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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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“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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