U2 is one of my favorite bands, if not the favorite band. But I'd never listened to their complete studio discography. I got into their music the way (I think) most people do: heard some songs on the radio that I liked, got the Best Of album, then their most recent album, then started filling in the gaps. So their pre-How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb catalog was, too me, made up of the singles and that song on the Batman Forever soundtrack. But now I've listened to all of them, all the way through. Below is my ranking:
This album is just...awful. I assume they saw how well Achtung Baby was received and thought that pushing the experiments with noise and style further into weirdness would help things, but...no. There are a couple songs, one of which is notable for being bizarre in a cool way; and the other is Johnny Cash singing about a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Standout Songs: "The Wanderer," "Numb"
This one is so low because it's just kinda forgettable. Not a terrible album, but a couple days after listening to it, I can't really remember anything about it besides it sounds like it was recorded in a parking garage with the drums on a different level than the rest of the band. (And the two that followed it sound the same way.)
Standout Songs: "I Will Follow"
Apart from having a few more memorable songs than Boy does, War is also somewhat forgettable. It does, notably, mark the start of U2's lyrics taking a significant turn towards social commentary. And "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is my favorite of their songs. A bold choice, I know.
Standout Songs: "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," "Two Hearts Beat as One," "40"
Same story as War and Boy: not terrible, but don't care. This album is notable for being the last time The Edge was seen in public without a hat of some sort.
Standout Songs: "Gloria," "I Threw a Brick Through a Window," "Fire," "Stranger in a Strange Land"
8. Rattle & Hum
This is a weird album. For some reason The Edge sings an Irish folk-style song, there's a choir, BB King and Bob Dylan show up randomly, and there's a lot—a lot—of Bono ranting and saying nonsensical things. But it has some good songs on it.
Standout Songs: "Desire," "All Along the Watchtower," "When Love Comes to Town," "Bullet the Blue Sky" (Live), "Silver and Gold," "All I Want Is You"
The couple of times I tried to listen to this album in my younger years I hated it. I was not looking forward to it this time. Surprisingly, it's much better than I previously thought; I don't know if that's because I'm older or what. Like The Unforgettable Fire was, it's a stylistic transition album, from the Joshua Tree/Achtung, Baby sound into the current U2 sound.
Standout Songs: "Mofo," "If God Will Send His Angels," "Staring at the Sun," "Gone," "Please," "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," "Wake Up Dead Man"
6. All That You Can't Leave Behind
This album has a really strong 1st half, and an incredibly boring 2nd half. But I really like the U2 sound this album ushers in: big, textured, anthem rock. Fun fact!: this album was banned in Burma because "Walk On" is dedicated to Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
Standout Songs: "Beautiful Day," "Elevation," "All That You Can't Leave Behind," "Walk On," "Peace on Earth"
5. The Joshua Tree
I like most of the songs on this album; but they've all been played to death, which didn't help this one's ranking at all. If you look at it from sales and critical response viewpoint, this is in the band's top 3; but the thrill is gone for a lot of the songs.
Standout Songs: "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With or Without You," "Bullet the Blue Sky," "Trip Through Your Wires," "Exit," "Mothers of the Disappeared"
4. The Unforgettable Fire
I had never listened to this album at all, and was very pleasantly surprised after the forgettable, badly mixed first three albums. A huge part of my appreciation for U2 comes from how The Edge uses the guitar (with a bevy of effects) to create a sonic landscape; and that really started to be the band's signature sound with this album.
Standout Songs: "A Sort of Homecoming," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "4th of July," "Bad," "MLK"
3. No Line on the Horizon
I really, really didn't like this album when it first came, apart from a couple of songs. It's grown on me since then. (This will come up again.) It's another example of them experimenting with their sound, and it has some of their most poetic (if sometimes nonsensical) lyrics. The only time I've seen them live was the tour for this album, as well; they do an alternate version of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" that's far superior to the album version.
Standout Songs: "No Line on the Horizon," "Moment of Surrender," "Unknown Caller," "Get on Your Boots," "Stand Up Comedy," "Breathe," "Cedars of Lebanon"
2. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
This was the first U2 album I purchased, so it might get some undue credit for that. But I like almost all of the songs on this one, so I'll defend it. It's a record of big-sounding songs; most of them sound like they were written to be played in big stadiums. I like that aesthetic. And the lyrics of a couple hit me...right here.
Standout Songs: "Vertigo," "Miracle Drug," "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," "Love and Peace or Else," "City of Blinding Lights," "All Because of You," "A Man and a Woman," "Crumbs From Your Table," "Yahweh"
1. Achtung, Baby
Like No Line on the Horizon, I strongly disliked this album when I first (and second, and third, and...) heard it. I actually stopped listening to it for a long time. They released a remastered version for the 20th anniversary of the original release, and I gave it another shot, and really liked it. Since then my appreciation has only grown. Not only is it musically interesting, but the lyrics on many songs are incredibly personal and powerful. This is the U2 album, if you had to pick just one.
Standout Songs: "Even Better Then the Real Thing," "One," "Until the End of the World," "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," "So Cruel," "The Fly," "Mysterious Ways," "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," and "Love is Blindness."
Also worth checking out is the sort-of companion album AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered, which was released in 2011; it's a collection of various artists covering the whole album, start to finish. Notable on that are Jack White's cover of "Love is Blindness," Damien Rice's cover of "One," and The Killers' cover of "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)."