It’s interesting that despite the detractors and Bono‘s reputation as a bit of a self-congratulatory diva, U2 still remain “the world’s biggest band”. This may not hold objectively true when taking into account total album sales or concert attendance, but the air of supreme grandness hasn’t been usurped by any other band to date. The four Irish rockers still maintain ubiquity- they’ll pop up in your iTunes whether you want them there or not.
They’re a legacy act for sure; their seemingly eternal grasp on relevance has slipped away over the course of the past few albums and its fairly unlikely they can pull out another reinvention. They’re still the biggest legacy act though, and the fact that they held on to the spotlight for the better part of three decades is an unmatched feat. The band defined “arena rock” and became the prototype for every aspiring group of skyward reaching acts for the next thirty years. They amassed over sixty radio singles over the course of their career- here are the best ten.
10. Bullet the Blue Sky (from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
- U2 might be best known for putting their arms around the world, but Bono occasionally kicked back, put a lit cigarette in his mouth, and actually looked cool. The dark bass-driven track was one of the few times that the band showed real honest-to-goodness leather jacket attitude in the most genuine sense of the word. You don’t get covered by metal acts like Sepultura and Queensryche without having a little cred to your name. In some ways it was a herald of things to come, a sign that in four years they’d reignite themselves with Achtung Baby. It’s the theme to about a hundred war movie trailers and perfectly marries the band’s arena sensibilities to real grit.
9. Beautiful Day (from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)
- The inescapable anthem of the year 2000 was, and is, aggressively uncool. It’s the band at their most unreserved, bursting with feel-good sentiment that amounts to a National Geographic montage in audio form. There’s really very little to read into- the song is literally about a beautiful day. Sun, sky, water, grass- Bono just marvels at nature as he sings his heart out in a way only he can. All that said, it’s also one of the most well-written compositions of all time. It’s not often a band takes over twenty years to deliver one of their signature songs, but here ya go! It really worked as a product of its time as well; the unbridled optimism at the turn of the millennium wouldn’t have rang out as clearly had it come at another point in their career. It was a case of the right sound from the right band at the right time.
8. The Fly (from Achtung Baby, 1991)
- The first of U2’s reinventions came in the form of an eclectic record that managed to merge the different sonic zeitgeists of the day into one fusion and still sound like U2. The scuzzy “Fly” borrows elements from house, brit-pop, and grunge without devoting itself to any of those scenes. It’s a magpie’s delight, donating a generous helping of credibility to the band’s image and allowing them to stay afloat during the years of Seattle.
7. New Year’s Day (from War, 1983)
- U2 and political statements have gone hand in hand since their inception; the band was borne of the turmoil that unraveled in Ireland during the late twentieth century. It’s that scene that influenced a huge amount of their early work, including this political new wave/post punk anthem that comes second only to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in overt IRA-conflict references. It’s hopeful without being mawkish, and holds one of the most iconic guitar/bass riff combos in music history.
6. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me (from the Batman Forever soundtrack)
- 1995’s caped crusader flick was best known for its garish set and costume design, so it’s only appropriate that U2’s contribution to the soundtrack would be a glam-rock homage that worked immensely well despite being years and years too late. The swooping string section, the ostentatious lyrics, and the chunky guitar riff all screamed decadence in an era when back-to-basics grunge was still largely dominant. The song would be a precursor to the band’s “weird” late 90’s stage, but has aged considerably better than any of their other work from the latter half of that decade.
5. All I Want is You (from Rattle and Hum, 1988)
- When it comes to the band’s weepies, “All I Want Is You” will forever be overshadowed by the likes of “With or Without You”, but the gospel-tinged track is nearly as potent as its predecessor. It could definitely be argued that it features a more memorable guitar riff, delivered in Edge‘s signature chime that echoes out to infinity as the song grows from a quiet strummer to full on U2 spectacle. The extended outro and Bono’s raw shouting most likely buried its chances at being considered a true U2 classic, but it still pulls the heartstrings as a song of devotion.
4. Where the Streets Have No Name (from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
- There is perhaps no other rock song that defines widescreen epic better than this one. The Brian Eno-helmed single is perhaps one of the only alternative rock radio staples that features an absolutely crucial ambient intro and outro, its scope incomplete without the ethereal organ and Edge’s inimitable guitar pinwheels. Is it political? Personal? Spiritual? The song transcends those borders ably and bursts into life without the baggage of “deeper meaning”. It’s the biggest song ever written and aptly constructed for the widest audience possible.
3. With or Without You (from The Joshua Tree, 1987)
- The I-III-IV chord progression is the most used in pop music, and it’s laid bare here. The simple eight note run cycles through the whole song, plain as day, and works better than the thousands who have employed it before or after. The hushed twilight ballad is another example of Eno’s magic touch; the production ensuring that everything exists in its right place. The uncomplicated bass acts as the humble backbone while the silver strands of ambient keyboard float above the track. Bono and Edge stand somewhere in the middle, the centre of a sonic microcosm that also happens to be one of the best love songs ever written.
2. Sometimes you Can’t Make it on your Own (from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004)
- The last of the band’s commercially viable records still managed to pump out a solid five singles, and although the majority of them weren’t stellar, two of the three were among the best songs the band’s written. It’d be silly to say that this song has remained a pillar of U2’s catalogue – anything not named “Vertigo” on HTDAAB has been long forgotten – but this oft-ignored selection is just as good as any of the band’s biggest hits. There’s a reason the cool merchants that were The OC‘s music department unironically (!) featured it among the hip sounds of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. Bono’s soliloquy for his father is a bare display of emotion and is exactly as good as a latter day U2 anthem should be.
1. Ground Beneath Her Feet (from The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack, 2000)
- Written by Salman Rushdie and recorded for a Mel Gibson movie, this rarely played oddity is a gem that stands as perhaps the most underrated song U2 ever wrote. Buried under the relentless hit parade that resulted from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the song is a prime example of being released at the wrong time. There was no way it could shine when “Beautiful Day” was crushing the charts, and would have thrived if saved for later releases. The sun-dappled guitar and vaguely Eastern melodies have a timeless quality to them, so the whole song gives no hint as to what era it belongs to. It could just as easily have been released in the 80s as it could be today. Though most of the song is relatively reserved, the coda blossoms with a full orchestral section and haunting backing vocals. It’s the song “Miss Sarajevo” should have been, sumptuous production and poetic lyrics paired with an essential tune. It’s one of the band’s best kept secrets, a top-tier masterpiece from a band full of them.