by John Walters
I have here in my hands the top ten list. There’s no easy way to do this, because with most of these songs I at one point or another have declared, “Now THIS is my favorite U2 song.”
Special thanks to Notre Dame official photographer and licensed pilot Matt Cashore who reminded me of the song below. When I think of All That You Can’t Leave Behind on a Top 40 favorite U2 songs list, this one totally belongs. So allow me to cheat a little and make it No. 10 1/2. It’s the closest the band has ever come to touching the face of God and that chorus near the end is reminiscent of a 60s flower child song, something you might have heard from The Mamas and the Papas or Donovan or even The Association. Just a beautiful tune and it’s a misdemeanor, perhaps even a felony, that this was left off The Unforgettable Fire.
Four men who’ve been together for 40-plus years, all because Larry Mullen posted a sign at his secondary school. As Bruce Springsteen noted, “Bands are started by accident, but they don’t stay together by accident.” One reason U2 has remained together so long is because they are a communion of souls. They take the music very seriously, but never seem to take themselves too seriously (seriously). Check it out:
Now on to the top ten list, this time going in reverse order:
- Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Achtung Baby, 1991
No explanation for this, but the six-word U2 ear worm that infects my mind more than any other is “Baby, baby, baby/Light my way...” We Catholics know a thing or two about popular refrains, and this one is as popular as it gets.
No Line On The Horizon, 2009
My favorite U2 song of the past decade, it just rumbles across the plains coming at you like a buffalo stampede. It would have fit perfectly on The Joshua Tree. In March of 2009 the band visited Dave Letterman’s show for an entire week to promote this album, and then on Friday morning played a show outside at Fordham University.
I doubt this song is on any of your Top 10 lists, but this list is all about you being true to your own feelings about the band’s oeuvre (“You know how to spell ‘oeuvre,’ don’t you, Holden?”).
8. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
Achtung Baby, 1991
In the winter of 1992, my roommate Fuder and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no TV. We were both pretty busy: She was going to law and business school, while I was teaching a high school science class before heading to work at SI (one of us made millions; I’ll let you guess who). Anyway, we spent most week nights at home studying or doing class preps, and we listened to two new albums: Nevermind and Achtung Baby. This song always reminds me of that period because my well-deserved nickname is “Spilly” and she loved to remind me, “You’re an accident waiting to happen.”
Also, you have to love at about the 4:09 mark where Bono wails for all he’s worth, “Come on now love, don’t you look back!”
Bono rarely gets credited for having a spectacular vocal range, a la Freddie Mercury or George Michael, but he can take it up a notch when he has to and his voice is so passionate and earnest that it has become one of the more formidable in rock and roll history.
7. Running To Stand Still
The Joshua Tree, 1987
Back when albums mattered, the sequencing of songs mattered. And no U2 album is better arranged than The Joshua Tree. The grand opening of “Where The Streets Have No Name” segues into a trio of tunes that demand you get on your boots. By the fifth track you need a slow dance, and here we are. There’s nothing I can say about the song that the song itself doesn’t do better. It’s just quiet and powerful and the lyrics, “You’ve got to cry without weeping/Talk without speaking/Scream without raising your voice” are some Beatitudes-level sh*t.
I’m not sure if this is the only U2 song in which the title does not appear until the last line of the song. Maybe.
- Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Under A Blood Red Sky, 1983
“This is not a rebel song, this is ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.’ The angriest U2 song was Bono’s “I Want You” Uncle Sam recruitment poster. You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, U2 wants to change the world.
- One Tree Hill
The Joshua Tree, 1987
You may consider this ridiculously high at No. 5, but this musical eulogy for a fallen friend is the band at its best: creating a mood through The Edge’s experimentation and Bono’s haunting voice. Somewhere Pope Francis laments that the rock and roll’s gain was the Catholic church’s loss
- I Will Follow
The first guitar riff that let us know change was in the air. U2 made this their second or third song at a show I saw in 2015 and the crowd, so many of us in our 40s and 50s, went bonkers. It’s teen angst exponentialized, but what I love about it is that bridge near the end where the band has the confidence to slow it down and indulge their lead singer (“Your eyes make a circle/I see you when I go in there…”). They were all 20 or 21 when they recorded this tune, but their self-assurance was remarkable.
Bono lost his mom when he was 14 and this song is mostly a reflection on the mother-child dynamic. Also, it’s the first track from their first album. They dove in head-first.
Wide Awake In America, 1985
I don’t doubt that this is many fans’ favorite U2 song, and that’s alright, that’s alright, that’s alright. Yes, if you were watching the band’s show at Wembley for Live Aid in the summer of ’85 you remember the moment when Bono clambered off stage to engage in a communion of sorts with the fans. This was Bono at his most charismatic and also, yes, most self-indulgent and pretentious. It was also the day U2 separated itself from all other bands that had come along since Woodstock.
Apparently, The Edge, Larry and Adam weren’t thrilled with their mulleted-crooner’s vanity-project theatrics, as his extended love-in forced them to drop a song from their set. This is like criticizing the Gettysburg Address for being too short. No one remembers the other tunes U2 played in this set. They just remember Bono hugging the woman as he slow-danced with her and Bono’s freestyling at the end as the band kept playing the refrain.
Years ago I had the good fortune to speak to Steve Lillywhite, who has produced albums for everyone from Peter Gabriel to The La’s to the Rolling Stones to The Psychedelic Furs to The Talking Heads, etc, etc. I asked him if any artist truly stood out among the tall trees and before I even finished the question, he said, “Bono. Bono is a genius.”
- Beautiful Day
All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000
Nine years! It had been nine years since Achtung Baby, since U2 had truly touched the sun. Most of my contemporaries and I feel that, like REM, U2 would always be one of our favorite bands from college and our 20s but that, you know, maybe the gas tank was empty.
And then this. U2 is the most Catholic and also the most catholic band in the world, and this song is their offertory. No U2 song, in lyrics or melody, better embodies their approach to their fellow congregants. When Bono sings, “It’s a beautiful day” is when I hear “Hosanna in the highest.”
Also, the band never gets enough credit for its videos, but this one is just phenomenal. I don’t know how they did that with the plane and the runway (I’m sure you can Google it; was it real or green-screen?) at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris.
Mostly, this song is just an affirmation that U2 had something to offer on the other side of the millennium. Few bands come out with a song this energized in the third decade of their existence.
p.s. Every day is a beautiful day.
- With Or Without You
The Joshua Tree, 1987
In March of 1987 U2 released The Joshua Tree and there was just a general sense that they were about to be the biggest band in the world. The video for the first single was going to have a WORLD PREMIERE on NBC’s Friday Night Videos. My friends had departed for spring break, but as I was studying for the MCATs, I’d chosen to stay behind to study.
In the basement of Dillon Hall, I watched the video for the first time, all alone, at midnight. I put down my Biology book and paid close attention: Does Bono have a ponytail? Is that guitar just a prop? Etc.
It’s not U2’s greatest song, but the way it slowly builds to an orgasmic climax, like a 50-foot wave crashing (or like, well, you know…) is only part of its charm. Some songs just come along at the right point in your life and offer inspiration. This one nudged me into thinking that it’s better to do something you love doing and feel that much passion for than doing what you think you’re supposed to do. I realized that my studious approach to being pre-med was just a matter of running to stand still…
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed…