During their forty three year career, Rush released nineteen studio albums, a covers EP and eleven official live albums. In addition, a couple of extra archive live shows have been released as part of super-deluxe reissues of a couple of their 70s albums. Whichever way you look at it, they had a truly impressive career – one that would put many other prog bands to shame.
What’s more, Rush made relatively few bad records. With such longevity, of course, some are better than others; some are heavier than others; some seem more complex than others. Almost miraculously, only one or two missed the mark across a five decade stretch.
If you like Rush, though, more often than not, you love the band and don’t need steering through their extensive catalogue. However, for those yet to take the plunge properly (and for those who love a good debate), we present our “Super Seven” – a look at the seven discs we consider to give the Rush novice the very best overview.
EXIT… STAGE LEFT (1981)
In lots of ways, 1980’s ‘Permanent Waves’ and 1981’s ‘Moving Pictures’ present the best entry point to the universe of Rush. Albums which explore rock and pop melodies within a very progressive framework, these albums are a perfect snapshot of a sound the band very much made their own. However, by picking up the ‘Exit…Stage Left’ live album, you get the best bits of both of those studio discs – fantastic versions of ‘Spirit of Radio’, ‘Red Barchetta’, ‘Freewill’ and Neil Peart’s trademark drum solo ‘YYZ’ – all in one place. In addition, this double live set takes the listener on a great journey through various older highlights, including great versions of ‘Xanadu’, ‘The Trees’ and ‘A Passage To Bangkok’. The only thing missing is the epic title track from ‘2112’, but if you’re either new to Rush, or a more casual fan looking to find their way, it’s possibly a little too soon for that anyway… We’ll get to that a little later.
ROLL THE BONES (1991)
Following a string of increasingly commercial records in the 80s, Geddy, Alex and Neil entered the 90s with ‘Roll The Bones’, a fantastic set of songs with far more warmth than 1987’s ‘Hold Your Fire’ or 1988’s ‘Presto’. The commercial edges are still very much present, but the bass playing is more robust and many of the songs are far more engaging. During numbers like ‘Dreamline’ and ‘Big Wheel’, the fluid basslines dance in and out of perfect rock/pop textures, placing Rush somewhere between The Police, It Bites and Enchant, while the AOR chorus of ‘Ghost of a Chance’ and the funk driven instrumental ‘Where’s My Thing?’ show a willingness to apply their musical wizardry to contrasting styles. You want more? The title track has a rap on it which might seem a little silly now, but at the time of release, it was symbolic of Rush’s desire to never constrict themselves. It doesn’t really work without the skeleton in the video, but still…you have to applaud them for trying something unexpected.
FLY BY NIGHT (1975)
1975’s ‘Fly By Night’ is seen by many as the birth of the real, prog rock Rush. Their second album – the first to feature drummer and lyricist Neil Peart – moves away from hard rock and into a world where musical boundaries become far more fluid. ‘Anthem’ shows how the new look Rush could still pack a punch, but the Tolkein inspired ‘Rivendell’ moves the band more into the realms of Yes and the mystical side of Led Zeppelin. Somewhere between, the eight minute ‘By-Tor & The Snow Dog’ taps into Peart’s love of literature and fantasy, something which always allowed bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson full licence to stretch out with their musical arrangements, and the title track flaunts with something a little more radio friendly – prefiguring the band’s 1980-91 golden age. There is no filler on this record. Once you’ve tested the waters with the more commercial side of Rush, this should be your first stop in exploring their younger, grandiose selves of the 1970s. You won’t be disappointed.
POWER WINDOWS (1985)
Few rock albums are as “eighties” as 1985’s ‘Power Windows’. The sleeve, Peter Collins’s shiny production style, various lyrical themes concerning money and greed sit at the heart of the record, while ‘The Manhattan Project’ firmly taps into the fear of a nuclear war, despite the original lyric being inspired by World War II research into nuclear weaponry some decades earlier. In terms of playing, Rush rarely sounded finer than they do throughout these forty four minutes. A genuine 80s classic.
SNAKES & ARROWS (2007)
From 1996 onward, Rush became far less prolific, releasing just five new studio recordings in the last twenty two years of their lifespan. The albums weren’t always of such a consistent quality, either. ‘Test For Echo’ was very good, but 2002’s ‘Vapor Trails’ was ruined by an ugly production job…and for a band who once seemed to pride themselves on sonic excellence, 2013’s ‘Clockwork Angels’ didn’t always sound a lot better.
The best album from Rush’s twilight years is ‘Snakes & Arrows’, a varied but melodic collection of tunes that showed Alex, Geddy and Neil still carrying a lot of musical spirit. ‘Working Them Angels’ mixes a hefty dose of rock with a radio-friendly edge; ‘The Larger Bowl’ teases with a very retro, late 60s melody and ‘Spindrift’ almost sounds like a rockier revisitation of something from ‘Roll The Bones’, but with much darker undertones. These tracks alone make ‘Snakes…’ the must-hear “late period” Rush album, but between the jangly ‘Bravest Face’, the sinister sounding ‘Good News First’ and ‘We Hold On’ – a number featuring some fine guitar work from Lifeson casting itself in a ‘Counterparts’ mould – you certainly don’t have to wait too long between the classic tracks.
Debut albums are odd things. Sometimes a debut LP lays out a band’s every intention and becomes a perfect document that represents the core of their career – as with Guns N’ Roses ‘Appetite For Destruction’, Van Halen’s debut, or Camel’s 1973 offering – but for Rush, it seems that getting a record onto the shelves was just the first step in a long journey. Originally issued on the small Moon Records label in Canada, ‘Rush’ isn’t at all representative of the band they’d soon become. It’s only Rush album to feature the original line up of Lee and Lifeson with drummer John Rutsey; it’s also the only Rush album to present them as little more than a ballsy hard rock trio (unless we count 2004’s covers EP, ‘Feedback’), but it has something about it that seems to become more rewarding with each passing year.
It’s best known tracks, ‘Finding My Way’ and ‘Working Man’ are sturdy rockers, giving the record a solid backbone, but its when digging deeper ‘Rush’s true if naive charm becomes obvious. ‘Take A Friend’ shows how even at such an early stage, Rush knew the importance of a good groove and is a track that never gets old. ‘In The Mood’ demonstrates their power trio sound in a very solid fashion…even if, lyrically, it’s tale of “early to bed for some Geddy-time sauciness” is a whole universe away to the themes and complexities Neil Peart would add to the mix just a year later. Although more of a hard rock venture, ‘Rush’ has a good heart and a great sound and in lots of ways remains the band’s most underrated venture.
DIFFERENT STAGES (1998)
There are no apologies for the inclusion of a second live album, since Rush were always a first-class live act. This three disc release from 1998 includes a complete show from the ‘Test For Echo’ tour.
Although ‘Test…’ is one of the better, later Rush albums, it is blighted by the iffy ‘Dog Years’. ‘Different Stages’ ignores that and gives the listener a few highlights from the then new album, alongside a couple of ‘Roll The Bones’ era classics and a couple of corkers from 1993’s ‘Counterparts’. There’s also a full length performance of the title track from ‘2112’ [If you’ve approached these recommendations in order and enjoyed them, you’re ready for this now.].
In addition, a bonus disc features highlights from the band’s first UK visit in 1978. Recorded on the ‘Hemispheres’ tour, few live recordings capture such a vibrancy. As the band are introduced and launch into the heavy riff at the start of ‘Bastille Day’, you can almost imagine the crowd absolutely losing it. An essential live album.