U2: Discographically Speaking

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A little band called U2 is coming to town next week, bringing with them a stage bigger than any house you will ever be able to afford. Regular Post Rock concert reviewer Chris Klimek is what you'd call a U2 superfan. (I'd call him something, uh, different.) We couldn't think of anyone better qualified to rank the 12 studio albums by Bono and the boys. And so here it is. Part 2 will be online tomorrow morning. Debate away in the comments.

12. October (1981)
Even Trekkie-level superfans like me kind of forget that U2's sophomore album exists. Bono's notebook was swiped just prior to recording, so the mostly improvised lyrics are at least part of why it sounds so tentative, but it's pretty thin on musical ideas, too. The Latin-chroused opener "Gloria" spent much of the '80s as a live favorite, and "Tomorrow" -- a kind of eulogy for Bono's mom, who died suddenly when he was 14 -- sounds appropriately funereal, with some haunting Uilleann pipes. But there's little else of interest here.

There used to be a lot of confusion about whether U2 were a Christian band or just a band that had some Christians in it. U2 sound like they don't know, either.

(No. 11-7 after the jump.)

11. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
Bono's en Espanol opening count-off of one-two-three-fourteen launched "Vertigo," the giddiest U2 single in a decade. Also worthy: the Who pastiche "All Because of You" and the shiny, happy "City of Blinding Lights," which sounds like a U2 parody at first, but eventually pummels you into submission if it doesn't incite you to take hostages. So how does the album place this low? Two reasons:

1) Though it's immaculately well-crafted and quintessentially U2-y, that's kind of the problem. It's the first set of their career to add nothing to the story.

2) With few exceptions, Bono's lyrics run from forgettable to laughable. In the latter category, from "Miracle Drug": "Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby's head!" Bono, you sound insane.

But also like "October," the "Bomb" reaches its peak with a requiem for a Bono progenitor. He'd sung an early version of the shimmering ballad "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" at his dad's funeral in 2001.

10. POP (1997)
Ambition over execution is a recurring theme on this list, which is why I'm ranking the problem child "POP" ahead of the good son "Atomic Bomb." After a decade of legacy-minded backpedaling, it's easy to forget now that the '90s U2 had Radiohead-like creative aspirations and the Rolling Stones' determination to sell out football stadiums. They've told the story many times of how they rushed this album out undercooked because they'd booked the PopMart Tour before the record was finished.

There was also the little matter of U2's most dynamic and expressive instrument -- that would be Bono's Vox -- having gone hoarse. U2's other iconic element, Edge's guitar, is largely buried (the wailing "Gone" is a welcome exception), though when it descends for a strafing run at the crescendo of the full-on techno track "MOFO," it's probably the most thrilling moment on the album.

The band's wish to explore dance music was sincere, but so was America's utter disinterest in hearing U2 try to sound like the Chemical Brothers. Still, the desperation that's palpable throughout this album gives it a gravitas that holds up surprisingly well 12 years on. It's U2's darkest set of songs, and for all the electronic bleeps and bloops, their most naked.

9. No Line on the Horizon (2009)
Everything about the run-up to U2's current release made even their most loyal defenders (Hi!) nervous: That they'd shelved everything they recorded with Rick Rubin (save for "Window in the Skies," tossed on a best-of). That they'd speed-dialed Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for help yet again, even offering them songwriting credit. That Will.i.am (!) was remixing something called "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."

But after two conservative records in the '00s, it's a relief to hear U2 on a creative walkabout again. The only duds are the would-be hits: lead single "Get on Your Boots," and that "Crazy" song, which has been rejiggered as a house number on tour. But "Magnificent" is a, er, resplendent stadium incantation. "Moment of Surrender" is seven-plus minutes of hypnotic sci-fi gospel. "Breathe" pulses and chimes like vintage U2, but with a great huckster vocal like the one Nick Cave used on my favorite album of 2008, "Dig!!! Lazarus!!! Dig!!"

"No Line" goes to some queasy places in its final 20 minutes. "Cedars of Lebanon" -- about a war correspondent unraveling in the field -- is the most desolate note Bono and Co. have left us on in a goodly while. The darkness suits them.

8. War (1983)
It'll be heresy to some that this one doesn't place higher, but its middling position befits its status as a Significant U2 Album I Don't Ever Really Need to Hear Again. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" have never fallen out of live rotation, and you understand why: They're direct and powerful. Even people who loathe this band can sing "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and "New Year's Day" was simply their best song to date. This is U2's arrival as a political force.

There are other strong tunes: "Seconds" features the first of only three lead vocals in the U2 canon by The Edge (he sounds just like Bono), and the elegiac "Drowning Man" hinted at the blurrier, more impressionistic side that U2 would explore on their follow-up, "The Unforgettable Fire." (Never performed live, U2 rehearsed "Drowning Man" for their current tour but have thus far proven unwilling to bum out a paying crowd of 60,000 with it.) But the rest of the album, especially goofy disco numbers "The Refugee" and "Red Light," has aged like Bono's mullet.

7. All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
After the lukewarm reception to "POP" plenty of people were convinced U2 would settle into R.E.M.-like semiretirement, playing to their shrinking cult. But with "Beautiful Day" -- a euphoric anthem that put The Edge's stratospheric guitar up front for what felt like the first time in forever -- U2 demanded, and received, a third act. Though the album's musings on mortality attained accidental relevance in the wake of 9/11, this was U2's least thematically cohesive set to date. Their brief was simply to chuck the drum machines and prove they could still write hits.

And they did: "Beautiful Day" got played 'til its wheels came off, while "Stuck in a Moment" and the Al Green-like "In a Little While" -- the album cut Joey Ramone kept requesting from his deathbed, claims Bono -- made for convincing blue-eyed soul. "Elevation" was an irresistibly dumb jock jam, even if Lenny Kravitz could have written it. And "Walk On" and "Kite" do just what they were engineered to do: Soar like the U2 of the Reagan years. Bono's singing a lot of treacle on those; I'm inclined to forgive because he's singing so well.

The album sputters after seven songs, which was four more than they needed to win forgiveness and renewal.

Check back tomorrow morning for the top six albums of the U2 discography.

By David Malitz |  September 24, 2009; 8:29 AM ET Discographically Speaking
Previous: When One Of Your Faves Is a Huge Creep | Next: U2: Discographically Speaking, Part 2

Comments

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Rattle & Hum and Zooropa are ranked above War? Dem's fightin' words! :-)

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | September 24, 2009 1:15 PM

Well this means Unforgettable Fire and Zooropa are both in the top half, very interesting, and I guess Rattle and Hum if I'm doing my math right which is much more odd? Ballsy pick with Zooropa, but Unforgettable Fire is pretty crap in retrospect. Obviously Joshua Tree or Achtung wins because people would cry bloody murder otherwise.

And I'd take October over anything they did this decade.

My picks best at the top:
War
Boy
Pop
October
Zooropa
Achtung
Joshua Tree
Unforgettable Fire
Rattle and Hum Movie (never actually bought the album)
All the dreck from the '00s

Posted by: M__N | September 24, 2009 1:22 PM

Without seeing the top half, would venture to guess that Joshua Tree, Actung and, perhaps, Zooropa would lead the field. Wanna plug here for NLOTH (the latest), a far more ambitious and work than anything since those first too, and without the silliness of Pop. Would add the Passengers experiment too, though not the the top half.

Posted by: Torontotoad | September 24, 2009 5:58 PM

They all suck, especially POP.

Posted by: cletus1 | September 24, 2009 7:51 PM

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