Retrospective From Pop Giants

Many of these songs are the best of that decade, not just from U2, but from anybody.

Though U2 may be more interesting these days as a media phenomenon --

what with their last two monster mega-tours and nearly-successful

musical experiments like Zooropa -- they made their most lasting music

in the first 10 years of their career, songs that will eventually enter

the Classic Rock pantheon with "Start Me Up," "Stairway to Heaven" and

"Sweet Jane." "Pride (in the name of love)" and "I Will Follow," to name

just two, are part of the pop vernacular, and deservedly so. U2 became

famous for massive riffs and overt, even zealous, passion. And for

keeping the essence of the riff while embracing more expressive

atmospheres, they managed to hold on to nearly all their fans while

sucking in more and more. By the 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, they

were unstoppable.

The Unstoppable period is covered very nearly in full by U2's first

greatest-hits compilation -- the first of three in a multimillion-dollar deal

with Island -- The Best of 1980-1990. Read the title universally: Many

of these songs are the best of that decade, not just from U2, but from

anybody. Lucky fans willing to shell out a few more bucks can probably

still get their hands on the special, collectors' edition of Best,

complete with an extra disc of B-sides, but it's the hits that will move

this album into Christmas-shoppers' bags. There have, no doubt, been legions

of fans made since Achtung Baby who've heard these songs but don't have

them; plenty of people who didn't feel like shelling out for three

albums just to have "New Year's Day," "With or Without You" and "I Will

Follow"; and, naturally, the rabid fan who'll just have to have the

reworked version of 1987's "Sweetest Thing."

The fun of a best-of album, at least for critics, is in the inevitable

guessing games they inspire -- why this sequence? why this dud? why not

this great track? Best of 1980-1990 has plenty of puzzles. Instead of a

chronological sequence, someone's obviously taken great care to put

together a real album with a dynamic flow. Starting off with the

double-whammy of "Pride" and "New Year's Day" and then easing into "With

or Without You," the record's designed to distract you from the

stylistic differences of the band's different periods. Remarkably, it

works: probably due to crafty re-mastering, the War track fits in

nicely

between the Unforgettable Fire song and the Joshua Tree tune;

obviously it's the same band, but compare the difference in sound to, say,

that of

David Bowie's "Suffragette City" and "Always Crashing in the Same Car," which

are the same distance apart in years as War and Joshua Tree.

It's not an indication of how little U2 grew, just that they were able to

maintain a

distinct flavor while changing their tactics. Not till Rattle and Hum

did songs begin to lose their U2ness.

Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing: How many delayed guitar lines can

you take after all? "Angel of Harlem" was almost a relief after

Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree -- but don't mistake a

novelty for a classic. Whoever put this album together did -- both "Angel"

and the

achingly wrongheaded B. B. King duet "When Love Comes to Town" made it onto

this collection. Why not "Trip Through Your Wires," the restrained side

of the completely deserved "Desire"? Though the latter made it onto the

disc, the former is nowhere to be found.

And why the short shrift to the early stuff? "I Will Follow" is the only

track from the first two records. No "Gloria," a song so anthemic they

had to sing "in excelsis deo"? Any song that gets a stadium full of

people to sing in Latin (Promise Keeper rallies notwithstanding)

deserves a spot on a best-of. They could have made room by jettisoning

the title-track to The Unforgettable Fire, which, with its synth washes

and string lines, sounds much more dated than even "Sunday Bloody

Sunday." Still, it's hard to argue with a band that's produced so

much lasting music. In the same decade, only R.E.M. gave U2 a run for

the money.

Best of 1980-1990 is that veritable treasure trove (with a few

pieces of costume jewelry thrown in for good measure) of pop. Now that U2

are taking more

liberties with their sound, the next best-of might not feel as solid as

this one. 1980-1990 is full of classic rock (as opposed to Classic

Rock)

-- music that will live for a long, long time. Preachy without being

overbearing, atmospheric but never ephemeral, riff-heavy yet rarely

cliched, U2 didn't really invent anything new, but they've been opening

eyes to the crafty, communicative powers of pop for nearly 20 years.

Here's to 20 more.