Making a “best of” list of anything inevitably annoys and offends some. Its a personal thing.
But I feel I’m uniquely qualified to do a top ten best Rush Songs list because, unlike many Rush fans, I am a fan of all eras in the band’s career:
- The early Led Zeppelin/Who sound-a-like days of the mid 70s
- The outrageous prog masterpieces of the late 70s
- The “classical” period of the early 80s
- The synth cheese era of the late 80s
- The return to muscle and metal in the 90s and beyond
Here’s my list of the 20 best Rush Songs, in order:
I’m not a super-fan of the 1990s Rush, but I have deep respect for their output here. No real clunkers among those three albums (well, maybe that rap in Roll the Bones qualifies), but not too many standouts, to me. Driven is the exception. I love the production nearly as much as the song itself – almost a 1970s mix on this track, understated but saturated guitars, just an awesome swing to Neil’s drum part. And Geddy here still was hanging on to the vocal chords of his youth, and showed it.
Drum geeks pay attention: what do Stewart Copeland, Buddy Rich and Neil Peart in this video all have in common? This song came just after Neil’s “back to basics” lessons in jazz drumming:
19. Time Stand Still
This one is a bit infamous. The great Amy Mann (well, my wife thinks she’s great) guest sang on this 1987 track. Listen – taken on its own merits, without reference to the “Rush” song legacy, this is a great song. If Asia or Emerson, Lake & Palmer or any other shitty 80s prog rock band had put out this song it would’ve been hailed as the start of their come-back. The verse harmonic progression and melody is long and interesting, the chorus provides a lovely, quiet contrast that perfectly conveys the words, and the rocking interlude section features an odd meter. Pretty much hits all the bases for Rush! What’s not to like?
Enjoy the horrible green screen technology and mullet hair styles in this vintage video:
18. Available Light
This is the final track of Rush’s 1989 album Presto. Its an absolute lovely, slightly bluesy ballad. Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo here is perhaps the most beautiful and expressive of his career. I imagine that this is what Alan Holdsworth would sound like if he guest starred on a Rush track. This ain’t the only appearance that Presto will make on this list, so standby…
17. A Passage to Bangkok
My first Rush album was 2112. My oldest brother bought it for me in 1989 for my 15th birthday at a cool little record shop in Darien, CT. I was totally into and enthralled with the epic title track, but this blues-rock jammer did the most for me. Alex’s guitar tone is the nastiest this side of Jimmy Page or Tommy Iommi. The chorus has the most fantastic swing to the rhythm that nicely accompanies the melody.
This song is second only to YYZ (coming up later) in the number of Rush Youtube drum covers. Every drummer winds up learning this classic 7-beat pattern. Its a perfect exercise for hand/foot independence. Its also one of Rush’s greatest synth song. Always a hit in concerts.
15. Big Money
This one tucks in right under Subdivisions as their greatest synth-rock song. I really don’t understand what synth-era Rush detractors are whining about when they hear such ass-destroying bass lines like Geddy lays down in this song. His tone on this song is so tweaked and “poppy” sounding – it sounds like a crowd of those aliens from Sesame Street going “bork bork bork!” all at once. And the synths are clearly just textural (and tasteful) filler for the song production. Its straight-up arena hard rock, with plenty of arena reverb.
In case you never heard the story, YYZ was conceived as a novelty song by the guys in Rush. YYZ is the code for the Toronto airport (the boys’ much-loved home base), and also the morse code version of the track’s opening rhythm.
|– . – –||– . – –||– – . .|
YYZ is like the updated, 1980s version of Rush’s virtuoso instrumental showcase, La Villa Strangiato (omitted from this list).
13.Show Don’t Tell
Another one from their 1989 album Presto, this was their first single and it made a big splash on MTV at the time – and a big impression on me. It marked their return to straight-ahead rock, with an awesome and not-so-hard-to-play opening riff. My garage band buddies and I played it a couple times. We unfortunately never performed live it since our drummer sucked. But I was kicking some mean Geddy-style funk bass!
12. Closer to the Heart
This is a classic – one of their early breakthrough hits. Its still in rotation on classic rock radio today, at about the frequency of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Its also one of their only songs where writing credit was given outside the trio of Lee-Lifeson-Peart (some friend of Peart’s contributed lyrics). My ears are tired of it, but you’ll enjoy it if you’re a newbie.
11. Witch Hunt
I rank this as the greatest anti-cold war rock song of the 80s, and also one of the greatest libertarian rock songs, inveighing against propaganda and media mind control. Noam Chomsky himself could’ve penned the lyrics. The subject is very similar to Genesis’ more famous song “Land of Confusion”. The chord progressions in both sections (its a simple A-B form) is straight-forward and simple, and evokes the vast, expanding concept of an overweening state.
10. The Pass
This has to make every Rush song best-of list only because the guys in the band cite it as their own favorite, which counts for something in a catalog of songs as large as theirs. The song form is your typical “Rush ballad” – their “soft” songs are never soft from start to finish. They simply alternate (usually begin with) a tamer, sparser verse section with a rocking chorus. That’s what happens here.
The subject is about teenage suicide, as their music video makes abundantly clear.
Ah…another classic song that has suffered from over-rotation on rock radio. Its Neil Peart’s ultimate individualist statement, written in the thick of his influence by novelist and libertarian Ayn Rand.
This is the best song off their landmark album 2112. Its as bouncy as you can imagine Rush being. Geddy just has such a scorching voice during this era. He still sounds like the higher-pitched cousin of Robert Plant (Gene Simmons of Kiss called Rush the “Canadian Led Zeppelin” when they toured together in the early 70s). The rhythm has such a fun bounce to it. If you don’t smile listening to this, you suck.
7. Spirit of Radio
I’m afraid we’re nearing “destroyed and made tired by radio” territory here…And isn’t it ironic that a song about old-timey radio culture was ruined by being overplayed on the radio? Maybe it was rotated so heavily in the 80s and 90s by radio guys not because the public was clamoring for the song, or because it charted so well (it did), but because program directors were just tickled and honored to have a geeky prog rock song dedicated to their world.
6. Clockwork Angels
Its tough to say how “classic” Rush songs will become only a matter of months after release (I publish this in August 2012), but I’m willing to step out on a limb here and predict that the title track off the band’s latest album will go down as one of their best. Not only is it of a semi-epic length (7:31), but the entire thing is so varied and each section is just as awesome in its own right. It reminds me a bit bit those last 4-5 pastiche songs from The Beatles’s Abbey Roads: kinda the same but very different. And all incredible.
Full disclosure: I’ve been obsessed with this song since I bought the album (my first Rush studio release after I became a fan). You can read my in-depth critique of the song here: Rush – Presto.
4. Fly By Night
Their first hit. Wow, incredible to realize this was 1975. A great song that mixed melodic whimsy with lyrical gravity. The chorus is about as catchy as a Rush song has ever been.
Ugh – I admit I’m sick of this song but I will use my musical super powers to suspend my aural fatigue and vote this for #3 on their all-time greatest list. Its so angular, straight and tight – there’s absolutely no swing to it. Its as though Devo took over production duties in the studio. To me, this is the quintessential “metronomic” Rush track. In fact I think it was recorded to a metronome…
2. Red Barchetta
Not only has this been voted one of their best in charts, polls and sales, but it truly is an awesome, rocking and touching song. It begins and ends in the most gentle and quiet way – with those pinging guitar harmonics. I always thought that the story was a true one, about Neil Peart’s fond remembrances of his pre-teen years visiting his uncle’s farm in rural Ontario, racing that little Red Barchetta over country roads while evading the Royal Mounties. Alas, it is based on a science fiction story published in Road & Track, about a dystopian future when private property (especially cars) is abolished and a Hunter Games-like oppressive state enforces uniformity. Wait…a libertarian lyric? From Neil Peart? Shocked.
Tada! Here we have it. What would a “best-of” list for Rush songs be without an odd meter/time signature, geeky lyric and piercing vocal wail. Hmm…actually no piercing here, but we do get a heaping dose of that charming faux-English accent from our man Geddy Lee. Words like “Limelight” are tailor made to sound English in the hands of over-annunciators like Geddy. Anyway, the song is perhaps the most perfect example of their simple, understated approach to prog. They really get it right when they try least hard to impress. I’m sure Alex and Geddy tossed off the music here in less than an hour, just noodling around together on guitar and bass. We benefit greatly. Hope you enjoyed this list.
If you dig Rush you’ll probably like my music too…