"Maybe that is the step forward on this record, to be able to have the freedom to have humour sitting alongside songs that are deadly earnest, and the two actually balance out each other."
-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind
U2 Lists: Top U2 B-Sides Eras
October 17, 2012
[Ed. note: This is the 43rd in a "U2 Lists" series, where @U2 staffers pick a topic and share their personal rankings on something U2-related.]
I'm a self-confessed U2aholic, one of those fans who genuinely likes everything the band does musically. Of course I prefer some tunes more than others, but I can say I don't hate anything they have done.
I have an addiction to the sounds these four guys produce when they play live and in the studio. I very rarely skip tracks -- that's a waste of my U2 time. If there is a track I'm less sure about, I work at it by listening to try to hear what made them include that song. In doing so, I thirst for more.
B-sides help quench that thirst. These songs also tell their own story. They define U2's development and the challenges they have faced. They highlight the band's move from blissful ignorance about themselves to self-imposed over-awareness while reflecting periods in time in which the music industry has changed. For some people, B-sides are irrelevant. But for me they are another insight into the band -- another opportunity to drink in their music and savor the flavor.
Many U2 fans recognize the four phases of U2 studio albums: Boy to War, The Unforgettable Fire to Rattle And Hum, Achtung Baby to Pop, and All That You Can't Leave Behind to No Line On The Horizon. With that in mind I've created a list of my four favorite "eras" of U2 B-sides. I didn't include material related to reissues due to volume, but also because I wanted to look at the moments in time as U2 were developing. Plus, I found it too hard to make a Top 10 list because there are so many great B-side songs to choose from! There's a thread on the forum if you want to engage in that discussion.
4. All That You Can't Leave Behind -- How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb -- No Line On The Horizon
"Video killed the Radio Star," declared The Buggles in the 1980s (yes, I'm showing my age), but the digital age of the "noughties" killed the B-side as we know it. Online music stores have hastened the demise of the need for a decent B-side as consumers purchase individual songs. U2 have followed that trend to a degree, offering only a smattering of original B-sides, cover songs and remixes. The beautiful "Ave Maria" ("Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own") stands out and suggests taking a listen rather than ruining the moment with attempts at platitudes. Check out "Summer Rain," "Always" (both from "Beautiful Day") and the Kraftwerk cover "Neon Lights" ("Vertigo") as decent songs that need a whirl every so often.
3. Boy -- October -- War
U2's formative years lean more toward learning and showcasing. We have the first remixes ("New Years Day"/"Two Hearts Beat As One") and the inclusion of live tracks. We also have a sign of times to come musically with "Endless Deep" ("Two Hearts beat As One" -- Adam's only solo U2 performance to date). "Party Girl" ("A Celebration") was born, and to this day still gets the odd outing live. My main shout-out here is to "Touch" ("11 O'Clock Tick Tock"). Recorded almost live, it includes the line, "I'm pleased to meet you, I don't think I'm very good at this." I've always wondered if that's what the band or Bono thought. If so, I'm glad they ignored it!
2. Achtung Baby -- Zooropa -- Pop
The most visually creative period for the band was for me a frustrating time for B-side releases. It also was the period of the U2 remixes. I don't understand the need to have six different mixes of the same song when it's the original that got me hooked. So, the number of tracks I relish in this period is far fewer than the number released. It's also frustrating bearing in mind the material that was released with the 20th anniversary editions of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. That said, "Lady With A Spinning Head" ("One") -- the song that made so many other songs -- is a stand-out moment. Another beautiful moment is Bono's duet with Frank Sinatra, "I've Got You Under my Skin" ("Stay"). Other more-than-notable mentions include "Holy Joe" ("Garage Mix") from "Discotheque," "Night and Day" ("Steel String Mix") from "One" and "Salome" from "Even Better Than The Real Thing."
1. The Unforgettable Fire -- The Joshua Tree -- Rattle And Hum
U2's golden age of B-side tracks is without doubt for me the era from The Unforgettable Fire to Rattle And Hum. It's a time when U2 learned a new approach to writing songs, heavily influenced by Eno and Lanois. It's also when they had their own personal and musical journeys. Songs like "Boomerang II" ("Pride") and "The Three Sunrises" ("The Unforgettable Fire") painted a new U2 landscape for me. "Walk To The Water" and "Luminous Times" ("With or Without You") and "Deep in the Heart" ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") still give me goose bumps -- the sounds, the lyrics and Bono's vocals are really something to behold (and have not yet been matched in my opinion). "Hallelujah Here She Comes" ("Desire") is a personal favorite (or is it just that iconic Larry single-sleeve cover?). That and "Room At The Heartbreak Hotel" ("Angel Of Harlem") are songs to end a glorious musical period. If you haven't visited these songs for a while (or indeed at all) check them out. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
(c) @U2/Irwin, 2012.