I’ve written about 27 songs so far and have 30 more to write about. What the heck have I committed myself to?
Not even at the half way point yet. However, the songs are all pretty great from this point forward. Indeed, if you went to a concert, and they just played these 30 songs, you’d think you got more than your money’s worth. With that said, let’s get through this, people.
30. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”
This is one of both Bono and The Edge’s favorite songs and its not hard to hear why. The Edge distills his signature sound down to maybe its minimum component parts – the notes sound like they’re just barely played. I know his belief is that he wants to use as few notes as possible whenever possible (I’m not making this up) so he maybe played as few as he possibly could here. Bono’s lyric is excellent – its a sad-bordering-on-painful song about a woman who won’t (or maybe can’t) leave an abusive relationship. Bono’s vocal performance at the crescendo is magnificent. I really loved this song and ten or fifteen years ago it would have made my top 10 on a list like this (and it might again) but, as with all of the songs from Zooropa, it now sounds to me like they overproduced it aa bit. They tend to play it acoustic these days when they play it at all and it works much better this way in my opinion. We bid farewell to Zooropa with this track – I don’t rank any of its other singles higher.
“Invisible” was meant to be a preview of the then-upcoming Songs of Innocence album. It was released as a sort of charity single in 2014 and… nothing. Well, not much in the USA anyways. Internet rumor suggests that the band considered the song such a flop that they didn’t include it on what was to be its parent album. This is a damn shame because its a terrific song. The opening keyboard hearkens back to the band’s early days – it sounds like something off of a New Order or Joy Division single. The rhythm track is charming in its naivety (appropriate for a song from an album about innocence) and the lyric is a sort of adolescent “I’ll show you all” sort of thing that exhibits a sort of yugen – Bono is singing words that he might have said when he was 19, but he’s singing them through the lens of somebody who was 54 at the time. I find the whole number to be moving, inspiring and just a little bit sad. A fine addition to their catalog.
28. “Beautiful Day”
Is 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2’s greatest album? I mean, it feels like it should be The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, but now that I’m thinking about it, there’s not a single lousy song on it. Four singles were released from that album and this is the first one we’re seeing on my list. Pop and Zooropa – the previous two albums – were not without their high points, but both felt unfinished to me (Pop due to U2 rushing to meet a touring deadline and Zooropa by design). Bono famously declared that they were reapplying for their job as biggest band in the world when they released this album. The band felt they had something to prove and rose to the occasion. And so, for a second time, U2 picked themselves up after some disappointment and created something splendid. “Beautiful Day” is a fabulous first single. It managed to synthesize their 80’s and 90’s output (the bridge is this wonderful balance of earnest wonder and “America Fuck Yeah” sarcasm). I was working on the first version of Screwbuki (an improvised kabuki play) at the time when this album came out and I was so blown away that I made it the pre-show music for that show which, let’s be frank, made no sense.
1997’s Pop album had its issues, but it also had a couple of genuinely great songs on it. My favorite song from the album – “Do You Feel Loved” – was abandoned by the band pretty early during their Popmart tour. I imagine it sitting on a corner somewhere in Dallas wondering when daddy Bono is going to come back for it. So sad. The album was marketed as “U2’s attempt at Electronica” and it sort of wasn’t that despite producer Flood’s work. U2 gotta U2. On the other hand, their struggles with Electronica birthed some pretty interesting sounds, particularly on this track. The lyrics have something to do with the shallowness of pop culture and bleah bleah bleah, but the music is sort of endlessly fascinating to me. I feel like they’re trying to do something different every few bars without losing the beat. I often wonder what Larry and Adam thought when The Edge and Bono flew off into experimental dance music land. Probably “We’ll force them to make All That You Can’t Leave Behind next time.”
26. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The second single from 1987’s The Joshua Tree and their second number one song in the USA. Classic U2 guitar work from The Edge, an especially earnest lyric from Bono and fine playing from everyone. If you were going to point to the quintessential U2 song, this would likely be it. In some ways, this song was the zenith of their 80’s work – they started backing away from this sound as early as Rattle and Hum and by Achtung Baby they were approaching music differently. For example…
25. “When Love Comes to Town” (with B.B. King)
If you’re going to reinvent yourself, why not create a song with a musical legend? U2 gets points here for bringing B.B. King back into the Top 40. He was one of our great musicians and we didn’t do as much for him as a species to expose his songs to everyone. U2 tried, bless ‘em. If just 10,000 U2 fans went and bought a B.B. King album because of this song, they did something great for the world. And for B.B. King. The song really serves as a jewel case for King’s vocal and guitar parts, but that’s really all it needs to do. Give the man some room and let him do his thing. Here he is playing it solo.
24. “Sweetest Thing”
This was a late-80’s U2 song that wasn’t finished and released until 1998 as a single from a greatest hits compilation. Its an apology song written from Bono to his wife – according to Wikipedia, for having to work on her birthday. I find Bono’s delivery when he sings to his wife (as he does on several songs) to be some of his best work – I suspect she knows his BS when she hears it so he can’t fake earnestness with her. Anyhow, as a result, this is a delightful little love song with sing-a-long backing vocals and a great herky-jerky rhythm. Bonus points for falsetto work.
When Bono sings “only love can leave such a mark…” I mean… yes. This was the second single from 2009’s How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb and it kind of flopped because the world had moved on. Sorry, U2. That said, its really one of their best singles (the 23rd best, in fact) and achieves the kind of build and drama that they do so well. If you enjoy The Edge’s guitar work, this one offers some especially sublime classic U2 that is deliberately pushed back in the mix. I’d be curious to hear this song with that element pushed forward.
22. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”
OK, look, its a song about Joey Ramone, not a song in the style of The Ramones. This is U2’s love song to one of their favorite bands filtered specifically through Bono’s love of Joey Ramone. You don’t get to choose who you influence and you don’t get to choose how you influence them. The Ramones inspired U2 to become U2. Yes, even “Who’s Going To Ride Your Wild Horses” happened in part because U2 wanted to be a band like The Ramones. Being a band like The Ramones didn’t mean sounding like The Ramones – it meant following their own sonic path. This song sounds like a U2 song because it wouldn’t be true to suddenly try and play it like The Ramones. U2 is not The Ramones (for one thing, they seem to like each other better than The Ramones did). 2014’s Songs of Innocence offers several reflections on youth and this is one that – more broadly – is about heroes and the impact they have on the young people who look up to them. I would argue that Bono is giving explicit credit to Joey Ramone for their existence and, thus, success. That’s a damn fine tribute from one of the largest bands in the world. Oh, the song is great, too, so bonus.
21. “With or Without You”
19 year old me in 1987: “Oh, new U2 song. Man, I really have been a superfan of theirs for a few years now. When I saw them in concert in 1984, I screamed my head off. Let’s preview it. Wait, where are the guitars? What the heck is going on? Oh, jeez, this is sort of a pop song. Ugh, no, U2 what are you doing. Oh, its kind of good. No, no, pop music is bad. Ugh, now everyone is going to like them.” Bobcat Goldthwait did a wonderful non-parody of this about a year after it came out – turns out the dude looks a lot like Bono. Who knew? Years later, I hear it and it’s really a lovely, painful song that deserved all the success its received but I sort of put it in the same category as The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Yes, it was their biggest hit, yes, it’s a great song, but… ugh, there is no but. It’s just the 19-year-old pretentious part of me struggling up to the surface to try to make me not like something I like. It won’t let me put the song in the Top 20, though.
Coming Next: “Wow, there are some U2 songs I don’t like that R hasn’t written about yet.”