#114 – “Trip Through Your Wires”
U2 is not a blues band. The Edge is not a blues guitarist. And so the list of songs in their catalog that wear their blues influences on their sleeves is small. This track, our first track from The Joshua Tree (the album many, including your humble narrator, consider to be the band’s best album) is on that list. From the bar room beat of the opening drums, to the sloppy harmonica, to the two-guys-at-the-mic sung aesthetic, this is a bar band song, sung by a band that is very much not a bar band. And yet it works. Not in the “this is a classic song” sense, but it works. The energy, the enthusiasm, and the way the Edge can’t quite lose his “Edginess,” even on a song like this, all combine to create something that hangs together surprisingly well.
#113 – “Last Night on Earth”
On Pop, an album known for its experimentation, this song, apart from some odd synth effects at the outset, is really a palate cleanser, a pretty straightforward U2 rock song. It’s also a pretty damn good one, with its rising chorus of “you gotta give it away” and some pretty sharp lyrics about the girl at the center of the lyric. “She's not waiting on a savior to come/She's at the bus-stop with News of the World and the Sun.” That’s a nicely observed and specific lyric for this band, one that pretty quickly paints a picture. That this song found a home in the PopMart live set is no surprise.
#112 – “Twilight”
This song is the second track on U2’s debut Boy, following the still-performed and remembered “I Will Follow.” For many a burgeoning U2 fan, as I was once upon a time, these second tracks that follow well-known first tracks are real litmus tests. After all, when I first got this album I already knew “I Will Follow” well from the Under a Blood Red Sky live record. So when I first put Boy into my little boom box, I was right with it for that first song. And then “Twilight” hit, and very ably carried the spell forward. A melodic mid-tempo rocker, its opening see-saw guitar and bass hooked me in, and the DNA that was shared between this and what I already knew of U2 and their sound was clear. There’s a lyric in here – “Under shadow, boy meets man” that has always stuck with me. Maybe it’s a matter of the age I was when I first got hooked on this band, but I have a great fondness for this song.
#111 – “Drowning Man”
This War track has a great groove to it, with an acoustic figure and looping bass line repeated with a kind of determined insistence over lyrics that speak of determination and promise. “Take my hand/You know I'll be there, If you can/I'll cross the sky for your love.” U2 does really well with this kind of song. It’s kind of like “Bolero” – a repeated idea that never really develops or changes, but that works well anyway a statement of intensity.
#110 – “Lemon”
Can we agree that, Pop’s reputation as a “disco” album notwithstanding, this is U2’s most disco-influenced song? If we remember the context Zooropa was released in, Achtung Baby had already been a bit of a whiplash-inducing album for fans, with some striking new sounds and approaches yielding very substantial fruit. And then this seeming throwaway of an album took that ball even further, with less of a visible thread connecting back to the U2 of old. So this “dance” song was received, and is still seen by many, as an affront—as U2 playing in waters it has no business playing in. And yet for me it’s just a damn fine U2 song, with the piano, synth, and that clear, aching Bono falsetto combining to make some very affecting music. It’s also a lyrically strong song for the band (Zooropa on the whole is a lyrically strong album). “A man makes a picture/A moving picture/Through the light projected/He can see himself up close.” It’s also a more explicitly sexual song than usual for this band, with the opening lyrics leaving little room for interpretation: “See through in the sunlight/She wore lemon/But never in the daylight/She's gonna make you cry/She's gonna make you whisper and moan/And when you're dry/She draws her water from the stone.”
#109 – “Sweetest Thing”
This B-Side to “Where the Streets Have No Name” is U2 at its most nakedly pop-influenced. This is nothing more than a bouncy, joyful, upbeat exclamation of joy sung, by Bono to his wife in the most common reading, as a straightforward exclamation of love. “Ain’t love the sweetest thing” indeed.
#108 – “Hawkmoon 269”
Another Rattle & Hum original, this song starts off with a little bit of quiet carnival organ before a big tympani booms in, heralding an urgent strummed acoustic figure that starts off intense and never lets up. The organ continues in the background as Bono growls lyrics about a desert and a town with no name and a drifter. Electric guitar is added. Bono moves up the octave, still singing in these brief, evocative, scene-setting snippets, ending each line with “I need your love.” This is a dramatic, theatrical song, full of striking images and Western and noir-influenced lines, that keeps building and building throughout its near-seven minute length (long for U2). Songs like this either work for you or they don’t—this one works for me, all the way to the backup singers incessantly chanting “And a need for love in the heart” at the end.
#107 – “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”
Another Achtung Baby deep cut, this is a slow jam of a song, with a relaxed, hanging-out bass line, and a delightful tone. “Gonna run to you/run to you/run to you” goes the repeated refrain, and the simple yearning in the song comes off very nicely. The spoken-verse break in the middle is a little much, but it’s charming all the same. “I took an open-top Beetle/Through the eye of a neddle” – Bono can be a lazy lyricist with a weakness for the universal over the specific, but it bears remembering that he can get off some great lines.
#106 – “A Day Without Me”
This Boy cut resonates for me because of the optimistic, upbeat way Bono sings such teenaged downer lyrics like “Starting a landslide in my ego.” Remember that he lost his mother at a very early age and the lyrics take on deeper meaning. But it’s the music that keeps me coming back, especially Edge’s proto-Edge keening guitar solo in the middle and the very joyful “ba-ba” singing that comes after the drum break at the end.
#105 – “Shadows and Tall Trees”
This Boy closer starts a long tradition of melancholy, sad, dour-even U2 album closers. There’s something about the stop-and-start drum beat and minor-key guitar chords that I’ve always loved, but it’s the building drama in the “shadows and tall trees” chorus that gets this so close to the top 100. “Life through a window/A discolored pane” may be a tad (tad?) dramatic and purple a line, but it works in their very young hands.
#104 – “Two Shots of Happy, Two Shots of Sad”
When I first heard that Bono and the Edge were writing a musical, I was very, very skeptical. Not because I don’t love U2 (duh), but because they are exactly the kind of songwriters that should not be writing musical theater. Musical theater needs to be character-based, very specific, and very structured. U2’s music is none of that. And yet. When Bono and the Edge decided to write a song for Frank Sinatra and get him to sing it (a task they failed) this is what they came up with. And it’s a pitch-perfect lounge song, with a slow, sad melody; smart, introspective lyrics; and exactly the right amount of theater in the melody and production. You listen to this and wonder if they had a musical in them after all. Then you listen to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and your realize they didn’t.
#103 – FEZ-Being Born
And we finally get to U2’s last album, the woefully underappreciated masterpiece that is No Line on the Horizon. This is the most experimental song on the album, two songs really,--as the title suggests this is two different studio experiments smooshed together. The first minute is all slow drums and a hazy, soundscape that evokes a mood quite nicely. And then, after some admittedly odd “play the song backwards” effects, we get a mid-tempo U2 rock song that nonetheless has a great, tactile feel of urgency to it. Given that we are still above the magic #100, I don’t think it’s a stunningly effective experiment, but there’s much to chew on here.
#102 – “Get on Your Boots”
And here we have the polar opposite of FEZ, at least for No Line on the Horizon, an almost-goofy, straight-ahead rock song that many would argue was a huge misstep for the band to present as the lead single. I won’t disagree, and the placement here suggests it’s not anywhere near the album’s best, but it’s not quite just a dumb rock song either, the chants of “sexy boots” notwithstanding. It’s the chorus that really saves this song, with its almost Middle East-sounding melody and chord progression and insinuating feel. And the end, with its chant of “Let me in the sound” over a hard-hitting drum beat? That shit just works, man.
#101 – “Peace on Earth”
All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s de riguer political ballad, this song succeeds almost in spite of itself. What makes it turn the corner for me, what saves it from what could be an over-earnest, syrupy plea for peace, is the way the lyric never really embraces hope. There’s a defeatist air here. So lyrics like “Where I grew up/There weren't many trees/Where there was we'd tear them down/And use them on our enemies” are saved by the plaintive way a lyric like “Jesus could you take the time/To throw a drowning man a line?” is sung. The song is hopeful for “peace on earth,” but only barely. And that’s what makes it work.