I’ve been digging through one of my weekly rabbit holes as of late. Ever since that awesome concert in Vancouver, I’ve been on a U2 kick.
In my digging, I’ve found that I’m a bit isolated in my admiration for the band; between Bono’s polarizing personality, U2’s brand of music, and the band’s age, there aren’t as many millenial fans as I originally thought.
Instead of giving in and denouncing my love for the band, I’ll try to combat the problem by listing off a dozen songs which I encourage everyone to listen to.
This list is neither definitive or accurate. These songs are my favourites and are some of the first songs I add to my Up Next queue in iTunes. The list should give a fair idea to the range of U2’s creations over the last 30 years, although strong preference is given to songs in the late 80s and early 90s. As expected, almost all these songs are U2’s biggest hits, but there are a couple you probably haven’t heard on the radio.
Here we go.
This is the 12th song on U2’s Rattle and Hum album from 1988 and is a duet between U2 and the late B.B. King. It’s a classic blues song and was recently played live for the first time in 23 years after B.B. King’s death.
“Real Thing” is the second song on U2’s 1991 album titled Achtung Baby. The song’s opening riff is a classic example of The Edge’s brilliance. I once read somewhere that Real Thing was an answer to all the questions surrounding U2’s boisterous character after their wildly successful Joshua Tree album in 1987. This is a classic U2 sound and is a sure fire bet to be played at most of their live concerts.
This is the first of two songs which probably aren’t heard on the radio all that often. It’s also the first of four songs on this list from The Joshua Tree. “Running to Stand Still” is a slower piece with some powerful lyrics. Based on the story of a heroin-addicted couple, “Running to Stand Still” is my favourite of U2’s “non-hitlist” songs.
“Beautiful Day” is the newest song on this list and is the debut track for U2’s 2000 All That You Can’t Leave Behind. After a fairly unsuccessful decade following 1991’s Achtung Baby, “Beautiful Day” marked a return to U2’s classic sound and kicks off my favourite modern U2 album. That, and the overall optimistic nature of the song, make “Beautiful Day” a great addition to an otherwise aged list.
This song kicks off with one of the most recognizable drumbeats in music — Larry Mullen’s coming out party, if you will. Dedicated to the victims of unarmed citizen killings during the Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland, the first song on U2’s 1983 War is a great listen live. In Vancouver, U2 played an acoustic version of “Sunday” with just a snare drum — easily my favourite rendition yet.
Some may disagree with the placement of “One” on this list, but I’ve never connected to One. Produced at the lowest time in the band’s history, “One” has been adopted by many movements due to its inclusive lyrics. There’s a lot of raw emotion in one of Achtung Baby’s biggest hits — “One” is a classic example of Bono’s love for singing about kinship, inclusiveness, and camaraderie.
Speaking of love, “Pride” is a powerful song dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and other powerful individuals who gave up their lives in the name of a good cause. “Pride” is the second track from the 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and, like “One”, is a powerful song full of emotion and admiration. “Pride’s” lyrics are a great example of Bono’s song writing skills, even despite the error in the timing of MLK’s death.
“I Will Follow” is the opening track to the band’s debut album Boy in 1980 and marks the band’s first gigantic hit. “I Will Follow” opens with an unmistakeable guitar riff which plays even better live than through an iPod. And realistically, if you see U2 live, you’re sure to catch “I Will Follow” at some point — it’s one of their most played live songs and doesn’t fail to kick off a concert with a bang.
A bit of a personal bit on “I Will Follow”: The first time I saw U2 live, “I Will Follow” was the first song I didn’t recognize. I wasn’t a major fan at the time, but I figured out pretty quickly this song was an absolute fan favourite. Every person in the 45,000 Canad Inns Stadium was jumping and singing to the song, and I sat there in miserable embarrassment. I vowed I would memorize the song immediately.
Since my memorization stint in the week after the concert, “I Will Follow” has become not only one of my favourite songs to listen to, but one of my favourite sets of lyrics to read as well. The religious undertones in the song send shivers up my spine, and I admire Bono and the band for their steadfast ways.
This is the second of the two songs which you probably haven’t heard on the radio, and if you have heard it on the radio, I’m sure you haven’t heard the live version on the radio. “Bad” is the seventh track on U2’s 1984 The Unforgettable Fire album and is easily U2’s most underrated song. “Bad’s” lyrics were written about Bono’s friend who died of a heroine overdose.
Of all the songs on this list, “Bad” is a far better song to listen to live. The recorded track starts slow and feels slightly unfocused. In contrast, James Henke stated in Rolling Stone in 1985 that “Bad” was one of — if not the — best live U2 song. The addition of sequencers at the beginning of the song add an element not found in the recorded version. By all accounts, skip The Unforgettable Fire track and head straight to the live version instead.
“With or Without You” has become a classic breakup song over the years, however it maintains some of its religious elements as well. “With or Without You” is the third song of a star-studded lineup in The Joshua Tree and rocketed to the top of hitlists across the world.
Like many U2 songs, “With or Without You” has an enormous helping of emotion and feeling. Bono’s shout about two thirds of the way through the song is a great example of the vulnerability showcased in the lyrics.
“Still Haven’t Found” is the second track on U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree and, like “With or Without You”, catapulted to the top of the charts.
Early after my first U2 concert in 2011, I researched the origin of “Still Haven’t Found” and was surprised to hear the song was born after the band first listened to Larry Mullen’s unique drum pattern. U2 developed that drum pattern into their most popular gospel song ever.
Gospel music is an overall trend for U2, however it wouldn’t be considered a classic gospel from early America. U2’s gospel music is found in the lyrics and in the less-concrete wording of their songs. “Still Haven’t Found”, if looked at from a certain point-of-view, can be read as a prayer and an ode to the band’s upbringing. I especially appreciate this simple line:
When all the colours bleed into one.
If there was ever an inclusive, loving, temperate line in a song, that would be it.
The deeper meaning in “Still Haven’t Found” can’t be missed, has been readily heard for decades, and will continue to be enjoyed for decades to come.
I could write an entire post about “Streets”. There is so much to talk about with this one song. The song changed music forever back in 1987, yet was almost cut from production when the band couldn’t find the right sound. Thank goodness they found it.
“Streets” is the debut song in The Joshua Tree and the opening guitar riff has been heard the world wide. The Edge spent ages perfecting the opening riff, and, to this day, has yet to be properly duplicated. As an opening track to a high-risk (at the time) album, “Streets” kicked off U2’s greatest album with an absolute rocket.
The mind-numbing part about “Streets” is that it’s even better live. I’ve spent hours watching as many versions of live “Streets” as possible, and there is an evident maturity in the song over the years. Adam Clayton, in my opinion, adds an incredible depth to the sound of the main chorus of “Streets”, and this depth has only grown since 1987. Just listen to the live playings of “Streets” and see what you think.
“Streets’” lyrics are something to behold as well. Like “Still Haven’t Found”, an element of gospel is washed into an emotional rock which is quintessential U2.
Many have pondered the meaning of “Streets’” lyrics. After countless readings, countless memorization sessions, and countless research sessions, I believe the lyrics give a look into Bono’s idea of heaven. From the “disappearance of dark clouds” to a place “where the streets have no name”, the song paints a backdrop of an ethereal place. Of course, the tangible inspiration for the lyrics come from Belfast and how segregation occured in society based on the street of a person’s home.
No matter how you look, feel, or hear “Streets”, the song is arguably U2 at its absolute best. This song has it all — the sound, the depth, the live performance. I get shivers every time I hear it, and if you catch me at the right time, I’ll shed a tear. I love it. And if you aren’t a U2 fan, give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to this masterful track just once.
That’s my list of favourite U2 songs. These songs will never get old in my home, and I hope my kids can grow up listening to them as well.
But trust me, this is only a start. I enjoy a fair number of 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb songs, and despite the poor launch to the latest Songs of Innocence album, U2’s latest work hits home pretty hard as well.
And hey, Songs of Innocence may already be on your iPhone somewhere. You don’t have a whole lot to lose to give one of these songs a listen.