If you don’t take the title of U2’s latest career retrospective too seriously, The Best of 1990 - 2000 offers ample evidence of why the Dublin lads, now creeping into middle age, continue to matter. But let me issue one giant "buyer beware" warning right up front. It’s not just that the two new songs, recorded in 2002, make a mockery of the dates in the title. It’s not even that many of the "hits" are significantly altered, and that almost half these songs have been given a glossy, danceable facelift. It’s more the feeling that we’ve all been had.
Despite their flaws, 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s Pop were evidence of a band refusing to rest on its laurels. If the edgy sonic experiments and unusual song structures didn’t endear themselves to a mass audience, they at least provided clear proof that U2 was not going to repeat the old formulas. So it’s more than a little ironic that the eight songs culled from those albums on this 2-CD hits and B-sides collection have all been remixed and sound like they desperately want to repeat the formula for the massive commercial success of U2’s last studio album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
For what it’s worth, it’s a good formula. "Gone," one of the highlights from Pop, now sounds even more arena friendly, and features plenty of anthemic, ringing guitar work from Edge. "Numb," the Edge’s Zooropa foray into monotone mumbling, sounds considerably more lively in its remixed version. But the remixed "Discotheque" and "Staring at the Sun," arguably the highlights from an album that didn’t have many highlights, suffer in comparison to the Pop originals. Otherwise, the hits are here in abundance. Six songs from Achtung Baby (but curiously, not "The Fly," the album’s first single) dominate. A soundtrack cut, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," adds to the pile of goodies, as do the two new songs, "Electrical Storm," a fine, atmospheric piece that builds to a glorious wall of sound, and "The Hands That Built America," a beautiful, plaintive ballad recorded for the film, Gangs of New York.
Disc 2, the B-sides, is a hit-and-miss collection of more remixes and songs previously available only as singles. This was the opportunity for the band to release some great songs en masse; indeed, many of the best U2 songs from the ’90s were buried as B-sides on single releases. They half addressed the problem. "Summer Rain" is here, as is "Your Blue Room" and the wonderful "Lady with the Spinning Head." But "Satellite of Love" and "Slow Dancing" are missing, again jettisoned in favor of more techno/trance remixes of previously released album tracks.
In that sense, The Best of 1990 - 2000 manages to be the perfect encapsulation of the decade for U2. It’s brilliant, infuriating, a letdown, and some of the most vibrant and important music from the last decade of the last century (and the first decade of this one). Confused? Bono and the boys probably wouldn’t want it any other way.