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.
“An Cat Dubh”/“Into the Heart”
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.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
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.
“New Year’s Day”
“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.
“Zoo Station” and more…
“Mothers of the Disappeared”
(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.
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
(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.
“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
(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.