U2 is the world's biggest rock band. Period. Wannabe upstarts like Linkin Park and Coldplay will have to wait before they can prise the cup. In all likelihood, it will be from the cold, clammy fingers of Bono on his deathbed. Incredibly enough, the band has gone from strength to strength in its 25+ years of existence.
You may think Bono's politics are too strident or that their melodies sound too jaded now (I disagree), but one thing you cannot deny is their success. The scalpers in Seattle had a happy smirk on their face as they sold tickets for thrice the already steep list price on craigslist. This for a concert in Portland - a 3 hour drive from here. The Seattle concert took place just before I moved here, and I can only imagine the frenzy then. I didn't even try this time, unlike my scrambling for Mark Knopfler tickets. I knew the exercise would be futile.
U2's career, as anyone reasonably interested in them knows, spans four distinct phases. (These are unscientific and of my own making, so bear with me).The first was as a small but highly visible and rising Irish band with anthems like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day". They were always strident, with a point to make and the world was theirs to change.
The second phase was when they exploded on the world stage. This was when they released the monster success "The Joshua Tree", spawning classics with very long-winded-names like "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" , "With or Without You" and "Where The Streets Have No Name". I'm sure the inlay designers had a hard time with that album.
The third, and IMO most interesting phase of their career came with Achtung Baby, Pop and Zooropa. Bono famously pronounced that "Rock is dead" and they went through this experimentation phase. Bono tried some serious multiple-personality business with alter-egos called "The Fly" and "Mephisto". The distinctive, soaring rock sound took on an electronic tinge, and the music was fit for a late-night lounge rendezvous more than the arenas that U2 filled with lighter-bearing fans.
Achtung Baby was either lauded or reviled with very few opinions in between. Pop on the other hand was almost universally panned and did not do too well in the commercial sweepstakes either. (I loved both albums to varying degrees, though)
IMO, this phase, though the most derided of their career,is what saved the band. After participating in Live Aid, and doing The Joshua Tree, U2 were in danger of becoming too strident, too serious and too full of themselves. There was a good likelihood of them becoming insufferable. (There are people who'll say they are insufferable enough as it is)
This New Age phase, if you will, helped them learn to let their hair down. U2 fans, try and remember a fun U2 song before this time. Except Rattle and Hum, which had "Helter Skelter" and "Desire", there isn't a single U2 song I can recall which wasn't a call to arms of some sort, or a lament of some other sort.
The result was that when they returned to basics (Phase 4, if you were paying attention) with "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (please, what's with the long titles?), they had learned the fine art of restraint. Their sound, though essentially the same, has evolved over the time, and this album showcased it off to great effect. There was the unusual beauty and grace in songs like "Beautiful Day", the cause-embracing "Walk On" (that stands on its own as a completely awesome song), but there was the bit of tongue-in-cheek with "New York", and the robust, uplifting "Elevation".
"How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" repeats the formula in some ways (including the long names), with "Vertigo" providing the sass to the solemnity of "Sometimes you can't make it on your own".
Bono gets a lot of attention, but U2 is an incredibly tight band. The Edge (lead guitar), Adam Clayton (Bass) and Larry Mullen (drums) have had a big hand to play in the success of the band. (OK, it's one of the few bands other than the Beatles where I know the name of every band member) I cannot think of "Where The Streets Have No Name" without the wall of sound the guitars and bass create, or "Sunday Bloody Sunday" without the marching band drums. Stroke of genius, that.
Media mavens, charlatans, showmen, business gurus, call them what you may. U2 is the world's biggest rock band. Period.