Sunday, 17 February 2008

Top 100 Albums - #43: The Best of 1990-2000 (2002)

U2's penultimate entry is The Best of 1990-2000, a compilation which sums up the second full decade of the band's career, drawing on the albums Achtung Baby (1991), Zooropa (1993), Pop (1997) and All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000).After the shaky reception of the semi-live album Rattle And Hum (1988), and the resulting concert film, U2 announced at a concert on December 30, 1989 that they needed to go away for a while to "dream it all up again".¹ The following year saw the band nearly split as bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. favoured keeping the sound which had brought them success, Bono and The Edge wished to go into more experimental, electronic areas. A compromise was reached in the hands of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who helped to synthesise the two interests into a series of demoes which became 'One' and which led on to the band's comeback, Achtung Baby.

And it's at Achtung Baby that we start, appropriately. 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' has an ironic title, considering what has been said before, and it does carry the self-affacing swagger that the 1990s U2 represented. But, when you finally settle down from the changes and begin to dissect the sound, it's not that pleasant a place to be. The intro is a garbled mush of distorted guitars and synthesisers, the former of which feels weak throughout the track. And the lyrics may hint at ambiguity - is it about a woman? It is about the band? - but there's nothing for you to grab onto so as to find out.

'Mysterious Ways' is a damn sight better. Indeed, this would be a brilliant track but for one thing. If there's one thing that's wrong with compilations, it's where they go back and tinker with old lyrics. And really good lyrics at that. Just like 'Games Without Frontiers' was altered on Hit (2003, #72), here the second bridge to the chorus has been changed from She's the way, she turned the tide/ She sees the man inside the child to She's the way, she turned the tide/And amongst you she goes wild. It's always been quite an untelligentible passage, but you can't help feeling cheated if you spot it. Otherwise this is a much better effort. Not a brilliant one though.

Only now though can we start to get at the good stuff; the next two tracks are complete belters. 'Beautiful Day' is lifted from All That You Can't Leave Behind and it remains fresh every time you listen to it, even if you did have to put up with ITV using it as a footy theme (philistines). Bono's voice is more gravelly than on the previous tracks but that makes him easier to love and appreciate. This kicks off the third phase U2 by bringing back together all the right ingredients - brilliant lyrics; uplifting guitars; simple, powerful drums; and an uncomplicated bass line which chisels deep into your spine. It's an amazing song, even if it has been overplayed.

The other corker is something different. Very different. Because 'Electrical Storm' is a new song. Yes, it is a love song, and yes, when you first hear the pulsating keyboards and echoey vocals, you get images of middle age pop stars losing their minds. But if you have the faculties to perservere to the soft, heartfelt acoustic, then you are transported somewhere quite beautiful. It's very hard to put your finger on what is so good with this song; but whatever it is you like you find yourself drawn to it. Even the ending, which is edgier and darkier, works because the whole product is light enough for there to be something here from all concerned.

Now we come to the famous 'One', the song voted the best recorded of all time by Q Magazine² and the song with the greatest lyrics of all time by the British public.³ With a reputation, one would expect a music maverick to trash it, write it off as tosh. But actually no - it's not too bad. Sure, it's not the greatest song ever written, but the band play tightly, it builds nicely and the lyrics are notable - not least for their ambiguity. Unfortunately, the next song has one of its qualities. 'Miss Sarajevo' features both a wasted Pavarotti (perhaps in more ways than one) and Bono in 'save-the-world-in-what-I-say' mode. The music drawls along like a crippled snail on a harp while the inane lyrics tumble out, and when the opera section comes you just want to break the tenor's neck. It's off the forgotten album Original Soundtracks 1 (1995) - recorded under the pseudonym Passengers - and should definitely be avoided.

Sticking with the 1990s, we jump back a couple of years to 'Stay (Faraway! So Close!)'. Lifted from Zooropa, this is much more like it. The riff is pure pristine Edge, jangly, jaunty and high-pitched, set against Mullen's ominously simple drums. Bono half-snarls, half-sighs the lyrics, displaying despair and disgust in equal measures. The lyrics are more attractive because they are refreshing cryptic and indirect; it takes several listens for it all to make sense. But even before it all hits you and you stop dead like the ending, there are delightful segments to tease you; for instance, You're dressed up like a car crash/ The wheels are turning but you're upside down.

Back to tedium, sadly, and it's 21st century tedium. 'Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of' is the second single off ATYCLB and it's a big let-down, as second singles usually are. In the first place, the opening is very flat for a U2 song; with its metallic drumming, trapped hi-hat and very 80s piano dabs, it comes across as a bizarre cross between pop rock and lounge music. But even after you've overlooked that, Bono's lyrics are too weak to offer you anything to cling onto and eventually you lose interest completely.

The next two tracks are heaps better though. 'Gone' begins with an ominous strum or two before launching into the jagged whine of The Edge's guitar. This is actually closer to the sound of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) in Clayton's pounding bass lines which throb beneath Bono's workout. The lyrics are amazing - look at the second verse:

You wanted to get somewhere so badly
You kind of lose yourself along the way
You change your name, but that's okay, it's necessary
And what you leave behind you don't miss anyway

This is precisely what U2 should be giving us at this point in their career - we know what they sound like, but they are refining the content of that song. 'Until The End Of The World' is just as good, with its astonishing repeating riff. The opening might be offputting, but from thereon in it's a complete riot. It's one of the best songs off Achtung Baby, describing the relationship between Judas and Jesus in a way which manages to be both subtle and obvious in its message. U2 have always been trailblazers in the non-oblique, non-cheesy end of Christian rock, and this is a perfect showcase as to why.

As good as these two tracks are, and they are very, very good, they are no match for 'The Hands That Built America'. Recorded for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York (2002), it begins with some simple tender piano, the bedrock of all the greatest U2 songs since October (1981 - see my review, #87). Bono may have lots of echo to play with her, but by keeping the instrumentation simple (guitar, piano/keyboard and what sounds like a oyloxophone, all at isolated intervals) The Edge managed to reign him in, to stop him getting lost in the atmosphere. It's a hard task, considering the mood and depth of the song, so it's to his eternal credit, for all our sakes, that he does it. This may not feel like a typical U2 song, but it's a more than worthy candidate for inclusion here.

After all this Pavarotti-related glory, 'Discothèque' brings us back to the world of Pop and the dodgy side of U2. With its synth-heavy opening, this rapidly dovetails into U2-lite, a quirky combination of Eno's meddling and self-parody. Much like the Passengers album, this has a lot less substance; and the production cannot make up for this dearth because there is nothing genuine to grab hold of. No matter though, because 'Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me' is there purely to grab you by the scruff of the neck. Once again, there are brilliant lyrics - Dressing like your sister/ Living like a tart/ They don't know what you're doing/ Babe, it must be art - but here U2 succeed where before they failed in combining this with a more electronic feel. The result is a relentless masterpiece, a perfect film score piece which sounds like something off Zooropa.

Sadly, as it often the case with U2, no sooner have they produced something brilliant that they ruin it with something inane. 'Staring At The Sun' is from Pop and often nothing compelling whatsoever. The guitar sounds garbled, Bono's delivery is lazy, Clayton is unintelligible and where Mullen can be heard, he's boring. 'Numb', from Zooropa, suffers from a different problem. This was never the best track off the album, but this remixed version features both Bono's original, annoying falsetto and Clayton's stupid I feel numb, which clunks across the soundscape like a football fan trying to speak French.

'The First Time' is amazing. No more needs to be said. This was the best track on Zooropa when it came it and it's the best track here. The emotion which Bono pours in is incredible considering that most of the song is spoken. The beauty of this track is its simplicity, both of its message - the relationship between a lost son and his father, i.e. God - and it's execution. The Edge is on superb form with his downbeat licks, and the piano in the final third is absolutely ethereal. This is a sublime song, full stop.

It's a real shame, then, that we are forced to finish with something as inextricably awful as 'The Fly'. As shown from the new film U2-3D, this track really comes into its own live, but on record it's always been a massive disappointment. Bono can't make up his mind, oscillating widely from whisper to early-1990s falsetto, and the band seems completely lost. What a shame indeed.

U2 are like The Smiths in that their work seems to translate well onto compilations as well on the albums themselves. This is not so much because of the quality of the material so much as you are able to see the spread of both the good and bad in one place. And we get plenty of both here. There are plenty of gems, largely from Zooropa, and the compilers have generally chosen well; even if you have to put up with stuff from Pop, it doesn't take too long to get back on the good stuff. The Best of 1990-2000 is both a good record to dip into for the rarer stuff (like the soundtrack work) and a decent way to look back at the band in its most transitional period.

3.88 out of 5

¹ 'Rattle And Hum', Accessed on March 7 2008.
² 'Achtung Baby', Accessed on March 7 2008.
³ Paul Lewis, 'Britain's best-loved lyricist? Bono's the One', The Guardian, 18 April 2006 - available at,,1755768,00.html. Accessed on July 11 2007.

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