U2’s albums ranked from worst to best
The band are about to perform The Joshua Tree in Croke Park, so where does it stand in the canon?
Through a fair chunk of the 1990s and 2000s, The Joshua Tree was perceived as the embodiment of everything toe-curling about U2: it was earnest, preachy and obsessed with the junkier aspects of American culture.
But lo! – as Bono might sing – the wheel has turned. In the Age of Trump, politically-engaged rock is once again in vogue. And this weekend U2 bring the sold-out Joshua Tree tour to Croke Park. Is this misplaced nostalgia or is the LP truly deserving of such lionising? Hold on to your felt cowboy hats as we rank U2’s studio albums, from worst to last.
13: No Line On The Horizon (2009)
That rare U2 album where you reach the end and feel cheated by the lack of patented Bono yodelling. Part-recorded in the Moroccan city of Fez, No Line… sounds as if it passed out in the heat and had to be dragged under a tree to recuperate. At once bloated and insubstantial, it bobs and weaves, adrift on endless waves of billionaire rock star ennui. The tedium is broken only by the “please, make it stop” dad-pop of Get On Your Boots, a paean to quickly (but safely) donning some mildly risqué footwear and stomping about in a “funky” fashion.
Bono rating: A pathetic whimper
12: Songs Of Innocence (2014)
In an era when faux outrage is everyone’s favourite pastime how naive of U2 to think they could bung their new album on to 300 million iTunes accounts without ticking off a significant chunk of the record consuming public. It didn’t help that the record resembled a karaoke tribute to the musical heroes of their adolescence in Dublin. And while their devotion to The Ramones and The Clash was clearly heartfelt, the music, bloodless and overproduced, failed to measure up.
That’s a shame as Bono was wrestling with some genuinely raw themes: the death of his mother on Iris (Hold Me Close) and, on Raised by Wolves, the lack of closure suffered by the families of those killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. But good intentions could not paper over the fact that this is an LP with lead in its boots.
Bono rating: A mild yelp
11: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)
By going on the road with The Joshua Tree, U2 have stepped closer to the heritage circuit where old warhorses such as the Rolling Stones are put out to (very profitable) pasture. Their decline as songwriters arguably accelerated in earnest with their 11th album, which opens with the karate-kick single Vertigo but quickly sinks into mushy bleatings: City Of Blinding Lights and Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own are so generically U2 you could imagine them being put together by a quartet of androids wearing black stetsons (plus a beanie hat for the Edge-bot).
Bono rating: A strangled cry in the dark.
10: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
The album that saw U2 reclaim their place as world’s biggest rock band was also the moment at which they stopped looking forward and started strip-mining their past. Glossy dirge Beautiful Day suggests Pride (In the Name of Love) with Simon Cowell at the mixing desk; Elevation and Walk On chose bombast over depth. Mind you, few singers could deliver Elevation’s giggling chorus of “I’ve lost all self-control/ Been living like a mole” with the straight face Bono maintains here.
Bono rating: An impassioned yodel from the balcony of a four-star hotel
9: Rattle and Hum (1988)
The stereotype of Bono and the Edge as pious cowboys, tassels in a perpetual twist over the state of humankind, was crystallised with this concept record / movie soundtrack. Rattle and Hum was a love letter to America: but did it have to be to such a deeply cliched vision of America? The blues, rail-roads, cowboy hats – here was a picture-book USA gleaned from old Life magazine spreads. There were some cracking tunes amid the mush and Desire gave the group their first British number-one single. Yet Rattle and Hum reeks of misfired ambition and presumptuousness – flaws that would haunt U2 through their career.
Bono rating: A horse-frightening falsetto
8: October (1981)
U2 recorded October as Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr wrestled with whether they actually wanted to be in an acclaimed new wave rock band in the first place. Assembled while deep in their Christian evangelical phase, U2’s second album is vulnerable and self-questioning, qualities that have never brought out the best in the group. With Steve Lillywhite returning to produce (he had also overseen their debut Boy),they occasionally punch through the piousness, such as on Gloria. Yet the claustrophobia ultimately presses in too tightly. And those with an original vinyl copy have to deal with the terrifying blow-up of Adam Clayton’s orange perm on the cover.
Bono rating: A cry of confusion to the heavens.
7: Pop (1997)
The band’s then manager Paul McGuinness was notoriously given permission to book the next U2 tour months before the completion of their ninth LP. Only at the end of the recording did the bones of an album cohere – by which point the musicians had to pack bags and squeeze into giant plastic lemons for their PopMart shows.
But despite many slapdash moments, Pop holds up. The Massive Attack-esque Mofo revealed that U2 going trip-hop was not quite the tragedy of taste many might have expected; the electro-funk noodlings of Miami and If You Wear That Velvet Dress were perhaps the last time the group were willing to indulge their experimental side (producers included the voguish Howie B and Nellee Hooper). And bonus points to the Edge for dressing as an S&M biker in the Discotheque video.
Bono rating: A vocodorised yell of triumph from the dance floor
6: Boy (1980)
Out of the blocks they rush, a quartet of snotty Dubliners with bad skin, terrible fringes and an unassailable belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they have a message the world needed to hear. As with most debuts, Boy is rickety and naive, but also contains early moments of signature U2 transcendence. The Edge will never again write a riff as vital as I Will Follow; A Day Without Me and Stories For Boys trembled with the effervescence of youth. Here Bono was both a primadonna in the making and a nervy kid still living with his dad. The tension drives the album.
Bono rating: A shout for attention from angry young men ready to take on the world.
5: Zooropa (1993)
With Achtung Baby and Zooropa the consensus was that U2 had “done a Bowie”: recording at Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio and overhauling their image with a chilly Mitteleuropean hauteur. The difference is that Bowie would never have delivered a line as cheesy as Zooropa’s opening refrain. “Zooropa vorsprung durch technik,” howls Bono. “Zooropa be all that you can be.” It’s not quite “I’m always crashing in the same car . . . ”
Yet from such unpromising beginnings, Zooropa – recorded in a burst of creativity following Achtung – quickly blossomed into one of U2’s most fascinating and odd-ball excursions. With critics onside and the Zoo TV tour doing record-breaking box office, U2 were free to indulge.
What they came up with was intriguing, with Edge delivering a sleepy voiceover vocal on Numb and Johnny Cash – then a declining lounge singer – an affecting Bono understudy on The Wanderer. In between the hits, there have been glimmers of the more leftfield entity U2 might have been; on Zooropa, these two visions came close to crossing the streams.
Bono rating: An emotive yodel – but this time it’s the Edge
4: War (1983)
The beginning of U2’s imperial phase. Dissatisfied with October and with their gaze locked on the promised land of arena rock, the band applied themselves with uncommon ferocity. Bono started waving a white flag on stage and reconfiguring his live performances as a heartfelt conversation with his audience. The quest to connect translates to the songs, with Sunday Bloody Sunday using the 1972 Derry massacre as a springboard for a lament about man’s perpetual inhumanity and New Year’s Day confidently engaging with the scope and dynamic of stadium rock. U2 had finally arrived.
Bono rating: A spine-tingling call to arms, accompanying a fluttering white banner.
3: The Joshua Tree (1987)
It would be easy to declare The Joshua Tree U2’s finest 50 minutes. It certainly contains several of their great anthems: Bullet The Blue Sky, With Or Without You, Red Hill Mining Town (to the delight of a generation, the new tour sees the quartet performing this haunting single-that-never-was for the first time).
Yet The Joshua Tree ultimately feels like the end of something rather than its beginning. Across the previous two records U2 had grappled with the mechanics of stadium rock and The Joshua Tree was where those tinkerings bore fruit, with songs that were heartfelt and ruthlessly engineered to tug at the emotions. Moreover, one person’s uplifting hymnal is another’s gauche crowd pleaser: in both the best and worst sense Where The Streets Have No Name is where Bono and company achieve Peak U2.
Bono rating: A rapturous roar towards the horizon.
2: Achtung Baby (1991)
Wash-out alley beckoned for U2 as the decade turned. Pious arena rock was falling from favour, replaced by the tears and blood of grunge and the mopey shaman-pop of The Stone Roses and their peers. How could four millionaires in designer sun-glasses fit in? Somehow they found a way, with producer Brian Eno encouraging the group to rebuild their sound from the ground up, resulting in “is that really U2?” moments such as the Edge’s opening riff on The Fly and the krautrock thump propelling Zoo Station.
Achtung Baby proved that in pop it is possible to have your cake and eat it. The album also yielded the unabashedly emotive One - a torch song that became an anthem for a generation afflicted by Aids and perhaps U2’s stand-out tear-jerker.
Bono rating: A stadium rattling shout (accompanied by a knowing wink)
1: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Bands are often at their most fascinating immediately before or after striking upon the golden formula that transforms their career (this is why Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish trumps Parklife and In Utero is a better record than Nevermind). With U2, Joshua Tree was where everything finally crystallised. But The Unforgettable Fire, recorded three years previously in Slane Castle, was more wide-eyed, less strident in its certainties – and arguably a more rewarding listen.
The songs were better, too – the title track a proggish fever dream, live favourite Bad a stomper that balanced bombast and vulnerability (later Bono would err towards the former). More than that, however, The Unforgettable Fire is a final snapshot of U2 before mega-fame swooped in. Without the politicians hanging out of their pockets, or the vast heaving arenas, here they still have the vestiges of four ordinary guys from Dublin taking on the world. U2 were never cool but there is something to their swagger on Unforgettable Fire that burns deep and true.
Bono rating: A shout of determination, lapped up by a waiting world.