Everything from this point out is outstanding. While I’m not quite at the splitting hairs phase yet (in the top 10, I really have to split hairs to rank the songs), on any given day the next ten songs could have been in my top 10 also. Just not today.
20. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”
This was the third single in the USA from 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It’s a poignant, lovely song sung by Bono to his late father. In fact, he sang this song at his pa’s funeral in 2001. The part that gets me every single time is The Edge’s falsetto “its you when I look in the mirror/And its you when I don’t pick up the phone” part of the chorus. And then the end of that bridge – “you’re the reason the opera is in me.” Hoooly cats. When the mood is right (or when I’ve gone on an especially long run), big fat ugly tears rolling down my face. The other thing – and this is just a sense I get when I listen to it – is it feels like the rest of the band is offering musical emotional support to Bono as they play. Like every note played is their way of offering him support. Powerful song.
I want Larry Mullen’s jacket from that video.
Lots to write here. This is the only other song from 1981’s October on my list because they only released two singles – this and “Fire.” At one point, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen all considered leaving U2 to be part of a Christian band on their campus. Adam Clayton – as is the bass player’s duty – talked some sense into them. As it happens, I’d argue that U2 is still very much a Christian band, but their lyrics dive deeper and music is more interesting than virtually every other Christian band out there. My issue with Christian bands isn’t that they’re Christian – it’s that they’re often great bands playing way below their ability for… well, reasons, I guess. “Gloria” isn’t even a disguised Christian song. The Latin chorus is “Glory in You, Lord / Glory, exalt” with an implied “Him” after “exalt.” No irony there – watch the video – Bono is singing to God. Yes, he’s also referencing Van Morrison’s “Gloria” because he’s an Irishman and respects his music history, but first and foremost he’s exalting God. And you know what? The song is fantastic – its one of the first U2 songs I fell in love with (thank you, MTV) and is maybe the song that gave them the “alley oop” that made them a huge arena act years before they’d had the huge hits from The Joshua Tree.
I remember in 1985, at Bates College, my first month there, Hurricane Gloria passed through and we were all blasting this song from every window. We were also using trays from the cafeteria to slide down the muddy slope of Mt. David, because we were college students and were idiots. Nobody died, though. Gloria in te Domine, indeed.
Last thing I want to mention – October is a terrific album that also features “Rejoice” and the title track. It’s somewhat forgotten because Boy was such a great debut and War was their first classic album. Its worth seeking it out though.
18. “Two Hearts Beat as One”
This is my second favorite single from the 1983 War album, which is not to say its my second favorite song from that album. I love “Seconds,” “Surrender,” and “Refugee” more than the three singles. And “40,” of course, is a gem. I played the cassette version of that album so much that it died. I buried it solemnly in the campus incinerator – which, as I recall, wasn’t working so I guess it just fell into a garbage bin somewhere. U2’s videos from their first three albums had a very specific feel, that feel being “made cheaply.” But they had an effect – four good-looking lads playing like they meant it? Sign me and everyone I knew up for that please. I love the bass work on this song in particular (Clayton was self-trained and heavily influence by Clash bassist Paul Simonon’s playing) but The Edge’s classic era guitar work is, of course, memorable. I think this might be a love song, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
17. “Walk On”
“Walk On” was the fourth and final single from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It was written in praise of Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and, as a result, was banned in Burma. Indeed, in Burma, you could end up in jail for trying to bring this album into the country. Crazy world. In the USA, the song is arguably more closely associated with 9/11 because U2 played it as part of a benefit concert broadcast live shortly after the attack. It’s an uplifting anthem that acknowledges the struggle of doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming forces. This means it’s always timely. As it happens, it’s also a great Larry Mullen drum piece – listen to him go nuts on the choruses. Go Larry! Its your band! The song ends with a big list of all the things that you can leave behind that reminds me of the end of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse.” I feel like this must be deliberate.
16. “The Unforgettable Fire”
The title track of their 1984 album, this was the second (and last) single released from that record. It opens with a great Brian Eno soundscape and then turns into a lovely albeit cryptic song ostensibly about the bombing of Hiroshima. I love the “ah ah ah” backing vocals, I love the keyboard work, and I still get chills when Bono shifts into “and if the mountain should crumble…” The Unforgettable Fire, as an album, was a mixed bag for many people. U2 was deliberately trying to push and reinvent themselves (so they wouldn’t end up turning into The Alarm?) by working with Eno. Some of the experiments worked better than others and some of the songs were much better live – notably “Bad,” which would be my number one song had the Wide Awake In America version been released as a single. That said, I love this song.
15. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
Michael Hutchinson of INXS was a good friend of Bono’s and his suicide shook U2’s singer up. The lyric to this song – the second single from All That You Can’t Leave Behind – are the words Bono wished he’d said to Hutchinson before he died. I’ve only just learned that in the last year and if you didn’t know, now you know. For me, this song has always been more generally about how we sometimes get so wrapped up about one thing in our life that we’re unable to move on from it. I think we’ve all been there and I have found this song helpful when I find myself feeling trapped. Indeed, I’ve been grateful for this song on more than one occasion even if it feels like Bono is nagging me. Get off my back, man. No, don’t.
14. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
U2 really wanted this, I believe, to be a song urging peace. They weren’t trying to take sides in The Troubles, just trying to say “stop the madness.” But, wow, the angry music and the military drumming? Message and music combine to make this song sound like its taking sides. Putting that aside, this is one of their all time great songs. Its their second most successful early anthem and I remember it being the highlight of their 1984 concert in Hartford, CT. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland opened since this song was released and the violence has largely waned. Alas, post-Brexit, they’re talking about closing that border again. How long must they sing this song…
13. “Staring at the Sun”
Really, it’s The Edge’s sorrowful guitar work (particularly on the chorus) that does it for me on this song from 1997’s Pop. I can listen to it forever. I don’t actually have a whole lot to say about this tune – I just really, really love it.
12. “Every Breaking Wave”
The finest single and finest song from 2014’s Songs of Innocence. Man, when U2 set their minds to it, they really know how to craft a perfect song. This one explodes during the choruses, but its a restrained kind of explosion. The lyric – about how we sometimes get so focused on little details that we miss the big picture – is a huge success in my opinion. Its clear without being trite and poetic without being cryptic. Bono likes to wrestle with ideas sometimes and this time he pins the idea to the mat. Good work, dude.
11. “Ordinary Love”
Today, I was walking along the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail listening to a mix of the U2 songs I’ve been writing about. Up ahead of me, I saw a couple walking their old dog. The poor dog looked tired, so his mama picked him up and started carrying him down the hill. This song came on just at that moment and I cried and cried. “And we can’t reach any higher/If we can’t deal with ordinary love.”
I’m cheating a little by including this song as it was barely a single – it was written for the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and was released as a digital single and a limited release single, but its one of my absolute favorite U2 songs. The story of Nelson Mandela is both one of the failure of humanity (the apartheid government’s) and the greatness of humanity (Mandela’s). Rather than writing about the Man’s life or just praising him (as they did with MLK on “Pride (In The Name of Love)”), they created a song that honored one of the central message’s of his life. I’m getting choked up again writing about it. I get that Bono and Co can come across as sanctimonious sometimes, I really do, but I think that’s because they sincerely believe that love and peace are good things. Man, this song.
Coming up Next: Number 1. And “One.”