10. "Staring at the Sun" [Pop, 1997]
Had "Staring at the Sun" appeared on any album but the electronica-oriented Pop, a full-length whose relative lack of success sent U2 spinning, the song would've been a much bigger hit. As it is, the haunted, acoustic-fluttered number is one of the few tunes from Pop to remain a setlist staple, no doubt because the bones of the song are sound. Bono's dread-filled lyrics toe the line between wise and cautionary, and the song's grimy, echoing production effects add lingering apocalyptic darkness.
9. "New Year's Day" [War, 1983]
A song about soldiering forward and bridging divisions despite strife, "New Year's Day" exemplifies the ways early U2 refracted the modern world in inventive ways, while still striving for timelessness. Thematically, Bono told the Los Angeles in 2005 that "New Year's Day" was inspired by the image of Lech Walesa, head of the Polish trade union Solidarity, helming a Jan. 1 worker's strike. Musically, the song is fresh-sounding new wave. The Edge pulls double duty, bashing out scorching guitars and desolate piano, while Clayton contributes a livewire bass line, which evolved from him working out how to play Visage's synth-pop gem "Fade to Grey."
8. "Until the End of the World" [Achtung Baby, 1991]
During the Achtung Baby touring era, Bono assumed an array of colorful characters to indulge different (often darker) aspects of his personality. That persona-shifting permeated his songwriting, too -- in particular "Until The End of the World," a murky tune weaving together Biblical references to Judas, Jesus, and the Last Supper. The song's tripped-up beats presage U2's foray into the world of '90s electronic remixes, while the Edge's processed guitars resemble choppy, roiling ocean waves. And Bono's voice carries a seductive tone, in particular on lines such as, "In my dreams, I was drowning my sorrows/ But my sorrows, they learned to swim" -- a sign that the line between good and evil is often blurred.
7. "Beautiful Day” [All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000]
Post-2000, U2 returned to a familiar zone of expression: being a rock band aiming for earthly transcendence. The move was canny, especially in the case of the anthem "Beautiful Day," which became a worldwide smash. Part of the song's appeal stems from its familiarity: The Edge's ringing guitars echo the band's '80s heyday, while the song's uplifting sentiments are classic U2-style encouragement. Yet in other respects, "Beautiful Day" signaled yet another iteration of the band. The puttering rhythmic backdrop, a Brian Eno creation, sounds thoroughly contemporary, while Bono's voice occasionally creaks and strains with emotion throughout -- a sign he intimately knows the perseverance of which he sings.
6. "I Will Follow" [Boy, 1980]
Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the post-punk-leaning single "I Will Follow" brims with preternatural poise. The Edge's spring-loaded riffs ping around like a pinball machine, boosted by Mullen’s metronomic drumming and Bono's charismatic presence. Although "I Will Follow" sounds straightforward, the song has complicated origins. Its inspiration comes from Bono's reactions to the death of his mother; the singer once told Hot Press the song is "coming from a very dark place" that "has both anger, real anger, and an enormous sense of yearning." Musically, the song is also deceptively simple. As Bono recounted to Rolling Stone in 2008, "I Will Follow" boasts a bit of Beatles-esque studio ingenuity: "The percussion in the drop was a bicycle spinning, wheels upside down and played like a harp with a kitchen fork."
5. "With Or Without You" [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
Throughout U2's career, Bono has used his lyrics to explore the nuances of relationships -- and, more specifically, how he relates to everyone (and everything) else in his life. "With Or Without You," U2's first Hot 100 No. 1, is no exception: The song's lyrics describe the delicate push and pull involved to find equilibrium with a romantic partner, while also obliquely mentioning the external vulnerability Bono faces because he's a public figure. Appropriately, "With Or Without You" cloaks its observations in a restrained, lullaby-gentle backdrop massaged by Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite. The song's reassuring rhythms and the Edge's sustained, soaring guitars build and swell, before exploding in a cathartic display featuring Bono's desperate, wordless crooning and an ornate melodic coda.
4. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" [The Unforgettable Fire, 1984]
Throughout the band's career, U2 has used momentous figures or events as jumping-off points to speak to greater universal truths. One of the band's most powerful and enduring songs is "(Pride) In the Name of Love," a 1984 track honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Bono has winced at some of his lyrics (“It’s just a load of vowel sounds ganging up on a great man," he said in the book U2 By U2), the concise way he describes the impact of King's work -- and compares him to other great historical icons -- is effective, especially in the final verse: "Free at last, they took your life/ They could not take your pride."
Musically, "Pride" is also one of U2's most iconic compositions. Clayton's bass darts in and out between the Edge's gigantic riffs, which stride with great purpose, nudged forward by Mullen's precise drumming. "There is a certain craft to the songwriting," the Edge told Melody Maker in 1984. "It's the only successful pop song we've ever written, and I use that word 'pop' in the best possible sense. Pop for me is an easily understandable thing; you listen to it and you comprehend it almost immediately."
3. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" [War, 1983]
War placed U2's political activism front and center, starting with "Sunday Bloody Sunday." The title references a 1972 incident in Northern Ireland, when 13 peaceful protesters were killed by British soldiers, but isn't explicitly about that day. Instead, the song's premise is one that would grow to be familiar to fans: It's an anti-war, anti-violence tune that calls on opposing sides to shed their differences (and weapons) and come together. "I realized that you can't be a passive pacifist, you must be an aggressive pacifist," Bono said in 1984. "I had to make a strong statement about what was happening, and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is that statement."
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" is far from treacly or preachy, however. It opens with a striking statement -- military march drums punched out by Mullen -- which then usher in the Edge's proud, arpeggiated guitars. More than anything, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" threw U2's passion into sharp relief, and when Bono sings, "How long must we sing this song?" it illustrates how the band members were even then wise beyond their years.
2. "One" [Achtung Baby, 1991]
For as much as Achtung Baby was a reinvention, it was also an album that found U2 refining its existing approach, and learning how to navigate (and overcome) the band's own internal musical and personal differences. Out of this work came the subdued "One," whose power lies in its openness and willingness to confront discord. Bono sounds downright chastened as he murmurs lines such as, "Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same?" and "You gave me nothing/Now it's all I got" above orchestral swells and the Edge's dimmed-lights guitar melody.
Like R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," the underlying meaning of "One" is often misunderstood. "One is not about oneness," Bono said in U2 By U2. "It's about difference. It's not the old hippie idea of 'Let's all live together.' It is a much more punk rock concept. It's anti-romantic: 'We are one but not the same. We get to carry each other.'" Still, "One" has come to represent the importance of building diverse communities and holding up one another: The Bono-associated ONE Campaign charity is named after the song, and royalties from the 1992 single were earmarked for AIDS research.
1. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" [The Joshua Tree, 1987]
Taken on the surface, U2's second Hot 100 No. 1, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," exemplifies the premise (and promise) of The Joshua Tree. The album's somber emotional grandeur comes from its inquisitive nature: Its characters ruminate on death, redemption, faith, and global strife -- and look to guidance from both higher powers and humanity itself -- but don't have any concrete answers.
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is restless. The protagonist has gone to great lengths to seek out solace -- whether from a romantic partner or spiritual figure -- but hasn't quite found the right salve. Accordingly, Bono sounds child-like and curious as he stretches into his upper register, willing to embrace whatever he finds. The instrumental music is equally open, with boomerang-like acoustic and electric guitars brushing up against each other (and shuffling percussion) to create tension. But as the song coasts to a conclusion on the strength of latticework harmonies, there's a sense of resignation, wistfulness and release -- that even though there isn't any resolution, that's perfectly fine.
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" celebrates the beauty of the unknown, the mysterious alchemy that makes music -- and U2 -- so great.