by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Zooropa (1993, Island)
Arguably the most polarizing album the band ever made, Zooropa is the sound of U2 at its most experimental. Retaining the production involvement of Brian Eno but swapping Daniel Lanois for Flood (best known at this point for co-producing Depeche Mode’s Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine), the band plunges heavily into electronica and club music here, especially on cuts like “Numb” and “Lemon.” The move into dance territory might not have been so poorly received if the songs were at least more memorable, but there are very few solid hooks to be found here, the disc more dependent on groove than melody, and even Bono was quoted later as saying, “We didn’t deliver the songs,” and acknowledging that the band’s pop instincts escaped them on this record. But though few songs here can legitimately be called catchy, this is still one of the band’s most intriguing albums and it also boasts one of the most criminally underrated singles the band has ever made in the more straightforward pop-rock of “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” which only climbed to #61 but likely would have done considerably better had it been issued as the lead-off single from the disc rather than the third. The ballad “The First Time” is one of the band’s more criminally-overlooked album cuts of the ‘90s, while the oft-neglected “Some Days Are Better Than Others” strikes a more successful balance than “Numb” or “Lemon” between the band’s new interest in club grooves and its pop/rock past and is helped immeasurably by what might be the funkiest bass playing Adam Clayton’s ever put down on disc. Also worth noting is the disc’s closing track, “The Wanderer,” which doesn’t feature Bono at all and instead employs country legend Johnny Cash as the lead vocalist.
Pop (1997, Island)
The experimental Zooropa turned out to be a relative flop commercially and became the band’s first album since War to fail to produce a Top 40 single. But the band didn’t immediately abandon its interest in club music, and the lead-off single from this follow-up album would surprisingly prove to be the equally-polarizing “Discotheque,” which did reach the Top Ten but drew just as many confused reactions from fans as “Numb” and “Lemon” had. But “Discotheque” is at least catchier than either of those two Zooropa singles, which made all the difference commercially. Nonetheless, you have to wonder if U2 regrets picking such a similarly club-tinged song to introduce the world to Pop, which, all these years later, remains one of the band’s lowest-selling albums, and the ballad “Staring at the Sun” – which similarly reached the Top 40 and topped the modern-rock charts – is much more reminiscent of the sound that made U2 famous and would have fit in quite nicely on Achtung Baby. Other highlights here include the snaky grooves of “Last Night on Earth” and the lovely ballad “If God Will Send His Angels,” but the album is too spotty overall and the band still too reliant on grooves to come up with the winning melodies of old for this to really feel like the comeback disc the band likely hoped this would be, and this is easily the band’s most unsatisfying album since October. It was clear that it was time for the band to re-think its direction.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000, Island/Interscope)
A glorious return to form, this disc may not be as grandiose in scope or sound as the band tried to be on The Joshua Tree (although they have brought back both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as producers once again), but, like that career-defining album, the band’s first full-length of the new millennium finds them similarly successfully pulling together hints of all the territory they’ve explored to date. They still incorporate some hints of the alternative-rock and electronica sounds they dabbled with during the ’90, but this time around, they’re used more for texture and decoration than to underpin the songs, and the band makes a concerted effort here to return to the more arena-rock-oriented sound of its late ‘80s albums, albeit with a little less bombast. The delightful lead-off single and album opener “Beautiful Day” – the band’s catchiest single since the days of Achtung Baby – is a perfect demonstration of the band’s new direction, its electronica-flavored ambient opening verse soon giving away to a more rock-flavored chorus that finds The Edge returning to a more War-era type of guitar tone, the single consequently pulling off the feat of sounding both retro and futuristic at the same time and one that should equally delight fans of the band’s ‘80s work and those who prefer the more adventurous sounds of the band’s early ‘90s material. “Walk On” is a throwback to the days when U2 regularly crafted arena-sized anthems and recalls an equal-parts blend of “One” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The piano-driven “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” finds the album gracefully adapting its sound for a more adult-contemporary-oriented audience, while the fun and percussive “Elevation,” in contrast, revisits the club-tinged sounds of Zooropa but with a much stronger rock influence (Larry Mullen, Jr. in particular sounds as if he’s having enormous fun on the cut) and no shortage of immediate hooks. Like most U2 albums, it’s a bit front-loaded, but there are still more decent album cuts here than any album since Achtung Baby, and how “Wild Honey” in particular could have been overlooked as a single, I have no idea; it’s one of the catchiest pure pop songs they’ve ever crafted. “In a Little While” and “Peace on Earth” rank as standouts as well. The album not only proved to be a commercial success, outselling Pop four times over, but it would also make Grammy history by becoming the first – and, to this day, only – album to ever yield two Record of the Year winners (“Beautiful Day” and “Walk On”). This is easily the band’s best album since Achtung Baby and remains a must-own for fans of the band.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004, Island/Interscope)
Strangely, upon seeing their commercial fortunes revived with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 inexplicably decided not to bring Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno back to produce the follow-up (though the Joshua Tree producers do lend their expertise to one track here, “Love and Peace or Else”), instead recording with Chris Thomas (Pretenders, INXS, Sex Pistols) before starting the album anew with Steve Lilywhite (Dave Matthews Band, Joan Armatrading), who had helmed U2’s first three albums. The band makes a conscious decision here to retreat from the atmospheric textures of their work with Lanois and Eno and get back to the more straightforward and aggressive rock of its earliest days, so the album noticeably rocks much harder than its immediate predecessor. The songwriting itself is just a tad less memorable this time around and the album consequently didn’t make quite as much of an impact on the radio as All That You Can’t Leave Behind did, but the group makes up for it with the sheer power and grit of the performances. The heated opener “Vertigo” is the band’s most dizzyingly up-tempo single since “New Year’s Day,” while “All Because of You” rocks nearly just as hard and “City of Blinding Lights” recalls the best moments from The Unforgettable Fire. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” is the band’s most moving ballad in some time, and “A Man and a Woman,” like “Wild Honey” from the last album, is a hook-laden slice of pure pop that inexplicably got overlooked as a possible single. This isn’t merely one of the band’s hardest-rocking albums; it’s easily one of their finest post-Achtung Baby efforts.
No Line on the Horizon (2008, Island/Interscope)
The band’s dialed a bit back on the rock attack of the previous album, so this album is certainly more subtle than its immediate predecessor. Lanois and Eno are back once more as producers, alongside the returning Lilywhite, who co-produces four cuts here and helms two others, and the album does benefit from the Joshua Tree producers’ atmospheric touches, but unfortunately, they’ve got a much weaker set of songs than normal to work with. There are several tracks here – particularly “Fez – Being Born” and “Stand Up Comedy” – that just don’t work at all, but much more troubling is the fact that even the singles are particularly forgettable by the group’s admittedly high standards, and “Get on Your Boots” has the dubious honor of dethroning “Discotheque” for the title of the weakest lead-off single ever released from a U2 album, and it understandably spent just a solitary week in the Top 40, topping out at #37. “Magnificent,” the second single, is dramatically better – and is easily one of the album’s best cuts – but still lacks a hook strong enough to compare to that of the second single from either of the previous two albums (“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” or “All Because of You,” respectively). But the Moroccan-influenced title cut, the gospel-laced “Moment of Surrender,” and the joyful “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (which the band really dropped the ball by not choosing for the first single; it’s arguably the best song here) are considerably more infectious and go a long way towards salvaging the disc. Sure, the band takes more chances on this album than they have on any disc since Zooropa, but that in and of itself does not make a great disc – songwriting is ultimately more important than texture, and no amount of experimentation can mask the fact that this is arguably the band’s weakest – and certainly the most easily forgettable – batch of songs since Pop.
Songs of Innocence (2014, Island/Interscope)
U2’s detractors – and they are very vocal indeed – like to accuse the band of being pretentious, and the band certainly did themselves no favors with the ill-conceived release strategy behind this album, which consisted of releasing it free via iTunes, which itself was not necessarily a bad idea, but the album, upon release, automatically showed up in full in the “purchased” section of all iTunes users’ music libraries, whether they were U2 fans or not. For many people, the promotion felt only slightly less obtrusive than if the band had broken into consumers’ personal vehicles and inserted the CD into their car stereos. It was definitely a bit of an overreaction, but the promotion had the effect of making a lot of people dislike the album before they had even listened to any of it. It’s unfortunate, because those people who were able to look past the marketing gimmick and actually gave the album a chance were treated to the band’s best disc in at least ten years. Recruiting Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse to produce (Flood and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder are among the extras brought in for additional production touches), an idea that proves to be much better in practice than it sounds on paper, the band noticeably is a bit less dependent on atmospherics this time around and seems to have spent more attention on the songwriting than was evident on No Line on the Horizon, so these songs have sturdier melodies and more easily memorable hooks than anything they’ve done since Atomic Bomb. The pounding “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” may not have been the best choice of lead-off single (there are several even catchier songs here the band could have chosen) but gets the disc off to a fun start all the same, while “Every Breaking Wave” and the lovely, largely-acoustic “Song for Someone” are arguably the group’s finest ballads since “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” the surging “California (There Is No End to Love)” their catchiest song since “Vertigo” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” nearly just as hook-laden. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “Raised by Wolves,” on the other hand, are the band’s most effectively sinister-sounding rockers since the days of Achtung Baby. The album, as usual, is front-loaded and does taper off slightly in quality in its back half, but give the disc a chance – it could have been released in more graceful fashion, yes, but this is legitimately one of the band’s finest post-Achtung Baby albums and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The band’s lone career-encompassing single-disc compilation, the 2006 package U218 Singles, isn’t as satisfying as you might hope it to be – for starters, it bypasses a full six of the band’s fifteen Top 40 hits up to that time, even leaving out the Top Twenty hits “Angel of Harlem” and “Discotheque.” For another thing, it may be weighted too heavily towards the band’s two then-most-recent albums for many longtime fans’ tastes. (Case in point: Achtung Baby is represented by the same number of songs as How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind gets featured more heavily than The Joshua Tree.) Most problematically, though, the U.S. edition of the album inexplicably excludes “I Will Follow,” which is almost impossible for even the most casual of U2 fans not to notice. The package is a reasonably adequate introduction to the band’s music for the as-yet-uninformed, but already-converted fans will undoubtedly notice the plethora of missing hits. Those fans will likely be more satisfied - until a better single-disc compilation comes along, anyway – with the 1998 package The Best of 1980-1990, a fairly comprehensive collection of the band’s most-well-known ‘80s work. (A limited number of early copies also came with a second disc that rounded up most of the band’s most sought-after B-sides such as “Sweetest Thing,” “Silver and Gold,” and the band’s cover of Robert Knight’s soul-pop chestnut “Everlasting Love.”) The disc’s sequel, The Best of 1990-2000, isn’t quite as intoxicating but does a nice job of compiling most of the band’s best work between Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, even tossing in such rarities as their Batman Forever contribution “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and the obscure single “Miss Sarajevo” (a collaboration with Brian Eno that was released under the moniker Passengers); the sadly-much-too-frequently-overlooked Top 40 hit “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” really ought to have been included, but it’s otherwise a fairly complete overview of this era of the band.
At only eight tracks long for a total of just over thirty-five minutes of music, you can’t quite call it a proper full-length (nor does the band, who goes out of its way to label the disc as a “Mini LP” on the cover and record label both), but the closest thing to an official and proper live album the band has made to date (Rattle and Hum doesn’t really count) is 1983’s Under a Blood Red Sky, which features these four young yet-to-be-superstars storming through highly-charged versions of songs from their first three discs, including “I Will Follow,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “New Year’s Day.” Naturally, since it pre-dates any of the band’s actual chart hits in the U.S., it’s not really representative of an average modern-day U2 concert, but it is a fantastic aural onstage document of mid-‘80s U2 and does a great job of capturing the excitement and hype that was surrounding the still-rising band at the time.