Top 10 Post-‘Achtung Baby’ U2 Songs
The multiplatinum Achtung Baby was quickly understood to be U2's second truly great album. This canny post-modern reinvention actually produced more Top 40 Billboard hits than The Joshua Tree. Their 1987 breakthrough album sold 10 million copies, but Achtung Baby sold a more-than-respectable 5 million albums after arriving on Nov. 18, 1991.
In many ways, they're not really comparable, considering how quickly U2 had evolved over less than half a decade. This wasn't the same band anymore, and they wouldn't be over the succeeding albums either. But Achtung Baby formed the second of U2's twin towers, skyscrapers to which everything else is compared.
Later songs might mimic the fizzy invention of the Achtung Baby era. Others sought to reanimate earlier sounds, either from their late-'80s Joshua Tree heyday or perhaps further back. But nothing ever escaped comparison. It's easy then to dismiss anything that followed their acknowledged peak, both commercially and creatively. But that doesn't mean there aren't gems to be uncovered, as our look back at the Top 10 Post-Achtung Baby U2 Songs shows.
10. "Some Days Are Better Than Others"
From: Zooropa (1993)
Writing about the difficulties of being a rock star while most certainly being an actual rock star isn't the best of ideas. (More on that later.) Worse, the smirking one-liners in "Some Days Are Better Than Others" couldn't possibly exceed Bono's brilliantly Lennon-esque turn on "The Fly." (There's only one that really hits home: "Some days have bouncers and won't let you in.") And then there's the Lou Reed-style talk-singing approach, which tends to rub some the wrong way. It's a lot to overcome. So how does "Some Days Are Better Than Other" slip past those low expectations anyway? Because of its musical ingenuity. Adam Clayton's bass is a thunderous delight, sinewy and full of bad intention. The Edge returns to the gorgeous echoing beauty of old on the mounting chorus and then unleashes a smeared, completely modern solo that takes "Some Days Are Better Than Others" to a new place. A place where Bono's silly lyrics just don't matter.
From: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
This 2000 album was celebrated for its return to solemnity, but "Elevation" showed U2 hadn't completely forgotten their '90s-era swerve into weirdness. Credit the Edge for indulging once more in the fizzy experimentalism that powered Achtung Baby and Zooropa, using a distortion pedal that warped his guitar sound in thrilling ways. The riff, which he completed in less than 10 inspired minutes of fooling around, provided a foundation for "Elevation." He kept fooling around, programming a drum machine that U2 then began playing alongside, with improvised vocals by Bono. ("As the orbit of your hips eclipse," he sings at one point, "you elevate my soul.") The song worked in the studio the same way it worked on All That You Can't Leave Behind: as a moment of loose, inventive fun among a series of songs with far weightier pretensions.
From: Pop (1997)
By now, U2 had taken their postmodern second iteration to its flashy zenith. All that was left to do was to question, as "Gone" does, the point of it all. But writing about being in a band while being, you know, in a band is an inherently dangerous path. These kind of songs are often charitably described as ungracious; at their worst, they're just completely out of touch. But "Gone" came from a genuine place, as their record company pushed U2 out the door for a monstrous tour before this album was really done. "Deadlines were looming ominously," Bono later told Rolling Stone. "Pop never had the chance to be properly finished. It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music." If only somebody in the front office had listened to "Gone."
7. "Song for Someone"
From Songs of Innocence (2014)
A thank-you note of sorts to Bono's wife, Ali, who, he revealed during in-concert introductions, had been so encouraging to him as a young songwriter. Their love endured through the tribulations of youth, and then the tribulations of trying to become a big star, and then the tribulations of everything that came after. "Before I even knew what commitment was," Bono told Rolling Stone in 2015, "I ended up as a young man in the arms of this young woman, in a world somewhat hostile to the concept of the childhood sweetheart and a first love." They were just getting started.
6. "Walk On"
From: From All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
This was the kind of unalloyed passion lost between Achtung Baby and Pop, as U2 spent more time thinking about irony and showmanship than the big issues of the day. Inspired by the plight of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, "Walk On" wore its heart on the same sleeve as every great heartfelt U2 anthem of the '80s. Like most Americans, Irishmen U2 had never heard of Suu Kyi, even though she'd already spent years as a political prisoner under house arrest. But then U2 and Suu Kyi were both scheduled to be given a civic award by the city of Dublin in March 2000, while the band was at work on From All That You Can't Leave Behind, but she was unable to attend. Only then did U2 learn about her courageous fight for free and fair elections on behalf of the citizens of modern-day Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed a decade later. She then served as prime minister from 2016 through 2021, when she was arrested again after a military coup.
5. "Electrical Storm"
From: The Best of 1990–2000 (2002)
So far, there are three different mixes of this 2002 song, which was one of two new tracks created to make old fans rebuy a bunch of things they already owned on The Best of 1990–2000. The album actually included the song's "William Orbit Mix," though a collection of B sides made room for the "Band Version." There was also a "Radio One Mix," which may or may not be the demo. From all of this confusion emerges one of the most underrated anthems U2 ever released after Achtung Baby. There's a post-9/11 feel to the song, as if the group was reaching for redemption after a scarring era. Orbit's mix connects the single back to their inventive early-'90s sound, while the "Band Version" plays it straighter – and suffers because of all that that implies.
4. "Red Flag Day"
From: Songs of Experience (2017)
U2 had already returned to their breakthrough sound with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Seventeen years later, "Red Flag Day" traveled further back, to before they began creating polished, stadium-ready anthems with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. This was a rawer, more real moment, recalling a time when they were a little punkier and a little more innocent. All that was missing was Bono's mullet. Time, unfortunately, had passed. Such was the power of this throwback song that he later had to cancel a concert in Berlin when he couldn't reach these vocal heights again. Ironically, a track found elsewhere on Songs of Experience titled "The Little Things That Give You Away" finds the protagonist asking his younger self for help.
3. "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own"
From: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
Bono explores the difficult relationship between son and father, a few years after his dad, Bob Hewson, died of cancer. He'd begun work on the song during sessions for All That You Can't Leave Behind, but the band couldn't push it past the finish line. Bono sang a solo version at the funeral, but the song remained a work in progress. That's when U2's go-to fixer Steve Lillywhite was finally brought in. As an outsider, he apparently could hear things they couldn't. The problem, Lillywhite immediately diagnosed, was that "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" lacked a chorus. "That song had been around for the best part of five years," the producer said in Niall Stokes' Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every Song, "and no one had ever said to them that it didn't have a chorus." Bono quickly solved that issue and then recorded his vocals in a single take.
2. "Stay Away (Faraway, So Close!)"
From: Zooropa (1993)
Not every song from this period was an aural overload of glam distortion and postmodern smirk. In fact, "Stay Away" – a song whose subtitle references its inclusion in the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' 1993 film Faraway, So Close! – was originally envisioned as a Frank Sinatra song. (Bono sang a flown-in duet with Ol' Blue Eyes on "I've Got You Under My Skin" for 1993's Duets.) So, maybe it doesn't fit in with the determinedly experimental Zooropa at all. Or maybe that's why it really does. Wenders' movie was about heavenly creatures who want to somehow become mortal, giving rise to one of Bono's best lines: "Just the bang and the clatter as an angel runs to ground." The results rightly earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1993 for Best Original Song but came up short to Bruce Springsteen's deeply emotional "Streets of Philadelphia."
1. "Beautiful Day"
From: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
It was fair to worry about a certain sameness with All That You Can't Leave Behind, which sought to reanimate an unreserved feel from decades before. But the differences are what made the predictably anthemic "Beautiful Day" resonate so completely. This song's fast-beating rhythmic foundation was as modern as can be, while Bono's voice occasionally betrays the ravages of age. There's also a certain grizzled wisdom among the ringing guitars, heart-filling choruses and that super-cool "day, daaaaay" harmony following the bridge: "You've been all over," Bono sings, "and it's been all over you." This isn't a notion that would have made sense on The Unforgettable Fire, no matter how cold it got in the ridiculous castle where they were recording. At the same time, there's no denying how light leaks out of every crack here. "Beautiful Day" isn't deep, but it's damned sure infectious.