Following their performances at the iconic Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, the band were becoming increasingly famous for their live shows, and it seemed obvious that they were destined to become international rock stars. This prophecy was fulfilled just two years later with the release of their fifth album The Joshua Tree (1987), which catapulted them to worldwide stardom and resulted in their only US number one singles to date.
The Joshua Tree’s follow up, Rattle and Hum (1988,) was met with critical backlash, who accused the band of getting above their station. The band responded to this with a minor reinvention for the next album campaign, Achtung Baby (1991) which introduced industrial, electronic and alternative influences to the U2 canon. The group embarked on the Zoo TV Tour to promote the album, showing the public a less serious side to the band, and cementing them as one of the world’s best live acts.
Following a few less received albums, the band were back on top with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), a pure rock album, tailor-made for their increasingly epic live shows, most notably the 2009 U2 360° Tour, a high-tech arena spectacular, which is the highest-grossing concert tour of all time.
In recent years it has become somewhat trendy to mock the band -not helped by the disastrous decision to place their 2014 album Song’s of Innocence in every user’s iTunes library without their permission, but this just an inevitable product of mainstream success. To deny the legacy of U2 is to willingly ignore the enormous contributions they have made to rock music (and culture as a whole). The Edge is undeniably one of the most talented guitarists alive today, while Bono’s stunning, throaty voice leaves his rivals in the dust. Throughout their impressive career U2 have forged an unbelievable amount of stellar tracks and – with no sign of retirement anytime soon – let’s hope there’s more to come.
# 10 – Elevation
Elevation was the third single released from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, so it’s harsher sound was part of the band’s attempt to re-establish themselves as a more traditional rock act. Bizarrely, given these efforts, the track has some subtle but unmistakable hip-hop influences, especially in the track’s rhythm – apparently a reflection of Adam Clayton’s affection for the genre.
The song begins with some wonderfully crunchy guitar chords, which are soon joined by the track’s utterly infectious “ohh ohh” vocal hook and some submarine sonar-like synth notes. There’s something really electric about the song, with it’s non-stop grind of guitar building to each chorus’ euphoric explosion of sound. The single version of the track (which has slightly harder guitars than the album cut) was used during the promotion of the Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider film. The track’s music video – one of the most expensive ever made – plays into this, featuring Bono’s fictional twin brother as an evil genius. Elevation was perfectly suited to soundtrack an action movie, especially one based on a video game, thanks to its larger than life vocals and non-stop assault of sound. Non-stop, that is, except for the song’s oddly subdued bridge, which seems to come from an entirely different song.
Still, despite this oddity, this otherwise huge track hits like a ton of bricks, fizzing with energy and excitement. This may not have been the first single released from All That I Can Leave Behind, but it’s a perfect illustration of the album’s rounded and robust rock sound.
# 9 – The Saint’s Are Coming
This collaboration with Green Day, released in October 2006, is a cover of The Skids’ 1978 song of the same name. The track was recorded as a charity single to help those affected by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Re-examining the song’s lyrics through this lens of tragedy gives them an even more visceral poignancy, and can be read as criticizing the government’s response to the disaster.
Bono and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong take turns singing verses on the track during each chorus. The track begins with Armstrong singing a few lines from House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals, a folk song which tells of the hard lives of residents of New Orleans. Bono and Armstrong’s distinctive voices are the perfect foils for each other – Bono’s is crisp, melodious and soulful while Armstrong is frantic and edgy. Even on first listen it’s obvious that the collaboration of these two rock heavyweights is a match made in heaven, not least because both acts are famous for their stadium-filling, political-tinged music.
It might seem odd to include a cover version and collaboration on a list like this, but that should give you some idea of just how truly special the track is. The voices of the two singers effortlessly spark off one another, while The Edge and Armstrong deliver some of the most frantic guitar licks of either of their careers.
This dark and moody track brings the best of both bands together, forging an effective and emotive way to raise awareness. It’s impossible not to hear the song’s central hook and not feel something – purposeful rock at its very best.
# 8 – Zooropa
Released in 1993 from the album of the same name, Zooropa is, without doubt, one of the band’s most experimental tracks. Inspired by cyberpunk literature and a utopian image for Europe (which, at the time, was in flux), this is a bizarre and dreamy alternative rock track, of the like the band had never made before (or since).
The track starts with some atmospheric synth pads and garbled radio chatter before an ominous piano riff begins. This is soon joined by deep guitar notes as the chatter picks up pace, but everything then drops away as a heavily flanged guitar begins, along with the drum beat. It’s not long before Bono’s vocals join the mix, sounding slightly more hazy and distant than usual, he cleverly incorporates various advertising slogans into the lyrics, creating the impression of a Blade Runner-like world of all powerful futuristic neon advertisements.
As the track goes on – its running time clocks in at an immense 6:32 – most of the unconventional elements are stripped away, revealing a slightly more traditional rock song at the track’s core, with just the occasional laser sound effect pulsing in the background. There’s something almost psychedelic about Zooropa, which fits in with Bono’s statement that he wanted the album to be like a legal high, taking listeners on a trippy journey.
There can be no doubt that the band achieved what they wanted with this song, crafting a tangible world which listeners could really get lost in. Zooropa was received decently enough, and today is remembered fondly as a fascinating oddity. As such, the song has more than earned its place on this list.
# 7 – Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own
This double Grammy winning song is a deeply personal track which was written in tribute to Bono’s dying father. It’s a moving masterpiece, full of conviction and raw emotion. Rather poignantly, the song begins with a ticking clock of a drum beat, which repeats non-stop until the song’s very final note.
Much of the song’s early instrumental consists of gentle and thoughtful acoustic guitar riffs, although, from the first chorus onwards, an electric guitar takes center stage, releasing mournful wails perfectly suited to the track’s atmosphere. The song’s lyrics seem to suggest that Bono and his father didn’t have the easiest of relationships, but, of course, given the circumstances, he realizes that none of this matters and will do everything he can to make his dad more comfortable. Much of the lyrics are tragically relatable, reminding listeners about what’s really important in life – cherishing those we love and not letting petty trivialities get in the way of meaningful relationships.
The song’s bridge is a curious thing, introducing an upbeat, higher tempo instrumental which Bono practically mumbles over – perhaps reflecting his tumultuous emotions and how he’s too bereft to properly articulate his feelings. This is a clever way of adding even further power to the song’s gut-punching narrative.
The track went to number one in the UK and Canada, and – perhaps due to its emotional subject matter – is easily one of the band’s most popular songs of recent times. Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own more than deserves this popularity – it’s a heartbreaking, melancholic track which would tug at the heartstrings of even the most impassive of characters. Genuinely brilliant.
# 6 – Where the Streets Have No Name
The third single from The Joshua Tree, Where the Streets Have No Name is an impassioned call for the human species to integrate rather than be divided into fractured groups. Much of the song is a response to the idea that in Belfast it is possible to identify someone’s religion based upon the street upon which they live. Bono is suggesting that if the streets had no name, there would be no way to make this identification, leading to a happier and more united world.
The song’s instrumental is ideal for the track’s message, full of glimmering and pulsing guitar, and a churning and decisive drum beat. There’s something very life affirming and uplifting about the instrumental, which somehow manages to effortlessly channel the song’s noble and idealistic themes. It’s hard not to be swept up by the track’s joyous atmosphere, which does a stellar job of stressing how the labels and dichotomies that humans adopt are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Appropriately, the song was played during the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, where the names of the victims of the September 11 attacks were projected onto the stage. This is rightly remembered as one of the best halftime shows in Super Bowl history. There can be no doubt that Where the Streets Have No Name is an important song, not just to the U2 canon, but to the world. We’d all do well to remember its message, especially in the current political climate.
# 5 – With or Without You
With or Without You was the lead single from The Joshua Tree and is one of the band’s best known and most successful songs, earning them their first number one on the Billboard Hot 100. One of the track’s trademark sounds is the syrupy, heavily sustained notes which recur throughout. This revolutionary technique is down to The Edge playing a prototype of the Infinite Guitar, a modification which, as the name suggests, allows notes to be sustained indefinitely. These beautiful and tender notes create the impression of real, painful longing, which fits in with the song’s lyrics. Bono sings about the strained relationship of a couple, where the song’s protagonist loves and needs his lover yet paradoxically finds himself unable to find true happiness while with them. This is a situation which most people will find themselves in at some point in their lives (and those that don’t can just watch a rom-com to understand the heartrending confusion), so having such a ubiquitous song address the situation is a real help, and the band do so with class and sensitivity.
Bono’s voice is at its most delicate and pained on this track, perhaps most of all during the song’s recurring bridge, where his inner pain and anguish is palpable. The power of music is most obvious when it’s a reflection of relatable, real life emotion, and nowhere is this more clear than on the authentic brilliance of With or Without You.
# 4 – Vertigo
Given his famous dislike for capitalism, it was a curious choice for Bono to allow Vertigo to soundtrack one of Apple’s iconic iPod silhouette adverts. If being generous, rather than the band selling out you can view this as part of their wish for Vertigo to get as big an audience as possible, fuelled by the belief that it’s a song which gets better and better each time you hear it. Regardless of whether or not you believe this explanation, it is impossible to deny that a rock song as monumentally huge as this doesn’t deserve a massive audience.
It seems Bono’s plan paid off since the track was a big hit world wide. It’s not surprising the song did so well, it’s a broad and brilliant track, full of exceptional guitar riffs, stunning chops and, thanks to the song’s Spanish elements, some great opportunities for audience participation. The song’s titular Vertigo could refer to either a bad nightclub or a sort of limbo, but when the chords are this electric, who has time to concentrate on lyrics? The song’s music video depicts the band performing in a desert with some kind of jet stream shooting out of them. This is the perfect image to accompany this track, summing up its incessant and thunderous dynamism.
You can be sure that, given the song’s popularity and its association with Apple, there will be U2 purists who refuse to acknowledge the track’s undeniable quality but have no doubt, this is one of the group’s standout tracks.
# 3 – Beautiful Day
This is one of the band’s most iconic songs, and easily the most popular track amongst the general public. As the title suggests, it’s a celebratory summer song about rejoicing in, and embracing, the present. The track begins with some light and merry synth-string chords, setting the song’s peaceful and laidback vibe, while the bouncy and glossy guitars make the song the perfect addition to any summer playlist. Bono’s vocals are exemplary on Beautiful Day, managing to be euphoric without losing his distinctive scratch.
There’s something very empowering about this song, which highlights the importance of living in the present and finding happiness in the smallest of natural things. The track’s final chorus is particularly thought provoking, with its anti-materialistic message underlining the fact that there’s more to life than just things. If this wasn’t enough, the band sneak some of their politics into the song’s bridge as well – while most of the things they list are natural beauties, the mentioning of over-fishing is a somber reminder of the negative effects humanity has had on the world.
Beautiful Day won three Grammy awards and has been performed at every U2 concert since 2001. Seeing this track live is a real moment, delivering the delirious ecstasy unique to a rock concert every single time the song’s famous chorus kicks in. Clearly, the band have as much affection for Beautiful Day as fans do, and, with a song as transcendent as this, it’s not hard to see why.
# 2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Often cited as one of the greatest songs of all time, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was the second single released from The Joshua Tree and earned the band their second US number one. The track concerns itself with Bono’s search for something. It isn’t clear just what he’s pursuing, be it love or enlightenment, but ultimately this doesn’t matter since the track focuses on the journey he’s been on and the fact that he still hasn’t reached his goal. Clearly, it’s quite some path he’s set himself on, with Bono utilizing almost-biblical imagery throughout the track. Indeed, it has been suggested that the lyrical stylings are inspired by King David of the Old Testament (as well as poet/novelist Charles Bukowski.)
The epic, heroic quest which the song paints is reflected in Bono’s superlative vocals, which are sweet, strained and world-weary – you can really hear the journey he’s describing in every pained syllable. In many way’s Bono’s voice – often joined by gospel-esque backing singers – is the key instrument on this track, which otherwise features some light, rousing guitar chords and capable, minimalist drums. While the instrumental is perfectly pleasant, its relatively stripped-back nature allows Bono’s vocals to take center stage, giving listeners a showcase of his immeasurable skill.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is an impressive and atmospheric track, with every sparkling second full of gorgeous, evocative imagery and the levels of grandiose only U2 can deliver.
# 1 – The Fly
The lead single from Achtung Baby, The Fly introduced a new sound for the band, abandoning the roots-rock of Rattle and Hum in favor of an almost-industrial sound, far edgier than anything the band had ever done before. Indeed, Bono allegedly described the song as “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” suggesting that the band were actively trying to distance themselves from their previous music.
Many consider The Fly as being The Edge’s crowning glory, and it’s not hard to see why. The guitar is undoubtedly the stand out element of the track, it’s crunchy, distorted and totally brilliant – its long runs and intricate riffs being amongst the best 90’s rock has to offer. As well as the scratchy chords – which, of course, resemble a fly – Bono’s voice is overly filtered as well, rather appropriate given that the lyrics are supposed to be a phone call from someone in hell.
The Fly’s hip-hop drum beat only adds to the song’s insanity, making it impossible not to want to dance to this bonkers track, rocking along to the intimidating guitar. This combination creates a truly dynamic track, which even today sounds unique and interesting. At the time of its release, The Fly became the band’s best selling single in the UK, and their second number one single. The song even managed to knock Bryan Adam’s (Everything I Do) I Do It for You from its 16-week streak at the top.
This is, without doubt, the band’s best production, it’s a riotous and weird affair, completely underrated and overlooked for not being amongst the band’s more well-known songs. But if you give it the attention it deserves there’s few who can resist the unbridled brilliance of The Fly.
Throughout their 37-year career U2 have forged some genuinely era-defining rock music. From their humble Dublin beginnings, the band have risen to global mega-stardom, managing to deliver stadium-sized smashes while never losing sight of their fight for social justice. Quite simply, U2 are one of the biggest bands in the world, a position which, thanks to their phenomenal discography, they undoubtedly deserve.
Updated Jan 5, 2021
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