Few records sum up the strange state of late-1990s alt-rock like Pop—the final album of U2’s remarkable decade-long run, and certainly the band’s sweatiest. Recorded and released under tight deadlines, Pop would go down as one of U2’s biggest misfires: an overlong, overcooked attempt to convince the world that a band that had spent years pushing for social justice and spiritual salvation suddenly just wanted to dance. But for those listeners willing to indulge in U2’s trip to clubland, there are several moments of big-budget experimental ecstasy to be found within. In Pop’s defense: This was never gonna be an easy album to pull off. By the late ’90s, the record industry was struggling to understand where rock was headed next. Grunge was on its way out, replaced by a strange combo of bratty pop punk, third-eye-blinding guitar anthems, and whatever weirdo-cool stuff Beck was cooking up at the time. In the middle of this limbo was U2, a band that had reimagined its sound so thrillingly on both Achtung Baby and Zooropa—records that dirtied up and digitized the group’s solemn, arena-ready anthems. U2 had already pushed modern rock as far as it could, and it was time to look to a new frontier—specifically, the vibrant electronica and techno scenes that were bubbling up in Europe. The band headed into the studio in 1995 with the idea that it would be finished in time for a massive 1997 world tour. A team of producers and electro-consiglieres were brought in to help Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton find their groove, while drummer Larry Mullen Jr. dealt with back issues. After a few starts and stops, the band began crafting actual songs from the various fragments, loops, and samples they’d stockpiled in the studio. But with the tour’s start date looming, U2 had no choice but to rush-release Pop in order to get it in stores in time. The result is chaotic and sometimes confused—a record that features plenty of grooves, but can never settle into one of its own: The pulsing, amped-up party number “Mofo”—a highlight of the band’s trip to the electronic underworld—sits right next to the spare, almost traditionally U2-like ballad “If God Will Send His Angels.” The vibe-shifts on Pop are tellingly abrupt, as if U2 wanted you to let loose in the nightclub...and then immediately atone for your sins afterward. Still: Parts of Pop have aged better than anyone could have predicted. Forget the awkward, Village People-inspired video for the lead-off single “Discothèque”: the Edge’s wah-wah-from-space riff slays, and the clanking cowbell sounds like it cost seven figures to lay down (say what you will about 1990s record-biz excess; this is an album where you can almost hear the money being burnt—a not-so-cheap thrill). And both “Gone” and “Last Night on Earth” have a sinister sleekness that would make them perfect for late-night drives (or for future Michael Mann soundtracks). Pop may never quite pop, but it gives U2 a chance to send off its most creatively daring decade with a bang (and a few bangers).

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