The Best and Worst of U2
Forty years ago, four Irish lads — Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton — formed U2 as teenagers in their native Dublin. Four decades and 13 albums later, the quartet stands as one of the greatest rock bands in history. Read on for EW’s definitive ranking of U2’s titanic body of work.
13. Songs of Innocence (2014)
It wasn’t just the controversial Apple rollout — the record magically appeared “for free” in users’ iTunes accounts without their consent — but the music sounded overly populist too. Songs of Innocence captures U2 at their most pandering.
BEST TRACK: “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” — A harrowing takedown of the Catholic Church.
WORST TRACK: “Volcano” — Bono laments the past over lukewarm disco.
12. No Line on the Horizon (2009)
The sessions were fraught from the get-go: They booked time with Rick Rubin, but ended up returning to triedand-true collaborators Eno, Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite. The resulting songs sound clumsy, boring (where are the hair-raising hooks?), and, most shocking of all, slightly insincere.
BEST TRACK: “Cedars of Lebanon” — A gripping rumination on life during wartime.
WORST TRACK: “Get On Your Boots” — A curious blend of grunge guitars with hip-hop beats.
11. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
Dubbed as U2’s first true “rock record,” this solid follow-up to All That You Can’t Leave Behind won a Grammy for Album of the Year, yet Bono was right in his later assessment that “the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts.” The killer opening track, “Vertigo,” may celebrate risk taking, but the rest of the album sounds like a band scared of blowing its comeback.
BEST TRACK: “All Because of You” — U2’s most delightfully raucous Christian rave-up since “Gloria.”
WORST TRACK: “Love and Peace or Else” — A dirty, plodding, on-the-nose call for…guess.
10. Pop (1997)
On which U2 try to capitalize on the era’s hottest music trend (that’d be electronica) but wind up looking like old guys chasing tail at the club.
BEST TRACK: “Discotheque” — A noble attempt at electronica, played by actual humans, but the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” it ain’t.
WORST TRACK: “If God Will Send His Angels” — The album’s Big Important Ballad just sounds hollow now.
9. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
U2’s first partnership with ambient auteurs Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno was an erratic gem: The blend of dark art rock and voice-of-a-generation accessibility was by turns arresting and abstract. Still, The Unforgettable Fire is an essential transitional work that reorganized the band around innovation and positioned them for stratospheric greatness.
BEST TRACK: “Pride (In the Name of Love)” — Arguably U2’s most enduring anthem.
WORST TRACK: “Elvis Presley and America” — Unforgettably forgettable.
8. October (1981)
The sophomore slump hit Bono and the boys hard. Sure, there’s the fiery opener “Gloria” as well as a couple of deep-cut delights, but October is mostly saddled with midtempo meanderings and clunky letdowns.
BEST TRACK: “Gloria” — It has the catchiest rock chorus ever sung in Latin (it’s a short list).
WORST TRACK: “Is That All?” — There’s a reason it’s the last song on the album.
7. Rattle and Hum (1988)
U2’s second love letter to America swung from the shimmery, Sam Shepard-inspired “Hawkmoon 269” to the jangling New York beauty “Angel of Harlem” and a song called (of course) “Heartland.” Though critics slammed it for overreach, highlights like “Desire” and “All I Want Is You” are stone classics today.
BEST TRACK: “Desire” — Where bright lights and the big city meet Bo Diddley’s classic beat.
WORST TRACK: “All Along the Watchtower” — Nobody needed to re-cover this one.
6. War (1983)
This is the album where Bono stopped being polite and started getting real. U2 tackled the social and political (the Troubles, nuclear proliferation) and scored with stunners like “New Year’s Day.” Ultimately, War lives and dies by its superb singles, with skippable entries between the standouts.
BEST TRACK: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — How long must we sing this song? Forever. It’s that good.
WORST TRACK: “Red Light” — A messy, trumpet-filled bore.
5. Zooropa (1993)
Their most experimental LP is their most underrated, but Zooropa has hallmarks of primo U2: big-ass hooks (“Some Days Are Better Than Others”), Bono in cyber-dystopian mode (“Zooropa”), Bono in sex-god mode (“Lemon”), plus surprising vocal turns from the Edge and Johnny Cash.
BEST TRACK: “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” — Bono at his bitchiest (“A little uptight!”) and the band at its techno-funkiest.
WORST TRACK: “The First Time” — Bono’s falsetto grates on this meandering ballad.
4. All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
After noodling with electronica and pop irony in the late ’90s, U2 rebooted in 2000 with a rousing throwback to Joshua Tree-style classicism. And boy, did it meet a moment: When heard after 9/11, Leave Behind ministered to our grief with a beautiful exhortation to hope.
BEST TRACK: “Walk On” — A politically charged anthem about persevering with grace.
WORST TRACK: “When I Look at the World” — A banal entry in the “crisis of faith” category of U2 songs.
3. Boy (1980)
It can be hard to remember now thanks to years of overblown tours and Apple partnerships, but U2 were once just another scrappy post-punk band from the early ’80s. Yet the group’s stadium-size ambitions and hitmaking instincts on tracks like “A Day Without Me” and “I Will Follow” set them apart from peers like Joy Division and the Cure. Boy established their trademarks: passionate songwriting, huge vocals, memorable riffs, and, most important, heart.
BEST TRACK: “I Will Follow” — Their first hit and, to this day, a bulletproof classic.
WORST TRACK: “Stories for Boys” — Bland, mid-album filler.
2. The Joshua Tree (1987)
Taking America as a theme and roots music for inspiration, U2 launched into their second decade with a transporting masterpiece of focused, soaring songs that ripple with dramatic angst and fiery empathy. The worldconquering collection — the A side is one of the strongest runs on an album ever — forged the sonic formulas that U2 would revisit, and deconstruct, for years to come.
BEST TRACK: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — The gospel rocker that summed up U2’s theology and restlessness.
WORST TRACK: “Exit” — An edited jam and sketchy portrait of a serial killer.
1. Achtung Baby (1991)
The title was a nod to the fall of the Berlin Wall and a newly reunified Germany, but Achtung also signaled the reinvention of U2 as its own kind of global superpower: Neither the ragtag Irish rebels of their early days nor the divisive American dreamers who came after, this is Bono & Co. writ large, in the best way.
BEST TRACK: “One” — If this immortal ballad doesn’t wreck you, you’re dead inside.
WORST TRACK: “Acrobat” — “You can swallow/Or you can spit/You can throw it up/Or choke on it.” Yes, yes, you can.