U2 went from the vanguard of “modern rock” to the biggest band in the world. They were instrumental in taking alternative music mainstream and defined what it meant to be an arena act in the contemporary music industry.

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The Irish quartet reflected the epitome of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s alternative aesthetic and led the way in bringing that sound to mainstream rock radio. They borrowed from hard rock, punk, new wave and experimental/electronic, and even copped some moves from classic rock and blues. The rock solid rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. allowed theatrical frontman Bono and genuine guitar genius The Edge to push the boundaries of their sound. The band’s stylistic restlessness has taken them in many directions over the years, some more successful than others. They also pioneered new avenues in the business of music, finding smart ways to leverage their product for maximum impact and penetration. With the band on its latest world tour, it’s the perfect time for a look back the U2 discography.

U2: Boy (1980)

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U2 introduced themselves to the mainstream with a confident, assured debut that set out the blueprint for U2 albums to come. Opening cut “I Will Follow” deservedly became one of the band’s signature songs, their first to get significant U.S. exposure. The Edge worked a driving, energetic guitar attack over a pulsating rhythm section, all complemented by Bono’s keening wail. It was energetic, bracing and very listenable. Much of Boy (“A Day Without Me,” “Twilight,” “Out of Control”) followed that template, with well-written songs delivered with energy and style. There was room for a couple of detours, too. “An Cat Dubh” and “The Ocean” were moody, minor key experiments in sound and atmosphere, unafraid to put the music above the vocal. Boy set the stage for the U2 revolution that followed and sounds as immediate and propulsive 35 years later.

U2: October (1981)

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The critical consensus of U2’s sophomore album October was that it was less successful than the band’s debut. That might be a case of a good album paling in comparison to a debut that was not only rather strong, but felt surprising in many ways. U2 still brought rock energy and experimentalism to October. That sense popped up in touches, like the tribal drums that accented “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” or U2 incorporating some of their heritage into the mix with the Irish pipes on the minor key “Tomorrow.” Or the staccato electric guitar flourishes that adorned “Rejoice.” The challenge that October faced was that this wasn’t fresh the way it was with Boy. U2 repeated a lot of the same tricks, but with songs that were less memorable. A couple of cuts really struggled to sustain any sense of momentum, but a few stood out. The fervent rocker “Gloria” is the enduring legacy of the album and a song that helped U2 make additional inroads at U.S. radio. The band’s political/socially conscious side emerged most distinctly on “With A Shout (Jerusalem).” And the title cut, a moody piano ballad with minimalist lyrics, demanded attention for its stark beauty and sonic contrast to the higher energy songs around it. So October was merely “good” whereas its predecessor was great. It’s still worth a listen for fans.

U2: War (1983)

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After a couple of albums and a handful of singles built good will, U2 became genuine stars in the U.S. with War. This was an album where all the members were working at full potential. The Edge delivered one strong guitar attack after another, buoyed by the commanding Clayton/Mullen rhythm section. Bono dug into his vocals with a lot of heart and, at points, some appealing grit. The performances were energized, creating a strong wave that carried throughout. “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” provided U2 with the kind of indelible hits a band prays for. Three decades on and they remain in heavy rotation for good reason. “New Year’s Day” had a spacey, eerie quality underlied by an insistent beat, while Bono wailed lyrics of isolation and remove above them. “Sunday” was U2 locking in their social and political concerns in as powerful a way as they’d ever manage. It’s ruthless, martial beat exploded out of the speaker and never let up. The band got some attention for “Two Hearts Beat As One,” another strong cut. And easing up a tad on the throttle, album closer “40” offered some appealing variety. War was a strong, propulsive rock opus that pushed open a lot of doors. The band was only warming up.

U2: Under A Blood Red Sky (1983)

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As compelling as U2 can be on record, they’re a band that really should be experienced live at some point. Under A Blood Red Sky caught U2 as they were becoming arena stars, and while not a perfect encapsulation of the band’s live experience it offered a pretty good simulation. The 8 songs came from their first three studio albums and featured U2 standards like “I Will Follow,” “Gloria,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day.” The band didn’t offer mere recreations of the studio arrangements, adding in touches that pushed the songs in slightly different directions, whether picking up the tempo or adding more complex harmonies. Under A Blood Red Sky wasn’t a crucial entry in the U2 canon, but it was a pretty good live representation of the band’s early years.

U2: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

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After the success of War, U2 consolidated their ascent with this strong studio follow-up. But more importantly, success allowed U2 to get weird again and indulge their experimental side. So rather than the non-stop, pulsing sprint of War, The Unforgettable Fire took some sonic detours. Charging rocker “Pride (In The Name of Love)” fit with the prior collection’s approach. It was a huge rock hit and finally broke U2 to a mainstream pop audience in the U.S. The insistent, building “Bad” has become a live show staple for the band. The title track, an international hit, took a somewhat different approach, with an atmospheric, almost sinister, sound built atop a sturdy beat. Elsewhere, U2 offered the electro-folk of “A Sort of Homecoming,” the intricate counterbeat and picked electric guitar of “Wire” and the insistent “Indian Summer.” U2 explored the quieter side of their sound with cuts like “Promenade” or gentle, echoy closer “MLK.” “Elvis Presley in America” was a long, restrained meander that opened up at the end, while “4th of July” was a low key tonal experiment. U2’s growing fascination with American culture was on full display in The Unforgettable Fire, informing lyrics and themes, and the band’s social conscience remained at the fore. Three decades on, it’s still a strong outing, one that effectively set the stage for the unprecedented success that would follow.

U2: The Joshua Tree (1987)

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Officially rock stars, U2 took a little more time making The Joshua Tree and that paid off massively. How many albums open with three global mega-hits? Most acts would be thrilled to have had any one of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or “With or Without You.” Propulsive, energetic singles with passionate, committed performances, an impossible alchemy of music, lyrics and performance. The Joshua Tree could have ended after its third song and still been a modern classic, but the eight songs that followed were hardly filler. Energetic “In God’s Country” became another radio hit while the hard-hitting “Bullet the Blue Sky” developed into a U2 concert staple. There was plenty of room for the band to spread out, letting songs build and breathe, be it the soul influences on “Trip Through Your Wires” or the contemplative “Running to Stand Still.” Gospel touches popped up to complement the increased focus on religious imagery. Throughout, U2 was in top form. Bono has rarely been as compelling a frontman and The Edge seemed to redefine what it meant to be a guitar hero. Few bands matched the powerful rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen. The Joshua Tree represented the moment that alternative rock became the new mainstream. The album sold gobs and gobs of copies and its singles are likely playing on a radio station near you at this very moment. For its quality and impact, this is an essential album for any rock fan.

U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)

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U2 could have done anything it wanted after the success of The Joshua Tree. What started as a concert document of the accompanying world tour morphed into an awkward hybrid. While touring the U.S., U2 was inspired by American blues, R&B, gospel and other sounds and came up with several new songs. So Rattle and Hum emerged as a combo of live concert cuts and studio recordings that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive album. Really, U2 would have been better served splitting these into two more focused releases, but that ship has long sailed. The live cuts were interesting enough, with entertaining takes on several U2 standards, plus decent-but-not-essential covers of rock classics “Helter Skelter” and “All Along the Watchtower.” The new songs were generally good, though several felt less memorable than what fans might have expected of a new U2 album following The Joshua Tree. The enduring legacy of Rattle and Hum was four excellent singles that maintained U2’s momentum with a variety of rock and pop radio formats through the end of the ‘80s. The driving dance-rock of “Desire;” the jazzy “Angel of Harlem,” drenched in classic R&B and soul; the swaggering “When Loves Comes to Down” featuring legitimate blues god B.B. King; and the shimmering, gospel-tinged “All I Want Is You.” Devoted fans should check out the full album, but for the less committed, cherrypicking the four singles or relying on one of U2’s many hits collections are better bets.

U2: Achtung Baby (1991)

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U2’s late ‘80s momentum was so good that even a schizoid release like Rattle and Hum could go multi-platinum and saturate the radio. So it was a relief to fans that the band returned with a more focused effort in Achtung Baby. A clutch of well-written songs were enhanced by U2’s fearless embrace of the emerging electronic sounds of the early ‘90s. Bleeps, blips, feedback, distortion, squeals, processed vocals and fadeouts all found places on Achtung Baby. But the production never overwhelmed the songs. Instead, U2 found an ideal balancing point between their well-honed writing and modern studiocraft, adding the dance world to the rock and pop formats the band was dominating. Lead single “The Fly” was probably not what fans had been expecting, but was a good exemplar of the energetic, propulsive direction of much of the album. The spiritual-meets-romantic “Mysterious Ways” and the moody balladry of “One” showed off the approach to much better effect, as U2 added motion and texture to songs written in their classic style that brought their sound firmly into the present. That was apparent on two additional singles and a strong bench of album cuts that displayed variety and committed performances. A quarter century later, these songs have aged rather well, demonstrating that U2 had mastered the fusion of the experimental and commercial quite effectively.

U2: Zooropa (1993)

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U2 doubled down on the embrace of electronics and experimentation on display in Achtung Baby. Zooropa was awash in squeals and blips, processed vocals and untraditional structures. Opening single “Numb” certainly baffled fans on release, with Edge turning in a droned lead vocal over an ambient buzz. Modern rock and dance outlets embraced the dance rock of “Lemon,” with Bono’s prominent falsetto a divisive choice. The key difference from its predecessor was that the songs of Zooropa weren’t quite as interesting without the tricksy production. “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” did the best job of marrying the production to a recognizable melody and song structure and was the closest thing Zooropa produced to a pop hit. “The First Time” might have been a lovely ballad without the headache-inducing background buzz. The Johnny Cash fetishizing of album closer “The Wanderer” was just downright weird. The album worked most effectively as a unified whole, perfect as a dance/rock soundtrack to some kind of altered state. Critics admired Zooropa’s experimentation, but it was the band’s lowest seller in a decade. A couple of decades down the road, it feels anchored to its moment in a way that Achtung Baby never did, making it one of U2’s less essential efforts.

U2: Pop (1997)

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After four years away, with nothing more than a couple soundtrack cuts to remind fans they were alive, U2 returned with Pop. It succeeded in getting them back on a variety of radio stations, even if none of the singles became enduring hits. Pop was an odd mix of industrial dance tracks and trance-like ballads that mostly slid by without making a strong impression. The simple truth was that most of the songs on Pop just weren’t that memorable and the still-trendy electronic production wasn’t saving them. Some tracks did manage to stand out. “Staring at the Sun” sounded most like a classic U2 song and is probably the only cut most fans will care about. “Last Night on Earth” had an ingratiating melody and album-closing rhythmic ballad “Wake Up Dead Man” brought some of the heart missing from so much of the rest of the album. Pop sold even more poorly than Zooropa and suggested U2 was a band at a crossroads.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on July 7, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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