I do think the latest has the potential to be in the top 5, but no higher than 4 under any circumstances. Of course, "I was putting in the numbers in the ATM machine" on Moment of Surrender is not their lyrical highpoint as a band.
However, today I will give you my list of the best albums U2 has provided, pre-NLOTH. Since the album is new, It cannot be properly judged yet. Achtung Baby took some potshots upon release and is now seen as their APEX while the last 2 albums are moving down many people's lists upon further review. So, I will not be a dreaded Immediaista (my own word for people that must be the first to review something and thereby miss nuance).
Before giving my top U2 albums, I will give some credentials. My first U2 experience was in 1983 at the age of 15 at a friend's house watching the video for New Year's Day on Mtv. I was hooked and bought War the next day (I discovered U2 after REM). Since that day, I have bought each U2 album on its day of release. I own most U2 albums on CD and vinyl.
I have seen U2 in 3 states over the course of 3 decades beginning with the Joshua Tree tour in Tampa Stadium and ending with the Elevation Tour (Boston stop) documented on DVD. I own many U2 books and consider them the second best band ever (below The Beatles and above the Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, the Who and The Clash). They are my all-time favorite band, even though I would rather listen to Radiohead on a daily basis. I have even contemplated writing a book with the band as the major subject (before realizing it had been overdone and I have no discipline- even if no one has written my book yet).
So, you get it. I like U2. I don't genuflect before the image of Bono. He can get on my nerves and I think what makes him the great singer and world influencer also makes him a pompous ass. So, I love them like a family member loves their brother thinking the world of him/ them while wanting to punch them every once in a while. That said, here is my list.
16. Original Soundtracks 1 (Passengers) with Brian Eno (fans only got it because we were desperate for something in the dry years between Zooropa and Pop. There is one good song on it).
15. U218 Singles (only here because it has 2 new songs, both of which are quite solid. The other compilations- not included on this list, are much better.)
14. Wide Awake in America (too short and not as great as their other live albums, this is on the list for 12 minutes of absolute splendor, the live version of Bad along with A Sort of Homecoming. The version is Bad is among the best live recordings ever put to tape.)
13. Pop (cool people like to cite it as underrated and misunderstood. I will go with misunderestimated, like our previous president. I appreciate the effort and some of the execution, but this is their weakest album, even if it is better in retrospect.)
12. October (suffers because it sits between the promise of Boy and the realization of War, it is a nice album with a couple of lofty moments.)
11. The Million Dollar Hotel Soundtrack (how could this uneven soundtrack to a mediocre film with only a few U2 songs get so high on the list? It was a return to form after Pop and contained some excellent tunes, highlighted by what competes with One for the mantle of best U2 song ever,the rapturous The Ground Beneath Her Feet.)
10. Under a Blood Red Sky (If I had fallen for U2 on War, this live effort sealed the deal. I was hooked after seeing and hearing this. It was my first concert VHS and album. It is among the best live albums ever made. The version of Sunday, Bloody Sunday from this album is better than the original.)
9. Boy (discovering it after War and Under a Blood Red Sky, it suffers from hearing where they now were. I have had to return to this album as an adult to fully appreciate the potential for greatness exhibited in a such rawness.)
8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (why is this album so low? Because the other albums are even better. This is a great album that would be the highlight of a normal great band. It includes a top 5 single, Crumbs From Your Table and is more fun musically than previous albums, even though it is not as good as I initially though it was.)
7. Rattle and Hum (people like to take potshots at this album due to the grandiose, portentous, inflated, bombastic self importance of this effort. All of which is true, but misses the point. Leave behind the ridiculousness of some of the live recordings- Bullet the Blue Sky is the worst offender- U2 has elevated the game to new heights on songs of such breathtaking beauty as Hawkmoon 269 and the transcendent All I Want is You, #3 the U2 song of all time.)
6. Zooropa (this high for 1 reason. They brought Johnny Cash back from the dead before Rick Rubin did on The Wanderer, the coolest thing Cash ever recorded. Oh yeah, this album gets better with each listen. BTW, I did not like it when it was released. If it had included Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me as it was supposed to, it would be #4.)
5. War (I have a hard time placing this album. It is my first love and the epitome of my 3rd album theory- great bands give us great albums on #3. Should it be higher than ATYCLB? I don't know. It brings back great memories of driving fast with stereo blasting and discussing with friends why U2 is "Christian" based upon a single lyric in Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Those were the days. I am placing it lower because I have feeling it is not as good as I think it is.) Bono had just turned 22 when they started this album
4. All That You Can't Leave Behind (talk about returning from the wilderness. I believe this album moved U2 from merely great, all time top 10 or 20 band to Top 3 band. This album is the completion of their catalog and everything else is gravy. While not in the league of AB or JT, it is a truly great album of such spiritual depth, one that "Christian artists" will never reach while tethered to the church machine. Yes, the events of 9/11 changed the game for this album, just as 1968 did for a few albums of that generation.)
3. The Unforgettable Fire (I actually like this album better than Acthung Baby. But, I realize it is not as good. I will admit that I use this album as a plumb line to decide what kind of U2 fan a person is. It is my rock snob U2 album. I can argue it as their best, but know it is not. However, it is the most consistent album of the catalog, not a weak moment. But it does not reach the heights of #1 and #2. I remember the moment I picked up the preorded cassette at our local K-Mart. I had just gotten my first car and it was the soundtrack of my junior year of high school, but only mine in my high school.) BTW- Bono was 23 when they started this album.
2. Achtung Baby (I would not argue with anyone putting this at #1. Actually I would, but just to see how strong they are in their justification. There is a reason it is considered a classic. It just is. It changed everything. Never has a bigger band not called The Beatles so radically changed from one album to the next. Never has a band taken such a risk with so much to lose. It threw everyone for a loop. We fought and debated and realized the greatness, even though I HATE a couple of songs on this album. One is their greatest triumph and Until the End of the World is a top 10er. This has more great songs than any other U2 album, besides...).
1. The Joshua Tree (nothing will compare to my emotion when I first heard With or Without You on the radio in Melbourne, FL or bought the LP at Hyde & Zekes across the street from UF. It is the best album of my musical lifetime. I consider this album life and faith altering. For the first time I heard someone from a Christian point of view voice my struggles and desires. CCM was not allowed to do this. My year was consumed by this album and the 77s self titled release, the other album of breathtaking honesty and emotion of my early Christian life. This album and the concert at Tampa stadium in December are among the most spiritually significant moments of my life.) Bono was 25 when they began recording this.