U2 announced last week that they would be touring again in 2017 in North America including a stop in Miami (their first visit to the Magic City since 2011).
One of my favorite bands of all time, I discovered U2 when a friend who’s name I can’t recall lent me a cassette tape of WAR which I personally consider, nostalgia aside, as some of the band’s best work. That cassette is still with me 34 years later, a relic from 1983, when U2 opened my eyes to famine, war, and the plight of refugees; heavy stuff for a 12-year-old boy growing up in a quiet suburb bordered by a forest of pine trees and palmettos.
News of a U2 concert in South Florida prompted me to plunge obsessively into their extensive body of work from their first raw albums of the early 1980s to their more recent, less ambitious recordings; from Boy (1980) to Songs of Innocence (2014), I listened incessantly to songs at my disposal which included original vinyls, downloaded digital music, and streamed tunes on Spotify. I watched old music videos that I used to watch on MTV and videos of live performances of (so many) hits and B Sides. I read about the albums, the stories behind the compilations, and the influences. Whether I was taking the dog on an early morning walk or driving to/from work, or falling asleep at bedtime listening through ear plugs, I was in U2 hyper-drive for the last week and a half.
In honor of these four Irishmen, their expansive contribution to rock music, and their upcoming Joshua Tree Tour celebrating 30 years since that iconic album, I have prepared my essential Top 10 U2 songs. It’s not a list I approached lightly. I tried to consider not only the musicality and the lyrics in the songs, but their context and meaning both at the time of their release and thru present day, and how they have aged over the years.
Counting down, one by one, I begin with…
#10. I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR (The Joshua Tree, 1987)
In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree, described by many critics as the band’s peak achievement. It was a grown-up record album, the kind you make when you want to put some distance between you and your younger, rebellious self, and they certainly did. The Joshua Tree pushed forth a more enlightened approach for the band as they sought answers to some of the great mysteries in life – love, religion, death.
From the song’s opening repetitive guitar strum and welcoming angelic tambourine, to a second guitar with the Edge’s signature suspended echoing ring, a gospel tone is set from the start, sending the listener soaring. When the warm bass line comes, the listener is grounded back to Earth, compelled to his knees.
And then Bono begins his sermon:
I have climbed the highest mountains,
I have run through the fields,
only to be with you,
only to be with you.
Bono’s lyrics refer to a search for love that evolves into a search for spirituality, both quests morphed together like “colors bleeding into one.”
About this song, Bono once said, “The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God.”
And this running never ends, this quest, it is a journey, and their journey becomes our journey. Then, now, and forever.
#9. SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (War, 1983)
This song is not a rebel song, this song is Sunday Bloody Sunday.
On January 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland, over a dozen demonstrators who were protesting the imprisonment of Irish nationalists by the British government were fatally shot by the British Army in a confrontation. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday” and shone a light on the crisis in Northern Island between nationalists and the British government.
Sunday Bloody Sunday was the first song on U2’s fiery 1983 album, War, one which further cemented the band’s early reputation as a protest band.
One of the beautiful things about this song is the anti-war lyrics juxtaposed with a military marching drum beat, played to perfection by Larry Mullen Jr. It makes you stand in attention, while you “wipe the tears from your eyes.”
Bono once said, “This song will be sung wherever there are rock fans with mullets and rage, from Sarajevo to Tehran.” In today’s highly divisive political environment, the song carries a special meaning. How long must we sing this song?
As long as necessary.
#8. MYSTERIOUS WAYS (Achtung Baby, 1991)
The world was rapidly changing in the early 1990s. The Cold War ended, the USSR was dissolved, and East and West Germany reunited. Maybe this piece of news inspired U2 (part of Achtung Baby was recorded in Berlin’s Hansa Ton Studios). U2 was looking for a change too. Their 1991 album Actung Baby was an about-face for the band coming off the more serious sounds of Rattle & Hum (1988) and The Joshua Tree (1987). With the new album, the band went alternative, putting politics aside for the most part, and embracing technology, fashion and a more colorful brand of rock; groovy drum tracks, distortion pedals, and even alter egos (Bono’s sunglass-wearing The Fly).
Mysterious Ways is one of their finest. It wasn’t the easiest composition to complete, however. Stories of tension between the band and their producers surrounded this particular song. In the end, a funky guitar effect and drum track and the playful lyrics by Bono (Johnny, take a walk with your sister the moon, Let her pale light in, to fill up your room. You’ve been living underground, eating from a can, You’ve been running away from what you don’t understand) saved this song, forging a new alternative identity; more progressive, more distortion, more risk taking. A band that was on top of the world turned that same world upside.
If you want to kiss to sky better learn how to kneel.
#7. WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME (The Joshua Tree, 1987)
1987’s The Joshua Tree was an ambitious undertaking for U2, one that aimed to established the band “from an arena act to a stadium act,” as bassist Adam Clayton pointed out in a recent interview.
If that was their goal, then Where the Streets Have No Name was their ticket.With its anthem-like keyboard introduction and the Edge’s guitar coming in from above, and the bass guitar and bass drum fused together and providing the song’s heartbeat, leading audiences to clap their hands along, before Bono cries out he wants to run, he wants to hide, he want to tear down this wall, that holds him inside, hands down, this is one of the great rock songs to hear live in a stadium (I, for one, have heard the band play it live 4 times and each time, the song stood out as one of the best performances of the night.)
U2’s video for the song was an event as well. They shut down several blocks in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon to film on the roof top of a liquor store (reminiscent of The Beatles “Get Back”).
#6. NEW YEARS DAY (War, 1983)
New Years Day was one of those songs that needled itself into the fabric of my early teens. U2 didn’t enjoy an abundance of radio play in Miami around the time of War’s release unless it was on the University of Miami’s radio station (WVUM), or by the occasional rock deejay on the far end of the FM dial. Nevertheless, the song, to put it simply, was everywhere. I’d hear it at open house parties whether we were invited or we crashed them. I’d hear it playing out of car speakers on a Friday night at the beach where we gathered after high school football games to drink malt liquor and hit on public school girls. Local bands whose members were average students at Catholic prep schools would perform it as part of their hip weekend repertoire.
I’d argue that most of us didn’t know that New Years Day was about the solidarity movement in Poland or the struggle to find love in a war-torn country. We just liked how the music made us feel (cool, edgy, chic). And why not? Just listen to that thick bass line; Adam Clayton fires into that signature bass strut as if he’s is saying “I want to be with you, be with you night and day.” Mullen’s drums are the perfect sidekick to the bass and opens the landscape for the Edge’s almost off-key riffs to scratch the only window into this universe. Bono’s singing is pitch perfect especially when he harmonizes with Edge that he “will be here again.” New Years Day also established a common theme that U2 carried throughout many of their songs: a call for unification (“torn in two, we can be one”), renewal, and redemption.
#5. PRIDE (In the Name of Love) – (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984)
Full disclosure: I love U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. In my teens, I listened to both sides of this record, again and again, until I memorized most of the music. It’s a big record for an Irish band. In my opinion, The Unforgettable Fire is the band’s first “American” album. It wasn’t so much that this album was musically influenced by American songs (that would come later with The Joshua Tree), but this was the record that aimed directly at the Red, White and Blue after years of composing from the other side of the pond.
Filled with tracks about conflicts that on some hand may be universal such as heroin addiction and racial discrimination, many songs in this album directly reference America by name, by imagery, by message. Pride (In the Name of Love) was U2’s first breakout song from the album. U2 takes on American racial, political and social history, with a beautiful ode to the Reverend Martin Luther King. Pride catapulted the band to higher ground. The guitars (yes, plural) are a highlight, rhythm and lead working in tandem but what sets this song apart is Larry Mullen’s evolution as a drummer, opening the cymbals and high hat, keeping the rhythm going, whipping drum fills using an eight count on the snare, before the grandiosity of the chorus. The song is epic especially when Bono sings about that “one man” washed up on an empty beach, one man betrayed with a kiss.” This shows U2’s early brilliance, bringing heartache to your doorstep, describing this one man, as every man, you, me. And then the song hits its peak with the story of April 4th 1968 in Memphis, and the assassination of Dr. King.
#4. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (The Joshua Tree, 1987)
The Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway subscribed to the writing theory that less is more, evidenced by his terse writing style. In music, sometimes the simplest melodies pack the biggest punch. Such is the case with With or Without You, U2’s biggest commercial hit off The Joshua Tree record and the band’s first ever song to reach #1 on the Billboard Charts in the U.S. (May 16, 1987) (Interestingly, the only other U2 song to reach #1 was I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, #10 on this list). But the song’s deservedly high ranking on this list is not about commercial success.
With or Without You radiates. It contains some of the most beautiful lyrics ever penned by Bono. It is repetitive but not redundant, melodic but not monotonous; the bass line ushers you along with four simple chords. It is probably as perfect of a quiet song as they can compose on an album that is loud with politics, religion, and a little bit of righteousness.
Every time I listen to this song, I am reminded of a time when U2 could keep it simple (the good old days?) before blowing the doors open with a falsetto at the end of the song that is Bono laying his soul out, with his hands tied and his body bruised.
Coming very soon. #3, #2 and #1
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