U2 was my first favorite band.
If you were a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s who read music magazines and nurtured a burgeoning interest in rock history, this was hardly an unusual take. At that time, when they were in the midst of putting out classics like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, U2 was the world’s most acclaimed and popular rock band. Critics wrote with the assumption that anything U2 did was important, and audiences turned songs like “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” into massive pop hits. U2 was a true zeitgeist band, and they had their finger on the pulse of culture for longer than you might remember.
In 2020, of course, U2’s status is less certain. In the ’10s, they suffered prolonged fallout from the decade’s worst music-related PR stunt, which was compounded by the albums they released during this time being among the weakest of their career. Even Rolling Stone, possibly the band’s most loyal patron in the media, couldn’t finesse a single U2 album into the upper reaches of its recent 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list. (Their highest-ranked LP, Achtung Baby, clocks in at No. 124.)
But U2 has been down before. Few major bands have as many boom-bust fluctuations in their career arc. You can chart one major flap in practically every decade of their existence: Rattle & Hum in the ’80s, the PopMart tour in the ’90s, No Line On The Horizon in the ’00s, and the Songs Of Innocence iPhone debacle in the ’10s. Even with all of those backlashes, however, U2 remains an extraordinarily popular (if also chronically uncool) rock band. In pre-Covid times, they were among the few acts of any genre with a proven, multi-decade track record of selling out stadiums. When (if) live concerts return, U2 will surely be playing the world’s largest concert venues once again. Counting them out at this point seems unwise.
Besides, U2 willful embrace of risk — whether artistic or commercial — makes their catalogue very interesting to revisit and contemplate. Yes, their output is uneven, with undeniable peaks standing next to embarrassing lows. But their failures are often richer than many bands’ successes.
Here are my 100 favorite U2 songs.
100. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” (2017)
In 2017, on my 40th birthday, I did what many 40-year-olds did that year and saw U2 on The Joshua Tree anniversary tour. I went with my good friend who works in radio, and before the show he got us into this exclusive VIP area with other high-ranking radio muckity-mucks. Before I knew it, we were ushered into a room with none other than The Edge. Turns out The Edge wanted to play us some tracks from the forthcoming U2 album, Songs Of Experience. Just to reiterate something I said before: U2 was my first favorite band. The idea that I would ever get to hear an unreleased U2 album in the company of Mr. Dave Evans would have blown my 13-year-old mind. You might as well have told me at that age that I would eventually sire several children with Elle MacPherson. Anyway, the only problem with this scenario is that the album in question wasn’t Achtung Baby or The Unforgettable Fire or even How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It was the very worst album that U2 has ever made. Have you ever had to listen to an album made by a superstar band in front of that band’s guitarist and go through the motions of smiling and bobbing your head and playing half-hearted air guitar just because you’re trying to be polite to a musician you revere? No? Well, let me tell you: It’s strange! The whole situation was excruciatingly awkward! Honestly, I only put this song at No. 100 so I would have an excuse to tell this story.
99. “No Line On The Horizon” (2009)
Every album that U2 has made in the 21st century has, on some level, been a mess. Good songs commingle freely with dreck. Some albums, such as All That You Can’t Leave Behind, balance this equation better than most. Then there’s No Line On The Horizon, possibly the most schizophrenic LP in the U2 catalogue, in which the gap between the good and the truly awful is wider than it is on any other album. But that actually works in the favor of No Line On The Horizon, which reunited U2 with their most celebrated producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and stands as their final (for now) attempt to truly shake up their sound. Again, when it comes to dreck like “Get On Your Boots,” the merits of experimentation can be called into question. But the album overall has a weird, ragged, live-wire energy that I prefer to U2’s misguided attempts to court pop audiences with embalmed “rockers” like “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” their most cloying and annoying single ever. You can feel that energy on the album’s title track, in which Bono contemplates the non-linear nature of time while a woman sticks a tongue in his ear. It’s just that kind of record.
98. “Song For Someone” (2014)
Is the early part of this list just going to be me carrying water for poorly received late-period U2 albums? I’m afraid so. Like the rest of the world, I ripped Songs Of Innocence upon release, in the wake of the iPhone debacle, when the band’s stock plummeted to an all-time low. But in the years since I’ve come around — the production still stinks, defanging what is still a vital and powerful live band. (If I had a time machine, I would first go back and kill Hitler. Then I would prevent U2 from meeting Danger Mouse and Ryan Tedder.) But many of the songs are rock-solid, speaking to the underrated craftsmanship of Bono and The Edge. “Song For Someone” isn’t an earth-shattering tune, and giving it the glossy pop-factory treatment does it no favors. But if you can get past that, and appreciate the sound of a really good band playing an affecting song, “Song For Someone” will get under your skin as surely as any first-class U2 ballad.
97. “Raised By Wolves” (2014)
U2 had a good concept for Songs Of Innocence — write a song cycle about our early days, infused with the wisdom that we have as middle-aged men. It was an idea that called out for U2 returning to the sound of their early records, which would have sonically conveyed what Bono was expressing in his lyrics. Unfortunately, U2’s impulse to play the middle worked against them, and they ultimately resisted reverting full-on to their War guise. But one of the album’s most aggressive tracks, “Raised By Wolves,” shows that they could have worked effectively in that lane, and possibly produced a late-period gem instead of a fascinating misfire.
96.”Walk On” (2000)
U2 came roaring back at the start of the 21st century with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an effort that rewarded the band’s most conservative instincts by selling 12 million copies worldwide. The thesis of that record is simple: “Let’s pretend the ’90s never happened.” Gone was that era’s irony, post-modern media obsessions, and focus on European music. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was consciously constructed to sound like a record that could’ve followed The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum if U2 had never made Achtung Baby. While this approach rebooted U2’s career initially, it eventually hurt them artistically in the long run — they’ve never really recovered the creative momentum they had in the ’90s since then. But for now, let’s focus on the short game: “Walk On” is an excuse for The Edge to play a soaring guitar riff that can only be described as extremely Edge-like. He hadn’t really allowed himself to sound like this since the late ’80s, and “Walk On” demonstrates why — it’s so on-the-nose that you suspect The Edge actually recorded it in the mystical California desert, right off of a street that has no name.
95. “Sweetest Thing” (1998)
Before All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 cleared the decks in the wake of the semi-disasters of Pop (which I will also be defending soon, don’t worry!) and the PopMart tour in 1997 and ’98. I saw two shows on that tour, including a really good gig at a dispiritingly half-full Metrodome in Minneapolis. “Sweetest Thing” was released as a single six months after that tour wrapped, and it was about as far from “Discotheque” as you could get. In this instance, U2 literally took a song from their Joshua Tree period — originally released as the B-side of “Where The Streets Have No Name” — and re-recorded it. When the song became a hit, it hinted at a new (old) direction that would inform the next decade of their career.
94. “Walk To The Water” (1987)
U2 could have plundered their Joshua Tree B-sides for other future hits. It truly was their most productive period in terms of songwriting, with enough cast-offs from the proper album to form another excellent late-’80s masterwork. This spooky number could’ve fit on The Joshua Tree, though perhaps it was left off because Bono seems to be doing a David Byrne impression.
93. “Love Comes Tumbling” (1985)
U2’s career transcends so many different eras that it’s often forgotten that they started out as a post-punk band whose closest contemporaries in the early ’80s were groups much more associated with that time: Echo And The Bunnymen, Simple Minds, Big Country. “Love Comes Tumbling” is one of the last vestiges of that era, evidencing the lush romantic sweep of other “big” music bands right before U2 moved into a completely different strata of sound and stardom with The Joshua Tree.
92. “Cedarwood Road” (2014)
The first time I met a member of U2 it was 2015, at the tour opener for the Songs Of Innocence + Experience run in Vancouver, when I sat backstage with Adam Clayton for about 20 minutes. Clayton is one of “the other two guys” in U2, though being one of “the other two guys” in this band still makes you richer than 99.9999 percent of the musicians on the planet, as well as any bass player not named Paul McCartney. During our conversation, I found Clayton — who speaks like a Bond villain — to be refreshingly smart and self-aware. When I gently suggested that U2 should stop pursuing pop success and simply make records for people who already like U2, he seemed to agree. “We have a very loyal, strong, intelligent audience,” he said. “We might make music just for them in the future. We might not want to connect with other people.” In that scenario, I could see U2 writing more songs like “Cedarwood Road,” a wistful childhood remembrance with an evocative, ringing guitar hook that sounds like it was recorded on an Irish bluff.
91. “Breathe” (2009)
Here’s another example of the wild ‘n’ wacky energy that permeates U2’s greatest “bad” album, No Line On The Horizon. Musically, this is more Edge guitar porn, with one of his classic solos that initially sounds choked off and then suddenly explodes out to the heavens. Meanwhile, Bono is attempting something Dylanesque in the lyrics, though it really just sounds like he’s trying to sing too many words at once and losing his breath. (Perhaps the song title is a meta-reference to this. Or maybe Bono just needs an editor.) Either way, he does manage to sing about a “new Asian virus” that might in fact kill him. “Nine-oh-nine, St. John Divine on the line, my pulse is fine / But I’m running down the road like loose electricity / While the band in my head plays a striptease.” Like many U2 lyrics, I can’t tell if that’s brilliant or dumb. The genius is that it’s both.
90. “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” (1981)
Bono’s lyrical shortcomings are going to come up a lot on this list. Even the best U2 songs have more than their fair share of clunkers, though Bono’s most essential talent is delivering his bullshit with such conviction that it becomes profound. (Like Jesus, a man deeply influenced by Bono, he can turn the gunkiest water into the richest wine.) Part of the mythology of U2’s second album October is that the notebook containing Bono’s lyrics was stolen during the sessions, forcing him to largely extemporize the words. You can feel that during “I Threw A Brick Through A Window,” which definitely sounds like a 21-year-old man talking out of his ass: “I was walking / I was walking into walls / I’m back again / I just keep walking.” Are you walking, Bono? We can’t tell. Nevertheless, when Bono belts those lines over an enormous Edge guitar riff, I somehow completely buy it as teenage existentialism.
89. “Babyface” (1993)
As suspect as Bono could be as a lyricist for most of U2’s career, he briefly became a really good, even remarkable writer for precisely two albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. On the slinky “Babyface,” a highlight of the latter record, he might have very well written the first great rock song about internet porn. “Coming home late at night / To turn you on / Checking out every frame / I’ve got slow motion on my side / Turning around and around / With the sound and color.”
88. “Crumbs From Your Table” (2004)
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is U2’s ultimate tribute to itself, a bald-faced attempt to embody every lyrical and musical cliché ever associated with this band, the anti-Achtung Baby. This might sound like a criticism, and sometimes it is. But Atomic Bomb has always been a guilty pleasure for me, delivering the U2-ness I crave more reliably than most of the band’s late-period albums. Even if “Crumbs From Your Table” sounds like the output of a Joshua Tree algorithm, I can’t deny that it goes down so well.
87. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay From Your Crashed Car” (1993)
That U2 came to regard their most adventurous album, Zooropa, as a self-indulgent over-reach goes a long way to explain the path they’ve taken in the past 20 years. After favoring albums that harken to their ’80s prime, they’ve made stabs at pop relevance in recent years that have made them seem, I’m afraid, like a very old rock band. But in the ’90s, U2 revitalized themselves by shrinking back from pop music (even on the album actually called Pop) and subverting the public’s image of what this band was supposed to be. One of the least un-U2-like songs ever, “Daddy’s Gonna Pay From Your Crashed Car” alludes to David Bowie’s Low in the title, but musically it nods to the druggy “Madchester” scene that fuses classicist rock with dance music, with a slightly heavier emphasis on the latter.
86. “Wake Up Dead Man” (1997)
Speaking of Pop, here’s an example of how not-Pop that album gets. Originally derived from the Zooropa sessions, this rivals “Love Is Blindness” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared” as the grimmest album closer in the U2 canon. The memorable opening lyric evokes one of the band’s heroes, Patti Smith: “Jesus / Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a fucked up world it is too.”
85. “In A Little While” (2000)
U2 is so associated with arena-rock anthems that other aspects of their musical personality tend to get overlooked, such as their underrated blue-eyed soul side. “Angel Of Harlem” is the most successful example of this, but this deep cut from All That You Can’t Leave Behind also stands out as a fine Al Green homage.
84. “Lady With The Spinning Head” (1992)
If this infectious Achtung Baby era B-side sounds familiar, it’s because the band mined it for parts that eventually ended up in “The Fly,” “Zoo Station,” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” Providing grist for three foundational tracks from their greatest album ought to relegate “Lady With The Spinning Head” to mere curio status, and yet this is one of their grabbiest and most purely enjoyable B-sides. I mean, that guitar solo from “The Fly” is so good that you really don’t mind in hearing it in two different songs.
83. “Hawkmoon 269” (1988)
You can hear a lot of what made Rattle & Hum a punchline in this deep cut: The Americana signifiers, the wanton bombast of the chorus, the extreme bloat that allows a gospel choir to enter around the five-minute mark right when the song ought to be fading out. To a non-U2 fan, I imagine this probably sounds like Young Guns 2-era Jon Bon Jovi. But as a U2 partisan who has long had a soft spot for this album, I would merely describe “Hawkmoon 269” as expansive, with U2 leaning into all of the cowboy-hatted mannerisms that made them heroes and villains in the late ’80s.
82. “Wire” (1984)
Take another bow, Adam Clayton. Along with being a thoughtful interviewee, Clayton supplies the most underrated “important” element of the U2 sound, his massively steady bass murmur. That aspect of U2 will really blossom on The Joshua Tree, but The Unforgettable Fire found Clayton stepping out with some of his funkiest playing on this furious dance-punk number.
81. “Fire” (1981)
Religiosity runs through every U2 album, but it’s most pronounced on October, the album in which they practically morphed into a Christian rock outfit. For Bono, life is a nonstop tempest in which God tests the faith of intense young men from Dublin with a series of spiritual crises that can only be solved by wailing over a heavily treated guitar riff bounding out of a Flying V. In the song “Fire,” Bono’s elevates his youthful angst to that of an Old Testament-type story, in which a devout person faces nothing less than the apocalypse: “The moon is running red / Falling falling / It’s pulling me instead / With a fire.”
80. “MLK” (1984)
U2’s social justice sloganeering made them a punchline in the ’80s, but it might be the one aspect of their persona that feels most contemporary. On The Unforgettable Fire, there are two songs about Martin Luther King. This is the more restrained and less famous one: “Sleep / Sleep tonight / And may your dreams / Be realized.”
79. “Surrender” (1983)
The “best U2 album” discourse has been reduced a two-horse race between The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, but those of us who also value the band’s early years believe War also belongs in this conversation. U2’s most aggressive and hardest rocking record, War is the pinnacle of the band’s “mullet” period, when they most closely resembled a mainstream early ’80s rock band and risked being fixed in that guise forever. A less forward-thinking band would’ve simply replicated War a few more times before gently fading into obscurity. But on “Surrender,” one of War‘s dreamier cuts, you can already sense the pivot they will take on their next record, The Unforgettable Fire.
78. “Love Rescue Me” (1988)
Bono apparently dreamed this song, assumed it was actually a Dylan tune that he couldn’t remember the title of, and then asked Dylan himself if he wrote it. When Dylan said no, Bono asked him to help finish it. Bob contributed one line: “I’m hanging by my thumbs, I’m ready for whatever comes, love rescue me.” For that, Bono gave Dylan a songwriting credit. Honestly, he probably just thought it would be cool to have a co-write with Bob Dylan.
77. “Where Did It All Go Wrong” (1992)
Another great Achtung Baby B-side. It’s obvious why it didn’t make the album — this catchy guitar workout is more akin to the desert rock of The Joshua Tree than the pan-Euro futurism of Achtung Baby. Though it’s ultimately a little too lightweight to fit in the context of either record. Still, “Where Did It All Go Wrong” is another example of U2’s most underrated attributes — their unerring melodic sense and firm grasp of songwriting craftsmanship. Especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, U2 seemingly couldn’t plug in at a rehearsal without knocking out highly enjoyable rock songs like this.
76. “The Three Sunrises” (1985)
U2 connected with Brian Eno not long after his association with Talking Heads ended. To their credit, U2 recognized early on that being a messianic post-punk band was only going to take them so far, and with Eno (as well as Lanois) they would begin shading their mile-high anthems with actual capital-A Art. During their Unforgettable Fire era, this mostly manifested with the inclusion of portentous synths and ethereal instrumentals that flirted fitfully with ambient music. Eno and Lanois also, paradoxically, helped to tease out U2’s pop side, though they saved one of the most gorgeous songs of this era (credited as a co-write with Eno), “The Three Sunrises,” for the Wide Wake In America EP.
75. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (1991)
The fifth single from Achtung Baby, and kind of the black sheep of the record. The members of U2 have talked about how difficult it was to capture properly on tape, and even after cycling through many different versions they were never quite happy with it. They apparently also aren’t crazy about playing it live — it’s been performed only 101 times over the years. (Consider that the fourth single from Achtung Baby, “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” has been played 419 times.) The problem is that “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is a great song, but not necessarily a great U2 song. A gothic country-rock hymn with Phil Spector overtones, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” should’ve been given to The Jesus And The Mary Chain, who would’ve blown it out with distortion and lathered it with all the reverb it deserved.
74. “With A Shout” (1981)
October is U2’s most underrated album because it’s their least thoughtful, operating solely on furious energy and extremely intense conviction to make as big of a sound as possible. They would get much smarter and skillful after this, but I find the “over-energetic evangelical puppy” aspect of October irresistible. “With A Shout” is about nothing other than the thrill of giving a shout and making yourself heard, and therefore seen. Really, that’s all U2 has ever wanted in any of their songs.
73. “An Cat Dubh”/”Into The Heart” (1980)
Nothing quite captures the gawky awkwardness of early U2 than titling the dramatic showcase of their debut Boy “An Cat Dubh,” which means “the black cat” in Scottish Gaelic but in English looks like straight-up gibberish. Fortunately, Bono does not attempt to sing “An Cat Dubh” in this coming-of-age tale of illicit sex — inspired by a brief relationship Bono had when temporarily split from his eventual wife, Ali — which rides Adam Clayton fat bassline and Edge’s twangy guitar to the plaintive “Into The Heart” section. While technically listed as two separate tracks on Boy’s sleeve, it really feels like one epic, which is why they were usually played in sequence on the band’s early tours. (The UK and US versions post different song lengths for each track, underscoring the difficulty in separating them.)
72. “Lemon” (1993)
“Lemon” is their sleazy Eurotrash death-disco number, U2’s equivalent to the Cruising-core of the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue period. The Edge worked up the track with a drum machine and bass, and then treated his guitar with a gated effect that made it sound like a psychedelic wind machine. Then Bono applied his falsetto — what he called his “fat lady” voice, a signature of this period that he would have trouble coming back to later on — to an affecting lyric inspired by a home movie of his late mother.
71. “Salome” (1992)
Yet another great Achtung Baby B-side, and one of the sexiest songs in U2’s discography. “Salome” is also another instance of U2 leaving a great song off of a record not because it wasn’t up to snuff, but simply because it didn’t fit with the other tracks. Achtung Baby is a song cycle about heavy adult stuff like loss and heartbreak and the frailty of human relationships. “Salome” meanwhile is simply a groove-heavy rocker with loud, spiky guitars about a guy who really wants to get laid. Given their self-serious image, it’s too bad that songs like “Salome” don’t have a higher profile. It doesn’t have the gravitas of “One,” but it’s a lot more fun to blast when you’re drunk.
70. “Elvis Presley and America” (1984)
With Bono, what he’s saying almost never matters as much as how he says it. His commitment to delivering utter nonsense with the passion of a preacher sharing the gospel with his flock is his most polarizing attribute. It’s the thing that makes people who hate U2 wince, but it’s impossible to love U2 and not appreciate Bono’s religious faith in the truth of what he’s singing. This is taken to its logical extreme in “Elvis Presley and America,” in which he is literally singing nonsense words that he improvised in the studio. Most of the lyrics are just sounds, and yet the sound of his voice does evoke a profound longing that lives up to the iconography of national fantasy and squandered potential.
69. “Party Girl” Under A Blood Red Sky version (1983)
The “we only play this on special occasions” early live favorite. My love of “Party Girl” stems mostly from the moment when The Edge messes up the guitar solo, and Bono yells “it’s our hero!” It seems like a mistake, but honestly: where’s the lie?
68. “Another Time, Another Place” (1980)
Let me be clear: The Edge is my hero, and hands down my favorite member of U2. Sure, he is not a conventional guitar hero in the ’70s classic-rock sense. In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, The Edge’s battery of effects pedals is put in comic contrast with the studied primitivism of Jack White and the gentleman virtuosity of Jimmy Page. As a guitarist, he’s more concerned with constructing sound than, like, totally wailing on his six-string. But what a sound! The Edge’s signature guitar ring can’t really be compared with the hopped-up blues swagger propagated by Page or White. I would liken it more to cathedral bells echoing off tall buildings on a bright Sunday morning. His playing had that quality from the very beginning, which elevated songs like “Another Time, Another Place” beyond the usual post-punk gloom to something that evokes the sacred and the divine.
67. “Two Hearts Beat As One” (1983)
Another spotlight for Adam Clayton’s surprisingly funky early period. Along with the indefatigable Larry Mullen Jr., Clayton really came into his own around the time of War, supplying the heavy grooves that would eventually separate U2 from their early post-punk peers. In the case of “Two Hearts Beat As One,” what helps this song transcend the era is how alive and active the rhythm section is. At a time when so many UK acts were leaning into synthetic rhythms, Adam and Larry grounded U2 in soulful, gritty rock.
66. “Moment Of Surrender” (2009)
If U2 had exercised a bit more discipline on No Line On The Horizon, they might’ve polished this gospel-tinged song up and turned it into one of their defining late-period ballads. As it is, Bono’s vocal is a little harsh, and the track is allowed to meander for seven and a half minutes, well past the point when the melody has been exhausted. But, again, I am a fan of this album’s weird, unbridled energy, and the fact that they didn’t buff “Moment Of Surrender” to a high gloss is preferable to the too-slick ’10s albums. This isn’t an attempt to “be relevant,” it sounds like an honest reach for spiritual transcendence that inevitably falls short, but nevertheless inspires as it grasps at stars.
65. “Original Of The Species” (2004)
Here is a late-period ballad that U2 did buff to a high gloss, all the while hitting the expected U2 beats: An uplifting Bono lyric that doubles as a pep talk (“Please stay a child somewhere in your heart”), a string section that enters by the first pre-chorus, and The Edge’s church-bell guitar that enters when Bono’s is delivering the emotional money shot (the part when he sings “under controlllllll!“). Like everything else about How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I am supposed to be cynical about “Original Of The Species.” But, like atheists in foxholes, cynics don’t last long with U2 anyway. If you’ve made it this far into the list, you might as well admit that even extremely obvious U2 songs like this can really deliver the goods.
64. “Kite” (2000)
All That You Can’t Leave Behind was retconned after 9/11 into an album about an entire culture getting over a life-changing disaster. But when the album was released in October 2000, it was informed by Bono’s troubled relationship with his father, who would die the following year of cancer. Several of the album’s most moving songs are about Bono’s attempt to reconcile a lifetime of hurt at the end of the old man’s life. In “Kite,” he achieves a catharsis moment when he sings, “I’m a man, I’m not a child,” reaching for a note he can’t possibly hit and somehow nailing it.
63. “Numb” (1993)
For all of the praise heaped upon Radiohead for their provocative anti-technology statement, Kid A, I’m not sure that anything on that album is quite as radical as “Numb,” a similarly tech-averse track from Zooropa that U2 put into regular rotation on MTV in the summer of 1993, right at the moment when they were arguably the biggest band in the world. It’s weird to think that rock stars were already feeling “numb” from information overload in 1993, a distant pre-internet era that might as well be 1893 from our modern vantage point. But The Edge’s flat monotone suggests that cable TV was already melting our brains even before we were all online.
62. “Exit” (1987)
When I first got The Joshua Tree, this was my favorite track. It’s the kind of song to which an 11-year-old gravitates, the “serial killer” ode that goes from really soft to really loud. (This is the closest that U2 gets to The Doors.) Now, I consider it the weakest track on The Joshua Tree. Though that still means it’s better than most other U2 songs.
61. “So Cruel” (1991)
For all of the snarky remarks I’ve already made about Bono’s lyrics, and will continue to make as this list unfolds, I must also point out again how good he was in the early ’90s. “So Cruel” is one of many songs from the Achtung Baby/Zooropa nexus that I would compare favorably to Blood On The Tracks era Bob Dylan. For as corny and vague as Bono can often be, he is so sharp and cutting in “So Cruel,” a song about how romantic longing can quickly curdle into hostility, and then circle back to devotion: ” I’m only hanging on / To watch you go down / My love.”
60. “Every Breaking Wave” (2014)
The best song U2 has produced in the past 10 years, and the most meta: “Every gambler knows that to lose / Is what you’re really there for.” To me, that’s Bono addressing his audience. Whatever else they can be accused of, U2 has made many sizable gambles with their credibility over the years. The Zoo Tour was a gamble. Rattle & Hum was a gamble. Making 9/11 such a big part of their 2002 Super Bowl performance was a gamble. Putting Songs Of Innocence on everybody’s phone was a gamble. Some of these bets paid off, and some of them busted. But the possibility that U2 might lose has animated their entire career.
59. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” (2000)
This pop-gospel number is another kind of gamble, another musical pep talk with a wordy title that flirts with obviousness and yet somehow avoids it. The opening line (“I am not afraid of anything in this world”) has the bluster of Bono in his arena-rock guise, but the rest of the song gets under your skin because Bono reveals the emptiness of that boast. (He wrote it for his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence, an obscenely handsome and charismatic man with layers of darkness and insecurity he never fully revealed to the world.) This is a song about acknowledging fear and figuring out a way to navigate around it — or, really, waiting it out until it passes.
58. “Gone” (1997)
One of many songs from Pop that U2 kept on tinkering with after the album came out, both with remixes and altered live arrangements. (The Edge later said he thought the song ultimately sounded best on acoustic guitar.) But I still prefer the relatively raw version that’s on the album. “Gone” is an example of U2 once again going against the grain of their “ironically frivolous” image; Bono ruminates on the upside of leaving the rock business behind over a track that sounds like an expensive redux of their War guise.
57. “The First Time” (1993)
In the early ’90s, U2 memorably covered “Satellite Of Love.” Lou Reed should have returned the favor and covered this song, which evokes the self-titled Velvet Underground album.
56. “The Electric Co.” (1980)
A fascinating “what if?” in U2’s career concerns producer Martin Hannett working on their debut, Boy. Hannett was originally slated to produce Boy, a byproduct of U2’s love of Hannett’s most famous collaborators, Joy Division. (The members of U2 met Hannett for the first time during the session for “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” They were apparently listening to Wagner between takes.) After Ian Curtis killed himself, a devastated Hannett swiftly canceled his session with U2, prompting the band to instead work with Steve Lillywhite. While Hannett was moody and inclined to sonically deconstruct rowdy rock bands in the studio, Lillywhite was gregarious and determined to harness U2’s power as a live act. You can hear that in “The Electric Co.,” which captures their youthful energy and maximizes the excitement of Bono’s vocal and The Edge’s livewire guitar.
55. “October” (1981)
Here’s a song in which U2’s early Joy Division hero-worship is highly apparent. Only U2 was never as hip as Joy Division, which was evident on October‘s dorky-ass album cover, which is on the opposite end of the iconic spectrum from Unknown Pleasures. “It’s a picture of four guys with funny haircuts,” is how Larry Mullen Jr. once accurately described it.
54. “Drowning Man” (1983)
This strange little Celtic-sounding folk song is about as dark as U2 gets. There isn’t another track in their catalogue that sounds remotely like it. Perhaps that’s why U2 has never played it live. (They should!)
53. “Mysterious Ways” (1991)
The poppiest U2 single ever, and the funkiest. I’ll always love this song, but it’s probably the last thing I’d play for a U2 skeptic. It has an undeniable “extremely ’90s” stench to it. (There’s very little that separates “Mysterious Ways” from Jesus Jones, the Soup Dragons, or any of the “extremely ’90s” guitar bands dabbling in hip-hop rhythms at the time.) The Edge later married the belly dancer who came out when they played “Mysterious Ways” on the Zoo TV tour, which is probably the most heartwarming story involving a belly dancer ever.
52. “Rejoice” (1981)
The most famous story about U2’s early years is that they almost broke up after October because Bono, The Edge, and Larry were involved in a Christian group — I don’t think “cult” applies though it seems more involved than your typical Bible study — that frowned on rock bands. This oft-repeated anecdote strains credulity; how could a band as maniacally ambitious as U2 ever get derailed by anything, even God? But when I listen to this very underrated track — which U2 dropped from their concerts in 1982 and haven’t revisited since — I can almost believe it. I can also understand why they stopped playing it — “Rejoice” is the impassioned cry of very intense, very confused and very churchy young men demanding that Jesus explain the meaning of life right now.
51. “Out Of Control” (1980)
When I covered the opening of the Innocence + Experience tour in 2015, they played this song right after beginning the show with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” The difference in those songs was clear — the first was nostalgia, the second was an invocation of a still-potent spirit. Yes, it doesn’t get more “on the nose” than calling a punk song “Out Of Control.” And, sure, U2 was doing songs like this around the time that The Clash had moved on to London Calling. From the beginning, U2 was not on the cutting edge. But if that matters, why does my furiously beating heart not seem to care?
This column was written in an office room in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s a column about a band born in Dublin. A band that is sick of not having lifetime “biggest rock band in the world” status.
Is this list bugging you? I don’t mind to bug ya.
OK Edge, play the blues.
50. “Silver And Gold” Rattle & Hum live version (1988)
Is this the blues? U2 had no right to play the blues, even with the help of the great B.B. King. But Bono’s intra-song patter here is still next level: The Little Steven name drop. The pronunciation of apartheid as “apar-tight.” The microphone slam at the end. Also, for all the crap that he got for making the movie, Phil Joanou can really film the hell out of a rock band. This looks like Raging Bull.
49. “Like A Song …” (1983)
U2 has played “Like A Song …” exactly once — Feb. 26, 1983 in Dundee, Scotland — and I have no idea why. Once you get past “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Years Day,” the rest of War Side 1 gets mostly slept on. But the riff on “Like A Song …” is one of The Edge’s best from this period, and “Like A Song…” generally is one of the most exciting examples of the hard-rock side that U2 largely abandoned after this album.
48. “Gloria” Under A Blood Red Sky version (1983)
For all the ups and downs they’ve had as a recording act, U2’s ability as a live unit has never really failed them. Time and again, songs that confounded listeners on record — a phenomenon that started around the time of The Unforgettable Fire — have fully blossomed on stage. And then there are songs like “Gloria” that are merely undercooked in their recorded incarnation, and then explode to life in front of audience. Even Adam Clayton’s unconvincing bass solo recovered some long lost funk under those flaming torches at Red Rocks.
47 . “City Of Blinding Lights” (2004)
I’ve already used the phrase “Edge guitar porn” in this column, but there really is no other way to describe the appeal of “City Of Blinding Lights.” If you love U2 because you are addicted to the sound of The Edge playing guitar arpeggios — what are you even doing here if that’s not the case? — then it’s impossible to resist “City Of Blinding Lights.” This is true even if, intellectually, you can see that this a pretty blatant attempt to rewrite “Where The Streets Have No Name” and getting maybe only 40 percent of the way there. As a hopeless Edge addict, I will take 40 percent of “Where The Streets Have No Name” over 99 percent of songs.
46. “Tomorrow” (1981)
Another song that Bono improvised in the studio during the October sessions. He realized later that he was recounting his mother’s funeral: “There’s a black car parked / At the side of the road / Don’t go to the door.” This funereal vibe carries to the music, in which languid a Joy Division melody is offset by bagpipes until The Edge barges in around the 2:45-mark. That’s when Bono starts praying again for Christ’s return. Again, this is a lot, even for U2. But the unguarded, almost unsettling religious intensity of October has always endeared me to the album, the most underrated in their catalogue.
45. “Please” (1997)
One of the great unsung U2 songs of the ’90s, though the band again believed later that it wasn’t finished on the album and tinkered with it on the subsequent single release. (One point of contention: The bass and guitar are in different keys. “That probably why it’s so unresolved because it’s straddling a couple of different keys without really committing to one or the other,” Clayton told Neil McCormick in U2 By U2.) But, again, I like the relatively rough-hewn version on Pop. Yet another track from that record that doesn’t really fit the Pop format. I wonder how that album would’ve been received had it been given a more accurate title, like Spiritual Dysfunction.
44. “Unknown Caller” (2009)
The ultimate manifestation of that No Line On The Horizon “weird energy.” If there’s a bias on this list, it’s my soft spot for U2’s less polished and riskier moments. And “Unknown Caller” is certainly that — a narrative told from the perspective of a drug addict and dotted with bizarre techno-speak that was recorded, in extremely un-U2-like fashion, in one take. I’ve talked with many U2 fans who absolutely loathe this song, but “Unknown Caller” always moves me, both for the strain you hear in U2 reaching for something new and revelatory and The Edge’s stunning, careening guitar solo.
43. “Staring At The Sun” (1997)
“We thought we had a solid gold number one hit,” U2’s former manager Paul McGuinness once said of “Staring At The Sun,” the ill-fated would-be breakout from Pop. “It clearly wasn’t the song we thought it was.” I think that’s unfair — the pop charts in 1997 were not a welcome place for a psychedelic-folk track about self-delusion that evokes the late-’60s Kinks. U2 could have put out “With Or Without You” and the kids would’ve still gravitated to Korn and the Backstreet Boys.
42. “Twilight” (1980)
When U2 set out to conquer America upon the release of their debut album Boy, they gained an early foothold in this country’s gay clubs. Listening to “Twilight,” it’s easy to see why — this song about spiritual and sexual awakening has heavy queer overtones, describing a scenario that sounds an awful lot like a young man losing his virginity to an older lover. Combined with the orgasmic surge of the music, which peaks with a valedictory Edge guitar solo, “Twilight” seems like the rousing gay anthem that U2 has never quite owned up to acknowledging as such.
41. “Deep In The Heart” (1987)
The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are the top two “best U2 album” contenders, as well as the two best producer of great U2 B-sides. On that count, I have to give The Joshua Tree the slight edge — there is nearly enough material relegated to B-side status to account for another top-flight U2 album. This spooky number with a heavy Badlands vibe — the Terrence Malick film, not the Springsteen song — is one of the very best B-sides from this period: “Thirteen years old, sweet as rose / Every petal of her wafer thin / Love will make you mine / Creep up from behind / Get you jumping out of your skin.”
40. “Spanish Eyes” (1987)
The best B-side from The Joshua Tree, and the best U2 B-side, period. Everyone involved seems to agree that “Spanish Eyes” could’ve made the album — maybe even should’ve made the album — though apparently it wasn’t finished in time. As it is, the wide-open sound slots pretty much perfectly between “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill.”
39. “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” Under A Blood Red Sky version (1983)
Though not included on the original release of Boy, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is among the most significant early U2 songs. It was the track that initially convinced Martin Hannett to work with them. (“He wasn’t impressed with the demo, but he said he liked the song,” The Edge later recalled.) But more than that, it distilled their original essence, which was introspective atmospheric post-punk (the first half of the song) blown up to the size and scale of stadium rock (the second half). Most U2 fans didn’t come to know “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” until it appeared on Under A Blood Red Sky, by which point U2’s positive visualization about their larger-than-life future put them on the cusp of playing the kinds of rooms that could contain a song this big.
38. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” (1995)
Remember when Batman movies were lighthearted enough to foster soundtracks spinning multiple pop hits? “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” wasn’t even the biggest smash from the Batman Forever soundtrack — take a bow, Seal, for “Kiss From A Rose.” In terms of U2’s arc in the ’90s, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” is either the end of the Zoo TV/Zooropa era or the unofficial beginning of the Pop period set to officially kick off two years later. Or maybe it doesn’t really fit in either place — this song is flat-out riffier and all-around trashier than anything from the relatively self-serious U2 albums that surround it. Lyrically, however, it does owe something to the “artist as thief” philosophizing of “The Fly.” Give Bono some extra bonus points for rhyming “turning tricks” with “your crucifix.”
37. “Do You Feel Loved” (1997)
If the narrative of Pop (at least from U2’s perspective) is of a promising album undone by a looming stadium tour that forced the band to turn it in before fully realizing the songs, then “Do You Feel Loved” might be their single greatest lost opportunity at achieving a hit single. The band themselves seemed eager to discard it, setting the song aside after only six performances on the PopMart tour. But to my ears, “Do You Feel Loved” is the most successful attempt on Pop at eschewing U2’s conventional guitar-centric approach for a sultry, groove-heavy, electro-rock alternative. So much of Pop is decidedly not pop music, but “Do You Feel Loved” was a genuine departure that actually works. Unfortunately, U2’s own failure of nerve has relegated the song to obscurity.
36. “Zooropa” (1993)
U2’s experimental followup to Achtung Baby represents another failure of nerve — not initially, as Zooropa is among U2’s best albums. But in retrospect, given how the band came to see the LP as self-indulgent. “I thought of Zooropa at the time as a work of genius,” Bono tells Neil McCormick in U2 By U2. “I really thought our pop discipline was matching our experimentation and this was our Sgt. Pepper. I was a little wrong about that. The truth is our pop disciplines were letting us down. We didn’t create hits. We didn’t quite deliver the songs. And what would Sgt. Pepper be without the pop songs?” The irony is that chasing hits for much of the 21st century has likely undermined U2’s credibility with younger generations far more than making albums like Zooropa would have. Even now, the title track feels like an invitation to adventure, a cyberspace remix of “Where The Streets Have No Name”: “And I have no compass / And I have no map / And I have no reason / No reason to get back.”
35. “Some Days Are Better Than Others” (1993)
One more note for Bono re: Zooropa: You guy did deliver songs! This is a great pop tune! You made Edge’s guitar sound like actual church bells! That’s brilliant! And your lyrics are also really good! (My personal fave: “Some days are sulky, some days have a grin / And some days have bouncers and won’t let you in.”) Be proud of this record, man!
34. “Bullet The Blue Sky” (1987)
The story everyone knows about “Bullet The Blue Sky” is that Bono told The Edge to “put El Salvador through an amplifier.” Though I’m guessing what The Edge actually did is just listen to some Hendrix and try to emulate “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” But the stars of “Bullet The Blue Sky” aren’t really The Edge or Bono — though “peeling off those dollar bills / slapping ’em down” is undeniably badass — but Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. This song just straight-up swings harder than any other U2 track on record. Led Zeppelin is an easy point of comparison, but those guys really just invented Rage Against The Machine about five years early.
33. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” (1987)
The easiest way to spot a great U2 album is by listening to the final track. If it’s a total downer, then the album is probably classic. It’s appropriate that The Joshua Tree has one of the most exquisite closing downers of all, this ballad inspired by the children snatched up from their parents by dastardly governments in Chile and Argentina. The backbone of this track is the eerie sound of Larry Mullen Jr.’s digitally treated rhythm, which gives “Mothers Of The Disappeared” a sinister clang that rings like wires being stretched across someone’s neck. And then there’s Bono’s falsetto, one of his all-time greatest vocal performances, in which he pulls back just enough to hint at the reservoir of pain just below the surface of this song.
32. “Zoo Station” (1991)
Another motif of the greatest U2 albums: Sweeping “introduction” tracks that draw you into a vast new musical world. I posited “Zooropa” as that kind of song a few entries back; “Zoo Station” from Achtung Baby is the original zoo crew. “Time is a train / Makes the future the past / Leaves you standing in the station / Your face pressed up against the glass.”
31. “Running To Stand Still” (1987)
Adam Clayton has called this song “Bad” Part II, though if that’s the case this is the subtler, more restrained sequel. Both songs are about the devastation of heroin addiction, which Bono writes about more directly in “Running To Stand Still”: “You know I took the poison / From the poison stream / Then I floated out of here.” But whereas “Bad” builds to an overpowering climax, “Running To Stand Still” is practically prairie music in the vein of Springsteen’s Nebraska.
30. “40” (1983)
The best-ever instance of rock ‘n’ roll stagecraft at the end of a gig is James Brown’s “exit robe” routine. The second best instance is U2 playing “40” and then exiting the stage one by one, with The Edge on bass and Adam Clayton on guitar, until Larry Mullen is left alone to pound out the beat.
29. “Van Diemen’s Land” (1988)
If U2 were more like The Stones, there would be one track set aside per record where The Edge gets to sing lead. Alas, The Edge is more of a team player than Keith Richards, so “Van Diemen’s Land” is the rare track to spotlight his hearty tenor. While Rattle & Hum is known as U2’s most America-obsessed record, “Van Diemen’s Land” also stands out for being the most traditionally Irish-sounding piece that U2 has ever committed to tape. Named after the former British prison colony of Tasmania, where Irish activist John Boyle O’Reilly was sent after leading a popular uprising in the 1860s, “Van Diemen’s Land” is understated and yet one of the most quietly powerful U2 “protest” numbers.
28. “Desire” (1988)
It’s impossible to separate in my mind “Van Diemen’s Land” from “Desire,” since those tracks are sequenced together on Rattle & Hum, with the little misbegotten Phil Joanou interview clip in the middle. I wish U2 had done one of those five-disc box sets for the 30th anniversary of Rattle & Hum in 2018, because (1) I think the album is generally misunderstood and underappreciated and (2) I want to hear all of the interview outtakes where Joanou asks earnest questions about how U2 is grappling with fame in the wake of The Joshua Tree. As for “Desire”: For a band that started out less than a decade earlier with zero connection to Bo Diddley, this is a shockingly effective use of the Diddley shuffle.
27. “Red Hill Mining Town” (1987)
The Joshua Tree was so loaded with expressive, mid-tempo heartland rockers that they didn’t come around to playing “Red Hill Mining Town” live until the anniversary tour in 2017. That could be read as a vote of “no confidence” from the band — Mullen called it “over-produced and under-written,” a classification that makes no sense on either count — though it’s possible “Red Hill Mining Town” suffered from comparison to the best songs from that album. On its own, however, it’s hard not to love this song for how the swinging verse builds to the pure emotionalism of the chorus, in which Bono’s high-lonesome howl meshes perfectly with The Edge’s searching twang.
26. “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” (1984)
The U2 warhorse I’m the most sick of. Also, the lyric mangles the circumstances of MLK’s murder, which is a crucial error in a song that seeks to honor MLK in the wake of his murder. Now, if you have by some chance never heard “Pride,” first of all, how? Second of all, I envy you. The first 25 or so seconds might be the most purely exciting music that U2 ever made. Even as a person who would be fine never hearing this song again, I have no doubt when The Edge’s obituary is written, the riff from “Pride” will be in the first paragraph.
25. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” (1991)
Put this riff in the second paragraph of the obituary. (Actually, let’s just stop talking about The Edge’s death.) When he wrote it, he likened the riff to that classic ’68-’72 era of The Rolling Stones, a reference point that typically wouldn’t be applied to U2. But once The Edge added that distinctive whammy-pedal effect, it turned whiskey-and-cocaine blues-rock into anti-consumerist science fiction.
24. “Angel Of Harlem” (1988)
U2 was clobbered in the media for the Americana cosplay of Rattle & Hum, but now that we’re more than three decades removed, can we admit that you have to work very hard to hate a song as affectionate as “Angel Of Harlem”? Recorded at Sun Studios with a Springsteen-esque horn section, “Angel Of Harlem” is a straight-up retelling of U2’s first visit to America in the early ’80s. They landed at JFK in New York City, they listened to American radio, they heard Billie Holiday, and years later Bono wrote a song about it. Unlike a lot of his lyrics, he lays it all pretty plainly — this is an unabashed love letter to the country that U2 would eventually conquer.
23. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!) (1993)
A personal favorite for Bono and The Edge, who worked on “Stay” throughout the early ’90s as a kind of magnum opus. It started during the Achtung Baby era as a potential song for Frank Sinatra. (The Edge even worked out the chord progression in imitation of classic Tin Pan Alley songwriting.) You can sense Bono going for a crooner vibe in the lyric: A guy stops for a pack of cigarettes even though he doesn’t want to smoke. He talks to a femme fatale trapped in a bad, sadomasochistic relationship. Just pure film noir. But “Stay” is also very early ’90s U2: “Dressed up like a car crash / Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down” is something you can imagine Bowie singing even more than the Chairman of the Board.
22. “Love Is Blindness” (1991)
Here’s Bono once again approaching Dylan-level greatness as a lyricist on Achtung Baby: “A little death / Without mourning / No call / And no warning / Baby, a dangerous idea / That almost makes sense.” This is also the album where The Edge peaked as a soloist. So much of his playing on this record conjures the feeling of a once ebullient spirit being shot through the heart and slowly bleeding out, none more so than on this track.
21. “The Wanderer” (1993)
Yes, Rick Rubin was wise in the early ’90s to strip back Johnny Cash’s music to an acoustic guitar and that low, rumbling, Old Testament voice on the “American” albums. But I don’t think he was quite as smart as U2 was to put that voice and presence on Zooropa‘s techno-western closer. On the “American” albums, Cash sounds like the town crier for a civilization on the verge of the apocalypse. But on “The Wanderer,” he’s positively post-apocalyptic: “I went out searching, looking for one good man/ A spirit who would not bend or break / Who would sit at his father’s right hand / I went out walking with a bible and a gun / The word of God lay heavy on my heart / I was sure I was the one.”
20. “Seconds” (1983)
Side 1 of War is the best U2 album side that is not on The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, and “Seconds” is the best song on that side that’s not a massively successful classic-rock radio staple. (We’ll be talking about the two songs that are massively successful from this side a little later on.) I also stump for this song because The Edge sings the first verse, though you can’t really tell because he sounds so much like Bono. Otherwise, this song always sucks me in as soon as I hear Larry Mullen Jr. pounding out that martial-funk beat on a toy drum.
19. “In God’s Country” (1987)
My connection to U2 began in the summer when I was 11 or 12. Every night after dinner, I would ride my bike at dusk and listen to my tape of The Joshua Tree on my Walkman, and in the process fell in love with music. For the longest time, I would only play the first three songs on Side 1 — all of the hits, basically — and then rewind and listen to them again. But eventually I made it to the end of Side 1, and then flipped over to Side 2. And that’s when I heard one of my favorite bike-riding songs of all-time, “In God’s Country,” which still makes me think about burning thighs and sweat on my brow as I tried to pedal as quickly as The Edge strummed that quicksilver riff. Years later, I learned that U2 themselves never thought much of “In God’s Country.” (Bono blamed his guitarist: “The lyric was really good, the tune is pretty good, and the hook is pretty average — thanks to The Edge.”) But U2 is wrong about this, and I am right.
18. “Heartland” (1988)
Another “riding my bike at dusk when I was 11 or 12” song. I still think this is one Bono’s greatest vocals. It has that “One Tree Hill” vocal crack when he reaches for the high notes, which he lost not long after the ’80s ended.
17. “A Sort Of Homecoming” (1984)
The Edge’s favorite Brian Eno album is Before And After Science, and the lead-off track from U2’s first album with Eno/Lanois, The Unforgettable Fire, sounds like an attempt to marry that album’s “rock” and “ambient” sides. It has the drive of the first three U2 albums, but the edges have been blurred and the band’s overall attack has been made vaguer and less aggressive. In the studio, the producers slowed the original backing track down to half speed and encouraged Bono to improvise over the new soundscape, before lifting his best bits for the final edit. The result is a questing song that you can play 100 times without deciphering it, which only makes you want to play it 100 more.
16. “All I Want Is You” (1988)
This song was the fourth and final single from Rattle & Hum, and pretty much bombed on the charts, peaking at No. 83. It didn’t really become popular until it was featured in Reality Bites six years later. Now, anecdotally speaking, I feel like this is one of the most popular U2 songs. This isn’t really borne out by streaming data. (It is not among the top 10 most streamed U2 songs on Spotify.) But if you were to count all of the mixtapes that I have made in my lifetime for people that I was trying to seduce, and added that number to all of the mixtapes that people I know have made for people they were trying to seduce and all the people that you know who have done that, then “All I Want Is You” would be among the most popular all-time love songs ever.
15. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)
You know the most iconic image of early U2: Red Rocks, flaming torches, white flag, Bono mullet, “No more!” It’s all from the Under The Blood Red Sky performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and it’s still maybe one of the most influential things they’ve ever done. Not so much sonically, perhaps, but certainly aspirationally. A generation of over-ambitious alt-indie rockers — from Coldplay to The Killers to Arcade Fire — studied that video closely and learned how to channel their burgeoning megalomania into dreams of arena domination.
14. “Acrobat” (1991)
It’s not one of the hits from Achtung Baby, but “Acrobat” has all of the qualities I treasure about the album: The Edge’s guitar is nasty and his solo is hellacious, the rhythm section is inventive and also hellacious, and Bono’s lyrics are extra-penetrating and bleak. (“What are we going to do now it’s all been said / No new ideas in the house and every book has been read.”) The band suspected that audiences didn’t respond more favorably to “Acrobat” because it’s not the kind of song that people typically turn to U2 for. But the real heads understand that this is the cream of Achtung Baby.
13. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (1987)
This song is so ubiquitous and familiar that I just recently came to appreciate how unusual it is. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is basically a sneaky-weird instrumental track that sounds like a gospel tune because of Bono’s lyrics and vocals, in which the wondrously slippery rhythm part is the primary hook. If this is heartland rock, it’s from a planet that resembles Another Green World. In an alternate universe, this is a beloved “strange” outtake that retained its original title, “Under The Weather Girls.”
12. “The Unforgettable Fire” (1984)
If grander ambitions hadn’t been driving them, U2 could have been a damn fine dream pop band. The title track from the fourth album is one of their most ravishing numbers, an almost-synth pop number that revisits the nuclear annihilation concerns of War with a much softer, lusher touch. Bono’s lyric about distracting yourself with romantic notions in the midst of common disaster hits a different way at the moment: “Stay this time / Stay tonight in a lie / I’m only asking but I / I think you know/ Come on take me away.”
11. “Until The End Of The World” (1991)
Bono goes biblical. Over one of the thickest, heaviest guitar riffs in the U2 canon, he brilliantly voices the guilty conscience of Judas Iscariot in a conversational voice that previews the “con man in hell” voice that he’ll use later in Achtung Baby on “The Fly.” The final verse is perhaps Bono’s finest writing, partly fiction and partly exorcism: “In my dream I was drowning my sorrows / But my sorrows, they learned to swim / Surrounding me, going down on me / Spilling over the brim / Waves of regret and waves of joy / I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You, you said you’d wait / ‘Til the end of the world.”
10. “One Tree Hill” (1987)
My favorite Bono vocal performance. Written in memory of his friend and former U2 roadie Greg Carroll, who died in 1986 of a motorcycle accident, “One Tree Hill” was delivered in just one take, as Bono couldn’t make it through the lyrics a second time. But “One Tree Hill” isn’t so much about one man’s grief but rather a collective sadness caused by the toll of human loss that everyone endures. Carroll isn’t actually mentioned directly in the song, but the late Chilean folk singer Victor Jara — an outspoken critic of Augusto Pinochet who was subsequently tortured and murdered by the government — is referenced as a kind of symbol for heroic universal suffering. “One Tree Hill” later inspired the title of a CW soap opera that I have never seen.
9. “New Year’s Day” (1983)
The second and more famous song about nuclear annihilation from Side 1 of War (the first being “Seconds,” No. 20 on this list). While Adam Clayton tends to be a glue guy in U2, this song remains his greatest showcase. “New Year’s Day” features the biggest, fattest, and most aggressive bassline heard regularly on the classic-rock station in your town outside of “Another One Bites The Dust.”
8. “Beautiful Day” (2000)
Along with being one of the greatest U2 songs, “Beautiful Day” unquestionably is among the most important, at least in terms of giving U2’s career new life after they appeared to hit a snag at the onset of middle age. Much like The Rolling Stones with “Start Me Up,” which arrived 20 years into their career and subsequently became a deathless jock jams standard, “Beautiful Day” was precisely the Great And Iconic Mid-Career Single that every legacy act aims for and rarely achieves. The power of “Beautiful Day” is how it (1) reminds those of us who love U2 why we love U2 without (2) directly ripping off an old song or explicitly pandering to the most conservative instincts of the audience. “Beautiful Day” is the epitome of “classic” U2 while also bringing a certain survivor’s energy to the song that only a veteran band could conjure.
7. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” (1991)
Bono is known for his decidedly unsubtle, Cliff’s Of Dover-style arena-rock caterwaul, which is why his vocal performances on Achtung Baby are so consistently surprising. Like “Until The End Of The World” and “The Fly,” he speak-sings “Ultra Violet,” a rare ray of light on the album after all of the despairing and brutalist songs about relationships that proceed it. Like Bruce Springsteen on Tunnel Of Love, Bono used Achtung Baby to ruminate on the gap between his romantic intentions (i.e. the topic of most U2 songs) and the reality of human beings rarely living up to the image that they have of themselves. While “Ultra Violet” doesn’t deny or downplay that gap, it is an admission that the path to reconciling it comes with accepting that these battles for our own souls can’t be fought alone: “There is a silence that comes to a house / Where no one can sleep / I guess it’s the price of love / I know it’s not cheap.”
6. “The Fly” (1991)
The peak of U2’s “Euro-Trash” guise. Also the greatest “heavy” Edge guitar riff and his best guitar solo, as well as perhaps Bono’s finest set of lyrics. It’s also the funniest U2 song — which isn’t saying much, since this isn’t a funny band, but it’s still pretty witty! If you’re going to quote any U2 song, it will probably be this one: “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success / Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.”
5. “With Or Without You” (1987)
The final 80 seconds of this song is the best music U2 ever made, and some of my favorite music by anybody. It’s the coda, when The Edge starts strumming out of Larry Mullen Jr.’s drum break and Adam Clayton’s bass makes a murmuring sound that is impossibly deep and wide. It’s a moment that should explode, since this is U2’s quintessential power ballad. But it doesn’t. It just stays in that pocket for several seconds, ringing and murmuring, until it flattens you.
4. “I Will Follow” (1980)
The most crucial fact about U2 is that the four guys who played on their first record are the same four guys who played on their most recent record, and it’s impossible to imagine it being any other way. Even if you don’t know that the bass player is named Adam Clayton and the drummer is named Larry Mullen Jr., you would suddenly feel extremely weird if suddenly one of those guys were replaced by, like, Flea or Travis Barker. The sense of continuity with U2 is their greatest attribute, and distinguishes them from practically every other significant band in rock history. What you hear on “I Will Follow,” the very first track on their debut — The Edge’s guitar, Adam Clayton’s mile-wide bass, Larry Mullen Jr.’s unpretentious drums, Bono’s messianic posturing — is what you’ll get from U2 for the next 40 years. They invented themselves immediately. And then they reinvented themselves, time and again.
3. “One” (1991)
You might think you’re sick of this song. Put it on right now. Set aside your cynicism. (I should have advised this at the beginning of this U2 list.) This is one of the great standards to come out of the alt-rock era. It is “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for Generation X, meaning that it is an outsized, reassuring ballad calling for communal unity directed at people who have been highly conditioned to resist such messages. Which might be why “One” functions as both a “let’s stick together” and “let’s break up” anthem. Bono’s clear-eyed view of marriage is certainly bruising, but it still sounds ultimately hopeful to me: “Well it’s too late, tonight / To drag the past out into the light / We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.” But it’s also possible to get the opposite message, and to take “One” as a “moving on”-type song: “Love is a temple, love is a higher law / You ask me of me to enter, but then you make me crawl / And I can’t keep holding on to what you got, ’cause all you got is hurt.” Either way, there is a path forward away from hurt and toward healing.
2. “Bad” Wide Awake In America version (1985)
If “One” is a song I can imagine anyone singing, “Bad” only works if U2 is delivering it. The lyrics make no sense unless Bono is singing them. The riff is practically nonexistent if not for The Edge’s stirring arpeggios. The whole bottom end would be painfully boring if Adam and Larry didn’t play the hell out of it. Even U2 couldn’t really get this song right on The Unforgettable Fire. They had to drag it out in front of at least 20,000 people every night to conjure whatever that elusive special thing there is about “Bad.” But in that environment, U2 has been able to make “Bad” their own Astral Weeks, an intense journey into the spiritual and emotional netherworld that can’t really be articulated with words, because the sound of this song tends to render those held in its rapture temporarily speechless.
1. “Where The Streets Have No Name” (1987)
What if U2 had failed? Failure for this band wouldn’t have meant not getting a record deal or an opportunity to tour America. Failure would have meant merely being medium popular. The sort of group that plays clubs and theaters. A career to which most musicians aspire, but for U2 would’ve equaled death. Because you can’t be a band that plays clubs and theaters and also writes songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name.” It simply would not make sense. It’s like making a film with the size and scope of Lawrence Of Arabia in order to post it on TikTok. If your ambition is to be epic and awe audiences with heretofore unimagined grandness, you simply cannot exist if the venue itself is small and ordinary. U2 needed extraordinary success in order to make extraordinary music, and “Where The Streets Have No Name” represents that magic moment when their ambitions perfectly matched their circumstances. They had toured long and hard enough for the world to accept them into its largest stadiums, and U2 responded with a song so large and imaginative that it feels like a world onto itself. You hear this song and you suddenly long for the lack of intimacy at a stadium show — because you sense that this band will make a stadium feel like a club, and also because the intimacy you seek isn’t with a band but with 60,000 other people held in the very same surge of emotion that you are. Where the streets have no name? What place can that be but heaven?