In some ways, U2 have had a fairytale existence unheard of in rock music. Paul “Bono” Hewson, David “The Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. began making music together, with two more friends, when they were 14 or 15. And that core quartet has remained together for over four decades, with no lineup changes, breakups or long hiatuses, steadily climbing to become one of the biggest bands ever. But it hasn’t always been easy: U2 have bitten off more than they could chew a couple times, losing fans and rebooting their sound and image to win them back.
Across 14 U2 albums (and one full-band side project as Passengers), the Irish quartet has turned post-punk into arena rock, redefined commercial ambitions and political activism for a generation of bands, and created an utterly unique sound centered around The Edge’s singular guitar sound. They’ve cut their mercenary hitmaking instincts with an experimental side, forming a revolving team of super producers — Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Flood, among others — to help turn their songs into unpredictable ear candy.
Bono celebrated his 62nd birthday on May 10th. And in March it was announced that J.J. Abrams is producing a Netflix series dramatizing U2’s story, written by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Anthony McCarten. Here’s a look back at U2’s catalog, all the classics you can’t leave behind, and a few you probably can:
15. Songs of Innocence (2014)
Songs of Innocence is the most infamous and reviled album in the U2 catalog, but that ultimately has less to do with the music than the way the band foisted it upon the world. At an Apple product launch in September 2014, CEO Tim Cook announced that U2’s new album would be released for free to all iTunes customers that day, appearing in 500 million personal music libraries in what he called “the largest album release of all time.” The public response to this move was just about anything about gratitude, and the album itself did little to quell the backlash.
Lead single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” made with trendy young producers Danger Mouse, Ryan Tedder, and Paul Epworth, sums up U2’s odd crossroads: caught between their punk origins and their modern pop aspirations. The result is the band’s blandest album, with only “Iris (Hold Me Close)” properly capturing a bit of The Edge’s chiming guitar tone. “It’s all emotional content left intentionally formless, vaingloriously hoping to fit around the experiences of millions,” wrote Rob Mitchum in the Pitchfork review.
14. No Line on The Horizon (2009)
No Line on The Horizon marks the point where U2 albums became little more than flyers for their increasingly ambitious world tours. (To be fair, I did see the band’s 2009 tour, and it was a fantastic show.) It’s also their most recent album with the Eno/Lanois/Lillywhite dream team on production. But there is a hint of the band’s future reliance on contemporary hitmakers in the insipid “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” co-produced by will.i.am. “Magnificent” and “Breathe” contain a little of that soaring U2 grandeur, but No Line on The Horizon is largely the sound of their 21st century resurgence losing steam.
13. Rattle and Hum (1988)
A year after the triumph of The Joshua Tree, U2 took a victory lap with Rattle and Hum, a tour film paired with a double album that combined live tracks with new studio recordings. The band’s fixation on American music and iconography on its mid-‘80s albums went into overdrive here, as they collaborated with B.B. King and Bob Dylan in Sun Studio in Memphis. The backlash around Rattle and Hum centered on the film, and how full of themselves U2 seemed while placing themselves in the rock pantheon. But the album itself is kind of a slog too, as the band tampers down their long-honed sound to dutifully salute their influences. And as a stage document of U2, it pales in comparison to their earlier live releases, Under a Blood Red Sky and the Wide Awake in America EP. A couple of the singles are great – “Desire” is a lively homage to the Bo Diddley beat, and “All I Want Is You” is transcendent, one of U2’s finest ballads — but the best thing about Rattle and Hum is that it made Achtung Baby necessary. “The heart of this collection is a head-on embrace with rock’s roots,” wrote Robert Hilburn in the The Los Angeles Times.
12. Songs Of Experience (2017)
Given the William Blake homage in the Songs of Innocence title, anybody could have guessed that U2 would follow the album with a counterpart called Songs of Experience. But where Innocence irritated the world with its Apple-assisted rollout, Experience had a more traditional release, returning the band to their comfort zone of big-hearted mid-tempo anthems. Lillywhite, the longest-tenured U2 producer, returned to co-helm a few songs and help restore the band’s classic sound. But the album is full of younger collaborators like Ariel Rechtshaid and HAIM, who co-wrote “Lights of Home,” and Kendrick Lamar, who makes a cameo on “Get Out of Your Own Way.” And while there’s some overly modern flourishes that might make you cringe, like the touches of AutoTune on opener “Love Is All We Have Left,” Songs of Experience is something of a course correction.
11. October (1981)
U2’s second album was a minor stumble in the band’s steady early rise, their only ‘80s album with no songs to achieve classic rock radio immortality. During October’s troubled gestation, Bono lost a briefcase containing lyrics for the album and had to finish writing quickly on the spot in the studio, while the band felt more conflicted than ever between their devout Christianity and rock star aspirations. But there are seeds of later triumphs in October: The Edge toys with layering piano over his guitars for the first time, and Bono’s lyrics take a permanent turn toward unapologetic spirituality. “As they push past twenty their ambitions are showing, and suddenly the hope-addicts whiff both commerce and pretension,” wrote an unimpressed Robert Christgau in The Village Voice.
10. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was in part an attempt to reconnect with U2’s harder-rocking post-punk roots, kicking off with the anthemic bluster of megahit “Vertigo.” But the 2001 death of Bono’s father Bob Hewson inspired the album’s softer, more moving songs “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” and “One Step Closer.” And the gorgeous, propulsive “City of Blinding Lights” gave U2 a new go-to concert opener, perhaps their best song of the last 20 years.
9. Passengers – Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)
For a certain stripe of music snob, U2 is only tolerable when the deity Eno submerges the band in a sea of synths and reverb. And Original Soundtracks 1, a one-off album recorded by Eno and all four members of U2 as Passengers, is the ideal U2 album for those snobs. U2 contributed to a number of songs to film soundtracks in the ‘90s, but Original Soundtracks 1 collects only three of them, with the other 11 tracks made for “imaginary” films described in detail in the album’s liner notes. Some songs like “A Different Kind of Blue” are borderline ambient, and even the few songs with a Bono lead vocal like “Slug” are more muted and groove-driven than anything on U2’s proper albums. Original Soundtracks 1 was a rare moment when U2 created with a deliberately low profile, but it found a cult following that included Axl Rose, who reportedly “loved” the album.
8. Pop (1997)
In 1997, “electronica” was successfully marketed to U.S. rock fans who largely still accepted the “Disco sucks” party line of the early ‘80s, believing this new insurgence of dance music was somehow more credible, more real. U2 punctured that narrative by releasing a lead single called “Discotheque” and dressing up as The Village People in the video, and America reacted with revulsion. U2 booked the tour supporting Pop before the album was finished, and they wound up working down to the last minute to meet the album deadline. As a result, U2 have never seemed too happy with the album, even re-recording three of the songs for single releases. But Pop is better than its reputation. As a tentpole release, it’s a failure. But taken on its own merits, it’s a frequently enjoyable continuation of the experiments on Zooropa and Original Soundtracks 1.
7. Boy (1980)
It’s strange to think, all these decades later, that U2 were contemporaries of Joy Division in 1980, sharing a producer in Martin Hannett – in fact, U2 visited Hannett during the studio session for “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” But after recording U2’s “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” single, Hannett was distraught over Ian Curtis’ suicide, and U2 looked for a new producer, settling on Lillywhite to oversee their debut album. Still, U2’s starry-eyed sincerity was palpable compared to their other young, punk-inspired bands. And the band’s first world-beating anthem, “I Will Follow,” earned a snotty American response from The Replacements called “Kids Don’t Follow.” Boy only intermittently captures the sparkling, textured U2 sound they’d eventually conquer the world with. But the fast and fierce early iteration of the band, ranging in age from 18 to 20, can be thrilling. “Hopefully, U2 may yet justify Island’s hyped-up optimism. With the help of creative producer Steve Lillywhite, they’ve already blended echoes of several of Britain’s more adventurous bands into a sound that’s rich, lively, and comparatively commercial,” Debra Rae Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone’s mixed review.
6. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
U2’s career seems to move in decade cycles. After the earnest early U2 ran aground at the end of the ‘80s with Rattle and Hum, the band rebooted as the more danceable, post-modern U2 of the ‘90s. And when that approach started to lose steam with Pop, U2 kicked off the 2000s by recalibrating once again. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a mix of the past, lots of ‘80s U2 grandiosity with a little of the ‘90s U2 swagger on songs like “Elevation.” Bono frequently repeated the line that U2 were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” and with big, irresistible songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Walk On,” they secured the gig. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is mellower and more frontloaded than the earlier masterpieces it emulates, but Eno and Lanois help make it undeniably beautiful.
5. Zooropa (1993)
The best and worst U2 albums tend to share an outsized ambition that either lifts them to new heights or leaves them stranded in the wrong place. But Zooropa was a rare example of the band just screwing around in the studio and exceeding their own expectations. During a break in the endless Zoo TV Tour, U2 decided to dash off an EP to help generate excitement for the next live leg. Then they got into a groove and wound up with a wonderfully casual full-length album, playing freely in the sandbox of new sounds and attitudes unlocked on Achtung Baby. The unapologetically weird first two singles, “Numb” and “Lemon,” both paired Bono’s hammiest falsetto with The Edge’s deadpan voice, the former track pulsing and minimalist and the latter shimmering and danceable. The album still went multi-platinum; the reviews were still glowing; the shows still sold out.
4. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Drafting Eno and Lanois into their circle for the first time, U2 holed up in an Irish castle to make their fourth album. The Unforgettable Fire is the birth of the artier, more atmospheric U2 that sounded best on slow-burning ballads like “Bad.” But the record also began U2’s mutual love affair with the U.S. on “4th of July,” “Elvis Presley and America,” “MLK,” and, of course, the band’s first U.S. top 40 hit, “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
3. War (1983)
War is U2’s first masterpiece, the moment where everything is suddenly in sharper focus. The Edge’s guitars blare like air raid sirens; Mullen Jr.’s drums gallop insistently, and Clayton’s hooky bass lines get more space to dominate the mix than they would in a band favoring power chords. Plus, Bono sounds desperate and distraught in ways he never would again, animating “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” with righteous anger. U2 wouldn’t quite conquer America yet in 1983, but they took over in the U.K., knocking Thriller off the top of the charts.
2. Achtung Baby (1991)
At U2’s last show of the ‘80s, Bono told the audience that “We have to go away…and dream it all up again.” And that reinvention looked a little like David Bowie’s in the late ‘70s: hole up in Berlin with Eno and get weird. But Achtung Baby was inspired and incandescent, and in late 1991 it accidentally wound up as brilliant counterprogramming to the commercial breakthroughs of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” recast The Edge’s guitar pedal adventures as acid house squelches, and “One” proved that the new hip, ironic U2 could still break your heart. “U2’s songwriting remains at best a vessel for its hugely gorgeous sound, but there’s no denying the power resident there,” wrote Jim Green in the SPIN review.
1. The Joshua Tree (1987)
Everything fell into place on The Joshua Tree, from the cinematic build of opener “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the processed drums on haunting closer “Mothers of the Disappeared.” The album’s first two singles, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” became the band’s only No. 1 hits in America, and The Joshua Tree went diamond and won the Album of the Year Grammy, all of it deserved. “This is the year that the Irish rock band will move beyond rock stardom to become a cultural phenomenon,” Don McLeese accurately predicted in March 1987, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times.