact and excitement of hearing the Clash for the first time. (No one can write a good song about the Clash, to be fair.)
171. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack
This is haunting and evocative, and the Edge’s solo will break your heart in two. Definitely one of their best songs of the last 20 years. Salman Rushdie gets a co-writing credit because Bono copped a line straight from Rushdie’s novel of the same name (he was very chuffed about it).
170. “The Troubles,” Songs of Innocence
It would be a reasonable assumption to think that a song called “The Troubles” on a U2 record would be about the conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century, except that it is not. It’s an interesting sonic experiment with Lykke Li on guest vocals, but oddly dispassionate.
169. “Wild Honey,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
This is a perfectly serviceable pop tune, but you kind of have to side with Larry Mullen, who said, “It’s a playful side to U2 you rarely get to see. But it wasn’t one of my favorites.”
168. “Yoshino Blossom,” The Unforgettable Fire (2009 deluxe edition)
Another demo that didn’t make the album. In the liner notes, Edge writes, “It seemed at the time to be a color already well-represented, so we never got around to developing it beyond this point.”
167. “Winter,” Brothers soundtrack
A reject from No Line on the Horizon that was reworked to play over the closing credits of a friend’s film. Eno was not pleased. “Tell them they’re being stupid cunts,” he joked to a journalist after playing him the song. It’s ambient and delicate, the kind of thing that you want playing as people are walking out of the movie theater.
166. “Things to Make and Do,” B-side of “A Day Without Me” single
It’s a sweet, little, surf-guitar-flavored instrumental which showed up as the B-side of the “A Day Without Me” single.
165. “Levitate,” Unreleased & Rare
More detritus from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with bits that ended up over in “Miracle Drug.” In the liner notes, the Edge writes that “Levitate” is one of the songs that “just don’t fit in.”
164. “Smile,” Unreleased & Rare
The Edge described “Smile” as one of those songs that “just arrived too late.” It’s definitely not finished in this state, but it probably should be. There are elements of love and faith, and the music is compelling.
163. “Treasure (Whatever Happened to Pete the Chop)”
Bouncy, joyous, full of vim and vigor. It’s not going to burn the world down, but the tune is memorable, and the melody line is bulletproof. Manager Paul McGuinness was so fond of it that he wanted to release it as a single; the Edge offers, “It was very melodic, but not really very good.” It is definitely an antidote to the A-side, “New Years Day.”
162. “Stateless,” The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack
“There were a couple of U2 songs there, and a couple that might have become U2 songs, but they were the kind of atmospheric, mid-tempo pieces that we come up with quite easily,” said Adam Clayton, which exactly characterizes this track.
161. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” Songs of Innocence
An oblique, yet direct condemnation of the various abuses committed by the Church in Ireland over the years. “Secrets can make you sick,” Bono writes in the liner notes. The melody here is controlled but unsettling, with a guitar solo that sounds like an SOS.
160. “A Man and a Woman,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
“That’s really the wild card on the album,” the Edge said in 2006. He’s not wrong, and it’s not a bad song — it is actually a fascinating, unexpected melody, but it’s kind of an abrupt pause on this particular record.
159. “When I Look at the World,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Bono sort of vaguely says, “Yeah, maybe it’s about my wife,” but there’s no overarching theme or melody here to make this one memorable.
158. “Red Light,” War
The most believable account of what this song is actually about is Bono mentioning something about Amsterdam and the red-light district, which would be understandably mind-blowing to a bunch of kids from still-sexually-conservative Ireland. The trumpet is courtesy Kenny Fradley of Kid Creole and the Coconuts (who sing backing vox), who just happened to be in town. It’s not a terrible song, but it’s not a great one either. Points for trying to do something different with it.
157. “Where Did It All Go Wrong”
Rescued from the cutting floor at Hansa Studios, this unnecessarily elevated demo somehow made it to the B-side of the “Even Better Than the Real Thing” single instead of any of the many far-superior tracks that didn’t make the final cut for Achtung Baby. There’s a nice, crunchy guitar break at the end and a vague Beatles-esque flavor, but it’s ultimately forgettable.
156. “Grace,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
“Hey, how about we end the record with another hymn, like we always do?”
155. “Volcano,” Songs of Innocence
“After grief comes rage,” Bono writes in the album liner notes for this track. But there’s a reasonable amount of self-deprecation in the lyrics — ”Do you live here or is this a vacation?” — and the melody is more upbeat than you’d expect for this subject matter.
154. “A Day Without Me,” Boy
When Boy came out, this was the track where you thought, “Hey, someone has been listening to Tom Verlaine.” That’s hardly a diss — it’s not like bands doing that were exactly thick on the ground — and the Edge’s ability to translate what he heard and make it his own is one of the hallmarks of U2. Bono deserves some credit for the purchase of the Memory Man echo unit that creates the soaring arpeggios on this track and “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.”
153. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” October
A Mr. David Bowie would like a word, gentlemen. That said, the song is actually about traveling to Berlin on tour, and is one of the album’s more genuinely interesting and engaging compositions.
152. “Indian Summer Sky,” The Unforgettable Fire
You can hear the rumblings of The Joshua Tree in the urgency and vibrancy of this track; Bono states that it’s about New York City, and far be it for me to tell him otherwise, but this song sounds like the elements invoked: light, wind, earth, air. It’s a good transition after “Bad,” but otherwise sounds more like a demo than a finished track.
151. “Shadows and Tall Trees,” Boy
The last track on Boy, this was a parting gesture — a multi-textured, harmonic send-off meant to depict the band’s suburban Dublin stomping grounds: The “shadows and tall trees” are meant to be the electric poles strung throughout the streets, the lyrics a reference to Lord of the Flies.
150. “Wire,” The Unforgettable Fire
One of several songs Bono would end up writing about heroin, and specifically, the heroin problem in Dublin, as well as his own guilt — or rather, what’s always seemed like a cautious acknowledgment that if he had not been the person he was, he might have gone down that path, out of curiosity or boredom or comradeship. The music doesn’t quite match the lyrics, which are abstract and vague with a type of casualness that might be unforgivable, except this is the record that “Bad” appears on, so “Wire” gets a pass. Extra credit to Larry Mullen Jr., who is practically playing in the pocket here, and the rest of the band for a churning, frenetic background which could have been great with different lyrics.
149. “Tomorrow,” October
The first time U2 played “Tomorrow” live, they were in the support slot for Thin Lizzy at Slane Castle — you literally cannot get a more Irish rock-and-roll pedigree than that — and they started their set with this song. “We were shite,” Bono said. “We failed spectacularly.”
There’s a lot about “Tomorrow” that’s unnecessarily overwrought; Bono described the lyrics as “unconscious rambling.” The lead instruments are uilleann pipes — the Irish version of bagpipes — and some very low-on-the-register bass rumblings. “Tomorrow” is one of those moments that make you grateful the band managed to finish this record and that the record company didn’t immediately show them the door.
148. “Touch,” “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” single
A perfectly acceptable B-side to “11 O’clock Tick Tock,” brisk and peppy, very much in tune with where U2 had decided they were going. But it’s simply not very memorable lyrically or instrumentally, Bono scatting about “touching you,” and the Edge trying to see how few notes he could play and, you know, still call it a song.
147. “Boy/Girl” Three
The third song on U2’s debut Ireland-only release, “Boy/Girl” is overwrought and vibrates so much from nervous excitement that it’s like listening to nails on a chalkboard. But if you listen to a live version (the one from the Marquee Club on the deluxe edition of Boy, for example) it sounds like a completely different band, capable and self-assured.
146. “The Fool,” Early Demos
From U2’s second demo session in 1978. This is a group of 17- and 18-year-old kids, and this track is absolutely as valid as as anything else coming out at the time. They instinctively understood what punk rock was meant to be; the Edge talks about seeing the Jam on Top of The Pops and “realizing that actually not knowing how to play was not a problem.” It’s a delightful mix of the Jam and the Undertones, with a little bit of Keith Moon flourish on the drums.
145. “If God Will Send His Angels,” Pop
Wait, was this supposed to be a dance record? “If we could sing and play like Prince, that would have been Top 10,” Bono said. Except that the lyrics are overwrought, even for Bono. The Edge blames the chorus: “It is a nice tune, but the chorus doesn’t connect.”
144. “Get on Your Boots,” No Line on the Horizon
There are fun bits and interesting sequences, but just because you compare something to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” does not make it so. There was an interesting sonic dynamic in the studio version — the compression on Bono’s voice — that you could not duplicate in a stadium. Every other member of the band was in lockstep, but there was no room to breathe for the lead singer. Clearly, someone felt like they needed a big noisy rocker à la “Vertigo” or “Elevation,” but there is a reason “Boots” hasn’t been heard from since the 360° tour, while the others are constants in the set list.
143. “Crumbs From Your Table,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
People like to give Bono a really hard time for his political involvement, but his advocacy for AIDS patients in Africa is above reproach. He was willing to talk to anyone from any side of the political spectrum in any country if he thought they could contribute money, or help him contribute money. “Crumbs From Your Table” is a fairly angry song about that experience. It is, let’s just say, oddly prescient.
142. “I’m Not Your Baby,” The End of Violence soundtrack
A surprisingly compelling duet between Sinead O’Connor and Bono, with lyrics by Mr. B and U2 as backing band, this track was another collaboration between U2 and director Wim Wenders. It walks a line between Zooropa and Pop, but is polished, sharp, and evocative.
141. “Drunk Chicken/America,” The Joshua Tree (20th Anniversary deluxe edition)
It’s an improvisation that was one of the first things U2 recorded when they began the process of putting together The Joshua Tree, and that’s Allen Ginsberg reciting his poem “America” over it. It’s one of the perks of being a rock star: that you can call anyone you want to show up on your records or at your concerts, and sometimes you call one of America’s greatest poets. Why wouldn’t you?
140. “Love You Like Mad,” Unreleased & Rare
Another outtake from All That You Can’t Leave Behind that sounds like a dead ringer for Tommy-era Who. Unlike a lot of these leftovers, this is an actual, realized song and would have fit very well on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
139. “Seconds,” War
Lead vocals and excellent guitar work from the Edge are the highlights here. There’s a lot to like about this one; tight, compact, evocative, it almost unintentionally contextualizes the record by coming in after “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in that it’s another current commentary. If anything, it almost foreshadows what the band would do later on the Zoo TV tour, with the sample from a documentary about female soldiers in the middle.
138. “The Three Sunrises,” Wide Awake In America
The same bass figure that opens “4th of July” opens this outtake, which, unlike most of the other rejected tracks for the album, morphs into a mostly complete thought, jangly and Beatles-esque. It allegedly almost made the record but was rejected because it didn’t fit, which is definitely true.
137. “Scarlet,” October
If this mostly instrumental track reminds you of “40” on War, you’re not imagining things. The strength of the musical composition on “Scarlet” is the only thing that keeps the listener from thinking, “Great, another song with Bono yelping about rejoicing again.” The bass line holds the melody, interspersed with warm, round guitar and piano chords from the Edge, with Larry holding down a quasi-martial drumbeat. It would have been a perfect ending to the record … except it wasn’t.
136. “Promenade,” The Unforgettable Fire
At the time, Bono was living with his wife Ali in a Martello Tower — basically a tiny castle near the ocean, renovated to include a glass roof at the top of the tower where they slept. You can hear all of this: the spiral staircase and the dizziness of young love (the two had only been married for two years, though they were teenage sweethearts); the two of them sitting at the top of their tower, watching the sun set over the seaside town. The song has the marks of loose improvisation, of ’70s-era Van Morrison — the kind of experimentation that Eno embraced strongly, paired with the kind of rhythm that Lanois loved.
135. “Fire,” October
“Fire” got U2 their first U.K. chart success, but it’s hard to understand how. The track has some solid moments, mostly thanks to the Edge pulling a sinuous guitar line out of the mess of a song. It sounds like U2 trying too hard to to do U2-type things in a U2-type song. Bono himself later said, “‘Fire’ was not a good song. I always had the faith that we could make it up as we went along, but sometimes we couldn’t, and that was a case in point.”
134. “Love and Peace or Else,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Big, loud, and very satisfying, Edge’s guitar is piped through what feels like the world’s biggest fuzz effect, before switching to slide at the end. It falls apart a little with the bridge because it takes you out of the giant rumbling noise. Still, very fun.
133. “Peace on Earth,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Originally written about the Omagh, Ireland, bombings in 1998, the song took on a new meaning when it was joined to “Walk On” for A Tribute to Heroes, and stayed there through the end of the Elevation tour.
132. “A Celebration,” single
This was recorded and released between October and War as an attempt at a stopgap filler, and it definitely feels that ephemeral. “At that point we needed a hit. ‘A Celebration’ wasn’t one of those,” the Edge said. The video is the very definition of ’80s video-making, with every possible cliché present and accounted for. (Nice red pants, Bono.)
131. “Every Breaking Wave,” Songs of Innocence
Bono has often said that while he might not understand certain things in the world, he understands relationships, and writes about them with empathy and nuance. He’s also drawn to using the sea as metaphor, which works here. The choruses are bright and impassioned.
130. “Song for Someone,” Songs of Innocence
Another song for the young Alison Stewart, aka Ali Hewson. In the introductions to the song on the Innocence and Experience tour, Bono would often speak about her encouragement to the young Paul Hewson and his music career — that his songs didn’t need to be perfect, but they needed to be. Bono’s voice starts out quietly, but quickly becomes impassioned at the chorus. It feels like you’ve walked into the middle of a conversation.
129. “Stories for Boys,” Boy
One of the band’s earliest songs, it was plucked from the live show and chosen for U2 3, the band’s first release. But the version on Boy is almost unrecognizable from the original — the latter being almost pop-punk parody, while the album rendition is larger and more interesting. The rhythm section shines here: Adam’s bass runs are plump and melodic, and Larry offers large, booming flourishes that are the perfect adornment.
128. “Stand Up Comedy,” No Line on the Horizon
According to Daniel Lanois, this was six different songs until it settled into this soul-shoegaze-electronica groove about love, with a side trip for Bono to take the piss out of himself: “Stand up to rock stars / Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine, be careful / Of small men with big ideas.” Indeed.
127. “Invisible,” single release
“Invisible” is slick, but almost too slick — like they set out to write an Apple commercial. There’s no doubt that U2 can consistently play this tight, but they’ve squeezed the life out of the track. There needs to be some grit and space, or U2 is not interesting.
126. “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” Zooropa
A tongue-in-cheek litany of the trials and tribulations of being a rock star.
125. “Like a Song,” War
This feels like U2 trying to offer commentary on the state of the music business at the time — “And in leather, lace, and chains / We stake our claim / Revolution once again” — but it’s all kind of wince-inducing and unnecessarily dramatic, even for someone who was on their side. The bridge is kind of interesting, and after basically not being able to hear Larry Mullen Jr. on the previous track (“New Year’s Day”), it’s good to hear him shine here. Mostly forgettable, though.
124. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” Songs of Innocence
U2 didn’t want to write a song that sounded like the Ramones, so they went in the opposite direction. But a song about the Ramones should be something you can dance to, and you cannot dance to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” The lyrics are tight, the message could not possibly be more sincere, but there’s something awkward with the cadence of the lyrics which overcomplicates it unnecessarily. Also, while it’s understandable that they wanted to namecheck Joey in the title, it just comes off as trying too hard, which this band does not need to do. You’re not fronting, guys; you legitimately loved and had your life changed by punk rock — just write about it. The fans who care will figure it out, and it won’t matter to the fans that don’t.
123. “Surrender,” War
As a story, “Surrender” is more linear than anything else on War; it was a song Bono had actually written, as opposed to improvised in the studio. It is particularly sympathetic to its protagonist, and was a definite counterpoint to how women appeared in other songs of the time. The band contributes a solidly constructed soundtrack that feels like the hustle and bustle of a big city, and the tension of one person trying to find or fight their way through. The Edge’s chromatic chords are just lovely.
122. “Lucifer’s Hands,” Songs of Innocence
When U2’s 360° tour reached South America and Europe, the shows opened with this utterly unhinged zombie-rock instrumental called “Return of the Stingray Guitar,” which promptly fell off the face of the earth once the tour was over. It would reappear in 2015 as the rather subdued backbone of “Lucifer’s Hands,” which, out of all the odes to the spirit of punk rock on this record, is the most enjoyable and successful: It’s loud; it’s straightforward; the rhythm section finds the room to add color and shadow; Bono’s vocal delivery is loose, sly, and mysterious; and you just want to drown in that guitar line. It feels just a tiny bit dangerous, which is a pretty great thing coming from some fiftysomething former punk rockers.
121. “California (There Is No End to Love),” Songs of Innocence
The melody is irresistible and Bono’s voice slides over the vocals. But lyrically, “California” is all over the place. Bono said in the liner notes that this is meant to be about the first time U2 went to L.A., but there is none of that in the song, even emotionally. There’s what feels like a story line about what it’s like to grow old in Los Angeles: “Everyone’s a star in our town / It’s just your light gets dimmer / If you have to stay.” But the choruses are in a completely different mode, echoing the overarching theme of the record: “There is no end to love,” which is balanced by “There is no end to grief.” The instrumentation is almost too bland; you can barely hear the guitar and bass. One suspects U2 realized the limitations of the track, because it was pretty much AWOL during the Innocence and Experience tour.
120. “Do You Feel Loved,” Pop
The way for U2 to write a sexy song is to not try to write one. When they try too hard, they end up with “Do You Feel Loved,” which feels 50 percent finished. Then again, that is the entire story of Pop, depending on who you talk to: not enough time and not the right people. The vibe is decent but it doesn’t go much further than that. “[It] was a great thought that never really became a great song,” the Edge said.
119. “October,” October
If you didn’t know the backstory of how hard it was for U2 to write and record their second album, you just had to wait until you got to the title track. It is gray and brittle, the sound of frozen tree branches and faded autumn leaves trapped in the first layer of ice on a pond. Bono’s vocals are achingly bleak, and the Edge comes in with that delicate yet assertive piano line. He hadn’t played piano since he was a child. “I really don’t know where that ‘October’ piece came from,” he said in 2006, “other than just sitting at a piano and that’s where it brought me: into this quite stark, quite gray, but beautiful European place.”
118. “Miracle Drug,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
The one thing that stops this song from being great is the chorus: “Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby’s head,” which is of course Bono’s favorite line in the song. Also: Sometimes there can be too much backstory to a song, no matter how inspirational it might be.
117. “Cedars of Lebanon,” No Line on the Horizon
As much as U2 tried to avoid bringing the war into this record, it was unavoidable, and it definitely creeped into “Cedars of Lebanon,” the thoughts of a war correspondent in the field. It’s an interesting close to this record — not a hymn or any kind of uplifting thought, but instead a reminder of the outside world, which everyone on the record is running from in some fashion. It’s a series of images narrated against a low-key, ambient background.
116. “The Ocean,” Boy
It’s not hard to make a guitar sound like ocean waves, but it is an art to make them sound like a particular kind of ocean waves: the dark rolling whitecap kind, the kind you’d see in the Irish Sea. And the Edge does so with aplomb. “The Ocean” is a little blip, 1 minute and 35 seconds of atmosphere. Bono has been hard on himself for the self-indulgence present in the opening lines (“A picture in gray, Dorian Gray / just me by the sea / And I felt like a star”), both back when it happened and then later on — but out of the long list of egotistical sins he’s actually guilty of, his vehemence in this particular case is interesting. He apologizes for it by saying, “It is the thought of everybody in a band who thinks he can change the world,” except that he wouldn’t have become Bono had Larry Mullen Jr. not thought the same way and put a note reading “Drummer seeks musicians to form band” on the bulletin board at Mount Temple Comprehensive.
115. “Into the Heart,” Boy
The segue from “An Cat Dubh” into “Into the Heart” originated from the band’s live show, so they kept it in place for the album. It is a piece of sorrow and hope: Adam’s bass line pulses like a heartbeat, while the Edge strums this gorgeous melody that feels like the end of heartbreak. Both the lyrics and the energy of Bono’s vocals carry this balloon of emotion to the end.
114. “An Cat Dubh,” Boy
Think about the 1-2-3 opening of Boy and the widely varying ranges of emotional tone from “I Will Follow,” “Twilight,” and now, “An Cat Dubh,” the black cat. We’re around the corner from the scene in “Twilight,” but we’ve now focused dead in on the tension of the scene, manifested by the sonics of Edge’s drone, the slight dread in Bono’s voice, and the story of a cat killing a bird and then sleeping next to it, waking up and playing with it again. There’s a riff at 2:44 from the Edge that is exactly that feeling, discordant and evil, shadowed by Bono’s howls. The xylophone that rings in the background adds both tension and fragility. This is how U2 were going to write about sex.
113. “New York,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
New Yorkers can’t be unbiased about songs about New York, especially ones written by people who have gigantic crushes on the city. “I just got a place in New York” sounds like every college grad arriving here from Ohio with a gleam in their eye, and that loud, dirty guitar on the chorus sounds like gridlock on a holiday weekend. It’s also an alternate reality: what Bono could have ended up like, had his life gone another way.
112. “So Cruel,” Achtung Baby
Our hero has lost his campaign to win back his sweetheart, and now he is left to face his desolation. It’s time to descend into bitterness: “I gave you everything you ever wanted / It wasn’t what you wanted.” The theme of betrayal loomed large over Achtung Baby with the end of the Edge’s marriage, the alienation of Berlin in the winter, and the band uncertain this wasn’t going to be the end of U2. “Between the horses of love and lust / We are trampled underfoot,” Bono sings. The question, then, is whether you get up from the ground or surrender.
111. “Slow Dancing,” B-side to “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” single
U2 wrote this for Willie Nelson and sent it off. When they got no response, they recorded it themselves — only for Willie to ring them up the next time he was in Dublin. They recorded a lovely version with him on lead vocals and released it on another single later.
110. “Please,” Pop
The genius of “Please” is in the last two verses, where the beats pause and the vocals gently layer — like a friend putting a hand on your shoulder and looking you in the eye in an attempt to get you to be honest with yourself. The remainder of the song feels light years away from the first half, and maybe that’s meant to be intentional. The cool detachment of the early verses open up to an impassioned pleading. It’s going to sound like a broken record to state that, like almost everything on Pop, no one in U2 thinks this track was finished.
109. “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” No Line on the Horizon
From the sacred to the mundane, with the classic line, “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.”
108. “Staring at the Sun,” Pop
On the record, the song isn’t that impactful, but on tour, they stripped it down to Bono and the Edge on acoustic out on the catwalk, and it was breathtaking.
107. “FEZ — Being Born,” No Line on the Horizon
This is a tale of escape and, ultimately, freedom. “The real important thing to know about this song is the sense of speed and this kind of primeval drive to get back to your essence,” Bono said in the album liner notes. You get all of that, for sure, but if you have the slightest bit of imagination, you can see the scenes in your head, and you suddenly have the urge to visit Morocco.
106. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car,” Zooropa
Another song that liberally borrowed elements or influences from the Zoo TV production: the fanfare sample in the intro and the images of Berlin after reunification, when Germans from the East were heading to Berlin in their Trabants — some of which barely made it into the city before breaking down on the side of the road. It’s impressionistic, futuristic, fun.
105. “Electrical Storm,” The Best of 1990–2000
This song came out of sessions earmarked to generate bonus content for the upcoming greatest-hits records. Larry Mullen called this track “an incomplete idea.” Unsurprisingly, Bono is more generous, calling it “a post-9/11 song, but it is not an overtly political song.” There’s a definite feeling of unease, conveyed through the tension in a relationship, and, if nothing else, it’s a lovely, atmospheric meandering that kind of grows on you. The video is fantastic.
104. “Last Night on Earth,” Pop
It’s a song you want to like. The off-kilter intro is so promising, there are a handful of vivid images (“She’s at the bus stop with the News of the World and The Sun,” you can just see a club kid stuck waiting for the first bus in the morning), the chorus is solid, and the concept of the story line is interesting, but it just does not connect. It probably doesn’t help that Bono came up with the chorus at 4 a.m. on their last night in the studio. (Sound familiar?) “It was a good tune,” the Edge said. “But is it up there with ‘New Year’s Day’ or ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’? Obviously not, or we would still be playing it live.”
103. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” Achtung Baby
At this point in the record, there had to be some respite, or listeners wouldn’t have kept going. It’s a light and fluffy composition that belies its origins, though; it was about U2’s own “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, where some of the band let loose in a manner they hadn’t been able to in their youth, when they were trying to get the band off the ground, get out of Ireland, and get a record contract. U2 have also characterized it as a drinking song, and made that point most definitively on the Zoo TV tour, where the Fly would go out on the catwalk, find an attractive young woman, spray Champagne around, and serenade the lucky lady on Handicam.
102. “I Fall Down,” October
By the time the band needed to be working on the follow-up to their debut, three-fourths of them were deeply enmeshed in a Christian fellowship group called Shalom. They were attending regular meetings of the group while trying to put together the album, which was causing Bono, Edge, and Larry to question everything, including their membership in the band. The Edge actually quit U2 at that time, but didn’t tell anyone except Bono. Some of this, or all of this, is inside “I Fall Down,” which is accompanied by a surprisingly sophisticated arrangement around delicate piano work from the Edge, and a gorgeous vocal from Bono. The whole thing shimmers with gold.
101. “North and South of the River,” B-side to “Staring at the Sun”
This track, written with the Irish folk singer Christy Moore, addresses the conflict in Northern Ireland around the time of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s a protest song, it’s Bono trying to write a gospel song and sing it like Al Green, and it’s wonderful. The band only performed it live once, on an Irish TV benefit for the victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998, where they deconstructed the song and made it more U2, and, understandably, more personal.
100. “Desert of Our Love,” The Joshua Tree (20th Anniversary deluxe edition)
An outtake particularly beloved among U2 fans, it’s more of what the Edge termed “the U2 sketchbook,” as this track sounds absolutely nothing like anything on The Joshua Tree. But it was the first moment in the recording sessions where things started to gel — which you can absolutely hear — and it’s a combination of reggae and juju and a few gospel-tinged chords from the Edge on the piano. There are no real lyrics yet, and Bono is just vocalizing, as he often does in the early phases of a U2 recording session — it’s known as “Bongolese” — but the overall combination is delightful. “Desert of Our Love” became another outtake called “Weather Girls,” and then they got rid of the vocal melody and the piano and kept the drums and bass, and it turned into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It is rare that an outtake is simultaneously enjoyable and illuminating, and something you’d listen to more than once.
99. “Fast Cars,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (U.K. and Japan release)/“Xanax and Wine,” Unreleased & Rare
The band had been in the studio for a year and a half, and true to form, it all came down to the wire on the second-to-last night when Bono decides he needs there to be a song on the record that has the title of the album in the lyric. “Xanax and Wine” met the criteria, but didn’t quite come together. So U2 tore the thing apart and refashioned it into “Fast Cars,” which is basically the same lyrics with a slightly retro guitar line that owes a few beers to Link Wray. (This is not a bad thing.) The lyric delivery on both of them sound like “Get Out of Denver” by Bob Seger, but “Fast Cars” has by far the more interesting melody, so it wins.
98. “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” Pop
One of the more successful numbers on Pop, it’s full of simple but interesting textures; but like most of the songs on the album, it occupies a middle ground that’s vague and tentative. “It wanted to be a lounge classic,” Bono said. He finally got his wish when he recorded it with Jools Holland in 2007. Yes, Holland is a skilled bandleader, but the vocals are Bono in full torch-singer mode.
97. “Twilight,” Boy
The road from the B-side of “Another Day,” the first U2 single, to track two on Boy, is astonishing. The single had that kernel of something else that the band themselves probably weren’t aware of, but they were able to hone and polish it from breathless clamor into this tale of darkness and light and the shadows in between. It’s a respite from “I Will Follow,” but not by much, as the last chorus winds up dramatic tension vocally from Bono before he passes it over to Edge for a taut, compact refrain.
96. “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad”
If you think this sounds like Bono trying to do his best Frank Sinatra, well, that’s exactly what this tune is. But they never heard back from Frank, so Bono recorded it himself. To be honest, this would have been perfect as a background scene in Oceans 11, Bono dressed as an aging version of the Fly in one of the casinos up on Fremont Street.
95. “The Unforgettable Fire,” The Unforgettable Fire
U2’s fourth record was recorded in a round gothic ballroom at Slane Castle, where the band had rehearsed and fell in love with the acoustics. (“The sound is magnificent,” Bono said of the space in 2006. “If Phil Spector was going to lie in state, it would be here.”) When you listen to the album’s title track, you can feel all of this, as well as the influence of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who took over the board this time out. It is a vast, expressive piece that bears no resemblance to traditional verse-chorus-verse rock or pop songwriting from a vocal melody standpoint. It’s one of those songs that you can absolutely feel, heart in your throat or in the pit of your stomach, but have no idea what it’s actually about. Bono himself admits that the lyrics are a sketch, but there is a strong sense of love lost and love longed for: “Stay this time,” “Come and take me away,” “Save your love / don’t push me too far.” It is an astonishing composition.
94. “Salomé,” B-side to “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
Recorded in Dublin, but definitely pointing toward Berlin, “Salomé” leaked in the early ’90s and either thrilled or horrified U2 fans about the future direction of the band. There’s a lot to like about the rhythms and textures (and there’s an awesome extended remix), but it wasn’t quite where U2 wanted to end up, given that it didn’t make Achtung Baby.
93. “Walk to the Water,” B-side to “With or Without You” single
An improvisational sketch, with moderately successful pretentions toward Beat poetry. The soft melody would have fit into The Unforgettable Fire. (Watch Bono whisper it into the end of “All I Want Is You,” recorded for an upcoming BBC special.)
92. “Summer Rain,” B-side of “Beautiful Day” single
A poppy, atmospheric, quasi-acoustic number that feels tinged with nostalgia in a good way; it sounds familiar, but it’s brand-new, and would have been great on the radio. Alas, it did not make the cut for All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
91. “Two Hearts Beat As One,” War
Another tour de force for Mr. Adam Clayton, the bass on this created the deepest, most unexpectedly danceable rhythm. As a pop song, it’s well-constructed, and did admirable duty as the record’s second single. But where this song excels is in the dance remix by Steve Lillywhite, which pulls out the bass line and keyboards and digs a solid groove.
90. “In a Little While,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Bono sings this in a desperate, tattered voice. The term “whiskey-soaked” is such a cliché, except in this case it happens to be 100 percent accurate: He had been drinking all night, got two hours of sleep, and came in and improvised the lyrics and the melody. He even works in a Van Morrison reference, to boot.
89. “Red Hill Mining Town,” The Joshua Tree
Throughout their history, U2 have been criticized for being political, as well as for not being political enough. “Red Hill Mining Town” is one of those moments. A commentary on the 1984–85 U.K. miners’ strike, the song focuses on the social impact of the strike, not the political or economic impact. “I feel more qualified to write about relationships because I understand them more than what it’s like to work in a pit,” Bono told Niall Stokes. The song is a masterful composition of despair and helplessness; the anguish in the vocals in that last bridge is truly heartrending. It’s worth noting that this song came into being from Bono’s first encounter with Bob Dylan, which took him in the direction of folk music, to this unbelievable version of Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mining Disaster.”
88. “Cedarwood Road,” Songs of Innocence
Bono grew up at 10 Cedarwood Road, and although he’s referenced his neighborhood plenty of times throughout U2’s history, this is the first time he brings us inside the house with teenage Bono. “You can’t return to where you’ve never left.”
87. “Another Time, Another Place,” Boy
One of the undersung numbers from Boy, this track is a complete thought, a fully formed composition, with all four band members performing at an equal level: Bono’s voice soars, full of promise, while Edge, Larry, and Adam mesh together like puzzle pieces. It’s wistful and innocent, earnest and heartfelt. In later interviews, Bono kind of shrugs this one off, but it’s a perfect tale of youthful lust and longing to be alone together.
86. “Blow Your House Down,” Achtung Baby (20th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” and “Uber Deluxe” editions)
One of the best and most legendary of the Berlin outtakes, this barn burner has its roots in the ’60s with the harmonies and overall flavor, but enough edge (sorry) to make it feel fully modern. “Blow Your House Down” came into existence in the Rattle and Hum days, and there’s a fascinating outtake from the film showing Edge, Bono, and Jimmy Iovine working on the song while sitting on a beach on Long Island, Iovine enthusiastic about the song’s potential. It’s not hard to hear this fitting into Achtung Baby; it would have skewed the story slightly, but would still have fit in thematically, in a sort of “dancing while the world around you ends,” postapocalyptic mood. On the other hand, Island would have pushed hard for it to have been a single, and that would have been difficult to walk back from, taking away from the mood set by the actual singles.
85. “Kite,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Another heartbreaker, this one is subconsciously about Bono’s father (who would pass away in 2001), but is also just another missive of remembrance and loss. Bono’s voice soars, climbing from the end of the first verse until he goes full throttle into the chorus, with the Edge behind him echoing the melody.
84. “Breathe,” No Line on the Horizon
On an album full of ambitious and complex songs, “Breathe” is surprising and absolutely fascinating. In this rolling, surging melody, with Bono half-singing, half-speaking, his delivery is a mixture of Nick Cave, Michael Stipe, and maybe a little Allen Ginsberg. The breathless, conversational style is matched by an equally urgent melody behind it. There’s an element of paranoia with a touch of euphoria. It could just be stream of consciousness or it could be some biblical parallel; that early morning visitor could be God, or Satan: “Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer / There’s a few things I need you to know.” But more likely it ties into the “let me in the sound” theme Bono threaded through the record — this idea that we are all people of sound, because he gets to the point where he states, “We are people born of sound / The songs are in our eyes / Gonna wear them like a crown,” and also “I’ve found grace inside a sound / And I can breathe now.”
83. “Dirty Day,” Zooropa
“Dirty Day” is a mix of contrasts: the low-key intro; Bono’s voice unadorned and raw, even when the falsetto comes in; the teasing hint of guitar notes under the vocal, until the song opens up at the chorus. It’s another song about fathers and sons, but this time the father walks out and meets his son years later. The outro name-checks Charles Bukowski, who (of course) the band had come to know: “Hank says, the days run like horses over the hill” references the title of one of Bukowski’s books.
82. “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland),” The Joshua Tree (20th Anniversary deluxe edition)
This song began its life as “Birdland,” and was part of the batch of leftovers from the TJT sessions. When the band finished the record and went back over the outtakes to cull material for B-sides, they decided this track was too strong, so they put it aside. Edge has said that he tried going back to the song, but “could never get back inside.” It didn’t get pulled out of the pile until 2007, when U2 decided to revisit it for the 20th-anniversary edition. Bono pulled together a lyric and rerecorded the vocal. The origin of the lyrics came from Bono’s experience volunteering in Ethiopia after Live Aid, and the lovely, minimalist piano and percussion-heavy arrangement owes enough to the Patti Smith Group that U2 added the “(Birdland)” coda to the title as a nod of thanks. It’s only ever been performed once, at a charity gig in 2007.
81. “Van Diemen’s Land,” Rattle and Hum
The Edge was inspired by the story of a man who left the British army to join the Irish nationalists and write poetry, and it was that poetry that got him deported to Tasmania, known in Irish folk culture as Van Diemen’s Land. It is not a bad song, just a curiously sequenced one, and did not help U2 in service to the story they were trying to tell with the album (and, later, movie). Anywhere else, it would have made sense, but at the top it was just too precious. Sorry, Edge.
80. “In God’s Country,” The Joshua Tree
A dream of America, one beyond cities and tour-bus windows, the music is as expansive as the sun rising over the horizon. And yet, there’s possibly unintentional commentary that’s almost hidden: “Sad eyes, crooked crosses / In God’s country.” It’s not accidental that a record inspired by America would end up being a fantastic road-trip record. Time this one right and you’ll think you’re flying.
79. “Raised by Wolves,” Songs of Innocence
A story of the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings in 1974, “Raised by Wolves” is a collection of sharp, cinematic scenes, every word carefully chosen, yet offering a wealth of astonishing, heartbreaking detail; the specificity brings you into the scene so that you’re looking at it from the same perspective as Bono. You won’t realize that, until the chorus arrives and you are there with him in his sorrow and rage: “Raised by wolves / Stronger than fear” is the anguished cry. It was a phenomenal piece of stagecraft on the Innocence and Experience tour, segueing in from “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which wasn’t so much obvious as necessary.
78. “Vertigo,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
If this song hadn’t been in an Apple ad, everyone would have loved it. It’s not serious, but it is interesting. Bono describes it as being trapped in a nightclub (and there is definitely some crappy nightclub named “Vertigo” out there) that you do not want to be at. Through that lens, even the botched count-off at the beginning makes sense; there’s always some slob who thinks they speak the local language when they do not. There are good lines, there are great images — it’s really just a rock-and-roll song. There was, however, no need to play it twice during a show, which U2 were entirely too fond of doing.
77. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” Achtung Baby
This is not the strongest track on the album, but it is sonically resonant, and coming after the betrayal in “Until the End of the World,” one could view this as the flip side: the guilty party having to deal with the aftermath of their perfidy when their beloved decides to go elsewhere, and the jealousy that ensues. There is blame and pleading and confessions and insistence and obsession and regret. Sonically, it’s as gigantic as new love or a broken heart, and it all builds up to the two lines at the end of the bridge — “Come on now love / Don’t you look back” — sung with tremendous pain and passion.
76. “Lady With the Spinning Head,” B-side to “One”
This early track was another useful exercise in the process toward Achtung Baby, but ended up being a parts car, with different elements stolen to be part of “The Fly,” “Ultraviolet,” and “Zoo Station.” The art of the B-side is lost in the days of streaming, but in this context, a B-side was a perfect place for this particular track, as it gave the fans a piece of the puzzle to figure out for themselves.
75. “Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom soundtrack
Written specifically for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it’s the classic Bono approach to interpret an event in the most micro way, through its impact on a relationship. It’s a lovely, evocative song — “Your heart is on my sleeve / Did you put it there with a magic marker?” — and the instrumentation and vocals definitely evoke the fragility of love falling apart. The problem with it is that there isn’t enough here to connect the listener to Nelson Mandela unless you knew that was what the song was supposed to be about: If you have to give a half-dozen interviews to explain the song, it might be a sign that it needs some help. Otherwise it fits beautifully into the Songs of Innocence and Experience cycle.
74. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” Batman Forever soundtrack
“I figured it’d be good for us to be involved in something that’s basically throwaway and light-hearted,” the Edge said about this Zooropa leftover that was transformed into something that sounds exactly like the soundtrack for a comic-book hero. It soars and zooms and creates a mood.
73. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Brian Eno can throw everything into a blender that he wants, but this is still a gospel song at its heart — a tribute to Michael Hutchence, the late INXS singer who was a friend of the band and whose suicide weighed heavily on Bono and Edge particularly. Bono told Rolling Stone, “[I]t’s a row I didn’t have while he was alive.” The last three stanzas of the song are heart-wrenching.
72. “Lemon,” Zooropa
Another song delivered in the “Fat Lady” voice that Bono developed during Achtung Baby, and that, combined with the light, lilting melody, hides the fact that this is about Bono’s mother, who died when he was very young.
71. “Magnificent,” No Line on the Horizon
The key line to this song is in the second verse, where Bono sings about his first cry being a joyful noise. U2 aren’t working Bible references into their songs accidentally, and if you circle up to the top of the verse: “I was born to sing with you.” Extend that further to the first verse: “I was born to be with you.” Bono could be talking about a lover or he could be talking about the audience — or both.
70. “Drowning Man,” War
It’s not the best song on the record — to be fair, there is a fair amount of competition — but it is both ambitious and fully realized. Every single member of the band turns in a stunning performance, the instrumentation providing both delicate shade and solid counterpoint, the vocals raw and impassioned, and the lyrics grounded in adoration of both spiritual and physical. Extra credit to Steve Wickham’s violin and Edge’s almost Spanish-guitar flourishes toward the end of the song. Ethereal.
69. “MLK,” The Unforgettable Fire
Like “40” on War, U2 closed this record with another hymn-cum-lullaby. The impact of a visit to the Chicago Peace Museum, transitioning “Pride” from a song about Ronald Reagan into a song about the civil rights movement and the sense of self-respect it inspired in African-Americans, mixed with the story of Bono meeting Bob Dylan for the first time, and talking about Memphis with him — all of these things created “MLK.” It’s an uplifting piece of music and a genuine tribute, even if it might have felt a bit ham-fisted back in the day. It would grow to fit its boots in the live show, most notably during the Joshua Tree tour in 1987, where the theme of the song made so much more sense.
68. “Trip Through Your Wires,” The Joshua Tree
“‘Trip Through Your Wires’ has that lovely loose, sloppy, throwaway side of the band that we can sometimes capture,” Adam Clayton said, and he speaks the truth. It has a groove; it genuinely swings; it feels organic and fun. The lyrics pull from that drowsy, lustful space that many of the B-sides (“Spanish Eyes,” “Luminous Times”) come from, and on the original Joshua Tree tour, it often found that rhythm. It ended up being one of the disappointments of the 2017 tour, feeling a tad plodding, and you can’t even blame the theory that an album track list (thank you, Kirsty MacColl) does not have the same concerns as a live one.
67. “The Fly,” Achtung Baby
Everything on “The Fly” is U2 Mark II: that gigantic industrial guitar loop, the deep bass, the offbeat percussion, and, of course, the Fly himself. The now-infamous retro sunglasses were the key to Bono finding the voice, both lyrically and vocally, giving him a freedom to not be “Bono” and to reach out for a different dynamic and temperament, to not have to be so earnest and heroic, but rather to slip into another persona. “The way I saw ‘The Fly’ was like a crank call from hell … but the guy likes it there,” Bono said. “Look, I gotta go,” the Fly says. “I’m running outta change.”
66. “Hallelujah, Here She Comes,” B-side to “Desire” / Best of 1980–1990
A little bit of Irish gospel that didn’t make the cut, but it has bones! The organ in the background, courtesy of none other than Billy Preston, should have elevated this track off of the cutting-room floor, but, alas. “Born and raised on the wrong side of town / You get so high you can’t come down,” Bono sings. It is evocative and memorable.
65. “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Songs of Innocence
Bono has written about his mother since the very early days of U2 — “I Will Follow” is directly about her death and its impact on him at the age of 14 — and by extension, Bono becoming Bono is directly a result of the impact of that loss on him. “Iris” is, however, a song from today, the grown-up Bono reflecting back. It is almost a frayed nerve end, and will make anyone who’s lost a parent at any age get a bit misty.
64. “Heartland,” Rattle and Hum
“Heartland” is the soundtrack to hundreds of miles of America, as seen through a tour-bus window for the first time, or through renting a car and driving through the Southwest and trying to understand this impossible, incredible place. It was written during the Joshua Tree sessions, but shelved in place of “Trip Through Your Wires,” which makes sense — but it absolutely fits here, another piece of the story of figuring out America between what you think you know and what the reality is. It is a gorgeous ode to the concept that Bono would later articulate as “America is not just a country, but an idea.” It is sweet and wistful and sounds like how it feels to drive your car on a forgotten interstate. It is not an accident that it’s the song playing in the background when U2 make their way down to the Mississippi in Rattle and Hum.
63. “Discothèque,” Pop
Is this “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “New Year’s Day”? No, but it has a good beat and you can dance to it, and the video is hilarious: pouting Larry, Adam with a giant disco ball over his crotch, and major homoeroticism between Edge and Bono. A lengthy book could be written about the disaster that was Pop and the subsequent tour, but this track, at least, is a good bit of fun.
62. “Your Blue Room,” Passengers — Original Soundtracks I
Gorgeously twisted, it’s a mix of “Space Oddity” and Blue Velvet. They actually tried playing it in stadiums a half-dozen or so times on the 360° tour, which is insane to even consider.
61. “No Line on the Horizon,” No Line on the Horizon
This record expanded the songwriting cadre to include Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and you can definitely feel their involvement stretching the edges of U2. The delicate impressionism of the title track is about dreams and escape, and you can hear it.
There was an early alternate version of the track that came out on the B-side of “Get on Your Boots” that is vastly different, heavier, more rhythmic, and in many ways better. But it clearly didn’t fit the vibe the band was going for.
60. “Love Rescue Me,” Rattle and Hum
The song’s backstory is how it earned its place on the album: Bono woke up one morning with a song in his head, but he wasn’t sure if it was one of his songs, or one of Bob Dylan’s songs. So he calls Bob and goes to his house in Malibu, where he sings the song to Dylan. Dylan says, “No, it’s not one of mine — but it could be,” and the two of them collaborate to finish the lyrics. One of the five songs recorded in five hours at Sun Studios, the Memphis Horns are the best part of the song, transforming it into countrified soul; Dylan is singing background vocals somewhere in the mix, and there’s allegedly a version with lead vocals that wasn’t used, so there was no conflict with the Traveling Wilburys. It’s the flip side, really, of “Hawkmoon 269,” the dressed-up-for-church version. It’s not a bad song by any means, but there were stronger contenders that ended up as B-sides. You can’t put a co-write with Bob Dylan on a B-side.
59. “Gone,” Pop
It’s hard to be a rock band and write a song about what it’s like to be in a rock band without sounding either ungrateful or oblivious. “Gone” comes really close to the mark, and although the band are hard on this particular number, it’s presented with enough honesty and lack of coyness to make it worthwhile. “Then you discover what you thought was freedom is just greed,” Bono sings at the end, as the band are about to go off on a tour they’re not ready for to support an album they all believe is not finished, with one of the most elaborate stage sets of all time. Maybe someone should have paid attention to the lyrics. The song came back during the Elevation tour, usually dedicated to the late Michael Hutchence, and in an arena, the song has an intimacy it couldn’t possibly achieve in the colossus of PopMart.
58. “I Threw a Brick Through a Window,” October
The difference between the album version and the live version of this track is dramatic. On record, it’s interesting rhythmically, but feels lugubrious and stiff. This isn’t surprising when you learn that Larry Mullen could not get through the tempo and came back one day to find that the Edge had overdubbed the drums. But live, this track is electric and cathartic, U2 building a sonic space that others would later try to duplicate but never succeed in doing. And, more importantly, the freedom of the expanded space makes it easier to instinctively understand what story Bono was trying to tell — because that’s exactly what the song is about, an action that creates space where there was none before. It’s the story of punk rock. “I THREW A BRICK! I THREW A BRICK!” Bono would cry out back in the day, and the hair would stand up on the back of your neck.
57. “All Because of You,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
“A love song to the Who” is how Bono introduced this the day U2 played underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s also a song about origins, and mothers, and the divine female — and sure, fine, good. But listen to the Edge peeling Townshend-ian riffs off of his guitar, Larry hitting the drums with crisp precision, Adam playing a secondary melody, and it can just be a love song to rock and roll.
56. “Zoo Station,” Achtung Baby
The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, the sound of the Berlin Wall coming down, the sound of a train coming out of a tunnel into the sunlight of another country — “Zoo Station” is all of those things. It is U2 inviting you to get on that train with them and run away. Inside the train is the Berlin of Bowie and Iggy, the Berlin of Isherwood, the Berlin split in two and reunited again. “When people put on the record, we wanted their first reaction to be either ‘This record is broken,’ or, ‘This can’t be the new U2 record, there’s been a mistake,’” Adam Clayton said. “Zoo Station” is astonishing, jaw-dropping, and ecstatic.
55. “When Love Comes to Town,” Rattle and Hum
B. B. King: “I’m no good with chords, so what we do is get somebody else to play that.”
Bono: “Well, Edge will do that; there’s not that many chords in the song, there’s only two.”
The presence of this song — that U2 would dare to want to collaborate with B. B. King! — upset so much of the Establishment. But it sure seems like everyone involved in the song was having a good ol’ time here.
54. “Sweetest Thing,” 1980–1990
It’s a compact little love ditty, written because Bono missed his wife’s birthday while working on The Joshua Tree. “Sweetest Thing” didn’t fit the record (it ended up as the B-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name”), and then was dusted off and rerecorded in 1998 for the leadoff single on the greatest-hits compilation The Best, 1980–1990. It’s innocuous enough, but what bumps it up a bracket is the video made to promote it, featuring Bono and what seems like half of Dublin coming out to support him in currying favor with a lady, played by Ali Hewson herself (in exchange for the single’s royalties being donated to her favorite charity, the Chernobyl Children’s Project). The video features: Irish boy band Boyzone, male strippers dressed as firefighters, a boys’ marching band, a string quartet, an elephant, a chef (played by Bono’s brother Norman), skywriting, street banners, and the remaining members of U2. Watch for the moment when Bono removes his glasses for extra emphasis at the “A blue-eyed boy / Meets a brown-eyed girl” line.
53. “Numb,” Zooropa
The Edge gets another solo outing, writing and performing it, with visits from Bono singing in his “Fat Lady” falsetto. He called it “the sound of the inside of somebody’s head,” an accurate characterization of this almost Kraftwerk-ian composition, which also contains a healthy dose of humor — all of which can be seen in the hilarious video for the song.
52. “Exit,” The Joshua Tree
Sometimes the muses lead you in a direction you don’t expect, or anticipate: the darkness and evil in works by authors such as Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, and of course, Norman Mailer, whose The Executioner’s Song was the nominal influence for “Exit.” The song isn’t a retelling of any one story, but rather an examination of the forces that drove the people or characters those authors wrote about. “Exit” is a roller coaster of emotions, pinned down by Adam Clayton’s heartbeat bass in formation with Mullen’s drumming picking up the pulse — there is so much masterful precision going on — and then Edge’s guitar slipping by like wisps of fog until it explodes in violent intensity, Bono’s vocals walking a line between observer and participant.
But when you invoke the muses, there is sometimes a cost. “Exit” would let the band exorcise their demons, but then Bono slipped and fell early on during a performance of the song, badly damaging his shoulder and causing him to perform the rest of the tour in a sling (you can see it in the video of “Trip Through Your Wires”). Later, the man who murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 would claim that he was inspired by the song. All of the above likely contributed to the disappearance of the track in the band’s live set once the Joshua Tree tour was over, until the announcement in 2017 of the 40th-anniversary tour. This time out, Bono took off his glasses, donned some eyeliner and a costume change, and created a character he referred to as “Shadow Man” for the performances of the song, which was both masterful and breathtaking. But the real hero of the track in 2017 was the Edge, whose fury on guitar went above and beyond.
51. “Holy Joe,” B-side of “Discothèque” (1997)
In the oddest, most perverse product placement, this was the song chosen to debut Pop to the media at a press event held inside a Kmart in New York City. It would end up as the B-side to “Discothèque,” but otherwise never show its face again, for reasons only known to the band. This sly, incisive scorcher should’ve found its place on Pop.
50. “Silver and Gold,” Rattle and Hum
When Keith Richards somehow refrains from planting his boot up your ass for confessing that you not only don’t know the blues, you “object to it,” you go home and write this in penance. And then, somehow, Bono managed to charm Ricahrds and Ron Wood into recording the track with him, which appeared on the Sun City album in all its overwrought vocal glory.
U2 recorded it during The Joshua Tree sessions, where it ended up in the outtake pile, even though in many ways it is better than the version that appeared on Sun City. The Sun City version absolutely has its moments (with Keith Richards hitting some very Keith Richards chords), but it is mostly a mess in a “Dylan shows up to Live Aid with Ron Wood and Keith and the three of them make damn fools of themselves” kind of way. The studio version, on the other hand, is compact, taut, focused, and takes no prisoners. The moment when both Larry and Edge explode after the second chorus is priceless, and Bono’s vocals are far more believable now that he’s not trying to imitate a 70-year-old black sharecropper.
Finally, there’s the explosive live version that showed up on Rattle and Hum — except Bono had to offer that sarcastic, “Okay, Edge, play the blues,” which was just fuel to the fire for the critics who didn’t pick up on the sarcasm and thought the band were too full of themselves.
49. “The Wanderer,” Zooropa
It’s like Johnny Cash showed up at the Star Wars cantina as himself. Adam’s bass sounds like the music in a bad video game. That might sound like a bad thing, but it works: This ancient bard showing up at the end of the world to tell the tales of his travels, in the deepest world-weary, gravelly voice.
48. “She’s a Mystery to Me,” B-side to “All Because of You” single
Written by Bono and Edge for none other than Roy Orbison, it fits him so well that it’s as though it was written for him by request, except it wasn’t. Like many of Bono’s song ideas, this is another one that came in a dream. He had fallen asleep listening to the soundtrack to the film Blue Velvet, and when he woke up, was sure the song in his head was from the CD. When he discovered that it wasn’t, he wrote it down and played it later that day during sound check. After the show, guess who arrived backstage unannounced?
47. “The Crystal Ballroom,” Songs of Innocence (vinyl only)
The most important song on the album … gets left off the album, is only available as a bonus track on the vinyl release, and is only played three times on tour. “The Crystal Ballroom” is about the place where Bono’s parents met and used to go dancing, and where, later, U2 played as a young band. The song is written from the perspective of that young Bono imagining his parents, specifically his mother, dancing together and watching him play. “Everyone’s here with me tonight / Everyone but you” is heartbreaking.
46. “Unknown Caller,” No Line on the Horizon
You hear the sounds of birds, recorded in Morocco? It’s the morning after “Moment of Surrender,” our hero hanging onto the universe by his fingernails (to paraphrase Bono), when he starts to get messages from his phone. “Are they a conscience, is it a crank, or is it God?” Bono wrote in the album’s liner notes. He knows the answer, because of the 3:33 reference; on the cover of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the clock reads J3:33, and Bono explained, “That’s Jeremiah 3:33. The Scripture is ‘Call unto me and I will answer you.’ It’s celestial telephony.” The last minute-and-a-half of the song is a glorious instrumental interlude between organ, French horn, and a moving, lyrical solo from the Edge. Like “Moment of Surrender,” there is a serendipitous manifestation of energy between band and audience when it’s performed live. You don’t write lines like, “Go, shout it out, rise up,” if you don’t want to hear them sung in unison by a large group of people.
45. “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel,” B-side to “Angel in Harlem” / Best of 1980–1990
The Edge called it “gospel meets Suicide,” which pretty much sums it up: It is both uplifting and terrifying. One of the better Elvis-themed U2 songs, it still doesn’t quite meet the mark, despite the backing vocals, horn refrain, and Link Wray-esque reverberating guitar, all in service of name-checking the mystery train. You have to wonder what this could have been had they tried to take it up a notch.
44. “The First Time,” Zooropa
Just when you think the record is going to be enjoyable, but not classic, “The First Time” shows up. Bono said he had been listening to a lot of Al Green, and wanted to write a song about faith, or rather, the loss of faith, or the struggle not to lose it. The prodigal son returns home, but it’s not a happy ending. Bono invokes John 14:2 — ”In my father’s house, there are many mansions” — but then says, “But I left by the back door / And I threw away the key.” It’s a quiet but intense song.
43. “Mothers of the Disappeared,” The Joshua Tree
Bono wrote this song inspired by the movement of Argentinian mothers demanding justice for their missing children. It is not a rock song; it is almost proto-electronic in feel, anchored by a drum loop Eno put through a processor, with a Spanish guitar line along the top. The drum loop, despite the processing, feels organic when it ties into the lyrics: “We hear their heartbeat,” and it feels like one, albeit in the distance. Bono doesn’t sing so much as chant, and then he veers into keening, as though he is giving voice to the mothers’ grief. It is a very nonlinear song, but in the progression of side two of the album, the steps from “One Tree Hill” to “Exit” to “Mothers of the Disappeared” are not that far removed. It is a difficult song to get right in a live setting, which is why it did not appear on set lists with any great regularity until 2017, where it became both respite after the emotional crescendo of the record and a highlight of the tour.
42. “Wake Up Dead Man,” Pop
Instead of ending this record with a hymn, U2 ends it with a prayer. Contextually, if you follow the arc of the album, this is literally the only place they could have arrived at, praying for guidance in the blackness and desperation. The key to the song are the two ringing guitar chords in the chorus, which are a reveille calling out to God and to the disciple who’s lost faith.
41. “Luminous Times (Hold Onto Love),” B-side to “With or Without You” single
Dominated by piano and percussion, it’s another one of the ecstatic odes to one’s beloved that was the undercurrent during the Joshua Tree studio sessions. It feels improvisational, but that’s more due to the stream-of-consciousness vocal style Bono adopts in the service of mirroring the breathlessness of the lyrics. It’s a moment.
40. “Until the End of the World,” Achtung Baby
Written for the most underrated Wim Wenders film, “Until the End of the World” is the sound of the snake slithering up the tree in the Garden of Eden after getting Eve to take a bite of the apple. It is a conversation between Jesus and Judas. It is about the sharpest, deepest betrayal, but the twist comes at the end: “I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You, you said you’d wait / Till the end of the world.” Ultimately, forgiveness triumphs. The noise behind the lyrics is enormous and overpowering, embodying the pain of disloyalty, both for the person committing the bad act and the one suffering from it.
39. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
There is so much love, regret, and gratitude in this song, written about Bono’s father. In the last verse, Bono’s voice soars with just the tiniest crack of sadness: “Can you hear me when I sing / You’re the reason I sing / You’re the reason why the opera is in me.”
38. “Stay (Faraway, So Close),” Zooropa
This song began its life as something Bono and Edge were working on for Frank Sinatra, and you can envision that in the lyrics of the first verse. The second verse feels like Berlin, and the third verse links to Zoo TV — “With satellite television you can go anywhere.” During the Zooropa sessions, Wim Wenders came to the band, needing a song for a new movie about angels who want to become mortal and live on Earth. “Just the bang and the clatter as an angel runs to ground,” and Larry Mullen hits the edge of the snare drum. Boom. It sounds disjointed, but it works together, and is perfect for the movie. It almost doesn’t fit on the album.
37. “Moment of Surrender,” No Line on the Horizon
Bono creates this vast and vivid landscape in “Moment of Surrender” laden with multiple layers of symbolism and significance. It is profound and overwhelming, but in the live show it was absolutely transcendent: It was Bono testifying, the band as choir, Edge executing those heartrending melodies on keyboard and then on guitar. The 360° tour traditionally closed with this song, and it was the perfect thing to have in your head as you walked out of the show, not at all dissimilar to what it felt like to have “40” echoing in the streets once upon a time.
36. “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”
U2’s second single, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” demonstrates a band who were now trying to rein themselves in instead of running ahead at full speed for every second of every minute. The band is still a little stiff, but there is nothing predictable about the music, lyrics, or performance. There’s lovely shade from Adam Clayton before the last refrain, Edge’s power chords would slice through butter, and, end to end, it is a vivid emotional moment.
But where most people first came to know “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is from Under a Blood Red Sky, where the band turns in just about as perfect a performance of this particular track as they’d ever get. All of the extraordinary elements of the track are even more so: Bono has learned how to emote without overstretching and Larry and Adam work in lockstep, and giving Edge the ability to deftly thread guitar notes from start to finish — even when the lead singer needs to go into the crowd and pull a girl out to dance with.
35. “Mofo,” Pop
T-Bone Burnett has said that all rock and roll is about “Daaaddy!” And while that’s definitely there in Bono’s case, the overarching influence that his mother’s young death left on him is what likely makes U2 a less aggressive, more empathetic concern. “Mofo” is the genius track of the album, this naked confessional deconstructing one of the most reviled pejoratives, hiding under a layer of beats and sound effects. “It contains the most exposed moment in the hardest song on the record,” Bono said, and he’s right. There are lyrics slipped in between beats that will slice tiny daggers into your heart: “Lookin’ for to fill that God-shaped hole,” “Mother, you left and made me someone / Now I’m still a child but no one tells me no,” or “Lookin’ for a sound that’s gonna drown out the world.” One could argue that there’s no way Bono would have been nearly that direct if this was a typical U2 rock-and-roll acoustic number — that he needed to hide behind the boom-cha for this particular confession at this time of his life. Even then, his smoke-ravaged voice makes it sound like he’s hanging on to the edge of a cliff by his fingernails, even when he falls into falsetto … and then, this was the opening song of the show for the entire PopMart tour! The insanity is, sometimes, astounding.
34. “Mysterious Ways,” Achtung Baby
There is so much elation in “Mysterious Ways,” the guitar riff that sounds like nothing else, Adam Clayton’s bass line rumbling and swinging and holding the band down from spinning off into the firmament, and Larry Mullen, for all his fears of where he would fit into this “new” version of U2, slotting in perfectly. And then there’s the lead singer, who turns this into a hymn of adoration to women. Bono said, “It is U2 at our funkiest. Sexy music.” He’s not wrong.
33. “Elevation,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
The slinky rhythm of the studio version of “Elevation” should not be underestimated. On the other hand, sometimes you write a song to watch a stadium of 80,000 people jump up and down. “Can’t sing but I’ve got soul / The goal is / ELEVATION” — truth in advertising.
32. “Zooropa,” Zooropa
U2 had made their peace with electronics and experimentation with new rhythms and production, and what was going to be a quick EP turned into an album recorded between dates of the Zoo TV tour. A shimmering, ethereal piece of cyberpunk, tied back to humankind with the last lines: “She’s gonna dream up the world she wants to live in / She’s gonna dream out loud.”
31. “New Year’s Day,” War
War is so full of the kind of robust atmospheric production that Steve Lillywhite excelled at, and “New Year’s Day” is probably at the top of the list on this record. Even before the band went out prancing through a frozen snow-covered steppe in the video, Bono was deliberately trying to invoke snow as “an image of surrender”: the sound of emptiness, of new beginnings, of hope. “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day,” is followed by, “I will be with you again.” There’s also a subconscious nod to Lech Walesa, at the time still imprisoned. But it’s the bass line that dominates (along with those achingly sparse piano notes), resulting from a sound check where Adam Clayton was trying to play “Fade to Grey” by Visage: “It’s kind of a bass part still searching for a melody,” Clayton said in 2006.
30. “Desire,” Rattle and Hum
If U2 were trying to show the world what they wanted to say by going back to the roots of rock and roll, they did it here. It’s “Mona” meets “1969,” Larry and Adam locking in, with Edge’s trademark guitar glimmering down the center, Bono relishing playing the part of “a preacher stealing hearts at a traveling show” — a mix of ’80s televangelism, Colonel Tom Parker, Louisiana Hayride, and the Grande Ballroom. It earns its name.
29. “The Electric Co.,” Boy
The guitar run on the bridge is one of the most breathtaking moments for U2 as a band. It breaks down to ambient echo for Bono’s voice to act as another instrument, the lyrics not mattering, before Edge comes back in to round everybody up — then Larry’s drums almost take over. It references the Who lovingly and blatantly at the very end, cymbal crashes and high arpeggios and Bono’s voice soaring behind it all.
28. “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl”
For a band that, at the time, disavowed any connection to blues and folk, this gorgeous mélange of both of those forms creates a fantastic, spontaneous fairy tale that could have come from a fairy circle or a campfire. There’re some electronic loops in the background that create an edgy, eclectic fog, anchored by Edge’s gentle but firm atonal acoustic chords. Showing up on the B-side of “A Celebration,” the easy rhythm was in stark contrast to the shouty sincerity on the A-side, and its inherent spontaneity (the band had 40 minutes to come up with something and this is what resulted) was a breath of fresh air to fans who loved the band, but also wanted some room to breathe and dance. It’s not surprising that it endured in the set list even as late as 2015.
27. “Love Is Blindness,” Achtung Baby
The guitar line borders on insanity, while the vocals teeter on the edge of the pit of despair. The lyrics are more linear than Bono usually favors, and you wish he had chosen to be more abstract. It’s like a knife sticking out of the center of your chest. Bono thought about sending it to Nina Simone, and he should have. That would have been unbelievable.
26. “Spanish Eyes”
“Spanish Eyes” is primal, foolish, and eternal. There’s a whole second album of this type of aching echo that came out of The Joshua Tree sessions and ended up as B-sides, but the album would have felt a little more complete and well-rounded had one of them — preferably this one — made the cut. “Trip Through Your Wires” was meant to represent this particular element, but it doesn’t go as far as this one.
25. “One Tree Hill,” The Joshua Tree
It’s the most spiritual song on an album where there’s no shortage, and not surprisingly; it originated from real, deep, specific loss, not a vague swirl of influences (not to diminish those in any way). The song was written after attending the Maori funeral of crew member (and PA to Bono) Greg Carroll in New Zealand, who died in a terrible motorcycle accident on a rainy night in Dublin. In the lyrics, Bono mixes Maori legend with Biblical imagery, and compares Carroll’s untimely death to the loss of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, murdered by the Pinochet regime in 1973 — all in service of trying to make sense of the horrible loss. But the pivotal element of this song is in Bono’s heartrending vocals in the last minute and a half. It’s understandable that the band waited for a while back in 1987 before adding it to the set, and why the song mostly disappeared from live sets (except for shows in Australia or New Zealand) until the 2017 revival.
24. “Walk On,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
“Walk On” is one of U2’s grand statements. It was inspired by Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who had then been under house arrest for over a decade — but it is such a deeply moving song that, selfishly, you just want it to yourself. There is a moment in “Walk On” that you might not even hear, you probably just feel it: After the last chorus, Edge’s guitar roars into the mix, and there are three small keyboard chords that will either uplift you or shatter your heart to bits. Or both.
23. “Acrobat,” Achtung Baby
If you thought things were going to lighten up, think again. “Acrobat” is either a postscript to the scene in “Ultraviolet,” or it’s a flashback to an earlier time: disappointment, betrayal, truthfulness, standing and looking into each other’s eyes and seeing the history of years. “Nothing makes sense,” Bono sings, while Edge plays an insane quasi-waltz that increases in intensity as the song progresses; Larry is playing in and out of the spaces Edge leaves, and Adam pipes in the support beams. The desperation in Bono’s voice becomes tighter and tighter, until he reaches the bridge and hoarsely whispers, “What are we going to do now, it’s all been said / No new ideas in the house and every book has been read” — before Edge launches a manic solo that feels like your heart does when it beats in torment.
“It never became a live favorite,” Edge said in 2006. “Maybe because I don’t think that is what people come to U2 for.” It’s more likely that it requires a descent to an emotional spectrum that no one in the band wants to revisit, which is fair enough. But if the internet is any marker, there are thousands of fans around the globe who would sell their grandmothers to hear this one live.
22. “Miss Sarajevo,” Passengers — Original Soundtracks I
This was a side project the band did with Brian Eno, where U2 was meant to be the backing band under the direction of Eno. But “Miss Sarajevo” has become more identified with U2 because of the story behind it, which is another one of those serendipitous U2 legends: During the Zooropa tour, when MacPhisto was still making phone calls from the stage, he called Luciano Pavarotti from the stage in Bologna. After that, Pavarotti got in touch with the band, wanting to record a song together. Bono came up with “Miss Sarajevo,” a song about the the siege of Sarajevo and the response of the Bosnians under attack, one of which was a beauty contest. Sarajevo was also the city that U2 had made satellite contact with during Zoo TV. All of this is wrapped inside this elegant duet between Bono and Luciano Pavarotti.
21. “Beautiful Day,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind
It’s tempting and lazy to label this song as “U2 back to form!” when this is a shape they hadn’t previously created, exactly. But it’s also tempting and lazy to dismiss the biggest hit. They wrote an enormous, slick anthem that exploded because people connected to it. It is gigantic, with Edge-ian power chords for miles, Larry hitting the drums with insane authority, a powerful and melodic bass line, and Bono’s voice was back in its rich, all-encompassing warmth. Then there are the little moments: that “Dayyyyyy, dayyyyyy” harmonic surge after the bridge, the staccato guitar notes on the back half of the chorus, that ecstatic “Ooh-ho” from Bono before the “Touch me” line in the chorus, and the way the verses raise the energy to that explosion of excitement. “Beautiful Day” doesn’t have the same quality of complex emotion as their other large anthems; it’s just a bright and optimistic moment, and this is the right band for that job.
20. “City of Blinding Lights,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
It’s U2’s best New York song, capturing their love of the city and the mythology of it. It’s one of those songs with dozens of layers of meaning, and one of the particular ones that transformed once it was in front of U2 fans — specifically New Yorker U2 fans. “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight,” is the kind of line that only Bono can get away with singing to 20,000 people and sincerely meaning from the bottom of his heart. It is about the love of a big city, and about how you can both lose and find yourself there. “Time won’t leave me as I am / But time won’t take the boy out of this man,” Bono sings. The opening chords feel like walking through New York when the snow has just started to fall. It is a moment full of optimism and hope.
19. “Bullet the Blue Sky,” The Joshua Tree
Bono asked the Edge to put the sound of “U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR” through his amplifier, and he obliged. “I wanted it to feel like hell on Earth, because from the demon seed comes the flower of fire,” Bono said. “OUTSIDE, IT’S AMERICA,” the lyrics cry, while the Edge lights his fretboard on fire. “In a locust wind / Comes a rattle and hum” — and you can almost feel that desert wind coming out of the amplifier. In concert, Bono might take it too far or wander off making no sense, but Edge and his guitar are there to make sure you remember what the song is about.
18. “Hawkmoon 269,” Rattle and Hum
The previous track on the album might have been called “Desire,” but this is rapture. “Hawkmoon 269” is six minutes of a fiery inferno. Bono howls and Edge lights his guitar strings afire like a fuse leading to dynamite. Adam Clayton’s bass is so low you can feel it in the pit of your stomach; lower, probably. And this is likely one of Larry Mullen Jr.’s finest performances. He manages to guide the tension and the intensity with insane precision. The jazz drummer Larry Bunker is on the tympani, there’s a gospel trio at the end, and oh, THERE IS BOB DYLAN ON THE HAMMOND ORGAN — that crazy carnival melody at the start and then bubbling underneath and meandering through the song. U2 have rarely played “Hawkmoon 269” live. It is probably better that way — to leave it in its pure state, hidden in a record that sold millions of copies worldwide but was mercilessly ripped apart by the rock-critic Establishment for putting on airs, when it was just four kids from Dublin falling in love with American music history.
17. “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum
This song accurately captures the excitement and enthusiasm of coming to New York after dreaming about it. It’s an early version of “City of Blinding Lights,” in a way. It’s both a New York City song — Bono name-checks WBLS and John Coltrane, Birdland, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday. It is also, impossibly, a Memphis song. It was recorded at Sun Studios, with Cowboy Jack Clement behind the desk and the Memphis Horns sounding like they should always be there. “Angel of Harlem” is just brimming with love and enthusiasm and a sense of, Oh my God, we are here where all of this happened. Bono says that it’s one of U2’s few jukebox songs: “We don’t have many jukebox songs — but that’s one people play in bars.” There are few endorsements stronger than that.
16. “40,” War
The story behind the track’s genesis — the band’s studio time literally running out and being one track short, Bono saying “Let’s do a psalm” — is completely and totally outweighed by the beauty of the recorded performance: Edge standing in on bass, with chords that go straight to the heart, simple but powerful backing vocals, and Bono’s voice, not at its most magnificent, but definitely in his feelings. It is an ode, a tribute, a deep blues — and even though the lyrics were lifted from Psalm 40, they are vague enough to leave space for the nonbeliever to find his or her own meaning in the track. It was likely subconscious, but significant, that the line in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — “How long must we sing this song?” — that opened the album would be mirrored here at the end.
But you can’t write about “40” without talking about its place in the live show. It would close most of the band’s shows in the ’80s, and was one of those moments that became a crucial part of what U2 was to their fans. The spikiest mohawked punks would stand down, hold hands, put their arms around the people near them and sing their hearts out on the chorus. And there was nothing quite like making your way out of the venue and hearing the refrain echoing off the lobby walls, down the streets, and into the subways. It was — is still — a piece of U2 magic that is hard to explain adequately. It closes a show gently, with civility and unity. It lifts your heart up, which is what a psalm is meant to do, even if you’re a nonbeliever.
15. “Running to Stand Still,” The Joshua Tree
The song starts in the middle of the story because the beginning almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the end, even though we know how these stories end. The point here is to stand in witness, but not in judgment. Heroin wrecked so many close to U2 — the death of Phil Lynott in 1986 was on their minds — and everything they wrote about it crucifies the drug, not the addict. The lyrics here find the beauty and the pain in the human condition, and deny neither. Musically, it fakes you out in the intro; you think it’s going to be a blues song, then it switches into a composition that’s almost orchestral. It’s still a blues, though: stunning, atmospheric, and heartbreakingly tragic.
14. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” Achtung Baby
“Ultraviolet” is the epic of the album because it is the moment of catharsis. It is the place where our heroes stand together and acknowledge the imperfections of love and each other and decide they’re going to keep moving forward together: “Baby, baby, baby, light my way.” It’s the most Mancunian (think Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets) of all of the songs on the album from a rhythmic perspective, despite the band’s claims that other tracks should claim that honor. On the other hand, the structure of the composition is larger than that: that monumental key change before the last verse, that slight downshift, and Bono’s voice just roaring. The Edge is almost a guitar machine, consistent and unstoppable, and the rhythm section is the backseat driver.
All of this is why the 2017 live application of “Ultraviolet” to women of power in current and past history just did not fit, did not work. It’s a dark and disturbed song that can’t just be shoved into a new context.
13. “A Sort of Homecoming,” The Unforgettable Fire
If you weren’t sure if U2 was going to have any staying power after War, the first track of their fourth album would erase all doubt. The title of the song is absolutely truth in advertising: It sounds and feels like coming home, like that little skip in your heart when you turn into the driveway on Thanksgiving, or how your pulse soars when you see your lover’s face waiting for you. It is about surrender, return, and acceptance. It can assuage your heart in the middle of the night or as the sun rises or in the middle of a stadium with thousands of other people.
12. “With or Without You,” The Joshua Tree
This is the slick side of U2, their ability to write a massive worldwide hit and make it sound like nothing they’d ever done before, yet still sound only like U2. They fool you with that opening: It kind of creeps in on little fog feet, quietly, the Edge playing what Bono called “a beautiful haunting ghost of a guitar sound,” like if you could hear a shimmer. The thing that saves it from being insufferably polished is the back half of the song, where Bono just rips his heart open — ‘round about 3:04 in — and then it all draws together and slinks out, like a black cat at midnight. In concert, it tends to suffer just a bit from being drawn out too long, from Bono wanting to hear the audience sing back to him, but it is also glorious to hear it happen.
11. “Gloria,” October
Never have so few taken on so many at one time. Here, U2 decide to shadowbox with Catholicism, Van Morrison, and Patti Smith, not minor influences on the four musicians by any means. You don’t name your song “Gloria” unless you fervently believe you have something else to add to this particular subject area. You don’t write a song named “Gloria” unless you have an innate sense of the power of your band. You don’t write a song named “Gloria” unless you think it can stand next to the other ones you’re borrowing a cup of sugar from. U2 answers in the affirmative to all of the above, crowned by a sing-along chorus at the end that is holy and ethereal. The Edge told Bill Flanagan, “‘Gloria’ is really a lyric about not being able to express what’s going on.” Maybe they didn’t know when they were putting the track together, but live? They wrote it to be a goddamn anthem, and they pull every bit of power they can out of this one.
10. “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Unforgettable Fire
It’s both surprising and not surprising that the lyrics to one of U2’s most powerful songs would prove to be timeless and enduring: “One man caught on a barbed-wire fence / One man he resist / One man washed up on an empty beach / One man betrayed with a kiss” might have seemed vague and generalized when the song was written, but given that every line has its direct equivalent in 2017, there was clearly some kind of universal wisdom pushing Bono forward.
It is one of those songs that from almost anyone else would have felt contrived, but U2 meant it and continue to mean it. It is a tremendous thing to hear 80,000 people in a stadium singing along to it, but my favorite moment remains standing in the subzero cold watching the band sing the song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day before Obama’s inauguration — not because of Obama, but because seeing that band sing that song in the place where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood was not a small thing.
9. “All I Want Is You,” Rattle and Hum
Once again, U2 end a record with a hymn. It’s a gorgeous, sophisticated melody that would fit on one of the later-era albums; it certainly feels more advanced than anything else on Rattle and Hum. The credit for that goes to none other than Van Dyke Parks, who came in and contributed that haunting string arrangement that elevates the song above anything else on the album. The vocals are full of love and longing, and Edge contributes an achingly wistful guitar line that is the definition of heartbreak. Thematically, a song about love and commitment is the natural conclusion to an album all about wandering and big skies.
8. “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” Achtung Baby
This was Joshua sounding the trumpets at Jericho, a clarion call, that cascading guitar riff that’s U2’s version of “Satisfaction.” It was a breathtaking leap from “Zoo Station” to “Even Better,” like being in a speeding car and realizing it isn’t going to stop any time soon. The tension in the melody is kinetic; it’s like the Edge is waving his hands around a theremin (and it has that otherwordly sound that a theremin does) with an intense, driving rhythm, dynamic and sexual.
7. “Out of Control,” Boy
To be fair, “Out of Control” is the actual anthem of the album (as compared to the single, “I Will Follow). “Out of Control” is direct and driving, no fancy percussion or tricks or echoes, every single member of the band playing at 11. There’s a little shift on the bridge custom-made for audience participation by the way of hand claps, arms raised, and then an instrumental break from the drive, strung with some guitar notes and echoing “out of controlllll”s from Bono; it’s just a second to catch your breath because the last verse and chorus are pushing forward even harder — before that ringing, decorous ending.
6. “One,” Achtung Baby
“One” is an enormous emotional chameleon of a song. It changes colors from red to blue to purple depending on the lens of betrayal, dishonesty, disappointment, or despair you view the song through. “One” contains bone-deep sadness, dark melancholy, and immense regret. “We’re one, but we’re not the same,” Bono sings, a deep truth, before moving on to, “We get to carry each other.” Both Bono and Edge point at the latter lyric being essential to the song in disparate ways: “It’s a reminder that we have no choice,” Bono said. “‘Get to’ is the key,” Edge said, “‘Got to’ would be too obvious and platitudinous. ‘Get to’ suggests it is our privilege to carry one another.”
While it’s a stellar, close-to-perfect musical performance for the entire band, the MVP is Bono, who turns in an emotional tour de force from start to finish. His voice is full of deep heartache, and fairly reverberates with pain and regret. Taking all of the above into account, it is astonishing that people think this is a good song to play at their weddings.
5. “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” War
Folk song. Peace song. Protest song. The Edge started writing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” while Bono was off on his honeymoon, with lyrics that were much more direct (“It was a full-on anti-terrorism song,” Edge said in 2006) than the final result. It was the result of the news, of current events, of those trying to co-opt U2 into their movement — of being a visible symbol of “the Irish in America,” which Bono would reference onstage in 1987. That said, Bono would note, “It’s provocative but I don’t think we really pulled it off” from a lyrical perspective; the band hadn’t yet matured enough as lyricists to get that done. The song’s strength is anchored in Larry Mullen Jr.’s crisp, robust, martial drumbeats, and the counterpoint brought by the great Steve Wickham’s (The Waterboys, among others) violin underneath it all.
Live, of course, this song took on a life of its own throughout the years. On the War tour, it was prefaced with the now-legendary “This is not a rebel song” from the tour’s first date in Belfast, where Bono also told the audience that if they didn’t like the song, the band would never play it again. Later that year, the track was captured on video and later beamed to the masses when U2 released the live album and video Under a Blood Red Sky, and was on MTV roughly every 30 minutes back in the day.
The definitive performance remains the one in the Rattle and Hum movie, filmed in Denver the night of the Enniskillen bombings, when a visibly emotional band took to the stage and performed the song with a mix of fury and sadness felt in every single note played. Bono would later say he didn’t think the band should perform the song anymore after that night; they would give it a brief rest, before bringing it back where it would act as an anchor in an emotional arc around their more overtly political songs, where it would act as a prayer for peace, or sometimes, just there as one of the band’s best songs.
4. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” The Joshua Tree
It’s a gospel song, period. Not kind of a gospel song, or inspired by a gospel song, but an honest-to-goodness gospel song. It is inspirational and uplifting and heartbreaking and just plain gorgeous. The melody is just so deft: Larry and Adam in the pocket, Edge coasting along the top of the melody, and Bono singing with actual humility. “Gospel” should not be a dirty word to rock fans — that’s where it comes from, where the church met the field met the juke joint. Take me to church.
3. “Bad,” The Unforgettable Fire
The opening notes of “Bad” are a clarion call: They invite the listener into the song and set a tone of warning and premonition for the scene that’s about to unfold. The minimalism of the instrumentation is remarkable in how it ebbs and flows to fit in the space around Bono’s vocals, and both those vocals and the melody pulsate with intensity. You can feel the desperation of the heroin addict, of the battle between the attraction and the hatred of the disease, of the anger and frustration of the people around them, watching them fall further into the “blue and black,” not being able to pull them out — and also the voice of someone who might find the qualities of the drug to be intriguing and dangerous. It’s all there. It’s breathtaking, how the song builds, the way Bono throttles his vocals, and how the Eno–Lanois team sonically construct the emotional dynamic.
Of course, you can’t talk about “Bad” without also talking about Live Aid, because that performance was, unintentionally, the turning point for U2. If you have never seen it, it is one of the wonders of that otherworldly day of music. Even for people who were already fans of the band, it was a remarkable moment. The song expands to fit the expanse of Wembley Stadium, and when Bono heads down into the crowd, anyone who had actually seen them thought, Oh, of course this is totally normal for Bono — while the rest of the band were furious they were left to vamp for ten minutes and had to cut “Pride” out of their set. Paul McGuinness gets the understatement of the day award for saying, “I think it is fair to say there was a bit of a row afterwards,” when describing his and the band’s reaction. It wasn’t until days later that U2 became aware of their impact, as all of their albums went back onto the charts. “Nothing was really quite the same again because now everyone knew who Bono was,” McGuinness said in 2006. There is some kind of perverse justice that “Bad” was that particular catalyst.
2. “I Will Follow,” Boy
There are a handful of records that sound so completely different that you will always remember the first moment you heard them. That’s “I Will Follow,” which I heard for the first time while sitting in traffic on the way home from my high-school part-time job, listening to the WNYU New Afternoon Show. The opening thrum of guitar notes, a literal siren, mystical bells in the distance, a rhythm section playing almost off-rhythm, and those opening lines, sung by a voice full of urgency and emotion: “I was on the outside / When you said you needed me …” It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. The otherworldly noises acting as percussion — bicycle spokes, broken bottles — and the guitar moving back into angelic notes, before picking up the SOS pace into full speed, coming out of the bridge and back into the last chorus. There is so much going on that it leaves you breathless. It is one of the best opening songs on a debut album, ever. Live, it turned into a maelstrom, and never really stopped.
1. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” The Joshua Tree
“It’s the point where craft ends and spirit begins,” Bono has said about “Streets,” and if you do not like Bono or U2, it’s the kind of thing that makes you hate them. But if that’s true, you have also never stood in the middle of an arena or a stadium or an open field surrounded by jumping people caught up in the sheer elation of this song. There is no way that U2 knew what this song was going to be when they wrote it, or even when they recorded it — the story about Brian Eno being so sick of the song he almost erased the tape so they’d get on with it, is definitely a point in that opinion’s favor — but, like all the best U2 songs, it is what “Streets” became once it was performed in front of an audience that was its transfiguration and its transmogrification.
“Streets” is you at your best, wearing church clothes and standing up straight. It is possibility, it is aspiration, it is joy incarnate. Its transformative nature can change the quality of the air and the energy around you at a level up there with “Amazing Grace,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and “Hound Dog.” It does not matter how many times you have seen it performed live, or when you saw it first; “Streets” can still catch you by surprise — like it did in 2017, when it careened off the stage and hit you straight in the heart.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that U2 had never played “Hawkmoon 269” live, instead of rarely played “Hawkmoon 269.” This article also incorrectly listed “Treasure (What Ever Happened to Pete the Chop?)” as the B-side to “A Celebration.” The A-side was actually “New Year’s Day.”