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.
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.
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.
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 song, but it’s full of great material, like ‘Seconds’, the urgent ‘Two Hearts Beat As One’, and the closing Psalm ’40’.
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’.
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.