Saturday, February 28, 2009

U2 Countdown

Being a U2 fan can be a hard ask at times. Bono can be so damn righteous that you almost want to vomit, and given that their first album came out in 1980, saying you are a U2 fan puts you pretty squarely in a certain age bracket that prohibits you from thinking yourself young. But no matter, I made my bed with U2 over 25 years ago, so I'm not about to leave them now.  And thus, yesterday after work I stopped by Big W on the way home and bought a copy of No Line on the Horizon.


And I have to say it's a great U2 fans’ album. There are elements that sound like they could have come off of The Unforgettable Fire, and others that even had me recalling their early albums like War. There are some tracks – such as “White as Snow” and “Magnificent” that I have already earmarked for my own U2 Greatest Hits CD.

I could do a review of the album, but I need a few more listens, and to be honest music reviewing is not my forte . Instead here's my ranking of all the previous 11 U2 studio albums.

11. October


This is number 11 for only one reason: it is the only U2 album I don’t own. I don’t have any desire to own it, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’ve even heard all of it. Most likely the reason is that I came to U2 when the next album War came out, and by the time I had enough money and was near a decent record store that actually had a copy of this, I was past caring about hearing it (and had heard bad things). So by default it comes last.

It is most famous for being the album that nearly broke them up – Te Edge wanted to leave, and Adam Clayton was getting jack of all the religious stuff the other three were getting heavily into. Thankfully they stuck it out.

Best track – “Gloria” – though it’s better live on Under a Blood Red Sky

10. Pop


Damn what a disappointment! Coming off the back of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, they went to the experimental well once too often. It was a good try, but it was pretty obvious this was a rushed job that didn’t have the band’s heart in it – apparently they needed to finish the album in time to go on tour (which had been planned before they started recording the album). There are some nice things on it “If God Will Send his Angels”, “Starring at the Sun” and “Last Night on Earth” are three tracks in a row that at least sound like U2 (poor U2, but still). I even quite like the final track “Wake Up Dead Man”, but I loathe “Discotheque and “Mofo” where the band tried to go techno-dance. Look it’s good to try new things, but you have to stay true to yourself. And for all the critics saying this is “underrated”, I have to say it’s their only real miss-step.

Best track: “If God Will Send His Angels

9. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb


Half of a very good album, but after track 5 you get the feeling the guys were already out the door. And heck even the cover is dull. It starts off brilliantly though – “Vertigo” is one U2 song that really demands to be cranked up loud when listening to it in a car; “Miracle Drug” has a catchy few licks;  and “Sometime You Can’t Make it on Your Own” is nice, but feels like a cast off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “City of Blinding Lights” is nice enough as well – but, to be honest, I can never remember it.

This won Best Album at the Grammy Awards which is pretty much a sad indictment of the Awards – it would be like one of the Star Wars prequels winning Best Picture at the Oscars.

Best song: “Vertigo

8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind


A very good album, but coming as it did after Pop it has tended to be over-rated because everyone was just so relieved to have U2 back again. As is usually the case with U2, the best stuff is at the front. “Beautiful Day” is as good a song as they have ever done (in fact it’s as good a song as anyone has ever done – it is impossible to hear it without actually feeling like you are having a good day). “Stuck in a Moment…”, “Elevation”, “Walk On”, and “Kite” were all great returns to form, and pretty much guaranteed the band could do at least 2 albums without having to worry about their popularity waning.  After those songs, things get a bit less listenable. “Wild Honey” is quirky fun, but I couldn’t hum “New York” or “Grace” though. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” is a nice ending, but it’s hardly “40” or “All I Want is You”.

Best song: “Beautiful Day

7. Rattle and Hum


This was actually the first U2 album I ever bought (though I was enough of a fan to wonder why it took the audience in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so long to work out which song it is), and thus despite it perhaps being the most criticised U2 album, I have a bit of a soft spot for it. At the time it was abused for being so overblown and self-important. It also didn’t help that Bono suggested the whole thing was just thrown together on a whim, when in fact it looked about as much of a whim as the invasion of Normandy.

Yes Bono is being a git when he says they are stealing back “Helter Skelter”, and “God Part II” has pretty insufferable lyrics. But there’s also a lot of good stuff here. “Van Diemen’s Land” makes you wish The Edge got more of a go at singing, “Hawkmoon 269” is one of my favourite album tracks, “Angel of Harlem” a truly great song. And when they get together with Bob Dylan on “Love Rescue Me” they really reach the peaks. I’m not such a fan of “When Love Comes to Town”, but “All I want is You” is about as perfect a love song as you can have.

Yes they were criticised for this, but at least with U2 you knew they put it all on the line.

I also like this album because in 1991 I was in Japan on an exchange and I frequently used to travel by train to Yokohama, and Side 2 of the album was the exact same length as the train trip from Ebina station to Yokohama station – and thus I would get on the train, put Side 2 on my Walkman and close my eyes, knowing when the last bars of “All I Want is You” played, the train would stop at my destination.

Best song: “All I Want is You” (cool video as well)

6. Boy


What a brilliant first album. It’s raw, it’s young, it’s of its time – part punk, part anti new wave. The influence of The Clash is all over it; and you have to love it for that. “Twilight” and “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” are youthful masterpieces. “Stories for Boys” which was one of their first ever written songs is a fun, but the real talent is seen in “The Electric Co” - a great post punk song, that sounds great here, and is even better on Under a blood Red Sky. The final song, “Shadows and Tall Trees” began their habit of ending albums with a haunting slow number.

It was also a great album cover, that perfectly captured the band and their Irish roots – suggesting there was more to them than just another throwaway rock band – they were after something deeper.

Best song: “The Electric Co

5. Zooropa


Unlike Rattle and Hum, this truly was put together on a whim, and it was all the better for it. It’s a bit hap hazard; it has a few songs that probably could do with some more work – the title track and “Babyface” especially. But it came with the totally cool “Numb”. When I first heard the song I was on holidays with my girlfriend and the only radio we had was the one in the car, and where we were didn’t get a great reception. I heard a pretty staticy version of the song on SAFM, and thought whoah, this is different. It certainly showed that the influences in Achtung Baby weren’t just a one off romance. Songs like “The First Time” could have come of Lou Reed’s Berlin album from the 70s, and “Stay (Faraway So Close)”, written as it was for the sequel to Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire is a totally European influenced ballad. And then it ends with Johnny Cash singing a nuclear country ballad, “The Wanderer”. Madness I says! But brilliant madness.

All in all there’s a lot of fun to be had on this album, and it certainly rewards multiple listens.

Best song: “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” (great video)

4. The Unforgettable Fire


What a brave album. Consider that they had just defined themselves as the heirs of The Clash with the phenomenal War and then they come out with this ethereal, poetic group of songs. How could a band that sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday” also be able to do “Promenade” or “The Unforgettable Fire”, to say nothing of “Elvis Presley in America”? I nearly put this higher, because I have to say I love this album on a personal level. It brings back so many memories for me. Due to its melodic nature, it was a perfect album to have playing while studying or writing essays, and so whenever I hear these songs I am taken back to winters in Adelaide during the early 90s as I stayed up to 1-2am studying for mid-year exams.

The songs have a wonderful late night feel to me, and for some reason “Elvis Presley and America” – a totally stream of consciousness bit of piffle is my favourite song. It’s a song most U2 fans don’t even like, and yet for whatever reason – and it probably has more to do with the memories it conjures – it is among my all-time favourite U2 songs.

That said it certainly isn’t the best song on the album.

Best song: “Pride (In the name of Love)

3. The Joshua Tree


Easily their biggest selling album, and the one, without which they would not be “U2: Biggest Band in the World”. The first side contains all the hits, but I actually enjoy Side 2 just as much - “One Tree Hill” is beautiful, “Exit” (despite the fact it is so soft for so much of the song) is dark and despairing, and the ending of “Mothers of the Disappeared” is shattering in its beauty – the lyrics:

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughter cry
See their tears in the rainfall.

are astonishing to be found on an album that sold 25 million copies.

The first four songs were all singles, and all are top drawer stuff – and they reek of America. But my favourite song is the fifth one of the album, “Running to Stand Still” about heroin addiction. I saw them perform it on their Zoomerang tour of Australia in 1993 (coincidentally on the night after I had finished my last university exam) and it was a personal highlight.

It’s a great album to put on late at night when you’re doing some writing.

Best song: “With or Without You

2. War


If you want to compare U2 to The Beatles (which was a bit of the rage in the 80s) then The Joshua Tree was their Sgt Peppers, Rattle and Hum their White Album, and War is their Revolver. A better comparison though is with Midnight Oil; any true Oil’s fan will always prefer 10 to 1 to Diesel and Dust, and so too with U2 and WarThe Joshua Tree is for the Johnny come latelies – War is for those who got on board before the band wagon started (or who want to pretend they did!)

It is the album for angry young men who want to change the world. It is the album for teenagers who care about something more than just getting a girlfriend or boyfriend; who think there are issues out there that matter. It is the album for any who want to go to a concert and put their fist in the air while the singer leads them like an army.

The cover is as good as it gets. And it encapsulates what U2 are about.

Heck the album doesn’t even have that many “hits” – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” of course, “New Year’s Day”, and that’s about it - “Two Hearts Beat as One” was released as a single, but didn’t do all that much. But it is an album of which the while is greater than the sum of its parts. And the final song of “40” is just brilliant.

After this album you knew U2 were here to stay - they were a band that mattered in the world; and what’s more they were the perfect antidote to all the hair bands of the 80s; the anti Duran Duran, the antithesis of Wham!. If you wanted to be someone who was to take yourself far too seriously, then you had to be  U2 fan, and it all started with this album.

Best song: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (of course)

1. Achtung Baby


There were two records released in 1991 that influenced rock music for the rest of the 90s – Nirvana’s Nevermind, and U2’s Achtung Baby. Nirvana released the grunge movements upon the world (and yes, I know they weren’t the first), and Achtung Baby influenced just about everyone else. Much like 20th Century poets have had to either acknowledge the influence of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or fight against it; so too with Nevermind and Achtung Baby. It’s impossible to imagine Coldplay without U2, or Pearl Jam without Nirvana, and Radiohead feels like some amazing amalgam of both.

This album marked the beginning of the third chapter in U2’s career (generally you can divide their period into lots of 3 albums beginning with respectively, Boy, The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby and All that You Can’t Leave Behind – though No Line on the Horizon seems to ruin that nice pattern), and it did with a crash of guitars in The Fly – which Bono famously said was the sound of 4 guys cutting down The Joshua Tree. It was the album that people who didn’t like U2 could enjoy – I had a friend who hated U2 with a passion, but loved this album (and kinda hated himself for doing so!).

When I first bought this album (and the day of its release naturally) I put it in my CD player expectedly, and when the first riffs of “Zoo Station” began, I thought my CD was scratched. It was so unlike anything I was expecting. The album has great tracks throughout – “One” is as good a love ballad (of sorts) as you could wish for, and the final song “Love is Blindness” is “All I Want is You” as though written by Nick Cave. About the only song that I would put in the dud category is “Even Better than the real thing” – it’s just a bit too poppy  for this album. But the rest of the album is full of killer tracks.

It also spurned an amazing tour with the band going all out with a video screen multimedia extravaganza that set the standard for stadium tours by any band. They were at the peak of their powers, and they didn’t waste them.

Best song: I’ll go with “Until the End of the World

So where is No Line on the Horizon? Well after one day of listening to it, it feels like about number 6 or 7 – either before or just after Boy, perhaps good enough to replace Zooropa once I’ve given it some more time to seep into my consciousness. But regardless, the song “White as Snow” is absolutely fantastic.


Mac Yourselfathome said...

It's all wrong. Wrong I tells ya!
Zooropa 2nd. War 3rd. Unforgettable Fire 4th. (Everything else I don't have that much of an opinion on beleive it or not)

Jaime said...

I'll give the horizon one another go then. Agree with Zooropa as #1, but I actually quite liked Pop.

I wonder, should I be hiding under my table in embarrassment, since everyone else in the world hated it?

Trung said...

(By the way, Head Injuries is a better album than both DIesel and dust and
I found this article abit late but as a big U2 fan I can't resist but comment on it
1. Boy
Best song: A Cat Dubh
Other highlights: Twilight, Shadow On Tall Trees
2. Zooropa
Best Song: Lemon
Other Highlights: Stay, Zooropa, Babyface
3. Achtung Baby
Best Song: One
Other Highlights: Love Is Blindness, Until the end of the world
4. War
Best Song: Sunday Bloody Sunday
Other Highlights: New Years Day, Like A Song
5. October
Seriously underated album. Edge is at his element here, you should really listen to it.
Best Song: Tomorrow
Other Highlights: I Fall Down, I Threw A Brick Though A window
6. Rattle And Hum
best Song: Heartland
other Highlights: All I Want Is You
7. Joshua Tree
I think this album is a bit overrated. The first half is brilliant the 2nd half is much less so.
Best Song: With Or Without You
Other highlights: Bullet The Blue Sky
8. The Unforgettable Fire
Best Song: Bad
Other Highlights: Pride, Unforgettable Fire
9. How To Dismantle The Atomic Bomb
Best Song: A Miracle Drug
other Highlights: A Man And A Woman
10. All That You Leave Behind
Best Song: In A Little While
Other Highlights: Beautiful Day
11. Pop
Best Song: Gone
other Highlights: Discotheque, Last Night On Earth
12. No Lines On The Horizon

Sorry, I think this album is a parody of U2. It's like they took all of U2 cliche and put it in a song.

Best Song: Magnificent
That's about the only song I like from it.