After the monumental success of The Joshua Tree and its subsequent tour, there was definitely a sense of “Now what?” with U2. The band, perhaps, didn’t know themselves, which made sense why Bono said at a show in Dublin on December 30, 1989 that, “We just have to go away and dream it all up again.”
That cryptic quote, a foreshadowing of U2’s reinvention, could never have prepared for the band’s about-face in the 90s. A new image. A new sound. Achtung Baby truly was, in yet another quote from Bono, “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”
…And yet, without “One,” the whole album may never have happened.
“One” is credited for being U2’s breakthrough during the recording process for Achtung Baby, with tensions being so high before the song’s birth that the band considered breaking up.
That means we would’ve never met “The Fly” (or “Macphisto” or “Mirrorball Man”) and never known the majesty of ZooTV. (If you never got to see U2 live during the ZooTV tour, pick up the DVD. It’s even better than the real thing.)
U2 didn’t just chop down The Joshua Tree with Achtung Baby; they set it on fire and proceeded to broadcast it to the entire world.
U2: Their 50 Best Songs, Ranked
A standout on U2’s 11th studio album, “City of Blinding Lights” won the Grammy for Best Rock Song in 2006 and was used by President Barack Obama during campaign events during the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Presidential elections. U2 would perform the song during President Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln memorial in 2009.
U2 was gradually evolving their sound on their third studio album, ‘War,’ but their punk influences were still evident, especially on “Two Hearts Beat As One.” The track was the band’s second single off the album released between “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Bono wrote “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” as a tribute to INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who died by suicide in 1997. In a 2005 interview with ‘Rolling Stone,’ Bono said of his relationship with Hutchence, “I felt I had let Michael down because I was lost to my own busyness and hadn’t called as much as I would have liked...He would confide in me and I in him. We were really great friends. In Cannes we’d go out and we wouldn’t come home, we’d just sleep on the beach, having a laugh.”
A touching song about finding joy in love despite being surrounded by obstacles, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is a nice reminder that U2 still remain conscious of matters of the heart even on their 14th studio album.
Bono is well aware of the criticisms against him, and he seemed to lean into those criticisms on the lyrics of “All Because of You” namely in the second verse with, “I like the sound of my own voice/I didn't give anyone else a choice.” Perhaps he didn’t, but he’s at least self-aware enough to admit to it.
You wouldn’t think a song about Bono’s mom dying when he was 14 could be this danceable, but U2 made it happen on “Mofo” with one hell of a synth track alongside Larry Mullen Jr’s drums.
The second single from ‘No Line On the Horizon,’ “Magnificent” should’ve been the lead single instead of “Get On Your Boots,” which most agree is one of the worst singles U2 has ever released. “Magnificent” is a far better representation of U2’s 12th studio album. Fun fact: It’s working title was “French Disco,” which really is an accurate description of its sound.
If you want to get technical, “Miss Sarajevo” isn’t a U2 song; it’s a song from Passengers, a group made up of U2 and Brian Eno, but it’s too stunning not to include. The song was inspired by a beauty pageant held in Sarajevo during the Bosninan War in the 1990s. Famed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti sang on the track, which was performed live for the first time at the “Pavarotti and Friends” concert in 1995.
Inspired by Psalm 40 in the Bible, “40” remains one of U2’s most memorable live songs in their entire catalog. The song was famously used to close out the band’s set and saw each member of the band exit the stand one-by-one all while fans continued to sing on repeat, “How long to sing this song?” One word: Chills!
How much of a creative roll were U2 on in the early ‘90s? Even their b-sides were incredible! “Salome” is a great example of this. (Spoiler: Another b-side circa ‘Achtung Baby’ shows up later.) An unbelievably catchy pop-rock tune, ‘Rolling Stone’ wrote in a list titled “20 Insanely Great U2 Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know” that Robert Plant once said “Salome” was his favorite U2 song. If Plant digs it, there’s a good chance you will, too.
U2 joined forces with Green Day to cover this Skids tune in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was a perfect marriage of two bands with punk roots and remains one of U2’s standout tracks of the aughts. They would perform the song together before the first home game the New Orleans Saints played in the Superdome following the devastating hurricane. If you feel like giving yourself goosebumps, track down the performance on YouTube.
Released as a single from U2’s second greatest hits compilation, “Electrical Storm” is a tale of a couple at odds and the hope their rift will soon pass (“If the sky can crack there must be some way back/For love and only love.”) The song was accompanied by a stunning music video directed by frequent U2 collaborator Anton Corbijn and stars actress Samantha Morton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. as the song’s subjects. The video is one of the band’s most sensual and is a nice reminder that Larry is quite hot. Seriously, watch the video with a cigarette. You’ll thank me later.
‘Pop’ saw U2 fall further down the rabbit hole of electronic music, but some of the best songs on the album are where the band find balance between electronic and pop/rock genres. “Staring at the Sun” is a great example of this, and it still remains one of the most underrated singles the band has ever released.
A tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was integral to bringing democracy to Myanmar and is currently the State Counsellor of the country, “Walk On” took on new meaning following the September 11th attacks in the United States and became a poignant anthem for a country reeling from an unprecedented act of terrorism.
If anyone questioned whether U2 could still write a banger that could move stadiums after being a band for four decades, “The Blackout” put those doubts to rest. In a liner notes video for ‘Songs of Experience,’ Bono says of the song, “It’s a letter to the moment we’re in, where personal and political apocalypse combine. Not just the rock behemoths slaughtered by time but the dinosaur of democracy facing extinction...I don’t think it’s far fetched. Democracy, after all, is a mere blip in history. It’s an aspiration seized by bloody revolutions. It’s a bloody messy business.”
In theory, Johnny Cash singing over an electronic beat shouldn’t work, but on “The Wanderer” it just does. Closing out ‘Zooropa,’ The Man in Black’s voice is the perfect tone to tell a story about someone walking around a post-apocalyptic landscape. Bono provides some beautiful harmonizing toward the end of the tune, but a tale this grave needs to be sung by someone that has lived through some stuff. Cash was 61 at the time of this recording, and he just had far more gravitas than a then 33-year-old Bono, which is probably why the U2 vocalist wrote the lyrics with Cash in mind.
Originally a b-side for “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “The Sweetest Thing” was re-recorded for U2’s first greatest hits compilation and released as a single. Bono wrote it for his wife, Ali, after he missed her birthday due to being at the studio recording ‘The Joshua Tree.’ The song’s music video features Bono and Ali going on a carriage ride while Bono elaborately apologizes to his wife via a marching band, a step-dancing troupe, gyrating firefighters and much more. Honestly, the whole ordeal is the sweetest thing.
One of U2’s most popular b-sides, it’s kind of remarkable “Lady With The Spinning Head” was somehow left off ‘Achtung Baby’ or wasn’t saved to be included on ‘Zooropa.’ The song was an early track in the making of ‘Achtung Baby’ and would go on to influence a number of songs on the album, most notably “The Fly.” It should be noted “Lady With The Spinning Head” features one of Edge’s coolest solos and hookiest hooks ever with that chorus. Just one listen, and it’ll likely get stuck in your head for a few hours at the minimum.
While “Dirty Day” isn’t about Bono’s relationship with his father, the song certainly was influenced by the man. Bono said in the 2006 book ‘U2 by U2,’ “‘Dirty Day’ is a father and son song. ‘It’s a dirty day,’ was an expression my dad would use and there is a lot of him in there but it was also influenced by Charles Bukowski, the great American writer and drinker...The song is about a character who has walked out on his family and, years later, meets the son he’s abandoned. So it’s not about my father but I used some of my dad’s attitude.” One listen to “Dirty Day,” and you’ll be thankful for the attitude of Bob Hewson.
“I was there when they crucified my Lord/I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword/I threw the dice when they pierced his side/But I've seen love conquer the great divide.” Religion is a common theme in the U2 catalog, and it is ever present on this gem, which features the late, great B.B. King and was recorded in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis.
It’s impossible to talk about “The Fly” and not bring up Bono’s quote referring to the song as “the sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree’." Truth be told, he wasn’t wrong. Released as the first single from ‘Achtung Baby,’ “The Fly” was a complete 180 compared to the songs of ‘The Joshua Tree’ and ‘Rattle and Hum,’ and it set the stage for what was to come from U2 both in the studio and on the road with the Zoo TV Tour.
Bono wrote the lyrics for “Out of Control” when he was 18 years old reflecting on the two things you have no control over in your life: when you are born and when you die. Heady stuff to think about when you’re still very young, but it offered a look at the subject matter of what would soon come from U2 decades down the line.
“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” was written by Bono while his father, Bob Hewson, was dying from cancer. It’s one of the most personal and heartbreaking songs Bono has ever written, which is really saying something, but it’s hard to disagree when you’re faced with lyrics like, “You don't have to put up a fight/You don't have to always be right/Let me take some of the punches/For you tonight.”
It’s a love song, but it has grit, which makes it right at home on ‘Achtung Baby’ despite it lacking some of the alternative influences found on the rest of the album. Oddly enough, both the band and producer Steve Lillywhite aren’t super-fond of the tune. Good thing that many fans disagree.
Closing out ‘Rattle and Hum’ (both the album and film), “All I Want Is You” is another song whose lyrics were penned by Bono about his wife, Ali. (Swoon, right?!) The song would get a second life when it was included in the 1994 film ‘Reality Bites’ starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. (Double swoon!)
“Bullet the Blue Sky” represents U2 at perhaps their most caustic. The song’s lyrics were inspired by a trip Bono and his wife, Ali, took to Central America, where U.S. foreign policy led to mass unrest. The song’s lyrics took aim at President Ronald Reagan. (“Suit and tie comes up to me/His face red like a rose on a thorn bush/Like all the colours of a royal flush/And he's peelin' off those dollar bills/Slappin' 'em down/One hundred, two hundred.”) Since its release, “Bullet the Blue Sky” has become a setlist mainstay and one of the highlights of nearly every U2 performance.
Inspired by the U.K.’s National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984, “Red Hill Mining Town” is a soaring tune that seemed arena-ready upon its release. Oddly enough, the song was never played live until U2 embarked on their 2017 tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree.’
“Love Is Blindness” closes out ‘Achtung Baby,’ and it does so in remarkably moody fashion. The Edge’s playing on this track is some of his most dark, which makes sense on account of him going through a separation with his first wife. Not saying pain and struggle brings out the best creatively, but, in this case, it definitely didn’t hurt.
While the original version on ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is great, the version of “Elevation” on the ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ soundtrack, which features a significantly harder rock edge to it, is the superior cut. Speaking of “edge,” The Edge is basically the star of the song’s music video which finds the guitarist captured by “Evil U2” and is superimposed into the ‘Tomb Raider’ film sharing many scenes with Angelina Jolie. Yes, U2 is a serious band, but they can also be seriously funny, too.
Let’s just be blunt: “Until the End of the World” is the coolest song about Judas singing to Jesus ever. Sure, it might be the only song about Judas singing to Jesus, but you really don’t need any others when you have “Until the End of the World.” Edge’s bouncy, infectious riff takes this song to another level as does the killer rhythm track from Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
One of U2’s most achingly beautiful odes to love, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” was given a new feminist meaning on the recent ‘Joshua Tree’ tours that honored the album’s 30th anniversary. During the performance of the song, images of iconic women, from historical political figures to entertainers to activists, were shown on the large screen of the band’s stage setup. It provided for a very moving moment to a set that already included U2 performing ‘The Joshua Tree’ in its entirety.
“Please” is a protest song of sorts about religion, and it’s one of U2’s most moving tracks in their entire catalog. Bono said in a ‘Rolling Stone’ interview in 2001, “It’s essentially about fundamentalism, political or religious. Religious fundamentalism is where you get to shrink God; you remake God in your own image, as opposed to the other way around. It gave me a bit of a fright.”
The heroin epidemic that hit Dublin in the 1980s had a massive effect on U2, and sadly, it inspired some of their best songs. Among them is “Running to Stand Still.” While it wasn’t one of the five songs from ‘The Joshua Tree’ released as a single, it certainly was strong enough to be one.
Apocalyptic? Yes. Decadent? For sure. “Last Night on Earth” is one of U2’s best straight-forward rock songs in their catalog, and it just doesn’t get enough attention. Go listen to it right now if you haven’t done so in a while. You won’t regret it.
A dizzying ode to being a rock star, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” was the lead single off of the ‘Batman Forever’ soundtrack, which also featured Seal’s smash single “Kiss from a Rose.” Easily the cheekiest lyrics from U2 (or at least the most in one song), Bono gets bonus points for rhyming “tricks” with “crucifix.” What a star!
The fourth single from ‘Achtung Baby,’ “Even Better Than The Real Thing” might just be U2’s sexiest song ever. Of course, that all depends on what you’re into. (To that end, no judgement. We’re all God’s children. It’s fine!) Anyway, if you don’t find it to be sexy, it certainly is playful. (“You're honey child to a swarm of bees/Gonna blow right through ya like a breeze.”) U2 as a playful band was certainly a new concept, and it was certainly a welcome one.
One of the songs U2 recorded at Sun Studio for ‘Rattle and Hum,’ “Angel of Harlem” paid tribute to Billie Holiday, which could be why Bono really delivered on the vocals. It’s one of his strongest, most-memorable vocal performances in the U2 catalog. Just try and not feel a tingle up and down your spine when he belts, “She says it's heart, heart and soul/Yeah yeah!”
“Mysterious Ways” is U2 at their most exotic and spiritual, while also being romantically evocative. (“To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal/If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel/On your knees, boy!”) The fact that it has the hallmarks of a “Bandstand” hit (i.e. it has a good beat and you can dance to it) doesn’t hurt matters either.
Bono references his mother, whom he lost when he was only 14, on a number of U2 songs, but “I Will Follow” is the best. Bono said of the song in a 1987 interview with ‘Rolling Stone,’ “It’s a little sketch about that unconditional love a mother has for a child: ‘If you walk away, walk away I will follow,’ and ‘I was on the outside when you said you needed me/I was looking at myself I was blind I could not see.’ It’s a really chronic lyric.”
“Under a blood red sky/A crowd has gathered in black and white/Arms entwined, the chosen few/The newspaper says, says/Say it's true, it's true.../And we can break through/Though torn in two/We can be one.” “New Year’s Day” set the tone as the lead single off of U2’s third studio album ‘War.’ Really, one could say it set the tone for the rest of the band’s output of the 1980s. With “New Year’s Day,” U2 started to break through internationally, and in a few short years, they’d become the biggest band in the world.
While it was featured on ‘Zooropa,’ “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” was also written for the Wim Wenders film Faraway, So Close! Upon its release, it became one of U2’s most lush ballads in their catalog, and it remains that way nearly three decades after it’s release.
Paging Bo Diddley…”Desire” was the lead single off of ‘Rattle and Hum,’ and it brings an incredible jolt of energy with every listen. The song would net U2 a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988.
“With or Without You” was the lead single off of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ and it set the table for the moment U2 was about to have with their fifth studio album. It became the band’s first single to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart and remains one of the most enduring love songs of all time.
Imagine losing nearly everything but you’re still able to take stock in what you have left. It’s an overwhelming concept, for sure, but leave it to U2 to approach an idea like that and turn it into a massive, arena-rocking hit. “Beautiful Day” netted the band Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 2001. More importantly, “Beautiful Day” served as a sort of reset for the band as they entered the new millennium following their electronic-influenced ‘90s decade. They were back to basics, in a way, but they were still U2.
The second single from ‘The Joshua Tree,’ “I Still Haven’t found What I’m Looking For” blends elements of pop, rock and gospel that are beyond uplifting. For an album that reflected U2’s journey into America, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is perhaps the most-uniquely American song on the album.
A moving tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Pride (In The Name of Love)” became U2’s first song to crack the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at number 33. “Pride (In The Name of Love)” has the distinct honor of being the song U2 has performed the most live. (A whopping 1,022 times, according to Setlist.fm.)
While the studio version off ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is incredible, the live version of “Bad” from U2’s breakout performance at Live Aid in Wembley Stadium is simply iconic. The performance not only established U2 as one of the best live acts in music, but it showed off the band’s unique ability to turn a massive venue into an intimate setting. While Bono lept from the Live Aid stage and slow danced with just one very lucky concertgoer, it somehow felt like he was holding all of us. The song’s themes touch on the horrendous battles of heroin addiction which grew to epidemic proportions in Dublin in the 1980s. Sadly, it’s lyrics (“If I could, yes I would/If I could, I would/Let it go”) still resonate today.
With a drum intro you can feel in your gut, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was U2’s breakthrough hit in the United States. Inspired by the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” remains not just one of U2’s best songs but one of the finest protest songs in music history. Its conscience still resonates live decades after its release.
Some may view “One” not topping this list as a controversial choice considering its lore. U2 famously wrote “One” when they were on the brink of breaking up. Following the crazy success of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ U2 convened to record what would become ‘Achtung Baby,’ and to put it lightly, things were just not working out. And then, they wrote “One,” and the rest is history. It’s one of those songs most bands dream of writing, and everyone on the track is truly at their best.
U2 is a band that makes you want more and inspires you to dream bigger. They make you feel like nothing is out of reach, and “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the best example of that. What can you say about a song so magical, whose longing is felt for the entirety of its 5:36 runtime, including an intro that just builds and builds only to culminate in Bono exclaiming “I wanna run”? What can you say about The Edge’s undeniable and transcending guitar playing? What can you say about Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. laying down a rhythm track that you can feel pulse through your body? You can say that all of these pieces add up to the quintessential U2 song. At the end of this list, it’s all I can do.