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Working Backwards from U2’s Songs of Experience – A Musical Journey

With U2’s Songs of Experience out everywhere now, I noticed iTunes has deals on their back catalogue. Obviously I have no need for more digital copies of albums from my favourite band but I thought I’d write up some recommendations if Songs of Experience is your first U2 album.

Note: Album names will have an iTunes affiliate link. Buy U2 music and make me rich!

Songs of Experience

If you don’t have it, go get it. I’d recommend the deluxe version because the St Peter’s String Version of “Lights of Home” is worth the upgrade price alone.

You’re Stuck in a Moment And Only Want One or Two

Best of 1990-200 / Best of 1980-1990

Normally I’d frown on getting a Best Of collection from any artist – but I know that’s often the gateway into their deeper cuts. And if you just want to stop here, you can’t go wrong picking up their “Best of 1990-200” collection. The “Best of 1980-1990” is great as well but if you’ve had a radio on at all in your life you’ve probably heard their 80’s hits played and overplayed enough to know if you’d like them or not. The early 90s was U2 hitting their peak in popularity, but radio (at least in Canada where I live) doesn’t seem to know what to do with 90s era U2 music.

Achtung – I Will Follow You Deeper, Light My Way

Ok. Skip the greatest hits and get music the way God (yes, Bono) intended it.

Achtung Baby

This is where I show my own entry into U2 – 1991’s Achtung Baby was that album that changed them from being a sentimental lovey-dovey rock band (which they still are), into something that felt cool and had an edge1 to it. From “Zoo Station” all the way to “Love is Blindness”, there isn’t a track on this album that I don’t love and know every word and guitar hook to.

If you can find ZooTV Live From Sydney, the concert documentary of the tour that followed this album, you’ll have the full U2 immersion experience I did back in the early 90’s.

Songs of Innocence

If you had (have?) an iTunes account in 2014 you should already have “Songs of Innocence” since it was given away for free to everyone by Apple. If not, pick it up as a companion to “Songs of Experience”. There’s plenty of callbacks to this album from SoI that make it worth owning to catch – but by no means is it required listening to enjoy SoE. “Song for Someone”, “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, “Cedarwood Road”, “The Troubles”, and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”2 are all highlights for me.

Zooopa

It’s not every U2 fan’s favourite, but mysterious and explorative U2 is my favourite U2. Listening to the opening build up of the opening track throws me right back to early 90’s and wondering what kind of musical journey I was about to embark on.

“Stay (Faraway, So Close)” is definitely my favourite U2 ballad and in my top 5 U2 tracks.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

If, like me, you’re sick of that “Vertigo” song then you can safely skip it and enjoy the beautiful “Miracle Drug” / “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” combo that, in my opinion, should have started this album.

“One Step Closer” and “Yahweh” close out a great album.

The Unforgettable Fire / War

This step is a choose your own adventure: chime-y U2 or 80’s rock U2?

1984’s The Unforgettable Fire is a beautiful album that’s often overshadowed by the popularity of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” in much the same way as How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is by “Vertigo”. But “Bad” is U2 at their most U2-ish and “A Sort of Homecoming” is possibly one of their best album openers to date.

Whereas 1983’s War has the intensity of songs you have likely heard, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day”, one of my favourite deep cuts in “Seconds”, and closes with “40” – a beautiful lament that closed out many of U2’s concerts in the 80s.

Both are great albums and if you’ve come this far, you might as well get both of them because you’re not stopping now.

The Joshua Tree

I don’t know how you could possibly have escaped hearing the first 3 tracks. But if you’re of hearing Bono wail about being with or without you, skip to “Bullet the Blue Sky” – a song that U2 has morphed and twisted over the years to serve whatever political climate they find themselves in while on tour. “Running to Stand Still” is also my favourite U2 ballad (I have a few) and “One Tree Hill”, “Exit”, and “Mothers of the Disappeared” is an amazing trio of songs to close out an album.

You should have this album in your collection. I didn’t put it higher on the list because I assumed you’d already have it.

There’s also deluxe and super deluxe versions of the album if you want to really hear what late 80’s U2 sounded like. You know you want to hear “Red Hill Mining Town (Steve Lillywhite 2017 Mix)”.

Rattle and Hum

You may have heard of the musical journey U2 went on in making the documentary of the same name, Rattle and Hum is the companion live/studio to The Joshua Tree. It features my other favourite U2 balled, “All I Want is You”, concert favourites like “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem”, and collaborations with B.B. King (“When Love Comes to Town”) and Bob Dylan (“Love Rescue Me”).

“Heartland” is not to be missed and should have been included on The Joshua Tree.

Pop

It’s been theorized that U2 albums come in sets of three, and if that’s true then 1997’s Pop is the conclusion of what the band started in Achtung Baby and Zooropa. This was the point where I remember a lot of my friend’s getting off the U2 ride. Whether it was the choice of “Discotheque” for a single, along with Village People inspired music video, or the accompanying Popmart tour – a lot of my fellow U2 fans/friends at the time decided it was all too much.

But there’s plenty of amazing songs on this album – especially if The Joshua Tree sounding U2 is your least favourite U2. “Please” is one of the most beautiful political songs they’ve written. “If God Will Send His Angels” is certainly one of my favourite U2 ballads and takes me back to Christmas in Dublin when I found a copy of the single I’d been looking for. “Gone” is a screamer of a tune, especially live.

I think if they’d committed all the way to the themes they started out with on the first half of the record, this could’ve been an amazing experiment. But it feels like they got cold feet and needed to reign in the beats a bit and have more standard U2 sounding songs.

A Trip Through Your Wires

I chose to journey back through U2 by album as opposed to picking songs you might like. And so with that criteria in mind, the rest of U2’s records all have great songs on them but aren’t as interesting or necessary3 if you’re trying to get your audio hooks into U2.

The rest of their albums are listed in no particular order. Choose your own adventure on your U2 musical journey.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

A return to form after Pop – but it left a bit of a “trying to make a popular record” taste in my mouth. That said, it’s a heck of a record. “Beautiful Day” is a great song, start to finish. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is the brightest sounding description of depression and suicide. “Kite” is a love letter to Bono’s young kids. “In a Little While” is my favourite U2 song to play on guitar. “Peace on Earth” is a beautiful companion to Pop’s “Please”.

You won’t be disappointed in the album. I was only disappointed, at the time, that they didn’t continue experimenting after Pop.

No Line on the Horizon

This is the completion of the 2000’s trilogy that started with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. In some alternate universe, I envision U2’s albums released in the 2000s coming out in the reverse order and it all makes more sense to me.

“Breathe”, “Stand Up Comedy”, and “Get On Your Boots” are fun rock songs. “Magnificent” became much better for my ears after hearing it live on tour.

But you’d be forgiven if you skipped No Line on the Horizon in my books. As a hardcore U2 fan, I find it an interesting experiment – not as good as the Zooropa experiment – but still, an interesting exploration of writing and recording.

October

To this day, I have a hard time getting into this album. “October” is a beautiful piano ballad. “Gloria” is U2 filled with their most religious 80s rock righteousness. I know some U2 fans will flame me for it, but I just have a hard time getting into early 80’s U2. #AchtungBaby4ever

Boy

Despite having slammed October one paragraph ago, I have no trouble loving Boy. If you’re going to follow U2 in the 90s, 2000’s, and beyond – you have to at least be willing to see where they came from. “I Will Follow”, “Into the Heart”, “Out of Control”, and “The Electric Co.” are incredible songs for a band’s first album.

Wide Awake in America / Under a Blood Red Sky / Live from Paris

I don’t know how universally true this is, but for bands like U2, their songs come alive in concert. Whatever the staging and production they might choose, every time I hear a new U2 song for the first time I start imagining how they might perform it live on tour. Songs that I couldn’t find a place for on the album suddenly change into something I need to hear once I’ve heard or seen it live. On their recent 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree tour, U2 took “Exit”, already a fan favourite for sure, to a whole different level with the live performance of it.

So while live isn’t necessarily the best place to hear a song for the first time, it’s almost a required experience for me if you’re saying you just can’t get into U2.

There’s Been A Lot of Talk About This Next Song

…maybe, maybe too much talk.

If you’ve read this far and have a comment on something you disagree with or maybe I’ve dissed your favourite song – by all means, leave a comment below. But if you’re a fellow hardcore U2 fan – know that:

a) I love you. You’re part of my tribe.
b) I think U2 is great. I love their music, their lyrics, their tours.
c) As great as U2 is, I think it’s fun to critique, debate, and discuss art. Which is why I have a lot of fun hosting the @U2 Podcast where we get to do exactly that – subscribe in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
d) Be polite or I’ll delete your comment.

If I wait a week and rewrite this, the albums would probably tumble out in a different order. The songs I like and am drawn to are influenced by what’s going on in my life. U2 has influenced my faith, my guitar, my relationships, and my mind in a way that no other musical artist has.

I can’t wait to hear their next album4!


  1. Pun fully intended

  2. Just kidding. Sleep Like a Baby Tonight is terrible. Just seeing if Matt McGee is reading this.

  3. Feel free to argue and disagree in the comments below – just remember that I wrote this on very little sleep and kept getting pulled away to help my son puke into a bucket. We are rock and roll!

  4. When is Songs of Ascent going to be out already?

  1. Interesting read, Chris. What a great companion article this would be for that university course on U2 for the new students.

    As you mentioned, it’s art. As I mentioned in a tweet reply to Ivano, art appreciation is subjective. There is no right or wrong when it comes to saying a song or album is good or not good. Same goes with paintings and movies. I too have always loved the experimental side of U2 as much as their “classic” sound…if there even is such a thing. They have changed sounds so much from Boy to SoE and that is what I love about them most, and why I could never get into Tragically Hip or the Stones much after one or two albums. As a Debut album, Boy is quite remarkable. Deep and diverse, and nothing sounded like that before or after from any band. I like your observation about reversing the order of the three 2000s albums…

    As art is art, I have to say, I really like Sleep Like a Baby a lot. I hear you and Matt joke about it on the podcast, it’s funny. It was one of the songs I played the most off SoI, but I much preferred the second version, musically and lyrically (from the deluxe CD). Also, I think it would fit better on SoE album as a song (but hey, who am I to rearrange the works of master artists) 🙂

    I’ve been a huge fan since 1987, been to 20+ concerts over the years, since JT ’87 Montreal, and just prior to JT album release a friend had given me a cassette with October on one side and Under a Blood Red Sky on the other. I was already familiar with their hits at the time and liked them. THE song that turned me onto this path as a huge fan was the song Tomorrow, on October. That song haunted me in such a good way. The raw emotion and the way the music builds up, is still one (among too many) of my favourite songs by U2. …and then With or Without You hit the radio waves, JT released and I was super hooked. I started to work backwards asking the guy at the local record store what to buy next. At the time there only were 5 (ish) albums.

    Achtung Baby is still my favourite. LovE Zooropa to this day and as you said Pop is great. ATYCLB was also a bit disappointing to me as well, as it wasn’t super different in new sounds, but so many solid songs. U2 Go Home DVD is a must watch, and 360 Tour DVD – Circling the Square bonus documentary explains a lot about why U2 put on the concerts they do nowadays.
    As many people have said before…even a not-so-good album from U2 is still a pretty damn good album, and that if it came from any other bands it might get ‘judged’ more highly. We expect greatness from artist that are great. U2 has high standards for themselves and in return so do we as fans. I’m glad they took the time to release SoE. I’m sure it would have sounded much different 2 years earlier, not necessarily better though.

    Cheers, and thanks for sharing your ideas.
    Michael
    @intheslipstream (twitter)

  2. Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts. I love hearing how people found their way into U2. And you bring up a great point that the U2 Go Home concert DVD should be up there with ZooTV to understand the passion people have for the band.

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