Ranking U2: The top 5 albums of all time

I liken U2 to a Silicon Valley tech company in many ways. They never stop innovating; or at least trying, albeit not always successfully (the underrated Pop) to transform their sound.

U2 Boy started it all: raw, emotional, astonishing
Your eyes make a circle. U2 Boy started it all: raw, emotional, astonishing.

It’s easy these days to see U2 for what they are: a rock juggernaut of epic proportion. If once they were purely about music—if politically charged—now they are about the higher order, global good, and cultural impact.

“Fly” sunglasses, now a Bono trademark, brand the band as much as a video of the group famously playing Where the Streets Have No Name atop an apartment building in L.A., or making live phone calls to then elder President George Bush during Zoo TV concerts.

I liken U2 to a Silicon Valley tech company in many ways. They never stop innovating; or at least trying, albeit not always successfully (the underrated Pop) to transform their sound. And never seem to be happy where they are, at any given moment. You can see the thoughts running through their minds in interviews. What next? Push the envelope! Status quo? No way!

But times have changed.

Once, on the rough-and-tumble streets of Dublin, this band, U2, screamed for attention. Guitars blazing. Drums beating furiously. U2 had a message for the world. Man, was it awesome. The sound, of course, didn’t yet have the professional sonic guidance of Brian Eno who would take The Edge’s multi-layered guitar sound to new heights. But it had the rawest of human emotion, and the lyrics of a modern-day political poet. It was real. And it was, and is still today, unparalleled.

So, looking back at all twelve of U2’s studio recordings I felt it was time to rank them.

What are the top 5 U2 albums of all-time?

5. The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

Shaping sound, the Brian Eno era begins.

Live Aid, 1985: The performance of a life time.

The trademark U2 sound that defined The Joshua Tree was actually incubated on this, by comparison, smooth and calm album. The hysterics and rough edges have been dutifully shaped using Eno’s ear for ambient layering. Still the message, fortunately, is not lost. Instead the new sound makes U2 more approachable and would pave the way for unfathomable commercial success just a few years later.

A hidden gem, “Bad,” is one of the most riveting U2 songs of all-time, penned in dramatic, poetic fashion by Bono: “This desperation / Dislocation / Separation /Condemnation.” The crowd at Live Aid in 1985 had no idea Bono would tear up the stage with an extended, improvised version of that song, or jump into the crowd, then dance on stage with a fan in a show-stopping highlight. The band had proved they could perform live, soon they would would prove they were here to stay.

4. War (1983)

The Edge tones down the reverb.

Harsh and searing, War, along with Boy and October that preceded it, represent classic U2. If you only know the U2 of 1986 and beyond, then you’re missing a major lesson in music history. And vivid imagery: the streets of Dublin; the anger over war everywhere around the world; and, of course “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday.” Ironically, one of my favorite all-time U2 songs, “40” quietly bookends this album. It’s like a nap and some orange juice, after a 40-minute firestorm.

3. The Joshua Tree (1987)

From band to rock stars.

There was no escaping the extraordinary grip this album had on the air waves and the music industry. Bono had somehow transformed from mere frontman, into full-on Rock God, even sex symbol. I was in high school and everyone owned The Joshua Tree, most on cassette. Every single party would start, “I wanna run…” It is an opus. The music, although so heavily played and worn many times over, still sounds contemporary. The lyrics are brilliant. In comparison to other 80s albums, this one manages to transcend, not overdosing on hairspray or Roland D-50 sequencing.

2. Achtung Baby (1991)

Welcome to Zoo TV, y’all!

I think many would rank Joshua higher. That’s understandable. It, along with Achtung, are undoubtedly the two modern day U2 masterpieces. Perhaps two of the best rock albums of all time. But what makes Achtung Baby even more remarkable is that it completely changed the game. When Bono announced during a 1989 New Year’s concert that U2 would regroup, no one expected this result. Leather pants. Fly sunglasses. Techno beat, and industrial rock. This was light years, thankfully, from Rattle & Hum. It was fresh, and completely unique. It indeed changed the game.

1. Boy (1980)

To start with U2, star with Boy, the raw, explosive beginning.

Not as easily digested as later recordings such as Joshua, it takes repeated listenings to settle. But like any master work, the effort pays off. Sometimes it comes across as slightly above-average garage band, with occasional rough sound or a mess of jumbled guitar, drums and bass all fighting for attention. The sense of place is undeniable though. This is Ireland. Dublin. Tensions and emotions are high, and I don’t think anyone has every captured it musically as well as U2.

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  • Kirby

    Hmmm, we must be about the same age, Clinton, and I fully agree with every word of your synopsis of Joshua Tree.
    I’d have to fully disagree with your ordering
    1. Achtung Baby. Revolutionary not just for U2 but for music in general
    2. Joshua Tree. Their magnum opus–Undeniably–except for Achtung Baby
    3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Understated and beautiful. When I want to hear U2 playing at their best, I listen to this. Every song is a 5
    4. War. like you said
    5. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All 5’s again, except for Crumbs which I find crumby

    Sure Unforgettable Fire and Boy are historic albums for U2, but that doesn’t make them great. Even U2 admits that they were bad then. Pop and Zooropa never get any love, either. Sure it was weird to have a duet with Johnny Cash on a electronica-rock album, but there are some great U2 hits on both.

    • Can’t disagree with that ranking. Agree about Achtung Baby – even more so because the band came back entirely different: the look, the sound. Wow. Funny you mention Pop and Zooropa. I almost included them as honorable mentions.

    • Michael Lederman

      Guys:

      I have been a huge fan of U2 since I first saw them at The Country Club in Reseda Ca. first US tour. I have seen every tour and own every album/CD. They are far and away the greatest band in the world. The fun argument is who is the second greatest band and, just how much of a U2 wanna be is that choice (see Coldplay) My Top 5 with a huge surprise at the end.

      5) Boy- one of the greatest debut albums ever.
      4) Unforgettable Fire- the album that defines the start of the importance of Brian Eno to this bands developing sound.
      3) Actung Baby- from Berlin with balls
      2) Joshua Tree- one beautiful epic symphony after another
      1) No Line On The Horizon- not sure what people don’t get here. Simply the best meeting of Eno/Lanois and the boys. Never grows old and, an amazing accomplishment this late in the game. Can’t wait for pt. 2

  • Kirby

    Hmmm, we must be about the same age, Clinton, and I fully agree with every word of your synopsis of Joshua Tree.
    I’d have to fully disagree with your ordering
    1. Achtung Baby. Revolutionary not just for U2 but for music in general
    2. Joshua Tree. Their magnum opus–Undeniably–except for Achtung Baby
    3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Understated and beautiful. When I want to hear U2 playing at their best, I listen to this. Every song is a 5
    4. War. like you said
    5. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All 5’s again, except for Crumbs which I find crumby

    Sure Unforgettable Fire and Boy are historic albums for U2, but that doesn’t make them great. Even U2 admits that they were bad then. Pop and Zooropa never get any love, either. Sure it was weird to have a duet with Johnny Cash on a electronica-rock album, but there are some great U2 hits on both.

    • Can’t disagree with that ranking. Agree about Achtung Baby – even more so because the band came back entirely different: the look, the sound. Wow. Funny you mention Pop and Zooropa. I almost included them as honorable mentions.

    • Michael Lederman

      Guys:

      I have been a huge fan of U2 since I first saw them at The Country Club in Reseda Ca. first US tour. I have seen every tour and own every album/CD. They are far and away the greatest band in the world. The fun argument is who is the second greatest band and, just how much of a U2 wanna be is that choice (see Coldplay) My Top 5 with a huge surprise at the end.

      5) Boy- one of the greatest debut albums ever.
      4) Unforgettable Fire- the album that defines the start of the importance of Brian Eno to this bands developing sound.
      3) Actung Baby- from Berlin with balls
      2) Joshua Tree- one beautiful epic symphony after another
      1) No Line On The Horizon- not sure what people don’t get here. Simply the best meeting of Eno/Lanois and the boys. Never grows old and, an amazing accomplishment this late in the game. Can’t wait for pt. 2

  • Kirby

    Hmmm, we must be about the same age, Clinton, and I fully agree with every word of your synopsis of Joshua Tree.
    I’d have to fully disagree with your ordering
    1. Achtung Baby. Revolutionary not just for U2 but for music in general
    2. Joshua Tree. Their magnum opus–Undeniably–except for Achtung Baby
    3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Understated and beautiful. When I want to hear U2 playing at their best, I listen to this. Every song is a 5
    4. War. like you said
    5. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All 5’s again, except for Crumbs which I find crumby

    Sure Unforgettable Fire and Boy are historic albums for U2, but that doesn’t make them great. Even U2 admits that they were bad then. Pop and Zooropa never get any love, either. Sure it was weird to have a duet with Johnny Cash on a electronica-rock album, but there are some great U2 hits on both.

    • Can’t disagree with that ranking. Agree about Achtung Baby – even more so because the band came back entirely different: the look, the sound. Wow. Funny you mention Pop and Zooropa. I almost included them as honorable mentions.

    • Michael Lederman

      Guys:

      I have been a huge fan of U2 since I first saw them at The Country Club in Reseda Ca. first US tour. I have seen every tour and own every album/CD. They are far and away the greatest band in the world. The fun argument is who is the second greatest band and, just how much of a U2 wanna be is that choice (see Coldplay) My Top 5 with a huge surprise at the end.

      5) Boy- one of the greatest debut albums ever.
      4) Unforgettable Fire- the album that defines the start of the importance of Brian Eno to this bands developing sound.
      3) Actung Baby- from Berlin with balls
      2) Joshua Tree- one beautiful epic symphony after another
      1) No Line On The Horizon- not sure what people don’t get here. Simply the best meeting of Eno/Lanois and the boys. Never grows old and, an amazing accomplishment this late in the game. Can’t wait for pt. 2

  • Kirby

    Hmmm, we must be about the same age, Clinton, and I fully agree with every word of your synopsis of Joshua Tree.
    I’d have to fully disagree with your ordering
    1. Achtung Baby. Revolutionary not just for U2 but for music in general
    2. Joshua Tree. Their magnum opus–Undeniably–except for Achtung Baby
    3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Understated and beautiful. When I want to hear U2 playing at their best, I listen to this. Every song is a 5
    4. War. like you said
    5. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All 5’s again, except for Crumbs which I find crumby

    Sure Unforgettable Fire and Boy are historic albums for U2, but that doesn’t make them great. Even U2 admits that they were bad then. Pop and Zooropa never get any love, either. Sure it was weird to have a duet with Johnny Cash on a electronica-rock album, but there are some great U2 hits on both.

    • Can’t disagree with that ranking. Agree about Achtung Baby – even more so because the band came back entirely different: the look, the sound. Wow. Funny you mention Pop and Zooropa. I almost included them as honorable mentions.

    • Michael Lederman

      Guys:

      I have been a huge fan of U2 since I first saw them at The Country Club in Reseda Ca. first US tour. I have seen every tour and own every album/CD. They are far and away the greatest band in the world. The fun argument is who is the second greatest band and, just how much of a U2 wanna be is that choice (see Coldplay) My Top 5 with a huge surprise at the end.

      5) Boy- one of the greatest debut albums ever.
      4) Unforgettable Fire- the album that defines the start of the importance of Brian Eno to this bands developing sound.
      3) Actung Baby- from Berlin with balls
      2) Joshua Tree- one beautiful epic symphony after another
      1) No Line On The Horizon- not sure what people don’t get here. Simply the best meeting of Eno/Lanois and the boys. Never grows old and, an amazing accomplishment this late in the game. Can’t wait for pt. 2

  • AltRockAddict

    A tough task to pull 5 out of their treasure trove and rank them to boot! But your observations are spot on (despite the subjective nature of U2s evolving pallet!) My personal list would include No Line On The Horizon somewhere in there, but no telling where because they aren’t done yet. My favorites change with my needs which is part of the beauty of U2. Their songs are pregnant with meaning, their relevance perpetually up-to-date. And with my MP3 the challenge of picking one album is just not an issue anymore. These recordings, spanning 30 years, turn out to shuffle beautifully together. One thing for sure though – I will be burried with my ZooTv DVD!

  • AltRockAddict

    A tough task to pull 5 out of their treasure trove and rank them to boot! But your observations are spot on (despite the subjective nature of U2s evolving pallet!) My personal list would include No Line On The Horizon somewhere in there, but no telling where because they aren’t done yet. My favorites change with my needs which is part of the beauty of U2. Their songs are pregnant with meaning, their relevance perpetually up-to-date. And with my MP3 the challenge of picking one album is just not an issue anymore. These recordings, spanning 30 years, turn out to shuffle beautifully together. One thing for sure though – I will be burried with my ZooTv DVD!

  • AltRockAddict

    A tough task to pull 5 out of their treasure trove and rank them to boot! But your observations are spot on (despite the subjective nature of U2s evolving pallet!) My personal list would include No Line On The Horizon somewhere in there, but no telling where because they aren’t done yet. My favorites change with my needs which is part of the beauty of U2. Their songs are pregnant with meaning, their relevance perpetually up-to-date. And with my MP3 the challenge of picking one album is just not an issue anymore. These recordings, spanning 30 years, turn out to shuffle beautifully together. One thing for sure though – I will be burried with my ZooTv DVD!

  • AltRockAddict

    A tough task to pull 5 out of their treasure trove and rank them to boot! But your observations are spot on (despite the subjective nature of U2s evolving pallet!) My personal list would include No Line On The Horizon somewhere in there, but no telling where because they aren’t done yet. My favorites change with my needs which is part of the beauty of U2. Their songs are pregnant with meaning, their relevance perpetually up-to-date. And with my MP3 the challenge of picking one album is just not an issue anymore. These recordings, spanning 30 years, turn out to shuffle beautifully together. One thing for sure though – I will be burried with my ZooTv DVD!

  • Haddon

    Great article from a true fan.

    I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.”

    One thing that you’ve done here Clinton is highlighted the ALBUM as a full expression of an artists intent. I think the concept of an ALBUM is really being lost, or might have already been lost, in part because people can cherry pick their favorite songs off of any album via iTunes.

    So, in light of this I wonder what you’d pick in an article entitled “Ranking U2: The top 5 songs of all time”

    • Quote: I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.” (/end quote)

      The working title for Achtung Baby was Man, not HTDAAB – as far as I know anyway, you could be right.

    • Haddon, great idea! Deal. I’m going to do a follow-up soon on the top 5 songs. I already know my top two picks. #1 is from The Joshua Tree. #2 is from the Unforgettable Fire (and might be a bit of a surprise).

  • Haddon

    Great article from a true fan.

    I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.”

    One thing that you’ve done here Clinton is highlighted the ALBUM as a full expression of an artists intent. I think the concept of an ALBUM is really being lost, or might have already been lost, in part because people can cherry pick their favorite songs off of any album via iTunes.

    So, in light of this I wonder what you’d pick in an article entitled “Ranking U2: The top 5 songs of all time”

    • Mr X

      Quote: I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.” (/end quote)

      The working title for Achtung Baby was Man, not HTDAAB – as far as I know anyway, you could be right.

    • Haddon, great idea! Deal. I’m going to do a follow-up soon on the top 5 songs. I already know my top two picks. #1 is from The Joshua Tree. #2 is from the Unforgettable Fire (and might be a bit of a surprise).

  • Haddon

    Great article from a true fan.

    I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.”

    One thing that you’ve done here Clinton is highlighted the ALBUM as a full expression of an artists intent. I think the concept of an ALBUM is really being lost, or might have already been lost, in part because people can cherry pick their favorite songs off of any album via iTunes.

    So, in light of this I wonder what you’d pick in an article entitled “Ranking U2: The top 5 songs of all time”

    • Quote: I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.” (/end quote)

      The working title for Achtung Baby was Man, not HTDAAB – as far as I know anyway, you could be right.

    • Haddon, great idea! Deal. I’m going to do a follow-up soon on the top 5 songs. I already know my top two picks. #1 is from The Joshua Tree. #2 is from the Unforgettable Fire (and might be a bit of a surprise).

  • Haddon

    Great article from a true fan.

    I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.”

    One thing that you’ve done here Clinton is highlighted the ALBUM as a full expression of an artists intent. I think the concept of an ALBUM is really being lost, or might have already been lost, in part because people can cherry pick their favorite songs off of any album via iTunes.

    So, in light of this I wonder what you’d pick in an article entitled “Ranking U2: The top 5 songs of all time”

    • Mr X

      Quote: I agree with Kirby that just because “Boy” is a historic album it doesn’t make it great. Here’s a bit of trivia, the original title for HTDAAB was “Man” as a sequel to “Boy.” (/end quote)

      The working title for Achtung Baby was Man, not HTDAAB – as far as I know anyway, you could be right.

    • Haddon, great idea! Deal. I’m going to do a follow-up soon on the top 5 songs. I already know my top two picks. #1 is from The Joshua Tree. #2 is from the Unforgettable Fire (and might be a bit of a surprise).

  • Posey

    Fantastic article! It’s such a relief to read a post about U2 that wasn’t written as an excuse to bash Bono. I guess it’s just nice to know that there are still people out there who appreciate the music. :)

    Your descriptions of Joshua Tree and Achtung were spot-on! But I’d have to bump Achtung to #1–the opening seconds of “Zoo Station” get me every time.

  • Posey

    Fantastic article! It’s such a relief to read a post about U2 that wasn’t written as an excuse to bash Bono. I guess it’s just nice to know that there are still people out there who appreciate the music. :)

    Your descriptions of Joshua Tree and Achtung were spot-on! But I’d have to bump Achtung to #1–the opening seconds of “Zoo Station” get me every time.

  • Posey

    Fantastic article! It’s such a relief to read a post about U2 that wasn’t written as an excuse to bash Bono. I guess it’s just nice to know that there are still people out there who appreciate the music. :)

    Your descriptions of Joshua Tree and Achtung were spot-on! But I’d have to bump Achtung to #1–the opening seconds of “Zoo Station” get me every time.

  • Posey

    Fantastic article! It’s such a relief to read a post about U2 that wasn’t written as an excuse to bash Bono. I guess it’s just nice to know that there are still people out there who appreciate the music. :)

    Your descriptions of Joshua Tree and Achtung were spot-on! But I’d have to bump Achtung to #1–the opening seconds of “Zoo Station” get me every time.

  • Plheureux

    Clinton,

    There are many many reasons why U2 is unreal. One of them is their ability to create “theme” albums. Only The Beatles and The Who come to mind as being skilled enough to do it. I get great listening pleasure when I play a record and it is good from start to finish. U2 has several records that are so satisfying because every song is good. Also the way that they order the songs on the record is just SO good. The way that POP is constructed blows me away. POP has a one-of-a-kind vibe to it that is so great because one feels like one is sitting in a room with the band and it is pure U2. BOY is great from start to finish. I could go on and on but I will tell you what I think are 5 great U2 songs:

    Twilight
    Gone
    velvet dress
    all i want is you (Edge’s riff)
    Please

    The Edge is the most underrated musician/guitarist/artist on the planet.

    • What a timely comment. I just re-listened to BOY on the way back from Loreto, Baja and savored every second – it’s raw, visceral and very real. Playing back-to-back to something like October (as much as I enjoy all of U2s early work) clearly reveals it to be the stronger album in my view.

      Regarding “theme” albums, I agree and am concerned that MP3s and .99 song purchases may (and already has?) diminished the value of great rock operas for example. You’re right, order does matter. It helps create an entire listening experience.

      Also, funny you mention POP — we’re really on the same wavelength today — it’s truly awesome, despite its commercial results (and disastrous Vegas tour open). I’ll never forget that concert at Skydome in Toronto!

      Need I even say on Twilight, Gone, Please and The Edge’s riff on All I Want is You? Velvet Dress: I need to go give that another spin.

  • Iaforbes

    After having a big (friendly) argument over which was better, Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby with a friend I’ve looked at a number of top U2 album lists most of which seemed to have been written by the musically illiterate. It was nice to see a top five that very closely resembles my own. I can see your reasoning behind Boy but I just can’t put it above Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Velvet Dress? Adam’s bassline. Classic Clayton, simple but perfect.

  • decemberhotel

    Nice list. We agree, just in a different order. Here’s my list: http://www.decemberhotel.net/Lists/U2Albums.html

    • Thanks, great list. Looking back at my list 3 years later, I think you might be right that #1 is Joshua Tree, #2 is Achtung Baby. Or maybe I’m just getting softer as I get older!