The 10 best U2 songs of the 21st century

The Edge is all of us, trying to figure what exactly Bono is doing here.

The Edge is all of us, trying to figure what exactly Bono is doing here. Associated Press

Attendees of the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 might be forgiven for thinking that U2 stopped making new music sometime during the mid-'00s.

Although the band debuted a new song live back in the spring—"The Little Things That Give You Away," which is slated to appear on the forthcoming LP, Songs Of Experience—they rarely play it. In fact, during the first two shows of the tour's third leg, the newest song performed was the buzzsawing "Vertigo," from 2004.

The lack of recent material makes sense. U2 has an enormous catalog, and they’re just not going to leave the stadium without playing, say, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or "Beautiful Day." While their rigid setlist might occasionally frustrate fans—the rarely played "A Sort of Homecoming" appeared early in the tour for the first time since 2001, before disappearing again—the members of U2 enthusiastically give the people what they want.

But the Joshua Tree Tour isn't just a nostalgia trip. The band successfully illustrate how their 1987 album resonates in today's world, in part by arranging a meticulous setlist that follows their career chronologically. Leaving out the bulk of the material released during this century means a big chunk of the band's story isn't told—which does a disservice to some very fine, moving, creative moments. Sure, U2 played many of these songs on previous tours. But to have them completely disappear from view is a shame.

With that in mind, here are 10 of the best U2 songs from the 21st century. And in the spirit of Bono's charming penchant for playing fast and loose with historical facts and dates, the official cutoff for the list is anything released after 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. (Besides, pedantic timekeepers will note that 2001 is the official start of the 21st century anyway.)

"Elevation (Tomb Raider Mix)"
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider soundtrack (2001)

U2's "Tomb Raider Mix" of "Elevation" is so early 2000s it hurts. Culled from the video game-inspired Angelina Jolie movie, the song kicks off a soundtrack featuring Missy Elliott, Basement Jaxx, BT, and Moby. Accordingly, the "Tomb Raider Mix" is crisper and more aggressive than the take found on All That You Can't Leave Behind. Arrangements sharpen Edge's barbed-wire guitars and tighten the takeoff into Bono's wordless shrieks. Even the song's unintentionally hilarious commitment to a rhyme scheme (e.g., "A mole, living in a hole/Digging up my soul") somehow works.

"Electrical Storm (William Orbit Mix)"
The Best of 1990-2000 (2002)

Although songs tacked onto greatest hits albums are hit or miss, U2 is uncommonly good at digging up goodies for their compilations. Case in point: The William Orbit mix of "Electrical Storm," which slathers undulating, soft-glow electronic dust over the song's biting acoustic/electric strums. It's an effective flourish on a song that longs for a literal and metaphorical storm to break the stifling, suffocating strain in a relationship—and ends in flashes of shrieking noise that resemble cascading lightning bolts. Honorable mention goes to the original mix of the song, which has a brittle edge.

"Crumbs From Your Table"
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb felt a lot like U2 reinterpreting their '80s catalog with the benefit of hindsight and musical skill. Not coincidentally, it's also the best, most consistent album they've released in the 21st century. "Crumbs From Your Table" ranks among the highlights, thanks to reverb-slathered guitars and a smoldering, bluesy approach that aims for intimacy rather than universal sentiments.

"Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own"
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

Ballad-wise, U2's post-20th century output has often been maddeningly generic—perhaps because the band skimmed off the aesthetic essence from their '80s anthems, but left the urgency and focus behind. "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" is an exception: Bono wrote the song for his dad, who passed away in 2001, and his lyrics precisely detail the push-pull of a loving relationship when both parties are stubbornly alike. Bono unearths his tender falsetto for lines such as, "And it's you when I look in the mirror/And it's you when I don't pick up the phone," adding to the emotional heft.

"All Because Of You"
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004)

Few would associate Bono with humility, but on "All Because Of You" he expresses deep gratitude to those who saw his potential, and admits that no man is an island. Better still, the stomping song illustrates how U2's club days and influences are never far from the surface: There are shades of the Patti Smith Group, especially in the shredding breakdown and Bono's half-spoken, half-sung vocal delivery.

No Line On The Horizon (2009)

The band worked closely with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to sculpt the music on this record, which shows most on the pulsating, motorik "Magnificent." The song is announced by ridged sonic grooves that resemble a motor revving and scattered moments of digital detritus before blooming into a typically majestic U2 march.

No Line On The Horizon (2009)

U2 sounds looser and hungrier than they have in years on "Breathe," between the carefree waltz grooves and Bono's freewheeling, fever-dream lyrics ("I wasn't gonna buy just anyone's cockatoo/So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home?"). Periods of circular, mysterious cello—especially on the bridge—add to the song's fantastical vibe.

"Cedars of Lebanon"
No Line On The Horizon (2009)

It's no secret that U2 worships Leonard Cohen. His DNA permeates this stunning song, in particular the genteel choir of voices on the chorus, Larry Mullen Jr.'s minimalist drums, and Bono's somber, spoken-word delivery. The latter approach ensures that he inhabits the protagonist of "Cedars of Lebanon"—a war correspondent broken by loneliness and the atrocities he's witnessed—with convincing weariness.

"Iris (Hold Me Close)"
 Songs Of Innocence (2014)

U2's most unguarded moments come during Bono's songs about his late mother, Iris Hewson, who passed away when he was 14. "Iris (Hold Me Close)," a deceptively sparkling song from Songs Of Innocence, is no exception: Bono addresses his mother directly, connecting vivid childhood memories to his present-day adult perspective with empathy and wisdom. The sucker punch last lines of the song ("Iris says that I will be the death of her/It was not me") especially linger, as they signify Bono releasing decades of guilt.

"The Troubles (Alternate Version)"
Songs Of Innocence+ (2014)

People blinded by anger over iTunes parachuting U2's Songs Of Innocence into their accounts certainly overlooked the existence of Songs Of Innocence+, which amounts to a second record of outtakes and alternate takes. The album has some interesting detours—including the opening glam-flamenco track, "Lucifer's Hands"—although a different version of the Lykke Li-featuring "The Troubles" is even better. The new mix centers a pirouetting orchestral flourish and employs a pulsating electronic beat, giving the song a "Miss Sarajevo"-like vibe that's quite moving.