Boy (Island, 1980)
    October (Island, 1981)
      War (Island, 1983)
    Under a Blood Red Sky (EP)
(Island, 1983)
      The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984)
    Wide Awake in America (EP)
(Island, 1985)
      The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987)
     Rattle and Hum (Island, 1988)
      Achtung Baby (Island, 1991)
    Zooropa (Island, 1993)
    Pop (Island, 1997)
     The Best of 1980–1990 (Island, 1998)
      All That You Can't Leave Behind (Island, 2000)
     The Best of 1990–2000 (Island, 2002)
     How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004)
    U218 Singles (Island, 2006)
     No Line on the Horizon (Interscope, 2009)

"I told the people who came to our club gig last week that we were applying for the job," Bono told ROLLING STONE in 2001. "There were shouts of, 'What job?' And I said, 'The job of the best band in the world!" That sentiment sums up a large part of U2's appeal: During an era when many great rock bands have been embarrassed by grand gestures, powerful anthems, and stadium tours, U2 has fulfilled millions of fans' desires for a larger-than-life band that speaks directly to their emotions. This was true from the band's beginnings in postpunk Ireland. Because albums such as Boy, October, and War had a grandiose sound long before the band's lyrics had anything especially grand to say, some listeners assumed that the quartet was self-impressed and shallow. But despite the occasional eloquence of issue songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," most U2 songs emphasize the sound of the band over the sense of the lyrics—an approach that, at its best, lends a majesty to the band's albums.

The ten tunes of U2's debut, Boy, are sturdily constructed and melodic, from the rousing refrain of "I Will Follow" to the elegiac quiet of "The Ocean." But by far the most arresting thing about the band is its sound. U2's instrumental approach is fairly minimal, but the band parts company with its contemporaries by making sure that every part in its stripped-down arrangements is played for maximum impact. The ringing ostinatos and colorful chording provided by the Edge's echo-laden guitar play a large part in this, but he hardly carries all the melodic weight. Adam Clayton's bass line in "Twilight," for instance, doesn't just shore up the beat, but supplies a secondary melodic line; likewise, Larry Mullen's drums in "Stories for Boys" don't merely keep time, but also provide musical cues to underscore the song's inner drama. Between them, the band's instrumental voices manage an almost greater eloquence than Bono's amiably heroic vocals.

The same principle holds for October, although not for the same reasons. The band as a whole suffers from sophomore slump here, and Bono seems particularly at a loss, making an impressive noise but precious little sense in "Gloria," "With a Shout," and "I Threw a Brick Through a Window." But War more than makes up. Not only is the writing more tightly focused, but the band leaps nimbly between the personal ("New Year's Day," "Two Hearts Beat as One") and the political ("Sunday Bloody Sunday") without a single misstep. Even better, the instrumental palette is richer and more varied, finding room for everything from the martial funk of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to the shimmering acoustic touches of "Drowning Man."

The EP Under a Blood Red Sky offers a hint of how this translated in concert, but the vivid, bristling presence that producer Jimmy Iovine gets for it is worlds away from the rich, atmospheric aura producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois give the music on The Unforgettable Fire. On that album, the instrumental sound is blurred, giving the band a warmer, more intimate sound, one that brings out the emotional immediacy in "Bad," and adds soul to the insistent thrust of "Pride." But that isn't the only change introduced by The Unforgettable Fire. With this album, Bono begins to explore his obsession with America. The intensely personal Joshua Tree album doesn't entirely avoid the political—how could it, with songs like "Mothers of the Disappeared"?—but such concerns seem secondary to the quest for love and identity described in songs like "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Yet vivid as the album's wordplay may be, it's still the music that carries these songs, from the itchy throb of "Bullet the Blue Sky" to the racing pulse of "Where the Streets Have No Name."

At this point, the next logical move for U2 would have been a live album, but the bloated semi-live soundtrack album Rattle and Hum isn't quite what fans expected. Sure, it includes concert versions of hit singles like "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," but those are accompanied by cover material like "Helter Skelter" and "All Along the Watchtower." Moreover, not all of the album is live; indeed, some of the strongest performances, like the Bo Diddley–style "Desire" or the bluesy "When Love Comes to Town," are studio recordings.

Thanks to the sound-shaping technology applied to the Edge's guitar and Larry Mullen's drums, the band's sound on Achtung Baby is more intricate and articulate than ever, affording the album a stylistic range that runs from the techno grunge of "Zoo Station" to the hip-hop-inflected groove of "Mysterious Ways." That's not to say the lyrics don't deserve attention, for some—such as "So Cruel"—are as vividly evocative as the music they adorn. But just as his conspiratorial whisper inflames the desperate clangor of "The Fly," Bono's delivery often says more than the words themselves.

The quickly recorded Zooropa attempts to expand the band's new horizons even further, but gets mired in a quicksand of unwise groove and texture experiments—the result is an album with overlong, mostly unmemorable songs. Pop puts more emphasis on the songwriting; the best song is the one that sounds the most like classic, pre-Achtung U2: the sweeping "Staring At the Sun."

After spending the Nineties dabbling in postmodernism, electronica and orange goggles, U2 transformed back to a world-beating pop band on All That You Can't Leave Behind, an album that oozed arena-scale romance. Joshua Tree producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois came back to the fold, and songs like "Walk On," "Beautiful Day," and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" reveal a band that learned to draw inspiration from small personal victories, and to keep evolving. Make way, the album declares, for the biggest band in the world.

That was also the thrust of the enormous publicity push that accompanied the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (which included a U2-themed iPod and The Complete U2, a 446-track digital "box set" with a bunch of previously unreleased material, most notably an electrifying 1981 live set). Recorded with eight producers, Atomic Bomb sometimes seems less an album than a blurry mission statement: We are huge and loud! We speak for you! We love freedom, don't you? Also, rock and roll! It's got one terrific rocker ("Vertigo"), one fine heart-tugger ("Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"), and a lot of likeable bluster.

U2 reunited with the Eno/Lanois team for most of No Line on the Horizon. Much of the album is relatively straightforward, but the songwriting was experimental and process-driven, integrating the Moroccan music the band picked up while recording in a Fez hotel. The instrumental textures are rich and intriguing, with U2 moving through killer fuzzed-out riffs, full-bodied guitar glimmer, and electronic minimalism. They go for ringing, organ-soaked melancolia on the album's most impactful song: "Moment of Surrender," a downcast tale about a subway-riding junkie with weighty feel of classic U2 ballads like "One."

If you happen to have been stuck in a soundproof chamber for the last few decades, U2's first two greatest-hits albums may prove useful in getting up to speed. The 1980-1990 collection spits (unforgettable) fire from start to finish; 1990-2000 salvages the best stuff from their weirdest decade. U218 Singles is a jumble of radio staples and two blah new tracks, one of which is a cover of the Skids' "The Saints Are Coming" recorded with Green Day.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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