For being the biggest band in the world over the past few decades, U2 is a very polarizing entity. Certainly, an act with such global ubiquity as Ireland’s prime musical export is bound to leave some amount of the human population cold. What’s striking in regards to a group as popular and critically-acclaimed as this one, though, is how numerous and outspoken its detractors are. No matter where you go, it’s as easy to find someone who strongly detests U2 for a long litany of reasons (its gargantuan ambition, its grating grandstanding, its gravely serious soapbox activism, singer Bono’s sheer existence, and so on) as it is to turn up a devout fan. Even U2 has grown sick itself on occasion—witness 1988’s Rattle and Hum film/soundtrack debacle, the leaden pomposity of which led the quartet to spend the 1990s embracing mold-shattering experimentation.
With U2 being such a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, assembling a 10-song primer to persuade the disinterested to change their minds about the group’s music has proven to be a difficult undertaking. Unlike our 10 Songs That Will Make You Love R.E.M. list from a few months back, this task is hampered by U2’s tendency to retain its most characteristic stylistic tics (Bono’s outsized voice, the Edge’s pedal-enabled guitar textures) even in its out-of-the-box forays, and because its best material is typically its most familiar—meaning you’ve probably already heard it and made up your mind ages ago. Still, we’re prepared to accept the challenge before us. If by chance you don’t finish this article with a newfound love of U2, at the very least maybe you’ll leave with a newly-earned respect for the lads.
Here’s a two-fer from U2’s appropriately-titled debut LP, Boy, an album featuring a startlingly innocent quartet brimming with potential. “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” flow into one another on the record (and are played side-by-side in concert), so it’s sensible to present them as a pair. The downright spooky kickoff to “An Cat Dubh” will surely throw you if you are unfamiliar with the band’s heavy debt to post-punk pioneers Public Image, Ltd. and Joy Division. Decades of selling out stadiums with rousing rock anthems have obscured the influence, but here it is laid out explicitly, and the younger-than-yesterday Bono Vox (as he was called then) opts for a David-Bowie-by-way-of-Gary Numan singing style that lacks the occasional smarminess of his more-recognizable breathy bellowing. Dread gives way to hope on “Into the Heart”, and its wordless outro—winding down beautifully with a hanging guitar lick and a pulsating bassline—could easily be mistaken for modern-day post-rock.
There’s probably no better gateway towards becoming a U2 fan than the singles from the band’s third album War. I say this from personal experience, as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was the first U2 offering I was able to embrace. Though as strident and passionate as any classic U2 cut, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is able to avoid solemn bluster due to its direct attack and its righteous outrage. Featuring a martial drum beat and a haunting arpeggio figure that explodes into meat-and-potatoes barre chords instead of the Edge’s standard delay pedal textures, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” cuts out all the bullshit so U2 can rock. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is potent indeed to non-converts: more than any other moment it was the band’s rousing rendition of this song during a 1983 concert at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre (captured on a heavily-played promo on MTV) that placed U2 firmly on the path to superstardom.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an incredible song, but it was War’s lead single that was U2’s first truly great one. “New Year’s Day” is downright cinematic in its scope and sweep, with Adam Clayton’s ominous bass figure acting as a contrast to the optimistic piano melody overlaid atop it. It is on this song that we hear the Edge at his very best and most inspired, sounding less like a man playing guitar than an aural evocation of the sights and sensations of war. Out front as always is Bono, who turns out a monumental performance on the band’s breakthrough single by making each verse he sings more impassioned than the last. The longing urgency he instills the line “I will be with you again” with leaves no doubt that he would do everything in his power to live up to his promise.
(The Unforgettable Fire, 1984)
Love him or loathe him, Bono at full power is a force to behold. In this nearly-six-minute album cut from The Unforgettable Fire (the group’s first production helmed by art rock auteur Brian Eno), Bono makes this heroin addiction lament into a career-defining event. Indeed, it was the band’s rendition of this song at Live Aid in 1985 that confirmed U2’s place in rock’s upper echelon. Subtly transitioning from subdued pleading to heart-wrenched catharsis and back, “Bad” reaches its apex with Bono’s anguished cries of “Wide awake / I’m wide awake”, his voice so forceful it’s startling. Throughout it all, Edge, Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. keep their heads down and dutifully craft a shimmering ebb and flow instrumental backdrop for their frontman’s spotlight moment.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.