The Phantom Tollbooth
January 1999 Pick of the month

The Best of 1980-1990 & The B-Sides
Artist: U2
Label: Island Records
Length: Best of = 65:36 min and 15 songs / B-Sides = 59:55 min and 15 songs
 
U2 is important, or at least they were, and this collection is definitive proof. Unless you've been living in Antartica for years, you've heard this band and witnessed their impact on modern music. Enough said.
 
Despite clamoring by fans, U2 for various unclear reasons have resisted releasing a greatest hits collection for years. Perhaps the fiscally unsound Pop Mart Tour didn't fare as well as it should have financially, and the band was more or less forced into releasing a product that would balance the books. Regardless, the fans who knew U2's opinions of best of collections were as surprised as they were delighted that U2 finally released one at last. At least one that covered the band's first decade.
 
If you are a fan anything at all like me, than these songs serve in some large measure as the soundtrack to your life. You mime every one of Edge's unique guitar grooves, you militantly air drum with Larry, you thump along to Adam's elegantly simple bass lines, you chortle every poetic line Bono crooned as well as his vocal hiccups--and it doesn't really matter if he's singing "in the name of love" or "money, money, money, money, money, money," you are right there on the stage and under the lights waving your white flag because this band was your band. They stood for something and sounded so enthusiastic, that you not only connected, you applauded their efforts with every fiber of your being. If you joyfully admit to any of that, than The Best of 1980 - 1990 may even serve as a kind of yearbook. Were the eighties really that cool? Did I really try to grow my hair out like Bono? Wasn't a poster of Larry hanging on my wall?
 
You've heard all these songs countless times before. You know all the words forward and backward, even if you have to make up a few. You've maybe even taken most or all of these songs and put them on your very own "Best of U2" tape which you wore out playing on road trips back and forth between home and school in that rusty old Ford Escort you drove. Well, The Best of 1980-1990 gets most of the song selections right, anyway. There are always going to be some fan favorites that don't make the cut. In this case, if you are one of those diehard U2 afficionados that felt they sold out right after War, you may be disappointed in how few songs are culled from that era. "I Will Follow" is the only one from Boy and October offers only the title track, tacked on as an afterthought as an uncredited extra after "All I Want is You." How U2 could release a "Best of" album without "Gloria" has been all the curbside critic's big question. War, gratefully, is a bit better represented with their two standards:  "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." The majority of the album's material is focused on U2's so-called second phase, representing the trilogy of albums beginning with The Unforgettable Fire, including The Joshua Tree and ending with Rattle and Hum. The latter offers the most with four songs, while the other two albums offer only three. The disc is about fifteen minutes short of a full disc, so worthy exclusions like "Bullet the Blue Sky," "40," "Two Hearts Beat as One," "A Sort of Homecoming," and "Tomorrow" are curiously absent. The big singles, like "With or Without You" and "Pride (in the Name of Love)," however, are all here as expected, and even digitally remastered from the original tapes for superior CD sound.
 
The former b-side "prettied up" to help sell this greatest hits retrospective, "Sweetest Thing" is a bizarre choice for a remix as this album's only unique track. Though spiffed up by a new mix and extra vocals, this new version isn't remarkably changed from the old one, very interesting creatively or lyrically, or particularly in keeping with U2's style. A better choice would have been a reworking of "Spanish Eyes," "Luminous Times," "Silver and Gold," or "Celebration." The latter is a wonderful anti-war single U2 released just before War, which is tragically absent here.
 
Better still is the companion B-Sides CD which comes with the Best of... disc in the Limited Edition collection. Bono has oft-been quoted that their best works are already on their albums, so why would anyone really want a collection of their misfires? But fans will be fans, and as one wise critic once said, the real ones would gleefully scarf up an album of "Bono's lip farts." Thankfully, these songs are far better than U2 toots, including such notable high/low- lights as the goofy "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl," the lush "Three Sunrises," and the moody instrumentals "Bass Trap" and "Endless Deep." There are also three covers, ranging from the respectful version of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" on to Sixties fare such as "Everlasting Love" and "Unchained Melody." None of them approach the fun of hearing U2 rip through Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" or The Beatles's "Helter Skelter," but none of them are complete embarrassments, though "Unchained Melody" comes close to being abysmally cheeky. Most of the rest of these b-sides are taken from Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum singles, so fans looking for the real vintage b-sides like "Things to Make and Do" and "J. Swallow" are treated to far too few. Nevertheless, this fifteen song collection is a lot of fun, providing a playful contrast and whimsical glimpse at some of U2's aborted attempts and close contenders along the way to the masterpieces of the other disc.
 
Another added bonus, the photos in the booklet all appear to be rejected shots from earlier album art work. In another attempt to show the band in a less serious fashion, we get to see more spontaneous shots of them, including embarrassing shots of the early years, Adam sneaking drags from cigarettes before the serious photo shoots, Edge straightening his hair, and Bono attempting to take a bite out of Larry's shoulder. Regrettably, there are no amusing or even self-aggrandizing liner notes on the band's history or individual song creation.
 
Taken as a whole, we get most of the best and some of the worst of U2's first decade. It's almost enough to make you want to revive the best of the eighties and relive the whole decade. Skinny-tie new wave guys and mid-riff baring Madonna look-a-likes need not reapply.
 
Steven Stuart Baldwin (12/2/98)
 
(Even though they left off "Gloria")