The album that attracted the most discussion this year? U2‘s Songs of Innocence.
Thanks to Apple, the band’s thirteenth studio effort, and first since 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, delivered to the “purchased” folders of over 500 million iTunes users, makes Taylor Swift‘s platinum-plus seller 1989 look like but a blip. Sure, plenty mocked the method of release — calling it a violation and much worse — or, on the flip side, hailed it as an ingenious publicity stunt. Furthermore, there was the opinion of musicians, even some longtime U2 admirers, who thought the band was hurting everyone but themselves by devaluing music entirely.
But what of the album? All that talk about the business model, and little on the songs, which full-heartedly deserve their place in the Best Rock Album category of the Grammys. Indeed, just this week Rolling Stone named the album its No. 1 release of the year — and got slammed on social media for being out of touch and pandering, much like the Grammy backlash that is anticipated.
But I would posit this: If U2 hadn’t once delivered albums like The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, albums that cemented the Irish quartet’s status as one of rock’s all-time greatest bands, would people be praising the passion and vitality of this collection?
Make no mistake, given their long-standing catalog, U2 remains relevant, like Neil Young, Tom Waits and David Bowie, among other living legends — all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. And like these peers, U2 has never been afraid to experiment with its sound. Sometimes, the results are mixed — see: Bowie’s 1997 drum-n-bass experiment Earthling, or even U2’s Zooropa and Pop, as examples — but when so many other rock acts are experimenting sonically to keep up with the EDM crowd, U2 continues to surprise by returning to a more raw rock sound.
MOJO magazine called Songs of Innocence “the most startlingly fresh, energetic and cohesive U2 album in years.” That is clear from the outset, as the album kicks off with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” a song that takes frontman Bono back to his adolescent days and the life-changing experience of discovering a new artist and sound that makes you feel someone else out there understands you.
The stripped-down sound of the gorgeous and heartfelt “Song for Someone” is U2 at its most vulnerable, like “One” was, and it is almost as effective. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Raised by Wolves” are other standouts, hearkening back sonically to the days of Unforgettable Fire.
Whatever your opinion of how the album was distributed, it made the Grammy eligibility cutoff (a limited-edition vinyl version made sure of that) and deserves the same consideration as any other album that wasn’t given away by Apple in 2014. And judging Songs of Innocence solely by the music from start to finish, it is one of the best rock releases of 2014.
Bono and company led the conversation about the album as art form months before Taylor Swift’s Spotify secession. Ironically, that might hurt the album’s chances. But in just listening to the music of Songs Of Innocence, there is no doubt, it is Grammy worthy. And furthermore, it gives The Recording Academy an opportunity to invite U2 to perform. What better place for Bono’s first post-injury comeback performance than the stage of the 2015 Grammy Awards?