Rush (the band)

Like me, the band Rush turns 42 this year. How did that happen?

I've been a fan of the band since my buddy Chris started putting them on mix tapes circa 1987, but the first time they came on my radar was earlier than that. Picture it: Pawtucket, RI, 1980. My godmother's house. Her son's basement bedroom could have been the prototype for Eric Forman's in That 70s Show, except hanging in the corner of his was a giant flag of the Rush "starman," depicted above. 

"What's that?" I asked. 

"That's Rush," he said, "they're awesome."

He was one of those dudes that was the epitome of wicked cool when I was six years old. You can see them on Me-TV and other retro channels; they usually have feathered hair hanging over their ears and baseball t-shirt longsleeves. If you turn to page - well, how about that, I just took The Baby Sitter's Guide by Dennis the Menace - a book I've been lugging around since around the time the above anecdote took place - down off the shelf and there are no page numbers. It's Exhibit A in the "Baby Sitters I Have Known" section, towards the end of the book, for what it's worth. Apologies for the obscure reference in the first place. 

Besides cool 70s guy and the aforementioned mix tapes, Rush was increasingly on my radar from Geddy Lee's and Neal Peart's always winning "Best Bassist" and "Best Drummer" in the magazines I read. 

Alex Lifeson, the guitar player, rarely placed, alas. Sorry, Alex.

I was very concerned with who had the best chops in those days. Oddly enough, once I started actually playing guitar I stopped caring about such things so much. I suppose it's a fairly common story and not so odd at all, that. None of this matters, it just amuses me to think about how seriously I took the topic back then. I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't a sizable factor in getting me into Rush in the first place. People who knew who had the best chops all liked Rush. Along with rocket scientists, sci-fi writers, comic book writers, economists, wizards, and cool 70s guys. This was a crowd I wanted to run with. 

I'll be skipping over any comprehensive band info or history for the following. Here's the abridged version: They started off in 1974 with things like "Finding My Way", then Neal Peart joined the band and took over all the lyrics. No more "I just want to rock and roll you, woman / until the night is gone." ("In the Mood," Rush '74)

Here they are with Kiss in the mid-70s.

They worked off a four studio albums / one live-album pattern. The live album would showcase the style of the previous four, and then the next studio one would announce a new direction. I jumped into things right around A Show of Hands, which was the live-album summation of Signals through Hold Your Fire, characterized by lots more synth. The album after Show of Hands was Presto, which introduced more radio-friendly compositions with less synth, more guitars. This lasted through Test for Echo, which was followed by the live Different Stages.  

The pattern changed when horrible events in Neal's life (his daughter died in 1997, followed by the death of his wife in 1998) led to a hiatus. When they returned with Vapor Trails, after a period of grief and mourning where Neal logged thousands of miles on his motorcycle, crisscrossing North America - something that's become as much a part of the band's mythology as anything else - they started releasing live albums every two years and studio albums (with nary a synth on them) less frequently.

Until the past few months, that era after Test for Echo was more or less unknown terrain for me. Perhaps this accounts for those albums' relative poor showing, below, but I will say (except for Test for Echo, which I just find boring) they all have their strong points. Geddy and Alex both released solo albums, both of which are worth a listen (particularly Alex's, which is not what I expected at all) and Neal had a memorable (and wonderfully non-sensical) cameo in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters.

Without further ado:

(Ranked Least to Most)

Usual disclaimers: this is not an attempt to tell you what are the "best" Rush albums, just the ones I like the most, plus my usual mix of opinion and reverie. If you want more technical info, lyrics, further goodies about anything, just click on the album title/year beneath the covers below to be instantly transported to the good folks over at Cygnus-x1.

Also, no live/ compilation albums, just the studio ones. Let us begin.

Test for Echo (1996)

Granted when this came out I was pretty far away from Rush in what I listened to regularly (Phish, The Beatles, Oasis, Lords of Acid, etc.) but this one failed to excite me when it came out. I gave it a few spins for this post to see if anything changed. Not really; if anything, it made me like it even less, particularly "Half a World" and "The Color of Right," clumsy lyrical efforts from Peart made worse by Geddy's half-hearted melodic phrasing.  

This album is missing a standout track for me, which is why it clocks in last.  

Vapor Trails (2002)

Pretty much the same story as the above, although this one has some standout tracks. Neal's motorcycle journey permeates everything. 

It's arguably remembered more for its contribution to the conversation about modern rock CDs being over-compressed in the digital age and sounding like shit. I'm not one of those "It all sounded better on vinyl!" types, but it amazes me what people have put up with in loss of acoustic fidelity. Or in variety: even acoustic tunes are produced like house tunes, or end up sounding like house tunes once run through the digital compressor. 

(EDIT: J. Zornado, longtime Rush fan and author interviewed in these pages, has this to say: "Listen to the remix version of 'One Little Victory' on the Vapor Trails album. It's probably one of my favorite Rush songs of so many favorites. The song is the title track on the album after they almost broke up. This is Neil Peart with his new drumming and his wife and daughter having died a couple of years back. What a statement this song makes; I love it.")

A Farewell to Kings (1977)

That guy on the cover has always creeped me the hell out. I had this one on cassette and it wasn't so bad, since you could barely see him, but my buddy had the vinyl and I'd stare at it and just feel my skin crawl. Even now. Yowsers. 

Among Rush fans, the low ranking of this one probably causes some grumbling. I sympathize - I've always wanted to love this one. "Closer to the Heart" is one of their big classic tunes, but I never really loved it. It's okay, just reminds me too much of Thin Lizzy or something. And while I admire aspects of "Cygnus, pt. one," it's just never been a favorite. I think it's cool how pt. one ends side two of this album and pt. two starts off side one of Hemispheres, the album after it, though.

"Xanadu" is some fine 70s-ing. Geddy's screeching for the "For I have dined on honey dew / and drank the milk of heaven" part always provokes a Nodding Bearded Man from me. 

Presto (1989)
This was the album / tour where I caught them for the first time, so I'm more positive on it than most.

This was as mentioned above Rush's first foray into more radio-friendly territory. And it worked - songs like "The Pass" or the title track were on the radio quite a bit back in the day. At least on the stations I listened to. (Though nothing like what would happen with Roll the Bones two years later.) 

Lyrically, Peart felt the band had gotten too heavy on previous efforts so he was trying to keep it light. It's not an album you throw on to pump yourself up, but it makes fine background. My favorites are probably "Red Tide" - one I used to quote a lot and then someone said "Dude, that's Dylan Thomas." I always assumed the ending lines - let us not go gently to the endless winter night (memorably belted out by Geddy) were Peart originals - and "Superconductor." (Interesting music video for that one, directed by one of the guys from Devo.) 

Caress of Steel (1975)

One tune on this one, "Bastille Day", was played at least once an hour on one of the radio stations I refer to above. Like "Closer to the Heart," though, it was never one of my faves. "The Necromancer" and "The Fountains of Lamneth" are fantastic prog rock. Not much to say, really; apologies to Caress of Steel stalwarts.  

Rush (1974)

I've always had a soft spot for this album, mainly on account of it being so different than their other stuff. Very much written and recorded in a Zeppelin-style of things, but is that a bad thing? 

"Working Man" is still one of my favorite songs. It's the closest Rush ever got to something like "Free Bird," and I like it better than that one. Someone should dub it over the appropriate part of Forrest Gump, just for fun. 

Clockwork Angels (2012)

It's entirely possible I am over-ranking this one. I still don't know it too well. I listened to it three times in the making of this post. I still can't quite tell what the story is. It's a concept album with the synopsis "In a young man's quest to follow his dreams, he is caught between the grandiose forces of order and chaos. He travels across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnivals, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life."

Well, then! Sounds a lot like Elric, minus the steampunk, though I guess there's some of that in Elric, too. I love that Rush returned to this sort of epic sci-fi fantasy sort of thing, but not having the lyrics in front of me (so to speak - I mean, I know how the internet works and all) to follow along - a ritual I observed faithfully in my earlier days - I don't understand it the way I understood something like "2112". 

It's an ambitious effort, and it holds together pretty well. Not the "warmest" sounding material in their catalog, though. 

(EDIT: J. Zornado also chimes in on this: "Listen to 'Headlong Flight' again from Clockwork Angels. Perfect musicianship, love the song, what a great lyric and a great video. One of the best. That album is a collection of snapshots of different moments in the journey of growing up and growing wise. The concept album with individual songs that standalone. Evidently this was Geddy Lee's demand. It's a brilliant album and works really well and in concert was incredible." I appreciate Joe's adding these remarks about both this one and Vapor Trails and asked if it was okay to edit in these quotes. And he's spot-on about "Headlong Flight.")

Feedback (2004)

Rush's nostalgia album - just covers of songs they all liked back in the 60s. Sort of like Run Devil Run by McCartney. (Or Rock and Roll by Lennon, for that matter.)

As such, it's tough to evaluate alongside the others, but it's a fun enough little album. They chose good songs to cover, and their version of "The Seeker" rocks pretty hard. Geddy's voice is a good fit for it, and Alex sounds pitch-perfect riffing like Pete Townshend.  

Snakes and Arrows (2009)

Hey now! I was rather pleasantly surprised by this one. Of all the post-90s stuff this is my favorite. "The Way the Wind Blows," "Malignant Narcissism," "Far Cry," and "The Main Monkey Business" are all great tracks. 

If for some reason you were legally prevented from owning more than 10 or 11 Rush albums, though, my votes would be for the following: 

Grace Under Pressure (1984)

This one has three of my all-time favorite Rush tunes ("Distant Early Warning," "Red Sector A" - a particularly interesting mix of post-apocalyptic table-dressing and the experiences of Geddy's mother when she and the other prisoners of Bergen-Belsen were liberated by the British at the end of World War 2 - and "Body Electric.") 

I don't recall ever really loving "The Enemy Within," but this time around that was a standout. Bizarre video, but par for the 80s course.

Signals (1982)

This is an uneven effort. Far be it from me to critique the time signatures of someone like Neal Peart, but they don't seem to agree with  the spirit of what Geddy and Alex are doing on "Digital Man," "The Weapon," and "Losing It." But what do I know. (EDIT 2/5: I'm listening to this again this morning - I haven't really stopped listening to Rush since putting this up here, and I am almost certainly wrong on this aspect of at least "Digital Man." The percussion is perfect. I apologize to everyone everywhere.) 

The highlights are "Analog Kid," "New World Man," and "Subdivisions." That last one especially. You could do way worse as a teenager than to have songs like "Subdivisions" to take to heart. Or at least I could have done worse. I've often reflected on how Peart's lyrics helped shape both my worldview and my moral compass. Not to an overly severe degree, but I was lucky, really, to be at an impressionable age and have such sensitive and thoughful sentiments impacting me on a regular basis. 

(It was probably all off-set by repeated listenings of Warrant's "Cherry Pie," but what can you do.)

Anyway, uneven or not, the mere fact that "Subdivisions" is on it means it's one you probably should get. "Countdown" is memorable, too, written after the band was invited to witness the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia from the VIP area. From its wiki: "It was used again for astronaut Mike Fincke during STS-134, flown by Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final mission before retirement." 

Hemispheres (1978)

"Cygnus, pt. 2" is a lot more palatable to me than the first installment. "The Trees" is a lot of people's favorite Rush tune's, including Rand Paul's, but Neal told him to stop quoting it in speeches. I hate when artists do that. He also said Paul "hates poor and brown people," which is a disappointing remark. I'd hoped would be beneath someone like Neal Peart. Since he (Paul) does not, demonstrably, it makes me wonder how he arrived at that conclusion. Something I'd rather not even think about when I listen to Rush. 

The highlight for me though is "La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence)" which I've been listening to at least a few times a year ever since I first heard it. Kick-ass jam. Anyone who says Alex can't play is crazy in the coconut.

Counterparts (1993)

I don't know if anyone else would call this one "essential" - in fact, I see some people ranking it among their worst, which seems ridiculous to me - but each time I listened to over the past few weeks, I kept bumping it up the list. I think it's due for a re-evaluation from Rush fans. Maybe it doesn't contain any one song you can point to as one of Rush's best, but there's not a bad tune on it. I also have fond memories of when it came out, and that's undoubtedly influencing things.

Fly By Night (1975)

Neal Peart's arrival immediately lifted Rush to the big leagues. Holy crap is this album fantastic. From the immediacy of "Anthem" to the craziness of "By-tor and the Snow Dog" to the title track to the Allman-Brothers-esque "Making Memories," you can't go wrong. Top notch production from Terry Brown and everyone plays great. The 70s were the best.

2112 (1976)

Fly By Night is a better all-around album. But "2112" the song is something I more or less live my life by. Have since the first time I heard it. From the beginning space-age noises to the all-out alien invasion at the end ("Attention All Planets of the Solar Federation...") they just don't make them better than this. In the prog rock hall of fame, this has its own wing. 

Side two isn't terrible, but where are you going to go after side one after this one? I used to just rewind it and listen again. (Later I grew to appreciate side two more. All this "sides" talk is likely confusing to any youngsters reading this; google it.)

Hold Your Fire (1987)

Like Counterparts, I almost certainly like this one more than other Rush fans. But what can I say? I can't pretend that the lyrics to "The Mission", "Time Stand Still," -

Another odd video. (With Aimee Mann, to boot).

"Turn the Page" and "Lock and Key" don't touch something deep within me. 2016 Bryan sees them as a little overstated or too on-the-nose, perhaps, but 1987-Bryan instantly wants to be a better human being. That's powerful stuff. Another one I'm quite grateful to have had impacting my consciousness at an impressionable age. And for my money, the Neal/Geddy words/vocals symbiosis is at its peak here.

"The Mission," in particular. 

"If their lives were exotic and strange
They would likely have gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision is a dream
With a mission.

A good re-calibration for your aging, cynical heart, that.

Musically, too, this album just hums right along. Whether it's Alex's guitar work on "Tai Shan" or Geddy's and Neal's seemingly effortless thrillwork throughout, I just love the crap out of this.

Roll the Bones (1991)

Okay, I'm going to go to the mat on this one: Roll the Bones is one of Rush's best, hand's down. Like Counterparts, I've seen this ranked absurdly low at some of the forums or in magazines. Unlike Counterparts, there should be no ambiguity here; this is unequivocally great work from Rush. 

Of course, it was a big part of my senior year in high school, and albums that occupy that place in my head and heart tend to bully their way to the front of the line and I tend to look the other way and shrug. So I'll again allow that my evaluative skills may be compromised.

Nevertheless, "Dreamline?" "Bravado?" The title track?

The rap in the middle was lip-synched by Peter Dinklage during a recent tour.
Instead of the cartoon bones guy they had when I saw them in '91.

"Where's My Thing?" And that unbelievably-moving little guitar lick at the end of each chorus of "Ghost of a Chance?" It ain't just the senior year talking. Get busy with the facts.

Lyrically, too, a strong effort. It seems so weird to me now that this was on the radio as much as it was, but I remember being sick of "Dreamline" by the time they finally stopped playing it every five minutes.  

Permanent Waves (1980)

This could easily be my favorite Rush album. What stops me from placing it at the top is simply that I've always felt the lyrics to "Entre Nous" were better than the musical arrangement. And that's only because I like the lyrics to that one so much; the music's still good

Elsewhere, though, this is pretty much textbook how-you-match-brilliant-lyrics-to-compelling-music territory. From "Spirit of Radio" (one of two songs "the outside world" could identify as Rush, I think) to "Freewill" to "Jacob's Ladder" to "Different Strings" and "Natural Science," just perfect and epic and wonderful.

"You can't pray for a place
In heaven's unearthly estate (...)

Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that's far too fleet.

Another line, from "Spirit of Radio" ("One likes to believe in the freedom of music / but glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity") comes to mind each and every awards season. (And not just for music.)

I'd be remiss if I didn't link to this mash-up of the song with David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross, where every instance of "salesman" from the movie is replaced with Geddy Lee's. You're welcome.

Power Windows (1985)

As per my usual m.o., I'm working off a spreadsheet I made where I assigned points to various categories - lyrics, album-overall, big-songs, lesser-songs, etc. - and I was surprised to discover this coming in second. I usually refer to it as my favorite Rush album.

Regardless, what a fantastic collection of songs. "Territories" has always been my favorite "off the radar" Rush tune. "Marathon" and "The Manhattan Project" perfectly encapsulate Rush's aesthetic appeal during this part of the 80s. And enough hyperbole cannot be written about "Mystic Rhythms," which is just perfection from so many angles: lyrics, performance, production,  emotional appeal, you name it. (And the video aforelinked - another gem from the Devo dude - is really effing bizarre.)

One quick anecdote about this one. My old guitar teacher Pete would always take a smoke break in between my lesson and the one before mine. We'd usually end our lessons with some general bs-ing about things. When he found out I was into Rush and I mentioned this album he started laughing to himself, as if remembering an old joke. "Don't you hate those manual windows?" Then he pantomimed the rolling up of a window and laughed some more.

Took a few years to realize Pete was wicked baked for all our lessons.

Moving Pictures (1981)

I feel almost bad nominating this for my top spot. It's the most obvious choice, and that never sits well with me. But I have to make an exception here, as Moving Pictures is just start to finish brilliant. And there's really never a time when I don't feel like listening to it, so I guess it truly is my favorite Rush album. 

Every track's a classic. One of the greatest album sides ever - up there with side two of Abbey Road even - begins with "Tom Sawyer". "Tom Saywer" is "Tom Sawyer," what can I tell you? It's been making air-drummers happy for many years and hopefully will for many more. I've never figured out what the hell Neal's on about in the lyrics, but who cares. "Red Barchetta," about a boy who takes his uncle's car out for a spin in a world where automobiles are illegal, is one of the all-time great song-movies. "YYZ" remains to be exploited as the soundtrack for the coolest action movie sequence of all time. "Limelight" is a gorgeous piece of music. 

Side two's only slightly less impressive than side one. My current favorite is probably "Vital Signs" but catch me on a different day and it could just as easily be one of the other two ("Witch Hunt" or "The Camera Eye.") Heck, catch me on a different day, and "The Camera Eye" could be my favorite Rush tune all around. That break around the 2:40 mark makes me unreasonably happy.

Just an embarrassment of riches here, folks. Do kids still like this album? Do kids even know who Rush is? Or were they something you needed to experience in the 20th century to appreciate? If so, no shame in that. And it just makes their rediscovery by a new generation something to look forward to.

Everybody needs reverse polarity 

Here's to 42 more.


  1. How many times have you seen them play, McMolo? I think I've caught them twice, both at Great Woods (or whatever the venue's corporate name is now), on the Roll the Bones and Counterparts tours. Both shows were fantastic.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! (re: your other comment) As for this one, I think I saw them 3 times. Definitely on the Presto and Roll the Bones tours (both at Providence) and then I have a memory of seeing them at Great Woods, I want to say in early summer 92, but I couldn't seem to find that one on the list of places they played for the RTB tour. Maybe it wasn't listed.

  2. Fun post, by the way. There's no shame in picking Moving Pictures #1.

  3. I hesitate to even leave this comment . . . but I'll go ahead, just in the interest of full disclosure.

    I hate "Tom Sawyer" so much that I refuse to listen to any other Rush songs, unless it somehow happens accidentally.

    I'm sure that's the sort of statement that must drive Rush fans up any number of walls. Unfair, prejudiced, and probably just plain wrong. But doggone it, that's how it breaks down for me; at the advice of noted strategist J.L. Picard, I've drawn the line.

    I'm tempted to ignore his advice based on this post. I don't think I actually will; but I'm TEMPTED. Like you (and Rush), I turn 42 this year, so it intrigues me that there's a massively popular band my age whose work is almost totally unknown to me.

    I'd also like to mention that you are 100% correct to have been creeped out by that "A Farewell to Kings" album cover. The rear cover to "2112" may be even creepier.

    Anyways, sorry for the negativity. You've done a good job of convincing me that it might -- MIGHT -- be misplaced!

    1. I have met many a man (and woman) who shares your feelings on this one, sir - there's no shame!

      For some, Geddy's voice is just a barrier that cannot be overcome. I understand how this goes - I have that with They Might Be Giants(although I've been able to more or less topple that wall, but initial resistance always remains whenever one of the Johns hits a whiny note)and a couple of other bands.

      But "Tom Sawyer" of all songs! I love that one. It's a varied and disturbing universe indeed.

      Thank you sincerely for reading through a post (and even feeling at least tempted to jettison decades of resistance to the band) on a band you hate - I appreciate that very much.

    2. Though my mind is not for rent, don't put me down as arrogant. ;)

      Lee's voice is indeed a barrier for me. This is a ridiculous thing for a Bob Dylan fan to feel, but there you have it. I'm a walking contradiction.

    3. "Everyday we're standing in a time capsule
      racing down a river from the past /
      everyday we're standing in a wind tunnel
      facing down the future coming fast /
      It's just the age, it's just the stage -
      we disengage, we turn the page."

    4. I don't see how there's anything to be ashamed of, really. Personally, while I haven't listened to much Rush, what I like I think is worth keeping on the whole.

      My favorite so far is "Time Stand Still".

      What seperates you're take from a lot of others is that it's a question of honest taste, as opposed to a lot of the poser crap I've long since noticed going around in a lot of Rock fan circles.

      What separates that lot out from otherwise normal musical tastes is how they attach a question of "authenticity" to what they regard as the end all be all of music.

      I'm willing to admit that certain styles of music can espouse values of different kinds, however I'm less willing to say that that invalidates some musical genres (psychedelic, AOR, Mod) over others.

      My basic rule of thumb is, if you like the song, then maybe there's something there. If not, live to rock another day.


    5. A sound philosophy! I agree. (And especially about all that poser authenticity crap. A personal bugbear! It's why I always distinguish my rankings/ thoughts as "favorites" instead of "best." not that any best of list is pretentious crap, by any means, just explaining my word choice.)

      Glad to hear "Time Stand Still" is a fave! That one I really love.