U2‘s brand new LP, Songs of Experience, just hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making them the only band in pop history to have chart leaders across four decades — on top of it being the group’s eighth No. 1 in their storied career.
However, for those fans exhilarated by the visionary multimedia joyride the Irishmen took us on during the ’90s, this kinder, more conventional U2 of the 21st century required a bit of an adjustment period. Regardless of where you stand with the band and their recorded output since 2000, you cannot deny the bright flashes of brilliance peppered across these years; enough, in fact, to compile a 10 song LP that could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with their most acclaimed Island masterpieces.
So in this game of fantasy record producing, here is what the track list would look like: essentially whittling down 18 years into something that we think everyone who has ever loved U2 could champion.
1. “Stateless” (2000) Before they “returned to form” that fall with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 offered one last glimmer of hope for a headier, more nonlinear direction with the music they contributed to longtime friend Wim Wenders’ 2000 film The Million Dollar Hotel. And while the song they co-wrote with Salman Rushdie was a collaboration that surely piqued our curiosity, “Stateless” unveiled an all too promising glimpse into what U2 in the 21st century could have sounded like if they continued down the path of their oft overlooked 1995 side project Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1.
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2. “Beautiful Day” (2000) Perhaps the best song to open a U2 LP since “I Will Follow,” U2 aimed high to prove they’d emerged from the dystopian glow of Zoo TV and PopMart by greeting the new century with this electrifying message of hope. It may’ve only peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard chart, but “Beautiful Day” has since evolved into one of the group’s most beloved and enduring anthems, played at sports stadiums regularly, including a poignant performance of the song during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVI following the events of 9/11, and served as the wake-up call for astronaut Mark Kelly during the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission.
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3. “Stuck In A Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of” (2000) There are surely more than a few who rolled their eyes at this second single from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But then you see U2 perform the song with Mick Jagger at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009 and realize they were trying to create a modern day “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Then you catch Bono and The Edge on Letterman in 2011, where Bono revealed how the song was partially inspired by the memory of Michael Hutchence of INXS before he and the guitarist delivered a poignant desk-side version of the ballad. So by the time you hear it again on the radio or a podcast, you’re so enamored by the glory of its gospel you find yourself singing along like a damn fool regardless of your initial feelings.
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4. “Original of the Species” (2004) How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is essentially one big wedding announcement declaring the megaunion between U2 and Apple. And its mainstream maximalism paid off in spades, as the album swept the Grammys in both 2005 and 2006 while becoming the No. 1 album not only in the United States but all over the globe. And while there wasn’t much here for hardcore U2 lifers still holding out hope for a proper follow-up to POP, hidden deep on Bomb’s second side is this uplifting ballad written for Edge’s daughter Hollie by her godfather Bono with a melody on par with Achtung Baby’s most arresting moments, namely “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).”
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5. “Moment of Surrender” (2009) U2 tried to visit the big sky atmospherics of their most compelling work with No Line On The Horizon, as initial sessions recording material in Morocco with the U2 dream team of Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite proved to be inspired by the North African sounds surrounding them during their time in the city of Fez. Unfortunately, the band scrapped the majority of these “futuristic spirituals” they were constructing with their old allies in favor of hackneyed chart bait like “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots.” “Moment of Surrender,” however, is one of the only songs held over from those initial recording sessions in Fez and arguably the only tune from this period to resonate with the initial intentions of Horizon’s embryonic stage. At the same time, it’s also one of the most warmest, most soulful songs U2 had created since “Angel of Harlem,” which can be heard at full volume in the version the group did at Glastonbury back in 2011, holding its own while sandwiched between two wildly diverse chestnuts in “With Or Without You” and “Out of Control.”
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6. “Soon” (2010) Also known as “Kingdom” and “Kingdom Of Your Love,” this outtake from No Line On The Horizon served as their walk-on music during the U2 360° tour, and was only officially released as a special 7″ included in the Super Deluxe Edition of their U2 360° At The Rose Bowl DVD. It’s a tune that serves as the quintessence of No Line‘s original experimental bent, and its esoteric otherworldliness is a direct descendant of the landscapes they were exploring with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno on The Unforgettable Fire.
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7. “Ordinary Love” (2013) U2 have been both friends and supporters of Nelson Mandela for decades before the South African president’s passing in December of 2013, punctuated by Bono’s memorable involvement at Little Steven’s historic supergroup Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985 and the electrifying song he contributed to the album Sun City, “Silver & Gold” (also a highlight of the embattled 1988 U2 LP Rattle & Hum). So when the group was offered the chance to pen a song for director Justin Chadwick’s excellent 2013 biopic Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the band forced themselves out of the weeds of recording what would become Songs of Innocence to pen this moving mid-tempo tribute to Mandela that was an early exhibition of the creative chemistry between U2 and producer Danger Mouse. And it would’ve won the Oscar for Best Original Song that year if it wasn’t up against the cultural juggernaut that was Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go.”
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8. “Every Breaking Wave” (2014) Yes, it must have been really annoying for most non-fans to wake up one morning in 2014 and discover the new U2 LP had been uploaded to their iTunes whether they wanted it or not. The luck of this dubious fortune, however, was that Songs of Innocence is the group’s end-to-end best album since the ’90s. It’s the one that hits closest to the purity of the group’s panoramic prowess, particularly signified by its second track, whose tempered yearning resonates so lucidly in its restraint with a feel that evokes such early faves as “October” and “Surrender.”
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9. “Lucifer’s Hands” (2014) Every so often The Edge likes to remind us that he’s the kid brother of Dik Evans, guitarist for the pioneering Irish post-punk outfit The Virgin Prunes (and original member of U2 back when they were called The Hype). And with this highlight from the bonus disc included with the physical release of Songs of Innocence, he brings back that scrambled distortion tone of his to fuzz up this rocker which would’ve fit so well between “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” on Achtung Baby.
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10. “The Little Things That Give You Away” (2017) After waiting three long years in anticipation to see how U2 can top the goodness of Songs of Innocence, its book-ending follow-up Songs of Experience has left some hoping for a more adventurous extension of its predecessor, disenchanted by what sounds like the full-blown Ryan Tedder-ization of the group’s style. Don’t get it wrong, they hit pay dirt by veering closer to the One Direction/Taylor Swift end of the pop formula. But “The Little Things That Give You Away,” however, offers a taste of what this album could’ve been like sans the presence of the man behind the hits for Adele, Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran, as onetime Lamb beatsmith Andy Barlow and M83/Royal Blood producer Jolyon Thomas allow the more esoteric aspects of the group’s methodology to peek through the holes, like the fading glow of those Zoo TV screens.
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