Few rock bands have had the kind of career longevity and success enjoyed by U2. During the Irish rock band’s four-decades-plus in existence, the quartet has released 14 studio albums, earned 17 top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and countless other global chart hits, and toured the world many times over.
This widespread resonance largely stems from the band’s ever-malleable sound. During its early years, U2 flew the flag for vibrant post-punk and new wave. As the ’80s progressed, the band dabbled in folk, blues and other American musical traditions, before ripping up the playbook, David Bowie-style, with ’90s excursions into electronic music. In the last two decades, U2 has settled into a groove centered on all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, from earnest throwbacks to modern sleekness.
Across the decades, what hasn’t changed for U2 is its relentless inner drive to harness music’s healing power. “Many U2 songs over the years were written to fill a void, an absence, a hole in a heart left by a loved one,” Bono said from the stage in 2015, as quoted by HotPress. Such striving has given songs deep endurance, which the band cultivates via an impressive touring schedule.
Last year, U2 commemorated the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree by performing the album in full, while this year’s Experience + Innocence Tour saw both the return of Bono’s devilish, Zoo TV-era MacPhisto character and cutting-edge flourishes, such as augmented reality. The members of U2 are loathe to rest on their laurels — and that permeates every fiber of their being.
As they continue to tour the world behind their eighth No. 1 album, we present our picks for the 25 greatest U2 songs.
25. “Bad” [The Unforgettable Fire 1984]
U2’s songwriting genius often reveals itself live, when the band members break free from studio formalities and allow emotion to take the wheel. Case in point: The Unforgettable Fire album cut “Bad,” a delicate song about addiction’s wrenching effects that’s said to be inspired by Dublin’s mid-’80s heroin epidemic. On disc, the song blooms slowly, driven by increasingly urgent chiming guitars, rattlesnake percussion and a cushion of lush keyboards. In concert, however, the song is transformed into an extended epic whose cry of “I’m wide awake” feels like a pledge for survival rather than last-ditch desperation.
24. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” [Songs of Experience, 2017]
The lyrics Bono writes about family — namely, his late mother, Iris, and long-time wife, Ali — rank among his best, most honest work. So it goes with his latest mash note for Ali, “You’re The Best Thing About Me.” The pop-rock song is a sleek, carefree sonic pastiche encompassing rippling guitars, fizzy keyboards and propulsive grooves, along with plenty of rakish asides. Bono sheepishly references his propensity for “shooting off my mouth,” but also reassures Ali he’s a charmer: “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy.”
23. “Magnificent” [No Line on the Horizon, 2009]
Contrary to the dominant narrative, U2 never completely eschewed electronics after the ’90s; they just figured out how to incorporate them in subtler ways. “Magnificent,” which Bono told Rolling Stone in 2009 has its roots in the Magnificat (a Bible passage spoken by the Virgin Mary) is one of the best later-day examples of this approach. Recorded with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, “Magnificent” has a pulsating, motorik foundation that meshes well with the Edge’s blocky guitar chords and Bono’s keening, hopeful vocals.
22. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” [Zooropa. 1993]
It’s a misconception that U2’s mid-’90s albums are nothing but day-glo electronic excursions. The underrated Zooropa in particular boasts the gorgeous “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” which was inspired by (and appears on the soundtrack of) Wim Wenders’ 1993 film, Faraway, So Close! Driven by tick-tock drums and languid, lavender-hued guitars, the single emerged during U2’s Sinatra-obsessed phase — no doubt explaining why Bono’s smoldering croon resembles the aural equivalent of a perfect smoke ring. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song in ’93, but lost to Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”
21. “The Electric Co.” [Boy, 1980]
U2’s early albums exuded youthful energy and brash confidence, influenced as they were by the nascent early ’80s post-punk scenes bubbling up in England and Ireland. Boy‘s careening “The Electric Co.” embodies these adventurous roots: The Edge’s clipped, delay-drenched riffs and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s brisk beatkeeping buoy Bono’s ringmaster-like performance. “The Electric Co.” is also notable for being an early example of Bono and Edge’s vocal interplay; the latter’s cascading backups add crucial warmth to the song.
20. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” [Achtung Baby, 1991]
Although The Joshua Tree is U2’s masterpiece, Achtung Baby runs a close second — even though the latter found the band members largely recoiling from the straightforward pop-rock that made them superstars. One notable exception is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” an anguished breakup song that finds Bono channeling a heartbroken soul singer who’s lost his swagger. Appropriately, Mullen’s stutter-step drums and the soft-glow sonic roars on the verses resemble a modern take on Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production style.
19. “Elevation” [All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000]
“Elevation” illustrated that U2 didn’t completely eschew their ’90s-generated weirdness after the turn of the century. Clanking electronic programming pushes up against the Edge’s grinding, fuzz-coated guitars — a launching pad for Bono to croon lascivious lyrics such as “As the orbit of your hips eclipse, you elevate my soul.” As the vocalist’s periodic ecstatic falsetto illuminates, however, “Elevation” is more akin to a religious revival where the salvation comes via lust and pleasure.
18. “Lemon” [Zooropa, 1993]
One byproduct of U2’s ’90s experimental phase is that it gave Bono a chance to stretch his voice into luminous shapes. On the fizzy disco-pop song “Lemon” — a tune also marked by murmuring deadpan vocals from the Edge and co-producer Brian Eno and shapeshifting electronic programming — he skips between a trilling upper range and a primal falsetto. The theatrical and surreal performance amplifies the sorrow of the lyrical inspiration: Bono saw Super 8 video of his late mother wearing a yellow dress at a wedding, which spawned ruminations on the ephemeral nature of memories, and the inherent distance between camera and subject.
17. “A Sort of Homecoming” [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984]
U2’s first major sonic reinvention came after 1983’s War, when the band teamed up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. The album jettisoned their scrappy guitar rock in favor of a moody, atmospheric sonic palette — highlighted by the dreamy opening song “A Sort of Homecoming,” a hymn-like poem praising the restorative power of connection and communion. Bono’s impassioned vocals curl around the gauzy music, notable for its beatific Edge guitar strokes and heartbeat-patter percussion.
16. “Gloria” [October, 1981]
U2’s ability to balance religious allusions, spiritual heft and rock ‘n’ roll verve coalesces on the early single “Gloria,” a Top 10 hit in Ireland. Although Bono is his usual commanding self — he gleefully counts off the song, sings in Latin and hollers like a rogue choir boy — this is one of the first great examples of the band’s collaborative musical chemistry. The Edge contributes chimera-like piano shimmers and boomerang guitars; Clayton piles on squirming funk bass; and Mullen backs it all up with a steady rhythmic core.
15. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” [Batman Forever official soundtrack, 1995]
When examining U2’s career arc, the quartet’s fearlessness — and desire to aim high, even if things don’t quite work out — permeates every era along the way. The No. 1 Mainstream Rock hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” a Golden Globe- and Grammy-nominated song from the Batman Forever soundtrack, is a bold move that paid off. In fact, consider it U2’s Led Zeppelin moment: Lightning-bolt strings flash over buzzsawing guitars, as Bono leers about the perks and perils of fame while in full-on MacPhisto-the-devil mode.
14. “Where the Streets Have No Name” [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
“Where the Streets Have No Name” is one of the best album-opening songs ever, the sonic equivalent of a plane taxiing on the runway before liftoff. “I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location,” Bono said in 1987. “I was trying to sketch a feeling.” Mission accomplished: Ambient keyboards float in first, indistinct and then gradually coming into focus, to introduce the Edge’s galloping guitar chime and Larry Mullen’s taut drumming. Where “Streets” triumphs, however, is with its unabashed optimism that erasing artificial divides and discovering humanity’s common ground is possible.
13. “Desire” [Rattle and Hum, 1988]
Rattle And Hum is one of the more polarizing corners of U2’s catalog, a love letter to diverse American musical traditions that (depending on perspective) either served as a successful homage or bit off more than it could chew. The harmonica-boosted “Desire” falls squarely into the former category: With its nods to Bo Diddley and the Stooges, the harmony-heavy song is a freewheeling blues shuffle that showed off U2’s playful side.
12. “Mysterious Ways” [Achtung Baby, 1991]
With its squelching guitar splatters and twirling grooves, “Mysterious Ways” is one of U2’s most recognizable songs. It’s also a rather pointed statement on gender roles, as Bono explained in 1996’s U2: Into the Heart. “I’ve always believed that the spirit is a feminine thing. ‘Mysterious Ways’ is not about a particular woman. It is about women in general, and the way they entrance, and often dominate men.” In true U2 fashion, the song’s lyrics don’t denigrate this imbalance — they celebrate the benevolence built into this dynamic, and acquiesce to the female power.
11. “Bullet the Blue Sky” [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
One of the most resonant songs in the U2 catalog, “Bullet The Blue Sky” is also an example of how ferocious a rock band they can be. Edge’s distortion-streaked, dive-bombing guitars circle around Clayton’s ominous bass lines — a vivid reflection of the tune’s anti-war, anti-oppressor sentiments — as Bono switches between his clenched-teeth lower register and a falsetto swoon. “Bullet The Blue Sky” took on new dimensions during The Joshua Tree 2017 tour in light of today’s political climate, with the Edge and Clayton teaming up to give the song a menacing, charred funk vibe.
10. “Staring at the Sun” [Pop, 1997]
Had “Staring at the Sun” appeared on any album but the electronica-oriented Pop, a full-length whose relative lack of success sent U2 spinning, the song would’ve been a much bigger hit. As it is, the haunted, acoustic-fluttered number is one of the few tunes from Pop to remain a setlist staple, no doubt because the bones of the song are sound. Bono’s dread-filled lyrics toe the line between wise and cautionary, and the song’s grimy, echoing production effects add lingering apocalyptic darkness.
9. “New Year’s Day” [War, 1983]
A song about soldiering forward and bridging divisions despite strife, “New Year’s Day” exemplifies the ways early U2 refracted the modern world in inventive ways, while still striving for timelessness. Thematically, Bono told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that “New Year’s Day” was inspired by the image of Lech Walesa, head of the Polish trade union Solidarity, helming a Jan. 1 worker’s strike. Musically, the song is fresh-sounding new wave. The Edge pulls double duty, bashing out scorching guitars and desolate piano, while Clayton contributes a livewire bass line, which evolved from him working out how to play Visage’s synth-pop gem “Fade to Grey.”
8. “Until the End of the World” [Achtung Baby, 1991]
During the Achtung Baby touring era, Bono assumed an array of colorful characters to indulge different (often darker) aspects of his personality. That persona-shifting permeated his songwriting, too — in particular “Until The End of the World,” a murky tune weaving together Biblical references to Judas, Jesus, and the Last Supper. The song’s tripped-up beats presage U2’s foray into the world of ’90s electronic remixes, while the Edge’s processed guitars resemble choppy, roiling ocean waves. And Bono’s voice carries a seductive tone, in particular on lines such as, “In my dreams, I was drowning my sorrows/ But my sorrows, they learned to swim” — a sign that the line between good and evil is often blurred.
7. “Beautiful Day” [All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000]
Post-2000, U2 returned to a familiar zone of expression: being a rock band aiming for earthly transcendence. The move was canny, especially in the case of the anthem “Beautiful Day,” which became a worldwide smash. Part of the song’s appeal stems from its familiarity: The Edge’s ringing guitars echo the band’s ’80s heyday, while the song’s uplifting sentiments are classic U2-style encouragement. Yet in other respects, “Beautiful Day” signaled yet another iteration of the band. The puttering rhythmic backdrop, a Brian Eno creation, sounds thoroughly contemporary, while Bono’s voice occasionally creaks and strains with emotion throughout — a sign he intimately knows the perseverance of which he sings.
6. “I Will Follow” [Boy, 1980]
Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the post-punk-leaning single “I Will Follow” brims with preternatural poise. The Edge’s spring-loaded riffs ping around like a pinball machine, boosted by Mullen’s metronomic drumming and Bono’s charismatic presence. Although “I Will Follow” sounds straightforward, the song has complicated origins. Its inspiration comes from Bono’s reactions to the death of his mother; the singer once told Hot Press the song is “coming from a very dark place” that “has both anger, real anger, and an enormous sense of yearning.” Musically, the song is also deceptively simple. As Bono recounted to Rolling Stone in 2008, “I Will Follow” boasts a bit of Beatles-esque studio ingenuity: “The percussion in the drop was a bicycle spinning, wheels upside down and played like a harp with a kitchen fork.”
5. “With Or Without You” [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
Throughout U2’s career, Bono has used his lyrics to explore the nuances of relationships — and, more specifically, how he relates to everyone (and everything) else in his life. “With Or Without You,” U2’s first Hot 100 No. 1, is no exception: The song’s lyrics describe the delicate push and pull involved to find equilibrium with a romantic partner, while also obliquely mentioning the external vulnerability Bono faces because he’s a public figure. Appropriately, “With Or Without You” cloaks its observations in a restrained, lullaby-gentle backdrop massaged by Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite. The song’s reassuring rhythms and the Edge’s sustained, soaring guitars build and swell, before exploding in a cathartic display featuring Bono’s desperate, wordless crooning and an ornate melodic coda.
4. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984]
Throughout the band’s career, U2 has used momentous figures or events as jumping-off points to speak to greater universal truths. One of the band’s most powerful and enduring songs is “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” a 1984 track honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Bono has winced at some of his lyrics (“It’s just a load of vowel sounds ganging up on a great man,” he said in the book U2 By U2), the concise way he describes the impact of King’s work — and compares him to other great historical icons — is effective, especially in the final verse: “Free at last, they took your life/ They could not take your pride.”
Musically, “Pride” is also one of U2’s most iconic compositions. Clayton’s bass darts in and out between the Edge’s gigantic riffs, which stride with great purpose, nudged forward by Mullen’s precise drumming. “There is a certain craft to the songwriting,” the Edge told Melody Maker in 1984. “It’s the only successful pop song we’ve ever written, and I use that word ‘pop’ in the best possible sense. Pop for me is an easily understandable thing; you listen to it and you comprehend it almost immediately.”
3. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” [War, 1983]
War placed U2’s political activism front and center, starting with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The title references a 1972 incident in Northern Ireland, when 13 peaceful protesters were killed by British soldiers, but isn’t explicitly about that day. Instead, the song’s premise is one that would grow to be familiar to fans: It’s an anti-war, anti-violence tune that calls on opposing sides to shed their differences (and weapons) and come together. “I realized that you can’t be a passive pacifist, you must be an aggressive pacifist,” Bono said in 1984. “I had to make a strong statement about what was happening, and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is that statement.”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is far from treacly or preachy, however. It opens with a striking statement — military march drums punched out by Mullen — which then usher in the Edge’s proud, arpeggiated guitars. More than anything, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” threw U2’s passion into sharp relief, and when Bono sings, “How long must we sing this song?” it illustrates how the band members were even then wise beyond their years.
2. “One” [Achtung Baby, 1991]
For as much as Achtung Baby was a reinvention, it was also an album that found U2 refining its existing approach, and learning how to navigate (and overcome) the band’s own internal musical and personal differences. Out of this work came the subdued “One,” whose power lies in its openness and willingness to confront discord. Bono sounds downright chastened as he murmurs lines such as, “Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same?” and “You gave me nothing/Now it’s all I got” above orchestral swells and the Edge’s dimmed-lights guitar melody.
Like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” the underlying meaning of “One” is often misunderstood. “One is not about oneness,” Bono said in U2 By U2. “It’s about difference. It’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is a much more punk rock concept. It’s anti-romantic: ‘We are one but not the same. We get to carry each other.'” Still, “One” has come to represent the importance of building diverse communities and holding up one another: The Bono-associated ONE Campaign charity is named after the song, and royalties from the 1992 single were earmarked for AIDS research.
1. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
Taken on the surface, U2’s second Hot 100 No. 1, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” exemplifies the premise (and promise) of The Joshua Tree. The album’s somber emotional grandeur comes from its inquisitive nature: Its characters ruminate on death, redemption, faith, and global strife — and look to guidance from both higher powers and humanity itself — but don’t have any concrete answers.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is restless. The protagonist has gone to great lengths to seek out solace — whether from a romantic partner or spiritual figure — but hasn’t quite found the right salve. Accordingly, Bono sounds child-like and curious as he stretches into his upper register, willing to embrace whatever he finds. The instrumental music is equally open, with boomerang-like acoustic and electric guitars brushing up against each other (and shuffling percussion) to create tension. But as the song coasts to a conclusion on the strength of latticework harmonies, there’s a sense of resignation, wistfulness and release — that even though there isn’t any resolution, that’s perfectly fine.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” celebrates the beauty of the unknown, the mysterious alchemy that makes music — and U2 — so great.