The 8 Ball 01.19.13: The Top 8 U2 Songs
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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With the amount of press that goes into covering Bono’s charity work and massive ego, it is easy to forget at times that U2 is still one of the biggest and best rock bands on the planet. The Dublin, Ireland-originating rock band has been rocking for over thirty years now and show no signs of slowing down. While even their most ardent fans acknowledge that they have had ups and downs, the group has always made it back to the “up” position by the virtue of their skill as musicians and their ability to reach a mass audience. The band has a new album coming out this year, their first since 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. This week I thought we could look at the best U2 tracks in the band’s history.
Caveat: As usual with these act-specific lists, I was looking for original songs performed by U2 and not covers; I chose to focus on the original mixes and not remixes as well. As another note, this was another one of those very difficult lists to narrow down. I ended up leaving some songs off that I absolutely love because as great as they are, they just aren’t quite in the top eight (or eleven, if you count the honorable mentions). Feel free to lambast me for not having “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “If God Will Send His Angels” on this list, but I promise it’s not because I don’t like them. I just like the songs that made the list an infinitesimal amount more.
“New Year’s Day” (1983)
There are people who will note that this list is heavy on U2 hits, and in my defense it is difficult not to include a bunch of hits because the group released so many songs as singles that became hits. Seriously, the group has fifty-six songs that were released as singles off of twelve albums; of those fifty-six twenty became top ten hits in the US (thirty-four in the UK). So it isn’t like there were a ton of great non-hits that the group had for me to choose from. “Bad” is their best song that was never released as a single; despite the fact that it never became a huge charting hit, it is one of the group’s more popular songs and one of the most frequently-played by the group on tour. Bono’s lyrics about heroin addiction are inspired by the rise of the drug in Dublin during the recession of the early 1980s, specifically a friend of his. The song has an atmospheric, almost dreamy quality to it that fits well with the lyrics to create a perfect example of one of the archetypes U2 does best: songs that are downbeat without being maudlin.
As any fan of music might expect, there is going to be a lot of The Joshua Tree love on this list. That album is, for many people, the seminal U2 album with an epic 25 million copies sold worldwide; it launched the band from stardom to megastardom and for very good reason. This is the second track off that LP and is the band’s ode to gospel music. The lyrics about spiritual longing and trying to one’s way in the world are both accessible and deep in meaning; they are accompanied by some very evocative imagery. Like some of the greatest songs out there it isn’t overly complex in structure and it doesn’t try to be clever; it simply lays it all out on the line and says in a relatively few words what many, many groups have failed to say with more. The music is soaring and inspirational without needing to go over the top; this doesn’t go to extremes because it never has to. In many ways, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is the quintessential pop-rock song and it remains a relevant and meaningful song to those who listen to it even today, nearly thirty years after the fact. That says a lot about it.
The mid-to-late 1990s were not good to U2. Flush with the trifecta success of The Joshua Tree, Rattle & Hum and Achtung Baby, the band was more or less untouchable from a critical and commercial standpoint. The band felt it was time to change things up and we got some disastrous missteps in Zooropa and Pop, which found the band on a downward slide in not only critical praise, but fan following and commercial sales numbers. Thus, when All You Cannot Leave Behind was released in 2000 it was a welcome return for the band to their mainstream rock ways; as Bono put it, they were “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world” and they certainly made their case here. One of the biggest parts of their return was the first single off Leave Behind, the opening track “Beautiful Day.” . What makes it work though so well though is that instead of just tucking tail and trying to replicate the success of their previous work, they pushed ahead and fused their old sound with what had actually worked from Zooropa and Pop. The result was the improbable restoration of their old fans while retaining many of their new fans, and once again U2 was the biggest and best mainstream rock band in the world. “Beautiful Day” has high-flying music and glorious lyrics; it was the group’s triumphant return in a way that you simply could not deny.
Rattle & Hum was a huge commercial success and has a high level of acclaim among many of the band’s fans, but there was a very vocal group who were disliked the album in a form of backlash against the group’s watershed success with The Joshua Tree. No matter who you are though, you have to appreciate the final track on the album. “All I Want Is You” served as the final single off of Rattle & Hum and while it did not achieve the level of success that some of the group’s other songs from the era did, it is easily the best song off the LP and one of their best song from the late ’80s. Much like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” this song is simple in its structure but quite powerful thanks in no small part to that simplicity. Bono wrote the song as a love song depicting his relationship with his wife Ali when they were younger, saying of marriage: “I think it’s madness, but it’s grand madness.” It’s a hell of a love song and the swell of the music in the chorus has been known to send a chill or two up my spine.
One of the many huge hits off of The Joshua Tree, “With or Without You” was the group’s first number one single in the United States and remains a mainstay of U2’s catalogue for a very good reason. It is one of the most earnest songs in the band’s repertoire and showed a side of the group that hadn’t been seen up to that point. It would set the template for some of the band’s biggest songs with a restrained sound that slowly builds as the song progresses while Bono’s unmistakable voice rings with emotion. More than just the sum of its individual parts, there is a quality to “With or Without You” that strikes at the heart. The song is one of those hits that were never meant to be; the group almost passed on including the song for fear that it would be too sentimental. Even when recording it there were problems and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno threw in the towel before Bono and Gavin Friday took the reins and delivered the unforgettable song that we ended up getting. You can mock the band for their success, but you can’t deny the power of this song, which is one of the most emotional tracks that the band has ever done.
Inspired by a book about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., “Pride” is one of the band’s more powerful socio-political tracks. The second of two tracks off The Unforgettable Fire to score in my top eight, the lyrics are powerful but we’ll get to those in a moment. First we have to talk about The Edge’s guitar work, which is perhaps the best he’s ever been. Few songs have a more impressive collection of riffs than this one; The Edge switches smoothly from one to another and doesn’t repeat himself from one part of the song to another. It underscores how good (and frankly, underrated) of a player that he is. As to the lyrics, they are carried by Bono who paints a vivid picture of a man who stands up to resist against all odds for what is right. He could be talking about any noble crusader until the final chorus, when it becomes crystal clear to anyone who knows their history who the subject is. It is a celebration of fighting for peace and what is right and one of the two best songs of the band’s pre-Joshua Tree era.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is one of those songs that you know will be an epic just from the opening moments. You have Larry Mullen Jr.’s iconic military-style drumbeat, The Edge’s unforgettable opening guitar licks and, if you’re listening to the famous live version from the band’s 1983 Red Rocks show, Bono declaring that the song “is not a rebel song.” At the time of its release the song caused a fair amount of controversy for the band, as some believed that they were glorifying the violence of the bloody struggles in Northern Ireland. Anyone listening to the lyrics knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth. The song is certainly militaristic in sound, but the message is pure non-violence as it examines the brutality of the conflict and a refusal to, in Bono’s own lyrics, “heed the battle call.” What makes it so amazing is its timelessness; sure, we know that the song is primarily inspired by the Northern Ireland conflict, but the lyrics could really apply to any conflict and it resonates just as strongly today. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the song that took the band to a new level and prepped them for super-stardom; it also remains one of the most powerful protest songs of all time.
I almost included “One” on my list of most misunderstood songs a while back. This song is surprisingly popular at weddings, which is rather funny when you think about the lyrics. The band was reportedly near the point of breaking up over a disagreement in their musical direction when, while working on the song that would become “Mysterious Ways,” they found the melody that would become “One.” According to Bono, “the whole thing was done in fifteen minutes.” The very song was inspired by the band’s fractured relationships at the time, but it has since taken on meaning for everything from a breakup song to an anthem for AIDS. It is only the best of songs that can seamlessly fit in so many interpretations and fit them so perfectly. While “One” may be the only song from the band’s 1990s work to make my list, it alone is almost good enough to singlehandedly put their output in that decade on a level with their other work by sheer law of averages. It’s evocative, poignant and incredibly powerful and in many ways it is the quintessential U2 song, which makes it their best in my book.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
With the earnestness and seriousness of U2 pervading the column this week, I thought we could flip it around and go goofy for the Music Video A-Go-Go. The FuMP, aka the Funny Music Project, is a collaboration between humor-themed musicians walking in the footsteps of “Weird Al” Yankovic, Tom Lehrer and the like. One of the founding members is the Great Luke Ski, who is a mainstay of geek humor. Check out his Hobbit-themed take on Eminem, “Stealing Like a Hobbit,” below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.