The Joshua Tree: Happy 20th Anniversary

U2 - The Joshua Tree 

This year cannot be allowed to expire until we mark the 20th anniversary of the release of one of the great albums of the last century. 

It’s one of those signposts in the landscape of modern pop culture that only seems to loom larger the further you get from it.  It now seems incomprehensible that Rolling Stone placed this album only second on its list of the best albums of 1987 (although readers picked it #1), but it was then third on its 1990 list of the Best Albums of the 80s (behind Purple Rain #2 and London Calling #1), and #26 on its 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. 

Was it really 20 years ago?

I was between my junior and senior years of college, standing in a music store in Taipei, Taiwan on my day off from teaching English to endless classes of extremely well behaved Chinese children.  Mindlessly browsing through the racks for something new to stick in my yellow Sony Walkman Sport (remember?),  I picked up a new cassette from U2,  a band I had come to love through repeat listenings of The Unforgettable Fire and Under a Blood Red Sky.  I had heard next to nothing about this new album.  I bought it, put it in, went on my way, and didn’t take that tape out again for a very long time.  I listened to it while walking to work every day, between teaching classes, while walking back to my tiny apartment, while on public transportation, while writing in my journal, while falling asleep.  If I could have listened to it in the shower, I would have.  It became part of my subconscious.  What I heard was a revelation.  It was unflinchingly both political and religious, it was about war and drug addicton, missing children, obsessive love, deserted landscapes, death and faith.  I loved every single song.  I still do.

Where were you? 

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62 thoughts on “The Joshua Tree: Happy 20th Anniversary

  1. I was a huge U2 fan as a young teen in the mid 80s and even got to meet them in 1986. The Joshua Tree was a highly anticipated release for me, more so than any album before or since. It didn’t disappoint. I love everything about it, even the songs that got played into the ground. My favorite songs are probably “Running to Stand Still” and “One Tree Hill.”

    I bought all the record singles on vinyl (still have them) just so I could have all the b-sides, which are some of my favorite U2 songs as well. (They’ve since been released as part of a best-of double cd.) My best friend Jen (who posts here as Jen or Jenma) and I used to lay on her bedroom floor playing them over and over.

  2. Susan, once again you are so right. Those two songs are just pure genius. There was also a time when I could not stop listening to “Where the Streets Have No Name” over and over on full volume. The organ and guitar intro at the beginning of that song is like nothing I had ever heard before. It still gives me chills.

  3. MCQ, get some U2 in the radio blog already. It is hard to pick favorite songs off that album, but One Tree Hill would be right up there for me.

  4. Haha. I’m gonna have to compare those two songs, but can’t do it right now.

    I posted my two faves to the radio.blog.

    “One Tree Hill” was written for the band’s good friend and roadie, who died in a motorcycle accident on Bono’s bike. I’d heard they rarely if ever performed it live, but just looked it up on wikipedia, and it says they’ve done it a total of 40 times. (Holy cow there’s a lot of U2 info on wikipedia!)

  5. Aaaaah. High School. Huge! Loved it then, still love it now. I still pop that disc in and listen front to back. It’s nearly perfect.

  6. I was a freshman, spending all of my time in the art studio, drawing large pictures of Marilyn Monroe, and having a huge crush on the Japanese boy in class who drew Porsche’s all the time.

    U2 has always made me feel lonely- but there’s no disputing their influence. I like Running to Stand Still.

  7. Jr. High. In Small town Alaska.

    And the local radio station only played “Adult Contemporary lite” so I didn’t really discover U@ until College.

    I sort of vaguely knew who they were, since some people in town had satellite TV and/or access to MTV, but our family didn’t.

    So, for me, The Joshua Tree was discovered about 10-12 years ago.

  8. Jeremy, I couldn’t find the answer to that question, after looking for some time. If anyone else can find it, please help us out. My memory is that it was Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, but that may not be right.

    The interesting thing to me, though, is that whatever it was, it was not placed above The Joshua Tree in 1990 when they did their Best Albums of the 80s list. So you can see that they changed their minds, given a little perspective.

    In addition to that, of the two albums placed above The Joshua Tree on the 80s list, only one, London Calling (at #8), was still placed above The Joshua Tree in 2003 when the list of the 500 Greatest albums of all time was compiled. So you can see that appreciation of this album just keeps getting greater over time.

  9. One additional factoid: Of the 25 albums placed above The Joshua Tree on the 500 Greatest Albums list, only one, Nirvana’s Nevermind (at #17) was made after The Joshua Tree.

  10. Excellent radio.blog choices Susan. I think those are my two favorites from this album too.

    We used to play this album basically every time we made the 12 hour drive between Provo and San Diego in the early 90’s. (Just seemed appropriate with all those Joshua trees off of Interstate 15 is all…)

  11. I was mid-mission in 1987 (wouldn’t wrap things up until Sept. 88) so Joshua Tree falls into that gaping pop-culture hole that all very-pop-culture-oriented missionaries get when forced to unplug for two years.

    I can appreciate that you appreciate it, but I can’t appreciate it like you appreciate it. Sorry.

  12. This album launched my love for U2, which happened years after this album came out (1992ish). Listening to this album also launched a close friendship of mine. One of the all-time greatest.

  13. VH1 Classic has a chow called “Classic ALbums” which seems to show the making of “Joshua Tree” about every other time. I watch it almost every time it’s on. Amazing stuff.

  14. Anyone else remember when bands used to get progressively better with each album?

    Think about it…Boy to October to War to the phenomenal and underrated Unforgettable Fire. There’s no way a band from the last decade puts out an album as good as “Fire” and then tops it. Just doesn’t happen anymore.

  15. ha! I discovered Joshue Tree when MTV and U2 were super promoting “Rattle and Hum”. I was in 4th or 5th grade.

  16. Rattle and Hum is a great album as well. I’ve never understood the hate for it. Admittedly several songs are live versions of Joshua Tree but so what? It’s a fantastic album. Yet the “revisionist IMO” story is that Achtung Baby was made in a response to the criticism of Rattle and Hum. Whaaa?

    What’s weird is I distinctly recall several magazines (Rolling Stone?) arguing in the 90’s that Achtung Baby was superior to Joshua Tree. Don’t get me wrong Achtung Baby is a good album, but not better.

    BTW – anyone see the VH1 special on Joshua Tree? They went back to the studio it was made with the producers and talked about making it. Kind of interesting that The Edge says they invented techno by the beats in Where the Streets Have No Name. A bit presumptuous (but then that album shot was the height of presumptuous album art – anyone remember Billy and the Boingers take on it?). Still, when they pulled up the beat off the mixer so it dominated the song it was the techno beat that became so popular in the 90’s.

    Favorite song on the album? That one about suicide. (Sorry, too lazy to look up the name) It has that chorus about “the howling wind…” I never even connected it to suicide for years. But it was our “theme song” we always played on our way to go rock climbing. (Yeah, insert joke here)

  17. Tim, I agree completely. How many groups even stay around form more than two albums anymore? Some of that is the screwed up way record companies manage things. But really it is rare. The two “super groups” that were supposed to be a return to the early 90’s both bombed in their sophomore efforts. (IMO) Here thinking of Velvet Revolver and Audioslave. I was really thinking that both had good, but not great starts. I was really hoping their sophomore efforts would be a nice mature work. No luck.

    Really, since the old grunge movement and the trip hop movement in the early 90’s nothing has had any staying power. (Yeah, there’s stuff like Mars Volta, and I’ll grant you that to a point. Then there’s Radiohead which is probably the best counter argument. As good as Radiohead was in the early and mid 90’s their stuff since was fantastic – although I’ve been too busy to hear their latest yet.)

  18. I think the suicide song you mean is “Exit,” Clark.

    I’ve been waiting for something new to come along to shake up popular music for years now. Starting to doubt it ever will.

  19. It’s really weird since for decades there was so much innovation in music. It was around ’96 that things started to die. And the 21st century has been pretty underwhelming, despite some good records here or there. But nothing that really makes you rethink stuff.

    I’ve not had time to listen to music like I normally do the past year. But everything I do hear sounds completely derivative of stuff that’s come before. Why listen to that when I can listen to the original stuff?

  20. In 1986 I just moved back to England (during my Junior year) and I remember all the music shows were talking about this new U2 album. I had never heard of them but became sold after hearing them perform With or Without You. In a few months I had all their albums, plus as many bootleg concerts on tape I could find. I became an admitted U2-aholic. The song I came to love the most was Running to Stand Still. The summer after my senior year I saw the Joshua Tree concert at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales – absolutely incredible. One of the opening acts was the Alarm who were playing to a home crowd; and they rocked. And then serving my mission in Northern England sitting around as a district recording the concert they did from Dublin and broadcast live on the BBC radio. Not exactly mission rules, but when else are you going to get a free U2 concert?
    Today I am still a U2 nerd. When the last album came out I went down to Kmart on release day at store opening and helped the lady stock the shelves so I could get to the CD still in the shipper case. And for Christmas this year my kids have bought me the Popmart DVD (Live in Mexico City), though they do not know they have yet.

  21. I’ve got Popmart on VHS! haha. I’m so envious of you seeing that show with the Alarm (another of my teenager favorites). Do you have the bootleg that was aired on the radio of a show in Dublin, Dec 1980? Just before War came out, if I remember right. Still one of my favorite boots! I taped it off the radio and listened to it endlessly.

    Why listen to that when I can listen to the original stuff?

    I felt that way in the 90s when my husband was listening to bands like Overwhelming Colorfast (total Husker Du wannabes). Now I’m just happy someone’s make music that sounds like the stuff I listened to in high school. Film School’s a great example.

  22. The Dublin concert I have is from New Year’s Eve 1989 -NYD 1990. It was the Rattle & Hum tour. I do have some early bootlegs from 1982-1983 time, including a concert in Boston that sounds like maybe a few hundred people are there (It is always nice to play to a home crowd), and a show from Kansas City where he pulls a guy up on stage to finish the Neil Young’s Southern Man because he didn’t know the words (Bono also breaks into Billie Jean during Surrender on that tape).

  23. Susan, thanks for finding that.

    Clark, my recollection of the criticism of Rattle and Hum was not that it was patly a live album, but rather based on the idea that it was some sort of cultural strip mining project by U2, where they sort of riffed on American musical themes and tried to make these themes their own.

    I disagree with that, btw, I always liked the Rattle and Hum album and the movie, just as a documentary of the Joshua Tree tour, though I agree that the new songs on that album are not their best work.

  24. “There’s no way a band from the last decade puts out an album as good as “Fire” and then tops it. Just doesn’t happen anymore.”

    Totally agree with that. Can anyone think of a better combo of successive albums by any band ever? I can’t.

  25. Can anyone think of a better combo of successive albums by any band ever?

    Tears for Fears

    Songs from the Big Chair

    followed by

    Seeds of Love

    Of course, I think TFF is the greatest band, like, ever. U2 comes in a close third.

  26. MCQ – Radiohead. Start with Pablo Honey and the Bends in the early 90’s. Then the complete change of sound in the mid to late 90’s with OK Computer. Then there was Kid A and Amnesiac. (My favorites although others will disagree) Arguably better than what came before. Then you have two good albums very positively received by critics but not quite having the same impact.

    Almost the same career as U2.

    Radiohead is the only one I can think of though.

  27. Great album combo
    Housemartins with:
    London 0, Hull 4
    The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death

    But then they broke up, so they can’t show the 30 years of sustained effort that U2 has.

  28. I can think of some metal bands that have had a string of excellent albums, but none in popular music. Converge, Mastodon, High on Fire, Electric Wizard. But no one here will care about that.

    Wait, I think Ted Leo’s had a string of great releases. Also Tegan & Sara. A lot of people would say Soundgarden got better as they went along. (I actually prefer their early stuff.)

  29. For metal bands:

    Queensryche is my number four band, and Empire was an excellent improvement on and follow-up to Operation: Mindcrime.

    My number five band would be the Beatles. After that, I can’t really rank bands, as the numbers shift constantly.

    Of course, this is in the “rock/pop” catergory. If we were talking about any and all musical genres, then Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Andrew Meyers, Doc Watson and a whole host of Bluegrass types would dominate my top ten list.

  30. Susan, I have to agree with the Soundgarden getting better with time. I can like their early stuff in small doses, but their latter stuff is definitely more mature musically. But that was really around the same time as U2. Their last album was ’96. U2’s nadir of Pop came out only a year or two later, as I recall. (A lot of people didn’t like Zooropa, which was pretty experimental – but I don’t think it nearly as bad as many did)

  31. Ironically though, didn’t most real Soundgarden fans not like their later stuff? It seems like Superunknown was to Soundgarden fans what the Black Album was to traditional Metallica fans.

  32. didn’t most real Soundgarden fans not like their later stuff

    I would counter that they weren’t “real” fans at all. For example, I think Metallica really came into their own with the Black album, which was excellent and revealed their real talent. But people who claim to be “real” Metallica fans claim that the Black album was the point the band ceased to really be Metallica. I would say I’m just as real a fan as they are, but I prefer the stuff that came after the Black album – I’m not a fan of the purely speed metal sound.

    I just think it’s sour grapes or something. Bands should be allowed to evolve and expand musically. (That’s one reason I love Tears for Fears – all of their albums are stylistically unique. They don’t repeat what they’ve already done).

    But then again, I think labels like “real fans” or “true fans” are too divisive anyway. It’s not like there’s any ontological moral status inherent in preferring early Soundgarden/Metallica/REM/The Cure/whoever over later Soundgarden/Metallica/REM/The Cure/whoever. It’s personal taste, not “true” or “real” or whatever.

  33. The Joshua Tree came out during my senior year in H.S., and I remember it being a pretty big deal. U2 probably would have been one of my Top 10 favorite bands in 1987, but I was really more of a Smiths and Cure fan.

    I think the Joshua Tree holds up suprisingly well. Some songs have aged very well (Running to Stand Still, Exit, One Tree Hill, Bullet the Blue Sky); others not so well (Where the Streets Have No Name).

    The album cover is easily one of the most iconic album covers of the past 20 years. Didn’t Bloom County do a mock cover of that album cover?

    In 1987 you were cruising the streets of Taipei? I was there from 1989-90 as a missionary, and later in 93 (I think), like you, between my Junior and Senior year of H.S. We’ll have to swap stories sometime.

  34. Matt: I Definitely have stories. I lived in Tien Mou above a grammatically challenged restaurant called “Mary’s Hamburger.” I always ate dinner there, and generally ate lunch at a place called “Tasters.” I don’t know if those names mean anything to you, but there you go.

    As for the Bloom County Parody, see here.

  35. Ivan you are smoking something awful. Metallica absolutely blew it with the black album. Lars never gallopped on the double-bass drums (and rarely played those sixteenth note runs like he did before), Kirk sounded dry and bored, and Hetfield sounds like he’s trying out for the Back Street Boys half the time. There was no anger, no rage, no heavy metal speed to it. And the only cool thing Newsted did was put the 5-string bass on the map (he and Flea, from RHCP), even though he never plays the “B” string (except for once on “Sad But True” where he drop-tuned it 1/2 step to a low “A” for one note). The entire work was pitiful. If you want them at their zenith, pop in Master of Puppets or And Justice for All. I concede that the black album is good so long as you don’t listen to it in light of their previous work, or if you forget you’re listening to a Metallica album. The black album is a rock album, not a metal album.

    Vintage Soundgarden = good. Later Soundgarden = Lame. Audioslave’s first album = awesome, Audioslave’s other stuff = lame. Chris Cornell’s solo work = OK

  36. (I find attempts to be snobbish about metal pathetic, anyway. Snobbery in general is idiotic, but when people try to be snobbish about metal – it’s pathetic. If you like it fine, if you don’t, fine. I say potato, you say tomato, or whatever.)

  37. I think that came out harsher than I intended. Add a winky smiley face ;-)

    Basically, it’s one thing to say “I prefer early [whoever] and here’s why” – I’m cool with that.

    But to say “Early [whoever] is the best, and anyone who disagrees with me is smokin’ somethin’/not a “real” or “true” fan.” I’m as real a fan of [whoever] as any other non-rabid fan (except Tears for Fears, where my fannish tendencies are on overdrive), but I just happen to prefer different eras than some other fans.

    That’s all. Can’t we all just get along?

  38. Ivan, most of my apparent snobbery is a lame attempt at humor. Yes, it is rude to say “you are wrong” and “smoking something” for liking this or that, and most folks on here don’t find it offensive. In fact, I encourage it. My point was that there is a fierce, even caustic, dividing line between “And Justice for All” (lyrically their most angry album) and the self-titled black poo-poo album. And incidentally, they went with a more “commercially marketable” producer for the black album, who, in the “year and a half in the life of Metallica” videos, you can see him actually pseudo-writing many of the songs for them (like “Holier than Thou” and “My Friend of Misery”).

    I too like Tears for Fears, but the last one (Everybody Loves…) didn’t do much for me. Maybe it will grow on me. Elemental was just plain rad (I love “Mr. Pessimistc”), I do pop in “Raoul” all the time – I love “Falling Down.”

  39. Metallica lost all my respect when they sued their own fans. Nevermind that trainwreck of a movie.

    There’s no life coaches in metal, guys.

  40. There’s no life coaches in metal, guys.

    I thought that was, like, the point of the “trainwreck of a” movie. They seemed to be mocking the idea that they ever thought they needed one in the first place.

    David J.-

    It’s all good. Sorry I didn’t figure out the humor in the original post. We’re all friends here, I guess.

    Hugs all around (and then Lars Ulrich punches me in the face).

  41. I don’t get it, Ivan. Mocking it how? They paid that guy something like $40K a month to hold their hands. I’d have been seriously ticked if I had paid to see that movie.

  42. I think Metallica really came into their own with the Black album, which was excellent and revealed their real talent.

    Wait whuuuuuuuut?

    I guess the majority of the record-buying public would agree with you, but there’s plenty of “real talent” on the first 3 Metallica LPs.

  43. Thanks Brian V. I still feel robbed and it’s 16 years after it came out. “Justice” was near perfection to my ears, and coming off the cuffs of “Master”… possibly the best power metal album of all time. I learned to play bass by following that album – maybe I feel the way I do about the black album because I look at it through the wrong lens – the vintage Metallica lens.

    Along those lines, Megadeth only sold out for one album (“Risk”), but quickly returned to the successful formula. Same with Anthrax.

    Another great album that turned 20 this year was Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction.” I saw them open for Aerosmith in ’88 and I couldn’t believe my ears. I went out and bought the tape the next day. I still listen to it all the time (and it has made it’s way into Guitar Hero II and III).

  44. OK Ivan, I picked up TFF – Elemental at a used cd store this morning (I already have and love their first two). You’re right, it’s fantastic.

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