***** Since U2 released their Songs of Innocence album, I’ve been listening to their back catalog a bit more often. I came to the realization that the new record simply isn’t something I would reach for. That may sound harsh, but it’s just how it is. Their music catalog is rich with some timeless songs. The strength of Songs of Innocence will be tested, and perhaps in 10 years it will be considered a classic. In 2014, though, it’s a clunker.
So to celebrate my love for U2, I’m reposting my top 30 U2 songs. You’ll notice that nothing from the new album made it to the list. What’s your list?
30. Out of Control
When I first heard U2’s debut album, Boy, “Out of Control” was the song I gravitated towards. Looking back, I can see why… I guess at the time I was going through the “finding myself” phase of youth, and this song made me feel not so alone. “Out of Control” remains one of U2’s best early anthems, and besides… The Edge’s guitar work here is out of control!
29. When Love Comes to Town
This duet with B.B. King came about during U2’s exploration of the blues. Although I’m not quite sure if they ever got it right, they did write an awesome song and got to perform with a living legend. The lyrics are what gets me here. I love the lines “I held the scabbard as the soldier drew his sword,” and “pale as the lace of her wedding gown.” Bono was at his descriptive best here, creating a desperate and dirt-beneath-your-feet feeling with each line he and B.B. spat out.
28. Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own
The title alone nails it square on the head for me here. I love the simplicity here, and although Bono doesn’t possess the same growl or power as he used to, he sounds as sincere as ever. I love the line, “let me take some of the punches for you tonight.” I once read that this song came from something Bono’s dad said to him. Even rock stars need their dads at times.
27. Bullet the Blue Sky
I remember reading about “Bullet the Blue Sky” in the LA Times review of The Joshua Tree. The writer went on and on about how The Edge’s guitar sounded so Zeppelin and Hendrix-esque, and how it was such a change in direction for the sound of U2. When I finally heard the song, the main thing that got to me was Larry Mullen, Jr.’s powerful drumming. That drumbeat is the basis for the song, not the guitar.
26. Love is Blindness
For a while, “Love is Blindness” was the only song I listened to. I would put on my headphones and drift off… I was mesmerized by the thicker-than-molassas bassline… a tone that the band once described as sounding like the “center of the earth.” (U2 by U2) Edge’s guitar solo (one of his famous one-note solos) has so much anger/passion in it that it counterbalances Bono’s delicate delivery. The whole song bleeds and makes you realize that love needs your pain to live.
The first time I heard “Gloria” was when some music video show starring Richard Blade (remember him?) played the video. There was U2 on some small barge, rocking out to anyone who would listen. It was a strong image and it stuck with me long enough to ask my mom if I could get the October record. That Christmas, I found the album under the tree and thought to myself, “Man… Santa Claus likes U2?? AWESOME!” Yes, I still believe in Santa Claus… don’t you? In the Red Rocks version, I kept thinking Bono was saying, “This is the age!” when he introduced The Edge. He, of course, was saying, “This is The Edge.” Hey, give me a break. I still believe in Santa Claus.
24. In a Little While
“In A Little While” has one of the best guitar parts The Edge has ever written… and I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but if you listen closely enough at the start of the song during the solo guitar introduction, you can hear the drum track in the background. It’s faint, but it’s there. The line, “In a little while, this hurt will hurt no more” was my mantra for the longest time. I think this song solidified the influence gospel music has on U2.
23. Like a Song…
If “Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t a “rebel song,” then “Like a Song” most definitely is. Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drumming is the driving force again, and Bono sounds as pissed as a drunk camel. When Bono sings, “Honesty what you want??” you know that U2 is going for broke not only in this song, but the entire War album. To me, “Like a Song” is where U2 bared their soul the most on War. Take a listen if you’ve forgotten just how powerful this song is. The drums tell the story… listen to how he alternates the ending pattern… un-frikkin’-believable. You don’t even need anything else to understand what they’re going after here.
I’m THIS close to weeping like a baby when Bono sings, “I’m a man, I’m not a child” in the bridge. It’s not so much a declaration here… it feels more like Bono reassuring himself than anything more. I’m not sure if I’m right, but that one line helps me remember that no matter how old we get, no matter how strong we are, and no matter how much power we (seem) to possess, we’re all the same souls in search of peace.
Words cannot express the beauty in this song. We have the band Minor Detail to thank for “40.” It seems that they were going to kick U2 out of the studio on the last day of the War sessions. So U2 asked for just two more hours in order to record their last song, even though they had nothing to play. Someone suggested editing an abandoned track… they took the bassline and Bono opened the the Bible to Psalm 40. Edge, explains, “… within forty minutes we had worked out the last few elements for the tune, Bono had sung it, and we mixed it. And literally, after finishing the mix, we walked out through the door and the next band walked in.” (U2 by U2, p. 137.)
20. Walk On
”Walk On” was written for Aung San Suu Kyi, praising her on her works in Burma. I thought it was a good song when I first heard it, but it wasn’t until the devastating events of 9/11 that I realized how incredible ”Walk On” is. The song became more than it was intended to be and lifted the spirits of not only Americans, but pretty much everyone else that came around at the time. It was amazing to witness the birth of an anthem. I’ll never forget it.
19. Silver and Gold
Here’s where I think U2 succeeded in creating their own style of the blues. ”Silver and Gold” is a kick in the crotch to Apartheid… it finds Bono in one of his angriest performances, and I think it truly opened the doors for fans to really understand what he was always talking about in his concert political quips. I’ve always been a bit partial to the Sun City version because it actually sounds like solitary confinement. The full band studio version kicks ass, though… Edge did a great job re-imagining his guitar for the recording.
18. One Tree Hill
”One Tree Hill” is, amazingly enough, one of U2’s more personal songs. Dedicated to Bono’s personal assistant Greg Carroll, who died one rainy night while delivering Bono’s motorcycle. Bono recorded this song in one take because he didn’t think he could perform it multiple times… it is a true testament to how far he came as a vocalist. Take a listen again and keep in mind that it’s ONE take. No overdubs. Just him and the microphone in ONE take. If anybody ever doubted his vocal abilities, they need to hear this song.
17. The Fly
Here’s the song that made me realize that U2 would be around forever. ”The Fly” went against EVERYTHING U2 had done in the past… from Edge’s guitar tone to Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drumming, to the groove of Adam Clayton’s bass, all the way to how Bono stayed in the lower register of his voice for the crux of the song. It was like the opposite of The Joshua Tree in most every way. Bono even sang from a different character’s perspective, something I don’t think he did in past albums. Yes, after hearing ”The Fly,” I knew that U2 would always be around (knock on wood).
16. Drowning Man
”Drowning Man” has one of early Bono’s most passionate vocal performances. I used to consider this his best vocal recording… not because he has the best tone, but because I thought it captured all the pain, longing, anger, frustration, struggle, and everything else that he kept writing about. The instrumental is really just two chords, but the vocal line is what matters here, and that violin at the end just pulls at my heartstrings (like it should). Lyrically, ”Drowning Man” can be seen as a message from one lover to another, or it can be one from God… and that makes it even more powerful to hear.
Some of you might be wonding how ”MLK” placed higher than say, ”The Fly,” but keep in mind that this is MY list, not yours. ”MLK” showed that Bono was truly coming into his own as a singer. This massively delicate song gave Bono the courage to NOT be Bono in songs like ”Mothers of the Disappeared,” and yes, even ”The Fly.” I think ”MLK” is just as important to the U2 canon as their hits, even though it’s perhaps the shortest and quietest U2 song out there.
To me, ”Tomorrow” is a foreshadowing of the Eno/Lanois production team. This song felt like it was completely misplaced on the October album because of the atmosphere it created. Up until then, U2 didn’t have an “atmosphere,” they came out rockin’ like Dokken. It wasn’t until The Unforgettable Fire that the influence of ”Tomorrow” would surface. Truly a classic… and the lyrics were some of young Bono’s most chilling as he recalled his mother’s death:
Outside, somebody’s outside
Sombody’s knocking at my door
There’s a black car parked on the side of the road
Don’t go to the door, don’t go to the door…
13. New Year’s Day
Although it’s true that the piano was used in earlier songs like ”October” and ”I Fall Down,” I think it was ”New Year’s Day” that really broke that instrument into the foreground for U2. The Edge has always (and still does, I think) favor the Yamaha electric pianos… it has a distinct sound that is kind of a cross between a real piano and a Fender Rhodes. ”New Year’s Day” showed that U2 could rock yet still have color and beauty between the lines. Plus, it was a hit for them… and that always helps.
12. All I Want is You
Bono once remarked how he felt ”All I Want Is You” surpassed ”With Or Without You.” Although I don’t quite agree, I can see his point. It’s incredibly touching and the music is absolutely gorgeous… the lyrics sum up what love is/should in that I want these things in a relationship, but when it comes down to it, all I want is you. That’s the truth, and if we can remember what it was like to love for the first time… well, that’s probably the purest love we have ever felt. The Edge’s ending solo is one of his best, even though it’s really, REALLY simple, and Van Dyke’s string arrangement take the song into another dimension. This is an essential U2 track in every sense of the word.
11. God Part II
Here’s what Bono had to say about ”God Part II,” and why it’s so important to U2: ”There is a verse in there, ‘Don’t believe in the Sixties, the golden age of pop / You glorify the past when the future dries up.’ This is on an album [Rattle and Hum] in which we are exploring roots music. That might be a little close to the bone. The whole song came out of a moment where I was worried about what we were doing. That song doesn’t actually belong on Rattle and Hum. It is really the first song on Achtung Baby. I’d come to the end of nostalgia, that’s the clue.” (U2 by U2, p.207)
10. Where the Streets Have No Name
This is the ultimate concert opener, and the ultimate concert picker-upper. ”Where the Streets Have No Name” started off as an experiment by The Edge to see if he could make a song in 3/4 turn into 4/4. The sessions for this song were difficult to the point that producer Brian Eno wanted to erase the track and start completely over. That never happened, so what you hear is hours upon hours of frustration. U2 feels that they finally “nailed” the song when they play it live. I wholeheartedly agree.
9. I Will Follow
Being a young, stupid high school student, I thought it would be cool to write the chorus of this song on the chalkboard one morning before English class. So I went up to the board, scribbled what I thought was the chorus and sat down. When I looked, what I had written was: ”If you waka way, I will follow.”
I have NO idea how to “waka way,” but I think Fozzie Bear might have a clue. I felt like an idiot… thank GOD nobody said anything.
Bono described ”Acrobat” as ”a song about your own spleen, your own hypocrisy, your own ability to change shape and take on the colours of whatever environment you’re in, like a chameleon” (U2 by U2, p. 228). It remains one of his favorite songs, but never became a live favorite because ”I don’t think that is what people come to U2 for,” as The Edge puts it (U2 by U2, p. 228). I put ”Acrobat” in the top 10 because I think this song defined the band during the Achtung Baby to Pop years. They put on so many facades and masks during that time, but still expected their fans to believe in their hearts-on-your-sleeve nature. It was a challenge that paid off big time.
”Bad” used to be my favorite song of all time. I can’t recall why I attached myself to this song so deeply considering it’s about drug addiction… I think the line ”I’m wide awake” encompassed me during my youth, and it just stuck. One thing I noticed not too long ago is how Adam Clayton’s bass makes a flub at 3:11. You can hear him ever so slightly miss a beat. If you have the studio version, check it out. ”Bad” was the centerpiece for U2’s Live Aid appearance and helped catapult them into the superstars they were on the verge of becoming. This song should probably place higher, so don’t hate me because it’s at #7.
6. Moment of Surrender
”Moment of Surrender” is, hands down, the best song by U2 in the last… well, the last 19 years. Producer Brian Eno calls it “the most amazing studio experience I’ve ever had.” I call it f***in’ brilliant. Bono takes on the character of a drug addict question his faith, and delivers some of the most powerful lyrics in his career. ”It’s not if I believe in love / If love believes in me,” “My body’s now a begging bowl that’s begging to get back,” and my favorite, ”Playing with the fire until the fire played with me,” all make up a desolate search for redemption and peace. It’s gorgeous, it’s epic, it’s what U2 is about.
5. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Everybody knows this song. It’s one of the greatest songs ever written, and it all came from ME. Ok, that’s not exactly true, but I KNOW I’ve said those words, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” a bajillion times before Bono used them. I mean, I remember when I stood in line at the local Burger King… my buddy asked me what I wanted to order and I said, “Dude, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I also remember making out with Holly Rutherford and trying to unclasp her bra… she asked me what the problem was and I said, “Baby, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” See? That’s MY line and I deserve some compensation.
4. Pride (In the Name of Love)
I remember when a friend of mine requested this song to be played at our high school prom. I was standing at the drink table at the time with my date… and when I heard the opening bars, I actually RAN to the dance floor, towing my date in hand. My buddy looked at me and said, “This one’s for you!” The amazing thing was that although the dance floor was still packed, nobody danced… we all just stood there and belted out the chorus at the top of our lungs. That memory will always stick with me… and that’s the power of U2. Their music may be difficult to dance to, but it will always, always, ALWAYS penetrate the soul.
3. Sunday Bloody Sunday
”Sunday Bloody Sunday” should be at #1 in this list, but it’s not because there are 2 more songs I like better than it. How’s THAT for a reason? HAHA! I never quite understood why Bono claimed that ”Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t a “rebel song,” because what he’s really doing is drawing a line between wrong and right, between good and bad, between love and hate. I’ll believe him, though, because he wrote the lyrics and I didn’t. Here’s another song that I believe Larry Mullen, Jr. owns… his drum part is The Dude’s rug… it tied the whole room together. Even Bono agrees: ”In a U2 song, the hook is not necessarily the guitar, or even the melody. It can be the drums. And on ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ it was definitely Larry’s drumming that brought the song together.” (U2 by U2, p. 135) See how “in tune” I am with Bono? You should all start calling me “Bonoduex.”
This live recording is, to me, the ultimate performance of ”Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
I don’t think there’s any argument that ”One” belongs somewhere in the top 5. It’s the song that saved the band, and it’s the song that vaulted U2 into a level that nobody has been able to touch since. The funniest thing about ”One” is hearing Bono talk about it:
”’One’ is not about oneness, it’s about difference. It’s anti-romantic: ‘We are one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.’ I’m still disappointed when people hear the chorus line as, ‘we’ve got to,’ rather than, ‘we get to carry each other.’ Because it is resigned, really. It’s not: ‘Come on everybody, let’s vault over the wall.’ Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There’s something very unromantic about that.
The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings. I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!”
1. With Or Without You
”With Or Without You” is my new favorite song of all time. I’ve listened to it everyday now for over a year… and with every listen, I find a renewed belief in what I’ve done and what I’m doing now. I think this song defines Bono as a person. I think this song is the reason why they were, and still are, the biggest band in the world. I think this song OWNS the chord progression I-V-vi-IV. I think a lot of things about this song, but most importantly, I think this song explains artists and their need to create… which makes ”With Or Without You” one of the most important songs ever written. I’m planning on doing a post dedicated to the meaning behind this song… look for it.
Well, that’s it! The whole Top 30 U2 songs! Thanks for indulging me and I look forward to revising this list as U2 continues their search for the perfect song.