And Now, For Reasons, A Personal Ranking of All U2 Albums (Plus One EP)
Posted on September 12, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 56 Comments
In order of personal preference:
1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
3. The Unforgettable Fire
4. Wide Awake in America (EP)
7. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
10. Rattle and Hum
11. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
13. Songs of Innocence
14. No Line on the Horizon
I should note that a) the difference between positions one and two is so small as to be almost invisible, b) the only album here I think of being genuinely bad is No Line, c) although I fully note that Rattle and Hum (where the “mediocre” level begins on this list) is the album where U2 was the most egregiously full of itself.
Provide your own thoughts and rankings in the comments.
When I was thirteen years old, all the big kids took “The Joshua Tree” extremely seriously (in only the way that London suburban teenagers could) and I thought that was, like, OMG so cool. But it was Achtung Baby and Zooropa that really made a huge impression for me when I was an undergrad. It also helped that I saw the Zoo TV tour with a die hard fan.
In order to get to the front of the stage in Wembley, it required about six hours queueing beforehand, standing halfway up the steps into the stadium. At one point, someone waved a ticket above their head, saying “I’ve got Gloria’s ticket for her! Gloria, are you here?”.
A girl cried out: “Yes! I’m Gloria!”
And then a burly voice growled out: “I’m Gloria! And so’s my wife!”
Cue the whole crowd singing “Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life”.
For. Three. Goddamn. Hours.
It warms my heart to see love for zooropa. sometimes I thought was the only person that loves that album. So glad to know others love it too
So you have put your favourite U2 albums in an ordered list. That is troll bait right there, sir!
I prefer to think of the transitions as the favourite things – where they surprised me: maturing from Boy/October (querulous) into confidence with War. The switch via Bad/MLK/Pride into Unforgettable Fire, and the reinvention of Dublin post punks into the sparse Americana of The Joshua Tree.
I admit they lost me with Rattle and Hum, and I’ve only checked in once in a while since.
Mothers of the Disappeared still haunts me to this day.
Top 3 are about right. I actually really enjoyed Rattle and Hum, but I’ve always enjoyed live music more than things that sounds (to me) over-produced. For example, one of my favorite John Wesley Harding songs is “Save a Little Room For Me”, but only the live version from It Happened One Night, not the album version from The Name Above the Title which, to my ear, is sickeningly sweet with all the strings added in.
I just got the latest album (Thank you, Santa Jobs!), but have only listened to the first few tracks. I’ll want to hear the whole thing through before I pass judgment on it.
I don’t believe I’ve actually listened to every U2 album, including the new one, which is on my iPod, and may pop up randomly in my shuffle play one day, at which point I will say, “what the hell is this?”
Jim C., I’ve heard Wes perform “Save a Little Room For Me” on numerous occasions and oh, it is wonderful live–much better than the album version for sure. Most of the songs from the Sire days are, to be honest.
I pretty much stopped listening to new U2 music after Achtung Baby, but in one of my college classes we had to watch a concert from from I think it was the Zooropa tour and the instructor broke it down for us in terms of a religious service, which I thought was interesting and which has always stuck with me.
I heard one of the tracks from the new one on XPN the other day and it was. Well. I think “earnest” may be the best way to describe it. At some point I expect Bono to emerge from his ass through his mouth.
My list would be:
Under a Blood Red Sky
Honorable Mention: War
I’d put Boy quite a bit higher. I mean, as debut albums go, that’s pretty hard to beat.
OK bits of Unforgettable Fire are aw’right, I guess.
Re: No Line on the Horizon and Songs of Innocence:
The Brain Eaters got them. Apparently they like rock stars as well as science fiction authors.
I’ve never knowingly listened to U2 (yes, yes, I know, I am a Bad Person!) but at least I now have somewhere to start :).
When I was 14, I was a die hard U2 fan, so I still listen to new albums at least once and have listened to everything up to All That You Can’t Leave Behind several times. Thus, I’m equipped with enough information to know that Songs of Innocence is the kind of album that was actually very hard for the band. Bono talking about his own life honestly, without pretending he’s telling a story about a friend? Hasn’t happened since The Descent into Smug, circa Joshua Tree.
It doesn’t makes it a great album, but it ranks above Rattle and Hum for me. Hell, it’s got 3 good songs in it (Rattle and Hum has When Love Comes to Town, but it’s still too smug), that’s bare minimum for a pop rock band.
What I thought was: hey, new material for U2charist!
(U2charist is a worship service melding U2 music and communion.)
See – i agree with a huge portion of your list but…
Which i see as a) the actual number 14 (push everything up one)
and b) the same as you see rattle and hum
It’s funny…I’ve been listening to U2 for decades, but I’ve never actually owned anything by them, other than their contribution to Red Hot + Blue. My wife did have War and Boy.
I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’ve been so ubiquitous in the pop culture for so long, I’ve never had the need/desire to go out of my way to buy their albums. I find it interesting that John lists their six album as their worst and the seventh album as their best. That’s some major face-turning as a band, there.
U2 has gone through such a metamorphosis over their lifetime, it’s hard to even compare the band who recorded ‘New Year’s Day’ with the band that recorded ‘ Lemon’.
The only album I am still incredibly sick of to this day is The Joshua Tree. 27 years later and it STILL feels overplayed to me.
Under a blood red sky?
One of my favorite U2 albums is The Best of 1980-1990 / The B Sides. They just let it go and have fun with the B sides. Hallelujah Here She Comes just rocks.
I haven’t *liked* any of their albums since _Pop_ (which I seem to be one of only a handful of people who liked), but their stuff from before that has always sounded incredible to me.
War and Boy for me. I’m Old School that way. Thanks for an entertaining evening in Gurnee, btw.
I’m actually *really* liking the new album…sure, it’s their post-Pop VH1-music-for-yuppies sound, but it’s the first one in a while where the songs are sticking with me, unlike the last couple of albums. Not to say the post-Pop albums are bad…they’re just the ones where they stopped sounding like the 80s and 90s and started sounding their age.
[Sure, Achtung Tree is their Beatles era and Peel’s Law states we must have them on the top of any best-of list. I do feel, like Sgt Pepper, the albums’ fame precedes them, however.]
I’m often surprised how many people rank Zooropa relatively high. While it’s an ok album, it really felt like a “demos and rarities” filler album to me. There’s a few great songs on it, but like Pop, I feel it really hasn’t aged all that well.
Now what’s really surprising me is the Righteous Ire spewing out online that this new album has been foisted upon them like Obamacare. [No trying to start political war here, just using that as a simile.] It kind of amazed me how negative the tweets became after awhile about that.
1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
3. The Unforgettable Fire
5. Wide Awake in America (EP)
8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
9. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
10. Songs of Innocence
11. Rattle and Hum
14. No Line on the Horizon
I seem to be in a minority that I honestly thought was a majority when it comes to Zooropa and Pop, two albums that I simply don’t like and that don’t work for me. Then again, I like How To Dismantle quite a bit so what do I know?
Miles: it is a live album.
1. Achtung Baby, since it completely blew my mind after binging on Joshua Tree the year before.
2. Joshua Tree
3. October, if only for “October” and “Gloria” (the first song and first lead part I learned on the guitar)
4. (something pre-October, depending on mood)
5. Zooropa, another departure album
6. (something from everything else)
Achtung Baby is my favorite for reasons similar to the warm place Monster (R.E.M.) has in my heart — a pure departure album that many people hated but I loved.
I’m a fan of Monster as well, steveivy; it’s a really interesting departure with some great tracks.
Boy and War. That dates me.
I agree with our host’s rankings, except that I’d move the “mediocre” line up to “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
Having once lived in a roomie situation with a woman (we were all college-age) who absolutely obsessed over U2, I’ve checked out on them ever since (circa 1987).
The image that sticks in my mind is Bono riding a horse in the video for “New Year’s Day”. After the requisite Google, I find it’s from 1983’s “War”, so it predates my inherited disgust for Bono(TM).
Under a Blood Red Sky was my entry point into U2, and for that reason, it remains my favorite. War is next, then The Joshua Tree and Actung Baby. And some time later, I got tired of Bono and quit listening to U2.
Yes, I know having a tribute album being your entry point to a band is weird, but that’s what happened. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started paying more attention to pop music than folk rock (or what we call today Americana).
I had to check my iTunes to see if I even own one U2 song (seems I don’t). I have nothing against U2 but the music doesn’t resonate with me enough to pull me back to it. To be sure, some of the music is compelling and shoots to the soul but (ironically since I earn my living writing) there is too much reliance on words for my musical tastes.
I have this thing about music being music and not poetry that’s sung, but then I was raised on classical symphonies and operas in foreign languages that I didn’t understand. I don’t hear lyrics, I hear vocals as another musical instrument and don’t “translate” the words as words but as tones, pitches, etc..
So yeah, I could listen to U2 a lot more but it’s just not quite satisfying enough to do it. But then we don’t all want to have the same tastes in the arts, do we? How boring the world would be if we did.
I pretty much agree; the only difference I would have is that for me, a and b are switched.
Songs of Innocence is available for free on iTunes, but after previewing it, I honestly can’t remember a single hit track off the top of my head. But your picks for the top of the list are great!
God, Rattle and Hum. I haven’t even thought about that album in years. I’d like to go back to not thinking about it, thanks.
I only ranked the albums that I have owned, and I left off Songs of Innocence because I’ve only heard it twice, and have not really had time to listen to it. I would say that the top two are definitely desert island albums, and the last two I don’t care if I ever hear again.
1. The Joshua Tree
2. Achtung Baby
3. Rattle And Hum
4. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
6. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
8. No Line on the Horizon
Please. OK Computer was clearly their best album …. oh wait, was that that other British band?
Free: Still to expensive for a U2 Album.
Because… ya know… preferances…
Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and Unforgettable Fire are pretty much my interchangeable top 3. I’ve listened to them each at least 100x (because I was broke and they were the only tapes I had in my car when I commuted). They held up.
I think Zooropa’s underrated. I particularly like the title song, Stay, Numb, and The Wanderer, whose spare longing still gives me chills. And “Some Days are better than Others” could pretty much be my theme song… ;-)
Am I the only person who, when listening to “Numb,” hears “Bad” as a counterpart in my head? They seem to have a similar chord progression. Bad is warm, and Numb is cold, and there’s a sense of call-response between them. Such a big difference between the hopeful/despairing roar of “Wide Awake” and the shrill desperation of “Too Much is Not Enough”. If I had the editing skills I’d do a mashup, but I kind of suck at Garage Band :-D
One thing about Rattle & Hum: The gospel version of “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” is better than the original, and that’s saying something.
I pretty much hated “Pop”.
But for the most part, I think your list is spot on. I haven’t had a chance yet to give the new album a listen. Generally I need to hear something LOUD about 3 times before I make a real decision.
That being said, some of their songs changed my life, buoying me through terrible times. The first time I heard the crooning vocals at the beginning of “Gloria” on a tinny car radio, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s the Voice I hear in my dreams.”
Oh, and the B sides: YES! Hallelujah Here she comes is one of my absolute favorite u2 songs! Also love Sweetest Thing. Their cover of “Unchained Melody” is so cheesy and hilarious and sincere it goes beyond self-parody and back to somebody singing drunk karaoke with a seriously broken heart. Spanish Eyes is pretty hot, too.
Also a little thing: At the end of With or Without You sung live, sometimes Bono will add bits. “We’ll shine like stars in the summer night, we’ll shine like stars in the winter light, one heart, one hope, one love” just KILLS ME.
And, CaptainNed, I don’t know if I was your roommate, but if I was, I’m sorry… I did try to throw in some Kate Bush and Yes for balance… ;-)
Alana – Kudos for the Kate reference…. I’ve very jealous of Paul Cornell, who right now is in the audience for tonight’s show in the UK.
Since I pretty much make my own “best of” CDs/play lists, I don’t really have favorite albums by U2 or most other artists, but definitely prefer the older stuff and really like some of the more oddball B sides (remember B sides?).
No long for “Original Soundtracks 1”?
Several songs from the new album are keepers for me, at least after a first night’s listening; others. . . well, that’s what we keep them in the rotation for.
Andrew, had I gotten around to putting my list up, OS1 would be pretty high up there. I often think of it as the direction they *should* have gone in the 90s, instead of stripping everything away on Zooropa or getting lost in the sparkly electronics on Pop. OS1 has some really interesting music worth repeated listens.
Aside from switching out “War” for “The Unforgettable Fire,” I wouldn’t make any real changes with this list. I guess it comes down to preferring rabble rousing anthems over the meandering, contemplative tracks of “Fire.” But both albums are loaded with great songs, and capture different moments in U2’s quest to find out just what kind of band they wanted to become. They definitely hit the nail on the head with “Joshua Tree,” and realized they were taking themselves too seriously just in time to crank out another masterpiece in “Achtung Baby.” Sadly, from that point on, they didn’t take themselves too seriously enough, and just kind of spun their wheels for 15 years.
The Unforgettable Fire
Under a Blood Red Sky
Rattle and Hum
The rest are kind of Meh.
It’s not far off mine, though I’d move Pop down and October up, likely. And my personal version of Unforgettable Fire might have beat out Joshua Tree. I thought it sagged on the B side, so I rearranged the tracks a little and incorporated some of the B sides (which were very strong for that era), and it fit perfectly on a 60 minute tape and was nirvana.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind isn’t a bad album, but it marks the point where they stopped surprising me. They weren’t always great surprises, I didn’t really like Pop, but it still wasn’t quite what I expected. The thing I really loved them for was the WTF is this reaction I got on first listening to things like Unforgettable Fire after War, Achtung Baby after Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum.
No Line on the Horizon was their first _bad_ album, so I’ve been hesitant to listen to the new one.
Instead of giving my own list, I recommend watching “From the Sky Down” if you can. I had stopped listening to U2 around Zooropa but watching that movie (documentary ?) reminded me why I loved U2 so much and I started listening to them again recently.
1. Joshua Tree
2. Boy (opening track is best debut song ever)
5. a bunch of others
7. Songs of Innocence (2 OK songs)
-8. No Line.
I would have a hard time ranking them exactly, but my top 4 would be Joshua, War, Boy, & No Line; October would be 5th. No Line seems a huge surprise to me (& makes me chuckle since no one here likes it!). But I’m not ashamed to say I could listen to Stand Up Comedy & Breathe on a continuous loop for a LONG time.
Hope to give Innocence a listen this weekend.
I was never a huge U2 fan (My sister was and is.. when they first came to America, they followed the tour bus back to their hotel where a stare-off happened since my sister and her friends had not thought out what would happen if they caught U2 face to face) but is there no love for the EP, Melon?
I don’t own any U2 in any form, but what I’ve heard of them on classic rock* stations tells me that the single most important person in their career was Daniel Lanois.
*Robert Heinlein might be the first to use the term in fiction, in 1970: “For an hour and more she listened to a tape of evergreens, from classic rock she had never grown used to clear back to folk music popular before Johann Schmidt was born.”
I think the importance of U2 as musicians is that they aren’t afraid to try something whether it be musically, artistically, or commercially. For a band that has been making music for close to 35 years you have to respect their longevity. Our generation’s Rolling Stones continue to make music. The music really doesn’t fit in today’s world but when a new album comes out it does rekindle memories of our younger years. U2 are the 80s and for those of us who grew up then, this is our music. It stays with us into our middle age. So when a new album surfaces, it is a time machine back to the days when Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby meant more to us than any music they might produce today.
U2 will never produce another great album because their core audience will always compare it to something that at the time was more than just an album. For me Joshua Tree came out when I was a sophomore in high school. As a teenager it became the soundtrack for my life. When I hear the album, I think of a great rock band, bigger than anything. As a teenager you hold onto to those feelings as life is ahead of you. Achtung Baby came out 4 years later, a sophomore in college I started to have a grasp of the world and U2 exploded with a new sound, new direction. The band seemingly grew with me.
Once you move on from college into life, you certainly seek out the new material hoping to latch onto something. U2 released Pop, another new sound, but by then, as a young adult, somewhat set in your life, you don’t need that new direction and with each subsequent release you hope the album will speak to you like it did when you were 16 but it doesn’t and deep down you know it never will.
Thus to criticize the band and try to compare their new work with their old isn’t fair. We’ve moved on.
From my perspective back around 1990, the Brain Eater hit a few British-but-not-English bands real hard, and convinced them that they should become USan pop stars…
U2 (Ireland) – revolution, its cost and occasional necessity
Big Country (Scotland) – the workers in the new world order
Alarm (Wales) – the workers’ revolution and its cost in the new world order
The future wasn’t all tuned to a dead channel – 1995’s “Why The Long Face” might be technically the best album Big Country ever made, and “Mysterious Ways” and a few others should certainly be included in the U2 Canon.
Under A Blood Red Sky
Other than that, you’re not arguing “Sticky Fingers” vs. “Exile On Main Street” – you’re arguing “Steel Wheels” vs.”Emotional Rescue”…
I was absolutely obsessed with U2 when I was in high school in the 80’s. They were about all I listened to. They were so brilliant and edgy for so long that it’s that much more disappointing to me that they lost that brilliance.
1. Under a Blood Red Sky — Can’t believe you left this one off, because for me it was perfect, despite it’s less than stellar sound quality. Bono’s voice and passion in this live set made me listen to this hundreds of times. I’m thrilled they expanded it recently. I love watching the movie as well.
2. The Joshua Tree — Gorgeous from beginning to end.
3. Wide Awake in America — Because this live version of Bad is exquisite.
4. The Unforgettable Fire — Pride is too great a song to allow this record to be any lower
5. Achtung Baby — Their last great album before they lost their magic.
9. Rattle and Hum — I agree with what you said about this one, John.
The remaining albums are just too poor for me.
The Passengers album is really more “Brian Eno with U2 as a backing band,” but I’m curious where you’d rank it on this list.