An Unforgivable Sin? U2 Album Hierarchy

Tony Sig

Is it profitable or reasonable or desirous to embark upon such an odd task as to create a hierarchy of the greatness of the discography of the Greatest Band of All Time?  Perhaps not, but in response to an internet friend’s own adventure down such a road I decided that a reply would be appropriate.

The album which one puts upon the top of the U2 hierarchy instantly places one into a “fan” bracket.  The hardcore fan instantly becomes skeptical of anyone who puts the beloved “Joshua Tree” on top.  This is because even the non-fan knows most of the songs from this album.  “If they were really a fan” says the U2-snob, they would say “Zooropa.”  Indeed the “true fan” believes that it is of paramount importance that they put one of the much maligned 90’s albums atop the tree.  This will, they assume, demonstrate to other fans that they didn’t stop with the early stuff.

I am a self-professed U2 fan.  That is, I regularly include the entire discography in my listening lists and I  am just as happy to sing to “Numb” as I am to “Where the Streets…”


I am such a fan that I am completely and totally unbiased and objective in my viewing them.  I have no point to prove and shall list accordingly.

#1 – Joshua Tree – That’s right, I put it at the top.  I relate to the hipster aversion to widely popular music.  In some circles I might be considered a hipster, though I scorn the label (as all good hipsters should).  But let us be honest; can there be a more spectacular opening to an album than the seeming immortal opening of “Where the Streets Have no Name?”  One gets the feeling that the song has already been going on for eternity and we are transported to the place where it has been taking place.  From there we are hit again and again by songs which go to parts of us much deeper than other artists are capable of taking us.  We all of us  “Still Haven’t Found What We’re Looking For,” we have had conflicted feelings of love that we could live “With or Without,” etc….

Moving lyrics aside, the album was also a bomb dropped on the guitar world.  Delay had been used before this, but nobody had even come close to contemplating where Edge took an inspired combination of overdrive,  reverb and delay.  Have you ever just listened to the guitar work on “Bullet the Blue Sky?”  Where did he come up with that?!

For all the other great work, Joshua Tree deserves to be on the top of this list.

#2 – Achtung Baby – Achtung Baby has a similar reputation amongst some U2 elite.  Being well known as another “classic” or “breakthrough” album it suspect as a favorite.  Too many people have sung “One” to make the album cool.

Yet again I shall break with such self-righteousness.  The band themselves described the sound as “Four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” and it came right on the heels of the resoundingly distained “Rattle and Hum.”  What we got was a sonic masterpiece which somehow (magically?) retained a sort of U2 essence but moved the band into a completely new musical direction.  From the bright opening tunes of “Zoo Station” and “Even Better than the Real Thing” to the dark and moving “Love is Blindness,” this album is another of the greatest albums of the last 30 years.

#3 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind – Whatever else positive that can be said for the other albums, 2000’s ATYCLB marked what was, in my opinion, a third sound for this decades’ spanning band.  The first sound was immortalized in Joshua Tree; the second was begun with Achtung Baby and moved along with Pop and Zooropa; and ATYCLB announced that the Irish foursome still had the ability, not just to put out an album, but create a truly great album, worthy to stand alongside the aforementioned records.  In a sort of fusion of the spacious guitar and melodies of the “early” U2 and the pop groove from the “90’s” stuff, ATYCLB is creation of considerable worth.

It opens with “Beautiful Day,” an aggressive pop anthem and ends with the subtle ballad “Grace,” which personifies Grace as a world changing lady.  In between we get rock solid guitar work on such songs as “Kite;” immortal pop-rock tunes like “Walk On;” a hard rocking tribute to their favorite city “New York” and much besides.

With these three albums one gets a taste of three decades of U2’s work and gets the best of that work.

The listing of other albums may seem arbitrary.  Especially since they display a range of creative colors and are not easily compared.  Still we shall give it a shot

#4 – Zooropa

#5 – The Unforgettable Fire – “Bad” is one of the greatest songs of all time

#6 – War

#7 – Pop

#8 – October

#9 – No Line on the Horizon – really this and Rattle & Hum get a tie

#10 – Rattle and Hum

#11 – Boy

#12 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb



  1. In all seriousness, another less cynical reason “true” U2 fans may put one of the “much maligned 90s albums” (though, if we’re honest, only Pop was maligned; Zooropa won the best alternative album Grammy the year it was released; and Achtung is obviously rightly recognised as a classic), is because they may, having over-familiarised themselves with the really well-known stuff, have discovered a new side to U2 when they happened to return back, on some occasion, to Zooropa or Pop. This was definitely my experience when I rediscovered Zooropa (and Boy, actually) a while ago, and it has forever endeared that album to me.

    Putting that earnest point aside, however, your decision to put ATYCLB at three, and HTDAAB at 12, is absolutely bloody baffling, as is your decision to put October 8. “Arbitrary” is an understatement. But such is the nature of these lists.

    BTW I also just discovered the Original Soundtracks 1 album they did with Eno in ’95. Well worth a look if you like Zooropa.


  2. HTDAAB? It was alright I guess 🙂

    In all seriousness though I wasn’t being serious nor even referencing your list (I had forgotten your specific rankings). I am a huge Zooropa fan as well. It was mainly a snarky way to make fun of the guardians of cool (of which I am proudly a member).

    A truly arbitrary list would be Radiohead’s albums. They are incapable of making a mediocre album. That is, if we forget about “Pablo Honey.”


  3. Well once again you gen-xers are entitled to be wrong;>)

    Next thing you know you’ll be raving about larger’s over ale’s.

    You can’t place War less then #3. That’s reflective of a 300 year old war not just a 10 year anniversary, the soviet cold war and the British war in the faulkens.

    I’ll forgive you since 1982 is beyond your memory; however in some sense an album is defined in context of when it was composted and how affective it is over time. War may not stand up as well in the latter, but nothing they produced is as good in the context of the time it was produced then War.


  4. As another ’80s gen-Xer, I also would rank War and Boy much higher. Every ranking of U2 albums will reveal the age of the fan.

    Anyone ever been to a U2charist? It seems a little too corny, maybe even a little offensive (to both U2 and Jesus), but it obviously works for many of our brothers and sisters.

    Someone who had experienced both told me that the U2charist was to Gen X as the Clown Eucharist was to the Baby Boomers.


  5. Scott,

    War could be higher but I still think that Boy is too immature and a bit too reliant on Punk to be as original as a higher position would merit.

    I’ve also heard of these “U2charists.” Are they with actual U2 songs or U2’esque songs? Obviously “Modern Worship” music is massively indebted to U2 already. I’ve literally sung the lyrics and melody to “Where the Streets…” to a “worship” tune being sung at an Evangelical institution.

    I’m sure “40” would be excellent as a Psalter arrangement.


    By “much maligned 90’s stuff” I meant that most “normal” people I talk to stopped caring about U2 around the 90’s. Obviously “Achtung” and “Zoo” were well received by the critical community


  6. Pretty close.

    Id’ put Unforgettable Fire 3rd and All That You Can’t Leave Behind 4th. But, then, Unforgetable Fire was the first U2 Albumn – an LP, at that – I owned.

    I’d put Atomic Bomb considerably higher than you have it.


  7. Actually, I used to do 40 in church quite often. To this day I love the song, really. The simplicity in the production. Even lyrically, they realized there was no need to try and improve upon the original words; they just made two verses and a chorus out of it and left it at that.

    It was one of the few times I allowed anything U2-esque into my worship leading.

    Of course, I resisted the draw to sound all U2 in church mainly because it seemed like everyone was doing exactly that in modern services. I just thought worship could sound like something else.

    As for the list, I don’t think I ever really… ‘got’ Zooropa as a U2 album. I mean, off the top of my head, I couldn’t name a Zooropa tune except the title track (and I am assuming there was a track named Zooropa on the album right now.) It just sounded like a side project to me for some reason.

    I also haven’t really given No Line a listen yet. Been meaning to, but I’ve been going through an electronica stage. I’ll get around to it, I’m sure.


  8. P.S. Did anyone get a chance to see It Might Get Loud?

    I ask because the Edge is alongside Jack White and Jimmy Page as the focus of the film. I wasn’t able to get a baby sitter while it was playing near me… so hopefully I can get it on DVD.


  9. dede ja , a todos vos seguidores de boa musica, vos envio um grande abraço . e a primeira ves que vou deixar um comentario sobre algo ou alguma coisa na net. alegrome muinto por esse comentario ser relacionado com musica .mais propriamente com os U2 , sigo a carreira e a musica dos U2 desde muinto pequenito,gosto muinto e recomendo a pequenos medios ou grandes.


  10. While ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ elevates you to pure Platonic heaven, HTDAAB has the far more Hebraic apocalypticism of ‘Love and Peace’. That’s called growth.

    It’s not their best, but is HTDAAB really their worst? I have yet to connect with No Line at any level.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s