Is U2 More Prolific Than The Rolling Stones?


For years – for generations – it’s been universally accepted the central argument in the rock canon is Beatles v. Stones. One of these two has to be the greatest band of all time. No other rational arguments were accepted, with apologies to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, The E-Street Band and Aerosmith.

But as the Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years as the “World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band” (a name which they coined themselves), it’s a fair question to ask: Are they?

I’d like to leave the Beatles out of this discussion, because anyone who believes the Beatles are the greatest rock band is unlikely to read any piece of writing that attempts to elevate any band beyond The Beatles. The Beatles are the most important rock band in history. I’ve said it. Breathe. We can move on now.

Someone proposed to me U2 is more prolific than The Stones. They are an interesting case. To understand it, we need to address how we define “Prolific”, as it relates to rock bands.

First, to compare the two, you need to divorce yourself from reality. U2 operates in a different musical landscape than the Stones did. In the old days, you recorded albums on the regular (The Stones dropped 15 albums in their first decade, U2 has released 12 studio albums. Total.). It’s not that U2 is lazy, music just isn’t as dependent on fresh new tangible material anymore. You could argue that recently we’ve moved back to a “singles-based” industry because of the role the Internet plays in spreading artists around. But, that’s a separate idea for a separate post. (Tangentally, old records are now outselling new records. So, album sales as the exclusive barometer of success is … well … antiquated.)

Though record sales are always disputed, The Rolling Stones are reported to have sold 200 million units, while U2 checks in with a mere 150 million, though, on a per-album AND per-year basis, U2 outpaces the Stones. The Stones have created 29 studio albums to U2’s 12. If you’re defining prolific as volume of material, or even the volume of material over the course of any given time-frame, the Stones have lapped U2 a zillion times over.

Additionally, the Rolling Stones have 10 of their 29 studio albums in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums in Rock-and-Roll. U2 has 5 of their 12. As a percentage, U2 fares better, but if we’re talking about prolific, it’s hard to argue 10 against 5.

Most folks identify the Rolling Stones prime era from 1966 (starting with Aftermath and ending with Exile on Main St.) until 1972. During that six-year period, the Rolling Stones created arguably the most voluminous body of quality work in the history of six-year stretches in rock music. (Credence Clearwater Revival unloaded an even more unfathomable stretch between 1969 and 1970, but that’s like celebrating someone setting a 100m dash record in the middle of running a 400m.)

U2’s prime is a little more nebulous. I’d propose it begins with the release of War in 1983 and ends with Zooropa (which was never meant to be released as a proper album, but was cobbled together on a whim) in 1993.

Both bands had later-career (but not late career, since both bands don’t seem to be willing to hang it up until we pry their microphones from their cold, dead hands) renaissances. U2’s back-to-back monster hits (in typical U2 fashion, five years apart) with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and The Stones with Some Girls and Tattoo You, in 1978 and 1981, respectively.

On a song-by-song basis, The Stones have 14 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs of All Time”, while U2 checks in with 10. As a percentage, U2 fares much, much better on a song-to-song basis, as you could argue that U2, song-for-song, blows the Stones out of the water with their consistent excellence. The Stones have more bad songs in circulation than U2 has songs in circulation, period. The Stones have entire blocks of albums you can write off in their entirety for being at best irrelevant and at worst abysmal. U2 has Pop.

The Stones’ lows are more plentiful and lower than U2’s. But while U2 on a song-to-song and album-to-album basis may have been more consistent, The Stones’ best albums and best songs are more numerous and more ubiquitous.

For example, look at the track list for Hot Rocks: The Rolling Stones’ ridiculously loaded compilation covering their first decade. It’s a jaw-dropping display of musical prowess, a relentless onslaught of amazing. And this was before The Stones dropped Exile On Main St., almost universally lauded as not just their greatest album, but as arguably rock’s greatest album.

U2 has nothing like that in their repertoire. Their “Greatest Hits” albums are split into Best of the 80’s and Best of the 90’s (which is hardly arbitrary, as their career reinvention in Berlin between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby has been beaten to death by music journalists everywhere), but even on those albums, it felt like they were stretching (especially on the Best of the 90’s edition, which might be the worst Greatest Hits comp by an awesome band that was awesome at that time ever created).

U2’s saving grace would be the twin towers of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, two albums that tower above it’s contemporaries as the pinnacles of pop music in their time, and have retained their listenability over the years and continue to inspire and impress listeners. They continue to be elevated on “Best of” lists over time. Will they climb beyond The Stones’ best as they continue to age? That’s anyone’s guess.

There’s so many different ways to frame the definition of “most prolific band” that to provide a logical answer to the question “Who is more prolific?” that can’t have holes poked in it is like calculating infinity.

But, prime on prime, best against best, we’re talking about all 12 U2 albums vs. the 12 best Rolling Stones albums. Lined up side-by-side, they look like this:

Rolling Stones U2
12×5 Boy
Out of Our Heads October
Aftermath War
Between the Buttons The Unforgettable Fire
Beggars Banquet The Joshua Tree
Let It Bleed Rattle and Hum
Sticky Fingers Achtung Baby
Exile On Main St. Zooropa
Goats Head Soup Pop
Some Girls All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Tattoo You How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
A Bigger Bang No Line on the Horizon

There they are side-by-side. That’s the very essence of The Rolling Stones vs. everything that is U2. Which do you choose? How do you plead? Other than ‘holy crap, if “A Bigger Bang” is the 12th best Rolling Stones album, then my GAWD they made some clunkers!’

I’m not sure of this answer. I’ve racked my brain around this puzzle for years, ever since U2 hit #1 when they released No Line on the Horizon, and found it striking that a band – especially a band that’s never been hip or trendy to begin with, despite being enormously popular – could still be that vital and mainstream some 30 years after first appearing in the cultural Zeitgeist.

Perhaps that’s the definition of prolific. I don’t know. Or maybe that’s just longevity, or durability, or consistency. Who knows?

The difference between comparing bands with other commonly compared cultural icons like athletes, is that there are no advanced metrics that reveal a band’s production value over a replacement band in any way that doesn’t involve some level of subjective bias. It’s art. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

It isn’t up to me to rank U2 and Stones albums against each other, and against other albums from their contemporaries – and then do the same with songs – to try and create a definitive answer. I’m no credible musical expert, nor does my sole opinion constitute popular consensus. My perspective is as clouded as any, and therefore I’m not fit to give a suitable answer.

All I can do is present to you that table above, encourage you to listen to the songs that form the backbone of each band’s career, and ask you to provide your answer.

I don’t know if we’ll ever agree or come to a definitive conclusion, but I can tell you that there’s a strong possibility you’ll end up hearing some pretty fantastic music along the way, and it’s the beauty of that journey that’s the reason we’d even hold an argument like this in the first place.


15 thoughts on “Is U2 More Prolific Than The Rolling Stones?

  1. Very nice article.
    I don’t know about who’s more prolific, but let’s face it: it will always be The Beatles vs The Stones.
    For quite a while now, I have been thinking about what bands could be considered the greatest of all time, based on a combination of relevant criteria. This is my conclusion:

    1) THE BEATLES – the ultimate no-brainer.
    – best-selling act of all time (over 1 billion sales)
    – best-charting act of all time (top the all-time Billboard ranking)
    – most praised, respected, important, influential, groundbreaking and impactul act of the 20th century (won the first Grammy by a Pop/Rock act and top most “best of” lists – almost infinite amount of accomplishments)
    – most longevus act of all time (their “1” album is the best-selling album of the 2000’s – 40 years after the band split up).

    2) THE ROLLING STONES – easy pick for 2nd place.
    – top 5 best-selling band of all time (over 200 million sales)
    – 2nd best-charting band in the history of the Billboard (behind The Beatles only)
    – most important, influential and impactful Rock band of all time (wrote the book of Rock’n’Roll – every Rock band owes something to them, directly or not)
    – most longevus active group of all time (50 years of existance and still breaking records tour after tour)

    3) LED ZEPPELIN – greatest band of the 70’s.
    – 5th best-selling act and 2nd best-selling band of all time (300 million sales)
    – responsible for one of the greatest songs of all-time (Stairway To Heaven)
    – greatest, most important, influential and impactful Hard Rock band of all time (regarded as the originators of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal)
    – extremely longevus (still have a huge following)

    4) U2 – greatest band of the 80’s.
    – top 15 best-selling act of all time (150 million sales)
    – one of the few bands that can still hit high in the charts (last UK number 1 single in 2005)
    – most successful group in the history of the Grammy Award (22); extremely important and influential, especially in the 80’s (highly regarded as the greatest band of the last 30 years and the last “dinosaurs” of Rock music)
    – compete with The Rolling Stones for the title of greatest and most successful touring band ever

    I can’t think of any other band that could claim their spots, based on relevant factors that make a band great, like the ones pointed out.
    – Queen were extremely successful, but not that much important and influential
    – Pink Floyd, although also extremely successful, have limited appeal and influence outside the alternative Rock sphere
    – The Who were very important but, on the other hand, do not have the same commercial strength. Same thing for bands like The Clash and Ramones.
    – The Beach Boys were both extremely important and successful in the 60’s, but they seem to have become too stuck in that decade. Couldn’t really achieve widespread longevity.

    • All of the bands you’ve mentioned as alternatives have far far superior songwriting and musicianship to U2. U2’s lack of musicianship is apparent

      • That’s a very subjective analysis you’re making, mate. Even more so when it comes to Rock n Roll music.
        “Musicianship” is highly subjective in Rock.

      • Quite to the contrary, I am very well trained in music and a professional musician, however we are not here to discuss whether I am any good or not and that is irrelevant. If you listen to the Edge’s guitar work for example, he has one schtick that he does all of the time. You never hear a guitar solo of any kind (because he is not capable of it) and further he would be lost without his echo effect. Let’s face reality, (and I like U2) , but they simply are not that good as musicians.

      • That’s exactly what you’re not getting. Being a “good” instrumentalist is not that important when it comes to Rock music. The Beatles were all average instrumentalists – so were The Rolling Stones – and yet they are at the very top. It’s that subjective.

        The very essence of Rock music is that you can sound good regardless of how well you can play the guitar. That’s the most basic thing about Rock, since before Elvis. That’s what made Rock music what it is, in the first place – you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to play it. It has much more to do with songwriting and feeling than technique.
        I have a friend who says Punk blew that kind of mentality away decades ago. He’s wrong, that kind of mentality was blown away the moment Rock music was born, but somehow a few people still don’t get it (no offence).

        With all due respect, if you’re looking for perfect technique and virtuosity, you shouldn’t be listening to Rock or Pop music, to begin with – but Classical music or Jazz-fusion or whatever. I know many virtuosos who can play the guitar or the drums like no one can and yet they make the most boring and meaningless music in the world.

        Instrumental virtuosity does not matter in Pop/Rock music. Never did and never will.

  2. Why all the fuss about U2. I am still waiting to hear some ground-breaking music, lyrics or composing out of these guys?? They chord structures and arrangements are fairly basic and mundane, their musicianship is lacking (which results in lackluster recordings) and lyrically they are weak. Overall the listening experience is sometimes interesting but all to often a drowsy one. I just don’t get it. Perhaps it has something to do with the unprecedented void in the industry of other talent over the last 15-20 yrs. If I was on a desert island for 5 yrs and someone showed up with a BIG MAC for me to eat, I’ll bet it would taste incredible.

  3. @Colin – totally agree with you there mate. What have U2 actually done? Comparing them to the Stones or the Beatles is a bit of an insult to the aforementioned … it’s quality not quantity. Ask your average person (even one born in the 80s) how many Beatles or Stones tunes they can at least hum (whether they like them or not) vs U2 tunes – I’ll bet precious few can even remember more than two of the latter.

    • u2 deserve to be in the same company as the stones…very influential…Even miles davis listened to u2 on his death bed….bob Dylan has praised their work and lyrics….bb king has called the edge one of the greatest rhythm guitarists and a member from radiohead once stated how he’s blown away how u2 still write great tunes and albums and even compared them to the stones who he believed their last great album was exile…by stating what u2 has actually done…Is somewhat ignorant…you need to do some homework..

      • I wouldn’t say U2 should be in the same company as The Beatles and The Stones, because those are the two greatets bands of all time, bar none – by a long shot.

        But U2 definitely have the caliber to be in a Top 10, probably Top 5 all-time greatest. Which, let’s say, is not bad at all.

  4. It is a huge falicy and misconception to think that either the Beatles or the Stones are not great muscians. They are extremely well seasoned players with a focus on the song as opposed to musical virtuosity. There have been countless rock bands over the last 40-50 yrs who are average musicians with average songwriting abilities. My point is that U2 are not that great as musicians, although they have developed their own sound as a group. They can’t play different styles or different schticks, whereas the Beatles and Stones can do that with proficiency. I find most U2 material to be homogeneous in sound, whereas they have always strived to be lyrically recognized and they are pretty good although not spectacular at that as well. Yes Dylan and Myles Davis may have listened to U2 and enjoyed it, however U2 are sort of the “last band” of an era of popular music that is dying or is dead. They certainly wouldn’t have made it big in the 60’s or 70’s because they never really learned how to play the instruments, at a time where that was a prerequisite.

    • I think your analysis is being based way too much on personal opinion rather than more objective criteria.
      The fact is that U2 are undeniably one of the most longevus and most successful bands of all time, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed and influential. No one can deny that. That’s the fact we need to deal with and I’m not a huge fan of the band either. But you’d have to be blind not to see it.
      I’m trying to remain neutral here and make a rational list and I believe that if we were to make a list based on a more objective choice of criteria, U2 would HAVE to be in the Top 10 bands of all-time and probably Top 5.
      That’s what I’m trying to say.
      I think The Beatles being at #1 and The Stones being at #2 is pretty much a consensus amongst 99% of every music critic in the world. I believe Zeppelin at #3 would be the most reasonable pick. After these 3, I can’t see any other band that could be at #4, other than U2.
      Who would you suggest?

  5. A very good debate, though I would argue that U2 definitely deserve their place amongst The Beatles & The Rolling Stones. Aside from their back catalogue of songs they have some of the most successful tours in rock history. They have the highest grossing tour of all time, and that was done in the middle of global recession !! Even when U2 are mediocre their “mediocre” songs are better than The Stones “mediocre” stuff. All subjective I know but I think U2 might just edge The Stones in fact

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