You might think that assessing the relative merits of every album by my favorite band since childhood would be no thang for a seasoned pro like me. That's where you'd be wrong, Bono -- er, boyo. Rating the U2 catalogue turned out to be as difficult and time-consuming as it is pointless. Be that as it may, in a kind attempt to prevent you, Gentle Reader, from frittering many irreplaceable hours of your life thinking about this between now and five days hence, when U2's giant space-claw touches down at FedEx Field, I have valiantly endeavored to count down the U2 canon (minus live albums, compilations, EPs, soundtracks, side projects, or bootlegs) from weakest to mightiest.
You're seated comfortably? Delightful. Let's begin.
12. October (1981)
"I was walking, I was walking into walls / I'm back again / I just keep walking / I walk into a window to see myself."
-- "I Thew a Brick Through a Window"
Even Trekkie-level superfans like me kind of forget that U2's sophomore album exists. The story goes that at a gig in Portland, Oregon in 1981, a 20-year-old Bono's briefcase was swiped, including a notebook with all the new lyrics he was writing. He'd gripe about it at subsequent Pacific Northwest gigs for decades. That was perhaps the earliest documented episode of Bono annoying somebody into doing the right thing, because incredibly, the briefcase found its way back to him in 2004, notebook intact.
So the absence of lyrics are at least part of why this album sounds so tentative, but it's pretty thin on musical ideas, too. The Latin-chroused opener "Gloria" spent much of the 80s as a live favorite, and "Tomorrow" -- a kind of eulogy for Bono's mom, who died suddenly when he was 14 -- sounds appropriately funereal, with some haunting Uilleann pipes, a rare example of traditional Irish instrumentation on a U2 album. But there's little else of interest here.
There used to be a lot of confusion about whether U2 were a Christian band or just a band that had some Christians in it. This nascent version of U2 sound like they don't know, either.
In his acceptance speech when U2 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2005, Bono spoke about this album's failure, and how it was only the long view taken by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell that saved them from being dropped. "There would be no U2, the way things are right now," he said. "That's a fact."
11. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
"I like the sound of my own voice / I didn't give anybody else a choice."
-- "All Because of You"
Admit it: You were even more surprised by how hard "Vertigo" rocked in the fall of 2004 than you were to see U2 shilling for Apple in an iPod commercial. Bono's en Espanol opening count-off of one-two-three-fourteen kicked off the giddiest U2 single in a decade. It was one of the half-dozen keepers on this album -- see also the Who pastiche "All Because of You" and the shiny, happy "City of Blinding Lights," which sounds like a U2 parody at first, but eventually pummels you into submission with its sheer earnestness, unless it incites you to take hostages. It's sequenced fifth on the record, inexplicably. With its slow build and an arena-ready chorus, it's obviously the opener, which is the position it held for most shows on the subsequent 2005-6 Vertigo Tour.
So how does the album place this low? Two reasons:
1) Though it's immaculately crafted and quintessentially U2-y, it's also the first album of U2's career to add nothing new to the story. Somehow they needed 18 months in the studio and at least three producers -- including Chris Thomas, who they'd never worked with before and who stomped off in frustration after a year -- to make something that sounded good but utterly familiar. (Contrast that with the grueling but hugely rewarding year they spent shedding their sonic skins that birthed Achtung Baby.)
2) Like October, this one is tarred by some of the most laughable lyrics of Bono's career. From "Miracle Drug":
"Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby's head!"
But also like October, one of its highlights is a requiem for a Bono progenitor. He'd sung an early version of the shimmering ballad "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" at his father's funeral in 2001.
Bono, The Edge, and lifelong manager Paul McGuinness are all separately on record as saying they think this is U2's finest work. Madness! But God bless these guys for the way they can always keep a straight face while proclaiming their latest album their best. McGuinness actually thinks the album would have done better if not for its curious mouthful of a title. It sold three million copies in the U.S. and won five Grammys including Album of the Year, so I'm not sure how successful he thinks it should have been.
10. POP (1997)
"Mother, you left and made me someone / Now I'm still a child, but no one tells me 'no.'"
I guess I must value ambition over execution, since I'm ranking the problem-child POP ahead of the good-son Atomic Bomb. After a decade or so of legacy-minded backpedaling, it's easy to forget now that in the 90s U2 had Radiohead-like creative aspirations and the Rolling Stones' determination to sell out football stadiums. They've told the story many times of how they rushed this album out undercooked (despite having labored over it for at least a year) because they had committed to dates for the all-stadiums PopMart Tour before the record was finished.
There was also the little matter of U2's most dynamic and expressive instrument -- that would be Bono's Vox -- having suddenly gone limp due to poor vocal technique and smoking, which he'd started 15 years into his singing career. (For a smart guy, Bono can be quite stupid.) Their other iconic element, Edge's guitar, is largely buried (the wailing "Gone" is a welcome exception), though when it descends for a strafing run at the crescendo of the full-on techno track "MOFO," it's probably the most thrilling moment on the album.
The band's wish to explore dance music was sincere, but so was America's utter disinterest in hearing U2 try to sound like the Chemical Brothers. When they dressed up like the Village People for the video for lead single "Discotheque" -- the mere title sounded horrifying at the time -- plenty of former fans decided they'd stay home and listen to The Joshua Tree or more likely, OK Computer, thankyouverymuch.
Still, the desperation that's palpable throughout this album -- much, if not all of it, intentional -- gives it a gravitas that holds up. It's U2's darkest set of songs, and for all the electronic bleeps and bloops (courtesy of Howie B., Nellie Hooper, Flood, and a cast of thousands), their most naked. The bent ballad "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," the muso "Sunday Bloody Sunday" update "Please" and the ecclesiastical lament "Wake Up, Dead Man" make a closing triptych that's nothing at all to be ashamed of.
9. No Line on the Horizon (2009)
"Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas."
-- "Stand Up Comedy"
Everything about the protracted run-up to U2's current release made even their most loyal defenders (Hi!) nervous: That they'd shelved everything they recorded with Rick Rubin (save for the so-so "Window in the Skies," tossed onto the U218 compilation) and speed-dialed Eno and Lanois for help yet again. That they'd given Eno/Lanois songwriting credit for the first time on this, their seventh album together (not counting the Passengers soundtrack thing* from 1995). That Will.i.am (!) was remixing something called "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."
But after two fundamentally conservative records in the 00s, it's a relief to hear U2 on a walkabout again. The only duds here are the songs aimed at radio: Inert lead single "Get on Your Boots," that "Crazy" song. But "Magnificent" is an, er, resplendent stadium incantation. "Moment of Surrender" is seven-plus minutes of hypnotic sci-fi gospel. "Breathe" throbs and chimes like classic U2, but with a great huckster vocal like the one Nick Cave used on my favorite album of 2008, Dig!!! Lazarus!!! Dig!!!
No Line goes to some queasy places in its latter 20 minutes, and "Cedars of Lebanon" -- about a war correspondent unraveling in the field -- is the most despairing note they've left us on in a goodly while. The darkness suits them.
*U2 have inexplicably begun performing "Your Blue Room" from the Passengers album on the current 360 Tour. I guess my question here is, WTF?
8. War (1983)
"And so we're told that this is the Golden Age / And gold is the reason for the wars we wage."
-- "New Year's Day"
It'll be heresy to some that this one doesn't place higher, but its middling position befits its status as a Great U2 Album I Don't Ever Really Need to Hear Again. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" have never fallen out the live rotation, and you understand why: They'e iconic. Even people who loathe this band can sing "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and "New Year's Day" was simply their best song to date. This is U2's arrival as a political force.
There are other great tunes here: "Seconds" features the first of only three lead vocals in the U2 songbook by The Edge (he sounds just like Bono), and the elegiac "Drowning Man" hinted at the blurrier, more impressionistic side that U2 would explore on their follow-up, The Unforgettable Fire. (Never performed live, U2 rehearsed "Drowning Man" for their current tour but have thus far proven unwilling to bum out a paying crowd of 60,000 with it.) But the rest of the album, especially goofy disco numbers "The Refugee" and "Red Light," has aged like Bono's hairweave.
War was one of the four runners-up for Best Album in in the 1983 Rolling Stone critics poll, alongside The Police's Synchronicity, Thriller, and X's More Fun in the New World. R.E.M.'s Murmur took the crown. I'm not sure War is as good as any of those records, but you know, we can talk about it. At length.
7. All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
"The last of the rock stars / When hip-hop drove the big cars"
U2 had spent the 90s running from their known strengths, and after the lukewarm reception to POP plenty of people were convinced they'd have no choice but to settle into R.E.M.-like semiretirement, playing to their shrinking cult. But with "Beautiful Day" -- a euphoric anthem that put The Edge's stratospheric guitar up front for what felt like the first time in forever -- U2 demanded, and received, a third act. Though the album's musings on aging and mortality attained accidental relevance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, this was U2's least thematically cohesive set of songs to date. Their brief was simply to ditch the drum machines and prove they could still write hits.
And they did: "Beautiful Day" got played 'til its wheels came off. "Stuck in a Moment" and the understated, Al Green-like "In a Little While" -- the album cut Joey Ramone kept requesting from his deathbed, claims Bono -- made for convincing blue-eyed soul, and "Elevation" was an irresistibly dumb jock jam*, even if Lenny Kravitz could have written it. "Walk On" and "Kite" do just what they were engineered to do: Soar like the U2 of the Reagan years. Bono's singing a lot of treacle on those, I'm inclined to forgive because he's singing so well. The album sputters out after seven songs, which was probably four more than they needed to win forgiveness and renewal.
*Could U2's mortifying Super Bowl XXXVI halftime appearance been averted if they'd left "Elevation" off the album? Ah, but that way madness lies.
Tune in tomorrow for part two!