Welcome back for the second half of my Top 40 Rush songs, you can find Part One here. Again, an advanced warning – there are many bona fide hits that are not on this list; as is the case with this kind of band, their best material was often their deep cuts and commercial failures.
So here’s #20 through #1:
#20 Mission (Hold Your Fire, 1987)
This was the first album to not go platinum since Caress of Steel – it was a shame that it was not better received by fans. I think that the longtime listeners really just wanted Rush to rock, and this is their furthest record from that. The real shame is that the arrangements and songs are so far beyond what a “rock band” can do, that it deserved more critical listens.
This song is uplifting, melodic, and beautiful. The live version is better because it doesn’t fade out clipping off the end to Alex Lifeson’s inventive and soaring solo. The vocals here (and really everywhere in their material from 1984-1991) are a perfect representation of Geddy’s underrated abilities. He found the sweet spot in his mixed voice, and the band knew how to write melodies in that perfect range.
#19 The Big Wheel (Roll the Bones, 1991)
Not a single. Not a song they ever played live, but the best of what this album had to offer. Human lyrics about the randomness of chance (really, just a microcosm of the entire record’s lyrical theme), this song is so much fun to listen to. Maybe it was too Hot-AC a la Mike and the Mechanics for other hard-core fans, but I found the musical choices to be awe inspiring.
#18 Leave that Thing Alone (Counterparts, 1994)
My favorite of all the instrumentals in their career. So interesting to have such a beautiful and sing-able chorus with no words, or even vocables. Any detractors of Alex Lifeson should ask themselves, “Which of my favorite guitarists make me want to sing (not play) their parts?”, then go punch yourself in the face for being an Alex Lifeson detractor. Geddy Lee’s bass is always a perfect 10, here it is a 12.
#17 Between the Wheels (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
I realized at the time that Rush were losing a pretty big chunk of their mainstream fan base with this album. Part of me rejoiced in this – I was a nerd and Rush was MY band. It felt weird to see jocks walking the halls wearing the same concert tees as me…but in a more altruistic sense I not only wanted Rush to be popular and therefore long-lasting, but I also felt that the planet NEEDED this music. This song has so much dissonance, yet accessibility. I always loved this dichotomy that was such a stronghold of mid-80’s Rush.
#16 Marathon (Power Windows, 1985)
This is not only my favorite Rush album, it is my single favorite album ever recorded. While they had brilliance before it and quality after it, nothing ever spoke to me in quite this deep and emotive way. Other albums have come VERY close (Sugarcult’s “Palm Trees and Power Lines”, Taylor Swift’s “Lover” both come to mind), but none have the enduring indelible mark left from that very first spin.
This album (like “Moving Pictures” and “Roll the Bones”) plays like a greatest hits album. I could have put any song from that record on here, but I dug deep to keep the list balanced. This song has a chorus that is beyond what hard-rock is capable of doing. When the last iteration comes in with the bombast of guitar under the choir and strings, it is impossible for me not to tear up. The story of reaching for the heights that are beyond you and approaching your dreams with a lifelong determination resonate with me even more at 35 years of listening.
#15 Subdivisions (Signals, 1982)
When I get into conversations with other lifelong Rush fans, I can set my watch by when talk of synthesizers ruining their sound will be introduced. I have to take a deep breath and say “my first album was Signals because their synths are what won me over”.
I am not denigrating their amazing body of work from ’74-’81, but once they embraced post-punk and New Wave as influences, I was all-in. Add to this lush soundscape that the song is anthem for the outcast without ever making me feel like an outcast and you have a perfect song.
#14 Middletown Dreams (Power Windows, 1985)
When I have a new friend that says they do not like Rush, I try and find out why. There are many reasons to not like a band, or a song. Ultimately trying to explain why you like or dislike music is completely pointless – you either are moved or you aren’t. It can’t be explained away.
The reason I ask is because if their exposure to Rush is their ex-boyfriend trying to play Xanadu on drums, or hearing Spirit of Radio and Tom Sawyer every other hour at their uncle’s house, then they are not 100% lost. Even if the issue is Geddy’s (BEAUTIFUL) voice, I still have hope.
This is one of the songs I send them. Melodic, unpredictable, fascinating, moving, relatable, and timeless. Plus, if they are not a fan, they have literally never heard this song and Geddy is in peak-pop-vocal-performance on this one.
#13 Cold Fire (Counterparts, 1994)
Objectively I am not surprised at how many of their more popular and “radio-ish” songs were not smash top-40 hits, but this one defies explanation. Unlike a record like Power Windows or Clockwork Angels where they not only don’t sound like the year they were made – they don’t sound like a year, period – this one is dripping with 1994 sensibility.
There is a timeless factor since it did not embrace production tricks of the hour, but it flows (evenly) right alongside Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but with a radio-ready chorus that exceeds either of what those bands did in 1994. The lyrics are not abstract, and the pacing and structure do not defy the laws of physics like so many of their other “hits”. Listen to it just once and you will be singing “I’ll be around, if you don’t let me down” for the rest of the week.
#12 BU2B (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
As soon as they got out of their insulated shell and allowed themselves to once again absorb other new music, the gloves came off and we got this – the best of what any band can do in 4 minutes of groove metal.
They take a riff that has a Rage Against The Machine vibe while still being 100% Rush and twist and turn melodic phrases that are spit-whispered over the verse until the chorus unleashes a hook so big that Phish are running scared. The song is great, and then the bridge comes in – left turn into melodic beauty that shows why after 40 years, we are still listening.
#11 Losing It (Signals, 1982)
This song seems like a time-machine warning of what Neil did not want his artistic life to become. I felt there was nobility in his retirement, but after passing less than five years in, this song now has a whole new prophetic poignancy. I loved this song when I was 14, now I fear it.
#10 Mystic Rhythms (Power Windows, 1985)
I live for music and yet it is so infrequent that a song can be fully transportive for me. I think I might be too self-conscious to just let myself go, but if this song is on, I no longer exist – I am swept away into an imaginative world painted with the brushstrokes in the color of Neil’s words and I feel the world around me only through the conduit of Alex’s guitar. While this is not my number one favorite song of all-time, I kind of think it might be the best song they have ever written.
#9 Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire, 1987)
The inclusion of Aimee Mann on the chorus is a rarity for them, but damn does it payoff having a female voice complement Geddy’s sweet tenor on this track. This was one of those songs that the first time I heard it, I felt like I was experiencing something special. it was more than a song, it was a feeling – an EXPERIENCE…and how perfect is that when the song is about living in the moment and holding on to experiences. This is a song that when you are young celebrates the promise of what is ahead, and when you are older celebrates the gift of what has come.
#8 The Pass (Presto, 1989)
This record was hit/miss for me when it came out. Part of that is purely insular as I was getting close to adulthood and experiencing all of the uncertainty when that is thrust upon you. The other part was that I did not like the middle-of-the-road they were driving down. I either wanted more of the (almost) pop, brooding synth stylings, or I wanted a full-on return to rock.
I have since come to really appreciate this album, and this song was instant for me and remains a favorite. As someone who has attempted suicide, it is rare to find a moving song about that kind of ordeal that actually companions with the listener and gives them hope, while not filling the lyrics with pandering platitudes. If I want to cry, I can just grab this song.
#7 Kid Gloves (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
A lot was said by Alex Lifeson about his frustration in the band during their synth-heavy years and that having to work his parts around the driving force of the keys was not something he enjoyed. The great irony is that the way he implemented his guitar into the tracks from ’82-’87 is my favorite guitar work in the history of guitar.
Methodical, pulsating, textural, and inventive. This track is a stand out because he utilized all of the skills and colors he was using to carve out a voice in the din of synths, on a track that really doesn’t have any synths. Oh, and this just absolutely ROCKS.
#6 Limelight (Moving Pictures, 1981)
This song actually charted. I did a deep dive on this recently to try and understand from the inside-out as to why this tune works and remains a classic. In theory, the melody is not stand-alone catchy enough to make this song sing-able, but it absolutely is.
David Barton once wrote, “They have hits, but very few memorable hooks or choruses”. I mean, he isn’t exactly wrong, but I think they had their hooks layered in a different way. The guitar riff is catchier than Backstreet Boys, and the chorus chord changes will rip your heart out. Lyrically this is an anthem for introverts, and I need more of those in my life.
#5 Tai Shan (Hold Your Fire, 1987)
I have heard Geddy say that this is his least favorite Rush song, even calling it a mistake. A few things about this; First, I love Geddy Lee and virtually everything about him, but while I don’t want him to be disingenuous, I think this is a question that as a songwriter you just never answer. When you say you don’t like something in your catalog, you hurt the listener’s experience of that song.
Secondly, an artist is not the one to judge the worth of their work. In this way, I like that we disagree because it means I have my own Freewill. This song might be too simple for them, or the lyric too personal, but the whole thing is just a beautiful tapestry of words and melody. I get goosebumps and tears. Pure magic going on here.
#4 The Garden (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
I love that the last song in their recorded catalog is easily one of their finest. This is another one I play for people who say they don’t like Rush. Such an intrinsically beautiful sentiment about the legacy that we leave behind, wrapped in metaphor with the most unexpected of endings on a concept album – they leave with a whisper instead of a scream.
#3 Grand Designs (Power Windows, 1985)
Sometimes a piece of music has a different kind of power to it. rather than empathy for the listener, or a soundscape that transports you to another world, there are songs that can lift you from wherever you are to a more joyous place. This song is not about joy or hope – it is about corruption and complacency, but in the happiest and most sing-able way possible. The band is playing at 100 from start to finish, and the coda has the biggest sing-along in the whole of their output (and I’m pretty sure The La’s stole it for “There She Goes”)
#2 Analog Kid (Signals, 1982)
This was the song that sold me on the band. I was familiar with Tom Sawyer and Spirit of Radio, but when I heard this, my world was instantly shattered. The day Neil died I wrote an extensive piece on what this song (and specifically his words) meant to me, so I won’t repeat that here, but there is true magic in the way that a piece of sonic information can change our view of self in an instant.
I did not realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I knew once the guitar solo came in that I would absolutely become a musician. There was no way something that was this profound to the development of my soul could keep me on the sidelines as a passive listener.
#1 Available Light (Presto, 1989)
There is a feeling we get as humans. I am guessing it is similar for all of us since everything on the planet is geared towards it – Falling in Love. Intellectually I know that “In Love” and “Real Love” are not the same thing, but they do come from the same place and they carry a particular feeling of bliss mixed with understanding and contentment. Once in a while, I can get this feeling elsewhere. As rare as it is, it happens from a song, and this particular compositions grabs my heart and refuses to let go.
Thanks for joining me on this epic voyage through the Rush catalog.
I hope you have found some new inspiration and a rekindling of old favorites.