The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
This album still has some elements of the Irish period remaining, making it somewhat of a transitional album. Still, the bigger sound courtesy of the Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois production team and the heavily American-focused lyrical themes land this one more firmly in U2’s American period. The well-known “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Pride (in the Name of Love)” are stunningly good and “Bad” may be the best song of their career. Even more telling is that many of the lesser-known tracks like “Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky” are in nearly the same league. Even the tracks that can be viewed as filler (even though they are never as lackluster as what I’d call filler on most albums) play a vital role in making this U2’s most complete album to date without even a moment of weakness.
Wide Awake in America (1985)
The live version of “Bad” is not quite live enough to be essential, but “A Sort of Homecoming” is perhaps their best official live song. The two studio tracks are clearly not album tracks for U2, but they are certainly better than what most other bands would fill their albums with.
Joshua Tree (1987)
While the three singles that kick off the album are great songs (particularly “Where the Streets Have No Name”) and even the next song, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” is equally as compelling, the album falls into a bit of listlessness after that. “In God’s Country” is a memorable song further in, but the rest lacks the energy of their earlier releases. Don’t get me wrong, the album is still powerful and the songs don’t fall to the level of typical filler, it’s just that they don’t reach out and grab me and shake me. There is little question that Joshua Tree is great, but in my mind it remains their most overrated work. It is interesting that they would copy the Beatles’ “Get Back” performance for the “Where the Streets Have No Name” video. It may show how much their egos had swelled by this point, but the video’s wide acceptance is also an indicator that perhaps their heads had merely grown into their stature as the greatest rock band since the Fab Four.
Rattle and Hum (1988)
This one catches quite a bit of flack for a number of reasons. First, it’s an odd album, because it’s a mix of studio and live performances intermingled. Second, it’s a bit pretentious, especially when coupled with the movie. Third, some of the performances are just not up to the bar raised by U2 in all their previous work. While “Helter Skelter” might be the most well-intentioned cover of all time, it’s a dull performance. How is that possible with that song? Even Motley Crue did a good cover of it. Most of the other live stuff falls flat as well, albeit not so glaringly. While “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem” are both fine singles, bringing in BB King for “When Love Comes to Town” feels a bit forced. The non-U2 “Freedom for My People” might be a bit of a novelty, but I think it does a better job of uncovering what the band was really trying to get at than the BB King track does. One huge bonus is the presence of a live version of “Silver and Gold,” a Joshua Tree b-side that is simply amazing. There is some reason to take a few shots at Rattle and Hum, but the positives still outshine the negatives, leaving it one of U2’s most underrated albums.