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U2’s 50 Greatest Songs

A definitive guide to 35 years of music that changed the world

U2 weren’t great songwriters when they first came together as high schoolers in 1976. It took them a couple of years as a second rate Dublin cover band to even rise to the level of juvenilia like “Cartoon World” and “Science Fiction Tune.” But as the Seventies folded into the Eighties, something clicked and suddenly amazing bursts of inspiration like “Out of Control” and “I Will Follow” began pouring out of them. 

The best of the bunch were collected on their 1980 debut, Boy, and within just three years, politics entered their consciousness, leading to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day.” By the time they cut The Joshua Tree, only seven years into their professional career, they were one of the greatest songwriting collectives of the decade, and once they started to experiment in the Nineties things only got better. In the 2000s they went back to a more stripped-back sound with classics like “Beautiful Day” and “Moment of Surrender,” and in 2014 they told the story of their roots with Songs of Innocence. Here, we count down their 50 greatest songs. 

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“Bad”

“Bad” is a powerful song about a painful
subject. Bono wrote it to address the rampant heroin abuse that was crippling
recession-plagued Dublin during the early Eighties, basing his lyrics on the
experiences of people he knew personally. “I’ve always had a real respect
for responsible people,” Bono said, discussing the song. “But I also
have a real respect for irresponsible people. There is that side of me that
wants to run.” The hypnotic, Velvet Underground–inspired track took just
three takes to record, with Brian Eno adding keyboards and minimal overdubs.
But “Bad” really took off live as a surging communal hymn; radio DJs
have been choosing the version on the 1985 concert EP Wide Awake in America over
the studio version for decades, and the triumphant 12-minute version U2 played
at Live Aid in 1985 (during which Bono brought a woman out of the crowd and
danced with her) became one of the festival’s most memorable moments. Recalled
Adam Clayton, “It’s only after six months of touring it and talking to
different people that you get to the inner truths of the song.”

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“Sunday Bloody Sunday”

“There’s been a lot of talk about this next song,”
Bono famously tells the crowd in the version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
that appeared in Live: Under a Blood Red Sky. “Maybe too much talk.”
It was a new level of ambition for U2: “We were trying to be the Who meets
the Clash,” Bono later said. His inspiration: the 1972 massacre when
English soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed protesters in the Northern Irish
town of Derry. “We realize the potential for division in a song like that,”
the Edge told a journalist. “So all we can say is that we’re trying to
confront the subject rather than sweep it under the carpet.” It wasn’t the
first song about Bloody Sunday – John Lennon and Paul McCartney both had
protest records in stores before 1972 was over. But U2 made it a grand
statement of militant Christian pacifism, with Larry Mullen Jr.’s martial
drums, violin from Steve Wickham – a stranger the Edge met at a Dublin bus stop
– and Bono waving a white flag onstage. As Bono told Rolling Stone at the time,
“I’m not interested in politics like people fighting back with sticks and
stones, but in the politics of love.”

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“Beautiful Day”

After spending the Nineties creating music that didn’t
sound anything like the anthemic albums that had won U2 a massive audience
during the Eighties, the band decided to kick off the 2000s by getting back to
basics. “There was a big debate over the guitar sound on ‘Beautiful Day,'”
the Edge said. “That was really the sound of U2, the sound we made our own
and abandoned. Whether or not we should bring it back became a real talking
point.” The group ultimately combined an unmistakable stripped-down sound
with co-producer Brian Eno’s electronic flourishes, and Bono wrote a set of
lyrics about the importance of embracing painful moments that were inspired by
Australian preacher John Smith. “He talked to me about how depression is a
nerve end,” said Bono. “Pain is evidence of life.” “Beautiful
Day” exploded onto radio in late 2000; it won U2 a Grammy for Song of the
Year and helped their transcendent comeback album All That You Can’t Leave
Behind
win Record of the Year. When Bono accepted one of the awards, he
said the band was “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world.”

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“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

“The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God,” Bono told Rolling Stone. U2’s second Number One single revels in ambivalence – “an anthem of doubt more than faith,” Bono has called it. The song was typical of the arduous sessions that went into creating The Joshua Tree: Originally called “Under the Weather,” it began, like most U2 songs, as a jam. “It sounded to me a little like ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ played by a reggae band,” the Edge recalled. “It had this great beat,” producer Daniel Lanois said. “I remember humming a traditional melody in Bono’s ear. He said, ‘That’s it! Don’t sing any more!’ – and went off and wrote the melody as we know it.” The song’s lyrics were full of religious allusions, classic images steeped in the tradition of American gospel music that the band filled with new meaning and purpose. “I was rooting around for a sense of the traditional and then trying to twist it a bit,” Bono told the magazine in 1987. “That’s the idea of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.'”

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“One”

In a catalog devoted to exploring romantic love, spiritual faith and social justice, no single U2 song unites all these themes as potently as this supreme soul ballad. “It’s [about] coming together, but not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together,'” Bono said. “It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same’ … [and] we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive.”

The lyrics, informed by tensions within U2 at the time, “fell out of the sky, a gift,” recalled Bono. “‘One,’ of course, is about the band.” The music, born of paired Edge guitar riffs, was painstakingly sculpted by producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who added tension to the gentle beauty. The result is an immaculate balance of the intimate and anthemic. The understated rhythm section and Edge’s rainbow hues map Bono’s journey from the near-whispered opening (“Is it getting better?”), to the bridge where he declaims “love” in a cracked holler, to the falsetto outro, all pain and fierce hope. “One” reflects many geopolitical rifts – it was recorded in Germany, as the Cold War was coming to an end, and mixed in Ireland. Bono later recalled “going around Europe when stuff was going on in Bosnia, sometimes 300 miles from where we were playing.” Released as a single to benefit AIDS research, it spoke to families riven by the disease and to all embattled lovers. Singers from Johnny Cash to Mary J. Blige have covered it, Michael Stipe memorably sang it at an MTV event celebrating Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and Axl Rose called it “one of the greatest songs that’s ever been written,” adding that, when he first heard it, “I just broke down crying.”

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