I’m four months late with this post. In October 2020 I’d meant to do something for U2’s 40th anniversary. Their first album Boy was released on October 20, 1980, and since then they’ve given us 14 albums, some better than others, three of them masterpieces, even a few stinkers. The web is flooded with rankings of U2’s best songs, but you know these lists, they always cry for clearance. Here are my essential 20, plus a bonus to celebrate Boy. In seven cases I prefer a live version over the original studio.
1. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Rose Bowl, 2009). There’s no doubt that the live performance is the ultimate U2 song, but there is every doubt in my mind as to which live version is the best. There are so many good ones. Put a gun to my head, I go with the Rose Bowl 2009 version, but supremely honorable mentions include Boston 2001, Slane Castle 2001, and Chicago 2005. The segue openings are sublime — “Amazing Grace”, “40”, “All I Need is You”, being typical choices. More than any song I know (let alone a U2 song), “Streets” has been elevated to mountainous heights from its studio version, which, like many Joshua Tree tracks, doesn’t do much for me. If I were limiting my rankings to studio versions, this song wouldn’t even make my top 20.
2. Bad (Studio, 1984). Many feel the same way about “Bad” as they feel about “Streets” — that live versions have transfigured the song into something much greater. I strongly disagree. The studio version of “Bad” is as perfect as the song will ever get. The slow build, the notes Bono hits, and pulsating sonics combine to convey the desperation of the heroin addict in a soft-edged miracle of lyric transcendence. The live versions are good, don’t get me wrong; but by making it more aggressive, something essential is sacrificed.
3. Ultraviolet (Studio, 1991). Someone should write a book about the “speak-sing trilogy” of Achtung Baby: “The Fly”, “Until the End of the World”, and “Ultraviolet”. (Called that because Bono speaks the lyrics as much as sings them.) They all make my top ten, and the last is the best. It was the overlooked gem of the album back in the ’90s, rarely played at concerts, but has undergone something of a reassessment since the 360 tour of 2009. For me, it was always the greatest. It’s the moment on the album (track 10 out of 12) when you can breathe a bit, after all the despairing songs about shitty relationships. “Ultraviolet” celebrates the trials and hardships of love, and holds fast to the wisdom of lighting the way and moving forward, even if it’s all ultimately in vain.
4. Kite (Live, Slane Castle, 2001). Bono knocked this one out of the park at Slane Castle. It was soon after his father died (and only ten days before 9/11), and the song plays to that, but it really plays to any theme about remembrance and loss. When he sings “I’m a maaaaaaaaaaan, I’m not a child,” he hasn’t nailed a note like that since the studio version of “Bad”. It’s an incredibly beautiful song.
5. A Sort of Homecoming (Studio, 1984). Whenever I hear this song, it’s almost like hearing it for the first time. I doubt it could be ruined by overplaying it. Lyric wise, it’s the best thing Bono ever wrote, and he was inspired by the poet Paul Celan. Celan described poetry as “a kind of homecoming”, and while the poor bastard ended up drowning himself, I don’t imagine this song provoking any suicidal tendencies in anyone. It’s a slice of ambient perfection from the Unforgettable Fire masterpiece.
6. Beautiful Day (Studio, 2000). AKA “The song announcing a return to form”. But after the horrid stench of Zooropa and Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind wasn’t just a return to form; it was a mid-career masterpiece. And while “Kite” is my personal favorite from the album, “Beautiful Day” is a close second, blending melodies and hooks from the ’80s albums, along with the electronic textures from Achtung Baby. It was certainly a beautiful day when this song hit the air in 2000, and it sounds just as fresh after two decades.
7. The Fly (Studio, 1991). The speak-song that burned down the Joshua Tree almost single-handedly. Every song from Achtung Baby took part in that fire, but “The Fly” was the first released, and I’ll never forget my reaction when I first heard it: That is not U2. It was a hoax and I hated it. Within weeks I was eating my words. Abrasive industrial textures have never sounded smoother, and lyrics have never called forth an alter-ego as memorable as Bono’s Fly. And it’s Edge’s best guitar solo of all time.
8. One Tree Hill (Live, Denver, 1987). The second half of The Joshua Tree is the stronger half by far, and “One Tree Hill” is the unsung masterpiece. It was performed live only once (for the Rattle and Hum album), even better than the studio version, but the song was apparently too emotional for Bono to get through ever again, so the band hasn’t performed it since the Joshua Tree tour. I can understand why: it has a poetic intimacy that goes through you like an awl, even if you don’t understand who the song is about (a friend of Bono who was killed).
9. Drowning Man (Studio, 1983). At least “One Tree Hill” was played live once. “Drowning Man” never. Each are the best songs on their respective albums, and “Drowning Man” is probably the darkest song in the U2 canon. It’s about drug addiction (like “Bad” and “Running to Stand Still”) but with a sense of personal injury, as it was written for band member Adam Clayton who was struggling with substance abuse at the time. The cribbed lines from Isaiah 40, amazing guitar strokes, and Middle Eastern-sounding violins, all add up to one of the best pieces U2 has ever recorded, though it’s hardly recognized as such.
10. Until the End of the World (Studio, 1991). And here’s the third speak-song from Achtung Baby: the story of Judas’s betrayal reworked as a love story. It contains some of Edge’s edgiest guitar riffs, and while the studio version reigns supreme, some of the live versions give it a run for its money (see Paris, 2015, for example). It’s one of the greatest biblical songs of all time: the first verse is the Last Supper, the second the betraying kiss in Gethsemane, and the third Judas’ suicide.
11. City of Blinding Lights (Studio, 2004). I’m not a fan of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but this song is magical. The band was trying to write another “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and didn’t do half a bad job. (The studio version of “City” buries the studio version of “Streets” IMO.) It’s about their love of New York, but I hear it as love for any big city where you can lose yourself in a good way. Brings me back to my years in Portland Oregon every time.
12. New Year’s Day (Studio, 1983). It was hard choosing between the studio version and the live from Slane Castle, but I have to stick to the studio. “New Year’s Day” is about as purely perfect as a recorded song can be, and this is the song that everyone’s attention back in the ’80s, hinting at mountains of potential that was indeed unleashed in the three masterpiece albums following War. There’s a lot on War itself that hasn’t aged well for me (If I never heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Two Hearts Beat as One” ever again, I wouldn’t care), but “New Year’s Day” hasn’t lost a dash of its power.
13. Mysterious Ways (Live, New York, 1992). While Achtung Baby is unquestionably the best U2 album, the Zoo TV tour is one of the band’s weakest outings, torpedoed in part by the inclusion of Zooropa songs, but also because of the gaudy “sensory overload” approach. The singular exception in that performance was “Mysterious Ways”, involving a belly dancer who served to tempt Bono. This was apparently a difficult song to write and nail down, but nail it down they did. It’s one of the most compulsive songs in the U2 canon, and watching the Zoo TV performance makes me want to get up and spin.
14. Red Hill Mining Town (Studio, 1987). The band members are often poor judges of their creations, and this song is exhibit-A. They never played it live (until 2017), believing it to be an overproduced and underwritten effort on The Joshua Tree. In fact it’s one of the very best tracks on The Joshua Tree, eclipsed only by “One Tree Hill” (and live versions of “Where the Streets Have No Name”). Bono howls and looses anguish in a way he has seldom since matched; it’s a song of social injustice and helplessness, and for my money hits stronger than the politics of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
15. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (Live, Boston, 2001). Finally a gospel number that stands the test of time. In 1987 we all loved “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, but within a few years that song was setting my teeth on edge. “Stuck in a Moment” is a song about acknowledging fears, navigating them, resisting suicide, and waiting for the darkness to pass. The live version at Boston Fleet Center shows Bono and Edge at the top of their game. It’s only gotten better with the passage of time.
16. Mercy (Studio, 2004). Here’s another song that was judged mediocre by the band members, this time to the extent that it didn’t even make the album cut. If it had, it would have been the second best track on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I stand in awe of how incompetent artists can be when judging their own work. Thanks to a fan with a bootlegged copy, we can all enjoy it. When I hear Taylor Swift’s “State of Grace”, I hear echoes of “Mercy”. It channels the energy of the Unforgettable Fire period.
17. Acrobat (Studio, 1991). Never been performed live, as the band members apparently believe it’s too depressing even by Achtung standards. Just when we get our second wind with “Ultraviolet” (track 10), “Acrobat” (track 11) pulls us down the hole of hypocrisy, alienation, and utter moral confusion. To which Bono can only offer the strained advice: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I’m still hoping for a live outing, but it doesn’t look promising.
18. The Unforgettable Fire (Studio, 1984). The title track from the band’s first masterpiece is one that you feel in your blood. It harks back to the nuclear devastations of War, but with more maturity, and an ethereal buzz that stays in my head long after the song ends. Like so many songs from this album. Knowing that it was inspired by paintings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the bombing aftermath makes it even more effective.
19. Running to Stand Still (Live, Tempe, 1987). AKA “Bad, Part 2”, though a much more subdued piece. “Bad” escalates to overwhelming crescendos; “Running To Stand Still” keeps it reflective. It almost seems intent to find beauty in the pain of heroin addiction. It begins like a blues song then becomes more orchestral, then fades back to blues on the end harmonica. It’s a damn beautiful piece; the live performance in Tempe remains supreme.
20. One (Studio, 1991). Like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, this is played at weddings by heartthrobs oblivious to the song’s true meaning. It’s not about two people in love so much they are practically one. It’s a nasty conversation between two lovers who have been through so much conflict and grief that it promises the end of their relationship. Play this at your wedding, perhaps, if you anticipate a nasty divorce. In Bono’s words: “The song is saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same. It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive.” And in response to the song’s celebration at weddings: “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!” It’s indeed a great song; just not for the reasons many people think.
21. Out of Control (Live, Slane Castle, 2001). A bonus song to celebrate Boy. At Slane Castle in 2001, the band members re-enacted their opening performance for Phillip Lynott in 1981: “I want to thank Phillip Lynott for letting us open the show… We’re a band from the north side of Dublin… We’re called U2, this is our first single… We hope you like it!” You can feel the energy of the audience feeding off the band members. This was a true homecoming celebration for the Irish boys, now men.
1. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Rose Bowl, 2009)
2. Bad (Studio, 1984)
3. Ultraviolet (Studio, 1991)
4. Kite (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
5. A Sort of Homecoming (Studio, 1984)
6. Beautiful Day (Studio, 2000)
7. The Fly (Studio, 1991)
8. One Tree Hill (Live, Denver, 1987)
9. Drowning Man (Studio, 1983)
10. Until the End of the World (Studio, 1991)
11. City of Blinding Lights (Studio, 2004)
12. New Year’s Day (Studio, 1983)
13. Mysterious Ways (Live, New York, 1992)
14. Red Hill Mining Town (Studio, 1987)
15. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of (Live, Boston, 2001)
16. Mercy (Studio, 2004)
17. One (Studio, 1991)
18. The Unforgettable Fire (Studio, 1984)
19. Running to Stand Still (Live, Tempe, 1987)
20. Acrobat (Studio, 1991)
21. Out of Control (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)