I’d originally planned on only commenting on a few of these 57 songs but I got a little carried away. Here are my top 10. At this point, I’m splitting the very finest of hairs in assigning ranks. The crazy thing is my actual favorite U2 songs aren’t even on this list because they weren’t singles. Life is rough, man.
OK, so, here’s a geeky thing. That count off at the beginning? 1, 2, 3, 14? Apparently, many have taken it to be a reference to Exodus 3;14 where God says “I am that I am.” The last song on 2004’s How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is “Yahweh” and so its entirely possible that U2 hid a bible verse at the start of one of their hardest rocking numbers. Its also possible that Bono is just a big dork and counted wrong. I give both of these theories equal credence. There’s a whole lot to like about this song, but let me draw attention to The Edge’s work on the verses here. He lets his guitar chirp here and there (frequently, but not always, in rhythm) as if he can’t wait to play the big fat hook on the chorus. And you know what? Who can blame him. That is one big fat hook. The image in the video of the band members being blown away into sand (that’s what I see when I see those streaks of smoke behind them) is exactly how I feel when I listen to this song. So. Good.
9. “One Tree Hill”
I’m cheating a little bit here by including this song – but only a little. It was only released as a single in New Zealand and Australia. I encourage you to read the backstory of the song if you’re not familiar with it. In brief, it’s about a dear friend of the band, Greg Carroll. A Māori man, he joined U2’s crew during The Unforgettable Fire tour and died tragically while working for the band in London. After attending his funeral in New Zealand, the band wrote this song in tribute to him. On the album track, Bono sang a single take and was too overcome with emotion to sing a second. Fortunately, that one take was beautiful and moving. The song is one of many emotional highs on The Joshua Tree and is a great example of U2 going out of their comfort zone to create something lovely. While I still wish “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” had been singles, I’m glad this one was in a few parts of the world.
8. “I Will Follow”
The second single from U2’s 1980 debut album Boy remains one of their great songs. There’s The Edge’s signature sound. There’s a poignant lyric about a lost loved one (in this case, Bono’s mother). There’s the solid rhythm section. There’s producer Steve Lillywhite on glockenspiel for some damn reason. While this isn’t the first of U2’s songs to really sound like U2, this is the best produced and performed of their early singles and is an incredibly catchy song to boot. The chorus demands that you sing along. Do it. It is demanding it. This is the only song that U2 has played on every single one of their tours and I mean, of course it is. It should be. They wrote this before they turned 20. If I wrote something as good as this before I turned 20 I’d be singing it all the damn time, too.
7. “Mysterious Ways”
That guitar riff. Seriously. That guitar riff. There are three songs from 1991’s Achtung Baby in my top 10. That album moved me, man. The lyrics are some sort of cryptic sing-song nursery rhyme thing that sound like Bono made them up on the spot (something I very much appreciate). One of the things I like best about Bono as a singer is when he sounds effortless – like he’s a channel for the song instead of the person controlling the song. On “Mysterious Ways,” I feel like he doesn’t even have a clue about what he’s singing. These words are coming out because they’re the words that need to come out right now. If you haven’t already, take some time to listen to and appreciate Adam Clayton’s bass line. At some point since 1980, he got funky.
6. “Where the Streets Have No Name”
The third single from 1987’s The Joshua Tree and my favorite single from that album. The Edge provides another classic guitar hook here – by this time, he’s mastered the delay effect that signifies the U2 sound. When I don’t know this song is coming up and I hear that chord progression starting… and I realize what song is starting… I mean, I want to just stand up and yell “yes yes yes!” If you recall, I was not a big fan of The Joshua Tree when it came out because I was young, pretentious and way too cool for a band that clearly had sold out by creating songs that more people than just me enjoyed. This song was still a mix tape staple whenever I planned to share a tape with somebody. I usually opened tapes with this song because I figured it would make the next 90 minutes of obscure and often painful music more palatable. You have to put thought into these things.
I’ve written a bunch about how 1997’s Pop sounds unfinished to me (and my fellow U2 nerd Tori Barron confirms this was the case) but the songs that do sound finished are so good. Bono and The Edge wanted to explore the kind of European electronica that was exploding in the 90’s. I think they realized something about it that I seldom heard on other electronica tracks – specifically that the experience of giving yourself over to dance was not entirely different to religious ecstasy. While “Mofo” is partially about Bono’s mother, in a broader sense it’s about trying to “fill that God shaped hole.” I didn’t think anything could top the album version of the song until I saw the start of their Popmart Mexico City concert. It’s just the most rock and roll thing they ever did. The entrance, the working the crowd, the costumes and the performance are all perfect. This song is better loud. No, louder.
I’d not seen the video before right now and its stupid and bonkers. How perfect. “Elevation” doesn’t deserve to be ranked this high. Its sort of a big dumb rock song. I love big dumb rock songs. Just the other day, I was standing on top of Wa’ahila Ridge dancing and singing along with this song. I endorse this activity. You should all get someplace where you can look out over a valley or down into the streets of a city, put this song on your headphones and then sing and dance to it. The Clayton/Mullen rhythm section rule this song and thank goodness for that. The theme of most of these songs in the top ten seems to be “songs that make me want to dance.” Ok, I’ll cop to that. Most of these songs make me want to dance. For many years, that was an enormous feat. Now, I live by the Daniel Akiyama rule which is “you look like a fool if you dance, you look like a fool if you don’t dance, so you might as well dance.” I think that’s his rule. I credit him with introducing me to it. Oh, and there’s this moment where it feels like everything has stopped and suddenly Bono comes back in with that “A mole… living in a hole” thing and I just go berserk. I love false stops. Can’t get enough. Of them.
3. “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
When I was young and full of hubris (my hubris tank is only half full now), this song was my directing theme song. I directed a production of Macbeth in 1995 and played this song after curtain call (covered by ASCAP license) as a way of announcing how awesome I was. Fortunately, I had a couple of frustrating artistic failures in the ensuing years and think I’ve become a better director since then. I don’t brag during my shows anymore is what I’m trying to say. Only after. And only to a few select people. On Facebook. With stuff set to public. I digress. For years, “Even Better Than The Real Thing” was by far my favorite song on Achtung Baby. It verges on the brink of psychedelia but, thanks largely to the bass, keeps resolving back into a grand Beatles-esque groove. I think it’s the bass. Well, the point is, Beatles, groove, psychedelia. When I perform in Oil in the Alley, this is one of the songs I listen to on my headphones before I go onstage to turn myself into a rock star. This song turns everyone into a rock star.
2. “All I Want Is You”
I’m on record as not being an especially big fan of Rattle and Hum. Indeed, I disliked it so much that when I heard “All I Want Is You” for the first time (maybe as late as 1998 or 1999 – so ten years after its release!), I assumed it was a new single. The first thing I noticed while listening to it is that Mr. Reserved The Edge cuts loose with one of his most expressive solos. Indeed, the solo takes up something like a third of the song. There’s a saying in musical theatre that when words aren’t enough, its time for a song and when the song isn’t enough, its time for a dance. In the case of this song, the emotion gets too great for Bono and The Edge takes over. I hear all the longing and pain from the lyric amplified a hundred times in that solo. The next thing I noticed was how Bono’s delivery builds over the course of the song – from a sort of breathy verse, to a full-throated chorus to a plaintive wail. In my mind, this is a song about being in love with somebody (and they with you) but realizing you’re never, ever going to be able to be with them. U2’s earnestness pays off here – there’s not a hint of irony (that came on the next album). I don’t know how I’d have felt about this song if I’d have heard it in 1988 when I was still hating on U2. Probably, I’d have hated it.
Oh, hey, number one is “One.” I want to die. This is not how I wanted this to end. I’m sorry. It’s just this is my favorite song by them right now. Ask me to make this list again in a year and I’ll see if this has changed. “One” is a song by U2 about U2. During the recording of Achtung Baby they were on the verge of splitting up. The Edge – working with producer Daniel Lanois – found the chord progression of this song and the band just suddenly found their groove. Bono wrote a lyric about how they were all feeling about each other at the time. He found that remarkable “we get to carry each other” line – they get to carry each other, they don’t have to, it’s a gift to carry each other. But you know, this very specific song about this very specific group of people became universal when released into the wild. Everyone has been in a relationship – be it a friendship, a romance, a band, an improv group, or whatever – where tensions were raised and things were on the verge of falling apart. Years of history for good or for ill can’t be ignored. But maybe some stuff can be forgiven and some stuff can be worked through and everyone can just take a moment to acknowledge that we’re different people with different needs and wants but we’re working towards a common purpose. That’s what love is, man, the hard work that goes into making something work even when the other people involved are making you crazy. But, you know, the song is also about falling apart. It doesn’t end resolved – that last verse before the chorus, the one that starts “love is a temple” ends with the line “And I can’t be holding on to what you got/When all you got is hurt.” Are they going to get through this? U2 did, but are the friends in the song? Its ambivalent. This is so painful – love isn’t going to be enough. Unless it is enough. Holy cats.
Thank you for reading through all of these (or any of these). I’d like to mention that there are as many as ten other U2 songs that weren’t singles that would easily compete for positions in my top ten (and their song “Bad” as recorded live for Wide Awake In America would easily be the number one song of this whole list had it been a single). Furthermore, they’ve done some killer cover songs that I’d have to struggle to leave off any expanded list (their version of “Dancing Barefoot” is great, for example).
I might do more of these things. I have thoughts about Cure singles…