Since this is my favorite band, the decisions as to what to place where were difficult, and took some time. Readers may howl at certain songs omitted, but I think they will nonetheless find this to be a reasonable top ten. And so, in reverse order:
Ten: Beautiful Day – This was U2’s first hit off their album: All that You Can’t Leave Behind, and it showcases the band back at the kind of form that made them famous the first time – radio-ready, singalong, guitar-drenched pop. In fact, U2 have repeatedly stated in interviews that the entire purpose of this album was to go beyond the art-house flavors of Zooropa and return to the kinds of sounds that originally made them famous. Yet in the lyrics, U2 leaves the past behind and becomes enmeshed in now-moments of bliss.
Nine: Sunday Bloody Sunday – A gripping, searing track loaded with pain and remorse, this is the kind of tune that early-on established U2 as a political rock band, a band not afraid to show it forth in comparison to some of the more mealy-mouthed 80s acts. And – who can forget the video – Bono marching confidently forward with the flags waving in front of the gritty, resolute Irish crowd who believed more than anyone “how long?” This has become a standard war protest anthem that was occasionally overhead in more recent protests of war in Iraq. Make it go away.
Eight: Bad – When U2 made “The Unforgettable Fire” they stood at a personal and creative crossroads musically -would they become the global (and distinctly more American) act that they felt was their new calling? The answer, as fans remember, was an unmistakable “yes” – then, knowing this, how could they separate from the hooks and grips of the Mother Country, in all of its small beauties and not-so-small problems? “Bad” is both the question, and the answer. The song speaks to the tension of transitions, relocations.
Seven: I Will Follow – U2s first hit (the first single, Out of Control, would take a little longer to catch on) but with this track U2 blasted onto top 40 radio with an honest, daring post-punk introspection that immediately endeared them to millions of young fans eager to know where punk could possibly go after the Pistols, the parody of the Ramones, the marginalization of Iggy, etc. In other words, in 1980 many were wondering how punk could ever cross over into pop rock decisively. With this song U2 put those wonders to bed.
Six: With or Without You – One of the most heartfelt love anthems of the 80s, over-the-top yet not so maudlin as many other acts, this song succeeds on so many levels – it’s rock, its light rock, it’s good for love-radio, easy-listening even plays it. Today we can overlook the smoke machines and Bono’s mullet – this track has stood the test of time as far as making the girls scream. Get your cigarette lighters ready, it’s time to remember the relationship that nearly Broke You.
Five: Mysterious Ways – Edge’s jarring guitar riffs announce that U2 has arrived in the flux of early 90s Berlin to truly attempt New sounds in rock. Achtung Baby itself announced a major shift from the band of the 80s – the boys from Dublin would affect a great many memes onto what it meant to be “alternative” – liberated euro-princes, a more careful decadence, flirting with androgyny and Arabic “complexity”, as well as their favorite theme – which was the speeding up and neo-dadaesque collision of everything thanks to new media. Mysterious Ways was the most fitting track for this new sensibility.
Four: One – Does for love songs in the 90s what they did with With or Without You in the 80s. Here, the lyrical journey between the two “lovers” becomes much more personal and the sense of the partner’s difficulties come through much stronger. Also, Bono surprises us with the falsetto that would bring so much to the band’s new sound. He admits often to being influenced by the late Bob Marley and this is a track notable not just for its choruses, but for how its simple verses themselves reach out and connect with the masses in a way that we can imagine would’ve made Marley proud.
Three: Pride (in the Name of Love)- Everyone liked this song so much from The Unforgettable Fire, as well as the American tours, U2 must have decided to take the volume up a notch and re-release it on Rattle and Hum. As a person who came to rock a bit later than his peers, I had not heard the Joshua Tree before this song – and it quickly became my favorite. Who can forget this rousing homage to the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King? The Edge’s guitar chimes and steady arpeggios salute the memories of those “who died” like no memorial action in rock before or since.
Two: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – No matter how many times we hear this, there is still a part of us, as well as a part of the band, we imagine, that still hasn’t found what we’re looking for, no matter how far we go, how many mountains we climb. It is a song unabashedly about spirituality and the hindrances of that quest put forward by Western materialism; few have framed the trouble better. Yet there is a touch of hope in the tone and the music, as if we expect someday Bono will find what he’s been looking for and announce it to the world. Until then, (and maybe even still then) the song will ring true.
One: Where the Streets Have No Name – The members of U2 began their rock career as fervent Christians, and they have done their religion well. The band, especially Larry on drums, plays this song so passionately that you understand at once that it has equal meaning for each of them. Any frequent concert-goer can tell you that this song is a guarantee for bringing the crowd to its feet. From the moment Edge cleverly turns the scales over as the pipe organ begins to fade away, U2, through something resembling magic, transform the crowd into churchgoers and the stage into cathedral. The song is delicate, driving, panoramic and personal, all at the same time. There is no better definition of a rock classic.