(The Joshua Tree, 1987)
Even more than “Bad”, “Mothers of the Disappeared” is a subtle offering from a band known for histrionic gestures. The restrained track is only an anthem in the sense that its lyrics distill the pain of scores of South American mothers who lost their children to brutal dictatorships into a single voice. The atmosphere is stark and Bono is of few words, which he murmurs in his low register before ascending to a more heavenly (yet still low-key) timbre halfway through. If U2’s arena-sized posturing always rubbed you the wrong way, this might be a suitable alternative.
(Achtung Baby, 1991)
Fun fact about the opening track from U2’s image-overhauling masterpiece Achtung Baby: its introduction was specifically tailored to make listeners wonder if they had picked up the wrong record. The jarring snatches of processed guitar that inaugurate “Zoo Station” soon evolve into a T.Rex-style boogie riff that is still distorted into something awful futuristic—and very atypical of U2 up to that point in time. As Bono’s heavily-treated voice cackles “I’m ready / I’m ready for the laughing gas”, it’s evident that any preconceptions about the quartet built up by its singer’s personality-drenched activism should be left behind before proceeding further.
(Achtung Baby, 1991)
It’s shoegaze, U2-style. On what is the band’s finest love song that isn’t “With or Without You”, a feet-of-clay Bono ruminates about a failed relationship as strings and the Edge’s plangent guitar swirl around him, building up to the requisite soaring choruses. When Bono pleads “Baby / Can we still be friends?”, both he and the listener are astutely aware that there’s no chance, and hell if that isn’t one of U2’s most affecting moments.
If any inclusion on this list is liable to raise eyebrows, it’s this one. I know—I for one hated “Lemon” when I saw the video premiere on Fox as a wee lad. And like fellow Zooropa single “Numb”, the track’s arty un-rockism was further evidence that the band was losing the plot post-Joshua Tree. But disassociate it from the U2 brand and imagine it on the dancefloors it was designed for, and “Lemon” makes infinitely more sense. This tribute to Bono’s mother finds U2 abandoning rock completely for pulsating electronic Eurodisco, topped off by Bono’s surreal “Fat Lady” falsetto. Adam Clayton’s cyclical bassline alone makes the track worth checking out.
(Batman Forever soundtrack, 1995)
Forget Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”: the coolest single from the soundtrack to Val Kilmer’s turn as the Dark Knight is this sinister rocker. At its core, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” is a trashy glam rock homage, albeit one borne of the irony-fixated ‘90s. As the Edge’s crunchy chords drive the track along, the twisted post-Achtung Baby U2 ensures that the song’s anthemic aspirations are couched in a sly sneer and loads of menace. The group’s brave step forward would implode just two years later when Pop (1997) bombed, leaving “Hold Me…” as the capstone on the fruitful period when U2 mined rich creative veins by doing its best to not sound like U2.