Even as U2 gears up to release its latest album Songs of Experience on Friday (Dec. 1), it’s fair to say the legendary band may now be an entire generation removed from top-of-mind rock relevance. The Joshua Tree is a cool 30 years old now, after all, as the band recently reminded fans with their anniversary-celebrating world tour.
Still, the legendary group’s epic, stadium-scaling sound endures — dare we say, with or without them.
Bono’s soaring, conviction-rapt belts, The Edge’s patented delay effects (which allow his single guitar to masquerade as two or three), Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton’s ceaselessly propulsive rock rhythms — it all exists in the music of virtually every arena-level rock outfit that has ascended the charts this century. Coldplay, Arcade Fire, The Killers and Kings of Leon all take cues from U2, as do less obvious acolytes like Taylor Swift, Gorillaz and even Kanye West. While genre purists continue to bemoan guitar music’s descent from power, the guys in the biggest band of the last 35 years can still turn on the radio all the time and say, “Hey, that sounds like us!”
As U2’s 14th studio album approaches, let’s take a look at 15 huge songs from the 21st century that simply would not exist without the influence of Ireland’s most iconic quartet.
1. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida” (2008)
Go to your local mall and ask 100 strangers which “current band” sounds the most like U2. We’ll wager the top answer on the board will be Coldplay; the comparison has been made for most of the band’s career, and the likeness is everywhere: from Martin’s cresting, Bono-like delivery to lead guitarist Jonny Buckland’s near-obsessive homages to Edge’s lofting guitar textures. “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay’s first Hot 100-conquering stadium anthem, could just as well have opened U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb album (2004) and neither band’s fan base would’ve blinked.
2. Taylor Swift, “State of Grace” (2012)
Before Taylor Swift set off to conquer late-’80s synth-pop — and, you know, the world — with 1989, she all but blew a kiss to U2 with her Red album opener “State Of Grace” and its titanic, delayed guitar riff, chugging bass and dreamy chorus. It’s a strong and breezy track that deserves a mashup with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
3. Kanye West, “I Wonder” 2007
Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when Kanye West was just another emergent artist building his empire, and in 2005-06 he opened several shows on U2’s Vertigo world tour. West was so inspired by the band and its live performance that he purposely upped the anthem factor for his next album — Graduation, maybe you’ve heard of it — with slower, more melodic tunes in effort to tour as grandly as U2 did. West has said the arena-worthy rap ballad “I Wonder” was directly influenced by Atomic Bomb‘s “City of Blinding Lights,” and the mammoth reaction the song earned from their fans.
4. Kings of Leon, “The End” (2010)
Like Kanye, Kings of Leon opened a chunk of shows on U2’s Vertigo arena trek, and though it might have taken a few extra years to sink in, that larger-than-life rock aesthetic eventually stuck to the folksy southern four-piece as well. Come Around Sundown, the first album released after KOL’s mainstream breakthrough, is markedly pumped up to meet larger crowds, and the moody album opener “The End” and its droning guitar melody are almost certain nods to their pals overseas.
5. The Killers, “When You Were Young” (2006)
Remember when The Killers broke in 2004 and frontman Brandon Flowers proclaimed “I want us to be the American U2”? More than a decade of stadium-sized hooks later — including what we decried in April as the third-greatest chorus of the century so far — the band has always kept its admiration for U2’s melodic enormity at top of mind. But The Killers’ sophomore LP Sam’s Town and its further embrace of straightaway, big rock choruses was where the comparison truly began to hold water. Meanwhile, Read here about Bono’s big assist on the latest Killers album.
6. Gorillaz feat. De La Soul, “Feel Good Inc.” (2005)
Now, we aren’t here to say that Gorillaz’s most popular song ripped off U2, but the internet has had a good ol’ time comparing everyone’s favorite animated band’s big hit to U2’s 1997 track “Staring at the Sun.” Listen here, judge for yourself, and go listen to U2’s ‘97 record Pop once more — it’s aged well!
7. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” (2004)
How offensive (or obvious) would it be to officially deem Arcade Fire as “the millennial U2”? Both groups are enormously talented, both have headlined Bonnaroo, both possess penchants for artistic swerves at the cost of polarizing their fan bases, both have defined eras of rock music — U2 even dedicated a Montreal performance of “One” to the Canadian group in 2015. So what if one act relies a little more heavily on the accordion and hurdy gurdy? Maybe Arcade Fire’s momentous breakthrough hit “Wake Up” would be the easier call here, but the manic “Neighborhood #3” reminds us more of the weird-but-awesome-but-still-weird mid-’90s U2, and that makes us happy.
8. Muse, “Madness” (2012)
Muse opened a cluster of shows on U2’s 360 tour — you may sense a trend developing — in 2009 and 2011, and singer Mat Bellamy admitted that U2’s sound, specifically the electro-rock stylings of 1991’s Achtung Baby seeped into Muse’s 2012 record, The 2nd Law. Following suit, the album’s haunting hit “Madness” sounds like Bono reimagining George Michael’s “Faith” melody as he battles Edge’s warp-pedal for top billing.
9. The Temper Trap, “Sweet Disposition” (2008)
It should take you all of about three seconds to hear how Temper Trap’s calling-card single “Sweet Disposition” bows to U2. It’s a beautiful, ethereal tune — one of several indie gems on the (500) Days Of Summer movie soundtrack — spurred on by a sweeping guitar delay that springs from “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
10. Linkin Park, “Shadow of the Day” (2007)
Sure, the agro-rap-metal of Hybrid Theory-era Linkin Park doesn’t quite jive with U2, but the band’s mellowing process — first heard on 2007’s Minutes To Midnight — hit an early peak with the power ballad “Shadow Of The Day,” and man, the melody and rhythm is a dead ringer for “With or Without You.”
11. Radiohead, “Everything in Its Right Place” (2000)
Radiohead fans just love it when someone notes how the band probably doesn’t exist (or at least not nearly in the same form) without the preceding presence of U2. OK Computer and the albums leading up to it all feature some Bono-rific moments, but once Radiohead entered the 21st Century as the new “biggest band on Earth” — the ostensible heirs to U2’s rock kingdom — they dropped the opaque art-electro masterpiece Kid A, which doubled as an arena-rock antithesis. In a backward sort of way, Radiohead’s second act has been fueled by how badly Thom Yorke and crew didn’t want to become the next U2.
12. Keane, “Somewhere Only We Know” (2004)
Ironically, the song that got Keane an opening slot on U2’s Vertigo tour — it was a long tour, okay, they had a lot of supporting acts — was the song that pays so much homage to All That You Can’t Leave Behind adult contemporary-era U2, it might as well have been one of the set’s B-sides. “Somewhere Only We Know” is a killer mid-tempo throwback, and nothing against the U.K. alt-rockers Keane, but if you can’t detect Bono’s cadence in singer Tom Chaplin’s delivery, you won’t hear U2 in anything.
13. Thirty Seconds to Mars, “From Yesterday” (2005)
There’s such a level of grandeur to just about everything Thirty Seconds To Mars has ever released, it’s difficult not to discern U2 in the band’s biggest hits. It’s as though Bono and Trent Reznor are endlessly warring inside Jared Leto’s volatile mind, and on the days the Irishman wins you get gigantic pop-rock songs like “From Yesterday,” later “Kings and Queens,” and the band’s new, very U2-y single “Walk on Water.”
14. Angels & Airwaves, “The Adventure” (2006)
Former Blink-182 guitarist/co-frontman Tom DeLonge was reportedly “obsessed with U2” long before he ever left the iconic pop-punk group, and urged the band to change its sound to match the rock legends, Blink drummer Travis Barker said in a 2016 interview. Of course, that didn’t happen with Blink, but DeLonge’s spacey new outfit Angels and Airwaves took on Edge’s guitar delays and the immensity of U2’s sound with glee.
15. Walk the Moon,“Shut Up and Dance” (2014)
All those “echoey”-sounding guitar delays and spacey rhythms dominating pop-rock, they all lead back to The Edge and the now intrinsically known riff to Walk the Moon’s monster hit-turned-wedding anthem “Shut Up And Dance” is a prime example of how listeners still just can’t get enough of those towering tones. All roads lead back to U2!