Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hark! A Ranking of U2 Albums!

The recent release of U2's latest Songs of Innocence had been a quick topic upon the Intertubes a few weeks back.  A lot of "what the hell" mostly due to how it came out - Apple paid the band $100 million to set up 500 million free downloads that automatically loaded onto people's iTunes accounts (even when they didn't want it) - and a lot of "does anybody even listen to U2 anymore" blowback.

Well, as a U2 fan since the days of War, I wasn't angry about the forced free download so those issues didn't bother me as much.  My biggest concern was "was the new album any good?"

Along with my fellow U2 fans in the world - okay, the Horde of the Lost Battalion - there came a quick Facebook discussion which quickly faded because other issues - and the homework assignment of reading The New Jim Crow - had to be addressed.  But for meself, well hey, this is Serious Business being a U2 fan.  So I had to rank the new album among the others.  As a result, I had to go back and rank all of them (the official ones and not the EPs or Greatest Hits).

As such, it's taken me awhile - and a couple of nights re-listening to half the albums to confirm my bias - to bring to you this list of relevant "Yes U2 Is Still a Band Worth Listening To" albums.  Ranked by weakest (oh dear God, Pop) to best (no-brainer JOSHUA TREE, DUH!)... with Songs of Innocence stuck in the middle of a ranking it can't get out of.  Yeah, I went there.

Ranking U2 Albums - Weak to Epic

Title: Pop
Reasons: Whatever self-indulgences cursed the band with their first big misfire Rattle and Hum came back with a vengeance on this atrocity. Delving ever further into their techno phase starting under Achtung Baby and continued over from Zooropa, Pop is exactly what it says on the box: songs with the “pop” flavor of European dance music, holdovers from the disco era of the late 70s. Having a rock band go disco is not only disorienting, it's horrifying. I honestly cannot recall a single song off this album other than the opening tidbits from “Discotheque”. It's telling that when the band released their Greatest Hits album covering this era, they had every song off Pop remixed as though the original released tunes were bad. Well, they were.
Epic Song(s): None
Great Song(s): Discotheque, Gone (the remixed version off the Hits album)
Good Song(s): Last Night On Earth

Title: October
Reasons: Sophomore albums rarely do well, for several reasons: they're rushed out to capitalize on the band's fame, it's relying on weak songs culled from the debut album, the band is trying to repeat the same songs that were successful on the first album, but comes across as stale, etc. This one's no exception, falling under the “band seems repeating themselves” problem in terms of the music. Lyrics-wise, the album goes deep into the band's Christian background, essentially the most overt religious album they'll ever make (other songs will go into faith well up to now, but not as blatant). There's still a couple good songs here – I have a personal liking for “Tomorrow” – but the album as a whole isn't required for any collection or casual listener.
Epic Song(s): Gloria
Great Song(s): Tomorrow, October
Good Song(s): I Fall Down, Rejoice, Fire

Title: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Reasons: Admit it, you can't get that opening bit from “Vertigo” out – UNOS – of your head. DOS And yeah, I just put it – TRES – there on you like the evil earworm that it is. CATORCE! Bwhaha. While it's anchored by arguably the hardest-rocking song the band ever made, the rest of the album comes across as... disposable. You can live without having heard any of the other songs off this album, and probably will get into arguments with even hardcore fans about which ones are Great or merely Good. I had to re-listen to this album just to get a refresher on what's on here.
Epic Song(s): Vertigo, City of Blinding Lights
Great Song(s): Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, All Because of You
Good Song(s): Miracle Drug, A Man And A Woman, Yahweh

Title: Zooropa
Reasons: This got a hate-on pretty early in its existence, partly because it carried over the techno stuff from its great predecessor Achtung Baby but also because it foreshadowed some of the overindulgence that would kill the next album Pop. It didn't help that even the great songs on this album had an overproduced, throw-everything-at-the-wall feel to them (because the album ended up being rushed out the studio). Thing is, in hindsight and re-listening, this album isn't that bad. There's some great songs on here – “Lemon” in particular is very underrated – that can mesh well with the great songs from other U2 eras. I'd love to get a remixed “Zooropa” song that takes out that overlong instrumental bit in the opening (what worked great with “Where the Streets...” didn't work great here) and compresses into a more coherent mood-setter.
Epic Song(s): Lemon, First Time
Great Song(s): Stay (Faraway So Close), Dirty Day
Good Song(s): Zooropa, Numb, The Wanderer (with Johnny Cash)

Title: Rattle and Hum
Reasons: The first real Stumble and Miscue the band had. Pumped up by Joshua Tree and continuing their obsessions with American politics and culture, they jumped into this project looking to mingle live music with studio recordings in an attempt to capture the Joshua Tree roller coaster ride. Instead they created a muddled mess: the movie that came with this album did little as advertised, the live songs didn't jell with the studio songs, and the studio songs came across as the band trying to pat themselves on the backs for being so earnest. Yes, there are some decent songs on here, some of them must-haves, but I'm of the opinion they should have separated this into a studio album and a live album, that the live stuff should have been original tunes instead of covers, and that they should have done a better job with the studio stuff.
Epic Song(s): Desire, Bullet the Blue Sky, All I Want Is You
Great Song(s): All Along the Watchtower, Silver and Gold, When Love Comes To Town
Good Song(s): Heartland, God Part II

Title: Songs of Innocence
Reasons: The yelling and screaming over this album has more to do with how it was released – via a promotional binge by Apple, where they had iTunes automatically upload it for free (well, Apple paid $100 million for it) to 500 million accounts whether they wanted it or not – than what's actually on the album. Aside from a terrible cover photo (very understated but bleh), what else was there to hate about this? Probably because at first listen, and even second listen, there's no automatic hit here: no “Vertigo” or “Desire” to anchor the album. There's an attempt to make “The Miracle” (the Ramones tribute song) that hit, but seems forced. “Iris” and “Volcano” are more sincere songs deserving hit status, while “Raised By Wolves” can become a long-term classic. This ends up neither a great album nor the disaster the haters are crowing about.
Epic Song(s): Volcano, Raised By Wolves
Great Song(s): The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), Iris (Hold Me Close), This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now
Good Song(s): Every Breaking Wave, Song for Someone

Title: No Line On the Horizon
Reasons: Of the albums in the U2 roster, this is the one that comes closest to having a dark side, an anger to it not heard since War. But where War had a hopeful, We Shall Overcome protest vibe to it, No Line has a more jaded We're Stuck In Purgatory feel, making it Darkest Album. On the bright side it gives us some of the hard-rocking songs I tend to enjoy, but on the other hand it makes it hard to break out for repeat listens, and after awhile some of these songs like “Get On Your Boots” lose their appeal. Still, it's turning out to be a better album out of their most recent works. It'd be ranked higher if it had a more endearing rock song like “Beautiful Day” or “Vertigo” to it.
Epic Song(s): Magnificent, I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
Great Song(s): No Line On the Horizon, Get On Your Boots, Breathe
Good Song(s): Unknown Caller

Title: Under a Blood Red Sky
Reasons: Coming off the success of the War tour and off the insanely popular Red Rocks live concert looped endlessly on MTV, this presents the strengths of U2 as a live band like few other albums (and I'm surprised they don't release the exclusive live albums they've issued for the premium fanbase go to broader audiences). If this album has problems, it's due to the fact it's a hodge-podge of concerts across the whole tour instead of the epic Red Rocks performance: as though the songs from that one show had problems that the other recorded performances improved upon. I'd love to see a full album from that one show released some day...
Epic Song(s): Electric Co., 40
Great Song(s): Gloria, I Will Follow, Party Girl, Sunday Bloody Sunday
Good Song(s): New Year's Day

Title: Boy
Reasons: As first albums go this had enough good songs to get off on a great footing with audiences. Moody as all hell, thematically looking at the hazy yearnings of troubled youth, but impressive with Edge's haunting guitar work that would be a signature style well up into Achtung Baby. If this album looks higher-ranking than the other albums that have more Epic/Great songs, it's because the particular songs here are better, and this album (as the debut work) has more importance.
Epic Song(s): I Will Follow, A Day Without Me
Great Song(s): Twilight, Out of Control, Electric Co.,
Good Song(s): An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart, Ocean

Title: Unforgettable Fire
Reasons: After War, the band needed an album of hits to get a Number One song on the books. The result was this: using a sound that pulled away from the punk rawness of the first three albums but trying to keep that punk sentiment in the lyrics to generate crossover appeal. It ends up being a weaker album than War, but with at least one real epic must-hear song in “Pride”. It also has a set of songs that have a softer sound in the studio but which did so much better when done live. I have “Wire” listed as an epic song but it's noticeably one of their least-known songs from this album, kinda deserves more love in the world all I'm saying.
Epic Song(s): Sort of Homecoming, Pride (In the Name of Love), Wire
Great Song(s): Unforgettable Fire, Bad (the Live version off Wide Awake is SO MUCH BETTER), Indian Summer Sky
Good Song(s): MLK

Title: All That You Can't Leave Behind
Reasons: I remember some reviewer saying “This is U2's Greatest Hits album of fresh stuff.” Meaning it came across as a hodge-podge of all the previous stuff – the punk rock phase (“Beautiful Day”), the blues ethereal phase (“Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of”), the techno-industrial phase (“Elevation”), the Euro-Pop nightmare (“Kite”) – but with new tunes. Kinda what the album title implies, this was all of the baggage the band brought with them and needed to get out of their system before moving on. It also became known as their “third Great Album,” something I nitpick against but would accept in casual conversation. It does have a couple of epic songs to it, and great songs that lift it well above the questionable / disastrous efforts of the 1990s, but it's not a must-have album like the top three I got listed.
This was also one of the albums we – and I mean we by the American nation – listened to in tears and rage after the attacks on September 11. It'd been out for all of 2001 by then, but it had songs on there we needed to listen to, songs that echoed about what happened then and haunt us still. Dear God, I can't listen to “New York” without bursting into tears even now... damn them, U2 had a 9/11 song before 9/11 even happened...
Epic Song(s): Beautiful Day, Elevation, Walk On
Great Song(s): New York
Good Song(s): Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of, In a Little While, When I Look At the World

Title: War
Reasons: I'm stunned that this one keeps getting overlooked in the Great Album discussion that has All That, Achtung Baby, and Joshua Tree. It was this album that got U2 from small punk band to major airplay on radio stations across the US, that got them on the map (which also provided the basis for their well-received US tour in 1983). Not only does it have a couple of epic songs that keep getting airplay to this day – “New Year's Day” in particular – but it has a lot of great songs that seem to fly under people's radar. It might be due to this being their last true punk album of the early years, with a lot of rawness to the songs. But this also includes one of my personal favorites, “Drowning Man”. If you gotta listen to Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, you gotta listen to this one too.
Epic Song(s): Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Year's Day
Great Song(s): Like a Song, Drowning Man, Two Hearts Beat As One, Surrender, 40
Good Song(s): Seconds, Red Light

Title: Achtung Baby
Reasons: This one came out at the end of the Cold War, with the Berlin Wall gone, the US flattening Iraq in the desert, and the Soviet Union primed to collapse. Where all the punk earnestness had been burned out by Joshua Tree, and the obsession with Americana crushed by the flat Rattle and Hum, there was now this jaded “what's next” mindset that was settling in for the 1990s. Into this, U2 came out with a new sound more European/techno than American Rock... and proved they were capable of making more than one great album, putting them in the rarefied air of the great acts like the Beatles. Topped off by arguably the greatest song they ever made – “One,” which itself happened on the eve the band nearly broke up – alongside other hits like “Mysterious Ways” and “The Fly.” Christ, is this album more than 20 years old? It still seems fresher than that.
Epic Song(s): One, Until the End of the World, Mysterious Ways
Great Song(s): Even Better Than the Real Thing, Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, The Fly, Ultraviolet
Good Song(s): Zoo Station, Tryin to Throw Your Arms Around the World

Title: Joshua Tree
Reasons: Can I explain to you what it sounded like when I got the vinyl album (CD was still new and very expensive) and put needle to disc on the first song “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Can I explain what it sounded like when that ethereal opening instrumental poured out of the speakers, an approaching wave of sound that echoed like sunrise into the room? And that was the opening song blowing my mind. God. It sounded even better when I finally got the CD version. This is the album that tops everyone's list, the one even U2 haters would admit having in their collection. If there's a weak song on this album, it's probably either “Red Hill Mining Town” or “Trip Through Your Wires”, maybe “One Tree Hill” depending on who's answering. Every other song is in the Great Song category at the very least however people argue which one's better than the others.
This is U2's Revolver, their Bringing It All Back Home, their Born To Run.
Epic Song(s): Where the Streets Have No Name, With Or Without You, Bullet the Blue Sky, Running to Stand Still, In God's Country, Exit
Great Song(s): Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Red Hill Mining Town, One Tree Hill, Mothers of the Disappeared
Good Song(s): Trip Through Your Wires

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