#20 – “Stay (Faraway, So Close)”
The top 20. Here we go.
I’ve written several times throughout the course of this series about the dichotomy between the dominant side of U2—the one that is very much not a traditional songwriting rock band—and the other side of the band that, at odd times, nonetheless comes out with songs that sound very “traditionally” written and composed. My 20th-favorite U2 song is one of those songs. This ballad off of Zooropa is easily the song that has lasted the longest off of that set, and with good reason. It’s been a live staple and a centerpiece acoustic song on a few tours, and its almost Dylan-esque simplicity and more-straightforward lyrics give it a timeless feel. I’m surprised it’s not covered more often.
A simple riff on the guitar and a steady beat on the drums usher us in and Bono starts his story:
Green light, Seven Eleven
You stop in for a pack of cigarettes
You don't smoke, don't even want to
Hey now, check your change
It’s a sad story (and yes, this is U2, I am using the term “story” VERY loosely), and as it unfolds there’s that steady pulse of a riff underpinning everything. But when it comes to the chorus, things lift—not in the traditional U2 way, with an anthemic ringing guitar part, but in a more-subdued way, with a rising chorus that the guitar remains under, not over. This is a song that features some of Bono’s best lyric writing—“And, if you shout, I'll only hear you.” That right there is a candidate for his best line ever. This is a very un-U2 song and yet it works so very, very well as a U2 song. Does that make any sense?
#19 - “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For”
And here we have U2’s other U.S. #1, also off of The Joshua Tree. I will be honest. If it weren’t for the gospel choir-backed version of this from the Rattle & Hum album, this wouldn’t be quite so high on my list. But that rendition is so transcendental that it makes me love the song just that much more. That this has always been a bit of a gospel song is no secret, but that live version really brings the praise elements out.
The first verse proceeds more or less as it does in the recorded version, with Bono’s impassioned vocals over that simple, but elemental, riff. Then Bono sings the chorus. “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Then the choir repeats it. Chills. Over the next verse (still just a tambourine and that riff behind them), the choir does more call-and-response with Bono. Then the full band comes in and we get some gospel solos before Bono joins back in. The mix of the band and choir is just so delicious and so right—it really brings out the best in the song. Finally, at the end, we get the choir on its own, with no instruments behind them, in an extended finale, and it is just so joyous, so full of life and love it knocks you over.
None of this is to say that the album version is anything less than a great song, and I do very much love the production on that version, with the way the Edge’s guitar riff has that tight, drum-head of a sound in the beginning and how Adam’s bass lopes behind the guitar, pushing things forward. It’s just a gorgeous piece of songwriting all around.
#18 – “Breathe”
No Line on the Horizon’s penultimate track, this is a barnburner of a rock song, with an energy the band almost never quite captures in its songs. I thought this song would just slay live, but audience reaction seemed . . . tepid. It is beyond me. An awesomely tribal drum beat and a buzzing guitar build tension for a while, almost 30 seconds in fact, before the dual piano-guitar riff comes in. Then we get hit with some lyrics from Bono that always for me had a bit of a Paul Simon feel: “Coming from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother's side/I wasn't gonna’ buy just anyone's cockatoo.” I mean, come on.
But what really makes the song is that chorus, with its big, sweeping reach:
Every day I die again, and again I'm reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can't defeat
Neither down or out
There's nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
This is a song that begs to be played loud, and the way the Edge’s riff works with the piano just works for me on so many levels. A great, great U2 song that never landed the way I assumed it would. So puzzling.
#17 – “Mercy”
“Mercy” is an odd duck of a song in that it was never actually officially released. A very late cut from How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it quickly circulated online having actually been released on some advance copies. It eventually did surface as a live song on the 360 tour, and even as an official recording on an EP from that tour. But I came to it on that bootleg, and that’s where I fell in love with it.’
This is the aughts version of “Bad”—and by that, I mean it’s an epic, long, soulful, and yearning song marked by the repetition of a very simple riff. Blender Magazine described it as "a six-and-a-half-minute outpouring of U2 at its most uninhibitedly U2-ish.” This is a very accurate description of this song, and a good indicator of why I love it as much as I do. There is a galloping bass line and that hypnotic riff and they carry a lot of weight, but there are also moments that have as much energy and chaos going on as “Exit” did live. It’s never been clear to me why such a remarkable song got cut, and I am very grateful that it leaked the way that it did.
#16 – “Kite”
This lesser-known All That You Can’t Leave Behind cut is a gorgeous, aching song about parenthood and letting go. Not quite a ballad, it nonetheless is a slow, reflective song, with a strummed two-chord figure giving it a slightly folksy feel. The verse is quieter, and looks more inward, but with the chorus we get a beautiful aching melody to these lyrics:
I want you to know
That you don't need me anymore
I want you to know
You don't need anyone, anything at all
Who's to say where the wind will take you
Who's to know what it is will break you
I don't know which way the wind will blow
Who's to know when the time has come around
Don't wanna see you cry
I know that this is not goodbye
Big, high notes, impassioned singing—this is heart-on-its-sleeve U2, and if that kind of thing works on you, as it does on me, it just kills.
Then, after a piercing and simple Edge guitar solo we get a hair-raising bridge with Bono singing at the top of his range:
I'm a man, I'm not a child
A man who sees
The shadow behind your eyes
Goosebumps. Every time.
The song ends on a wonderful little denouement of a coda, with that strummed figure back to the foreground, as the passion simmers down. A lovely ending to one of U2’s most emotionally affecting songs.
#15 – “Miss Sarajevo”
The Passengers album, an odd experiment of soundscapes that was basically a look at what would happen if Brian Eno were a full member of the band, yielded only one real lasting song, but it’s a doozy. This reflection on what passes for normal during war is an uncommonly tightly focused song for the band, with the simple lyrics questioning what daily activities make sense to soldier on with in a time of war, with the hook being an actual beauty pageant that took place during the war in Bosnia. The melody is wistful and beautiful, but subdued, with Bono’s lyrics almost whispered.
Is there a time for kohl and lipstick
Is there time for cutting hair
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear?
Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.
Then we come to the bridge, and guest vocalist Luciano Pavarotti lets loose with a gorgeous, operatic melody sung in Italian. The contrast between Bono’s subdued vocal and Pavarotti’s impassioned one is breathtaking, and takes what would have been a pleasant and moving U2 song and pushes it into being a classic. When the song turned up on a U2 tour, Bono would take that Italian vocal himself, and there are live versions you can listen to that are truly impressive displays of vocal discipline and power. If you had told me after the Pop tour that Bono would, ten years later, be capable of singing like that, I wouldn’t have believed you.
#14 – “City of Blinding Lights”
Is this song kind of transparently an attempt to replicate the arena-lifting epic anthem that is “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Yes. Does it equal its obvious forbearer? No. Is it nonetheless an uplifting, big U2 song that takes my breath away? Yes it is.
A ringing guitar riff yields to declamatory piano, emphatic guitar chords, rolling drums and then the main theme, a beauty of an Edge line at once both wistful and hopeful. This was a great live song, more powerful than the album version, with its ready-made chorus of “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight,” and served as a stellar tour opener. If you are not a U2 fan this is not the song that will change your mind. It is very U2, But if you are? Catnip.
#13 -“All I Want Is You”
A soft, soft guitar. A whispered vocal.
You say you want diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want your story to remain untold.
All the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you.
And then a ringing, pure guitar figure echoing away in the distance.
This, the final song on the underappreciated Rattle & Hum, is as stately a U2 song as exists. Its reliance on strings (supplied by Beach Boys cohort Van Dyke Parks), and that methodical verse, with its repeated “You say, you need”s, add up to a specific mood that doesn’t really fit existing U2 moods and forms. My favorite part, though, is Edge’s masterful, multi-tracked guitar solo, easily my favorite of all U2 guitar solos. It’s just a breathtaking achievement in the way it builds and builds in intensity and power, over a full 50 or so seconds, which by U2 guitar solo standards is forever. And then we get the almost two-minute outro, during which the strings slowly take over completely until it’s all strings, doing this spacey, beautiful melody to finish the song off. Gorgeous.
#12 – “Window in the Skies”
I never would have guessed my 12th-favorite U2 song of all time would be a new track written for a best-of collection. This song, produced by Rick Rubin (who had been slated to work more extensively with the band in a move that never panned out), is a big, joyful burst of noise, a soulful and delightful expression of happiness. The song has big, crashing piano chords, ethereal “ah”s, 50s-bass, and beautiful lyrics about the beginning of things.
The shackles are undone
The bullets quit the gun
The heat that's in the sun
Will keep us when there's none
The rule has been disproved
The stone it has been moved
The grave is now a groove
All debts are removed
This is an infectious song, with its big, Phil Spector-like sound and old-school energy and it sounds noting like any other U2 song I have ever heard.
#11 – “Moment of Surrender”
This is the centerpiece of No Line on the Horizon, and it is a stunning piece of songwriting and production. Slow and majestic, this is a monument of a song, with a simply astonishing vocal from Bono, singing in a range he by all rights should have abandoned years ago.
It starts with a slow and steady drum beat and some synth sketching out a soulful, melancholy melody. This builds to a crescendo and then we get a confident, assured bass line, some piano chords, and then the vocal. Bono is singing all the way up at the top of his range here, right from the very start, in a canny move—the high note isn’t the climax, it’s the starting point. The vocal melody is a simple, declamatory one, pretty in its quiet form. After three verses we finally get the chorus, and it’s a stunner, just a gorgeous melody set to a simple and poetic lyric:
At the moment of surrender
I folded to my knees
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me
The Edge sings along here and the combination of their voices is beautiful. The second chorus is longer, with additional lyrics, and after it we get a pushing piano and guitar duet that yields to a bluesy, patient, and careful guitar solo, with not a note wasted. This yields to another iteration of the chorus:
I was speeding on the subway
Through the stations of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down 'til the Pentecost
At the moment of surrender
Of vision of over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me