Usually, I review albums, but instead I listened to each album and jotted down some songs. This is my U2 mixtape.
The first time I head The Edge’s guitar intro on “I Will Follow” I knew this band was different. When their next album arrived, I knew their soundscape and songwriting spoke of worldly musicians, even though they were young kids.
The early 1980s was the big wave of a new, energetic and heavily processed sound. There were tons of bands vying for an audience, some had a hit or two, most disappeared by the end of the decade, but a few gained strength and generated their own wave. U2 was one of those.
My buddy Tom and I went to see U2 at the Uptown Theater on February 25, 1982, leg three of their North American tour, of mostly small venues. Now, they play huge stadiums, but we saw them with maybe a thousand other fans.
Going through each album is quite a journey, damn near 40 years in length. Interesting to hear the evolution, I can divide their history into sections. What I would call the second period, startng with The Unforgettable Fire and ending with Rattle and Hum, was a very successful one, but is my least favorite.
Success changed the band and their writing. I reconnected with Achtung Baby, a fantastic album of new sounds and attitude. Zooropa was a disappointment, too derivative, but with Pop, they were back in the groove. All That You Leave Behind and No Line on the Horizon were okay, nothing particularly great, an some filler. How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb was sandwiched between those album and much better than either of them.
Fan sites rank their more recent albums lower than their early albums. Their two most recent works, Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience, while neither ground-breakers, still had more solid songs and consistent quality than all of their recent releases except How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb.
You’ll notice many hit singles missing from this mixtape list, some, not but all. U2 often does some of their best work when you don’t expect it. Every studio album except Zooropa and The Joshua Tree are represented. They are not my favorites, I didn’t find much in the style of either album. I’ll let other people put those songs on their mixtape.
Not every song U2 wrote is a classic. Most or their music is very good and there are classics, but they also wore the groove pretty deep in their familiar style, and churned out some very average tunes. It’s bound to happen, especially when they have set the bar incredibly high in the early years. Success required them to write stadium anthems every time out. Those are generally my least favorite song. Showy and predictable. I’m a tough critic, because I was there from the beginning, enjoyed the hits and endured the misses.
What follows is very good. Could the list have been longer? Of course.
Below, the songs, the album, and my comments.
“I Will Follow” (Boy) The Edge’s guitar sounds like a police siren. Listen up. And that great rhythm section. What a great debut. Bono immediately got your attention, he didn’t just sing words, he communicated an attitude.
“Twilight” (Boy) Very complex playing, the song jumps out there with a great vibe that heats up even more. The interplay between the guitar and bass are quite impressive. Even on their first album the intricate instrumental work was evident. If you think their later work is impressive, listen to this.
“Is That All” (October) Frenetic guitar playing by The Edge. Another choice would have been the more popular “Gloria” a fine song, but this one shows the band really opening it up for some great playing. The vocals are very basic, but Bono still manages to sing with great expression.
“October” (October) The Edge was an adequate keyboard player, so this changes up the soundscape a bit. A gentle but jarring piano intro. A haunting song, stripped of the usual layers.
“With a Shout” (October) Another full-out start, the song quickly goes into overdrive. Great bass and drum work. The Edge overlays several different guitar tracks as he shreds the fingerboard.
“New Year’s Day” (War) That driving bass, and surprisingly piano. The guitar comes a bit later. Those chords were like missiles. Third album in, the band had more than swagger, it had confidence. The band was already making statements with their lyrics, and their music was deepening with more textures and more complex arrangements. I could have picked half the songs on this album but narrowed it to two very distinctive songs.
“Drowning Man” (War) A slow fade in, The Edge with ringing acoustic guitar tones, as the bass and percussion are right in there. A nice orchestral backing is not overpowering but brings out the textures in the song.
“Wire” (The Unforgettable Fire) The Edge lays down a rapid rhythm, then the bass and drum climb on board. The song goes through multiple soundscape changes as it races along. Hold on, this song breaks the speed limit. I lost track of the number of guitar layers.
“The Unforgettable Fire” (The Unforgettable Fire) Of course there are many fine choices from this album, but I narrowed to two. A mi-tempo (for U2) song, with lots of spacey Edge guitar processed sounds. The guy is awesome.
“Heartland” (Rattle and Hum) Rattle and Hum is an interesting collection of songs. In less than a decade of recorded music, these guys were now heavyweights. The album accompanied the film, and it showed the band paying tribute to their influences. I could have selected more songs from the album, but Heartland is an underrated song, not over-popularized, yet shows the band’s growing maturity.
“One” (Achtung Baby) For me, this is U2’s most prolific album. It’s gritty, and as much as The Edge sets the table, Adam Clayton’s bass is the MVP here. “One” is a great ballad. Poignant, yet searing. It’s an anthem without over shooting her target.
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” (Acthung Baby) The Edge owns this song, but his guitar is mixed low in the sound. Not sure why.
“The Fly” (Achtung Baby) A ragged vibe. Edge processes his guitar to the extreme. You want to move to this song, admit it.
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (Achtung Baby) A great merging of acoustic and distorted electric instruments. A very melodic sing-along. Nice job.
“Discotheque” (Pop) An electronic based song. A bit different, but a catchy groove. Not a classic but a solid ride.
“Do You Feel Loved” (Pop) More electronics with a steady beat. You better feel loved after this. Hardly a recognizable instrument in sight.
“Staring At the Sun” (Pop) A nice acoustic guitar starts the song with electronic sounds joining in. A mix of the old and new.
“Last Night on Earth” (Pop) An electronic, moody piece, with a powerful groove. More of a change of pace, curious song.
“Walk On” (All That You Can Leave Behind) U2 and Coldplay are beginning to sound similar in their soundscapes. The use of piano is Coldplay territory. A bit repetitive of older material. It’s okay if they rip themselves off.
“Yahweh” (How to Dismantle An Atom Bomb) A great start to the album, a low-key Bono vocal performance, except on the chorus. The Edge limits his guitar work, but it’s still good.
“Vertigo” (How to Dismantle An Atom Bomb) Any restrain in “Yahweh” is blow away in the first few bars of this song. Clayton and Mullin rip the joint on bass and drums. More of a main riff from Edge. This is a bit of straightforward rocker from the band.
“City of Blinding Lights” (How to Dismantle An Atom Bomb) A slow build, but the groove is established early. One of their best melodic chord progressions. Cheers to Clayton on bass, he drives this bad boy.
“A Man and a Woman” (How to Dismantle An Atom Bomb) Somewhere between a ballad and a rocker, this an amazing song. The Edge plays a very effective acoustic guitar, but it’s Clayton’s bass that defines this song. It’s in my top two favorite U2 songs.
“Magnificent” (No Line on the Horizon) The beginning is a bit different but the warm U2 sound soon engages. Less heavy processed sounds in the production. Familiar but new. Not groundbreaking but a good listen.
“Iris” (Songs of Innocence) At first, I didn’t have a warm opinion of the two most recent albums. Overall, I don’t rank them as U2’s best, even though you see many songs on this list. I think there is some filler and repetition, and these aren’t groundbreaking albums. Solid, but not classics. “Iris” is closer to their early work, it has a musical vibe from Boy.
“Volcano” (Songs of Innocence) The first thing you hear is the great bass and drum work. A nice song, not a classic, but is also feels like a throwback to their early work.
“Cedarwood Road” (Songs of Innocence) A mean Edge guitar riff. This song has a different vibe. Hand it to Edge for adding some variety to the arrangement. One of their better songs in recent years.
“This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” (Songs of Innocence) This sounds like the Stones if they were making music like they did in the early 1970s. A Richards guitar riff. Clayton has to be the best bass player working today.
“Summer of Love” (Songs of Experience) A few twists and they get a very fresh sound. Again, the bass provides the spine for everything else. A mid tempo song that is quite captivating.
“Red Flag Day” (Songs of Experience) Back to guitar riffs and a bouncy bass pattern. This song has an Adam Lambert type feel to it. U2 is trying to stay current. Bono’s vocals drop in and out like the early days.
“The Showman” (Songs of Experience) An acoustic guitar intro (when do you hear that?) to a bouncy ditty. A nice change of pace.
“The Blackout” (Songs of Experience) Quite an intro, nice production. The Edge’s guitar doesn’t sound like a guitar, it has an ominous sound.
Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop, All That You Leave Behind, How to Dismantle and Atom Bomb, No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience