Top 6 U2 Albums Ranked

From the start, U2 made big music for big spaces. With guitars that echoed into the ether and melodies that climbed skyward, albums like The Joshua Tree (1987) blended the electric with the ethereal. The band diversified its sound during the ’90s, exploring everything from dance music to ambient instrumentals before making a return to classic pop rock with the 2000 LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Speaking of classics, we’ve ranked the band’s best releases below. 

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6. Boy (1980)

Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge were still teenagers in 1980, making Boy an appropriate title for U2’s debut. The band worked with producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d spent the previous three years overseeing releases by artists like Siouxsie and the Banshees, XTC, and the Psychedelic Furs. U2 longed to be in the company of those post-punk pioneers, and Boy veers a little too close to its source material, often sounding startlingly similar to Joy Division.

At its best, though, the album introduces an inspired, impulsive band whose songs occupied the middle ground between art, ambition, and accessibility. “I Will Follow,” Boy‘s first track, is one of the finest opening songs from a debut album in music history, while tracks like “Out of Control” and “The Electric Co” are riveting numbers that balance punky aggression with pop precision.

5. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)

U2 spent the 1990s distancing themselves from The Joshua Tree‘s earnest, linear sound. This decade of experimentation began (and peaked) with Achtung Baby before ending (and bottoming out) with Pop (1997). If those two albums—along with the under-appreciated 1993 release Zooropa and the ambient Original Soundtracks 1 from 1995—were all about reinvention, then 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a return to form, restoring U2’s status as purveyors of cinematic anthems that glittered, glistened, and galvanized.

“Beautiful Day” is the band’s finest single of the 21st century, with a meteoric bridge (Tea-ea-ea-each me) that rivals the Grammy-winning song’s own chorus, while “Stuck in a Moment” pays tribute to the late Michael Hutchence with gospel chords and a gorgeous call-and-response between Bono and The Edge’s voices.

For those willing to look beyond the album’s hits, other highlights include “In a Little While”—whose vocals were improvised by Bono after a night of drunken partying, turning the track into a hungover soul song—and “Kite,” which measures the emotional distance between parents and their children.

4. The Unforgettable Fire

U2 recorded part of The Unforgettable Fire in Slane Castle, an 18th century castle whose large rooms lent an echoing, cavernous boom to songs like “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Those soundscapes—which the band filled with delay, reverb, and interlocking rhythms from The Edge’s electric guitar—became a crucial part of U2’s classic sound.

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Equally crucial to that sound were producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, both of whom made their U2 debut with The Unforgettable Fire and returned to the fold for The Joshua Tree. If the album’s predecessor, War, was bold and bombastic, then The Unforgettable Fire is soft-hued and shimmering, balanced equally between moody song sketches and sharply-written singles. “A Sort of Homecoming” is a deep cut particularly worth revisiting, even if the live version from the 1985 EP Wide Awake in America is arguably the definitive performance.

3. War

War opens with the martial drumbeats and socially-conscious lyrics of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song that catapulted U2 into global politics. Bono was only 22 years old when the album topped the U.K. charts in early 1983, dethroning Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the process, but he’d already matured into a lyricist with a point, perspective, and purpose.

Writing about heady topics like sectarian strife in Northern Ireland (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”), the threat of nuclear war (“Seconds”), and Psalm 40 from the Bible (“40”) should’ve been career suicide, but the songs were sturdy enough to shoulder their own academic weight. “Two Hearts Beat as One” is an unexpected dance-pop gem from a band of notoriously bad dancers (if you think that’s unfair, check out the video for Pop‘s “Discothèque”), and “New Year’s Day” is early-’80s rock ‘n’ roll at its most transportive, balanced equally between the icy sound of The Edge’s piano and the electric heat of Adam Clayton’s bass.

2. Achtung Baby

If Rattle & Hum was U2’s love letter to American roots music, then its 1991 follow-up, Achtung Baby, marked a return to the band’s European roots. Inspired by British dance culture, German industrial groups like KMFDM, and David Bowie’s electronic records from the late 1970s, Achtung Baby turned the tables on U2’s familiar sound. It was dark, self-deprecating, experimental, and unapologetically alternative, stacked to the brim with highlights like “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” and the transcendent “One.”

To promote it, U2 launched the Zoo TV Tour, a multimedia trek that found the band touring the globe, hanging out with supermodels like Naomi Campbell (who was briefly engaged to bassist Adam Clayton), and performing two hours of music beneath a lighting system made from old German automobiles. U2 had already enjoyed worldwide popularity long before Bono strapped on his first pair of wraparound sunglasses and hit the Zoo TV stage, but Achtung Baby made them cool, too.

1. The Joshua Tree

Chiming electric guitar. Billowing reverb. Melodies fit for a cathedral. The Joshua Tree brought those elements together, creating a lush, larger-than-life sound that defined an entire decade. Although recorded in Ireland, the album’s muse was the American heartland, whose wide-open expanses all but sprung to life during the two-minute introduction to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the post-chorus of “With Or Without You” (where Bono abandons words altogether and launches into a refrain “oh oh oh” syllables), and the road trip rock & roll of “In God’s Country” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” One of the best-selling albums in history, The Joshua Tree is the sound of a band hitting its stride.

Photo Credit: Sam Jones

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