U2 saw filled arenas and hit singles, whereas other groups saw three-chord punk just as a way to play their local bar on a Saturday night. Their ambition was infectious. U2’s albums are consistently ranked as some of the best ever made.
Critics loved them. Most critics. Not this critic. I don’t love ’em, although I’ve heard all of their albums a few times over and even opted to listen to them, usually while driving. Maybe I’ve heard them too much, and they got mercilessly added to my iTunes without request.
U2 made themselves important. There’s no denying this fact. That’s why today I’m talking about a revolution, dusting off the old leather pants and ranking U2’s discography from their worst album to their best.
U2 Albums Ranked
13. “Innocence + Experience” (2014)
U2 has slowed down in its output in recent years. Their discography already includes highly-ranked albums that still sell. “Innocence + Experience” may well be a treat for long-time fans. But not everyone needs to hear it.
This is not what U2 thought. In one of the most daring acts of overconfidence, the album was added by Apple, at Bono’s behest, to everyone subscribed to iTunes. It created a major backlash that felt like the final straw in the general public’s love affair with U2. Bono became the most hated man in rock for some.
The album itself is actually a double-release. The title hints at William Blake’s volumes “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” U2’s version sounds more like “Songs of Praise.”
“Song for Someone” or “You’re the Best Thing About Me” are clearly well-intended. Also, they’re clearly intended to be sung to arena audiences. But, to be blunt, Bono’s deep-thinking sounds like the musings of a detached rockstar millionaire.
The best song here is “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” U2 has always tried to convince the world that it was a punk-rock band. While that’s debatable, the group can certainly write songs about punk rockers.
12. “October” (1981)
Every formula needs to be experimented upon before being shipped to the masses. “October” acts as U2’s atelier experimental.
Only that the ideas aren’t very daring yet. The band is still figuring out how to work around the limitations of The Edge, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton’s playing.
But it matters little, really. The focal point is Bono. On “Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” or “October,” he draws attention to him like a town crier or an actor determined to be heard by the people from the cheapest sits.
11. “No Line on the Horizon” (2009)
U2 could still tour the world with too much fanfare. But if they wanted to hold on to their critical appeal, they needed to craft something different and inventive. “No Line on the Horizon” was not that record.
The problem is that there’s a thin line between embracing minimalism and being bland. U2 has been anything but subdued throughout the band’s career. But this time, everything that they do sounds predictable.
“Get on Your Boots” and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” are alright singles. But much of this feels like a rehash of old material, which took some convincing to like anyway.
10. “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” (2004)
“How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” splits the difference between earnest and anthemic but doesn’t get either exactly right.
There was a time when U2’s Bono believed that his personal issues concerned the world. However, turns out that his public wanted songs about the world’s problems.
But “Vertigo” sounds like one of the laziest attempts at a big rock single. U2 isn’t doing any more heavy lifting on “All Because of You” or “City of Blinding Lights.”
Predictably, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” was a huge commercial success, creating a new cult around U2, one that passionately disliked them.
9. “Boy” (1980)
“Boy” features the basic technique of punk, the poppiness of new-wave, and U2’s already unbridled self-confidence.
U2 like to tell everyone that they’re a punk-rock band. Island Record believed them. While I’ve often heard this theory from the band, I’ve yet to encounter any punk-rocker wearing a tattoo or sticker of the Irish group.
But like many bands that wanted to play guitar rock but couldn’t do solos, U2 latched on to punk rock.
The songs are given a new-wave glimmer courtesy of the production of Steve Lilliwhite, who later worked with The Smiths or Talking Heads.
Hearing the anthemically designed “I Will Follow” or the confessions of “Out of Control,” it’s clear that Bono and his Christian friends are fashioning themselves as rockstars of a new age.
8. “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (2000)
Certain bands like U2, Oasis, or Green Day suffer every day when they’re not the most famous group on the planet. With “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” U2 got their success back.
Not that everyone was happy for them. The songs on “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” hit the same earnest tones as “The Joshua Tree.” But they sound designed for middle-aged corporate leaders for the most part.
“Beautiful Day” and “Walk On” were gigantic singles. It meant you had to hear them on the radio all the time. This was fine, considering how bad everything else on the radio had become.
But more than any other album, it set a precedent for empty arena rock anthems. U2 wasn’t the worst band at attempting this kind of sound.
7. “Rattle and Hum” (1988)
“Rattle and Hum” cemented U2’s reputation as both popular and overbearingly arrogant. Still, the record contains a few pop gems.
The problem remarked by even the band’s staunchest critics is that “Rattle and Hum” present the band as evangelical preachers strolling through America’s roads in order to bring it the truth – U2’s music.
The other problem is that a lot of times, when they venture to play covers or quirky originals, they’re not as good as they think they are.
The good news is that the minimalist approach still works on originals like “Desire,” “All I Want is You,” “Angel of Harlem,” and, especially, “When Love Comes to Town,” sung with the great B.B. King.
6. “War” (1983)
It was as if U2 had tapped into the brains of the world’s elite rock critics. “War” is an anti-conflict manifesto that hits all of the sweet spots the aforementioned critics love to write about.
In fact, anyone who in the 2020’s wonders how U2 got so big just needs to dig into “War.” For 1983, the Irish quartet could’ve well been Rage Against the Machine, and Bjork, of their era, wrapped into one.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” take U2’s minimalist rock approach to its emotional apex. Even I, with all my cynicism, can’t deny that these are great songs. No wonder singer Bono could routinely whip the crowds into a frenzy while the band played this.
The passion that Bono, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton, and guitar-pedal pusher The Edge wore on their sleeves endeared them to the world. And, when they got their opportunity, they did not waste it. “War” positioned U2 as the alternative-rock band designed to become the top dog in the global pop music arena.
5. “The Unforgettable Fire” (1984)
U2 never take a step back when they feel that they could just as well rush forward. “The Unforgettable Fire” sees the group create the mold for their spacious, resonant arena-rock sound.
A large part of this is due to the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The former, in particular, with Roxy Music, David Bowie, or solo, is seen as one of the pop music visionaries. That status still holds even if, in the interim, he’s helmed the works of shameless U2 followers, Chris Martin’s Coldplay.
“The Unforgettable Fire” is artsy but never subtle. U2 just found a big enough canvas for their sloganeering.
“Pride (In the Name of Love),” a sung written about Martin Luther King, exposes everything that the band believes in. Meanwhile, “The Unforgettable Fire” and “A Sort of Homecoming” marry Dylanesque poetry with The Edge’s ever-growing pedal board.
4. “Pop” (1997)
U2 try to reinvent their sound once more with “Pop.” While the results are no less convincing than in previous iterations, the fans are less interested.
While the album’s name may suggest that Bono and the Bhoys have adopted a pure pop sound, this is only half true.
“Discothèque” is a nice, silly dance-rock. “Staring at the Sun” and “Please” are two of the band’s biggest ballads.
The rest of the album, however, is an electro-rock hybrid. The songs contain some good ideas, but rarely are these completed.
3. “The Joshua Tree” (1987)
U2 used “The Joshua Tree” and the love of the U.S.A. for them to make themselves the most popular group in the world. While super-hyped and overplayed, “The Joshua Tree” does have its moments.
The problem is that its best moments are the ones that have been overplayed. “With or Without You,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are singles that define the age in the same way that Madonna or Bryan Adams do.
But there’s no denying that U2 has found a way to make themselves sound as big as they believe they should sound. Nobody has used guitar feedback as proudly as The Edge on “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Exit,” which contains a few seconds of manic brilliance.
I’ve never thought that this was the world’s greatest album, as other critics suggest. However, I remember listening to this voluntarily on a trip through Jordan’s hillside. It finally made sense.
2. “Achtung Baby” (1991)
U2 has always been obsessed with the public’s opinion of them. On “Achtung Baby,” they redesign themselves as humorous, cool experimenters. But it’s when they get away from the faux-Madchester sound that they’re at their best.
Their best is, of course, the song “One.” I’ve met a lot of people who dislike this band, but not a single person that hates “One.” Except for the later version they did with Mary J. Blige. Horrific!
The story of “Achtung Baby” is nearly as legendary as the music. U2 and their team traveled to the newly freed East Berlin in their very own Bowie and Iggy Pop pilgrimage. I did it!
But, unlike me, they found horrid living conditions and an unfriendly vibe. Oh, and techno music.
The latter, especially, finds its way onto songs like “Mysterious Ways” and “The Fly.” Critics praised U2’s willingness to experiment. But all that experimentation had led them back to the arena stages with a sound that seemed ideally suited for it.
1. “Zooropa” (1993)
On “Zooropa,” the band drops its mask for just a moment. Beyond the posturing, it turns out, U2 had been nurturing intriguing songwriters.
Yes, the songs go on for too long, and there are no obvious singles. But, if any U2 can be accused of possessing a heart, this is the one in which it’s beating.
“Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” “Lemon,” and “Numb” are some of the band’s best songs. They even work when the Berlin-chic sounds are married to Bono’s falsetto.