On the 25th anniversary of U2’s seminal album ‘Achtung Baby’, we ask: which is the band’s greatest record? Here goes…
10 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
U2-ishness isn’t quite the crime some make it out to be, but on this disappointing follow-up to ‘All That You Can’t Believe’, the band fired up the helicopter of pop-rock pomp and soared into the stratosphere without remembering to close the doors. Alas, the record saw the band tumble into the abyss of ambition, losing their crowns as rock’s returning saviours and landing in a heap somewhere between incompetence and inconsequence.
Often written off as the pinnacle of the group’s ‘90s excess, there’s something going for ‘Pop’ in that it was too weird rather than too plain, which was the folly of their later records. It certainly destabilised their PopMart tour, with some fans electing to stay home rather than risk an evening on a band who, by the standards of cookie-cutter radio pop, had utterly lost their marbles, but there’s plenty to salvage for fans, not least the darkened desperation of ‘Do You Feel Loved’.
8 All That You Can’t Leave Behind
A bit like Foo Fighters’ ‘One By One’ two years later, ‘All That You Can’t Lave Behind’ was a comeback album, of sorts, for a massive band, front-loaded with classic singles, but padded with not much else. So we have the surging ‘Beautiful Day’, the endearing ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’, the coasting-on-‘Beautiful-Day’’s-momentum ‘Elevation’ and then, well, fourth single ‘Walk On’, which effectively eases you into the drab morass that follows.
‘Zooropa’ was as much a continuation of ‘Achtung Baby’’s experimentation as another reinvention, but its predecessor’s vitality remained. From the title track, an exploratory opener you could imagine slotting onto a later Coldplay record, to the intriguing lead single ‘Numb’, which sees the Edge rapping in monotone over parpy squalls, it proves a massive band can go weird and stay massive, as long as they go massively weird. A lesson to live by.
6 Under a Blood Red Sky
Not to be mistaken for their later, partly-live album ‘Rattle and Hum’ (a record so stodgy it spurred the personality crisis that led to ‘Achtung Baby!’), ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’ was the first sign to the world at large that U2 had what it took to conquer the world. Indeed, as MTV hammered videos from the performance, it became key to the conquering process itself. The widescreen version of ‘I Will Follow’ alone could conquer a small country. Presuming it was into conquering stuff, of course.
5 The Unforgettable Fire
Inspired by an art exhibit about Hiroshima, the title of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ perfectly captures the , melancholy and generational heaviness of the record itself, the band’s first collaboration with Brian Eno, who would go on to lead them, and subsequently many others, to pop greatness – and indeed to redefine the meaning of pop greatness itself. Full of trembling grandiosity and frazzled intensity, the record set a new precedent for stadium rock that hasn’t really been shaken up since.
Of all the gems on their debut album, ‘I Will Follow’ alone is testament to the young band’s uncompromising ferocity, which is evident, if nothing else, by the fact Savages nabbed the riff for their song ‘Shut Up’ (though its Christian message might not jibe with Jehnny Beth’s personal brand). Anyone looking to ease themselves out of the impression U2 are doddery old rock dinosaurs would do well to start here.
U2 had a big vision from the start, but third album ‘War’ is where they started asking big questions, too. Bono, jerking into icon-mode after observing the wars of the world, used songs like ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ to take on the big issues, as the band played big hooks that took them to big stadiums. They could’ve just called it ‘Big’, but that probably wouldn’t have been cool.
2 The Joshua Tree
Did we say ‘War’ was big? Well, it turns out big was just the runway to really-flipping-big, improbably huge, devastatingly monumental feat of cinematic hugeness that was ‘The Joshua Tree’, an album so fertile and expansive you could plant a forest in it. That’s exactly what you suspect Bono would be up for doing, too, what with his obsession with worldly concerns that finally flourished after his humanitarian trips to Ethopia in 1985.
1 Achtung Baby
After the disappointment of ‘Rattle and Hum’, the Dublin boys took a while to regroup, as so many bands do before returning to a fanfare of silence and indifference. Luckily, their return marked one of stadium-rock’s great reinventions, with genuinely daring touches of dance and industrial music coming together to make a drastic evolution that turned all their bawls into bellows, all their beats into bangers, and all their best bits into better bits.