Written by on July 5, 2018

Between their massive world tours and philanthropic efforts, U2 have often kept their fans waiting many years for new music from them. That’s why it seemed so unusual for them to release Zooropa on July 5, 1993, a little more than a year and a half after delivering Achtung, Baby in November 1991.

Even more startling was the music. After the anthemic post-punk of their ’80s work and the moody introspection of its brilliant predecessor, Zooropa seemed to serve as a counter to the grunge of the day with electronic dance grooves, understated vocals and samples.

“I think we were still surfing on the wave of creative energy from Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV tour when we were making Zooropa.” the Edge said. “It was the same burst of inspiration. When we were working on Achtung Baby, we were looking to discover new sonic terrain – and on this record that was already established, so we were more confident of what we were doing.”

The idea for Zooropa came about during the Zoo TV tour, which saw them embrace irony, satire and self-deprecation (concepts not usually associated with U2) while taking aim at the sensory bombardment of the media. To sell the concept, Bono created characters like “The Fly” and, most famously, “Macphisto.” It inspired the band to the point where they wanted to explore them in their new songs, in addition to onstage.

During a break from the tour, they set up shop in Dublin with co-producers Brian Eno and Flood and composed the material in an untraditional manner. As they jammed in the studio, Eno pointed to a whiteboard that had chord changes and words like “hold,” “change,” “stop” and “change back,” with the band following his instructions, and they worked from there.

They had originally planned to release it as an EP to promote their European dates, but soon decided to flesh it out to a full-length. However, that leg started before Zooropa was completed so, on days off, they flew back to Dublin until the project was finished.

Listen to U2 Perform ‘Numb’


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The new direction they were taking was on display before Zooropa was released when the first single, “Numb,” arrived in June. One of the few U2 tracks that feature the Edge – who also received a production credit – on lead vocals, “Numb” is a hypnotic drone in which the Edge recites a litany of things not to do. “I feel numb / Too much is not enough,” Bono sings in a falsetto on the chorus, a vocal technique also employed on the follow-up, “Lemon.” It’s a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the early ’90s.

Gone were the political messages of hits like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” In their place were songs about obsession with celebrities (“Babyface”), advertising (“Zooropa”) and addiction (“Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”).

Although it topped the charts worldwide, Zooropa only sold two million copies in the U.S., fewer than any U2 LP since 1981’s October. To an audience weaned on Bono’s vocal histrionics, the slash-and-burn attack of the Adam Clayton-Larry Mullen, Jr. rhythm section and the Edge’s delayed riffs, the album felt like the work of an entirely different band. Achtung, Baby may have brought in ideas commonly found in industrial music, but its songs were still undeniably U2 underneath.

Listen to U2 and Johnny Cash Perform ‘The Wanderer’

The Wanderer

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Its excellent ballads, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” and “The First Time,” had the strongest connections to U2’s previous work. But so did the closer, “The Wanderer.” As they did the Rattle and Hum standout “When Loves Comes to Town,” U2 brought out another American music legend, Johnny Cash. The decision was a head-scratcher at the time, given how the country legend had fallen out of favor with the public. But within a year, Cash would release American Recordings and begin a career renaissance and re-evaluation of his catalog that would last until his death in 2003.

Many were turned off, especially when the succeeding Pop continued along those themes with diminishing returns. Still, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, now that such sounds are commonplace in indie rock. All That You Can’t Leave Behind found a way to successfully combine the ’80s U2 with the ’90s U2: Notice how the grooves of “Lemon” worked their way into “Elevation.”

Today, the transition they made with Zooropa now doesn’t seem as jarring. In that respect, Cash’s cameo on “The Wanderer” is a microcosm for the entire album.

Ranking Every U2 Album


Honorable Mention: Passengers, ‘Original Soundtracks 1’ (1995)

Passengers is the name for U2’s experimental side project with longtime producer Brian Eno, and it makes sense that U2 was hesitant to attach their name to ‘Original Soundtracks 1.’ While there are genuinely beautiful and captivating moments like “Your Blue Room” and “Miss Sarajevo,” most of the album is too far out in left field to stand side-by-side with the rest of U2’s catalog.


14. ‘Pop’ (1997)

If ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is U2’s easiest album to listen to, ‘Pop’ might be their most challenging, and the sales reflect that: ‘Pop’ debuted at No. 1 in 27 countries, but lifetime sales are among the band’s lowest. For an album named ‘Pop,’ it was anything but, at least in the traditional sense. As admirable as it was to continue their experiments with techno with pop melodies, it overall lacked inspiration in the songwriting. Still, it has a devoted following among many U2 fans.


13. ‘October’ (1981)

Between the post-punk rawness of their 1980 debut ‘Boy’ and their bombastic third album ‘War,’ it wouldn’t be unfair to consider ‘October’ somewhat of a sophomore slump. Like ‘The Unforgettable Fire,’ though, ‘October’ is an important stepping stone album: U2’s previous efforts thrived on pure energy, and this time around, they tried to expand their sonic palette – with mixed results. Tracks like “Gloria” and “Rejoice” are firecrackers, but many of the others come off as underdeveloped ‘Boy’ rejects.


12. ‘No Line on the Horizon’ (2009)

U2 talked a big game with their first release since 2004’s ‘How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,’ a well-rounded effort that spawned the iPod-boosted single “Vertigo.” Unfortunately, the self-indulgence is ripe here. Too-long numbers like “Moment of Surrender” and “Unknown Caller” could have benefited from being a couple minutes shorter, and much of the rest of the album falls flat in a similar way. There are definitely salvageable moments, though: “Breathe” is intriguing once you get over Bono’s jerky vocal rhythm, and “Get On Your Boots” didn’t get enough credit as being essentially a more adventurous “Vertigo.”


11. ‘Songs of Innocence’ (2014)

‘Songs of Innocence’ is what happens when U2 try to sound like U2, and that’s sometimes a bad thing and sometimes a good thing. It’s bad because it comes off as familiar, but it’s good because the band have, to a far lesser degree, captured some of the energy of their highest points. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” just screams ‘The Joshua Tree,’ while “Volcano” would have been at home on ‘War’ and “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” would have been a fine addition to ‘Zooropa.’ This makes for a few memorable moments, but ultimately, ‘Songs of Innocence’ is like a flashback episode of a show you kind of remember watching.


10. ‘Songs of Experience’ (2017)

After an already-laborious recording process, U2 had ‘Songs of Experience’ just about done in 2016. Then, Brexit happened and Donald Trump got elected president, and the band put it aside while they embarked on a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree.’ Then they put the finishing touches on it and sent it out into the world. That, in a nutshell is where its problems lie. While there are plenty of highlights — like “Love Is All We Have Left,” “13 [There Is a Light]” and “You’re the Best Thing About Me” — you can practically hear how they over-thought every detail, when they should have simply trusted their instincts.


9. ‘War’ (1983)

There’s a reason ‘War’ was U2’s first significant exposure to an American audience, with rock radio hits “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day.” Aside from the obvious singles, the rest of ‘War’ is well-rounded, a nice bounce-back from ‘October’ in that way with songs like “Seconds,” “Like A Song…” and “The Refugee.”


8. ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’ (2004)

The second album of U2’s post-Y2K commercial comeback continued on the success of ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ with another collection of radio-friendly, easy-to-understand songs. The non-singles were also strong, with “Miracle Drug” being like essence of U2 and “Love and Peace or Else,” which began its life during the ‘Pop’ era, is a captivating and slightly off-kilter appeal to peace.


7. ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ (1984)

The friendship between U2 and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois has been long and fruitful. And while this album is where it began, it’s clear that ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is where the two sides were just starting to feel each other out. “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love’) are live favorites and among the band’s best all-time songs, but for most of the other tracks, U2 try far too hard to establish the big, atmospheric sound that they perfected on their next album, ‘The Joshua Tree.’ This record may not be great, but in terms of importance to the band’s progression, it might be U2’s most essential album.


6. ‘Rattle and Hum’ (1988)

Ignore the somewhat superfulous and gimmicky live versions of their big hits, and you’re left with an extremely confident and diverse collection of new songs, from the Bo Diddley homage “Desire” to the epic “Hawkmoon 269” and the simply gorgeous “Angel of Harlem.”


5. ‘Boy’ (1980)

It’s easy to forget that U2 were once a baby-faced post-punk band trying to make a career for themselves. It almost feels weird calling U2 post-punk, a term usually reserved from ’70s and ’80s underground bands who don’t stray too far from the genre, or modern day post-punk revivalists like Interpol and Editors. U2 self-admittedly barely knew how to play their instruments at the time, but that didn’t stop them from crafting one of the more propulsive and consistent albums of the decade. Aside from the straightforward adrenaline blasts that populate the record, those who say U2 have never made a long rock epic missed out on “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart,” one eight-minute composition split across two tracks that shows the young band impressively experimenting with quiet-loud dynamics and beautiful crescendos.


4. ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ (2000)

The preceding album, 1997’s ‘Pop,’ was absolutely lost on the music-consuming public, despite how immersive and terrific it was. Regardless, U2 needed to appeal to a massive audience, and that’s exactly what ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ was. The radio singles like “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” were both universal and dense, while deeper cuts like “New York” showed that the band weren’t entirely ready to entirely ready to give up on the alternative energy that defined the previous decade for them. Through and through, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is probably the easiest U2 album to listen to, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be rewarding.


3. ‘Zooropa’ (1993)

Originally meant to be an EP to promote their Zoo TV tour, ‘Zooropa’ was eventually expanded to be a full LP. And although it was their worst record of the decade, that’s more a testament to the strength of ‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘Pop’ than the shortcomings here. While this album thrives because of experimental songs like “Lemon,” “Numb” and the title track, more traditional numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” “The First Time” and “The Wanderer,” the latter of which features Johnny Cash on vocals, are strong lighthouses for when things perhaps get a bit too weird.


2. ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987)

Is this U2’s most well-rounded album? No, of course not. In fact, the second half of it, apart from “Exit,” actually drags and drops off significantly in quality from its peaks –- probably because the tracklist was ordered from best-to-worst. But those peaks, though: Has there ever been a better four-track stretch to open an album? “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” are all legendary cuts that ascended U2 to their untouchable status, while “Bullet the Blue Sky” is an aggressive live favorite that is sadly overshadowed by the proceeding mega-hits.


1. ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)

During the tour supporting ‘Rattle and Hum,’ U2 convinced the world they had broken up. So imagine how insane the German electronic-influenced ‘Achtung Baby’ came across to the masses who last heard U2 basically shouting “I love you” to traditional American music. ‘Achtung Baby’ represents just about the biggest 180-degree turn a band has even undertaken between two albums. But despite playing almost an entirely different ball game, U2 still produced a near-perfect album that was challenging and accessible – attributes that are mutually exclusive more often than not, but that exist harmoniously here. Maybe it’s hyperbole to say this change was as monumental as Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but ‘Achtung Baby’ was undeniably a major turning point in mainstream rock music. Its influence is immeasurable.

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