#60 – “The First Time”
A gorgeously simple ballad off of Zooropa, this song is another example of U2’s ability to build very simple elements into a really effective whole. A simple strummed guitar figure kicks things off, with Bono singing a soft, simple melody against it. For the first verse, apart from some ominous background thrum, that’s it. Then in the second verse, a secondary, equally simple, guitar figure is added in. Throughout, that background thrum deepens and diversifies, adding texture and tension in the background. And then, towards the end of the third verse, we get some piano chords. Sometimes simplicity like this can work so damn well – especially when the lyric is so spare and direct. “I have a lover/A lover like no other/She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul/And she teach me how to sing.” Indeed.
#59 – “Love and Peace or Else”
Another deeper cut off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I love this song for many things, but maybe more than anything for the audacity of the title—especially as used by a band that gets tweaked about wanting to save the world perhaps a bit too much. And then there’s that groove. After maybe a little too much introductory table-setting slow-building guitar crunchiness and soft falsetto, we get a big drum hit and some soul singing from Bono. Then the groove, finally (at 1:30 in) hits, and it’s a fat, swaggering, muscular one, a bit of a punk riff—and it just lands. The angry, pissed-off, fed-up lyric, with its anger at the inability of the world to just cut it out with all of the killing each other already, works really well over that fat groove as well (“Lay down/Lay down your guns/All your daughters of Zion/All your Abraham sons”).
#58 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.”
When it was announced that Bono and the Edge were writing a Spider-Man musical to be directed by Julie Taymor, I, a pretty big U2, Julie Taymor, and Spider-Man fan was aghast. This just sounded like a train wreck – and at this point in history it looks like it will go down as just that. And so the idea of U2 contributing a song to a superhero movie soundtrack should be, on paper, equally unworkable. And yet, as is so often the case with this band, what shouldn’t work does well. “Hold Me . . .” was one of the singles off of the Batman Returns soundtrack, and while Seal’s “Kiss of the Rose” may have been the bigger hit off of that collection, this was a fine rock song in its own right. A catchy, chromatic descending riff defines the song, along with a siren-like synth part that warns away in the background. And the lyrics bring an edge not often found in superhero soundtracks (“They want you to be Jesus/They'll go down on one knee/But they'll want their money back/If you're alive at thirty-three/And you're turning tricks/With your crucifix/You're a star.”) Why such nakedly autobiographical lyrics are in a song meant for a Batman movie, who knows, but this is a pretty insinuating song.
#57 – “In God’s Country”
This deeper cut off of The Joshua Tree is one of the faster songs on that reflective album, with some wonderful work from the Edge on the propulsive, keening riff. 27 years later, some of the natural imagery may come off as a little cliché and generic (desert skies, dry rivers), but there are some very compelling lines here too, including the chorus (“Sleep comes like a drug in God's country/Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God's country”). My favorite bit has to be when after the second chorus we get a drop out of the guitars and then a thick bass line before they come screaming back in. Nice theater, that.
#56 – “White as Snow”
Rock history is replete with examples of songwriters building songs out of classical riffs (“It’s Now or Never” is “O Sole Mio,” “Whiter Shade of Pale” is based on Bach’s “Air on a G String,” Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is Bach’s St. Mathews Passion, etc.). U2’s entry into this field is this song off of No Line on the Horizon, a slow, moody ballad that serves as the album’s antepenultimate song. The melody is taken from the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” U2 takes this hushed choral piece and turns the bones of the melody into a haunting look at war, with lyrics evoking the landscape in Afghanistan (“Now this dry ground it bears no fruit at all/Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon”). What pushes this song a few dozen spots up the ranking for me is Bono’s vocal, which is a career highlight. Just listen to the passion and pain he gets into the verse: “And the water, it was icy/As it washed over me/And the moon shone above me.” That’s singing, folks.
#55 – “Surrender”
This song has always struck me as an almost-hit. It feels like a strong single, but it never had the life fellow War tracks “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” “New Years Day,” and “40” did. That rare U2 track with female back-up singers, as well as a named character that the song is about (Sadie), there’s a kind of determined, stubborn bounciness to the main riff I’ve always liked. And the sliding, scooping nature of the sung “Surrender”s in the chorus are a very effective, intriguing choice. It’s also a lyrically strong song, with evocative details about Sadie’s life (“She tried to be a good girl and a good wife/Raise a good family, lead a good life/It's not good enough”) hinting at a bigger story under the surface. And let us not forget the chanted, chirpy ending, which, again, is a different sound for the band.
#54 – “Zooropa”
This title track from what is probably still U2’s most experimental album kicks things off with faint electronic hums, voices drifting in from the distance, a clanging in the background, churchy piano, and static—all (and not until the 1:50 mark) swept away by a squawky guitar spitting out a staccato riff that leads into a smoother, wah-wah-driven guitar sound that then itself settles into a smooth, relaxed groove. It’s one hell of an intro. And as you listen you realize it’s really part of an even more-extended intro, with, after two verses of the relaxed vibe, a final switch in mood and music taking place, keyed by that same squawky riff that changed things earlier. Here, the tempo changes and the arrangement gets more urgent, keeping in that mode until the end. This is an oddly structured, but fascinating song, with some trenchant lyrics criticizing the omnipresent commercial messages that blanket the world. An oddity, to be sure, but a great song.
#53 – “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”
This requisite U2 ballad, here off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is a great example of the form. Written after Bono’s father’s death (and, if memory serves, sung by Bono at his funeral), this is an aching, truly felt, personal and passionate song about loss. I really love the simple, ringing riff the Edge came up with for the chorus, and the way Bono doesn’t deliver a treacly hagiography of a song but a personal reflection of a complicated relationship. “And it's you when I look in the mirror/And it's you when I don't pick up the phone.” That’s a neatly put way of talking about the good and the bad. But what really puts this song over the top for me is the bridge, where Bono sings a glorious high phrase, to the memory of his opera-loving father, to these words: “Can you hear me when I sing?/You're the reason I sing/You're the reason why the opera is in me.” If that doesn’t choke you up some . . . you are made of sterner stuff than I.
#52 – “The Wanderer”
Johnny Cash’s classic, country-based, story-driven style of songwriting and singing would seem to be a contrast to the more free-flowing, anthemic music of U2. And yet when the band got Cash to sing on the final track of Zooropa, a strange kind of alchemy was produced. Production aside, this is, as a piece of songwriting, much more in the Cash vein than the U2 vein. There’s a horsey kind of cowboy bass line (muffled by some studio manipulation into a more electronic sound than you’d usually get from Cash, but still) with Cash singing over it a tale of a man wandering through some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, through images of burning rain, tin capitals, and churches. This is very much classic songwriting, and a reminder that there is much more to U2 than big anthems designed to fill stadiums. I have no idea where the idea came from to pair Cash and the band, but what a yield.
#51 – “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
Man, as we get closer to the end, here just a song away from the top 50, we are getting real gems. This antepenultimate song off of Achtung Baby (yes, I like the word “antepenultimate”—deal with it) was a staple of the Zoo TV tour, and then came back on the band’s last tour, the mammoth 360 tour, as well. This is a great song, with its dance beat and chugging guitar riff, and the lyrics, like those on most of the songs on this album, are some of U2’s best. “You bury your treasure/Where it can't be found/But your love is like a secret/That's been passed around.” Another song of lost love, romantic betrayal with a searing bridge full of pain and anguish conveyed by some stellar vocals, with Bono at the end of his range, the strain conveying the pain so effectively. Man, these next 50 are going to be fun to write about!