Ok, so I’m sitting at work today just minding my own business and getting things done when an email comes in from WordPress. It asks me to approve a couple of pingbacks to a piece I had written about the incredible Rush album, Moving Pictures. Well, the next thing you know, I’m seeing several posts about Rush’s top 10 albums, as well as a few regarding top prog albums or top long-form prog pieces. So now, instead of working, I’m spending at least an hour reading Progarchy posts instead of working. You guys are destroyers of discipline!!!
Although I’m usually not one for lists that require ranking, the invitation to rank the top 10 Rush albums has proven to be irresistible to me. So, without further ado, here we go:
1) Moving Pictures: I’ve written extensively about this one, so I’ll just add the link here.
2) Grace Under Pressure: When this album came out, I was a few months shy of 20 years old, and in the Navy. At the time, I was stationed in Newport News, VA, as the submarine upon which I would serve, the USS Olympia, SSN 717 (Este Paratus) was under construction in the docks at Newport News Shipbuilding. While an attack submarine and not a ballistic missile sub, the Olympia would be configured to carry Tomahawk land attack missiles with nuclear warheads. The Cold War was heating up, and our main adversaries, the Soviet Union, had three submarines for every one of ours. And my job, as a sonar technician, was going to be to find theirs before they found us. In short, there was a certain “heaviness” in my life at the time. That made the timing of this album absolutely perfect. Lyrically, this is the heaviest album Rush has ever done. The pressures of life, both great and small, weave their way through this album. Indeed, like many of my shipmates, I felt like “the world weighs on my shoulders” at that time. This album resonated. It also has some outstanding music on it, and like Moving Pictures, it has an almost perfect balance between guitars and keyboards.
3) 2112: The theme of resonating continues here. There are a number Rush albums other than those listed that I like better than this from a musical perspective. But this one resonates on a different level and thus gets a high ranking on this list. As I recounted here, around the same time I first heard this album, I had numerous conversations with my maternal grandmother, who along with the rest my mother’s immediate family, was a refugee from what was then communist East Germany. The individual vs. the state, freedom vs. tyranny, individualism vs. collectivism – all those themes of the conversations with my grandmother were echoed in the lyrics of the title suite. This was the first time I had really contemplated lyrics that were about larger things in the world. And because of this, I always paid more attention to Rush lyrics than I would with other bands, always looking for deeper meaning and larger truths. This carried over to side 2 of the album, as the messages contained within Lessons and Something for Nothing led me to realize that while I was fortunate enough to have been born in a relatively free country, it was my own responsibility to make the most, and best, of that freedom.
4) Clockwork Angels: I am simply gobsmacked that a band that has been around as long as Rush can be this creative this late in their career. My first true prog love, Yes, was a great band for a while, but they haven’t been creatively great in decades, instead mostly living off of past glories (although what incredible glories they were). Rush on the other hand, despite having some incredibly glorious moments in their own musical past, has never rested on them. Instead, they pushed themselves forward and continued to create great music, and really hit a home run here. I love the lyrics in this album, which open themselves to a number of interpretations. Whereas Brad has found themes of small-r republican liberty and individualism within them, I have found a lot of Stoic wisdom weaving its way through Neil’s words, particularly in the latter half of the album as the protagonist starts to have one epiphany after another. I have little doubt that Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would readily understand messages contained within The Garden. Throw in some great guitar work, the excellent bass work, and the always stellar drums, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness, age of the cooks be damned.
5) Power Windows: Controversial to some because of the keyboards, but not to these ears. This is a great collection of songs. With all of the malfeasance in the financial markets and corruption of the political system, The Big Money seems even more relevant today than when it was released. Middletown Dreams is a great meditation on the quiet desperation of some ordinary lives. I loved Marathon when this album was first released and the wisdom contained in the lyrics has only become more evident as I have piled on the years. And Grand Designs is a great critique of lowest common denominator pop culture and the struggle to maintain integrity within. There is some great playing on this album, such as Geddy Lee’s bass during Marathon and some blistering guitar work by Alex Lifeson on The Big Money. This album has definitely earned its place in the top 5.
6) Hemispheres: This is the most overtly prog album Rush ever did, at least in the 70’s sense of the word. The title suite that encompasses the side 1 of the original LP was a thing of beauty, with excellence in all phases: guitar, bass, drums, and lyrics. In the overarching theme of Hemispheres, Peart provides more wisdom to latch onto and live by. The Trees is a great metaphor for the perils of enforced equality. And La Villa Strangiato is one of the most fascinatingly complex instrumentals ever done by any rock band.
7) Permanent Waves: Like Moving Pictures, this is a transitional album, as the transition of Rush from the 70’s to the 80’s really took two steps. The first step was here, as they pared down some of the excess of the previous three albums. The most well-known song is, of course, The Spirit of Radio, about the tension between art and commerce and maintaining one’s integrity through the same. Several other great tracks are here too. The thunderstorm imagery invoked by Jacob’s Ladder is a thing of lyrical beauty, while Free Will, Different Strings, and Entre Nous are all excellent in their own right. But it is the mini-epic Natural Science that really puts this album over the top for me. I was finally able to witness the performance of this song live on the Snakes and Arrows tour, and it was one of those moments I will never forget.
8) Vapor Trails: This album just screams TRIUMPH!!! After the well-documented tragedies, travels, and searching for answers, Rush returned from a near death of their own with a spectacular album. One Little Victory taught us to take joy in even the smallest victories, while the title song reminds us of our transitory nature. Ghost Rider takes us on the road with Neil, while Secret Touch implores us to have the fortitude to endure. The underrated gem and favorite track for me on this album is Earthshine, with it’s amazement at nature’s beauty. This is a statement album by Rush, and that statement was, emphatically, “we are BACK!”
9) A Farewell to Kings: The title track, Cinderella Man, Cygnus X-1 and Madrigal are all excellent tracks in their own right. But the two tracks that really make this albums are the anthem Closer to the Heart and the epic Xanadu. These became two of my favorite Rush tracks upon initially hearing them and they remain so to this day. That being said, the one downside of this album for me is the production, which was a bit harsh and dry. Particularly with Xanadu, I’ve always preferred the live version from Exit Stage Left over the studio version.
10) Signals: This is a difficult album for some, mainly due to the fact that it is probably the most keyboard dominated Rush album, and thus Lifeson’s guitar often gets lost in the mix. That’s still not enough to knock it out of my top 10, as the songs are still just too good. Subdivisions is another Rush anthem, one full of great insights and even more wisdom. For guitar excellence, The Analog Kid and New World Man are two tracks where it didn’t get lost in the mix. And while few others would mention it, the heart of my inner space geek is warmed to no end by Countdown, which ultimately celebrates humanity’s ability to create and do great things.
Looking at the other lists of best Rush albums here, it’s evident that each of us differs somewhat from one another in our preferences. And I myself will agonize over some of the albums left off the list. I’ve listed ten albums above which I consider to be truly great albums, and I’ve had to wonder if I should have had others on the list. But how many bands ever release ten great albums? Neither The Beatles, nor prog-gods Yes, nor 70’s icons Led Zeppelin can claim to have ten great albums in their catalog (Zeppelin didn’t even get ten studio albums total, unless you count the posthumous Coda). In comparison, some of the albums that didn’t make my list (or that of others) are truly great albums. And therein lies yet another testament to the true greatness, the unparalleled excellence that is Rush.