Ranking U2's Albums: Best to Worst

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
Oct. 31 2011 7:01 AM

Ranking U2's Albums

Best to worst.

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Pop

Pop (1997)
Nellee Hooper, who produced the first two Bjork albums and U2’s spectacularly shallow Batman Forever single, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” was supposed to preside over Pop, but after some contentious sessions, Flood took over. Then, with the Popmart tour approaching and fixed on the calendar, the band raced to finish a record that never truly came together. It furthers certain experiments, especially on the self-lacerating hard-jungle of “Mofo” and the mournful, deconstructed protest song “Wake Up Dead Man.” Lyrically “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion” are total jokes (“Some place are just like your auntie/ But there’s no place like … Miami”)—sheepish and frivolous.

No Line on the Horizon

No Line on the Horizon (2009)
The album earns a bronze based on the first 30 seconds of the title track alone: a thick, undifferentiated wall-of-noise attack limned by a snakey syth. The rest of the song is just OK, but already it’s the best thing they’ve done this century. I appreciate that “Fez—Being Born” is the most Eno-esque they’ve sounded since the Passengers record, that it doesn’t even try to be a song. (Oh, and hello there, Larry and Adam: So nice to hear from you again.) U2 seem interested again in sound for the sake of sound, in texture as meaning. The production doesn’t simply exist to maximize unsophisticated feeling. It sounds less like middle-aged men angling to remain popular and more like middle-aged men uncertain of what to do with themselves—a vast improvement.

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No Prize: These Happened
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)

There’s been an inverse relationship between the quality of Bono’s songwriting and the privileging of his vocals in the mix. As he’s tended toward clichés and simplistic couplets, it’s become impossible to hear anything but his voice at full blast. Mullen and Clayton, at first the motor of the band, have faded into aural invisibility. (They weren’t even invited to the Spider-Man party, which is just as well.) The Edge’s histrionics are still very present, but he’s become too dependable, too tasteful. These are fine-sounding albums, with a few forgivable pop songs (“Walk On,” “Vertigo,” “Rise Above 1”) and one great ballad (“One Step Closer”), but it’s all fundamentally depthless. The sound exists to sell the hook. And there’s no question of what you’re supposed to feel: Gone are the ambiguities, undone are the snarls of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. It makes complete sense that Bono and the Edge are now writing songs for cartoon characters played by Broadway actors: Better these empty vessels than theirs.

Also in Slate, see Eric Hynes' meditation what what makes U2 so successful yet so easily mockable. Check out his ranking of his favorite U2 songs.