U2: Discographically Speaking, Part 2

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And now Chris Klimek finishes his appraisal of the U2 discography. (Part 1, in case you missed it.) For even more -- yes, more -- you can check out his blog. Chris Richards will be reviewing the band's Tuesday show at FedEx Field. Check back here early Wednesday for his thoughts.

6. Rattle and Hum (1988)
After "The Joshua Tree" put U2 on top of the world, they decided they'd make a little road movie while they toured America and cut an EP of new songs to accompany it. That swelled into "Rattle and Hum," the Major Motion Picture, prompting an overdue U2 backlash. While less bloated than the movie, the album was a confused mismash of live versions and covers. Plus nine new tracks, about, appropriating, and/or co-starring Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, and a bunch of other American legends the guys in U2 were only then just hearing about. They just wanted to share!

It shouldn't work at all. But as a listening experience, this disc rattles and hums along almost in spite of itself, hopscotching from Bono's gassy declaration in front of "Helter Skelter" -- "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back!" -- to the docks of Dublin (the Edge's "Van Diemen's Land"), to Sun Studios, where they cut "Angel of Harlem" and four more, on into the Arizona night for a definitive "Bullet the Blue Sky." Van Dyke Parks's strings play out "All I Want Is You," a much better U2 song for your wedding than "One," by the way. "Desire," a three-chord stomp over a Bo Diddley beat, was an instant classic, too.

(The top 5 after the jump.)

5. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
There are precious few fully-formed songs here, but this one punches above its weight because it marked the beginning of U2's long, fruitful partnership with the Eno/Lanois brain trust. Eno claimed he was retired from record production when U2 approached him, and in any case the combat rock of "War" was not at all to his eggheaded taste. Bono speculated later that Eno agreed to meet U2 just to make sure his pal Danny got the job.

But U2 won him over with their willingness to scrap all that they'd done before, a trick that would save their career a few years later. Eno's love of ethereal soundscapes and his impatience with Bono's lack of writing discipline are the main reasons this has so many hazy instrumentals on it. But it did produce "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and the cinematic stream-of-consciousness "Bad," two of U2's enduring warhorses. You can hear Bono shredding his vox on the choruses of "Pride," which gives the song -- about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other martyrs -- an extra shot of urgency while foreshadowing the severe vocal distress he'd run into a decade later.

4. Boy (1980)
Songs of innocence and inexperience. Bass-spaceman Adam Clayton, the grandpa of the band, was all of 20 when U2 issued their debut, and one of the things that makes this album still feel unique 30 years later is that the four boys who made it sound like they're in no rush to grow up. Most guys want to front their way through puberty as quickly as possible. But there's Bono, as unembarrassable then as he is now -- that's a compliment, mostly -- howling, "My body grows and grows / It frightens me, you know!" on "Twilight." Something about that title must really resonate for tweens.

The disc opens with "I Will Follow," a declaration of blind faith that acknowledges its young authors' debt to groups like Television while still sounding like nothing else. All of U2's sonic signposts -- Edge's reveb-drenched guitar, the unique throb of the learning-on-the-fly rhythm section -- are already here. It would take them years to make another album this confident.

3. Zooropa (1993)
Nobody, not even U2, gives this one its due. Recorded in three frantic months between the American and European legs of the 1992-3 ZOO TV Tour -- the funniest, most subversive stadium show in rock history -- "Zooropa" was U2's existentially jet-lagged meditation on a world that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War felt more chaotic and impersonal than ever.

Mercifully, the lyrics don't address war or politics at all. Half these 10 songs rank among U2's finest, and three were accompanied by the best videos U2 would ever make: Edge's Krautrock monotone rap "Numb," the ballad "Stay" and best of all, the effervescent "Lemon," which sounds like Beck imitating Prince covering the Talking Heads.

"The First Time" is a gorgeous gospel number that U2 thought was too on the nose, but that made the cut at Eno's insistence. And there must be a Bono-sung version of the disc's apocalyptic finale, "The Wanderer," in the vaults somewhere, but the one on the album is rumbled by the Voice of God himself, Johnny Cash. Genius. They'd never be this good again.

2. The Joshua Tree (1987)
U2's two most beloved albums are also their best. That happens, sometimes. When I reviewed the 20th anniversary reissue of this, the most recognizable and bestselling set of U2's career, I called it U2's "finest 50-minute hour." I was right, but only because "Achtung Baby" clocks in at closer to 55 minutes.

On "The Joshua Tree," U2 combined the shimmering sonic landscapes Eno and Lanois had opened up for them, and the improved musicianship nurtured by Lanois, with a quantum leap forward in their writing. There are songs about Dublin heroin addicts and British coal miners, but the broad topic here is America, and the record somehow manages to hold itself together as U2's tightest and most specific.

The first four tracks -- "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With or Without You," and the incendiary "Bullet the Blue Sky" -- all remain concert staples, but side two is almost as memorable. "Still Haven't Found" and "Without You" were U2's only two No. 1 hits in the U.S., if you care about that kind of thing. Um, what else? My mom gave me a cassette of it for my 11th birthday, the tragic results of which you see before you now. "The Joshua Tree" is as enduring an album as anybody made in the 1980s.

1. Achtung Baby (1991)
No alarms and no surpises here. This one and "Joshua" are universally regarded as the two essential U2 albums; it's only a question of which one you rank first. What puts "Achtung" over the top is that it was the product of maybe the most daring and unforeseen reinventions in the history of pop: In one move, U2 went from the dreary Po Faced Pilgrims of Rock (I'm quoting myself here) to swearing, swaggering postmodern ironists, puncturing their own myth with more mirth and cruelty than their many detractors ever managed.

The flippant title -- an expression Mel Brooks utters frequently in "The Producers" - is a red herring. Look past the big black bug shades Bono had taken to wearing everywhere, or the photos of the band in drag on the album sleeve, and you could see that U2 hadn't lightened up at all -- they'd just turned the handicam, one of Bono's key ZOO TV stage props, inward.

There were still big anthems: "One" showed up almost intact in one supernatural hour during what had up 'til then been a fraught and fruitless recording session in Berlin just after the wall came down. (They started the album at Hansa Studios, where Eno had made those three great Bowie albums, "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger" in the '70s).

But "Until the End of the World" was U2's "Stairway to Heaven," a bonecrusher about Jesus (yes, I know) confronting Judas. "Even Better Than the Real Thing" was a an antidote to the authenticity-obsessed grunge movement happening at the same time. And nobody would have looked to these guys to write a sexy song you could dance to, but guess what? U2 moves in "Mysterious Ways," Baby!

"Achtung Baby" is the album that almost broke the band, and it is their masterpiece.

By David Malitz |  September 25, 2009; 8:02 AM ET Discographically Speaking
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One of my favorite U2 songs is "October". Perfect for a rainy, well, late October day.

Getting Johnny Cash to sing "The Wanderer" was pure genius. And wasn't that what got Cash to start doing his "American Songs" albums? Which led to the video for "Hurt" which is the Best Video Ever.

Posted by: wiredog | September 25, 2009 8:43 AM

The one thing that saved me from disagreeing with your entire list (sorry, but that's just the nature of making lists and being a fan -- we all have opinions on everything) was putting Zooropa in the top 5. I think it is actually one of my personal favorite albums.

The only things I really disagreed with where the low ranking of Atomic Bomb, mostly because I think "Original of the Species" is a great song. And I have a huge bias for Unforgettable Fire because it was one of the first U2 albums I bought and because I tend to believe the story that Miles Davis listened to the album over and over while on his deathbed.

Posted by: njacobs | September 25, 2009 9:21 AM

Good on ya for recognizing Zooropae. I'm not a big U2 fan, but I thought that record was underrated.

Posted by: JetAgeEric | September 25, 2009 10:33 AM

Glad to see I'm not alone in the Zooropa love, now if only people would reevaluate Pop, an album I still like a lot.

And as tired as I am of Joshua Tree, Bullet the Blue Sky and In Gods Country are still 2 of the best songs they ever wrote.

Posted by: M__N | September 25, 2009 11:34 AM

here is a version of "The Wanderer" with Bono singing lead vocals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO8DtcW6yAc&feature=related

Posted by: thor513 | September 25, 2009 11:50 AM

Achtung Baby is a truly great album that I have listen to many times over and will continue to listen to for years to come.

Joshua Tree seems more like an 80s relic to me for some reason. Still a great album but I don't find myself wanting to listen to it any more.

Glad to see Zooropa at #3. It's interesting, fun and eclectic and still sounds good.

As for the rest of the list, I think you drastically overrated the pompous and embarrasing Rattle & Hum while underrating Pop & No Line On the Horizon. Both of those are highly flawed but take risks and reveal interesting things about the band. I'd much rather listen to them than the boring and boringer All That You Can't Leave Behind and Atomic Bomb.

Posted by: TMiami | September 25, 2009 4:52 PM

From part 1 of your article... "It’ll be heresy to some that this one doesn’t place higher". On behalf of the some, I'm crying 'heretic'. War belongs at #3. Boy over War... Rattle and Hum over War... seriously? Do we need an inquisition? ;) It's the other choices we can talk about. At length.

Posted by: eigentor | September 28, 2009 10:33 AM

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