What are the Top U2 Songs of All Time?

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

6: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

One American reviewer declared that Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” was a better version of the same tune. On an even less flattering note, The Edge first thought it sounded like “Eye of the Tiger” covered by a reggae band. So maybe if you listen hard enough, you can pick up on some similarities, but the reality is that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is far too steady, and for that matter, far too good, for such comparisons. U2’s version of gospel never explodes; instead, the parts of the song give way into the next, as if each was just waiting its turn.

This is clear from the first seconds when the opening palm-muted, off-beat strikes fade out and The Edge’s jangly riff fades in. The drums stay constant—each measure punctuated by that snare’s exclamation point—while the lyrics stay vague, relying on the imagery gospel seems to require—“I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields.” This is a place where Bono can change the geography with one hand while extolling you for a response with the other, creating a friendly bounce to the melody, a coy understanding that these lyrics are yours to take and do with as you please. The first half of the song makes you feel good, in the same way that only Motown hits from the 60’s with that same theme of climbing mountains and fording rivers can. It is only when Bono sings, “I believe in the Kingdom Come/Then all the colours will bleed into one,” that the song becomes a testament to something a little bigger and stronger. U2 has written many love songs over their career—and many are on this countdown—but none are quite as grand in scope. After all, eternity can go on for quite a long time.

#7: Bad

This is a song with some chutzpah, daring you to turn it off before hearing its buried-deep refrain. “Bad” starts out as a nervous heartbeat but soon turns into a spiritual with Bono taking on the role of a preacher, redeeming souls with two simple sentences—I’m wide awake, I’m not sleeping—while his bandmates waste nothing. Every tambourine hit, every echo of the guitar, every sequencer adds to the slow build. The Edge’s riff is a lesson in self-control. Motoring around in the low end, each loop is punctuated by a melodic phrase high above the fray, forcing the listener to wait for the whole cycle to repeat to hear that catchy bit come around again.

The rest of the instrumentation is just as measured. Every single hit Larry Mullen, Jr. makes has a purpose. There is no bombast to his performance—no unnecessary flaunting of skills—which makes when he doesn’t play even more powerful. “There’s one moment where Larry puts down brushes and takes up the sticks,” The Edge said in an interview. “It creates this pause which has an incredibly dramatic effect.”

Listening to “Bad,” you need to appreciate such pauses. The longer you can patiently wait, the bigger the payoff. It’s no coincidence that U2’s twelve minute performance of this song at Live Aid, complete with Bono dancing with a girl in the crowd, launched them higher into the rock star stratosphere than they’d ever been before. Maybe this song should have been released with a disclaimer: Judgment Day is coming, and it will arrive around the three-minute mark. You have all been warned.

#8. “I Will Follow”

Technically, you can play the main lick on your guitar. It’s quite simple, really. It just involves you putting that finger down and lifting that one up, all while continuing to barrel ahead. If you fiddle around with pedals and effects, drenching the sound in reverb, maybe you can get the tone just right as well.

But try as you might, there is no way you’ll attack that simple riff like The Edge. Each downstroke is desperate; each note is an announcement of his presence. If you are looking for the exact moment U2 went from boys with feathered hair to future international sensations, “I Will Follow” comes pretty close to hitting it square on. The quintessential song of U2’s early catalog, “I Will Follow” captures everything the world would soon grow to love about the boys from Dublin. It’s aggressive but sensitive, much like a prizefighter bringing you flowers. The second single U2 ever released—try to name the first—“I Will Follow” is currently the most preformed song in their catalog, still going strong thirty years after its 1980 release. Written as a tribute to his deceased mother, Bono’s vocal performance is filled with yearning, displaying the vulnerability that would soon become his trademark. This song is an expression of unconditional love, condescended into three verses, three choruses and a bridge. If you walk away, I will follow. It doesn’t get more straightforward than that. Or in this case, more poignant.

#9. One

The year was 1990 and U2 was on the ropes. The rhythm section preferred their old sound; the singer and the guitarist wanted something new. Studio sessions were constantly derailed by infighting and the idea of calling it quits was becoming more and more realistic; that is, until The Edge stumbled upon a chord progression that fittingly spawned a song many hold up as an anthem about coming together. Sparked to life, the group began to improvise and about fifteen minutes later, had one of the most memorable tracks in their repertoire.

“One” is not just a song. It is a movement. The band donated all proceeds from the original single to AIDS Research and recently, it has become impossible to listen to the song without thinking of Bono’s constant advocacy for those in need in Africa. However, it is curious that the song’s lyrics lend themselves more to describing a break-up than any sort of commitment—“Did I ask too much, more than a lot/You gave me nothing, now it’s all I got/We’re one, but we’re not the same/Well, we hurt each other, then we do it again.” Constantly ranked as U2’s best song and as perhaps one of the best songs ever written, the legend of “One” has far outgrown a track that musically has more in common with an Oasis song than with U2’s best work. Yes, lyrically, it is superb. Bono has some of his best moments, handling material that would come off horribly cheesy in most other singers’ hands. Still, when you take a closer look at “One,” and separate its cultural impact from its sonic merit, perhaps that’s not really a halo above its head, glowing bright. Maybe it’s just a trick of the light.

#10. “In God’s Country”

“Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky/The rivers run but soon run dry/We need new dreams tonight/Desert rose, dreamed I saw a desert rose/Dress torn in ribbons and bows/Like a siren she calls (to me)”

Who’s to say why certain songs have an effect on us? I doubt any members of U2 would put “In God’s Country” in their own personal top ten but here it is, making its way into mine. The fourth single off of The Joshua Tree was a mild commercial success, reaching #44 on the Billboard Singles chart and earning what can best be described as B+ from Bono, who gave his lyric a “very good”, the tune a “pretty good” and the hook a “pretty average.”

Still, from the original version all the way to the cover by Tribe Called Heaven—a young Dave Matthews’ side project—“In God’s Country” has always stood out to me as a capstone of songwriting. It is a rare song that actually takes you to another place—out of your living room or that airplane seat and into a landscape of U2’s creating. For anyone who has ever been in those wide-open spaces as described by Bono’s lyrics; for anyone who has driven through a Wyoming or a Montana-type landscape, it is hard not to be taken back there by that opening stanza. The song’s parts have a symbiotic relationship; there is no distinct line separating the verse and the chorus due to the lack of a pre-chorus. Setting a hurried pace as if one were actually moving through the plains, “In God’s Country” comes on quick, clocking in at under three minutes. It stays just long enough to make a lasting impression before leaving us to ride off into that picture-perfect sunset.

#11. Beautiful Day

Released in October of 2000, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was U2’s resume come to life; in Bono’s words, it was them reapplying for the job of best band in the world. Taken from a lyric in the song, “Walk On,” the album title became an rallying cry of sorts—not only for listeners who would not allow U2 fade into obscurity three decades into their careers, but also for the boys themselves, who could not let go of the very thing that launched them to stardom: the rock anthem.

“Beautiful Day,” by any measure, is one of the best they ever wrote. In a conscious effort to return to their roots after the critically panned album, Pop, members of the band sought to recapture some of the magic from their earlier years. For this track, The Edge went back to using a Gibson Explorer, dialing in his guitar tone from War and The Joshua Tree. Bono matched lyrics with jarring imagery focused on environmental issues—oil fields at first light; tuna fleets cleaning out the sea out—with more standard religious fare—“See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colours came out.” Often credited as the fifth and six members of the band, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois continued to push the boundaries of their production style. The song itself, while containing many staples of a pop hit, is quite experimental. An echo-filled verse is highlighted by these strange whispering sounds in the background—creating an effect like trying to get the radio dial set just right—all of it leading into a chorus that swoops in with digitally manipulated background vocals. The end result was a song that revitalized the band and made sure they would remain relevant well into the new millennium. As Bono said when the track hit #1 in U.K., “Singles are what makes rock sharp, and we’ve not been great at singles. I can’t tell you how excited we feel, we’ve been around for a while and to hear this song on the radio, it feels very special.” Who are we to argue?

#12: The Unforgettable Fire

U2 has never been a band to stay put, but even for them, managing to move from military-style drums to atmospheric rock in one year is quite the feat. Back in the studio on the heels of the success of War, the band threw away the musical fingerprint they had spent the past three albums establishing, instead, seeking out something completely new. They found it with Brian Eno and his layered production, creating an album full of complex sounds that would soon define the band in the years to come.

Of all the songs on The Unforgettable Fire, it is the title track that stands out as the true bridge from the band’s past to their future. Thanks to a string arrangement by Irish jazz musician Noel Kelehan, “The Unforgettable Fire,” like many tracks on War, has a verse that feels like someone stretching a rubber band to its full tension. However, unlike almost all of their music at that point, the chorus of the song does not explode. Rather, it simply unfolds, the guitar switching from atmospheric harmonics to shimmering high notes, lending itself to a feeling of hope. Taking its name from an exhibit of paintings by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, “The Unforgettable Fire” is at its core an unsettling pop song. While the vocal melodies are smooth and luscious, the jarring strings in the bridge let the listener know what they long suspected—this is a song dealing with something sinister right underneath the surface; that rubber band stretching right up until the moment it finally snaps.

#13: Mysterious Ways

Who wants the funk? U2 wants the funk. They want that poppy, insanely catchy funk that goes all the way to #1 on the Modern Rock Charts. They want that funk that’s so good, you don’t even notice that the lyrics are something along the lines of a nursery rhyme—“ Johnny, take a walk with your sister the moon/Let her pale light in, to fill up your room.”

Built around an Adam Clayton bassline, “Mysterious Ways” was a point of contention during the recording sessions for Achtung Baby, at least once causing Bono and producer Daniel Lanois to become quite heated. The song finally came together when The Edge decided to use his new effects pedal to get it that unique tone, which Bono described as an “envelope of sound which would turn a guitar chord into funkiest of jackhammers.” While perhaps not the funkiest of jackhammers—I’m pretty sure Bootsy Collins used one or two as percussion in his day—it is the funkiest U2 is ever going to get. Once again, they took a risk, and unlike the PopMart Tour, this one turned out for the better. Take notes, aspiring rock stars—this is how you make the big bucks and still satisfy your diehard fans. All you’ve got to do is write something that sounds a little dirty when it’s being played out of a hundred thousand mini-van speakers.

#14: Two Hearts Beat As One

It’s the best love song on War, but it’s angry. It sounds like a protest song, but Bono wrote it on his honeymoon. I do believe this is what intelligent folk like to call a juxtaposition of styles. Released as the album’s second single in the U.S., “Two Hearts Beat As One” went all the way to #12 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart. It stands alone in U2’s catalog in how it depicts love—not as something that starts muted and builds to a crescendo, but rather as something you’ve just got to dive into. There is no quarter given. All’s fair in love and U2 albums from 1983, etc.

A festering bass line leads us into an absolute chainsaw of a guitar riff, all of it building to Bono’s vocals swelling and fading in. The delivery of everything on “Two Hearts,” instrumental or otherwise, is staccato and pressed. The message becomes clear in between The Edge’s vicious upstrokes: go get your slow jam jollies elsewhere. The chorus, complete with cooing background vocals, does not invite you to sing along; it demands you do so! While the lyrics when read aloud are nothing special—telling right from left, right from wrong—in the context of the song, the verse captures a sense of confusion that lends itself to the absolute explosion of the chorus. Hold onto your hats. This ain’t your grandpa’s expression of endearment.

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  1. Hmm — interesting list, although biased toward early stuff. Mine would be: Streets, Pride, Beautiful Day, Vertigo, With Or Without You, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Mysterious Ways, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Until the End of the World, New Years Day, Stay (Faraway, So Close), Magnificent, One, City of Blinding Lights, Miss Sarajevo, Moment of Surrender, Elevation, I Will Follow, Bad, Please

    With honorable mentions being: Stuck in a Moment, Running to Stand Still, All I Want Is You, Sweetest Thing, Unforgettable Fire, Sort of Homecoming, Ground Beneath Her Feet, No Line on the Horizon, Even Better Than The Real Thing, The Fly, Love Is Blindness, Lemon, Kite, Breathe, Neon Lights (Kraftwerk cover)

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