All right, so it should be understood that every song from here on out is essentially a song that I basically enjoy.
If I were Casey Kasem, I would be dead. But I’d also be excited to announce we’re now in the Top 40. Here we go.
40. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
Well, it wasn’t the worst Batman movie. Whenever I listen to this song, I imagine Bono sitting in a dark room – perhaps only illuminated by candlelight – cackling maniacally about how he rhymed “turning tricks” with “crucifix.” Take a moment to imagine this yourself if you wish. Its a very pleasant and very believable image. Now, I’ve made some genuinely painful rhyme choices in my career as a rock and roll front man, but I’m improvising when I sing. Bono took time to come up with that one. This sounds like “exciting movie rock song” (see also: Moby’s “Extreme Ways”) rather than “U2 song,” but that’s ok with me because its really a great exciting movie rock song. I get pumped up when I hear it because that’s the effect its designed to have. Well done, The Edge, well done. Released in 1995.
39. “Electrical Storm”
U2 have released several greatest hits package – a concept which starts making less and less sense in a world where you can download just the songs you want anytime you want. Back in the day, the way you’d convince fans to buy an album of songs that they already owned would be to include new songs on that Greatest Hits album. Back before that day, the way you’d get people to buy a Greatest Hits album would be to let the original albums go out of print for a time. I digress. “Electrical Storm” (which uses the titular metaphor to describe the tension between fighting lovers) was released in 2002 as one of two original songs on U2’s The Best 1990-2000 compilation. I appreciate the return of the glockenspiel to U2’s compositions in this piece (that instrument is especially well used on the song “I Will Follow). What really makes this song exceptional though is the build from acoustic to electric. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.
38. “Miss Sarajevo”
In 1995, U2 released an album titled Original Soundtracks 1 with long-time producer and collaborator Brian Eno as a member under the name The Passengers in 1995. I’ve been reluctant to dive into this album because there’s only so much ambient music one can stomach in one’s life and I reached my limit in 1984 while working at Caldor. I’m almost certain I’m being unfair here. The guest vocalist on this song is Luciano Pavarotti and he’s employed very effectively – his part feels like a natural build from the rest of the piece and is surprisingly emotional in context of a reserved song. Yeah, I really should check this album out sometime.
37. “In God’s Country”
“In God’s Country” was the fourth and final single released in the United States (a fifth single was released in New Zealand only and is also on this list eventually) from 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Its the first song from that album that appears on this list which makes it the least great single from that album. Not too shabby. I pretended to ignore The Joshua Tree when it came out because I was had gone all in on supporting bands that were not destined to ever have a hit song. That said, I looked back at some of my personal mix tapes from that period and found that I’d basically pirated the whole album (spread out over like nine tapes). I stole it one piece at a time, like a Johnny Cash car. What blows my mind is that “In God’s Country” – as good as it is – is the second worst song on the whole album (I think “Exit” is lousy but everything else is pretty great). Not sure why U2 and/or the record company people chose this over “Red Hill Mining Town” or “Bullet the Blue Sky” (fear of English content or critical political content?) but those would both have made excellent singles. What do I know?
More Rattle and Hum nonsense, but very catchy nonsense. I mentioned earlier that I feel like a couple of U2’s albums contain songs that weren’t really fully developed. “Desire” is a song that feels totally overworked. All the spontaneity has been beaten out of it. Bono usually sounds effortless to me but on this track it sounds like he’s trying to show how hard he works. U2 says this song was inspired by The Stooges and I can sort of hear that (though if it were a real Stooges’ song, they should have screwed up the production and made everything sound like mud). I’m sounding critical, but I actually do rather like this song.
35. “Out of Control”
From 1979, “Out of Control” was U2’s first single. Well, technically, it was the A-Side of a three song EP. However, fans voted that this song should be the A-Side and it was treated like a single (EPs have a different status in Ireland and the UK than in the USA and can chart as singles – I think). The very first thing that we hear on the very first U2 song? Adam Clayton’s bass. The bass is what makes me dig this song. The Edge’s guitar work sounds a little more like a nervous Devo riff than his later Magazine inspired work and it works here. The band sounds like they could have chosen to go in a direction that would have been more like The Buzzcocks (or, perhaps less flatteringly, The Knack) here. Most of U2’s early work suffers a bit in comparison to their later stuff simply because they became better musicians and songwriters. However, most of the pieces that allowed them to become successful (minus the earnestness, the angular guitar work and the generally excellent lyrics) were present right from this first record.
34. “New Year’s Day”
Oh, I’m feeling bad about where I’ve ranked this song. But not that bad. OK, no, bad. Really bad. But this is where it belongs. Or not. Ugh. OK, so, musically, this is it, man. This is where it all comes together. Its not the first song with the classic U2 sound, but to my ear, it’s like they drew up the blueprint with their earlier tunes and then laid the foundation for the rest of their career here – certainly for the rest of their pre-Achtung Baby career. Clayton’s bass is dynamite – I challenge you to listen to this track the whole way through and just focus on the bass. And then The Edge’s guitar work! Its a sonic thesis statement. The composition is endlessly surprising even now – the vocal octave jump, the explorations between verses and the fact that the chorus is a bit of a downer. I don’t think Bono really thinks he’ll be with you again or he’ll begin again, but he says the words and its just a little bit heartbreaking. Even the song’s political earnestness (its about the Solidarity movement) is arguably the first indication that U2 want to be something more than a pop act. The song fit in perfectly both on college radio stations next to Echo and the Bunnymen and PIL but also on rock radio next to Tom Petty and Van Halen. There’s a kind of practiced coldness to the song which is sort of deliberately alienating in perhaps a Brechtian sense. However – and this is why its here and not ranked much higher – the song is even better live and when I hear this version I always long to hear the Under a Blood Red sky version instead.
33. “Song for Someone”
In 2014, iTunes users across the world lost their minds when they were given a free copy of U2’s Songs of Innocence album. I sort of get it – its a minor pain in the ass to delete songs off of your iTunes library and, culturally, we prefer to be the ones it initiate a download (when a program initiates one without our permission, it reminds us that the companies control our internet experience). On the other hand, I was pretty amped because I would have bought it anyways, so… I really quite like the album and found something to like in almost all of the songs. This one was written about Bono’s wife and I find it to be a lovely, heartfelt song. I feel like U2 sometimes figures out how to balance their conflicting desire to be spontaneous with their desire (desiiiiiiire) to over-tinker with their tracks. They get the balance just about exactly right here.
32. “Get On Your Boots”
Yes, yes, it was clearly influenced by Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” Is that a bad thing? From 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, this song sounds like they took three other songs, cut them up, and sort of haphazardly stitched them together without much concern for whether they belonged together or not. I love that about it.
31. “The Fly”
In 1991, the band/media guerilla collective Negativland released a delightful single titled “U2.” The song was a pastiche of clips of Casey Kasem losing his temper and swearing up a storm while trying to introduce “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on American Top 40, found sounds, kazoo playing and a very sarcastic spoken-word reading of that song’s lyrics. I was a DJ at KTUH and had been playing it regularly, both because it made fun of U2 but also because its a genuinely entertaining track (you can listen to it here) . Anyhow, U2 released a new single – “The Fly” from their upcoming Achtung Baby album. I, without listening to the song, thought it would be funny to play the Negativland track and then immediately play whatever pretentious crap U2 was putting out now. Joke was on me, though, because “The Fly” blew me away. The Edge in particular reinvented his approach to guitar work on this song – really, he’s the star here. Its not their catchiest song and its not close to the best song on its parent album, but it was an incredibly bold move and a clear statement that U2 were trying hard to create challenging, interesting music. After this song, I dropped all of my hate and have continued to be a superfan ever since. And its not even my favorite song by them.
Coming Up: We’re faraway from number one but so close…