U2 evolved from a jangly post-punk guitar outfit to expansive arena rock demigods before finishing out the '80s delving into roots rock. While the band was one of the few '80s acts to be as interested in making great statements through album releases as in producing hit singles, the band made no bones about its desire to maximize commercial viability. The impressive combination of popular and critical appeal that eventually defined U2 rivals any artist in rock history, and evidence of this rousing style can be found in the group's top '80s output. Here's a chronological look at 10 of the era's best U2 songs.
This song was where it all began for U2 on a number of levels, especially in the evolution of the unique guitar sound produced by the Edge. The forceful, compelling lead-off single from the band's 1980 debut, Boy, also introduced the bigger-than-life vocal and performance style of frontman Bono. It was no wonder that U2 quickly became one of the decade's most celebrated live draws, as the big, driving and inspirational sound of this early classic demonstrates. But there's also a tremendous amount of trailblazing innocence in the track, which undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the shape of college rock to come throughout the decade. Many bands would attempt to follow U2 on its '80s rock trajectory, but few could manage to keep up.
It didn't take Bono long during U2's vibrant but relatively low-key early years to indulge his righteous, messianic impulses, as this memorable tune from 1983's War witnessed the singer's move toward more blatantly political material. Bono's passion as a songwriter and performer never seemed anything less than genuine even when it was often highly theatrical, and the band's take on the Northern Ireland "troubles" is a blistering attack on atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict. The live music video for the song quickly became an iconic fixture on MTV, not only because of the fiery performance but probably also at least partially as a showcase for Bono's killer mullet.
This nearly perfect rocker from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire represents an early pinnacle for U2's penchant for sweeping, politically charged anthems. The band's music thereafter would become increasingly personal and a bit less distantly observant, but as a tribute song of its type there may be no finer example in rock history. The song's subject matter, the inspiring life and tragic death of Martin Luther King, undoubtedly holds massive appeal for Bono's humanitarian worldview, and the resulting song is sublime. By this time as well, the chiming guitar style of the Edge and the rhythmic precision of drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. had begun to forge an iconic, appealing sound for the band that still shines brightly a quarter century later.
If "Pride" showed U2's ability to craft an exemplary, tight rock song, this majestic epic showed what the quartet could do with lots of room to stretch out, build tension and create delicate textures. Lyrically the song floats along on a vaguely opaque path, but the tune's greatest strengths are undoubtedly Bono's growing sense of melody and his expressive singing. How a band could take itself as seriously as this without alienating listeners (in fact, attracting them instead) still amazes me, but the group manages to turn in both a classic studio recording on The Unforgettable Fire as well as a stunning, essential live version from 1985's live EP Wide Awake in America. Both are well worth owning if you have the room on your iPod.
As the lead single to one of rock's greatest albums of all time, 1987's The Joshua Tree, this anthem would have been a pretty dangerous risk for any musical ensemble consisting of mere mortals. Luckily, the quartet was able to rise nimbly to its own lofty goals, and the result is that this song is so fantastic that it's hard to believe the rest of the album, or any album, could feel like anything but a letdown in its wake. Somehow Bono & Co. avoid that problem on the 10 tracks that follow, but from its splendid opening to its deliberate verses and overwhelming chorus, this tune serves as a stunning how-to on rock anthems. The iconic music video - filmed spontaneously on a Los Angeles rooftop - matches the song's earnest passion perfectly.
Well, I hope I don't run out of hyperbolic language before completing this list, but I think I will probably have to take the time to reload once or twice. U2's music had often been spiritual before, but never did Bono's lyrics more poignantly capture the human capacity for yearning and the suffering that invariably requires than in this popular but also flawless acoustic ballad. In many ways, the song functions as the pop music equivalent of William Blake or Robert Browning, with a tremendous boost of modern commercial appeal. The track's timeless simplicity is a perfect match for the efficient if poetic language of one of Bono's finest lyrics, which deftly explores his special strain of humanistic spirituality.
This stands as one of the decade's finest singles, a serious competitor indeed (along with a classic like the Police's "Every Breath You Take") for the title of most perfect pop song of the '80s. Bono's lyrics reached an impressively high level of strength and clarity on The Joshua Tree, and they're especially haunting and truthful on this tune, a tale of deep romantic longing and woe. Musically, the song takes atmospherics to a new level, as Adam Clayton's simple but powerfully memorable bass line sets a deliberate tone that allows plenty of room for the Edge's sonic textures to provide welcome accents. This song was justly unavoidable in 1987-1988, and because of it U2 continues to represent a standard for high-quality pop music.
When one gets to the The Joshua Tree on a journey through U2's catalogue, it largely becomes a question of closing one's eyes and pointing at the album sleeve to identify the best songs. The record is such a treasure trove of fine folk-influenced thinking man's rock music that worthy tracks must be left out. Still, I persevere. This tune features one of the band's finest escalating melodies, rendered beautifully with the aid of the Edge's typical but never worn-out chiming guitar style. Also, Bono's vocal performance has rarely been this iconic and passionate, even though it's difficult to argue that he's anything but a very high-percentage vocalist. Haunting melodic genius galore: "I'm hangin' on/You're all that's left to hold on to."
Here is one of the deeper album tracks from U2's masterpiece that casts its own particular kind of spell, as Bono transmits his sense of yearning through an almost electrical current of emotion. The band, meanwhile, establishes a shuffling rhythm that provides an appropriate showcase for Bono's growing interest in roots rock and Americana music styles. In fact, this slight change of focus from the band's earlier alternative/modern rock niche probably helped The Joshua Tree strike such an overwhelming chord with American audiences, who had always loved U2 anyway.
10. "One Tree Hill"
As the ninth track on the 11-song album, this underappreciated gem takes its place as the ninth consecutive great song on The Joshua Tree, an accomplishment that is astounding given the filler tracks common to even the best albums released over the years. Beautifully evocative and transcendent, the track provides a brilliant bridge between U2 the slightly underground heroes and the huge pop stars that would soon enter the '90s. The Edge's singular guitar sound remains the common thread.