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20 Years Ago: U2’s ‘Zooropa’ Album Released

U2, Zooropa
Courtesy of Island Records

What does one of the biggest, most influential bands in the world do in the middle of the budding grunge era? Put out the most grungeless and least American-sounding album it possibly can, of course.

‘Zooropa,’ which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, may also be U2’s most Eurotrash album. If you’ve ventured across the Atlantic and spent any chunk of time out in the clubs, you know they’re not filled with douchebags and she-tards. Rather, they’re sweaty messes of 15- and 16-year-old kids in too-tight jeans, sipping on Coca-Colas and dancing to thrumming, simplistic melodies and electro beats until the wee hours of the morning. Think of ‘Zooropa’ as U2’s ‘Kid A’ — the moment when you either blindly followed the band into the abyss or jettisoned them until the Millennium (i.e. ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’).

The album’s an aural dance party with no real guitar heroics, which is odd, given the Edge’s signature guitar work might be U2′s most distinctive quality. When you think of U2, you think of those repeating, Irish-sounding licks, and if you went into ‘Zooropa’ hoping for more of that, you’d have been let down.

‘Zooropa’ followed up the band’s wildly popular ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991), which only two years prior had been a smashing success, selling 18 million copies, winning a Grammy and spawning hit singles like ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘One.’ It was a tough act to follow. If you look at the band’s output over the years, it’s almost always peaks and valleys — a giant hit followed by a lesser-received opus. And although the band could do no wrong at the time, selling out stadiums throughout 1992 on its Zoo TV tour (which helped inspire and bring this album into focus), ‘Zooropa’ is an album that doesn’t immediately scream “hit” in the way ‘Achtung’ did. Think about it: Do you remember any of the singles from the album? Any of its music videos from MTV? (We didn’t think so.)

But it’s no less great when we look under the hood all these years later. Maybe rock-addicted U.S. audiences weren’t ready to mix musical highs and freebase EDM. U2 masterfully weave pop, dance, trip-hop,and rock together on standouts like ‘Numb,’ ‘Lemon’ and ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car’ (listen on YouTube; the track’s missing from Spotify).

‘Zooropa’ ends with ‘The Wanderer,’ an oddly forgotten-about track that was written with and sung by Johnny Cash, who would later put his own shatteringly delicate spin on the band’s ‘One.’ Just imagine getting to that last song and hearing Cash singing in his black baritone over techno sounds. It must’ve been the ultimate WTF moment of the decade.

It was the perfect cap to a collection that may go down as both the most out-of-place and the most ahead-of-its-time album in rock history.

Next: Foo Fighters' 'Foo Fighters' Released

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