Friday, November 16, 2012

U2: If You're Going To Be The Best Of 1990-2000, They Should Be The Best! (My Next Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Some truly great tracks, Interesting remixes on bonus album, Generally good lyrics, vocals, music
The Bad: Moments of vast overproduction, Some lyrics
The Basics: When U2 released its highly-anticipated second two-disc "Best Of" album, it left some bewildered with the sheer number of remixes and new songs.

Despite what hard-core fans of any band might think, I think there is no shame in picking up "Best Of" or "Greatest Hits" albums. Sure, it may seem like those who do are just poseurs, but the truth is, collections of previously released singles are the best possible way to get the public face of a band, the familiar tracks that make a band big and well-known. Without the excess baggage - good or bad - "Best Of" albums afford listeners the chance to get what they know and like from a group all in one place. It's concentrated goodness when done well. One of my favorite "Best Of" albums was U2's The Best Of 1980 – 1989 limited edition two-disc album (reviewed here!). After years of hearing U2 songs on the radio, it was a great way for me to get everything I liked from them without anything I didn't, though the second disc added to my appreciation of the band. But when I heard that album, I began secretly getting excited about what I presumed would follow soon afterward (and it did), U2 - The Best Of 1990 - 2000!

As someone who was in high school in the '90s, this seemed like it might be one of the ideal albums for me. After all, it would have all the songs from Achtung Baby that were huge radio and video hits and, I presumed, it would have the songs I enjoyed from Zooropa, as well as the songs from their Grammy-winning All That You Can't Leave Behind. Well, the two-disc version of The Best Of 1990 - 2000 does have the two big songs from Achtung Baby, but it has remixes of several songs, like "Numb," and "Lemon" from Zooropa only appears at the end of the bonus disc in a remix form. Indeed, the album seems more interested in presenting alternate versions of its songs than the established and recognized versions. It is a little disappointing, on some tracks, like "Numb" because none of the remixes have the same resonance as the original.

As it stands, the limited edition of The Best Of 1990 – 2000 is a thirty-track, two and a half hour musical extravaganza spread over two discs. Despite what the title says, two tracks - "The Hands That Built America" and "Electrical Storm" fall outside the 2000 cutoff date. Even more odd is that the specific remixes used on the album put six of the sixteen tracks on the first disc outside the range with 2002 copyright dates. Only the original mix of "Electrical Storm" that appears on the second disc pushes that limit of those fourteen tracks. If you're going to have standards, the least you can do is live up to them!

U2 spent the '90's exploring the electric/pop/dance corners of pop-rock and they had several memorable singles, most notably their Top Ten songs "Mysterious Ways," "One," and "Discotheque." "Discotheque" appears once on each disc, but only as new mixes, so purist fans might well be disappointed. Interestingly, in the latter half of the decade, U2 went for a bigger, more operatic sound with some of their tracks, like "If God Will Send His Angels," "Miss Sarajevo" (which actually features Luciano Pavarotti) and "The Hands That Built America." Even the late tracks like "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" have an operatic, larger quality to them and it works quite well.

Despite the preponderance of new songs and alternate mixes (seventeen of the thirty tracks qualify), The Best Of 1990 - 2000 & B-Sides is a pretty solid collection of U2's music. U2 provided the source material for all but one of the songs; on the B-side album, they cover "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." Despite what one might think of the music - which I generally enjoy - the lyrics are often still deep and meaningful.

Take, for example, "One." "One" is possibly the greatest anthem of alienation to come out of pop-rock music in the '90's. It is the outsider's lament with beautiful and sad lines like "Well it's too late, tonight / To drag the past out into the light / . . . We're one, but we're not the same / We've hurt each other and we'll do it again" ("One"). The song is so incredibly presented with a starkness of Bono's voice overcoming the anthemic music because the priority with the song is clearly to have an effect on the listener and tap into their insecurities of alienation and fear and the track works masterfully as a result. It is U2's poetry that opens them to such accessibility.

Even when U2 goes repetitive, it still manages to say something. For example, the line "She wants it / Too much is not enough" is repeated well over a dozen times in the "Gimmie Some More Dignity" mix of "Numb." But the repetition works because it does what the instrumentals fail to do it numbs the listener. But that exemplifies one of the major problems with some of the remixes; they override the lyrics or the meaning of the lyrics with sound.

Indeed, The Best Of 1990 - 2000 & B-Sides seems obsessed with creating a strong sense of movement. Songs like "Numb" originally were able to create a sense of mood, in this case utter numbness using an electronica sound without being a simple dance track. Instead, U2 had a great idea on how to combine the lyrics and sound to compliment one another and show as well as tell and the effect was pretty incredible. The remixes of "Numb" might be dancable, but they are hardly evocative of the sensation of being numb.

Similarly, lacking the original mix of "If God Would Send His Angels," the "Best Of" collection misses out on something. The "Big Yam Mix" of the song employs pounding drum beats and synthesizers that drain the true sense of yearning and loneliness that the original track masterfully created. It's hard to see the appeal to dancing to a song that cries "It's the blind leading the blown / It's the stuff of country songs" ("If God Would Send His Angels") before pleading over the absence of god. In other words, some songs weren't meant to be dance club hits and it seems ridiculous that U2 seems to want so many of their songs to fit into that rather limited mold.

Bono illustrates some serious range over the course of the tracks on The Best Of 1990 - 2000 & B-Sides. He stays in his comfortable tenor range with songs like "One," "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and "Beautiful Day." But the nice thing about this collection is it illustrates Bono's (effective) willingness to stretch himself vocally. With the "Lemon (Jeep Mix)" on the second disc, Bono sings a virtual falsetto with his bandmates providing the more comfortable male ranges. And Bono goes lower than usual with his vocals on "The Hands That Built America." And either way he goes, he is articulate and easily listenable.

Bono's bandmates, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen provide great musical and vocal accompaniment. On songs like "Mysterious Ways," The Edge and Clayton illustrate their mastery of electric and bass guitars creating memorable riffs that are flawlessly executed. Mullen illustrates his ability to beat the drums with the best of them on tracks like the opening "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me." Unfortunately for all three, and any guitar work Bono did not the tracks, it's hard to convincingly talk about the instrumentals on many of the songs because they have been remixes.

So, for example, the album two closer, "Discotheque (Hexidecimal Mix)" has some amazing drum sounds to it. Is it Mullen or a drum machine? Usually, drums and basslines are what get altered in remixes, so the unfortunate by-product of many of the remixes may be to eliminate the hard work of Mullen and Clayton! This seems potentially cruel considering that U2 might well be the most stable band - as far as members - in the last thirty years (even R.E.M. lost a member!).

But for the most part, this quartet rocks and the collection of songs presented will illustrate that. Anyone who likes well-lyricked dance/pop will find something of value in this two-disc set. Fans of straight-out rock and roll may be a little more disappointed as this set does push the boundaries of U2 from a pretty solid and straightforward rock group into the pop/experimental realm.

And until U2 The Best Of 2001 – 2010 is released, it's a good set to prevent fans of the radio band U2 from wearing out their copies of the first "Best Of" compilation!

The best tracks are "One" (disc one) (though there are days I listen to "Staring At The Sun (New Mix)" on repeat) and "Your Blue Room" (disc two) and the weakest links are "Miss Sarajevo" (disc one) and "Salome (Zooromancer Remix)."

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, check out my reviews of:
Modern Times - Bob Dylan
Opiate (LP) – Tool
Accelerate - R.E.M.


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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