U2

U2 band photo

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Every post on this site is meant to be a constantly evolving diary of my musical views. Therefore, any and all posts should be considered incomplete at any given time.

I love U2. There is probably no band that means more to me on a personal level.

For the first 20 years of their career, they made incredibly beautiful and often challenging music.

Since the dawn of the new millennium, things have been merely average to good. Still, it’s U2, and there’s a certain inimitable magic in their best moments, even on their later work.

So let’s take a dive into the mysterious ways of the dudes from Dublin…

ALBUMS

U2 Boy album cover

Boy

Release Year: 1980
My Rating: A
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Most of us U2 fanatics came to Boy many years after it was released, and the band's post-War output tends to overshadow their early material. But every year, U2's debut grows a little more in my estimation, and here in 2022, I'm ready to call it what it is: a true masterpiece. Boy is right up there with War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby. The Edge's guitar work in particular is just amazing: piercing, transporting, lean and clean, washed out and atmospheric, just amazing what that kid could do at 18! Bono sounds great, if a little young, which is appropriate. Adam and Larry, doing what they still do, keepin it totally real.

HIGHLIGHTS: "I Will Follow", "An Cat Dubh / Into the Heart", "Stories For Boys"

U2 October album cover

October

Release Year: 1981
My Rating: C+
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October has its moments, but even after all these years, it ranks near the bottom of U2’s albums. While the opener “Gloria” is a classic cut, everything thereafter feels subpar, like it was cut from BOY. The only exceptions are “I Threw A Brick Through A Window and “October”, which sound like they would have stood up against the rest of BOY. It’s not that I don’t like the songs on OCTOBER, it’s just that being sandwiched between two records where every track is totally solid, you can tell that most of these weren’t fully formed when they were delivered.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Gloria", "I Threw A Brick Through A Window", "October"

U2 War album cover

War

Release Year: 1983
My Rating: A+
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After the sophomore slump that was OCTOBER, U2 delivered WAR, the magnum opus of their early days. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" are the classic singles, but it's the lesser known tracks that make WAR a total masterpiece. Every cut brims with melody and cinema, miniature films for the broken-hearted. WAR is one of those rare LPs that hits as great pop and great concept at the same time. Every single song is great, a classic by itself, maybe even "The Refugee", which is the only track that sounds a bit dated. As usual, Edge's guitar work and Bono's vocals trade off on the show-stealing. Of the lesser known tracks, my personal favorites are "Seconds" and "Surrender". A record about singing loud in a world gone wrong, WAR is a standard military-issue rite of passage for every rock and roll fan!

HIGHLIGHTS: "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "New Year's Day", "Surrender", "Seconds"

The Unforgettable Fire by U2

The Unforgettable Fire

Release Year: 1984
My Rating: A
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A sort of rebirth! U2 begins again for the first time. If war was the pinnacle of the early U2 sound, The Unforgettable Fire is the prototype of The Joshua Tree and everything that would come thereafter. But it's not just a prototype. The Unforgettable Fire is a masterpiece all its own. I'd say their 4th LP is something like the eternal flame they were reaching for October, but failed to grasp. However, with the help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, they entered into the mystic, and without sacrificing the post-punk past, discovered their destiny. "Pride" and "Bad" get all the attention, but the title track, "MLK", and "A Sort of Homecoming" are beauties beyond words, and the more experimental moments contribute to the mystique. It may not get the attention of War, The Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby, but for this U2 fanatic, The Unforgettable Fire is a masterpiece in its own right.

HIGHLIGHTS: "A Sort of Homecoming", "Pride (In the Name of Love)", "The Unforgettable Fire", "Promenade"

The Joshua Tree by U2 album cover

The Joshua Tree

Release Year: 1987
My Rating: A+
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What can I say that hasn't already been said about The Joshua Tree? For me, it's not the hits, but the record as a whole. To be in the desert and to sense the divine nature pervading the universe. The Joshua Tree is suffused with an unshakeable sense of place...or maybe it's displacement? "Blue Sky", "God's Country", "One Tree Hill", "Where the Streets Have No Name" - you yearn for these places, you want to run to them, but in this world, all you seem to do is stand still. Your heart reaches for them, but you can't find them. At least, not yet. It's that sense of paradox that drives the incredible atmosphere and songwriting here, tasting the beauty of this world but finding only dissatisfaction. 35 years on, and The Joshua Tree still stands tall, arms heavenward, songs soaring. In the end, this is an album that speaks for itself on every listen.

HIGHLIGHTS: all the tracks

Rattle and Hum by U2 album cover

Rattle and Hum

Release Year: 1988
My Rating: C
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The Joshua Tree's strange sequel isn't a traditional album. The problem is that it's never clear what it's trying to be. For starters, you've got some amazing singles: "Desire", "Angel of Harlem", "All I Want Is You" - these are all total classics, still some of the band's best work. As for the other studio tracks, they're a mixed bag. And then we come to the real curiosities: the live tracks are solid, but feel out of place among the studio cuts, and the inclusion of tracks from other artists is simply jarring and confusing. But it's the understated beauty of "Heartland" that belies the missed opportunity here. It's a forgotten masterpiece, a hidden gem. I truly wonder what Rattle and Hum might have been with a little more focus and studio work when I hear this track. However, the Rattle and Hum we have stands as a disappointing goodbye to the band's first classic period and a testament to their need to reinvent themselves.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Desire", "Angel of Harlem", "All I Want Is You", "Heartland"

U2 Achtung Baby album cover

Achtung Baby

Release Year: 1991
My Rating: A+
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Achtung Baby is the greatest reinvention in rock and roll history. On their first album of the 90's the austere, black and white U2 of the 80's died and rose again as amazing technicolor dreamers. This album was the zeitgeist of the early 90s. I was there, I remember! And when I listen to it now, it feels totally prophetic. The wall between East and West may have fallen like the Temple veil, but now all of the pent up neuroses and anxieties of the human family were destined to collide with one another. And that's what Achtung Baby is, quite intentionally: the chaotic collision of emotion, possibility, and hope. But concept and context aside, it's the SONGS that make Achtung Baby the masterpiece that it is. 12 impossible beauties, swaggering rock songs about the deviland the fall of man, Judas and the Last Supper, heaven and hell: this is transcendent rock and roll music. For me, Achtung Baby is the real thing, and there's nothing better: it's the greatest album of all time.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Even Better Than The Real Thing", "Until The End Of The World", "Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", "The Fly"

U2 Zooropa album cover

Zooropa

Release Year: 1993
My Rating: A-
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Though often treated and thought of like a lesser companion to Achtung Baby, it's the subtle differences in sound, concept, and pace that make Zooropa work in its own unique way. On U2's 8th album, there's a palpable sense that anything is possible, so long as we "get our head out of the mud". Can technology save us? I'd hope we'd all say NO by this point, and that seems to be U2's point as well. Though not every track is a winner on the level of Achtung Baby or The Joshua Tree, there are several classics: the title track, "Stay", "Some Days" and "The First Time" are all great, but it's the absurdly glorious and transcendent 4th track, "Lemon", that is the biggest masterpiece here. By learning how to laugh at themselves, U2 took their art to the next level with Zooropa. It may be the biggest enigma in their catalog, one giant question mark, but maybe that's the point! To get lost, without a compass or a map, with no reason to get back.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Lemon", "Zooropa", "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)", "Some Days Are Better Than Others", "The First Time"

U2 POP album cover

POP

Release Year: 1997
My Rating: B+
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Like many U2 fans, I have very mixed feelings about POP. When it was first released, I had little interest. I missed their 80's sound, and so "Discothèque" was the furthest thing I wanted from U2 at that point. I wrote them off. The U2 I knew and loved was gone. However, in the years since, it's become clear that POP deserves reconsideration. And I have to admit: there's SOMETHING there. I can reach, but I can't grab it. But I do know this: POP has some GREAT songs. "Discothèque" is actually pretty good, as are "Do You Feel Loved", "Last Night on Earth", "Gone", "Please"... they're ALL pretty solid! But my personal favorite is the haunting, hymn-like "If God Will Send His Angels". It's one of the most underrated songs in their catalog. U2's ninth album is the sound of a band at the top of the popularity bubble, knowing bubbles eventually POP, searching for something that lasts. In a roundabout way, I think they were onto it. POP is a record that reveals greater depths with each listen.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Discothèque", "Do You Feel Loved", "Last Night on Earth", "Gone", "Please", "If God Will Send His Angels"

U2 All That You Can't Leave Behind album cover

All That You Can't Leave Behind

Release Year: 2000
My Rating: B-
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A new millenium arrived, and U2 left the old one behind with a full-fledged OPTIMISM on their 10th LP. They hit the ground running with "Beautiful Day", and it was all takeoff from there. The biggest hits have a certain radio-ready quality to them: "Beautiful Day", "Elevation", "Walk On" - while I enjoy them all, I do find them a bit flat conceptually, a little too ready for primetime, if you will. Personally, I prefer the more soulful tracks, such as "Stuck In A Moment" and "In A Little While". Though certainly not experimental, they carry a weight that comes closer to U2's best work. Ironically, the problem is that U2 left one important thing behind: THE DARKNESS. This album is bright with the light of the studio, but what made U2 great in the first place was their ability to capture transcendent and eternal light in the darkness of this world. The artificial studio sheen leaves little room for the texture, the shadows and tall trees. To quote the album's final track: "Grace makes beauty out of ugly things." That was U2's craft in the 20 years preceding. To be honest, I'm not sure if All That You Can't Leave Behind was the band's next leap forward or a colossal misstep in the wrong direction.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Beautiful Day", "Walk On", "Stuck In A Moment", "In A Little While", "Grace"

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb by U2 album cover

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

Release Year: 2004
My Rating: B+
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Let's do some 2-3-14! Yahweh said to Moses, "I am who I am." Drunk on punk, or a return to their 90's irony? Whatever it is,"Vertigo" somehow manages to capture everything distinctively great about U2 in one punchy punk rock track. And that's JUST the first track! On their 11th LP, U2 re-introduced the shadow. It seems they realized that the overwhelming light of their previous album was indeed BLINDING as the city lights, and that their best work NEEDS the darkness to shine and not sheen. "Vertigo" was their best single since the Achtung Baby era, as direct and vital as something off of War, and "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "City of Blinding Lights" approach Joshua Tree majestic. Not everything works - see "Love And Peace Or Else", "A Man and a Woman" - but most of it does. While I wouldn't call How to Dismantle a classic, it's good and gets a little better with every listen, revealing layers that you didn't expect.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Vertigo", "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own", "City Of Blinding Lights", "Crumbs From Your Table"

No Line On The Horizon by U2 album cover

No Line On The Horizon

Release Year: 2009
My Rating: B
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U2 introduced their 12th album to the world in the same way they introduced ZOOROPA: with a lead single designed to make you scratch your head and say WHAT IS THIS? But also like ZOOROPA, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON is better than you'd expect. "Magnificent" and "Unknown Caller" reclaim the desert cathedral majesty of their finest 80's moments, something I had missed for a long time. In fact, "Magnificent" qualifies as "so beautiful it hurts", which is the peak U2 aesthetic. The album's midsection is A BIT MUCH, but the quieter moments thereafter are a nice pallete cleanser, especially the pensive closer, "Cedars of Lebanon". All in all, No Line on the Horizon ain't perfect, but it's more than one half of a great album, and it features some of their best work of the 21st century.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Magnificent", "Unknown Caller", "Fez / Being Born", "Cedars of Lebanon"

Songs Of Experience

Release Year: 2017
My Rating: C
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I hate to say it, but Songs of Experience is a total dud for me. I find it bloated, overproduced, histrionic, even corporate. And other than Bono's unmistakable voice, it doesn't even sound that much like U2. There are a few DECENT tracks -"Summer of Love", "Red Flag Day" , "The Showman", "Get Out Of Your Own Way", "The Best Thing About Me" - but nothing I'd rank against even their best 21st century output. I know and believe that U2 is still capable of good work, but I struggle to understand just what they were seeking to accomplish at this point in their career. Was it art? Something else? I feel as if they were struggling to stay atop the trends, to sound relevant, instead of just being themselves. I'm sure it will grown on me some over time, but I truly hope that U2 rediscovers their magic for LP15. I'd give it a D, but it's U2, so I'll give it a C.

HIGHLIGHTS: none for me

OTHER RELEASES

coming soon…

MISCELLANEOUS / RELATED

coming soon…

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BOKY RATINGS GUIDE

Here’s my totally scientific method for grading albums. I’m sure you’ll find it revolutionary:

  • A+: CLASSIC album – I revere this bad boy.
  • A: GREAT album – a repeat listener from start to finish.
  • B: GOOD album – I’ll probably listen again at some point.
  • C: MEH album – not awful, but I have no desire to listen again.
  • D: BAD album – not sure why anyone would listen to this.
  • F: TRULY AWFUL album – monumentally bad and offense against music.

Gradations between letters (A-/B+/B-/C+) simply indicate it’s somwhere between the two letters.