Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #1

#1: "One" by U2 (off of Achtung, Baby (1991)

The first album I ever owned was The Joshua Tree, on cassette tape.  I pulled out my CD collection the other day and realized I own ten U2 albums, which includes a couple of greatest hits collections.  That's partially a function of U2's enormous longevity, and partially a function of how much I like U2.  Even after the bad albums and weird marketing moves and Bono overexposure, I always come back to U2.  It's pretty much my musical first love.

Upon (extensive) reflection, I think Achtung, Baby is their best work.  The Joshua Tree (1987) begins with three songs ("Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I Am Looking For," and "With or Without You") that even non-U2 fans know and instantly recognize, and has a deeply underrated deep-cut ("In God's Country").  It is a tremendous album, and it made U2 immortals.

That was followed by the album and documentary/performance art piece Rattle and Hum (1988).  I own Rattle and Hum on DVD, and it is difficult to watch.  If you have never seen it, the notion is that U2 is making a movie expressing their love for America and American music culture, as well as providing a vehicle for their more philosophical reflections.  It is painfully, painfully earnest, to the point that you wonder at time if they are secretly making fun of America and/or philosophy and/or themselves.  It is basically the Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy," but by four Irish guys and lasting for 90 minutes.  It is a train wreck on every level.

But, and here I think we see the genius of U2, then they run off to Berlin in the aftermath of the fall of the Wall and completely reinvent their sound and musical approach.
 Achtung, Baby has dance-hall beats and industrial sounds, making feel very "European" in the same way that The Joshua Tree felt very "American."  The two albums after Achtung, Baby (Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997)) are similarly dance and electronic inspired, before the band changed gears again and went back to a more direct rock sound with All that You Can't Leave Behind (2000).  You have to give them this--for a band that has been around for four decades, it is amazing that they are willing to try new things and experiment, as opposed to just giving people more of the same and cashing in.  Not every experiment works, but the attempt should always be applauded.

The other notable thing about Achtung, Baby is how great the deep cuts are.  If you can get five songs off of an album that you don't want to skip over, you are doing pretty well.  For Achtung, Baby, the only track I will skip on occasion is the last one, "Love is Blindness."  All the rest are must listens, including "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," which is one of my favorite U2 songs, period.  I thought about going with that song for this post.  I also thought about "Mysterious Ways," which is not really a deep cut.  I love that one, as well.

In the end, though, the song that you always come back to on Achtung, Baby is "One."  To me, the measure of great song writing is that you can put together a small handful of words in order to capture a complex emotional state so well that the listener says "that's it!  that's exactly what that feels like!"  John Lennon was probably the greatest of all time at doing this--"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" has only 113 words in the entire song, and yet it perfectly captures the complicated and conflicted feelings stemming from the end of a relationship.

"One" is similar in many ways to "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."  What it captures, brilliantly, is the conflicted feelings generated by a bad relationship.  You love the person, and you despise the person, and you are disappointed in the person, and you are disappointed in yourself, and you still hold out hope that somehow this thing can be fixed.  "One" doesn't provide any answers to the problem it describes--it doesn't try to explain to you what you should do in this situation, because most attempts to talk people out of these situations are futile, anyway.  Instead, it let's you vent, and sometimes that's exactly what you need.

Some problems don't have solutions.  And some problems have solutions that you are not ready to accept just yet.  For those situations, "One" is the song that expresses what that feels like.  It's a masterpiece.


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