Rush has a long and varied discography: 19 studio albums (18 all but the first with Neil Peart on drums), 11 live albums, 2 EPs, live videos, singles, compilations . . . there’s a lot of stuff broken up into a lot of eras. For example, you have the early 70s hard-rock stuff, the mid- to late-70s epic prog, the early 80s prog-pop, the mid- to late-80s synth-pop, the 90 heavy guitar renaissance, and their 2000s comeback era which is an uptempo, mutli-layered blending of the heavier guitars with the early 80s pop sensibilities merged with the complicated song structures of their 70s heyday . . . and no, the keyboards never “went away.” They were just less prominent.
This latter era sounds like a cop-out, but it’s inevitable, since for any band that had been around as long as Rush, constantly exploring new frontiers of sound to incorporate into their music, at some point a brand new beast emerged. That’s one of the many things that was so special about this band, but also one of the things that is so daunting. Bassist/vocalist Gary “Geddy” Lee Weinrib, guitarist Alexandar Zivojinovic, aka Alex Lifeson, and late drummer/lyricist Neil Ellwood Peart were able to change their sound several times during the course of their 40-plus career without losing that special something that made Rush Rush.
Some would say that special thing was dorkiness, and you know what? I totally agree.
Rush were dorks, end of story, full stop. They didn’t party, they weren’t a drug band, they weren’t detached or ironic. They were three men who loved writing music, playing music, and writing and playing music with each other. Oh, they also loved their fans too. That was apparent from every single two-hour-or-longer marathon Rush concert where they never, ever phoned a performance in. It was apparent that they had very few gaps longer than two years between studio or live albums, and even when they got older that their output of studio albums slowed down they still released EPs, live albums, videos, and new compilations. And sold a whole lot of albums.
Rush are a true anomaly in the music world: a critically reviled group of earnest, goofy, easy-to-mock music geeks who stuck around long enough for their fans to be the tastemakers and members of cool bands who now sing their praises. So take that.
Two quick examples of how Rush became a band the critics loved to hate:
- 1976’s breakthrough album 2112 was dominated by a side-long suite of songs discussing the power of music to overthrow a socialist dystopia. It was clearly inspired by novelist/political philosopher Ayn Rand, who had provided fodder for many of Neil Peart’s lyrics. How do I know this? The album’s dedication “to the genius of Ayn Rand” helps. See, Rush weren’t cool. So Neil, being a guy who thinks and doesn’t chase trends, likely had little idea what publicly praising Ayn Rand would do with his and his band’s credibility in the rock world.
- The rap on “Roll the Bones,” popular single from the 1991 album of the same name. Yes, there’s a rap in the middle, featuring Geddy Lee’s heavily deepened voice spitting rhymes about the night having a thousand saxophones and a fact being a fact from Nome to Rome, BOY. One imagines Neil Peart hearing a rap song on the radio and, with the endearing excitement of a young boy, going “Hey, this is cool! Maybe we can put something like this in a song!” And so they did.
So, the question then becomes, “Where do I start?”
Start here, with the song “Freewill” from Rush’s 1980 album Permanent Waves.
Why do I recommend this song? Because it is, for lack of a better term, very Rush-y: the odd-time riff in the Lydian mode, the absolutely insane middle section where all three members go crazy on their instruments while maintaining tight discipline, the lyrics about individuality and the primacy of choice over superstition, the catchy melody despite all the chaos, and the sheer weirdness of it all–Lee’s banshee-wail included–have lead me to call “Freewill” the quintessential Rush song, even over the more ubiquitous “Tom Sawyer.” If you like “Freewill,” you’ll probably appreciate everything Rush has ever done, in any era.
After, chase it down with “Limelight” from 1981’s Moving Pictures. This is one of the most perfect pop-songs ever made.
Now, if you like both of these songs, my recommendation is neither Permanent Waves nor Moving Pictures. Instead, I suggest that a Rush neophyte start at the end, at 2012’s Clockwork Angels, the band did.
This album encompasses all aspects of the Rush sound. It’s heavy, it’s proggy, it’s rhytmically and harmonically dense, it’s lyrically ambitious, it’s a concept album, it has keyboards, it has instrumental freak-outs, and it is downright beautiful in parts. If “Freewill” is a very Rush-y song, then Clockwork Angels is their most Rush-iest album.
Now, if you like Clockwork Angels, I’d suggest you then go back to either Moving Pictures or Permanent Waves, or even 1981’s live album Exit . . . Stage Left, which features the era of the band most people seem to like the most. But this remains how I introduce people to Rush:
- Clockwork Angels
- Permanent Waves/Moving Pictures/Exit . . . Stage Left
You might disagree, but this is my blog. Still, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Lastly, in case anyone is interested, here are my rankings of Rush’s studio albums. Each album is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 based on one criteria: “When it comes time to listen to Rush, which album do I grab?” and there is only one 10. Lastly, I’ll put what I think is my gun-to-head “Must Listen” track from each album, even though for most of these it’s really hard not to just say “All of them.” Here goes, and I eagerly anticipate your vehement disagreement in the comments below:
- Clockwork Angels (2012) – 10/10 – Must Listen: “Headlong Flight”
- Moving Pictures (1981) – 9.9/10 – Must Listen: “Limelight”
- Permanent Waves (1980) – 9.8/10 – Must Listen: “Freewill”
- Hemispheres (1978) – 9.7/10 – Must Listen: “La Villa Strangiato”
- A Farewell to Kings (1977) – 9.6/10 – Must Listen: “Xanadu”
- Signals (1982) – 9.5/10 – Must Listen: “The Analog Kid”
- Vapor Trails (2002) – 9.3/10 – Must Listen: “Secret Touch”
- Snakes and Arrows (2007) – 9.2/10 – Must Listen: “Far Cry”
- Hold Your Fire (1987) – 9/10 – Must Listen: “Turn the Page”
- Grace Under Pressure (1984) – 8.9/10 – Must Listen: “Between the Wheels”
- 2112 (1976) – 8.7/10 – Must Listen: “2112”
- Power Windows (1985) – 8.6/10 – Must Listen: “Mystic Rhythms”
- Counterparts (1993) – 8.5/10 – Must Listen: “Animate”
- Test for Echo (1996) – 8.4/10 – Must Listen: “Time and Motion”
- Roll the Bones (1991) – 8.2/10 – Must Listen: “Dreamline”
- Presto (1989) – 7.9/10 – Must Listen: “The Pass”
- Fly By Night (1975) – 7.5/10 – Must Listen: “Fly By Night”
- Caress of Steel (1975) – 7/10 – Must Listen: “Bastille Day”
- Rush (1974) – 6/10 – Must Listen: “Working Man”
I’ll have some news about a Rush-related project I have in mind soon, so stay tuned if that sounds interesting to you!
Neil Peart’s writing influenced my own. Check out my latest novel, The Last Ancestor, available on Amazon.