There are no half measures with U2. You either love them or you hate them. If fairness, that might have more to do with Bono’s decision to fashion himself into a modern-day Irish Jesus than the music itself, which is rarely anything but extraordinary. Few rock bands have spent quite so long enraging, inspiring, and innovating, and they’re still a long, long way from the retirement home. Here’s our take on the 10 best U2 albums of all time.
10. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb gets a lot of stick. It’s not entirely undeserved. There’s a lot of pomp but not a whole lot of circumstance, and in certain places, the band’s ambition seems bigger than their abilities. That’s not to say there aren’t some great songs, or that Edge’s guitar hooks aren’t as incendiary as ever. The main problem, as Bono himself said, is that as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Considering that the sum of its parts includes the incredibly powerful Vertigo, that’s a shame.
Second albums can be difficult. They’re especially difficult when they follow a first album like Boy. By setting the bar so high with their debut, U2 gave themselves an almost impossible task. It’s not really surprising that they didn’t entirely pull it off. October was a rush job and it sounds like it. Some of the songs have huge potential, but they’re several rewrites away from achieving it. Had it been given more time, more love, and more attention, October could have been incredible. As it is, it falls short.
8. Rattle and Hum
Rattle and Hum was a terrible rockumentary film but a very decent album. Its only misfortune was following The Joshua Tree – a fate no album should ever have to suffer. Comparisons were made and Rattle and Hum was inevitably found wanting. Which is a shame, because as Rolling Stone notes, there are some great songs here, with Desire, All I Want Is You and Van Diemen’s Land all standing out as highlights. There’s also a couple of superb live recordings, including a stunning interpretation of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and an equally memorable version of Bullet the Blue Sky.
7. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Pop wasn’t quite as bad as everyone made out, but it wasn’t exactly good either. It did, however, prompt the band to cut the ’90s excess, tighten things up, and embrace the new millennium with a leaner, meaner sound. For that, if nothing else, it should be applauded. All That You Can’t Leave Behind give us a back-to-basics U2 and a good handful of major hits, including Beautiful Day, Walk On, Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, and Elevation. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer to their ’80s prime than they’d got in years.
Before their ’80s earnestness gave way to’ 90s smugness, U2 had one more cracking album to deliver. Originally intended as an EP, U2 pushed to release Zooropa as an LP, completing the final elements as they jetted back and forth to Dublin between shows. The end result is, frankly speaking, weird, with a disturbed, disjointed sound that’s made all the more haunting by the TV and radio audio that fades in and out behind the songs. If Achtung Baby gave us U2 at their most frenzied, Zooropa gives us them at their most frightening. Strangely, it works.
Their egos might have inflated and their paychecks might have gotten bigger, but U2 are, at heart, the same band now as they’ve always been. That’s not to imply they haven’t grown or have somehow remained untouched by time. It’s simply a reflection of how completely sure of their sound they were right from the beginning. On their 1980 debut album Boy, the sound is rougher and readier than it is now, but all the fundamental elements are already in play. It’s an assured, confident debut, with a savage ferocity and a naked ambition that shows that, even then, they already knew world domination was only a couple of albums away.
4. The Unforgettable Fire
As ultimateclassicrock.com points out, in the same way as they would do seven years later with Achtung Baby, U2 sought out reinvention of their sound with The Unforgettable Fire. To get it, they teamed up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for the first time. Together, Eno and Lanois stripped away the guitars, added a bunch of synths, smoothed out the edges, and created an atmospheric masterpiece. Special mention has to be made of Pride (In the Name of Love), a song that, all these years later, still ranks as one of the band’s finest ever moments.
U2 had their sound sorted from the start. War is where they find the voice to accompany it. This is where they stop getting personal and start getting political. From the first moment to the last, it’s an angry, righteous blast, with just the necessary amount of optimism to keep you hooked. As Esquire notes, the band were in their early 20s when they wrote and recorded this record, and it shows—in all the best ways.
2. The Joshua Tree
Even people who claim to hate U2 and all they stand for probably have a copy of The Joshua Tree hidden away in their collection. This is U2 at their most U2-ish, with each of the band stepping up their game and delivering the goods like never before. The Edge’s guitar riffs are monumental, setting the foundation, not just for the album, but for every alt-rock band that came after. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton thunder through the songs like the rock legends they are. Bono has rarely sounded better, nor delivered such superb lyrics. The entire thing is mind-blowing, and if you haven’t already heard it, you should do it now.
1. Achtung Baby
After the mixed reaction to Rattle and Hum, the band went back to the drawing board. What they came up with isn’t just the best U2 album of all time, it’s one of the greatest albums in rock history, hard stop. It’s funny and it’s angry, raging at the world one moment, laughing at it the next. From the romantically radio-friendly Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses to the testy Until The End of the World and the high-octane Ultraviolet, it hurtles from one perfect moment to the next. And, then, of course, there’s Bono snarling “Have you come here to play Jesus/to the lepers in your head?” which, 30 years later, still makes us smirk.