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December 2002 Pick of the Month

The Best of 1990 ­ 2000
Artist: U2 
Label: Interscope Records 
Length: 16 tracks

Well, if Bono has said that in the 80s U2 sang about what they believed in and the 90s about what they didn’t believe in, welcome to "The Best of What They Didn’t Believe In!" And yet of course the 90s was not without belief but this concentrated little retrospective does come up as a pretty dark perspective. We have "Mysterious Ways," "Miss Sarajevo," "Numb," "Until the End of the World," and "The Fly." The latter two are the linchpins of the thesis. "The Fly" began the decade chronologically all crunching and crackling, distorted and disturbed with stars falling from the sky and a new world of turmoil being unveiled. It was a harsh wake up call. Until "The End of the World" that was the place between the fall and redemption that U2 exposed so powerfully through the decade.

It was no less valid an exercise to expose the darkness as opposed to trying to shine some light. Zoo TV and Zooropa was just as true in its revelations about the confusion that the post modern media bombards us with as "Gloria" was true in its worship of God. Under the gimmickry of the world’s largest lemon and that golden arch the Pop Mart tour was the truth about of emptiness in the advertising, packaging, and product of a world that has replaced Cathedrals with Shopping Malls. If those who believed the message of the 80s and were suddenly feeling betrayed by U2’s darker 90s side, it was the listening not the performing that was weighed in the balances and found wanting. This was just prophetic if not more so.

How well they exposed our modern malaise, is of course the debate raging around this compilation. Back on top of the world after the Elevation tour, critics have been quick to see this as a reflection, confession, and reassessment of the band’s last 10 years. Certainly, the new mixes of the Pop tracks would be seen as a revision of their 1997 sound, bringing the guitar further forward and a good deal more like…well U2! Yet in all the seeking of forgiveness that their admission of shortcomings brings, it has to be remembered that this compilation is topped and tailed by two of their three best albums, Achtung Baby and All that You Can’t Leave Behind.

The track listing takes off at a blistering speed of hits with "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "Mysterious Ways," and "Beautiful Day." It is radio friendly U2. That the "Fly" seems to be only an added bonus track in Europe and thus sequenced at the end of a history that it began is more than a bizarre decision. So too the exclusion of "Mofo" which was the powerful scene setter from the aforementioned Pop Mart tour with its “Looking for the baby Jesus underneath the trash?” It seems more likely that these tracks are carefully chosen, remixed, and numbered to exploit their selling power rather than as a historical development of the band.

Like The Best of Things We Believe In (The Best of 1980-1990) there is a limited edition free B-sides CD but sadly it is not so interesting a document as its predecessor. Yes, it gives a better place of belonging to "Lady With The Spinning Head" and "Dirty Day." "North and South of the River" is a stunning co-write with Ireland’s folk king Christy Moore and a profound look at the Irish troubles. But where are "Two Shots of Happy," "One Shot of Sad," or "Slow Dancing." The covers "Paint It Black" and "Fortunate Son" are no classic but are better than remixes. "Satellite of Love," "Always," and "Night And Day" should have been essential. Did we really need five mixes of songs on the other disc when for many more recent fans these old throwaways would have given more reason to buy?

Unlike The Best Of The Things We Believe In (The Best of 1980-1990) we get new songs on this collection, "Electrical Storm" which is a little enigmatic in “is it great or not” kind of confusion that saw it reach openly number five (fair result) and the much more interesting though surely never a single "The Hands That Built America" which will see its fulfillment in the Scorcese movie Gangs of New York. It is a beautiful flipside to New York on "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," stealing its theme from Ireland’s first trad/rock outfit Horslips and linking Bono’s homes in Killiney and Manhatten with a whole dose of Irish American history from the former’s famine to the latter’s September 11th.

These two songs are by far the most interesting thing about this exercise and yet seem to be no indication of the next album due next year as Bono has named dropped The Who with regard to it and could not really do that here. Yes, some of the fans who discovered them in these last couple of years will not have to burn a collection of the songs they heard on the tour but something lacks. It is not that these are substandard but maybe the more recent songs are still too fresh to make as fascinating listening as the first Best of was.
Steve Stockman 11/18/2002

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster. He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine



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