Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every U2 Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Boy (1980, Island)

B +  

It’s fairly normal for bands to take a few albums before they really settle into a groove or discover their niche, and there are no shortage of debut albums that sound radically different stylistically from an artist’s later, more famous albums – Supertramp’s folk-and-prog-rock-influenced self-titled debut, for instance, is barely recognizable as the work of the same band that later made Breakfast in America – so it’s a bit surprising from the opening minutes of this album just how much U2 already sounds like the band that would rocket to superstardom in the late ‘80s. Sure, the album may not be quite as glossy or anthem-oriented as The Joshua Tree and Bono has still yet to lock into a consistent voice as a lyricist, but nearly all the elements are already in place: the arena-sized ambitions; the great combination of pop melody and ambient rhythm tracks that would prove to be the trademark of the band’s best material; The Edge’s distinctive, echo-drenched, atmospheric guitar playing; and Larry Mullen, Jr.’s dynamic, martial-like drumming. The one thing the band has yet to master is the balancing-act craft of venturing into more distinctly experimental territory while still maintaining a certain level of pop appeal, and tracks like “An Cat Dubh” fall flat. But those moments are thankfully few, and it’s hard not to get excited by tracks like the intense rocker “The Electric Co.,” the pulsating guitar riff that propels “A Day Without Me,” the thunderous “Out of Control,” and, best of all, the album’s passionate lead-off cut, the wildly catchy and danceable arena-rock of “I Will Follow.”  

October (1981, Island)

C

The title of this disc’s closing cut, “Is That All?,” pretty much sums up the reaction that most people will have after listening to this album, and it’s easy to understand why this album felt like a huge disappointment coming immediately after the exciting and promising Boy. To their credit, the band never actually embarrasses itself here, but you can’t help but feel like the band was rushed back into the studio before they had any material fully ready. The lyrics are unusually very minimalist (particularly on “Is That All?,” which largely just repeats the title ad nauseum, “Scarlet,” and the title cut), and there’s also nothing here even remotely as catchy as “I Will Follow,” the disc requiring quite a few spins before even the strongest melodies here finally start to sink in. The disc certainly is an interesting one – the band is noticeably trying to put more sense of purpose into its lyrics, and many of the songs here have religious or spiritual overtones, while the band tries some one-off musical experiments like the heavily-Irish-flavored sounds of “Tomorrow” and the piano balladry of the title cut – but the songs seem too underdeveloped to really warrant repeated listening, though “Gloria,” the acoustic-leaning “I Fall Down,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” are all fairly decent. It’s not a bad album – merely one that’s just mediocre at best and undeniably the least memorable of the band’s six albums of the Eighties.  

War (1983, Island)

A +

Easily their best album up to this point, War finds the band taking what it’s learned from its first two albums and refining its sound into something that borrows from the best of both worlds: they’re still nearly every bit as ambitious here – particularly on a lyrical level – as they were on October and aren’t tempering their desire any to be the greatest arena-rock band on the planet, but this time around, they’re smart enough to also revisit and reintroduce the more pop-radio-friendly sound of Boy, resulting in a disc that strikes the perfect balance between the artistic and the commercial. Two of the band’s most iconic anthems can be found here: the haunting, driving rock of “New Year’s Day” (“I will be with you again …”) and the martial rhythms of the protest anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But it’s the strength of the surrounding material that distinguishes this album the most from its spottier predecessors, and tracks like the insistent acoustic chug of “Seconds,” the disco-rock of “Two Hearts Beat As One,” the chiming “Drowning Man,” the trumpet-laden “Red Light,” the pounding grooves of “The Refugee,” and the brief-but-hypnotic closer “‘40’” all go a long way towards making this album one of the band’s very best.  

The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Island)

A

The worst that can be said about this album is that it sometimes gets a little too ambitious lyrically for its own good (most notably on “Elvis Presley and America”) and can consequently feel slightly pretentious for that reason. But the band – now employing Daniel Lanois and former Roxy Music member and ambient-music specialist Brian Eno as its producers – is mining more sonically interesting territory than ever and adding a heavy dose of atmospherics to its brand of rock to fascinating results, which makes this an even more interesting disc to listen to through headphones than anything it had previously made. Judged purely on the songwriting, War might have a slight edge on this album, but the production adds so much to The Unforgettable Fire that you might not even notice at first that the songs aren’t quite as catchy this time around, though there are still a small handful that sink in right away, namely the pounding rocker “Pride (in the Name of Love),” which would give the band their first Top 40 hit in the U.S., the dance-rock of “A Sort of Homecoming,” and the excellent title cut (“Walk on by / Walk on through …”), which works slight hints of sophisti-pop textures into the band’s sound to appealing results. Other standouts include the frantic rush of “Wire,” the gentle groove of “Bad,” and the stirring closer “MLK.”

The Joshua Tree (1987, Island)

A +

Considering how slowly U2’s profile grew in the U.S. (it wasn’t until their fourth album, after all, that they managed to produce a Top 40 single), it may have seemed surprising to many in the music business in 1987 when U2 suddenly catapulted into the rock-and-roll elite with the release of The Joshua Tree, but it shouldn’t have been. Not only had the band’s profile and fan base been growing steadily over the previous seven years, but The Joshua Tree is, artistically, the culmination – and a perfect summary – of everything they’ve learned up to this time: it’s got the pop appeal of the most accessible moments on Boy, the arena-oriented ambitions of albums like October and War, and the intriguing sonic textures and atmospheric experiments of The Unforgettable Fire. Wisely retaining Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as their producers, the band brings an even more commercially-accessible – yet impressively no less passionate or mysterious – set of material to the table than they had to work with on The Unforgettable Fire and dials back on the lyrical overreach of that disc at the same time, resulting in what remains the band’s masterpiece. It is a bit of a shame that so much material was trimmed – some of the best cuts from these sessions were left on the cutting-room floor and utilized instead as B-sides, one of which, “Sweetest Thing,” would become a radio hit over a full decade later – but there are still great album cuts throughout, particularly the hushed ballad “Running to Stand Still,” “One Tree Hill,” “In God’s Country,” and the piercing “Bullet the Blue Sky.” But it’s the album’s three massive hit singles that leave the biggest impression of all. The pounding anthem “Where the Streets Have No Name” revisits the dance-rock territory explored in “A Sort of Homecoming” but with stronger hooks, while the haunting chart-topping ballad “With or Without You” finds Bono and U2 both at their most subtle without sacrificing anything in the way of emotional impact, and the cathartic and gospel-tinged “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” also a chart-topper, is just as chilling and captures the band in an unusually soul-baring and spiritual state of mind; it’s almost like hearing Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” reinvented as an arena-rock song. 

Rattle and Hum (1988, Island)

B +

U2 had been in the habit in recent years of following up each studio album with a live EP or mini-LP – War had been quickly followed with Under a Blood Red Sky, while The Unforgettable Fire had been followed with the half-live/half-B-sides package Wide Awake in America. Interestingly, the band opted to follow The Joshua Tree with a double-disc set that has too few concert recordings to really be called a live album but too many live performances to really be called a studio album, either. Granted, the disc is technically a soundtrack to a documentary about the band, but the fact that the band has thrown in so many recordings of new songs make you feel as if the band had started to record a follow-up to The Joshua Tree, quickly changed their mind, and released this simply as a way of getting the handful of new songs out without provoking too many comparisons to The Joshua Tree and giving themselves a way to stall for time until they felt they had crafted another masterpiece. But the new songs – including the pounding “Hawkmoon 269,” the John Lennon tribute “God Part II,” the Bob Dylan co-write “Love Rescue Me,” and the B.B. King duet “When Love Comes to Town” – are all quite fascinating, and the sweeping epic “All I Want Is You,” the Bo Diddley-recalling grooves of “Desire,” and the brass-heavy, stirring Billie Holiday tribute “Angel of Harlem” are especially excellent. The live material is a bit less memorable, though “Pride (In the Name of Love)” turns out to sound every bit as good in a concert setting as you would expect it to, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which finds the band joined by a gospel choir and goes a full two minutes before Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drums kick in, is downright majestic and should give you goose bumps. 

Achtung Baby (1991, Island)

A +

U2’s first album of the ‘90s finds them taking an unexpectedly radical turn away from the more arena-rock-oriented sounds of their ‘80s albums and trying on a more subtle brand of modern-rock, so this album is certainly never as distinctively bombastic as albums like War, The Unforgettable Fire, or The Joshua Tree were, and even The Edge’s playing has taken on a whole different kind of vibe, the guitarist trading in his distinctively chiming sound and heavy use of delay and echo for heavy doses of distortion, feedback, and effects pedals. But the band is still in fine creative form here, and it’s interesting to hear them adapting their trademark sound to more subtle and subdued rhythmic textures and even bringing in strong hints of electronica and industrial music into the mix (particularly on “Zoo Station” and “The Fly”). Simply, it’s the most ambitious potpourri of different sounds the band has ever brought to the table at one time, but it strangely works, even if the move away from arena-rock means that the most passionate moments here feel a little more muted than the most cathartic cuts on the band’s best ‘80s discs. The gospel-tinged anthem “One” succeeds at revisiting the grandiose lyrical statements of The Unforgettable Fire without any of the accompanying pretension of that disc; the Top Ten smash “Mysterious Ways” is the band’s most sinister-sounding single yet, boasting a clever rhythm track that strangely manages to sound soulful and industrial at the same time; the driving rock of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” strikes just the right balance between the U2 of War and the U2 of the ‘90s; and the criminally underrated “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” – equal parts beautiful and catchy – ranks as one of Bono’s most powerful vocal performances. Other highlights include “Until the End of the World,” “The Fly” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” You could make a very valid case for this being the band’s strongest album from start to finish, not in the least since the band’s albums generally tend to be a bit on the front-loaded side. [This is actually the only one of the band’s studio albums from the ‘80s or ‘90s where the biggest hit contained within doesn’t show up until the second half of the package.]