The journey through the back catalogue of U2 continues. Read Part 1 here.

U2: The Best of 1980–1990/The B-Sides (1998)

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U2 closed out another decade with this two-disc retrospective. The Best of 1980–1990 was a decent overview of the first stage of the band’s career, including all the hits and key album tracks. More interesting for dedicated U2 fans was The B-Sides, an odds-and-sods collection of songs from various sources. Originally available only as part of a limited special edition of The Best of, its scarcity made it an object of curiosity for fans. Now, however, it’s widely available for download. The songs on B-Sides are almost uniformly decent. They were enjoyable to hear and represented various facets of U2’s musical approach. But it was also obvious why most of these were relegated to B-sides or non-album projects. They would have been classy filler on most U2 albums, but weren’t the cream of the crop. A few cuts stood out, such as the modernist guitar rock of “Love Comes Tumbling” or “The Three Sunsets.” “Sweetest Thing” was a tuneful piece of rhythmic pop; the single version appeared on the Best of disc and was a minor hit. “Hallelujah Here She Comes” interpolated U2’s gospel influences into an engaging, low key bit of acoustic alterna-pop. “Silver and Gold” worked up some good energy on a muscular, classic rocker. Beyond those cuts, the most notable entries were the covers. U2 turned in decent versions of “Dancing Barefoot,” “Everlasting Love” and “Unchained Melody” that injected some of the band’s personality into the performances but which wouldn’t make anyone forget the originals. “Everlasting Love” got a bit of U.S. airplay anyway. The B-Sides provided an interesting look at U2’s creative and album cut selection processes and has enough interesting gems to be worth hearing. But it’s nothing one need go overboard to find.

U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)

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The Best of 1980–1990 accomplished two things for U2. First, it reversed years of declining sales, going quadruple platinum in the U.S. Second, its collection of early hits reminded fans why they liked U2. It set the band up for a return to form and All That You Can’t Leave Behind stuck that landing quite nicely. After years of experimentation, U2 returned to something resembling their original sound, but smartly updated to sound modern and not like a desperate nostalgia exercise. The album opened with four excellent singles that found favor with an array of pop and rock radio formats. “Beautiful Day” kicked things off with a return to mid-tempo alt rock, while the more contemplative “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” brought the band back to the pop mainstream. The charging rock attack of “Elevation” provided a nice jolt of energy, while the anthemic “Walk On” appealed to just about everyone. U2 had plenty more in store, like the rhythmic folk of “New York,” the country-influenced rock of “Wild Honey” or “Grace,” the gently shimmering closing ballad. “Kite” even proved that U2 could marry its love of electronics to a strong melodic structure and still come up with something appealingly weird. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the album many fans had been waiting for. It was a deserved hit that’s held up quite well in the 15 years since its release.

U2: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)

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Four years after a triumphant return to form, U2 did it again. On a song-by-song basis, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was even stronger than its predecessor. U2 shot off authoritative rockers like “Vertigo,” “Love and Peace or Else,” “City of Blinding Lights” and “Crumbs From Your Table” with energy and style. A raft of first rate mid-tempo cuts brought out some different shades of the band, especially the compelling “Original of the Species” and the trenchant “Miracle Drug.” Bomb also had some excellent rhythmic ballads; cuts like “One Step Closer” and “A Man and A Woman” showed how effectively the band could work in a softer mode. But the heart of the album was “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” Bono’s ripped-from-the-guts song for his dying father. It’s one of the band’s most compelling moments, with some devastatingly on point lyrics and genuine pathos in Bono’s vocal. The band was tight and unified throughout How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, turning in one strong performance after another. It kept the band’s renaissance going very nicely and more than a decade later holds up as one of U2’s most compelling albums.

U2: No Line on the Horizon (2009)

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U2’s desire to experiment couldn’t be stifled indefinitely. No Line on the Horizon arrived as a curious mix of sonic adventures dotted with a few accessible tracks. It shaped up as one of the more divisive entries in the band’s discography. The hook-free “Get On Your Boots” was an odd choice for a single in many ways, but also an accurate summation of Horizon. It wasn’t bad, it had good energy, but it sort of left a listener wishing it had something more to it. That’s an apt description of many of the album’s tracks. Atonal melodies, elliptical lyrics and untraditional structures kept listeners at a distance, even as the songs themselves weren’t bad. They just weren’t something you’d be humming later. As always, a few cuts managed to stand out. The album-opening title track and “Magnificent” were sturdy rockers with classic U2 energy. The latter managed to do fairly well at rock radio. Decent mid-tempo cut “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” seemed calculated as single bait and it did draw some radio attention. The band’s co-opting traditional Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for “White Snow” worked better than it should have, too. Ultimately, this wasn’t a bad album, it just sacrificed opportunities to engage listeners a bit too often. Middling sales and radio performance weren’t a shock. Nor were the fervent defenses from rock critics who insisted that listeners just didn’t “understand” the collection. And maybe they didn’t, but this is unlikely to endure as anyone’s favorite U2 album.

U2: Songs of Innocence (2014)

Image provivded by Wikimedia/Island/ Interscope

The five years between albums featured a lot of false starts and distractions for U2. When Songs of Innocence finally landed, it generated a lot of discussion. With numerous veteran acts struggling on the charts, was there a place for U2 in the modern business? Or was a new album merely a pretext for a lucrative world tour? The band found a supportive home base at Adult Alternative radio (and still drew some attention from Alternative and Adult Pop). And they raised eyebrows by accepting a reportedly hefty promotional payment in exchange for making the new collection available, free of charge, to all iTunes users with an active account during the album launch window. That added another strain to the ongoing debate about measuring album sales for non-traditional distributions. And then there was controversy over the widely misunderstood album cover featuring a shirtless father and son. People seemed to be talking about everything BUT the music.

That’s why returning to Songs of Innocence a year later, after those various distractions have run their course, is a valuable exercise. When heard free of expectations and clutter, Songs of Innocence is a good collection of rock and pop tunes in a “classic” U2 vein. Songs have hooks, engaging melodies and momentum. U2 was in a contemplative mood in some ways while writing and recording the set, so many of the lyrics reflect on the past, not unusual for a band in middle age. Two singles found favor with some radio formats. Propulsive rocker “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” worked up a nice guitar attack while contemplating the connections that listeners make to the music they love. “Every Breaking Wave” took a gentler approach, coming up with a warm, engaging track. While Songs of Innocence boasted many contemporary production touches, the approach to the writing and performances seemed to deliberately evoke U2 sounds from earlier in the band’s career. That, combined with the lyrical consideration of things past, gave the collection a certain sense of reaction to the prior album’s chilly reception. Had Songs of Innocence come out in 2007, without No Line on the Horizon creating the perception that U2 needed another “comeback,” it probably would have enjoyed a stronger embrace from audiences and radio programmers. For fans of U2’s classic sound, it’s an enjoyable collection with several highlights worth checking out.

Originally published at on July 13, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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