For a band that has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, whose streak of consecutive gold and platinum records is topped only by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, trying to nail down the exact reason why Canadian trio Rush is so adored by so many is never easy. Reviled by critics — or worse, completely ignored — for a good portion of their career, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have defied odds time and again, the music showing a remarkable amorphous quality, changing with the times yet never pandering, retaining an astounding level of popularity to this day.
Although the band’s groundbreaking combination of heavy metal and progressive rock was what made it famous in the first place, appealing greatly to the teenaged hesher crowd in the ’70s while the critical elite scoffed, to call Rush a “progressive power trio” today is like calling Bob Dylan a protest singer. There’s so much more to the band than that — more musical and thematic variety than many are willing to acknowledge. Rush has dabbled in new wave, electronic music, pop, reggae, and world music, the wide array of instruments all three employ redefining what a rock trio could accomplish onstage. The technical skill of the three musicians is staggering: Lifeson’s expressive, versatile guitar playing, Lee’s impressive dexterity on bass and keyboards — often at the same time — and not the least of which, the inimitable Mr. Peart, the only rock drummer alive for whom everyone remains in their seat when it’s time for his drum solo. Despite the musical chops on display, though, songcraft always comes first. Unlike so many progressive metal bands today, Rush has always known that even prog rock is pointless if it doesn’t have a hook. Not many bands can write an instrumental that compels a crowd of 40,000 people to sing along to it, but Rush have written several.
Additionally, Rush have always been incredibly grounded. Self-indulgent but always self-aware, a sense of levity has always served as a welcome undercurrent in the band’s work, whether making fun of their friends in KISS in a song in 1975, subtitling an instrumental “an exercise in self-indulgence,” the visual puns of the Moving Pictures cover art, or the band’s increasingly absurd and hilarious short films that precede each concert. The music can seem arch at times, but Rush always remember to laugh a little. It’s serious, but more importantly, it’s fun. It’s supposed to be.
Before Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Slayer attracted global popularity with little to no help from radio or mainstream music press, Rush set the standard. Not once did the band rely on music tastemakers to spread the word. Although the band received a couple mildly positive reviews from Rolling Stone, they were never given a proper feature in the 1970s or ’80s. Spin was always too hip for Rush. Goodness knows they never landed on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.
Rush might be what Lee whimsically describes as “the world’s biggest cult band,” but never has Rush ever been cool. It’s unapologetically nerdy music, but it’s also welcoming. Cool people need not apply, and there’s something immensely appealing about that. It’s for everyone. If you go to a Rush concert today, you’ll see one of the more convivial environments you’ll ever witness at a rock show. Everyone’s on the same level, three, maybe even four generations represented. A lot more women than you’d expect, shattering the myth that Rush is a boys’ club. During Peart’s solos you’ll see fathers hoist their awestruck children onto their shoulders to witness the mastery at hand. And when “Tom Sawyer” climaxes, people, no matter how hip they are, no matter what age, will be compelled to air-drum along to Peart’s legendary fills.
Whether your favorite album is 2112, Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, Grace Under Pressure, or, heaven help you, Roll The Bones, the unifying factor with all of those records is that Rush have always been uncompromising. When their third album flopped, Rush had a choice in 1976: to acquiesce to the demands of the record label, or to defiantly do their own thing. They chose the latter, achieved worldwide fame soon after, and were never again told what to do. Rush is the living embodiment of integrity in rock music, and it’s for that simple reason that we celebrate the Canadian legends’ vast, rich discography.
As a Rush fan since 1984, I have my own personal favorites — your favorite Rush album is often your first Rush album, so for me it’s Grace Under Pressure — but I took it upon myself to dispose of any trace of fandom and examine all 19 albums (and one mini-album) with as objective a critical ear as possible. Some rankings might be cause for debate, but that’s why I’ve written this piece: for folks to discuss, debate, and above all, celebrate this band’s wonderful, enthralling, and perpetually endearing body of work.
This July marks the 40th year that Dirk, Lerxst, and the Professor have been together. Boys, we wish you well, and thank you for the music. (Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy, where the Rush talk never ceases.)
Start the Countdown here.
Rush enthusiasts are nothing if not a little bit obsessive, yours truly included, and no discussion of the band’s discography would be complete without the inevitable comment, “But what about the live albums?” So just to be thorough, here’s a quick ranking of Rush’s live albums, from best to, erm, least worst.
01. All The World’s A Stage (1976)
02. Rush In Rio (2003)
03. Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)
04. A Show Of Hands (1989)
05. Exit…Stage Left (1981)
06. Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)
07. Grace Under Pressure Tour (2005)
08. Different Stages (1998)
09. R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour (2005)
10. Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland (2011)