U2’s Top 40

October 30, 2014

40. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (Achtung Baby, 1991)

A full-out stomping rocker, one that would fit nicely on a Bruce Springsteen record, and a surprisingly straight-ahead song for an Achtung Baby single.

39. Drowning Man (War, 1983)

This War cut is a landmark of U2’s in-studio production eccentricities: double and tripled-up vocals, strings, delay/echo, The Edge’s weird bendy effects on acoustic and electric guitars, some of which are just starting to sound like synths at this point in U2’s evolution.

38. So Cruel (Achtung Baby, 1991)

What seems like a plea to a cruel lover is really another conflation of God and girls by Bono. And it’s definitely one of his best.

37. Get on Your Boots (No Line on the Horizon, 2009)

Bono said that the song’s title is an African euphemism for putting on a condom. That said, most of this song’s lyrics are typical of Bono’s ranting stream of consciousness. But damn, that guitar riff/bass line.

36. The Fly (Achtung Baby, 1991)

“The Fly” is a classic fist-pumping singalong for U2 fans, with one of The Edge’s best solos and one of Bono’s most compelling alter egos. Yes, Bono wore bug-eye wraparound sunglasses. Look, it was the ’90s, okay?

35. Mysterious Ways (Achtung Baby, 1991)

One of U2’s most recognizable songs and one of The Edge’s best guitar sounds to date. Another conflation of God and girls by U2: “She moves in mysterious ways.”

34. In a Little While (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)

One of Leave Behind most stripped-down, soulful and earnest songs, it was written a profession of love to Bono’s wife Ali Hewson. When U2 learned Joey Ramone listened to it regularly on his death bed, the band dedicated it to him on its Elevation Tour. Way better tribute than “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).”

33. New York (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)

Bono’s tribute written to New York City after he moved there. “In New York, you can forget how to sit still” was his way of evoking both Lou Reed and Frank Sinatra-type sentimentalities.

32. If God Will Send His Angels (Pop, 1997) / Hold Me Kiss Me Thrill Me (The Best of 1990–2000, 2002)

U2 were all over ’90s film soundtracks, from Wim Wenders’ art-house films to blockbuster movies like City of Angels (“If God Will Send His Angels”) and Batman Forever (“Hold Me Kiss Me Thrill Me”).

31. Sweetest Thing (The Best of 1980–1990, 1998)

U2’s most successful b-side to date is also its most straightforwardly romantic. Bono wrote it for his wife Ali Hewson as an apology for being in the studio, away from her on her birthday. Adorably, U2 included limited-edition chocolate bars with European releases of “Sweetest Thing” singles in 1998.

30. Even Better Than the Real Thing (Achtung Baby, 1991)

One of U2’s most Rolling Stones-like moments, augmented with Achtung’s modernity and David Bowie-like cool, plus a detached irony that would stay with the band through the ’90s.

29. Beautiful Day (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)

The Big Comeback Single, the moment when U2 became more Sting than The Clash. Whether you like this era of U2 or not, “Beautiful Day” is one of its biggest and best songs yet.

28. Staring at the Sun (Pop, 1997)

U2 went to some weird places in the ’90s, but this was a single that fit with the alternative rock of the ’90s nicely, played next to Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam on rock radio and MTV regularly at the time.

27. I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight (No Line on the Horizon, 2009)

It took 30 years, but Bono wrote his artistic manifesto with, “The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear.” He said to the Guardian that he considered it “the final blow to people who can’t stand us.” On the U2360 Tour, he doubled down on that, turning “Crazy” into a cheesy “Discotheque”-type house jam.

26. Two Hearts Beat as One (War, 1983) / Wire (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984) / With a Shout (Jerusalem) (October, 1981)

Three early U2 songs with the same musicality (syncopated polyrhythms, chiming guitar) but touched on three of the band’s lyrical milestones. “Two Hearts” is a love song with a particularly great vocal take from Bono. “Wire” has stream-of-consciousness lyrics, a clear precursor to the dance-punk sounds of Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture. “With a Shout (Jerusalem)” is a religious lyrical take. They’re three examples of U2 broadening and clarifying its voice and coming into its own as a big-time rock band.

Related: Everclear Poke Fun at U2 By Announcing New Album Release on Windows 10

25. In God’s Country (The Joshua Tree, 1987) / One Tree Hill (The Joshua Tree, 1987)

One of Bono’s strengths as a lyricist is his poetic imagery evoking scenery. These two Joshua Tree singles are stellar examples. The “sad eyes, crooked crosses” of “In God’s Country” and “A sun so bright it leaves no shadows/ only scars carved into stone on the face of earth” of “One Tree Hill” are just beautiful.

24. Until the End of the World (Achtung Baby, 1991)

Lyrically, “Until the End of the World” is about Judas betraying Jesus. It’s literally a gospel song. But The Edge’s riffs make it not the least bit reverent or sanctimonious. His two solos absolutely destroy in a live setting.

23. Silver and Gold (Live) (Rattle & Hum Version) (Rattle and Hum, 1988)

Bono affects Elvis Presley’s vocal stylings on this live recording of U2’s song for the Artists Against Apartheid compilation Sun City. In one of the band’s best live moments, Bono lays down some knowledge about Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African apartheid. “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya,” Bono mutters as he steps down from his soapbox. “Okay, Edge, play the blues!” then a clanging, beautiful solo.

22. Raised by Wolves (Songs of Innocence, 2014)

Its lyrics are like a successful rapper telling you about their humble beginnings except it’s a world-famous Irish rock star telling you about the religious violence and death he grew up around.

21. Stay (Faraway, So Close!) (Zooropa, 1993)

One of U2’s most melancholy songs, Bono has said its lyrics were written as elegy to the late Frank Sinatra, told with lyrics of fractured imagery. If one U2 single influenced the ’90s alternative rock of Radiohead or The Smashing Pumpkins the most, it’d likely be this one.

20. A Sort of Homecoming (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984)

The lead-off track to Unforgettable Fire was the sound of U2 longing to become more than just the rock ‘n’ roll band it was on War, October and Boy. It was also the beginning of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ invaluable imprint on U2. This marks the moment U2 became a totally different band.

19. City of Blinding Lights (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004)

A go-to inspirational anthem for the Obama for America campaign in 2008 and U2 got to perform it to the president and vice president elect in Washington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day before Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. But you haven’t heard this song until you see it on the U2360 Tour, with blinding lights shot into the sky out of an open-air stadium.

18. Miracle Drug (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004)

Bono explains this song’s lyrical subject — a paraplegic schoolmate of the band — in a 2004 interview with Blender. “Eventually, they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck. So they attached this unicorn device to his forehead and he learned to type. And out of him came all these poems that he’d been storing up in his head. Then he put out a collection called Dam-Burst of Dreams, which won a load of awards and he went off to university and became a genius; all because of a mother’s love and a medical breakthrough.”

17. Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004) / Iris (Hold Me Close) (Songs of Innocence, 2014)

Lyrically, Bono is at his best when he writes elegies to the dead. These are about Bono’s late father Robert and mother Iris Hewson, respectively. Bono’s dad died in 2001, his mother when he was 14 years old. The sentimentality in “Iris” is obvious but his wry expression of love for his father is more conflicted and sarcastic but no less emotional.

16. With or Without You (The Joshua Tree, 1987)

On the radio, “With or Without You” works as a great breakup song most every listener knows. It’s U2’s ultimate love song, really. But listen closer and it’s another God/girls conflation by Bono. The song is filled with a sexy tension, longing for the subject of a breakup ballad or a God longed to be understood in a gospel song about a crisis of faith.

15. Mothers of the Disappeared (The Joshua Tree, 1987)

After the brutal junta/dictatorship of ’70s Argentina and Chile, relatives of the murdered demanded to know where the bodies of their family were left. So came the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demonstrated regularly for information from their government. When Bono performed this song in Santiago on the PopMart tour in 1998, it was aired on Chilean television in the kind of political theater that could make you adore Bono for his huge heart or dismiss him as an insensitive opportunistic rock star. You decide.

14. Bullet the Blue Sky (The Joshua Tree, 1987) / Bullet the Blue Sky (Live) (Rattle & Hum Version) (Rattle and Hum, 1988)

CIA and U.S. military operations in El Salvador, gun control, Mexican border violence, religious violence… heck take your pick. As far as U2 is concerned, “Bullet the Blue Sky” has been about any number of injustices foreign and domestic perpetrated by America in the more-than-25 years since it was released. The deep, ominous Zeppelin groove murmurs on record but live, with all the lights out and Bono scanning a spotlight onto the audience, it’s chilling. When it’s preceded by Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Rattle and Hum, there’s no confusion as to where the ire of “Bullet the Blue Sky” is pointed.

13. Gone (Pop, 1997)

Bono wrote the lyrics to “Gone” about the perils and absurdities of rock-star fame but after the suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, a good friend of Bono’s, the song has become defacto about him.

12. All I Want Is You (Rattle and Hum, 1988) / The First Time (Zooropa, 1993)

One of U2’s best musical modes is when the band steals a bit from Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground and uses their musical elements in its own way. These are two of the best examples. The muted, gorgeous riffs on “The First Time” stand in contrast to The Edge’s usual guitar fireworks. “The First Time” works as a kind of abridged simmering version of the soft-loud-soft progression of the six-and-a-half-minute “All I Want Is You,” which is slightly better for its divine string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks.

11. Kite (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)

Bono wrote “Kite” about his father dying of cancer, all while contemplating his own mortality and the point in his life when his children won’t need him anymore. It’s a gorgeous and deeply sad but life-affirming song.

10. Like a Song… (War, 1983)

The best song on War that U2 never released as a single, for some crazy reason. U2 had newfound fire in its belly for getting passionately and explicitly political. It’s also one of early U2’s most remix-ready early songs. Gang of Four, eat your heart out.

9. New Year’s Day (War, 1983)

Even people who hate U2 like this song. It’s still a staple on classic-rock radio, especially on or around the titular holiday. Bono’s lyric, “Nothing changes on New Years Day” serves as an important reminder for those who both embrace and dismiss Bono’s idealistic activism. But Bono is also reminding himself in a moment of clear-eyed realism that contrasts with War’s fresh-faced political passion.

8. I Will Follow (Boy, 1980) / Vertigo (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004)

The differences and similarities of these uptempo album kick offs and singles — musically, 25 years apart — show where U2 started and where the band is now, for better or worse, capturing so much of U2 in about three minutes each. “I Will Follow” is U2 as a hungry rock band, charging out of the gate. The original recording on Boy sounds as scratchy as it does scrappy, full of deft guitar harmonics by The Edge and the excited tinkling of a glockenspiel (during the song’s sudden decrescendo around 2:10-15, Steve Lillywhite sounds so excited he drops the damn thing). Today, “I Will Follow” is U2’s most-performed song live. And one of its most overtly God-fearing (“I was lost/I am found,” Bono borrows from “Amazing Grace”). “Vertigo” is one of U2’s newer and most successful singles, immortalized in an Apple ad. If “I Will Follow” praised an unnamed god, “Vertigo” praises an undescribed sound. It, too, feels scrappy, full of similar guitar harmonics to “I Will Follow.” Both are full of surrender and those seconds right before the guitar comes in where, as the listener, it feels like you’re suspended in mid-air, holding your breath until the guitar comes in. These moments, these little surrenders, sum up U2’s barest musical bones and the breadth of its incredible evolution.

7. Running to Stand Still (The Joshua Tree, 1987) / Bad (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984)

One of understated ways in which U2 was incredibly punk was the way Bono could introduce dark, disturbing topics in ways that broke listeners’ hearts. And listeners would let him, because they knew he would give them hope, too. The best example is U2 tackling heroin addiction of Ireland’s poor in the ’80s— much in the way Lou Reed did with “Street Hassle” or “Heroin” for New York. “Running to Stand Still” and “Bad” are two of the saddest songs in U2’s discography. Both deal with Bono witnessing the addicts of the Ballymun flats, a housing project near where he grew up in Dublin. “You’ve gotta cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice” on “Running to Stand Still” remains one of Bono’s most poetic lyrics. His delivery on “Bad” of “I’m wide awake/ I’m not sleeping” remains one of his most emotional vocal takes.

6. One (Achtung Baby, 1991)

Achtung Baby was famously recorded in Berlin as the Berlin Wall came down in pieces in 1990. The song looks ahead to post-Cold War German reunification, capturing but not dwelling on the moment in which it was made. “One” has since become an all-purpose song for activists and citizens worldwide coming together and moving forward, capturing a moment, despite their differences. “We’re one,” Bono sings, “but we’re not the same.” U2 fans who don’t speak English know “One” phonetically, which might be why U2 named its global campaign against poverty after it. The musical influence of “One” is massive, too, having been covered or reinterpreted by artists as diverse as Mary J. Blige, Johnny Cash, Paul Oakenfold and the cast of Glee.

5. Walk On (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)

“Walk On” won the GRAMMY for Record of the Year in 2002. It became a healing song for the U.S. after September 11, 2001, with U2 performing it on the TV special America: A Tribute to Heroes. Let’s just assume you know the song, even in passing. What you might not know is how “Walk On” helped Burma and its deposed democratically elected president Aung San Suu Kyi achieve justice. A tribute to the under-house-arrest Suu Kyi, removed by military junta in 1989, the lyrics of “Walk On” were written from the perspective of her husband Michael Aris, who died in 1999 while Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Possession of a copy of this song or All That You Can’t Leave Behind would’ve gotten you jail time in Burma at this time. In part due to U2 raising worldwide awareness, international pressure mounted and Suu Kyi was released in 2012, thanks in some small part to the platform U2 gave Amnesty International on the U2360 Tour. She went on tour with the members of U2, who got to perform it for her nightly. Suu Kyi said that the song’s political message is “very close to how I feel.” Today, she is a prominent Burmese MP running for president (again) in 2015. And to think, Bono said, “If the song was s–t, it could’ve made things worse.”

4. Sunday Bloody Sunday (War, 1983)

U2’s go-to political anthem, written about The Troubles, the religious conflict between England and Northern Ireland, namely its tragic Bloody Sunday massacre. Though they’re Irish, the members of U2 were horrified by The Troubles’ religious terrorism as teenagers. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was their plea for peace and humanity on both sides of the conflict. Since 1983, Bono has introduced it as “This is not a rebel song!” over its martial drum beat. It’s been played and repurposed worldwide by countless varied political and social movements, primarily as anti-war and humanitarian anthems. U2 has repurposed it for the Arab Spring, the Israel/Palestine conflict and more. How long must they sing this song? Too long.

3. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (The Joshua Tree, 1987) / I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Live) (Rattle & Hum Version) (Rattle and Hum, 1988)

It’d be an understatement to say that conflating God and girls is a recurring theme for U2. But the band’s never done it better than this song. Bono, a lapsed Catholic who still believes deeply in God, wrote lyrics to a gospel song and secular love song simultaneously with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Not in two halves, but two full songs co-existing in one. It became a smash hit that stadiums full of people around the world sing along to and let it mean whatever it means to them, regardless of their faith, love or lack thereof. Sure, the live version on Rattle and Hum (featuring the New Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir on backing vocals, performed at Madison Square Garden) drives the God part home particularly hard. Regardless, the song’s about longing, that galactic pull toward something very far away.

2. Pride (In the Name of Love) (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984) / Pride (In the Name of Love) (Live) (Rattle & Hum Version) (Rattle and Hum, 1988)

As an Irishman still new to the U.S. and fascinated by American culture, Bono misstated the time of day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in both of these “Pride’ cuts. Dr. King was killed in the late afternoon/early evening, not “early morning, April 4,” as Bono sings. But it doesn’t even matter. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is one of the most moving and lasting songs written about the slain civil-rights leader. About two years before the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was observed as a federal holiday, it reignited awareness of Dr. King’s legacy. The song was imbued with controversy at the opening date of U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour in Arizona, where the state’s governor intended to abolish the holiday. Before U2 came on stage, the show’s local concert promoter read a statement on behalf of U2 denouncing him.

1. Where the Streets Have No Name (The Joshua Tree, 1987)

Here’s the thing about “Streets”: it shouldn’t exist. By all rights, it never should’ve gotten released. The lyrics, even for Bono, read as contrived on the page. That makes sense, seeing as Bono wrote those lyrics haphazardly on an airline barf bag. The band spent about half its Joshua Tree recording sessions trying to get its sound just right. Frustrated, Brian Eno tried to stage an accident to delete the progress they had made. It shouldn’t exist. Yet it does. It’s been a fixture on U2’s live setlists since its release. Musically, it’s influenced the sound of britpop, emo, electronic music, shoegaze, mainstream and indie rock from the U.S., U.K. and beyond. Even South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir covered it. So did Pet Shop Boys. So did Muse. Countless times, The Edge’s guitar sound on “Streets” has been attempted but never duplicated. Because it sounds like an original moment of inspiration, like soaring freedom. By all rights, this song shouldn’t exist. But it does. And music is better for it.

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