There are very few active bands which can genuinely put a claim to the title of being the biggest band in the world. None of them certainly divide opinion as much as the band from Ireland active since the 1970s. U2 have done it all – they have delivered the best half time performance in Super Bowl history, been featured on the cover of the Time magazine (only the fourth band to do so at the time) and have won a record 22 Grammys for a band. U2 have been around longer than most of us, and have not only survived the continuously changing music scene around them with grace, but been the pioneers of rock at a time when music needed it most.
Drawing most inspiration from The Ramones (as Bono fondly recalls in the recent single The Miracle), U2 started out as a rock band with a punk edge, with raw guitars combined with the powerful voice of Bono. The band got their first US hit with the single I Will Follow, and have not looked back since.
In 1984, U2 truly arrived, with the album The Unforgettable Fire marking the upgrade of the band to genuine superstars. Politically charged lyrics sung to the tunes of echoing guitars propelled the popularity of the band in both Britain and the US, becoming the first album of the band to reach number one on British charts. The singles Bad and Pride (In the Name of Love) are the stand out tracks from the album, thanks to radiant, multi layered guitar work from The Edge. References to Martin Luther King and the strength of its resounding beat alongside the surreal riff make Pride in particular a great listen.
The Joshua Tree, released in 1987, is frequently regarded as the band’s best album and one of the best albums of all time. The vast open spaces, freedom and the ideals that they discovered in the US, delightfully entwined with the exploration of blues and gospel music by the band helped create a distinctive sound that made The Joshua Tree the fastest selling album in British chart history. The aesthetically pleasing sounds of songs like With Or Without You, I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For mixed with political hard hitting tracks like Bullet The Blue Sky, Where The Streets Have No Name made the band America’s darlings, and the album topped the Billboard 200 in the United States for nine consecutive weeks.
Their seemingly pretentious and self-obsessive outlook in response to their growing popularity drew a lot of criticism from fans and critics alike, marking the release of their rockumentary Rattle and Hum as the first instance when the band first began to doubt themselves.
At a time when Germany was recovering from the fall of the Berlin Wall and its reunification, the band sought to rediscover the elements that had gotten them to this stage in the first place, hoping to find inspiration in the streets of a city bursting with emotion, the shadow of David Bowie recording the Berlin trilogy albums still looming large. The band nearly broke up at this stage, faced with the dilemma of the sound of their future. They ultimately favored going out of their comfort zone and exploring themes of dance and alternative rock music that was popular at the time instead of rolling out a standard U2 album.
This is probably the most important decision U2 have made in their long career at the helm of rock music. Their declining opinion coupled with the release of the legendary album Nevermind by Nirvana threatened to undo the progress they had made. Instead, they released an album filled with funkier sounds and a self-deprecating image of themselves. Achtung Baby, which recently completed 25 years of existence, reinstated U2 where they truly belonged. The song Mysterious Ways has a hip gyrating, funky and fun feel to it whereas Until The End of the World with an unrelenting guitar riff describes a fictional conversation between Jesus and Judas. “In my dreams, I was drowning sorrows, but my sorrows they learnt to swim” from the final verse of the song, describes Judas’ guilt and eventual suicide. The standout track from the album, though, is the single One. The lyrics were inspired by the band members’ fractured relationships and the German reunification. Bono described the song’s theme as such: “It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, we are one, but we’re not the same. It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice”. The anthem has since gone on and been featured in polls for the greatest songs of all time.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the first album released by the band in the 21st century. Following the relative disappointment of their previous album, Pop, the band were ‘reapplying for the job of the best band in the world’. And they did a pretty good job. It is considered the ‘third masterpiece’ by the band, alongside the more illustrious company of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. A return to grace for the band, the album featured singles like A Beautiful Day, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of and Elevation.
The band have since gone on to release three more albums, the most significant of them being How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb released in 2004. The band aimed for a harder hitting rock sound than the previous album, and the album turned out to be a huge success for the band, winning them a Grammy in all eight categories in which it was nominated. Though claiming it as a contender as one of U2’s three best albums, Bono said, “There are no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me.” The song Vertigo features heavy distortion guitar work from The Edge, giving the album a unique sound, added to by songs like All Because of You. City of Blinding Lights is a lyric heavy, melodious track featuring keyboards and exceptional guitars, inspired from the band’s concert in New York following the September 11 attacks, when Bono shouted ‘Oh you look so beautiful tonight’.
Recent times haven’t been so kind to the band. Their last two albums were met with a lukewarm response from the fans, criticizing the direction the band were heading in. Mixed with poor record sales, U2 are currently standing at a point where they have been at a few times before already. They must do what they have done over and over in the past – search themselves for the sheer musical genius they possess to roll out an album for the masses. But the question is, have they really found what they’ve been looking for?
Essential albums –
5. The Unforgettable Fire
Recommendations – Pride (In the Name of Love), Bad, The Unforgettable Fire
4. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Recommendations – Vertigo, City of Blinding Lights, All Because of You
3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Recommendations – Beautiful Day, Elevation, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of
2. Achtung Baby
Recommendations – Mysterious Ways, One, Until The End Of The World, Ultra Violet, Acrobat
1. The Joshua Tree
Recommendations – Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You, Running To Stand Still, Bullet the Blue Sky