I, for one, still like the band. The difference between U2, Dylan, and The Stones is that U2 still makes decent music. Sure, many are simply pop songs for the radio & The Grammy's, but the band is beyond the point of artistic integrity (been there, done that) or "selling out" (how can the richest band in the world hardly care anymore?). However, I do understand why people hate them.
Besides the current era, the mid-80's was probably the worldwide lowest point in music history. Sure, there were some decent, smaller albums, but most everything in the mainstream was synthy, recycled, big-haired vomit on a cassette. The Joshua tree was pure beauty in an age of pure ugliness. And, even though it didn't save music by any means, it did change the way mainstream music was dealt with. Many bands, real bands, were now on the radio once again. OK, yes, this did lead to the success of many hated acts such as REM and Coldplay (aka Levy), but back then traces of U2's sound could easily be found in The Pixies and Springsteen and later The Pumpkins and Radiohead.
The album itself opens with 3 songs you already know by heart. These 3 songs are what changed mainstream radio. A guy named 'Bono' from Ireland was now singing at your prom. Amidst these pop songs, though, is U2 setting up their poetic themes of life and death (wet and dry) through allegory. In any case, what makes the album truly great are the songs and themes that follow.
The Joshua Tree doesn't truly take-off until the 4th track "Bullet in the Blue Sky", a song about the U.S. arming of rebels in El Salvador, which can be easily be applied to any "skirmish" a dominant country gets involved in. An interesting listen when considering the war in Iraq, and still my favorite political song to date.
The band then continues to hint at the paradoxical oppression of the U.S. by using American folk and blues to influence the next 4 tracks. Closing your eyes while listening will instantly associate The American frontier with hard themes such as heroin addiction and ironic higher-power montage. The one flaw of the album, Red Hill Mining Town, was placed on the album instead of The Sweetest Thing (re-released in 2000). However, I sometimes think that including Red Hill instead of another billboard singles hit might have driven their point home even further.
The album finally closes with U2 being themselves, at their best. Slowing things down to bring out the genius of The Edge's new-found-sound, they drive home the flood-meets-desert theme in One Tree Hill, ending with the beautiful "Oh Great Ocean..." gospel verse. Bono's confidence goes nowhere as U2 re-invents the wheel again during Exit, and they bring in their entire arsenal of themes and influences since the first track of the album.
In classic U2 fashion, they end slowly but leave hope. Mothers of the Disappeared leaves us with an anthem to The Mothers of the May Square, associating these women to the band and ourselves.
This was the first album (tape) I ever owned, and to this day on of my favorites. If you are a U2 hater (and many are), consider this album coming from a time when Bono wasn't on the cover of any magazines, but, semi-underground, was just as active in stopping violence through politics as he is today. U2 performed at Live Aid 20 years before The Gap's red t-shirts. U2 were just four drunk guys from Dublin who dressed as such, instead of wearing flashy costumes. No ipods, no sunglasses, no devil horns, The Joshua Tree is U2's best work. Did they let it get to their heads? You decide.