Is it inherently lazy to do a U2 post on a music blog for St. Patrick's Day? Whether it is or not, it's done for two reasons.
First, since The Second Disc is all about reissues, it's worth tipping a hat to Universal's ongoing series of U2 reissues. They have been some of the best on the market in recent years. The packaging is nice, the content is comprehensive and groundbreaking (in other words, the fan gets all those hard-to-find tracks he or she is looking for plus a score of vault material) and the input from the band (specifically The Edge, who's done a bang-up job curating these sets) is a refreshing change of pace from the "I-look-forward-not-back" approach of too many artists with deep, worthy catalogues.
Second - and perhaps more importantly - it is this writer's opinion that U2 have completely fallen off the rails in the past decade. All That You Can't Leave Behind wasn't perfect, but there were some pure pop moments that any band in their 20th year would kill for. Since then, though? The iPod commercials. The singles that just sound like the same song over and over again. The proselytizing prophet known as Bono. An album - one that made Pop look like an underappreciated risk (maybe it is, after all) - that earned inexplicable crticial salivation. And a fine candidate for the worst musical ever.
If one were to spin the last decade of U2's new material in a positive way, perhaps they're spending too much of their energy on making killer catalogue sets. So with Ireland's biggest holiday upon us, here's Ireland's biggest band, as seen through the eyes of their back tracks.
The Best of 1980-1990 / The Best of 1990-2000 (Island/Interscope, 1998/2002)
The first U2 compilations are excellent distillations of what made the band so good in their first two decades. And it pulls no punches, offering their best singles whether or not they were hits (songs that scraped or missed the highest highs of the U.S. charts - "Angel of Harlem," "Miss Sarajevo," "New Year's Day" - made the cut). For hardcore fans it was the first repository of rare tracks, too; there was a bonus disc available with each set compiling the best of the B-sides and remixes of the period.
The Complete U2 (Island/Interscope, 2004)
Though it's not available anymore (and will more than likely be rendered obsolete by the time all the U2 LPs are expanded), this iTunes-exclusive box set - a $150, 446-track set (roughly 67 discs) - included every studio album at the time, singles, EPs, remixes, unreleased cuts and live material. Some fans rightly complained about the hefty amount of duplicate tracks therein (songs released as singles were released twice, on albums and next to their respective B-sides), but getting all that music for a fraction of what it must cost to buy physically is a pretty good bait for lots of people, and the quality of the material justifies it.
U218 Singles (Island/Mercury, 2006)
This stopgap collection done between How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and No Line on the Horizon (2009) - still the longest gap between U2 albums - is a straightforward, single-disc set meant to rope in new fans or those looking for a decent U2 mix. As such, it's nowhere near the quality of the previous best-of sets, and should be pursued only by the completist in need of a cheap fix or the new fan eager to get a slow start on the band.
Zoo TV Live / U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle (Island/Interscope, 2006/2007)
U2 are well-known for giving their fan-club members nice exclusive CDs for joining. The 2006 gift was the audio-only version of Zoo TV: Live from Sydney, a fired-up 1993 live set recorded during another impasse in the band's career (Adam Clayton's drinking had led him to miss a concert the night before, and Bono later admitted to Rolling Stone that he feared the dissolution of the band was again imminent). The 2007 release, another audio version of a previously-released video (recorded in 2001 on the Elevation Tour, a day after Bono's late father was buried), has similar highs thanks to its home field location and a crowd gone wild thanks to Ireland's placement in the World Cup just hours before.
The Joshua Tree: 20th Anniversary Edition (Island, 2007)
Here's how you do it: a double-disc set consisting of U2's biggest smash hit LP, all the non-LP tracks from the era, and five tracks from the original album sessions. Did I mention the box set that throws in a DVD chock full of rare goodies, or the 180-gram double-vinyl version? If you still haven't found what you're looking for, start here.
Boy / October / War: Deluxe Editions (Island, 2008)
So beloved and excellent was the remaster of The Joshua Tree that the first three albums followed suit in the summer of 2008. Boy had five unreleased tracks along with its respective B-sides (and the debut Three EP), October loaded up on vintage live material recorded by the BBC and War (perhaps my favorite of the three) has its share of bonus material as well, namely the many B-sides of the period and unreleased song "Angels Too Tied to the Ground."
Under a Blood Red Sky (Island, 2008)
One of U2's best shows - hell, one of the best of the '80s - was this 1983 set at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a set that established U2 as a live act par excellence. For the first time, the original EP and concert film were added into one package (after a rather odd legal battle ensued). It's not complete - not all the footage was deemed releaseable and that rendition of "Cry/The Electric Co." is still edited thanks to Bono adding a snippet of "Send in the Clowns" - but getting the audio and the visual of this live document together is nothing short of special.
The Unforgettable Fire: 25th Anniversary Edition (Island, 2009)
As U2 inched further into the mainstream, they produced this phenomenal record and put on some more earth-shattering live sets. This 2 CD/1 DVD set collates them both, including all the rare non-LP tracks (as usual) as well as both the full performances from Live Aid and an Amnesty International show in 1986 - the same one where The Police (in their last public performance before the 2007 reunion tour) symbolically handed their instruments over to the band. How's that for a statement?