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André Hansson’s Guide to U2 Albums

Culture and EntertainmentPosted by André Hansson Sun, September 21, 2014 14:41:58

U2 is back with Songs of Innocence. This is a big thing for me, even though these days U2 are not really that often in my headphones anymore. But my life history is inseparable from these four Irish lads. Between the ages 13 and 22 I more or less listened to nothing but U2. Pride (In the name of Love) was the first song I can remember liking at age 8. It’s the song that is most likely to be played at my funeral when that day comes. I can still vividly recall the cheap 80s video effect that transitioned from Cia Bergh’s introduction to the first part of the song (the low flying POV shot over the Dublin harbor over Edges lightly distorted harmonics and choppy muted strings that open the song) on the Swedish Pop Chart show Bagen back in 1984. I may have progressed and developed quite an eclectic taste today, at age 38, but I’m still a U2 geek. That will probably never change.

This post, though, is not really about my relationship to U2, but a guide to their albums. Maybe Songs of Innocence will entice some young people unfamiliar with the history of the band into thinking “hey, these geezers are not all bad -- wonder what else they’ve done?” Well, look no further than to my awesome, and completely subjective, guide below. Enjoy.



1980-1983: Post-Punk Glory

Boy (1980) 5 out of 5

Youthful energy and post-punk glory. U2 started out in the wake of the punk scene and were inspired by acts like The Ramones (which is frequently referenced by U2, lately with the song The Miracle (of Joey Ramone). They were contemporaries with Simple Minds, Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen and many others. The political issues and the break with classic rock music’s masturbatory virtuoso craftsmanship that had fueled the main-era punk (with acts like The Sex Pistols) is still there, albeit now it’s more about the music now than off-stage antics. The sound is both more polished and experimental, with clean guitar sounds and experimental rhythm sections. And Boy is one of the best albums of the genre and still one of U2’s best.

I can also recommend trying get hold of some bootlegs from around the time of the Boy release. On these, without the polish of Steve Lilywhite’s studio album production, the true post-punk spirit comes out.

Legacy tracks

I Will Follow

Other notable tracks

A Day Without Me - check out Edge’s weird echo guitar parts

Shadows and Tall Trees

Stories for Boys (does it get anymore post-punk than this?)

11 O’clock Tick Tock (a song that never made the album, but one frequently featured in live performances in the early days of U2. A live version can be found on Under a Blood Red Sky from 1983 and can also be found on the latest remastered deluxe version of Boy)

Out of Control



October
(1981) 2 out of 5

October is the rushed follow-up to Boy and features more post-punk, only this time not nearly as good as before. One can hear U2’s lust for experimentation, and willingness to push their own boundaries already here, but this time without the results. I believe generally, October is considered the worst U2 album (possibly in competition with 1997’s Pop) and I’m of the same opinion. It has a few highlights nonetheless. Gloria takes its place among the legacy track and Edge’s keyboards on the title track October is hauntingly beautiful.

Legacy Tracks

Gloria

Other notable tracks

October

I Threw a Brick through a Window



War
(1983) 2 out of 5

In January 1983 U2 scores the first UK Top 40 hit with New Year’s Day, as song about the Polish Solidarity Movement and the mainstream break through is a fact. This song and the album radio air play of Sunday Bloody Sunday catapults U2 to a different level of fame. The album is considered a U2 classic, but my opinion has always been that the rest of the album is pretty bland. More post-punk but it just isn’t very good. It certainly is nowhere near the brilliance of Boy.

Legacy Tracks

New Year’s Day

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Other notable tracks

Two Hearts Beat as One

40


1984 - 1989: The Rise to Super Stardom

The Unforgettable Fire (1984) 4 out 5

The Unforgettable Fire is U2’s first of many collaborations with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and marks the first time U2 radically changes their sound. The post-punk roots are still quite clearly there, but the album is a wash of lush ambience, sweeping guitars and keyboards. It’s an album where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Many songs are individually weak, but the album has such a great atmosphere it doesn’t really matter. It’s an album you put on and just let it play, not one where you skip around for individual tracks. Pride (In the name of Love) is a massive hit around the world and U2 solidifies their status as a major mainstream act.

Legacy Tracks

Pride (In the Name of Love) - Oh-oh-ah-oh!

Bad (check out the epic performance of the song at Live Aid in 1985, which is some say is a key piece in U2’s rise to super stardom)

Other notable tracks

A sort of Homecoming

The Unforgettable Fire



Wide Awake in America
(1985) 3 out of 5

An EP containing live versions of A sort of Homecoming and Bad, plus two mildly interesting songs from The Unforgettable Fire studio sessions that never made the album. Worthwhile mostly for the live version Bad, which enjoyed massive album radio airplay in the US in the wake of Live Aid, where the bad had performed an iconic version (not the one on the album, though) of the song, and helped pave the ground for massive commercial success of their next album, The Joshua Tree. All songs on this album are now available on the remastered deluxe reissue of The Unforgettable Fire.



The Joshua Tree
(1987) 5 out of 5

With or Without You and I still Haven’t Found what I’m Looking For hits number 1 in the US and U2’s break through into super stardom is a fact. The album is hailed as one the great albums in the history of pop and rock music, U2 makes the cover of Time Magazine and are suddenly everywhere. There’s not a single dud on the album (except possibly Trip Through Your Wires, which I personally never really liked). The American music inspired album, while made in the otherwise abominable second half of the 80s, features none of the signature sounds of that era. No reverb on the drums or voices, no cheesy synthesizers etc., which makes the album sound as fresh today as it did back then. Truly a masterpiece.

Legacy Tracks

With or Without You

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for

Where the Streets Have No Name

Other notable tracks

Bullet the Blue Sky

Running to Stand Still

Red Hill Mining Town



Rattle & Hum
(1988) 2 out of 5

After the Joshua Tree U2 tried to capitalize on their success with a movie called Rattle & Hum. It bombed at the box office. The movie and subsequent album was criticized for being self-indulgent. It’s ok to be big superstar providing you don’t brag about it. The nod to American music continues and U2 are seen collaborating with American greats like BB King and perform half-hearted covers of The Beatles and Hendrix (actually, Watchtower is a Dylan song, but I believe U2 were inspired by Hendrix's interpretation). The album is a mix of (heavily doctored) live performances from The Joshua Tree tour and new studio songs. I never liked the album and for me it became clear that U2 are not always that good when they stray too far outside their own European post-punk heritage and into more traditional styles of music. U2 are at their best when playing U2, not when playing Hendrix. There are exceptions, Angel of Harlem on this very album being one of them.

After touring the album U2 had a bit of a burnout and Bono announced on their 1989 New Year’s Eve concert in Dublin that they “had to go away and dream it all up again” which led to speculation that the band was splitting up.

Legacy Tracks

Angel of Harlem

Desire

Other notable tracks

All I want is You

Heartland



The 90s - The Experimental Phase

Achtung Baby (1991) 5 out of 5

The Edge said in famous interview that 1991’s Achtung Baby still sounded like the blues to him, but through a certain kind of filter. I never understood what he meant. To me ‘Baby sounds nothing like the blues (with the possible exception of One). It sounds much more like post-punk through a filter. And it is U2s greatest and thematically most coherent album. For me it will always be their greatest album. I am too old to reevaluate no matter what they do in the future. There are too many memories of my struggling teens intimately tied to this album. And I’m not alone. For a long time U2 fans were divided between The Joshua Tree and ‘Baby. Today I believe ‘Baby came out on top, if barely.

Achtung Baby marks U2’s second radical change in sonic style. The last anyone had heard of U2 was the hauntingly beautiful All I want is You, the last single from Rattle and Hum. Then comes The Fly with heavy distortion and phaser on the guitar, distorted low whispering voice, and none of the iconic shimmering delayed Edge guitar parts that signified their 80s sound. Four men chopping down the Joshua Tree, Bono said of the song. The album opens with Zoo Station which sounds like your stereo is broken.

Like many others, I initially had trouble digesting this radical change, but I did and then I never looked back. ‘Baby is the start of what today can only be described as U2s experimental phase, with two more albums in the 90s breaking sonic new ground. They not only broke new ground sonically, but also image wise. Where the old U2 had been earnest and pretentious, the new U2 was sarcastic and ironic. Suede vests and cotton rags had become black PVC suits and fly shades, black and white had become color, boring had become fun.

After the release of Achtung Baby they embarked on the massive and technically challenging Zoo TV tour, still in my opinion, their best tour.

Legacy Tracks

One

Mysterious Ways

The Fly

Other notable tracks

All of them



Zooropa (1993) 4 out of 5

U2 follow up Achtung Baby with an album that was originally going to be an EP. It’s a more pop oriented album than any previous U2 album, with sweeping pop melodies like those of Zooropa and Lemon, and quirky bubblegum pop like Some Days are Better than Others. And it works. Pushing U2s sound in this direction was in my opinion much more successful than pushing it towards blues on Rattle and Hum. Stay (Far Away, So Close) is the soundtrack for Wim Wenders film In Weiter Ferne, So Nah, the not-quite-as-brilliant-but-still-worth-a-watch-follow-up to one the best movies ever made, Der himmel über Berlin. It’s around this time that Bono is starting to rely heavily on falsetto for the high notes (and in the case of Lemon, entire songs).

Legacy Tracks

Stay (Faraway, So Close)

Lemon

Numb

Other notable tracks

Zooropa

Dirty Day



Pop
(1997) 4 out of 5

Maybe it was dressing up like The Village People in the video for Discotheque, or the release conference at K-Mart, or maybe Bono being misquoted in the prerelease interviews saying Pop was a “dance record” when he meant “dense record”? Or maybe the fact that the album was rushed out while still being somewhat rough? Or something else? But Pop seemed to alienate a lot of core U2 fans. U2 were being perceived as straying too far from what made them a great super star act. Pop was disappointment commercially (it still sold “millions”, but slightly less “millions” -- everything is relative) but I always liked it. It a great collection of songs, a testament to U2s willingness to take risks and experiment with their sound. Not a single dud on the entire album, if you ask me. Many of the songs were rerecorded and polished for release as singles, but none of them constituted any improvements over the album versions.

U2’s biggest challenge was at this time how to top the overbearing majesty of their own Zoo TV tour. They did, at least in size, with the PopMart Tour.

Legacy Tracks

Discotheque

Staring at the Sun

Other notable tracks

Gone

The Playboy Mansion

If You Wear that Velvet Dress

Please

If God Will Send His Angels

Mofo




2000s - The Elder Statesman Phase

All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) 4 out of 5

It’s around this time that I start slowly to lose interest in U2. After the relatively unsuccessful Pop U2 reinvents themselves by… going back to a more Joshua Tree-like sound. U2 are now beginning to administer their legacy, rather than pushing boundaries. Oh well, we all grow old sometime. They again flirt with the blues (In a Little While, Stuck in a Moment) but it is better this time around than back in the Rattle and Hum days. The album is hailed as a triumphant return to form and is called out as U2's third master piece. Does that assessment still hold up today? I suppose I agree, although I make no secret of the fact that I prefer the 90s experimentation and the 80s post-punk over the American influenced blues stuff. Still, ‘Leave behind is and album that has a little bit of everything and boy is it a great collection of songs.

U2 Tours indoors for the first time since the first leg of the Zoo TV tour in 1992.

Legacy Tracks

Beautiful Day

Other notable tracks

Wild Honey - notable for being one of the worst songs U2 ever made. I still believe they put it on there as a joke

In a Little While

Kite

Stuck in a Moment

Elevation

Walk On



How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
(2004) 3 out of 5

Bomb is an uneven album in my opinion. The more rock oriented follow-up to All You Can’t Leave Behind contains some of the best songs U2 has ever made, but also a few bland ones, and a few real duds (A Man and a Woman, anyone?). The album was a massive commercial success, in no small part to Vertigo being featured in a commercial for the iPod.

Legacy Tracks

Vertigo

Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your own

Other notable tracks

City of Blinding Lights

Original of the Species

Miracle Drug



No Line on the Horizon
(2009) 3 out of 5

No Line again sees U2 trying to shake things up sonically. It’s not a bad album with some great songs, but somehow the album presents like a dense gray mass of tracks that are sometimes indistinguishable from each other. Maybe it’s the mix? Maybe it’s the Edge using the same EQ and distortion setting on all tracks (if he in fact even did this, -- it’s what it sounds like in my ears). The 16th note delay arpeggios make a triumphant return and is heavily featured on almost all tracks. I commend U2 for trying, even if it didn’t quite succeed this time, like it did back with Achtung Baby.

They embark on their most ambitious tour yet. Many of the songs that were a bit bland on the album gets a significant boost when U2 are playing them live.

Legacy Tracks

Get on Your Boots

Magnificent

Other notable tracks

Moment of Surrender

Breathe



Songs of Innocence
(2014)

So what about this one then? I can’t say yet. First impression is that it’s quite a lot more accessible than No Line on the Horizon. Some songs immediately stuck on me but it is too early for me to form an opinion at this time. I’m not a music critic so I will take privilege of time before I decide. Stay tuned.


So there you have it. Hope you found it useful.
André


















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