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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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23

“Mofo”

“We spent months farting around with it,” said Clayton about “Mofo.” “And then we said to Flood, ‘Let’s hip-hop it, let’s strip it back, let’s get a beat together, let’s see where it goes.'” They ended up with the hardest-hitting electronica experiment on 1997’s Pop, big-beat techno redolent of contemporary acts like the Crystal Method and the Future Sound of London. But while the music shot toward the future, Bono mined his past. “It was as if my whole life was in that song,” he said. “It was extraordinary playing ‘Mofo’ live. The song would come to a shuddering halt, and there I was, just speaking to my mother in front of 50,000 of my closest friends.”

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22

“A Sort of Homecoming”

The opening track of The Unforgettable Fire – U2’s first collaboration with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois – was worked up in
Bono’s actual home, a converted 19th-century Martello defense tower on the
Irish coast. Fittingly, the song feels like a military march, albeit one
ascending into heaven. It was inspired by the Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan,
who – like U2 – wrestled with notions of spiritual faith in his work, and who
famously described poems as paths “for projecting ourselves into the
search for ourselves. … A kind of homecoming.” Above the Edge’s guitar
abstractions are some of Bono’s most potent verses, a paddle wheel of images,
pledges and chants that conjure a ravaged battlefield of the heart. “A lot
of rock & roll is banal ideas well-executed,” Bono humble-brags. “Whereas
I think a lot of what we do is really very interesting ideas, badly executed. ‘A
Sort of Homecoming’ involved a lot of very interesting ideas, well-executed.”
U2 superfan Chris Martin concurred: “I know [it] backward and
forward. … It’s so rousing, brilliant and beautiful. It’s one of the first
songs I played to my unborn baby.”

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21

“Bullet the Blue Sky”

In 1986, Bono and his wife, Ali, traveled to El Salvador, which was then in the midst of a horrific civil war. There, they witnessed firsthand the brutality of the U.S.-backed military dictatorship, including the sight of F-16 fighters attacking civilian villages. When Bono returned to Ireland and the Joshua Tree sessions, he instructed the Edge to “put El Salvador through your amplifier.” The result was incisive and explosive, with a heavy, tumultuous sound that recalled Led Zeppelin and lyrics that dug into the darkest aspects of American imperialism and racism. “I love America and I hate it,” Bono said. “I’m torn between the two.”

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20

“Out of Control”

U2 were still in their teens when they introduced themselves with “Out of Control” – the song was written on Bono’s 18th birthday. But they were already earnest young men, brooding over childhood angst with lines like “Monday morning/Eighteen years of dawning.” It appeared on their debut release in September 1979, a three-song seven- and 12-inch that cracked the Top 20 of the Irish singles charts. Like a lot of the tunes on Boy, it echoes the goth punk of bands like Joy Division or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Bono once mused, “I would like to do that album again, if nothing else to stop singing like Siouxsie Sioux.”

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19

“Running to Stand Still”

In an essay Bono wrote for Rolling Stone to honor the late Lou Reed in 2013, he cited “Running to Stand Still” as “redhanded proof” of U2’s debt to the hugely influential musician. Lyrically, it’s one of several U2 songs that take on the subject of addiction. Opening with a Delta-steeped slide guitar, the song turns into a fragile benediction with a melody similar to Reed’s Velvet Underground classic “Heroin.” “Running to Stand Still” was improvised almost whole-cloth live in the studio; producer Daniel Lanois later recalled “a really wonderful communication happening in the room at that time.” Said the Edge, it’s “amazing in one go to get that much of a song.”

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18

“Gloria”

The greatest rock anthem ever sung in Latin? Ecce Bono! In the early days of
MTV, “Gloria” was the video hit that put U2 on the map for American
kids; in this 1981 clip, the startlingly young lads jam on a barge in Dublin’s
Grand Canal for a crowd of scruffy locals. On “Gloria,” Bono wails
about teen religious fervor (“Gloria in te domine“), with a
nod to Patti Smith’s 1975 reinvention of Van Morrison’s Sixties classic, while
the Edge plays psychedelic slide. The idea to sing in Latin came after
listening to an album of Gregorian chants owned by their manager Paul
McGuinness. “It’s so outrageous at the end, going to the full Latin whack,”
Bono said. “Wonderfully mad and epic and operatic.”

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17

“Walk On”

Inspired by the plight of Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, “Walk On” is about the strength it takes to make a great sacrifice for a just cause. A section from the song’s spoken-word intro gave U2 the title for one of their most inspirational albums: “And love is not the easy thing/The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can’t leave behind.” “It is a mantra, really, a bonfire of the vanities,” Bono said. “Whatever it is you want more than love, it has to go.” Aided by a soaring guitar melody (one of the Edge’s best of the 2000s), “Walk On” charted all over the world and won a Grammy for Record of the Year. Live, it became a nightly tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released in 2010.

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16

“Zooropa”

“The opening was the audio equivalent of Blade Runner’s visuals,” said Bono of the gibbering, media-disseminated voices at the beginning of U2’s futurist opus “Zooropa.” “If you closed your eyes, you could see the neon, the giant LED screens advertising all manner of ephemera.” For the track itself, engineer Joe O’Herlihy recorded jams from soundchecks on the Zoo TV Tour, the Edge combed them for backing tracks, producer Flood mixed in bits from a separate studio jam, and Brian Eno added synths. “It was a time when everyone was all indie and gray and dull,” said Bono. “It’s amazing to be walking around these modern cities like Houston or Tokyo – and embracing it.”

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15

“Mysterious Ways”

In 1991, it would have been hard to imagine U2 as anything close to a dance band, but “Mysterious
Ways,” a Top 10 hit from Achtung Baby, proved that was more than
possible. Brian Eno, who played a huge role in their transformation, aptly
described the song as “heavy bottomed and lightheaded.” The track was
built out of Clayton’s swooping bass part, which had been taken from an
unreleased song called “Sick Puppy,” and the rhythms on the finished
track, complemented by co-producer Daniel Lanois’ congas, give the song a swaying
pulse. Bono’s lyrics – an ode to the power of female allure – are as joyful as
he would ever get.

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14

“Please”

Fourteen years after “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2 released their second single to address the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland (Mullen’s drumming on the bridge even seems to allude to the 1983 hit). Producer Howie B, who Mullen called U2’s “disco guru,” had taken the band to dance clubs to help usher in their electronica experiment Pop. For “Please,” he played them a beat rooted in a loop of Mullen’s drums from the sessions for another Pop tune, “If God Will Send His Angels.” Bono constructed a melody, and the song promptly fell into place. “Once the band got it, boom,” said Howie B. Bono called it “a mad prayer of a tune.” 

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13

“Every Breaking Wave”

Fourteen years after “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2 released their second single to address the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland (Mullen’s drumming on the bridge even seems to allude to the 1983 hit). Producer Howie B, who Mullen called U2’s “disco guru,” had taken the band to dance clubs to help usher in their electronica experiment Pop. For “Please,” he played them a beat rooted in a loop of Mullen’s drums from the sessions for another Pop tune, “If God Will Send His Angels.” Bono constructed a melody, and the song promptly fell into place. “Once the band got it, boom,” said Howie B. Bono called it “a mad prayer of a tune.”

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12

“Pride (In the Name of Love)”

This anthem of resistance and love was inspired by a
biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Let the Trumpet Sound) given to
Bono by Rolling Stone writer Jim Henke. The soaring melody and chords popped
out during a soundcheck in Hawaii; Bono described the lyrics as just a “simple
sketch.” But it took flight in one of the band’s first recordings with
Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders added
stirring backing vocals. Before a late-Eighties concert in Arizona, Bono
received a threat that he’d be killed if he sang the song. He sang it anyway.

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11

“New Year’s Day”

“New Year’s Day” was U2’s breakthrough, complete with a video where they ride horses through the snow. (The Edge later admitted it was actually four women with scarves over their faces riding those horses.) The surprising musical inspiration: Clayton trying to figure out Visage’s New Romantic disco hit “Fade to Grey.” But “New Year’s Day” was a salute to Polish union leader Lech Walesa, jailed in December 1981, when the government outlawed his Solidarity movement. (In 1990, Walesa became Poland’s first democratically elected president.) “At the same time, it’s a love song,” Bono said. “Love is always strongest when it’s set against a struggle.”

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10

“Even Better Than the Real Thing”

Originally conceived around the same session as 1988’s “Desire” – and based around a riff the Edge called “about as close as we could or would ever want to get to the Rolling Stones” – the song, first called “The Real Thing,” was transformed during the sessions for Achtung Baby. Starting with its whirring-siren intro, the track took on a shadowy, throbbing energy, driven by the Edge’s effects pedal. Bono said his lyrics were “reflective of the times we were living in, when people were no longer looking for the truth. We are all looking for instant gratification.”

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9

“I Will Follow”

“It’s coming from a very dark place,” Bono said of the opening track – and crowning moment – on U2’s debut, noting that it was inspired by “real anger and an enormous sense of
yearning.” Written about the love between a son and his mother (Bono’s
died when he was a teen), it gave stomping U.K. post-punk a heraldic urgency. “I
remember picking up Edge’s guitar and playing the two-stringed chord … to show
the others the aggression I wanted,” Bono recalled. “The percussion
in the drop was a bicycle spinning, wheels upside down and played like a harp
with a kitchen fork.” “I Will Follow” quickly became their live
trump card; the Edge recalled a Boston gig where they played it three times, as
set opener, closer and encore, to a rapturous crowd. “We left the stage
feeling incredible.”

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8

“Moment of Surrender”

The standout track from U2’s 2009 album, No Line
on the Horizon,
and the song that ended nearly every show of their two-year
U2 360 ̊ stadium odyssey, is a seven-and-a-half-minute meditation on addiction.
(The term “moment of surrender” is Alcoholics Anonymous lingo for the
instant in which an addict admits helplessness.) “The character in the
song is a junkie, so that’s where I got it,” Bono told Rolling Stone in
2009. “I know a lot of people who have had to deal with demons in
courageous ways. Maybe there’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Wow, I’m just an inch
away.'” Producer Daniel Lanois, who has struggled with his own addiction
issues in the past, came up with the chorus melody. The rest of the song was
written during an impromptu jam, with the band improvising the version that
ended up on the album out of thin air in one take. “That spirit blows
through every now and then,” Bono told Rolling Stone as U2 were preparing
to release No Line on the Horizon. “It’s a very strange feeling. We’re
waiting for God to walk into the room – and God, it turns out, is very
unreliable.”

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7

“With or Without You”

“It doesn’t sound like anything else of its time,”
the Edge said of the first single from The Joshua Tree. “It’s not
coming from an Eighties mentality. It’s coming from somewhere completely
different.” With its stark sound and low-key video, “With or Without
You” cut through the bloat and slickness of Eighties rock (“It
whispers its way into the world,” Bono said), giving U2 their first Number
One hit in the U.S. and turning the band into reluctant pop stars. “You
don’t imagine hearing it [on the radio],” Clayton said. “Maybe in a
church.” The song’s lyrics were sparked by heroes of the U.S. civil rights
movement and the “new journalism” of the 1960s. Yet “With or
Without You” – rooted in a simple bass groove and an ethereal guitar that
frames Bono’s yearning vocals – remains one of U2’s most universal songs to
date, a meditation on the painful ambivalence of a love affair. Bono insisted
it was “about how I feel in U2 at times: exposed. I know that the group
thinks I’m exposed and that I give myself away. I think if I do any damage to
U2, it’s that I’m too open.”

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6

“Where the Streets Have No Name”

Opening with nearly two minutes of the Edge’s shimmering guitar, the first song on The
Joshua Tree
is an evocation of freedom at its most open-ended. The Edge
came up with the basic track in his home studio, with the finished product
growing out of a characteristically painstaking process that proved so trying,
co-producer Brian Eno later said half the time recording the album was spent on
that song. “We had this giant blackboard with the arrangement written on
it,” Daniel Lanois told Rolling Stone. “I felt like a science
professor conducting them.” Bono later said, “It contains a very
powerful idea. You can call it ‘soul’ or ‘imagination,’ the place where you
glimpse God, your potential, whatever.” For its iconic video, an homage to
the Beatles’ final performance, the band played atop a Los Angeles liquor
store, tying up traffic for hours. “It’s been ripped off hundreds of
times,” recalled director Meiert Avis. “But the excitement comes from
the rebellion; the taste of freedom lights up the fans and the band.”

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5

“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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4

“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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3

“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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2

“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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1

“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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