R40: The 6 Best Rush Albums

This summer Rush launches the R40 tour celebrating 40 years as a band. The Canadian trio was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, years after other acts like ABBA, Jefferson Airplane and Grandmaster Flash were inducted.  Unlike those era-centric acts, Rush has 24 Gold, 14 Platinum and three multiplatinum albums spread across 40 years. Their most recent studio album, Clockwork Angels, debuted at #2 on Billboard’s 200 album chart in 2013. Only the Beatles and Rolling Stones have more consecutive gold and platinum albums.

Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have been producing music since they they first took the stage together at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in August 1974. Peart was the new guy in the band then, but has since become its voice, penning lyrics that made hipster critics cringe – touching on, in chronological order – Tolkien, male baldness, the Solar Federation, starship Rocinante, forced equality of outcome, FM rock, automobile bans, Space Shuttle Columbia, concentration camps (Lee’s parents survived Auschwitz), Enola Gay, China, clever anagrams, chance, AIDS, the internet, expectations shattered by 9-11, more expectations shattered and finally, carnies.  It’s hard to find a list of rock’s greatest drummers that doesn’t include Neil Peart.

Over the decades, hipster critics praised acts like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the Talking Heads while they mocked Rush. But 40 years later, Rush fills arenas and tops album charts, forever reinventing a sound that defies categorization. It’s just Rush.

This summer, you can catch Rush in hockey arenas as well as lots of outdoor venues starting May 8.  Here’s a PJ Lifestyle ranking of the six most important (and best) Rush albums.

6. Roll the Bones (1991)

Roll the Bones is the album where Rush got its groove back.  The first Rush album to hit the Billboard Top 5 since Moving Pictures (eventually going Platinum) Roll the Bones marked the end of a ramble through the electronic wilderness where the songwriting and the sonic grandeur returned. After Moving Pictures in 1981, Rush released a series of roaming (yet often very good) albums dabbling or drenched in synthesizer and driven by aural tones rather than raw guitar energy. Grace Under Pressure, for example, was a very good, but very alienating work. By the time Hold Your Fire was released in 1987, the biggest rock power trio was drowning in synth. Presto in 1989 broke free from the trend with excellent songs that were shrunken by timid production.  It was Roll the Bones where it all finally came together.

“Dreamline” received massive radio airplay in an era when massive radio airplay mattered. “You Bet Your Life” is about how everyone rolls the bones on their life, they take their chances and either win or lose. “Heresy” might be the only rock song about the fall of Soviet Communism:

The counter-revolution/ at the counter of a store/ people smiling through their tears/ who can given them back their lives/ and all their wasted years?

The album is simply filled with good songs, period.

Highlights: “Dreamline,” “Bravado,” “The Big Wheel.”

We travel in the dark of the new moon
A starry highway traced on the map of the sky
Like lovers and heroes, lonely as eagle’s cry
We’re only at home when we’re on the fly, on the fly

5. 2112 (1976)

I plead guilty. 2112 is on this list because if I did not include it, the comment section below would overload and crash. 2112 is the dystopian Ayn Rand-inspired concept album about a man who discovers a guitar. In Anthem, Rand used a light bulb. Rush thought 2112 would be their last album, so they decided to go out in progressive rock glory, no matter what their record company wanted. It is trademark early Rush: Huge, complex, high pitched, tweeter threatening. Without 2112, there would be no Rush. Put it on the turntable, dim the lights, enjoy the next 20 minutes.

Highlight: Side One.

Attention all planets of the Solar Federation!
Attention all planets of the Solar Federation!
We have assumed control. We have assumed control.

4. Clockwork Angels (2013)

How many rock bands formed in the 1970s can say that their latest album is one of their best?  If not for a dud or two early in the album, Clockwork Angels could arguably be on a par with their best album ranked #1 below. (Those of you who are Rush fans already know what it is.)  The stretch of six tracks from “Seven Cities of Gold” through “The Garden,” if released alone would rival the seven tracks of Rush’s best album.  No doubt Rush fans can be found who think the title track and “Carnies” are great songs. Perhaps. But songs like “Seven Cities of Gold,” “the Wreckers,” “Headlong Flight” and “Wish them Well” are as big and majestic as anything the trio has ever produced.  Through the lean post-Moving Pictures years, some Rush fans yearned for the return of By-Tor and the Snow Dog, double neck guitars and two minute guitar solos. “Seven Cities of Gold” might be what they were looking for, without the shame of nostalgia. It’s Hendrix, it’s Zeppelin, it’s Nirvana, but in the end, it’s Rush 2013.

Clockwork Angels isn’t just explosive large sounds, it’s also songs and melodies.  “Wish Them Well” might be the catchiest of Rush tunes. “The Garden,” the album’s (and band’s?) final song is perhaps the perspective of a formerly hardened and certain lyricist looking back at a life of changing priorities while perhaps quoting a turn of a phrase from the Bible for the first time:

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It’s the only return that you expect

Highlights: “Seven Cities of Gold,” “Wish them Well.”

3. Counterparts (1993)

Counterparts is the final break between Rush’s synthesizer era from Moving Pictures through to the early 1990s. In fact, you won’t find a keyboard in the album. The album is gritty, raw and sometimes darker. It explores the role of opposites, counterparts, the yin, the yang. The heavy lyrics match the new heavy sound. It may also be the only rock album that quotes the Declaration of Independence.

This is a fine place
Shining face to face
Those bonfire lights in the mirrored sky
The space between wonder and why

Highlights: “Animate,” “Between Sun and Moon,” “Cold Fire.”

2. Vapor Trails (2002, remixed 2013).

Vapor Trails was the band’s big return after series of family tragedies struck Neil Peart causing a six-year hiatus of the band.  It was an explosive, big, return that hit a sweet spot with fans. Unfortunately, it was a little too big.  The mix of the album was over-compressed and over-modulated in parts.  The band was unhappy with the mix for a decade, finally authorizing a remix that cleaned up the sound for a new release – Vapor Trails Remix – in 2013.  The 2013 version is genuinely a different album than the 2002 version.  One hears things in the 2013 version which were covered in sonic mud in 2002.  The final product is spectacular.

A wave toward the clearing the sky
All this time we’re talking and sharing our rational view
A billion other voices are spreading other news
All this time we’re living and trying to understand
Why a billion other choices are making their demands

Highlights: “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” “Earthshine,” “Ceiling Unlimited.”

1. Moving Pictures (1981)

Tracks from Moving Pictures filled North American airwaves throughout 1981 – “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” “YYZ.” It is that rare album of original material that can virtually stand as a greatest hits collection. Thirty-five years later, Moving Pictures is still being recognized for its accomplishments in musicianship. Motion fills the album: Returning to Toronto Pearson (YYZ), roaring down a country road in an banned automobile or strolling the streets of New York and London. The whole album is a highlight.

I strip away the old debris
That hides a shining car
A brilliant red Barchetta
From a better vanished time
I fire up the willing engine
Responding with a roar
Tires spitting gravel
I commit my weekly crime

Note: Trying to pick the best six Rush albums is like trying to rank sunsets.  No doubt some will disagree with the rankings and wonder why some popular albums were omitted. I suspect Permanent Waves and Signals will top that list. But those were essentially lesser versions of Moving Pictures, with an occasional stinker (“Chemistry,” “Different Strings”). I personally think Grace Under Pressure should have been on my list but I respect that Peart has called the work a “problem child” and some fans abandoned the group upon hearing the album in April 1984.  I’ll listen to Grace Under Pressure more than I will 2112. Presto deserves attention but the sound mix is a washout.  I know others who only like Hold Your Fire so you can’t please all the people all the time.