U2: Five Best Albums

U2 started the 1980s as a post-punk band influenced by Joy Division and Television. As the decade progressed they beefed up their sound, working with notable producers like Steve Lillywhite and Brian Eno, and became one of the highest selling and critically acclaimed rock bands of their generation

U2 has built a distinctive sound around limited components – they emerged in the wake of punk, when virtuosity wasn’t a prerequisite for success, and were able to build a successful career around each member’s idiosyncrasies. Bono’s soaring voice, and political and religious fervour, and The Edge’s effects laden guitar are their most distinctive musical features.

My journey with U2 has been interrupted – I enjoyed them in my late teens, but burned out on them, especially their most ubiquitous moments like the opening three track salvo on The Joshua Tree. But returning to them to cover them for this page, I’ve enjoyed working through their catalogue – they remained vital and interesting into their second decade as recording artists.

#5 – Zooropa


U2 followed the sonic departure of Achtung Baby with an even more experimental, expansive album. Highlights include a deadpan Edge taking lead vocals on ‘Numb’ and Johnny Cash taking centre stage on ‘The Wanderer’, while ‘Lemon’ captures a Prince vibe.

#4 – The Unforgettable Fire


After three rock albums with producer Steve Lillywhite, U2 connected with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for a more atmospheric sound on The Unforgettable Fire. It’s sometimes inconsistent, but Martin Luther King Jr. tribute ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ is my favourite song from the band, and ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ and the slower ‘Bad’ are also highlights.

#3 – War


U2 streamlined the post-punk of their first two records to an arena-ready sound on War. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘New Year’s Day’ are the best known songs, but it’s full of great material, like ‘Seconds’, the urgent ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’, and the closing Psalm ’40’.

#2 – Boy


U2 were great out of the gate, as their debut album testifies. The raw post-punk sound of Boy is less rigid than you’d expect from the band’s other material, and it’s full of great, overlooked material. Opener ‘I Will Follow’ is the best known song, but I prefer the soaring double punch of ‘An Cath Dubh’ and ‘Into The Heart’, and the rawness of ‘Out Of Control’.

#1 – The Joshua Tree


The Joshua Tree didn’t emerge until almost three years after The Unforgettable Fire – it takes that album’s atmospheric sound and applies it to a much more consistent batch of songs. The opening trio (‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and ‘With Or Without You’) are arguably the band’s three best known tracks, but the rest of the album is great too. The excellent ‘One Tree Hill’ was a New Zealand number one.

I’ve left one very acclaimed U2 album off this list – 1991’s Achtung Baby has a bunch of great songs, and it successfully reinvents the band’s sound, keeping them relevant for their second decade, but it’s a victim of the CD era bloat. It would have made a great forty minute album.

Read more:
U2 album reviews
Favourite Five lists


  1. Those are all great ones and I am with you on The Joshua Tree at #1. Only U2 album I have never liked at all was POP. Caught them twice in concert last summer!

  2. I’ll have to give Zooropa another listen. Their stuff between Achtung and All That You Can’t Leave Behind never appealed to me much as I dove into the deep end of all things Neil Young and Dylan for most of the 90’s.

    • If I allowed compilations, I’d probably go with the 1990-2000 best of for my 5th choice. There are some great songs on all four albums from that era (and Miss Sarajevo from Passengers), but they’re all a little patchy/overlong. Still a pretty good second decade from them – they successfully reinvented themselves.

  3. I’m not really a fan of Bono & Co. but you certainly listens the albums worth bothering with. Aside from the exclusion of Achtung Baby, I’d find it had to disagree with your list (Achtung for Zooropa, I reckon).

  4. Interesting quandary. I think mine would be:
    1. Boy
    2. Unforgettable Fire
    3. Joshua Tree
    4. Achtung Baby
    5. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
    I’d like to squeeze October in there too but I ran out of numbers.

  5. The live mini-album was my introduction to U2. ‘This is Red Rocks!’ – Bono always knows where he is.
    I rather like Achtung Baby too. Their Kid A except not so interesting. But mostly U2 leave me a bit lukewarm.
    Thanks for the read, though. Good stuff.

    • I started with Under A Blood Red Sky too actually. It’s pretty cool, although I have vivid memories of someone mocking ‘Party Girl’ when I was playing it in the car.

  6. Great list! I have wanted to dive into their albums and rank them and this gives me a little motivation to tackle that. I found a mint condition Joshua Tree on vinyl and it sounds incredible. I think I would agree on that one as #1.

  7. That’s a good term for it – an interrupted U2 journey, I can relate.
    Though like you, I did enjoy revisiting for the purposes of writing about the albums, just haven’t felt inspired to invest in any of the post-2000 material.
    I actually quite like all that you can’t leave behind, so it would likely join my top 5!

    • I see why you’d gravitate to the Americana sound on that one. I find it a bit bloated but there’s great stuff like ‘Angel of Harlem’ and ‘Hawkmoon 269’.

      • The reason I grab it is because it is perfect for the timing on a good walk plus it sounds good. I’m a sucker for anything Billie Holiday related. Like I said, good stuff from all their output. The early albums hooked me.

          • That’s pretty heavy stuff for a youngster. Billie had a tough life. Hopefully she can find the beauty and the talent amongst all the turmoil. One of my top 3 or 4 singers of all time. There i gave you a bit of a CB list.

          • So I go for a walk (beautiful West Coast day) and take my disc-man. I always take my phone incase the batteries die mid walk. My son, Big Earl has thrown a bunch of albums on there for me. Batteries die so I revert to phone. There’s a U2 album. I think it’s a best of. No. ‘Songs of Innocence’. Never even heard of it. Gave it a listen. Not bad. Certainly their sound.

          • That’s the U2 album that every Iphone user got for free, right? I haven’t bothered past about 2005, but they had 25 good years, which is pretty amazing given how narrow their sound is sometimes.

          • I have no idea. I just found it on my phone yesterday. He loaded a bunch of stuff on my phone. Some I know and some I guess he thinks I should know. The first 4 U2 albums I listened to a lot. After that more of a casual listener but like I said always found them worth the time.

      • I’m going to try to do some fave albums from some very big well known names this time around but i guess i am not the biggest U2 fan but going to throw them in just to see what happens?
        Nice picks, i do like your top 5 too and you’ve got my fave U2 album in it, you know? Hopefully I’m posting it sometime, at least this month!
        Cheers 🙂

  8. Sadly, I never warmed up to War. I think it has some mesmerizing tracks, sure, but it also has some tunes that do nothing at all for me, so I find it rather irregular.
    I am surprised Achtung Baby did not make it, but I can understand where you are coming from given it is a bit bloated indeed.

    • I think War and Unforgettable Fire are both a little spotty, but the high points are really high – I really like ‘Seconds’ and ’40’. Achtung Baby was one of the first CDs I ever bought, so it got lots of chance to be played, but I rarely made it through the whole thing.

  9. We share three of the same favourite U2 albums–Zooropa, Boy and Unforgettable Fire. Zooropa will always hold a special place in my heart. Every song is just so eclectic and creative and experimental, with some really heartbreaking moments that always rip me apart like Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and The First Time.
    Boy has this amazing energy that carries through the whole record. I love the idea that such a solid debut came from a group of teenagers experimenting with instruments in Larry Mullen Jr.’s kitchen.
    Unforgettable Fire satisfies my love for moody, atmospheric, ambient music. The record feels like a late night in a smoky jazz club in the city where you’re wearing black velvet and drinking red wine.
    While I have endless respect for The Joshua Tree, especially after seeing the group on the 30th anniversary tour last summer, I’ve always preferred Achtung Baby. It’s more in line with the music I usually like–darker, more experimental and gritty.
    (Also, I tried to comment this once before, but my internet connection at my house has been spotty and my laptop glitched. I apologize if I commented more than once…)

      • My top five are probably:
        1.) Zooropa
        2.) Achtung Baby
        3.) The Unforgettable Fire
        4.) Boy
        5.) Either The Joshua Tree or October
        2 through 5 tend to fluctuate pretty easily, though Achtung stays pretty consistently as my number 2.

  10. I am the only person in the world (I am now convinced) who’s favourite U2 album is Zooropa. I still think it’s a work of genius.

  11. 1537, no, you’re not the only one who ranks Zooropa as their best. It’s been in that spot for me since it came out, and I’ve been a fan since the late ’80s.
    My top five:
    1. Zooropa (1993)
    2. Achtung Baby (1991)
    3. Original Soundtracks 1 (under the Passengers moniker) (1995)
    4. No Line on the Horizon (2009)
    5. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

  12. Completely agree that they crapped out after Pop. Up to that point they did an admirable job of constantly reinventing themselves enough with each album. The growth and evolution from Boy to Pop is pretty special. Reminds me of Bowie. Perhaps I’m still bitter because All You Can’t Leave Behind sort of broke my heart. If I can correctly remember that far back, it had one tremendous song (Beautiful Day) that unfortunately leaked months in advance of the record’s release. So I had very high hopes, but it turned out that almost everything else on the record was a like a warmed over rehash of their previous material. It was as if an AI was fed all the U2 songs that came before and told to spit out something representative. “Walk On” is probably my second favourite song on it (snappy guitar riff at the very least) and it sounds like it was taken straight off of the reels from TJT or AB, and the rest of the album is boring. It pains me to say it because I’m a big U2 fan, but you can say the same about everything they’ve done since.

    I love Achtung Baby and it’s my fav of theirs. All of their records of that era are a bit too long, but I can only point to two tracks on AB that I don’t like quite a lot (“So Cruel” and “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World”). The songs are good, most of the sonic experimentation works, it’s beautifully recorded, and it has the same kind of emotional depth as the rest of their golden era.

    Top 5 for me would be pretty conventional:
    1. Achtung Baby
    2. The Joshua Tree
    3. War
    4. Boy
    5. The Unforgettable Fire

    I don’t mind Zooropa but I think it’s uneven and lacks the high highs of their previous albums. Stay is probably the only song on that album that moves me, though I like Numb quite a bit. I don’t know if I think it’s successful but if it’s a failure it’s certainly a noble one. They tried to do something new and I’ll always give artists I like a lot of rope in those cases. And I like Pop more than most people. It’s also inconsistent (I think I read somewhere that it was rushed because of some industry deadline–it kind of sounds like it) but it has plenty of quality songs, especially Staring at the Sun, Last Night on Earth and Discotheque. Gone and Wake Up Dead Man are also decent, so that’s not a bad group.

  13. My number one is a toss up between Aching Baby and Joshua Tree. I’m surprised Achtung Baby doesn’t make your top 5. It was a watershed moment for U2 and the direction they would take and the risks needed to stay relevant. I understand you ranked this 5 years ago. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on it in 2023?

    • I agree that it was a successful reinvention. It was actually one of the first ten or so CDs that I ever owned, so I’ve had plenty of time to listen to it. Never quite connected with it.

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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