1987 Album of the Year

The Joshua Tree by U2

1987 Album of the Year

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The Joshua Tree by U2The Joshua Tree was the long-awaited fifth studio album by U2, released in the spring of 1987. Although not a true “concept” album, it was uniformly inspired by the United States and the geography, literature, and politics and the nation the band so often toured in the early part of their career. U2 released four studio albums in the relatively short period of 1980-1984, culminating with The Unforgettable Fire, their widespread commercial breakthrough. They began writing new material in mid-1985 and began recording in Ireland at the start of 1986. However, this fifth album took a long time to formulate and produce, building much anticipation among fans.

The Joshua Tree was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who both worked with the band on the band on The Unforgettable Fire and whose goal was a harder rocking sound for the band while still exploring unconventional song structures. Throughout the 1986 sessions, U2 strove for a “cinematic” quality for the record, embedding American scenery as a backdrop to the soaring sound scapes and lyrics. Many of those lyrics were influenced by American writers that lead vocalist Bono had been reading at the time. Musically, although all the group members had different ideas on how to approach this album, they all agreed that they felt disconnected from the dominant synth pop and other musical trends of the time. Most of the recording was done in a Georgian house, with the dining room and drawing room used for recording and performing.

After completing the album, Bono said he thought that The Joshua Tree was their most complete record since their first. This opinion was born out with its commercial and critical success as the album became the fastest-selling album in British history to date, selling over a quarter million copies in two days. It reached number one within two weeks of release and spent over three years on the album charts. The Joshua Tree topped the albums charts in 20 total countries. Ultimately, the album sold over 25 million copies worldwide and topped several publication’s lists of album of the year for 1987 including, of course, our’s.


The Joshua Tree by U2
Released: March 9, 1987 (Island)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno
Recorded: Various Studios, Ireland, January 1986–January 1987
Side One Side Two
Where the Streets Have No Name
Still Haven’t Found What 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
Band Musicians
Bono – Lead Vocals, Harmonica
The Edge – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr. – Drums

The album starts out with a great, nearly two minute, anticipation building intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name”, a top twenty hit worldwide. The intro provides a smooth synth pad rise that gives way to the hyper arpeggio riff by guitarist The Edge, who joined by an equally intense rhythm section throughout the song. Due to its multiple time signature shifts, Lanois called this “the science project song”, while Eno estimated that half of the album sessions were spent trying to record a suitable version of the song. Bono wrote the lyrics while on a visit to Ethiopia, which at the time was devastated by famine.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” originated from a rhythm pattern by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. with lyrics influenced by American gospel music. Nominated for Song of the Year, a the 1988 Grammy Awards, its lyrics describe spiritual yearning, accented by Bono’s vocal soul desperation and accompanied by The Edge’s guitar chime riff. The song’s title was influenced by Bob Dylan’s line from the song “Idiot Wind”; “You’ll find out when you reach the top you’re on the bottom…”, suggesting the recurrence of life and the infinite quest for happiness.

“With or Without You” was the band’s first single release and one of the oldest compositions on the album, dating back to 1985. Bassist Adam Clayton provided a pulsating bass line as a canvas to slowly developing, ambient guitar notes and dynamic vocals. The song was originally rejected by the band and producers but Bono reworked an arrangement with friend Gavin Friday and gave the song a second life. The lyrics address marriage from the perspective of a popular musician and the contrast between life on the road and domestic life. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is an equally simple song but with an entirely different, intense approach. Written about American involvement in the El Salvador Civil War of the 1980s, with aggressive and growly vocals and an intense rhythm. Latin America was also the subject of the album’s closing song “Mothers of the Disappeared”, written about the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo”, a group of women whose children had been “disappeared” under various dictatorships.

Some of the lesser known songs on the album explore various sub-genres of American music. “Running to Stand Still” is influenced by acoustic blues with a lyric that looks back at the band’s native Dublin, Ireland. “Red Hill Mining Town” is a blue-collar folk song, directly influenced by Bob Dylan, who Bono met for the first time in 1984. “Trip Through Your Wires” contains a definite nod towards blue-eyed soul, while “Exit” captured the band in a live studio jam with lyrics influenced by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.

The western desert was greatly symbolic on The Joshua Tree (which itself is a national monument in the Mohave Desert) and “In God’s Country” puts that image to music beautifully. It was the band’s most overt attempt at a contemporary rock song on the album while still containing some trademark guitar licks and rhythms. The up-tempo song was difficult to records musically and early versions of the song were written about Ireland before the shift was made to America.

“One Tree Hill” was the fifth and final overall single from the album and was written in dedication to the band’s former roadie Greg Carroll, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin in 1986. Following the funeral in New Zealand, Bono wrote the lyrics to “One Tree Hill”, which he dedicated to Carroll. This song has been described it as “a soft, haunting benediction” and describes a volcano near Auckland, New Zealand, where Carroll was a native and where the band first worked with him in 1984.

U2 in 1987

U2 has had a long and storied career which continues into its fourth decade. The Joshua Tree has been the apex of this long career and has held up excellently a quarter century later. In our 15 reviews of 1987 albums, re elected 25 years later, we’ve featured several that marked an artist’s commercial and creative peak. However, unlike any of those others, U2 has persevered over the subsequent decades and continued to release quality and relevant material right up through the present day.

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1987 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1987 albums.

 

Achtung Baby by U2

Achtung Baby by U2

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Achtung Baby by U2“The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” This is how lead singer and lyricist Bono described the radical new approach that the established and successful band U2 took when putting together their 1991 album Achtung Baby. The album was produced following the group’s first extended break from touring and recording and it marked a distinct milestone in the evolution of U2’s sound.

This was the first full studio album since the blockbuster The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Bono felt that they were creatively unprepared for the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree, which resulted in the critically panned soundtrack album Rattle and Hum in 1988. In October 1990, the group headed to Berlin to start work on this new album. On the eve of German reunification the band felt that recording there would be uplifting and inspiring. Instead, they found the vibe to be depressing (the studio was located in a former SS ballroom). Further, there was division growing within the band itself over the musical direction. Bono and lead guitarist The Edge were becoming influenced by recent fads such as the Madchester scene in England and the industrial rock movement in America. However, these dance-oriented beats and rhythms did not sit well with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, who felt their roles were being diminished within the band. The fact that Bono and The Edge were also writing the material in more isolation did not help matters.

The band was actually close to breaking up in Germany as ideas stagnated and disagreements escalated. But they were all brought back together by the nearly totally improvised “One”, where each member contributed on the spot to this excellent new composition. The band returned home to Dublin for Christmas 1990 where they all recommitted to a future with U2. The bulk of the rest of the album would be recorded in Dublin starting in February 1991.

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Achtung Baby by U2
Released: November 19, 1991 (Island)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno
Recorded: Hansa Ton Studios, Berlin, STS & Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, October 1990 – September 1991
Track Listing Band Musicians
Zoo Station
Even Better Than the Real Thing
One
Until the End of the World
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
So Cruel
The Fly
Mysterious Ways
Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Acrobat
Love Is Blindness
Bono – Lead Vocals, Guitar
The Edge – Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullin, Jr. – Drums & Percussion

Achtung Baby by U2

The album’s title, “Achtung Baby”, is German for “Attention, baby!” or “Watch out, baby!”, and it was adopted by sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy during recording in the early Berlin sessions. Later in the process, the band decided on this as the title over more “serious sounding” titles that they were considering. The album was co-produced by Daniel Lanois, who was hands-on from start to finish and Brian Eno, who would work on the project intensely for several days straight and then take three or four weeks off in order to be able to come back and listen with “fresh ears”.

Upon listening to the album, the first thing you’re struck by is the sound – steady, almost techno beats, processed vocals, and very judicious use of the band’s previous biggest asset, The Edge’s signature riffs. For this album, the inventive guitarist used many different techniques and processing, most with stellar success, some with less.

Some of the most inventive guitars appear on the songs “Zoo Station”, “Love Is Blindness”, and the first hit from the album “Mysterious Ways”, which introduced the pop world to the “new U2”. Other songs used various inovative techniques as well. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” starts with wild synths and then uses doubled up, octave vocals. “So Cruel” uses a simple piano riff with a modern dance beat. “The Fly” experiments with alternate personalities of Bono, each portrayed by distinctive vocals built by cadence and effect. While the music fluctuates between alternative and R&B. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” starts as a piece of doomy, space age, psychedelia then morphs into a decent pop song that really hits a sweet note during the bridge with the high-pitched Bono vocals.

Other song highlights include the cleaver and inventive “Until the End of the World”, which portrays an imagined conversation between Jesus Christ and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, while moving towards the traditional U2 sound musically. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” contains a calm R&B beat with just enough musical decor to make it really moody under the somber vocals.

The true great from this album, on a level with anything U2 has done before or since is “One” . This is a gem that really deviates from much of the rest of the album. It starts with a traditionally strummed acoustic guitar coupled with a nice, overdubbed electric riff and then kicks in with perfect rhythm accompaniment. Calm vocals become more agitated as the verses proceed until we reach a climatic banshee scream at the close. Further, this is the song that really saved the album and possibly the band. As The Edge recalls;

“At the instant we were recording it, I got a very strong sense of its power. We were all playing together in the big recording room, a huge, eerie ballroom full of ghosts of the war, and everything fell into place. It was a reassuring moment, when everyone finally went, ‘oh great, this album has started.’ It’s the reason you’re in a band…”

As the release date drew near, rumors of U2’s new direction leaked out and certain critics and members of the press began to preemptively trash the new album on hearsay alone. On the eve of Achtung Baby’s release in November 1991, U2 was more unsure and less confident than they had been for any previous work. However, once the actual music was heard, the reception nearly all positive by critics and fans alike, with Achtung Baby topping most “album of the year” polls and winning a Grammy.

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1991 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.