What are the Top U2 Songs of All Time?

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Their lead singer chats with the President in the Oval Office. Their guitarist’s name screams danger. Their rhythm section have been called underrated so many times, it’s possible that now they are simply rated. Of course, I’m talking about Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., better known as parts of one of the most successful bands of all time, U2. From the gritty sound of their first albums in the early ’80s to the bombast of their latest effort, No Line on the Horizon, U2 has managed to stay relevant throughout three decades and undoubtedly will continue into a fourth. What better way to celebrate this accomplishment than by counting down a list of their Top Twenty Songs, using the completely scientifically formula of my personal taste. To quote the finest lyric Bono ever wrote, “Uno, dos, tres, catorce!” Let’s get this party started.

#15: Red Hill Mining Town

Almost released as the second single off of The Joshua Tree, “Red Hill Mining Town” has never received the acclaim its replacement, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” went on to garner. In fact, its only accolade, despite once having the potential to be a monster hit, is being labeled as “one of the lost songs” by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. Sadly, this is what happens when a band, even one as world-moving as U2, doesn’t ever play a song live. During rehearsals for The Joshua Tree tour, the band grew unhappy with both the “Red Hill Mining Town” music video and their rendition of the track. This was especially true of Bono, whose inability to hit the high notes consistently was the main culprit in sealing its fate.

Some critics claim that “Red Hill Mining Town” failed because it was overproduced, which is somewhat absurd considering what the rest of The Joshua Tree sounds like. Surrounded by tracks that could serve as a standalone class on sound engineering and mixing, “Red Hill Mining Town” actually comes across as somewhat simple and straightforward. It rides a slow, galloping bass line throughout and does what U2 has always done best—find a cause, in this case the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers strike, and make it their own. Perhaps there is something to the fact Bono’s vocals have never been duplicated. Those final words, “Lights go down on Red Hill,” echo with a sentiment literally not heard since.

#16: “40” (Live)

It took ten minutes to write, ten to record, ten to mix, and another ten to listen to, but as Bono said, “that’s nothing to do with why it’s called ’40’.” Based off of Psalms 40:1-2 and 40:2-3 and written specifically to fill the need for a closing track for their album, War, “40” came about when the band was about to be kicked out of the studio. There was so much time pressure that upon discovering bassist Adam Clayton had already left for the day, instead of calling him back, The Edge decided to record both the bass and guitar parts himself. But enough about the studio version and its genesis. While it has merit in its more polished form, “40” soon revealed its true power in concert, where it has been used as a finale as recently as 2006’s Vertigo tour.

The 1983 performance off of U2’s live album, Under A Blood Red Sky, serves as the best documentation of the track brought to life. “Sing this with me. This is ‘40’!” Bono cries out to the West German crowd. The lyrics simple and melody hypnotic, there is a pulsing quality to the performance. As the song begins to wind down, the refrain of “How long to sing this song?” is repeated time and time again. Bono is the first to drop out, the instrumental accompaniment continuing on without him. Next to depart is Clayton, followed soon after by The Edge, the two of them having switched instruments for the song. Fittingly, Larry Mullen, Jr. is left all alone in the spotlight. It is his frantic drumming that makes “40” an anthem, giving the song a much needed edge. One of the true masters of the hi-hat, Mullen Jr. keeps the beat constant as the crowd takes over for Bono, singing the chorus as the track fades out. It’s a certifiable moment, and perhaps one of the best of U2’s career.

#17 “Desire”

From that very first jangle of reverb-soaked guitar, “Desire” announces what it’s all about—getting you into that time machine and out onto the dance floor. Try not to tap your foot. Try not to bob your head. I dare you. Built around a bluesy riff and that classic Bo Diddley beat, created from some hand claps and snare, the track was The Edge’s attempt at getting back to basics. “Music’s become too scientific,” he said in a 1988 interview. “It’s lost that spunk and energy that it had in the ’50’s and ’60’s. When I listen to most modern records I hear a producer, I don’t hear musicians interacting. And that quality, that missing quality is something we were trying to get back into our own music.”

The lead single off Rattle and Hum was also the band’s first ever #1 hit in the U.K., winning a Grammy along the way. Content to be unlike anything else on the radio at the time, U2 again stretched their boundaries as musicians, reinventing their sound as they would for the next decade. On “Desire,” there are no guitar harmonics to found. Neither are there any synths or long, windswept intros. But if you listen hard enough, you can actually hear the band having fun. It’s a jubilant track with enough bounce for a honky-tonk on a Friday night. It’s a song that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of course, Bono repeats, “Money, money, money,” over and over. Of course, there’s a harmonica part. Of course, The Edge busts out a short solo born in the Mississippi Delta. It’s a perfect slice of American blues, imported from Ireland.

#18: “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”

Bono has never been shy on stage, his bravado serving just as much as a shield as his sunglasses. Still, he often does away with both when performing this song live in concert. First sung by him at his father’s funeral in 2001 and then subsequently released on 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” stands out as the finest effort by U2 in recent years, earning the group two Grammies. At times both poignant and understated—a word not often used to describe the band’s work of late—the song has become an anthem for father-son relationships. This time, there’s no abstract imagery in Bono’s lyrics. Instead, he is at his most vulnerable, clinging to the smallest and most telling details—“And it’s you when I look in the mirror/And it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone.”

So much of the song is intensely personal, no part more so than, “You’re the reason I sing/You’re the reason why the opera is in me,” a tribute to his father’s love of that particular music. As Bono said in an interview, “He was a great singer, a tenor, a working class Dublin guy who listened to the opera and conducted the stereo with my mother’s knitting needles…In the song, I hit one of those big tenor notes that he would have loved so much.”

That four-second note, coming in the middle of bridge, is “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” encapsulated. It’s raw and straining. It’s honest. Quite simply, it’s pitch-perfect, this one moment proving that U2 still had new ground to cover, even after twenty-five years.

#19 “Gloria”

Released as the second single off 1981’s October, “Gloria” serves as a taste of what was to come, both for our purposes with this countdown and for U2’s actual career. Only reaching #55 in the U.K. and not even charting in the U.S., the track still became a staple of U2’s shows throughout the 1980’s, documented by a stellar performance on the live album Under A Blood Red Sky. Fittingly, the chorus of the song, “Gloria in te Domine/Gloria exultate,” roughly translates from Latin to “What up, world? We’re about to make skullcaps and wrap-around sunglasses super cool.”

Hidden in this track is a blueprint for the band’s future success. Highly emotional lyrics, vague enough to lend themselves to multiple interpretations? Check. Thudding, straight-ahead bassline? Check. Shimmering hi-hat mixed with bouncing snare hits? Check. The Edge blasting off yet another incredible riff he probably sold his soul for? Check. Check. Check.

Yet the reason “Gloria” makes it onto this countdown instead of countless other songs that meet those requirements is because of how different it is. Adam Clayton shows off his chops halfway through with some funky, slap bass, creating a breakdown unlike any other in U2’s catalogue. The percussion turns into what sounds like someone dropping a quarter onto a table and letting it spin to a stop. The Edge hints at the return of the main riff—stopping and starting once, then twice—before the entrance of the chorus, multiple voices singing that Latin phrase—one that actually translates to “Glory in you, Lord/Glory, exalt him.” There is a youthful innocence to this track, a certain naivety, both in the earnestness of Bono’s performance and in the belief that a song with that hook could top the charts. While not commercially successful, “Gloria” lives on as glimpse of these twenty-somethings’ potential, just waiting to be fulfilled.

#20: The Sweetest Thing

It’s fitting that the first sound you hear on our countdown is The Edge’s guitar harmonics way down in the mix, announcing the start of something as incredibly meaningful and life-changing as this list. “The Sweetest Thing” is a three-minute piece of pop-song mastery, but rest assured, there is an Editorial zero tolerance policy for any cavity jokes I was going to make in the space below. Written in 1987 by Bono as an apology to his wife, Ali Hewson, for being in the studio on her birthday, “The Sweetest Thing” was originally released as the B-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The song was re-recorded in 1998 and re-released with their greatest hits collection, The Best of 1980-1990, with all profits from the single going to Hewson’s favorite charity, Children of Chernobyl.

Based around an incredibly simple piano riff, U2’s love hymn channels many staples of 1960’s pop, ranging from handclaps to Motown-style call and response to some vocal scatting to close the track out. Top it all off with The Edge’s flourishes throughout and you have one of the catchiest songs the boys from Dublin ever wrote, as well as the backing track for my favorite U2 music video ever. Bono even manages to get in some good lyrics: “Baby’s got blue skies up ahead/But in this, I’m a rain cloud/Ours is a stormy kind of love.” As apologizes go, I’d say this one worked. Hewson and Bono are coming up on their 28th year of marriage.

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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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