Thursday, January 09, 2014

Ranking U2's Albums

This could quickly become an outdated post given that U2's new studio album is expected to be out in April, but given how U2 is notorious for delaying records, I feel like I have to get this post out now lest the ideas just sit around mouldering in my brain for the next…oh god, surely those four jerks wouldn't make us wait another year for new music, would they?

Anyway, to while away the hours until then, here's my personal ranking of U2's twelve studio albums.  This is one of those rankings that has remained more or less the same at the top and bottom for years yet the middle is always open to shifts depending on my mood, whether a certain record just caught me the right way on my most recent listen or if a song gets stuck in my head for the first time in a decade and gives me a new appreciation.  I could write this very same post again in five years and it will be completely different, though hopefully in five years I'll have more than one damn new U2 disc to add to the mix.

N.B. I'm not counting the Passengers side project with Brian Eno, since that was specifically "Passengers," not U2.  Though if I did rank it, it'd be last.  So huh, maybe this means I did just rank it.

12. October
Well of course it's October.  Any random poll of U2 fans on the subject of the band's worst album will involve a couple of snarky votes for whatever their newest record is, or for Pop, but the large majority will always go to October since…*drumroll*…it's the worst album.  I'm not even going to sell you on it being underrated or a hidden gem, as it's just a thoroughly average record of decent tunes.  "Gloria," "Rejoice," "Tomorrow" are all very good but that's it.  For a band that prides itself on breaking new ground on each recording, October is the one that can easily be omitted from U2's history without missing a beat.  They rarely ever play anything from this record in concert except for the wholly unexpected revival of "Scarlet" on the last tour, complete with backing rap from opening act (!) Jay Z.  Even the album cover is terrible thanks to Adam Clayton's haircut. 

11. No Line On The Horizon
I raved about NLOTH when it was first released but yeah, it's not aging well.  Much has been made of the weird "we need some hitz!" placement of the three pop-rockers tracks right in the middle of what's overall more of an ambient record but I don't know, the quieter stuff like "Cedars Of Lebanon," "White As Snow," or the experimental "Fez: Being Born" seems more and more like filler as time goes on.  The disc's best tracks are very good but not great, aside from the instant classic "Moment Of Surrender."  In short, NLOTH seems more like a souped-up version of October than a real step forward for U2 and I confess that I don't give it many listens. 

It probably didn't help that, during NLOTH's promotional cycle, Bono kept going on about how the band had already made a follow-up record (Songs Of Ascent) that would be a bit more low-key and meditative, which was odd since NLOTH was already a pretty sedate album.  But whatever, hey, new U2 stuff, bring it on!  The trouble was that it was never brought on, aside from a few notable tracks from the recording sessions that ended up being played live on the 360 Tour.  My theory is that the Spider-Man musical took up enough of Bono and Edge's time that Songs Of Ascent couldn't be properly finished, or perhaps Bono was simply speaking out of turn and hyping up a record that the other three guys didn't think was ready for the light of day.  It could be that this was a bit of a Lucky Town/Human Touch situation, or just Double Album Syndrome.  If U2 had just taken the best 12 recordings from their sessions and put them onto one disc, it could've been special; by perhaps attempting for two releases or just saving a few gems for a follow-up, it watered everything down.

10. The Unforgettable Fire
9. All That You Can't Leave Behind

This is essentially a split entry since both records have the same issue, and it's the same issue writ large that plagued NLOTH.  Simply put, the back half of ATYCLB really falls off and Unforgettable Fire is a short disc to begin with that's made shorter by a few total throw-aways.

But oh man, the good stuff on these two albums is really great stuff.  Six songs through ATYCLB and you'd think you might be listening to a pantheon U2 album.  Then we get a couple of sweet and heartfelt tunes in "Wild Honey" and "Peace On Earth" that nevertheless don't move the needle all that much.  Then comes "When I Look At The World," the definition of a throwaway filler rock track.  "New York" is one of my least-favourite U2 songs, and while I enjoy "Grace" as a sweet, Lou Reed-with-heart song, it's not enough to save the back half of the record from obscurity.  Unforgettable Fire doesn't have the same severe Side A/Side B split, but "Indian Summer Sky" is filler and experimental tracks like "Elvis Presley & America" and "4th Of July" are wastes of space.  The title track is also decent but not one of my favourites, leaving just six songs on a 10-song EP.  Fortunately, those six range from really good to all-timers like "Bad" and "Pride," which is more than enough to salvage things.  Despite my issues with both Unforgettable Fire and ATYCLB, we're now into the range where every album I discuss is one that I'd firmly rate as an awesome disc, and these two are both still tremendous listens.

8. Boy
Oh, Boy.  I've noted in the past that debut albums are either a) by far the best thing a band will ever release, b) so different from their future sounds that the initial disc sounds almost archaic or c) like Boy, a record that sounds like a raw version of the band we've come to know that love, yet it's still distinctly that band.  When U2 busted out several of the old Boy tunes on tour in 2005 ("Electric Co" and "Out Of Control" in particular), they easily fit in amongst the modern hits, showing that U2 had the foundation down early and have spent the last three decades just building around it.  Bono recently stated that when U2 get together and just randomly play, they still naturally sound like that raw punk-influenced band from 1978, which makes me wish U2 would do something non-calculated for once and just make an album from one of those sessions.  Just go completely back to basics and release a one-off valentine to the fans.

7. Zooropa
A rich man's NLOTH, basically.  This album reminds me of the old line from director Howard Hawks about how all you need to make a good movie is "three great scenes and no bad scenes."  That's essentially Zooropa --- none of the 10 songs are bad and there are a few distinct peaks in the form of "Stay" (one of U2's all-time greatest songs), "Lemon" and "Numb" (two of the most distinct and creative tracks the band ever produced) and "The Wanderer" (Johnny Cash adds untold gravitas to a europop wasteland).  Unlike NLOTH, the songs just seem to fit together on Zooropa, despite how different they sound on a track-to-track basis.  I can't help but note that whereas most U2 records take years to produce, this one came together in just a few months in between tour legs and the result was an album that couldn't help but sound fresh given its short gestation cycle.  Not to turn this whole post into a "U2 should make records like THIS these days!" but again, U2 should set a strict six-month timeline on making an album and see what happens.

6. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Here's an album I've come around on after recent listens, so there's hope for NLOTH yet.  Bomb is tonally all over the place, which can be blamed on the fact that U2 had about six or seven different producers working on the record at one time or another.  As you might expect, this leads to a real lack of cohesion --- to use Bono's own words on the record, "There are no weak songs. But as an album, the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me."

That said, I'd still (slightly) take Bomb over a more cohesive record like Zooropa because the quality of the songs is just that high.  Would HTDAAB seem to flow better if the tracks were in a different order?  Probably, though in this era of iPod shuffling, track order matters less and less to modern listeners.  Would HTDAAB be better if U2 had included such B-side gems as "Mercy," "Levitate" and "Xanax & Wine/Fast Cars" (two mixes of the same song) on the record, either stretching it to 14 songs or replacing a couple of the lesser tracks?  Probably.  But the existence of a few flaws shouldn't obscure the fact that the album as it stands is awfully good.  "Vertigo" and "City Of Blinding Lights" are cornerstone songs for U2.  "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "Original Of The Species" are incredibly underrated gems.  Even my least-favourite track, "Crumbs On Your Table" has a great bridge and chorus.  These were some awesome songs and this was an awesome disc --- nitpicking shouldn't diminish it.  I will pick a big nit with that awful record cover, however.  Black-and-white shot of the four guys just sitting on a bench?  Yikes.

5. Rattle & Hum
Here's where I look like a giant hypocrite!  Some might wonder why I downgraded Unforgettable Fire and ATYCLB for having weak halves, when I'm praising R&H despite its own bloated half of live tracks and throw-away musical excerpts.  My logic is that R&H was being specifically build as a soundtrack album, and hence all of the stuff from the movie was "necessary" to some extent.  The nine original tracks that appear on R&H, however, are so amazing that the album still merits this high ranking on my list.  There is no shortage of bloat I'll cut through in order to get to "All I Want Is You," "Angel Of Harlem," or even lesser-known cuts like "Heartland," which features Bono's most throat-busting vocal work of all time. 

The Rattle & Hum project (the film and soundtrack) brought U2 was criticism for being too pompous, as they were accused of placing themselves into a musical pantheon where they didn't deserve to belong.  Seeing it with 25 years of hindsight now that U2 are firmly legends, that criticism doesn't really ring true.  Accusing U2 of selling out by embracing roots rock also doesn't really fit since a) the songs are fucking amazing and b) the band was already exploring slightly more American-sounding rock on The Joshua Tree.  My main issue is simply that U2 inexplicably released a music documentary without actually releasing a proper soundtrack from that documentary.  I mean, how incredible would R&H be if it was a proper two-disc album that was half new stuff and half soundtrack?  To wit…

Disc one….the nine original songs (Van Diemen's Land, Desire, Hawkmoon 269, Angel Of Harlem, Love Rescue Me, When Love Comes To Town, Heartland, God Part II, All I Want Is You) plus notable B-sides Hallelujah Here She Comes, A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel and She's A Mystery To Me.

Disc two…live performances from the movie (With Or Without You, Where The Streets Have No Name, Running To Stand Still, Exit, the choral version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Bullet The Blue Sky, In God's Country, Pride, Bad, MLK, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Silver & Gold)

That's an easy 12/12 split right there.  If U2 doesn't want to include some of those live tracks since it'd make it too much of a 'Joshua Tree Live' feeling, then stick on some of the covers they recorded during their sessions --- Dancing Barefoot, Everlasting Love, Unchained Melody, Baby Please Come Home.  Again, not to pull a HTDAAB and nitpick a project that is pretty great as it is, but a proper double soundtrack album would've helped distill some of the confusion over what U2 was trying to accomplish with this disc.

4. War
There's such an urgency to War.  The somewhat tinny 1983 recording sound, the slashing guitars beneath the Edge's trademark chiming, a very tight rhythm section (War is still probably Larry Mullen's best album) and Bono's voice is just as yearning as possible.  There's such a drive to the record that the one track that doesn't have that immediacy --- the much-maligned "Red Light" --- stands out as an oddity, even though I still like the song.  War polishes the sound that U2 established over its first two albums but doesn't polish it too much, which is the key to it still sounding as timeless as ever 30 years later.  Also, you forget that while War is thought of by some fans as being U2 in its purest form, there are still some odd stylistic choices here (atomic bomb sound effect? children's choir?  horn section?  female backup singers?) that the band either never used again or used very sparingly over the rest of their careers.

Though this album contains some of U2's best-known classics, my favourite song is actually "Like A Song," a vastly-underrated track that epitomizes the album's energy.  It might also be an odd choice since the song is essentially just an amped-up version of "With A Shout" from October, so U2 was closer to really figuring it out on that record than it might've seemed in 1981.  The only semi-knock I can make on War is that the album version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" seems thin in comparison to all of the incendiary live versions I've heard over the years, but U2 can hardly be blamed for that.

3. Pop
It's a very, very, very close shave between War and Pop.  Maybe the only tiebreaker I can really use here is that Pop was my first U2 album.  I became a fan of the band in early 1997, right when Pop was about to be released and thus those songs are indelibly stuck within my head.  This could be also be why Pop holds a high spot in my rankings, as most critics point to this record as a misfire for U2, yet I think they're wrong and I'm right (#Humility).  It all came down to marketing --- either the public didn't get the tongue-in-cheek vibe that U2 was going for with the whole "PopMart" thing, or U2 confused the issue themselves by promoting what's actually a pretty serious and deep album as froth.  The video for "Discotheque" was a goofy disaster.  Performance-wise, the first few PopMart concerts were shaky, under-rehearsed, some of the Pop songs didn't work in a live setting and U2 was still figuring out how to play amidst the giant stage. 

Those were the flaws that allowed critics to write off Pop (and, in part, U2 as a whole) before everything really got going.  U2 themselves feel the songs would've benefited from six more months of work, which is perhaps why they have taken bloody forever in producing their subsequent records.  Yet with all this being said, PopMart ended up being an epic tour and the actual Pop album is fantastic.  "Please" is a pantheon song both on the record and especially in live shows, "Mofo" and "Miami" are such departures for U2 that it doesn't even sound like the same band, and "Discotheque" is a blast, dumb video aside.  Even a song like "If God Will Send His Angels" that actually sounds unfinished is powerful enough to stand in its half-built form.  It could be argued that some U2 fans and the band themselves are down on this record just because it's kind of a downer --- it's the rare U2 disc that seems pessimistic, as opposed to seeing goodness or being angry but hopeful for change.

2. The Joshua Tree
There's something to be said for timing when it comes to classic albums, or at least our perception of classic albums.  A musician's first record can make an impact for being fresh on the scene, a late-career record can carry extra oomph as a comeback or return to form (Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind), or another record can be heralded for hitting at just the right time to reinforce just how good the musician can be (i.e. Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album).  In 1987, U2 was on the cusp of firmly grabbing the so-called Biggest Band In The World title and all they needed was a home run album.  Along comes The Joshua Tree and boom, it was all gravy after that.  Had Joshua Tree been only a very good record or missed the mark slightly, U2 wouldn't have quite scaled those same heights.  Instead, it was a classic and U2 went into the pantheon.

I dunno, what more do I need to say about this album?  I dare say that 80% of U2 fans have either Joshua Tree or my #1 pick as their top two records by the band, the crown jewels of an impressive discography.  The opening hit of "Where The Streets Have No Name"/"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/"With Or Without You" is in the running for the strongest three-song opening in music history.  U2 takes just a bit of the so-called sonic landscape experimentation they tested out on Unforgettable Fire and uses that sound to enhance great pop melodies, creating great track after great track.  This is the rare case where less was more, as U2's original plans to create a double album would've really weakened the final product.  A double album would've included such atmospheric (my code word for 'not very good') tracks as "Walk To The Water,"  "Deep In The Heart" and "Race Against Time," which are B-sides all the way and in my view were better left as rarities.  Kudos to U2 for just cutting it down to 11 essential tracks and calling it a day.

1. Achtung Baby
Perhaps the only thing more difficult than releasing a classic album when you're at your peak is then turning around and hitting a completely different peak.  The criticism of Rattle & Hum hit U2 hard, and the three years of constant touring they did in support of that record made them feel, in Larry Mullen's words, like a jukebox.  Something fresh, something different was necessary…and it come in the form of Achtung Baby, the band's best record because it's a total shift that still felt organic.  It wasn't U2 glomming onto a new sound because they felt they had to for album-selling purposes, but it was the band exploring a part of its sound that had always been there in bits and pieces ("God Part II" and "Wire" are maybe the most Achtung-sounding earlier U2 tracks) and committing to the overhaul.  It's been widely chronicled that the arguments over this record nearly broke the band apart, and "One" was the mutually agreed-upon song that made them all realize this new direction was worth it.

So there's the big-picture stuff, now let's talk about how fucking great all of the songs are on this disc.  I've even come around on "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," which for years I considered the record's weak link, and now there are no weak links.  Everyone knows the singles, but let's discuss "Acrobat," "Ultraviolet," "So Cruel" and "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World," all of which could've easily been singles for any other band.  ("Love Is Blindness" gets elevated out of his relatively unknown group thanks to Jack White's awesome cover.)  Every song combines for a narrative, Bono has lyrically never been better, and it's basically the elevated version of Zooropa --- it's both more than the sum of its parts and also a collection of amazing singles at the same time. 

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