The best U2 songs of all time

We took on the daunting task of ranking the best U2 songs from the band’s storied history
U2 plays two shows at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Photograph: Anton Corbijn
By Bill Smyth |
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Where do we start with ranking the best U2 songs of all time? Let’s begin on Saturday, July 13, 1985. U2 took the stage at London's Wembley Stadium for Live Aid, the multi-city concert for famine relief in Africa that would feature the music industry’s greatest acts and biggest names. The band would play two songs in just under 20 minutes. Today Live Aid is mostly remembered for being one of Freddie Mercury’s last—and arguably most memorable—live performances with Queen before his death in 1991. But it was U2’s blistering, politically charged set—complete with Bono venturing into the crowd during the 12-minute rendition of “Bad”—that would catapult the band to international stardom and crown them the world’s most important rock band.”

In April, 1985, just a few months before that legendary Live Aid performance, U2 played its first show at NYC's Madison Square Garden. Three decades later, the band has racked up 30 concerts at the venue. In celebration of that milestone, we present the best U2 songs of all time: 33 in total, one for every year since the band first stepped onto the Garden stage. This playlist includes tracks that rock hard, open wounds, lift you up and bring you crashing to the ground—that place between pop songs and classic rock songs and just-plain-awesome ’80s songs. These tunes chart U2’s ever-changing, ever-evolving sound that mirrors the band's evolution from blue-collar dreamers to rock superstars.

Listen to the Best U2 Songs

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Best U2 Songs of All Time

1

“Where the Streets Have No Name” The Joshua Tree, 1987

“I want to run, I want to hide / I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.” With its tortuously slow buildup, this song soon soars, epitomizing the full spirit of U2. Inspired by the idea of breaking down social barriers with a yearning for worldwide equality, it is the potential in the lyrics of what could be that give it a heft under its wings.

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2

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” War, 1983

The sharp snare drum is so intense you can almost smell the gun smoke. Without a doubt the band’s most political post-punk anthem, the song was the band’s response to the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when the British Army shot and killed 14 unarmed civilian protesters in the Northern Irish town of Derry. The song is an angst-ridden, take-to-the-streets howl with one core message: No more war.

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3

“Running to Stand Still” The Joshua Tree, 1987

A twangy guitar plucked in the intro leads you through a couple’s tale of heroin addiction, as they search for a score in 1980s Dublin. “Suffer the needle chill / She’s running to stand still.” The song’s ebb and flow is crafted perfectly between Larry Mullen Jr.’s drum beat and Bono’s soft-spoken vocals that bring it to an uneasy, listless calm.

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4

“New Year’s Day” War, 1983

Cold and ashen with the Edge’s icy piano lead, this War track combats bleakness with a hope for rebirth (“I will begin again”). Adam Clayton’s bass line ties it all together for a wintery track lyrically inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement of the early ’80s, but applicable to any challenge that requires rising above.

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5

“Mysterious Ways” Achtung Baby, 1991

U2’s sound took a turn in the ’90s as the band brought in electronic music and industrial pop influences. Basically, they brought the funk. With its themes of love and romance, “Mysterious Ways” could be considered a dance track with its heavy bass and rhythmic percussion. Add in the Edge’s tricked-out guitar riffs, there’s no denying the song has major sex appeal.

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6

“Walk On” All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000

After the band’s musical experimentation in the ’90s, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was not only a throwback to the band’s early roots, but a therapeutic soundtrack in the wake of 9/11. The triumphant comeback album’s songs served as anthems for peace and tried to make sense of our new reality. None of those tunes resonated more than “Walk On,” which centers on shedding baggage. “And I know it aches / And your heart it breaks / And you can only take so much / Walk on.” If the album was said to be about acknowledging the band's past, it was the timing of its release that gave us such comfort for the future.

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7
U2
Photograph: Courtesy Anton Corbijn

“Red Hill Mining Town” The Joshua Tree, 1987

Written about the families affected by the mineworkers’ strike in 1984 when the British government closed a number of UK coal mines, this song honed in on blue collar hardships after the bottom line wins. The beauty is in the buildup to the chorus throughout the tune, as it lulls along and picks up ever-so-slightly to culminate in a bellow rooted in suffering. “I’m hanging on / You're all that's left to hold on to / I'm still waiting.”

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8

“Gloria” October, 1981

Steeped in the band’s Catholic and Protestant backgrounds—which also happens to include a Latin chorus (Gloria in te domine / Gloria exultate)—“Gloria” has a fast tempo and aggressive guitar work that picks you apart. The end is delivered like a sermon high on the mountaintop, giving us a front row pew to some of the band’s best early work.

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9

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” The Unforgettable Fire, 1984

“Early morning, April 4 / Shots ring out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride.” Just as important today as it was when it was released in 1984, “Pride” tackles civil rights and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The band pairs that message with a thundering bassline, an instantly recognizable intro and Edge’s pointed, frantic guitar—and the result is arguably one of its biggest hits.

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10

“Bad” The Unforgettable Fire, 1984

Led by Edge’s chimey guitar and an organ riff that repeats throughout the song, “Bad” hits its stride via Mullen’s drum work, which results in a rousing finale as Bono hits the song’s high point: “I'm wide awake, I'm wide awake / Wide awake / I'm not sleeping / Oh, no, no, no.”

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