Saturday, February 18, 2012

Top 50 Albums, #34 - "The Joshua Tree"

U2 is quite likely the most annoying great band in the history of rock and roll. And it's not entirely Bono's fault. There's no question in my mind that "The Joshua Tree" is their best album - a great album. And yet, for years the band seemed to regard the album as an albatross hanging around its neck, spending more than a decade doing everything it could to sound unlike the band that recorded it. On one occasion, that worked - "Achtung Baby" was very good. "Rattle and Hum" was OK. But "Zooropa" and "Pop," hailed by some as bold and adventurous, were really quite crappy. It was only when the band returned to its strengths in 2000 on the excellent "All That You Can't Leave Behind" that U2 once again sounded like U2.

And then, of course, there is Bono. Most of the time, it's hard to take the guy too seriously. One moment, he's hanging out with Frank Sinatra, in an apparent effort to establish himself as an avatar of cool. The next, he's doing good works (fanfare, please) in third world countries. But before you know it, there he is at the Republican Convention, having a chummy ol' chat with none other than Bill O'Reilly. After all these years, I really have no idea what the guy stands for.

There's a song on "Rattle and Hum" where Bono is engaging in a political monologue about something, and then suddenly he's openly baiting the audience, bellowing "Am I buggin' ya? Wouldn't want to BUG ya." First time I heard it, I laughed out loud, but not quite as loud as when I read the Village Voice review of "Achtung Baby," where the writer began his piece by stating, "Yeah, Bono - as a matter of fact, you're buggin' the living sh*t out of us."

So there you have it - U2 goes onto the dustbin of history, in the section devoted to bands who take themselves too seriously, and singers whose estimation of their own importance far exceeds their actual importance.

And yet, every time I hear the opening chords of "Where the Streets Have No Name," I'm reminded that U2 at its best is a band that can take you to levels that few bands have reached. It's an epic, sweeping song, and it sets the tone for an entire album that you could easily describe in those terms. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno create a magnificent soundscape for the songs, and the players - The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. - respond with their very best work. So what if Bono emotes a little bit too much on some tunes? Here, that kind of performance is justified, and it adds to the power of the overall work.

It's their most consistent album, and their best album - one that, for all the band's faults, deserves its place on this list.

The Joshua Tree (1987) Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno

Where the Streets Have No Name/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/With or Without You/Bullet the Blue Sky/Running to Stand Still/Red Hill Mining Town/In God's Country/Trip Through Your Wires/One Tree Hill/Exit/Mothers of the Disappeared

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