U2 Discography Marathon
So, recently, I started doing what is sometimes called a "discography marathon": a chronological listen through the discography of an artist. And while at this point, it didn't come to an end, I consider this marathon largely finished since the last 2-4 records of the artist I chose are largely considered to be their worst and the projects that made them one of the most hated bands ever. Of course, I'm talking about the infamous U2.
U2 are a four-piece band rooted in Ireland with a classic rock'n'roll line-up. They released their first album in 1980 and from there on rose to the top of the music world in roughly the next 10 years. U2 consists of lead-singer Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer/percussionist Larry Mullen Junior. The band and especially Bono are known for their social commitment and achievements. Bono was also honorary knighted by Great Britain. However, when the Panama Papers were leaked, it was revealed that he cheats taxes. This and his advocate behaviour make him one of the most hated frontmen in rock and pop music today and, like U2's, his reputation has crumbled in the last 20-25 years.
Musically, U2 are on of the most influential artists of all time. Like no other band, they are known for their stadium-filling, high-budget and groundbreaking live shows and through this and their popularity, they paved the way for today's biggest "rock" artists, most notably Coldplay and Imagine Dragons. The Rolling Stone had them on number 22 of their list "100 Greatest Artists" – and guess who wrote their entrance: Chris Martin, singer and frontman of Coldplay.
The band's music can be divided into distinct phases which are very different from one another. But before I give to much away, let's start with the albums and my review and experience in chronological order.
First listen on August 18, 2022; fully revisited
U2 released their first album 1980, called "Boy". One of the key components of what made them special from the start is that, in the time of post-punk and new technology which signaled the end of classic rock music, they kept the spirit of punk going and wrote effective guitar-driven music which, by the time their third album arrived, would mobilize the masses. But first, it all had to start with Boy – and this album is actually pretty good. It reminded of Is This It by The Strokes, where you have a bunch of individually solid and sonically similar tracks back to back working as a coherent album. While Boy isn't nearly as good as Is This It, it may be roughly on the level of Is This It's successor Room On Fire.
The biggest strength of Boy is the youthful energy U2 bring to the table – and the glockenspiel all over the arrangements. U2 sound quite a bit like The Cure at the time but with more fire and punk (in the classic sense) going on. Already, it becomes clear what potential the band has and especially how promising of a guitarist The Edge is. Just listen to the guitar riff of Boy's most popular single and opening track, I Will Follow: It slaps and it is the biggest selling point, the biggest hook the song and the whole album has to offer. Herein lies the problem though: The songwriting is not great yet. It's solid, but it's lacking in catchiness and those phenomenal choruses U2 would write later on in their career – and which The Strokes already delivered with their debut Is This It. U2's trademark political lyricism is also absent from this debut. I'll still certify this a good and recommendable record though.
8 / 10
- I Will Follow | 85
- Twilight | 75
- An Cat Dubh | 80
- Into the Heart | 80
- Out of Control | 85
- Stories for Boys | 85
- The Ocean | NR
- A Day Without Me | 75
- Another Time, Another Place | 75
- The Electric Co. | 75
- Shadows and Tall Trees / Saturday Matinee | 80
First listen on August 18, 2022; not fully revisited
Of the one-two-three punch that are the first three albums which make up the first phase of the band, October from 1981 is definitely the weakest. There are few reasons for this. Firstly, the band didn't really make any improvement in the songwriting department. In fact, the material featured on this album is weaker than what Boy was made of. Secondly, sonically, this is pretty much a second part to Boy. What I have to give to October though is that U2 bring quite a bit of experimentation to the table. Take the opener Gloria for example: This is easily the best track on the album and it rivals the highlights of Boy. It also is a pretty weird track. The lyrics in the chorus are in Latin and there's an extended instrumental featuring some interesting percussion, an incredible bass solo and a guitar solo. The transition into the final chorus is also kind of unusual and for the finale the drum is slighlty changed up as the hi-hat switches from 16th notes to 8th notes.
The second song I Fall Down prominently features an acoustic guitar as central piece to the instrumentation, the title track is a largely instrumental piano ballad and With a Shout (Jerusalem) includes an instrumental section with trumpet. These are first times for U2. The rest of the album though is largely forgettable in my opinion, which is the reason why I haven't returned to it in its entirety yet. I think it's not the evolution you looking for from Boy onwards and at the same time, it feels like a slightly unnecessary middle-ground entrance into their discography in between Boy and War. October once again is a solid album, but really a non-essential listen except for individual tracks like Gloria and maybe I Fall Down and October.
7 / 10
- Gloria | 85
- I Fall Down | 80
- I Threw a Brick Through a Window | 70
- Rejoice | 75
- Fire | 75
- Tomorrow | 75
- October | 80
- With a Shout (Jerusalem) | 75
- Stranger In a Strange Land | 80
- Scarlet | 70
- Is That All? | 65
First listen on August 18, 2022; fully revisited
War rounds out the trilogy produced by Steve Lillywhite. Fittingly, it has the same boy on the cover as Boy did. There's a lot to unpack with War. It is the best-sounding U2 album so far. It is a concept album about War and it's easily U2's best set of songs so far. What's the opener again? Right, Sunday Bloody Sunday – the best U2 track so far, their first big hit and the song that made them a prominent force in popular music in the 1980s. It sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of the record and while War rarely reaches this level again, it certainly doesn't disappoint, even after a mega track like Sunday Bloody Sunday. The second track Seconds is made of an unusual groove. The bassline and the drumming here is great. In third we have another mega hit: New Year's Day. Like a Song... is a fan-favourite, Drowning Man features this great string section at the end and The Refugee switches things up. It is a fiery protest track with cowbell-driven percussion and a sick tom-tom beat. The follow-up is another song with a killer-chorus rivaling Sunday Bloody Sunday's: Two Hearts Beat as One. Red Light might be the only weaker track on the album, but then we go into the finale made up of Surrender, which includes a children's choir, and "40" marking the first and only great closer in U2's discography and one of their pieces centred around religion. On first listen, I was satisfied with this album, but on repeated listens, it quickly became a favourite of mine, despite this first phase not being my favourite phase of U2 sonically. I'd say War is an essential listen when it comes to the 1980s and it really shows the true potential the band has. They should fulfill it with their next three albums.
9 / 10
- Sunday Bloody Sunday | 100
- Seconds | 85
- New Year's Day | 95
- Like a Song... | 85
- Drowning Man | 80
- The Refugee | 85
- Two Hearts Beat As One | 90
- Red Light | 75
- Surrender | 90
- "40" | 95
"The Unforgettable Fire" (1984)
First listen on August 19, 2022; fully revisited
The Unforgettable Fire marks the first big switch-up for U2. Steve Lillywhite is out as producer and Brian Eno takes over along with Daniel Lanois. The effect is huge and immediately recognizable. Everything is more sophisticated, the arrangements are lush and complex, U2 incorporate ambient soundscapes and Americana influences. The production is warmer but less punchy.
The Unforgettable Fire is a difficult record for me. It is pretty much split in half between some of U2's best material ever and some of their worst. Luckily, the good side overweighs, but I'm kind of sad that the incredible first half dragged down by some lesser songs and even a huge stinker. But let's start with the positive.
The album opens up with A Sort of Homecoming which is the fan favourite of the album. It is a somewhat a relaxing tune with no real sense of structure. Instead, the instrumentation and vocals are floating along, unfolding naturally. This is the first time U2 are really experimental and it works out fantastically. Bono sounds incredible, when he intensifies his singing and moves up in register, while the band just stays right where they are, in a trance of their musical dreamscape. Then we move into possibly U2's biggest song: Pride (In the Name of Love). This is kind of sign of the vibe of the following albums, this desperate romanticism and Bono crying out In the name of love / What more in the name of love?
The next two songs are my favourites here. Wire is relentlessly rocking. The bass slaps extremely hard and The Edge's guitar licks sort of fly around it. In the end, Bono screams and growls and almost spits some spoken-word. The following title track has some awesome, Floydian keyboard work and synthesized strings incorporated. Once again, an amazing bassline holds everything together. The lyrics are inspired by paintings created by survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bombings.
After this absolutely phenomenal start to the record, U2 wisely slow it down with Promenade and the instrumental 4th of July. On streaming, this might seem like somewhat of a slump, but on vinyl, U2 close the side with the cooldown of Promenade and open the next with the build up of 4th of July towards the last big highlight of the album: Bad, an intense song about heroin addiction which was performed by U2 at Live-Aid. Check that out if you like!
Sadly, U2 – and this is a phenomenon occuring throughout their discography – have problems with properly closing out the album. Elvis Presely and America is a very weird piece in a negative sense. The mix is completely off. Bono's vocals are buried in the instrumentation as he attempts to overtake it with some Elvis imitations (?). It just comes off as obnoxious. Fittingly, the song is way too long and clocks in at over 6 minutes. At last we get MLK, a lullaby dedicated to Martin Luther King. The instrumentation is made up off ambient synthesizers that sound like a church choir. It is a pleasant and beautiful closer, but it doesn't feel satisfying after Elvis Presley and America.
The Unforgettable Fire could've been U2's best album (so far and overall), but it drags at the end and is kind of inconsistent. Because it is more ruined by its weak links than saved by its strongest parts, I still want to universally recommend it.
8 / 10
- A Sort of Homecoming | 100
- Pride (In the Name of Love) | 95
- Wire | 90
- The Unforgettable Fire | 100
- Promenade | 75
- 4th of July | 65
- Bad | 100
- Indian Summer Sky | 70
- Elvis Presley and America | 65
- MLK | 70
"The Joshua Tree" (1987)
First listen on August 19, 2022; fully revisited
The Joshua Tree – U2's most beloved and well-known album and the last of this second phase in their career. After The Unforgettable Fire, the band decided to make an album about and influenced by America. While the structure of the tracklist doesn't make it apparent until Bullet the Blue Sky, stylistically, this is a little stripped back and simpler than its predecessor, with big songs written to the point and influences of Americana, country and blues. The Joshua Tree also is a hit-machine. The first three songs were all hugely successful. They are responsible for U2's perception as an anthemic stadium-rock band ever since.
To me, The Joshua Tree is an improvement over The Unforgettable Fire as it is more consistent. U2 still miss the mark on closing out the record in a way worthy of its opening, but at least every song here is relatively immediate and solid. The first half rules it though. Where the Streets Have No Name is U2's best song, my personal favourite and the perfect opener. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With or Without You are both brilliant ballads and Bullet the Blue Sky, while sometimes a bit over the top, shines with its straightforward drum beat, a great bassline and fantastic guitar work by The Edge. The first dive into Americana then comes with Running to Stand Still which is a beautiful song.
The opening of the second half is still strong with Red Hill Mining Town and one of Bono's greatest vocal performances. After that, the album looses its steam though. In God's Country and One Tree Hill are two more good songs, but the bluesy Trip Through Your Wires and the two closing tracks Exit and Mothers of Disappeared are mediocre in comparison to the rest of the album. On first listens, I didn't really get these five songs and while I enjoy most of them, they are not anything to write home about. In the larger sense of their whole discography, this is a great album though and even the lesser tracks beat out most of the material from their first two records and the weaker song on The Unforgettable Fire. It's close, but I'd say The Joshua Tree is a close second to War and on the same level of that album – not quite as consistent, but with a lot of classics.
9 / 10
- Where the Streets Have No Name | 100
- I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For | 90
- With or Without You | 95
- Bullet the Blue Sky | 95
- Running to Stand Still | 90
- Red Hill Mining Town | 95
- In God's Country | 85
- Trip Through Your Wires | 75
- One Tree Hill | 85
- Exit | 70
- Mothers of the Disappeared | 75
"Achtung Baby" (1991)
First listen on August 20, 2022; fully revisited
U2 take another turn on Achtung Baby. The band found themselves on the brink of a breakup following the success of The Joshua Tree. There were creative differences about where to go next – and if the band even have it in them to make another album of The Joshua Tree's proportions. Then they wrote One; a song that fits nicely into the romantic narrative of the whole album, but is truly a celebration of the band's creative cooperation and friendship. Through this song, the band won back their faith and inspiration and went on to write and record Achtung Baby. After The Joshua Tree (and to an extend The Unforgettable Fire) were about America, the new phase of U2 is now centred around Europe, which always was a continent of inspiration for the band with Kraftwerk and NEU! being especially relevant to the forming of their sound and spirit. Fittingly, Achtung Baby was – as the title suggests – partly recorded in Berlin.
From the first song, Zoo Station, the shift in sound and style is noticeable – a shift into a new decade and a new phase for U2. The production is less dreamy and atmospheric, but bassier and punchier. The guitars sound huge when they come in on Until the End of the World or Ultra Violet (Light My Way) and there's lots of dancey grooves, especially on the cuts Zoo Station and the mega-hit Mysterious Ways. This is the stadium-rock-U2 everyone is talking about. The songs feel bigger and the desperate romanticism takes frontstage as Achtung Baby is somewhat of a concept album about the development of a romantic relationship where Bono lyrically describes the several phases such a relationships goes through.
The album is remarkably consistent like War, but more diverse until we reach the finale consisting of Acrobat and Love Is Blindness which are easily the weakest tracks on the record continuing U2's trend to mess up the ending. Once again, this made up by some incredible highlights. Even the slower tracks are great which is not always the case with U2. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses has a haunting hook and So Cruel convinces with its concise arrangement. On both, Bono gives a heartfelt performance. The song The Fly is weirdly divisive, but to those who enjoy it – me included – this is one of the band's best and most epic.
Overall, Achtung Baby really matched my expectations. After my first listen, it became my favourite U2 album and it even grew on me since then, although I wouldn't necessarily say that it's my favourite album or era from them at the moment. It might just be a little too long and The Joshua Tree and War pull off the ending a bit better. Still, Achtung Baby is an essential listen from the '90s, it aged particularly well amongst other U2 projects and stands as U2's creative peak.
9 / 10
- Zoo Station | 90
- Even Better Than the Real Thing | 85
- One | 85
- Until the End of the World | 95
- Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses | 90
- So Cruel | 85
- The Fly | 95
- Mysterious Ways | 95
- Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World | 85
- Ultra Violet (Light My Way) | 90
- Acrobat | 75
- Love Is Blindness | 75
First listen on August 22, 2022; fully revisited
Zooropa is easily U2's most experimental and out-of-the-box record from today's point of view.
This is an album I found really enjoyable without a boring moment on first listen. While the songs aren't of the same quality as delivered on U2's last three records, they're still interesting and satisfying. What really makes the album as a whole is the production though. The deep bass beat and upfront spoken-word vocals on Numb, the drum sound on Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your CrashedCar, the juicy bass sound on Some Days Are Better Than Others and the apocalyptic synths on The Wanderer (feat. Johnny Cash) are the prime examples. Still, the clear standout tracks are the best written ones: Zooropa, Lemon and Stay (Faraway, So Close!). Lemon, my favourite track here, is carried by Bono's vocal performance who uses an unheard of falsetto only to drop it for the pre-chorus achieving great emotional impact. This is not to say arrangement and production aren't exquisit as well. I love the glimmery synths and the dancey beat.
The lyrics on Zooropa are pretty cool too. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car is a satire about privileged super rich kids, The First Time is a nicely written story about what it feels like to truly be loved, Dirty Day was noticeably inspired by Charles Bukowski's writing and the iconic Johnny Cash perfectly delivers the lyrics about a man searching for god in a post-apocalyptic world on closing track The Wanderer.
So, except for Babyface, every song on Zooropa stands out in its own way. Together, they form a unique, quirky, dark, cynical and just outstanding collection of songs. Zooropa might be far from U2's best album, but it weirdly is up there despite that. If you want to get to know U2 from a different side, definitely give Zooropa a spin.
8 / 10
- Zooropa | 85
- Babyface | 65
- Numb | 75
- Lemon | 85
- Stay (Faraway, So Close!) | 85
- Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car | 70
- Some Days Are Better Than Others | 75
- The First Time | 75
- Dirty Day | 75
- The Wanderer (feat. Johnny Cash) | 80
First listen on August 24, 2022; partly revisited
Despite featuring some of U2's worst songs so far and lacking highs comparable to the previous album's highlights, Pop is a solid album. Sadly, the album also doesn't cover any new ground for U2. It feels like a less inspired, dragged out second part to Zooropa. Some songs even seem to have a counterpart on Zooropa: Staring at the Sun is Pop's Stay, Mofo is Pop's Numb, Miami is the album's Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car and Wake Up Dead Man is the album's The Wanderer (but without Johnny Cash).
Except for the awful instrumentation and production on Miami and the snoose that is If You Wear That Velvet Dress, this is as far as my critique of the album goes though. I think Pop is severely over-hated. Every song – other than the two I've just named – has something going for it:
Discothèque is unique in U2's discography. The vocal performances are badass and the guitar work, production and percussion go really hard. Mofo goes even harder with its dark club feeling. If God Will Send His Angels, Staring at the Sun, Last Night on Earth and Gone all have some really catchy vocal moments. The Playboy Mansion has a nice atmosphere and finally Please and Wake Up Dead Man both build to satisfying climaxes.
So, you see, Pop ain't that bad. It just doesn't do enough. There was more potential here. But as sad as it is that the album doesn't fulfill it, it's still undeniably solid in my opinion.
7 / 10
- Discothèque | 80
- Do You Feel Loved | 75
- Mofo | 75
- If God Will Send His Angels | 75
- Staring at the Sun | 80
- Last Night on Earth | 75
- Gone | 75
- Miami | 60
- The Playboy Mansion | 70
- If You Wear That Velvet Dress | 55
- Please | 70
- Wake Up Dead Man | 70
"All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000)
First listen on September 15 and September 10, 2022; fully revisited
All That You Can't Leave Behind is really heartfelt and the production is grande and bombastic. When it comes to the general feeling, there is a stark contrast to Pop which was more gritty and dark. U2's European dance-inspired phase is over. Gone are the groovy beats and with it experimentation and layering.
Fresh off of my second full listen to the album, I'm gonna say: All That You Can't Leave Behind – apparently somewhat of a 2000s classic – is not good. It is U2's first true pop-rock album and on most of these tracks, they don't manage the tightrope walk between the pretentious, shallow and bland and the straightforward emotional. Even the four tracks on here that are good, kind of stink, because they are as dull and uninspired musically and generic lyrically as everything else on the record. I am still not willing to hate on All That You Can't Leave Behind (like it is popular), because it shows the band changing it up again – even if it's for the worse – utilizing a very nostalgic vibe. Up to Peace on Earth, the album kind of reminded of The Beatles' White Album atmospherically and melodically. To clarify this though, the White Album of course is miles ahead of this.
Like Pop, All That You Can't Leave Behind sees U2 kind of running out of ideas. What's there is dragged out to match an album's length and the expectations the people have for a U2 album. From my understanding and feeling, this album is the turning point in U2's discography. They take the most simple things done on Pop and recycle them while trying to regain their position on top of the music world. History tells us that they would lose it in the next years to Coldplay anyway. Looking at the tracklisting of All That You Can't Leave Behind, it's pretty apparent why.
6 / 10
- Beautiful Day | 85
- Stuck in a Moment | 85
- Elevation | 75
- Walk On | 80
- Kite | 75
- In a Little While | 65
- Wild Honey | 65
- Peace on Earth | 55
- When I Look at the World | 60
- New York | 50
- Grace | 55
"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (2004)
First listen on September 29, 2022; partly revisited
Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a new born baby's head – are you serious, Bono?
This is the U2 album I loved as a kid. My favourite song was Vertigo. To this day, I think Vertigo is a certified banger. No matter how weird it is for Bono to count in the song with "Uno, dos, tres, cartorce" which means "One, two, three, fourteen". After the opening, the album slowly goes downhill though. Miracle Drug is still a good track, but it has that lyric I quoted in the beginning in it, Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own is fine as well and City of Blinding Lights might lack subtetly, but it is a great stadium pop rock song and sort of a classic. However, the highlights overall can't keep up with those of All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Now, the rest of the album is very boring. The only other standouts are Love and Peace or Else, because of its superficial lyrics and some horrendous production, and A Man and a Woman, because that song at least has a good melody and a memorable message.
I won't try to find out which album is worse, All That You Can't Leave Behind or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I think they are kind of equal. All That You Can't Leave Behind is the album I'd rather return too though since the first half is a lot better and the album's songs are more emotional in an authentic way.
5 / 10
- Vertigo | 80
- Miracle Drug | 75
- Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own | 75
- Love and Peace or Else | 50
- City of Blinding Lights | 75
- All Because of You | 55
- A Man and a Woman | 60
- Crumbs from Your Table | 55
- One Step Closer | 55
- Original of the Species | 60
- Yahweh | 60
All the Songs Ranked
1. Where the Streets Have No Name
2. Sunday Bloody Sunday
3. A Sort of Homecoming
5. The Unforgettable Fire
6. The Fly
7. New Year's Day
8. Mysterious Ways
9. With or Without You
10. Pride (In the Name of Love)
11. Until the End of the World
12. Red Hill Mining Town
14. Bullet the Blue Sky
15. Running to Stand Still
17. Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
18. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
19. Two Hearts Beat As One
21. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
22. Zoo Station
23. One Tree Hill
24. So Cruel
25. In God's Country
29. Even Better Than the Real Thing
30. Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of
31. I Will Follow
32. Like a Song...
33. The Refugee
34. Out of Control
35. Tryin to Throw Your Arms Around the World
36. Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
39. Stories for Boys
40. Beautiful Day
42. Shadows and Tall Trees / Saturday Matinee
44. An Cat Dubh / Into the Heart
46. Staring at the Sun
47. Walk On
48. I Fall Down
49. Stranger In a Strange Land
51. Drowning Man
52. The Wanderer (feat. Johnny Cash)
53. Trip Through Your Wires
56. The Electric Co.
59. A Day Without Me
60. Last Night on Earth
61. Red Light
63. With a Shout (Jerusalem)
65. City of Blinding Lights
66. Do You Feel Loved
67. Some Days Are Better Than Others
68. Another Time, Another Place
70. Miracle Drug
73. Dirty Day
75. If God Will Send His Angels
76. The First Time
77. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own
80. Mothers of the Disappeared
81. Love Is Blindness
82. Indian Summer Sky
83. I Threw a Brick Through a Window
85. 4th of July
86. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car
87. The Playboy Mansion
89. Wake Up Dead Man
91. Is That All?
92. Wild Honey
93. In a Little While
95. Elvis Presley and America
97. A Man and a Woman
98. Original of the Species
100. When I Look at the World
101. If You Wear That Velvet Dress
102. All Because of You
103. One Step Closer
104. Peace on Earth
106. Crumbs from Your Table
107. Love and Peace or Else
108. New York