3. The Joshua Tree – U2

THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)

U2

released just weeks before another album in the Top 10, U2’s Joshua tree remains one of the greatest experiments in rock music and a truly glorious experience. Though side two slows down and cannot compete with the majestic perfection of side one, it is still a nearly flawless album that I would buy if released today. It also was number one on this list at least 50 times, but I just could not bring myself to list it as the very best CCM has to offer. There are no real reasons other than i find the other two albums to be listed above to be superior for totally different reasoning.

In the summer of 1985 I moved from Orange county, California to Boston, Massachusetts to work with Dan Russell (Fingerprint Records, NewSound Magazine) and his crew to promote and put on the NewSound Festival in Rhode Island. I learned a lot about the rest of the world once moving out of the Orange Curtain, especially the acceptance (or lack thereof) of Christian music. Orange County was filled with edgy Christian bands and the Churches in the area generally accepted the music and even non-Christian enjoyed many of the bands like Undercover, the Lifesavers and the Altar Boys.

Boston was a different world completely. The number of Christians could be counted on ones left hand and the CCM world was a foreign language for most of the society. Russell always had an uphill battle to promote shows and get his wonderful magazine the placement it deserved.  But Russell also knew how to make inroads into the mainstream market and reach and work with some amazing artists on the fringe of CCM or whose feet were firmly planted in secular music. Robin Lane, Pierce Pettis, Bruce Cockburn and mark heard were amongst his friends and partners.

But it was U2 that would make the biggest impact. Russell befriended Bono and the band during their first trip to America after playing their first show in Boston. the friendship would last and Russell would serve as a Road manager for the band on several different occasions.

For the few months I was living in the area I stayed at Russell’s parents house about 45 minutes outside of Boston. They had a basement room that was always set up and i was welcomed there. I should note my acceptance was met with some ridicule for a two week period when my Los Angeles Lakers beat their Boston Celtics in the NBA Championship. In fact, I was told i needed to find another place to live for a few days about that time, though they situation was unrelated to NBA rivalry.

The story goes that they had already promised the room to someone who was visiting for a few days. I was 20 and could crash just about anywhere, so I had no problem with it. I did have a problem when i found out later that it was Bono who was staying there and i didn’t get a dinner invitation. But it was the first time I met Bono (I have met in on four different occasions) and was the most casual of all of the meetings. Bono was on an extended holiday between the release of “Unforgettable Fire” the previous year and the recording of “The Joshua Tree” that would begin a year later.

It was during this holiday and travel that came with it that Bono began to write songs that would alter make up the bulk of “The Joshua tree.” His love affair with America was blossoming and this trip would leave an impression that would allow him to create the bands finest work and most lasting artistic achievement.

This album would also mark the firsttime where Bono would work through a song as a songwriter, instead of the stream of consciousness stylings of the bands earlier work. This process works as the songs are clearly more focused, more creative and lyrically compelling than any previous works.

The band had worked through its flag waving phase with “Unforgettable Fire” and their political infused rhetoric would give way to a more thoughtful and, at times, perplexing message. A band with all the answers became a band loaded with nothing but questions. Even on the most expressive songs, the album lacks a real clearly defined position, but rather Bono joins with masses in asking the bigger questions and is comfortable without having all the answers.

One other thought about the album and its “firsts” for the band, is that I find it to be the first “studio” album. The first three were clearly live feeling and TUF was experimental, but not necessarily a band sounding project. TJT sounds like a real studio album from a real band. With TJT, U2 became a real band.

Producing legends Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were once again tapped for this release after their successful work on the predecessor. But rather than a mystical, experimental rock sound, the band infused more blues, rock and Americana into the musical soundscape and the producers accentuated this new direction with seamless production and a killer rhythm section sound. This was a rock album like one would here from The Who, with both stark, in your face drums and bass as well as lush, orchestral sounds filling every groove. It is hard not to here the influence of British and American blues, the works of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the aforementioned The Who.

Though poets would marvel at amber waves of grain, purple mountains and snow covered peeks, America also has large desert areas that expand beyond the reach of even the keenest eye. This wonderful dichotomy of a nation blessed with a rich bounty and a desolate heart at times served as a perfect image for the albums message. In fact, the working title for the album was “Two Americas.” Although at times Bono’s scathing diatribes sound a bit simplistic, there is never a point when the listener doesn’t fully believe Bono and the band is not madly in love with the country.

One last little tidbit of information that I believe impacts the album and why side two does not live up to the awesome presence of side one. Steve Lillywhite, who had worked with the band since their earliest days was asked to have his wife set the the song order for the album based on her own personal preference. her only instruction was to start the album with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and finish it with “Mother of the Disappeared.” the rest was up to her. Ms. Lillywhite and I must share the exact same feelings for each songs, as the finest songs clearly grace the first side. If those songs were placed thoughout the whoe project one might wonder if the reception for the album would be any different.

“Where the Streets Have No Name” kicks off the album and, for me at least, is the closes to anything from “The Unforgettable Fire.” The long atmospheric introduction gives way to patented Edge “delay effect” guitar riff that would define U2’s sound for its entire lifetime. The song would earn the band a Grammy for Best Rock Performance and remain a staple for 25 years live. Special consideration should be given to the bass and drum sounds that drive this song.

It is with the lead track that a constant theme that will throughout of doubt and faith holding hands begins. Some have surmised the song is looking at heaven as the residence of those unnamed streets, while others note the longing and doubting expression that accompany the lyrics. In Ireland ones religious affiliation could be determined by the street one lived one, but in heaven there will be no street names; no denomination or affiliations allowed. These spiritual themes will not end here and will serve as a juxtaposition against the politically tinged songs that also reveal a sense of doubt in the Cold war period.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” remains my personal favorite Bono vocal. Using is open throat-ed Gospel best, the use of a backing choir behind Bono gives the song a truly American Gospel feel. The constant refrain of doubt is tempered by some of Bono’s finest lyrics when he gives witness to his faith using the imagery of the cross and Second Coming. The doubt, when laid against the more affirmative faith statements, makes one believe what Bono hasn’t found is the revealed promises of a Kingdom Come here on Earth and the peace promised with the Gospel progression. Oddly enough, as a Postmillennialist, I find the song amazingly comforting in that Bono recognizes the Gospel victory is more than just a Heavenly event; in that I am in agreement with Bono.

Bono has admitted in interviews that the year of recording was one of the most difficult of his entire life. Not only was the album a long and difficult process, the fear associated with high expectation and the strees combined to create a rift in his marriage. “With or Without You” reveals a man in love and struggling with it. One of the great mysteries on the album is how these brooding songs with minimal hooks just completely envelope the listener and became monster hits.

The first real rocker is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which would later be covered by P.O.D. The songs possesses some of the edge’s most aggressive guitar work ever recorded. the drums and bass are just pounding like the sound of enemies at war with tanks and artillery. The edge’s guitar work is that of sonic airplane fighters with bombs in tow. Written after a visit to San Salvador, the band was gripped with the fear and pain of those caught in the bloody effects of war. there is both anger and compassion here. yet in the midst Bono adds a spiritual connection borrowing from the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Bono uses it here like that of the David and Goliath where the underdog’s resistance eventually leads to its victory.

The band may have written a more beautiful melody than the one that accompanies “Running to Stand Still,” but I cannot think of one. The great irony of placing such a beautiful melody behind the story of heroin addiction is both brilliant and obvious. The song sounds like something David Crowder would rip off for a worship song, but here we have a couple so possessed by their addition that everything is lost and redemption never found.

“Red Hill Mining Town” is like something from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” without the political grandstanding. Inspired by a strike in a UK mining town, the song reveals the impacts (personally, financially, emotionally and spiritually) of a strike on the people involved. The need for love to overcome and represented as the last thing to hold on to when all is lost may also point to his troubled marriage at the time. It should be noted here that Bono sings more passionately without screaming than on any other U2 project. described as more “open throat” than previous releases, Bono became a better vocalist on this album.

The most obviously America focused song is “In God’s Country.” The song also reminds me the most of anything from the bands first three projects. the guitar sound employed is not far from what was heard on “War.” This hate/love affair the band always has had with America is played most personally here. There is real conflict here. America provides liberty, safety and freedom, yet her greatest asset is gold (money). The greed mixed with her love and offer of freedom appears to conflict, especially for those looking from the outside.

The American blues influence is front and center with “Trip Through Your Wires.” I also refer to it as “the forgotten song.” When I reflect on the album, it is the one i remember the least. It, at least to me, sounds like something that would have fit on “Rattle and Hum.” It is a real blues song, complete with a rocking harmonica solo. Lyrically it seems Bono is merging is love/hate relationship with America with his struggling marriage. yet, at the same time, there is a real sense of a spiritual longing and realization of his relationship with God as the one who provides in the midst of the struggle.

“One Tree Hill” follows with a sound completely different from the previous song, sounding more like what appeared on side one. But it is also where the album hits its only really flat moments. Not a bad song (or group of songs) but just not as overwhelming as the first seven or so.

“Exit” is just an odd tune.From a musical perspective, it doesn’t even really start for the first 90 seconds and when it does, it is short lived and intense. Then it disappears again. The story of what I guess is a psychotic killer, the musical backdrops seems a perfect setting. There is a real internal conflict here. The hand that can build can also tear down is the theme and the line that closes the song, and it best represents the band’s opinion of the American international policy. the conflict of those outside of American note that the same land that provides more international relief and support during tragedy is also the most expansive military force on the planet.

The album closes with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Borrowing its name from a group of women in Salvador that banded together to help find children lost, kidnapped or taken off to war by the local government is difficult and stirring at the same time. it is no wonder the band requested the song close the album, as it appears the most personal and emotive. One feels Bono’s pain as he describes the women’s feelings and longing wails.

There were always problems with the several different releases of the album as far as mixes and mastering, though the 20th Anniversary version is spectacular. Bono actually is said to have gone into an emotional tailspin before the albums release and asked for several re-edits, changes and new mixes. those were denied and the album was released and changed the musical world. It took what many as the best live band on the planet and, for a time, made them the best band on the planet, period!

I know many will complain this album should be number one. others will complain it doesn’t belong on the list at all (they’re seriously wrong by the way), and the former group may be right. It is really as nearly perfect as an album can get and it is the best the band ever offered. Its sheer honesty and compelling lyrical and musical expressions have never been duplicated by the band and few other artists could ever hope to match it. I have my reasons for its placement as, I’m sure, many will their reasons for disagreeing.

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  1. Shawn McLaughlin
    January 9, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    I’m genuinely surprised. Never in my different guesses of how you would arrange the top 3 did I have this lower than 2.

    • low5point
      January 9, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      Trust me…I had it at number one or two the vast majority of the time…Flip a coin. Seriously, the Top 10 was killing me, and the Top 4 nearly finished me off.

  2. January 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    This is your list, you put it where you want. It’s probably my personal first as I have listened to this album more than any other album in my life. I bet I listened to it daily for over a year, and weekly for 3 years after that. No other Christian album comes close to that many turns.

  3. January 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    There are good songs on this album. Only the two last songs haven’t opened for me yet. Some people wouldn’t guess that this is a Christian album. I have to listen to it carefully for the next time. At least, CCM Magazine and now you have ranked this album as one of the greatest Christian albums ever.

  4. Greenchili
    January 9, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Well with such an expansive list it’s only natural that the top 10 or so would be a tough call. However as great as an album this is.. taking all other “criteria” of the list into consideration.. I was thinking either 2 or 3 myself.

    Not to take away from what an awesome record it is.

  5. SmellyCat
    January 10, 2012 at 2:23 am

    As someone from Ireland, i can tell you that U2 are not regarded as a Christian band here. And they are Irish. Does this tell you something 🙂 As a piece of musical art, this album washugely popular and very influential. But this is a CCM list. There is a big danger in ranking everyone that ever mentions God as a Christian. I think some Chriatian want a famous figurehead to give credibility to the faith. If we can say Bono is a Christian then isn’t that a great advertisement, seems to be how some people think. The same thing happened after M Jackson died, all these rumors that he converted on his deathbed.
    Christianity is credible without celebrity endorsements.

    I watched some of the Glastonbury festival last year when U2 played and they were interviewed afterwards. They got to talking about the pagan spirituality associated with the festival and the region around there. Bono said very clearly that he was cool with it.
    This is not a Christian band as much as anyone wants to pretend.
    Remember the song from “POP”, referring to Jesus, “Wake up dead man”, Born again Christians would never sing this because they know he’s risen.
    The church should pray for lost people and love them, not promote them as leaders just because they mentioned God a few times.

  6. SmellyCat
    January 10, 2012 at 2:42 am

    Quote from Bono from 1989, Mother Jones mag.
    He goes on to say that God is sex as well as love
    Put the quote below into google books and you can read the full interview.

    “Do you still believe that Jesus is the way? Doesn’t that biblical injunction deny that followers of other religions can enter paradise?
    Bono: I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that fundamentalist concept. I believe, what is it? “The way is as narrow as the eye of the needle,” and all that. But I think that’s just to keep the fundamentalists out…. (laughs) I never really accepted the whole “born again” tag. It’s a great term, had it not been so abused. I accepted it on one level, in that I loved the idea of being reborn…. I think people should be reborn every day, man! You know, every day again and again and again! At 20 years old, this idea of “surrender every day,” this idea of “dying to oneself” … was so exciting! Then I came to America in 1981, the land of milk and the .357 Magnum. It blew my mind that this word “reborn” meant nothing.”

  7. harvey_d
    January 10, 2012 at 4:39 am

    I don’t really want to start an argument on this, so I’ll just add a bit to the discussion (that’s my intent, anyway)…

    A couple of years ago I picked up the book, “U2 By U2”. It’s a great book, full of wonderful pictures, and words spoken or written directly by the members of the band. It’s a large book, and I think it represents the band very well… likely better than a 2 or even 20 page magazine article could. In my opinion, 3 of the 4 members are Christians. In a naive way I like to count the 4th as one also, being in the family or household (or band) of believers. Anyway, all we can really do is guess, and analyze the evidence shown to us. It’s not really for us to determine whether someone else is a Christian. I’ll leave that to the one who really knows.

    There’s some other bands that I wouldn’t have added, like Simple Minds and The Waterboys et al. I’m not very familiar with Simple Minds besides the singles, and the Waterboys et al seem very spiritual in some way, but not necessarily Christian (although I love their music, which speaks to me in their own way and my own way). U2, however, I would keep in the list, for sure. In all these examples, it’s just my opinion, of course, based on the evidence I’ve seen and on my interpretation of their lyrics. Obviously low5point has different evidence and/or interpretation than I have.

    To me, “Wake Up Dead Man” is not unlike some of the Psalms of the Bible, questioning where God is in times of trouble. Sometimes He seems dead to me, and I just want to shake Him to try to wake him up. Maybe sometimes I seem dead to Him, and… . This is the humanity in all of us. The song seems full of doubt, but I think doubt can be healthy, and is not the direct opposite of faith. To me, this song is more powerful, more honest, and better represents real Christianity than most music out there.

    Peace.

  8. Brett C
    January 10, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Should this be on the list?, absolutely. At no. 3?, no not for me, the first side of the album is brilliant, the second side while still has merit is a bit of a letdown after the brilliance of the first.

  9. sam
    January 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Good placement. They were definitely at the top of their game here. As for “Wake Up Dead Man,” Bono stated in a Rolling Stone interview that it was his attempt to write a “complaining” psalm (the book of Psalms has many that fall into the category.) That being said, I think it’s a poor song, and the POP album is one of my “bottom ten” albums, but only because it was from U2. A bad album from a great band always seems worse than it actually is.

    Is Bono a Christian? Only he and God know for sure. But isn’t that true of us all? For a good read I recommend “Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas.”

  10. adam
    January 10, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I guess I’m the only one that thought this album was pretty mediocre. I lost interest in U2 after all the over-exposure that came from this album. To me, the band peaked with “Unforgettable Fire,” but I know that’s not a fan favorite! 😀

    • TeddyLane
      January 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      You’re not the only one… “October” is my favourite U2’s album.

    • Sam
      January 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      This one is my favorite, but I think Unforgettable Fire is brilliant, too. Then, I think all of the band’s 80’s output is brilliant. They lost me somewhat with Achtung Baby, although I do enjoy that one, now and then.

  11. Shawn McLaughlin
    January 13, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Zooropa and Pop are the ones that lost me. I understand the irony angle but just didn’t enjoy much of the music on those releases. Thankfully, they experienced a mid career renaissance at the dawn of the millennium.

    • low5point
      January 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      Lemon…worst song ever!

      • Sam
        January 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm

        I’m inclined to think “Miami” is the worst. Actually, about half of Pop ranks as “worst,” in my opinion. They picked up a bit with subsequent albums, but I don’t think they’ve ever recaptured what they had in the 80’s.

      • Chip
        April 10, 2015 at 3:33 am

        “Lemon” = 3rd best U2 song ever. How can you not love a song that explicates “Ecclesiastes” so well (OK, that comment fits most of Zooropa) and paints such incredible imagery, all the while accompanied by an ironic-yet-somehow-moving musical accompaniment? It’s one of Bono’s most complex and poetic lyrical pieces as well, a cry for humanity’s plight somehow inspired by a home movie of his mother. Perhaps nowhere else (other than “The Wanderer”) has original sin been so well lamented in a pop/rock song.

  12. citywideDan
    January 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Just a brief note to say how much I enjoyed this list and the articles. A lot of my favorites and artists are on the top 500. Thank you Dave for your passion, knowlege and love of CCM music and sharing this with us.

    I noticed your interest varied but your choices are in the 80’s.
    I have compiled a brief summary of the top 25 artists on the list.
    The points are a method of breaking ties of similar album counts.

    For those interested how the points are generated for each album: take
    (500 – chart Position). An example #5 Keith Green would be 495 points

    Someone had suggested songs .. Wow !! that would be fun but very contraversial
    as well

    Pos. Artist-Group Albums Points

    1 Daniel Amos 8 3024
    2 Mark Heard 8 2385
    3 Phil Keaggy 6 2135
    4 Charlie Peacock 5 1869
    5 Seventy Seven’s (The 77’s) 5 1854
    6 Randy Stonehill 5 1796
    7 Larry Norman 5 1707
    8 Steve Taylor 5 1474
    9 U2 4 1576
    10 Vigalantes of Love 4 1366
    11 Resurrection Band 4 1362
    12 Bruce Cockburn 4 1316
    13 Adam Again 4 1234
    14 Sweet Comfort Band 4 1194
    15 Undercover 4 1119
    16 T-Bone Burnett 4 990
    17 Benny Hester 3 1153
    18 Amy Grant 3 1122
    19 2nd Chapter of Acts 3 1101
    20 Russ Taff 3 1071
    21 The Choir 3 958
    22 Degarmo and Key 3 906
    23 Keith Green 3 903
    24 Prodigal 3 852
    25 Bob Dylan 3 830

    also with 3 albums are & Bob Bennett, Jon Gibson, Julie Miller, Neal Morse,
    Petra, Servant, Stryper, and Toby Mac (in alpabetical order)

    • Sam
      January 16, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      Excellent post! Very well done.

  13. Peg B
    April 26, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    this shouldn’t even be in this CCM list, bad…… not a Christian album

    • low5point
      April 28, 2013 at 3:55 am

      Then you clearly are not listening

  14. Aaron
    February 6, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    I never knew U2 was considered a Christian band. I’ve been listening to them even before I was a Christian and I never suspected anything…I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…I’m not sure how the writer wrote so much about that or why he thought it was a gospel song. Anyway, good group and awesome vocals…just never thought of them as a Christian band. People might be trying to squeeze their wishes into their lyrics when it’s not really there.

    • shawnuel
      July 24, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      And I’m not sure how they CAN’T be considered a Christian band in light of their lyrical content….especially this song. It screams out at me.

  15. Gabriel Dawber
    July 17, 2015 at 5:21 am

    I’m Dann Russells nephew.. Bono didnt end up staying at my grandparents. I think ot was because too many people found out he was going to.

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