Key Tracks: "Working Man," "Finding My Way"
Quick Take: Rush pumps out a more approachable brand of sci-fi fusionoid pomposity than, say, sophisticated prog-rock practitioners such as Pink Floyd or King Crimson. The vaguely populist bent suits this musicianly Canadian power trio, while hinting at its preconceptual roots as dull, perennially second-billed metal plotzers. Drummer Neil Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and bassist Geddy Lee have developed fearsome chops over the years, though they're clearly still finding their way on their self-titled debut — likely because Peart doesn't play on this album (original drummer John Rutsey suffered from diabetes and left the band after this LP's release because he didn't want to go on long tours). Rush wears the group's Led Zeppelin influence on their sleeve, making this a workmanlike debut that laid the groundwork for what Rush would become.
Fly By Night (1975)
Key Tracks: "Anthem," "Fly By Night"
Quick Take: The distance between Rush's debut and Fly By Night is massive thanks to the arrival of Neil Peart, who brought his intricate, muscular drumming style and literary-minded lyrics to the group's three-pronged power attack. The album contains the group's first super-proggy moment in the multi-part narrative "By-Tor & The Snow Dog," and though that's what really turned on the hardcores, the band proves they are actually at their best when ripping through three minute blasts like "Best I Can" and the title track.
Caress of Steel (1975)
Key Tracks: "Bastille Day," "Lakeside Park"
Quick Take: Loaded down with two heavy-handed, multi-part albatrosses in "The Necromancer" and "The Fountain of Lamneth," Caress of Steel collapses under its own weight. Lacking a decent power trio single, Steel has plenty of sci-fi wankery but little for even hardcores to latch onto.
Key Tracks: "2112," "A Passage to Bangkok"
Quick Take: 2112 represents the band's first great peak and is still considered among fans as not only the definitive Rush album but one of the greatest recordings in the genre. The seven part, twenty minute "2112" suite is a prog-lover's dream, full of razor-sharp time signature changes and fantastically complicated solos, turning the best King Crimson experiments into something that flirts gallantly with balls-out arena rock. 2112 also boasts the excellent "A Passage to Bangkok," an oft-overlooked blast on the LP's second side.
All The World's A Stage (1976)
Key Tracks: "2112," "Anthem"
Quick Take: Rush zealots swear by the group's impressive live performances, and the band has put out a number of live albums over their career. This is one of the weaker ones, as the band allows themselves to get bogged down in their own epic mythology. If you think Rush songs are too long, All the World's a Stage only makes them longer.
A Farewell To Kings (1977)
Key Tracks: "Closer to the Heart," "Cyngus X-1"
Quick Take: Despite some middling prog moments (most notably in "Xanadu"), A Farewell to Kings was the first Rush album to go Gold in the United States and scored the band's first big radio hit with "Closer to the Heart." This album started a workable trend for Rush, as subsequent albums would feature radio-baiting blasts of big riffage in between jam-heavy math-rock explorations.
Key Tracks: "Circumstances," "The Trees"
Quick Take: The pick to click here is "Circumstances," whose chorus reworks the tidal stresses of "Something for Nothing" in sprung rhythm and whose lyrics are the most personable, least didactic on the record. "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres," the obligatory space opera, was meant to expand on "Cygnus X-1" from A Farewell to Kings, but the musical and thematic references are only tangential. "The Trees" is an attractively droll political fable with a gorgeously rendered classical-guitar intro (one of Lifeson's arcane strengths). But the real new ground is Rush's first stab at an instrumental: "La Villa Strangiato" boasts taut riffing, acute tempos, flawless phrasing, the discipline to sound effortless and enough energy to flow in torrents.
Permanent Waves (1980)
Key Tracks: "Spirit of the Radio," "Jacob's Ladder"
Quick Take: On Permanent Waves' short (for them) six songs, Rush appropriate the crippling riffs and sonic blast of heavy metal, model their tortuous instrumental changes on Yes-style British art rock and fuse the two together with lyrics that — despite their occasional overreach — are still several refreshing steps above the moronic machismo and half-baked mysticism of many hard-rock airs. Fortunately, Rush lead off with their trump card, a frantic, time-changing romp called "The Spirit of Radio." Not only is the sentiment right on, but the tune is packed with insistent hooks, including a playful reggae break that suddenly explodes into a Led Zeppelin-like bash.
Moving Pictures (1981)
Key Tracks: "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight"
Quick Take: On Moving Pictures the group sculpts a more tuneful, AOR-friendly approach without forsaking its trademarks. "Tom Sawyer," their signature song, is everything great about Rush: powerful riffs, huge drums and a bit of swagger that was sorely missing from previous recordings.
Exit...Stage Left (1981)
Key Tracks: "Jacob's Ladder," "Freewill"
Quick Take: Except for a singalong in "Closer to the Heart" and a jokey intro to "Jacob's Ladder," the versions here are virtually identical to the studio renditions, so Rush fans may find the set redundant. Others might get a kick out of the big, surging E chords the band keeps pumping out and perhaps appreciate Peart's fine-tuned percussion.
Key Tracks: "New World Man," "Losing It"
Quick Take: Despite their complicated forays into the outer reaches of prog, Signals represents the first time Rush started to chase themselves down the rabbit hole, which made the 80s rough on them. On their twelfth album, Rush makes a strong argument for the view that advanced technology is not necessarily the same thing as progress. Unfortunately, they do so largely by screwing up. Although Signals is chockablock with state-of-the-studio gadgetry, ranging from the requisite banks of synthesizers to the latest in digital recording and mixing, none of these electronic add-ons enhances the group's music. Only the choppy "New World Man" shows any signs of the band finding the balance between Van Halen and Yes.
Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Key Tracks: "Distant Early Warnings," "Kid Gloves"
Quick Take: Things go a little better for Rush on Grace Under Pressure, where they managed to incorporate a number of modern elements into its sound (note the almost danceable rhythms in "Afterimage" and "Red Sector A," and the swelling synthesizers and electropercussion throughout). Geddy Lee also got his dog-calling falsetto shriek under control. But this album, more so than previous outings, reminds the listener that Rush is a band with a message. Thus, on "The Enemy Within," Lee sings, "I'm not giving in/To security under pressure/I'm not missing out/On the promise of adventure." And the hero of drummer-lyricist Neil Peart's sci-fi allegory, "The Body Electric," is an "android on the run, seeking freedom."
Power Windows (1985)
Key Tracks: "The Big Money," "Territories"
Quick Take: "The Big Money," the first hot FM focus track from Power Windows, may be the best of Rush's Cool Wave experiments to date. Neil Peart whips up a Molotov drum cocktail that is half Stewart Copeland psycho-ska and half "Blitzkrieg Bop"; from deep within his Edge-like echo pit, guitarist Alex Lifeson opens fire with a metallic descending chord sequence that rips through the song's chrome-finish production like grapeshot. In "Territories," a simple disco-style pulse becomes a Lifeson-spurred gallop, his Chinese guitar chatter alternating with the telegraphic synth patterns and sheet-metal keyboards played by singer-bassist Geddy Lee. Power Windows may well be the missing link between Yes and the Sex Pistols.
Hold Your Fire (1987)
Key Tracks: "Second Nature," "Time Stand Still"
Quick Take: After the synth-heavy explorations on Power Windows, Hold Your Fire returns the focus to Lifeson's guitar work, especially on "Open Secrets" and "Second Nature." The gorgeous "Time Stand Still" represents one of Rush's more magestrial singles, full of cascading Lifeson runs and backing vocals care of Aimee Mann (!).
A Show Of Hands (1989)
Key Tracks: "The Big Money," "Time Stand Still"
Quick Take: Although their fans treat the three members of Rush as if they were the Holy Trinity, the band chose the theme of another threesome — the Three Stooges — as the opening fanfare for its third live set. It's a bit of self-effacement to be found nowhere else on this album. Most of the material on A Show of Hands is from Power Windows and Hold Your Fire. Many of the performances stick closely to the studio versions, even down to having Aimee Mann repeat her backing-vocal stint for "Time Stand Still." The sensation of a studio recording is heightened by the remarkable sound quality of the recording (even the crowd recorded well). Rush's prodigious chops are proven crowd pleasers, but this collection is a morass of muscle-bound technique, quasi-profound lyrics and Geddy Lee's shrill screech.
Key Tracks: "The Pass," "Red Tide"
Quick Take: With Presto, Rush makes a stab at greatness that rivals its landmark LP Moving Pictures. This has a lot to do with Rupert Hine's deft production, which camouflages Geddy Lee's typically shrill vocals to great advantage. But it's also because "Red Tide" doesn't imitate the Police, it simply steals the melody from "Message in a Bottle." Similarly, "Anagram (for Mongo)" doesn't recall Foreigner, it wisely just pilfers the epic chords from "Long, Long Way From Home." Of course, Presto features lots of classic Rush (the fancy drum-bass interplay of "Show Don't Tell," the triumphant guitar solo on "The Pass"), as well as all the foibles — like overarrangement — that make the band's style so unpalatable.
Roll The Bones (1991)
Key Tracks: "Bravado," "Roll the Bones"
Quick Take: Though Rush mostly seemed to exist in a vacuum, they were not immune to inspiration from the rest of the music world such as their keyboard-heavy experiments throughout the New Wave 80s. Roll the Bones doesn't dress the band in flannel, but it does anticipate alt-rock's stranglehold on rock radio. The title track's lean, muscular approach made it a big hit and set the stage for Rush's big for relevence in an era when prog was cast far from the mainstream.
Key Tracks: "Stick It Out," "Double Agent"
Quick Take: Counterparts finds the trio in full '90s mode, mining the more organic, instrumentally complex aesthetic of its youth, albeit with the benefits of digital technology and a heavier sound. The power chords on "Stick It Out" are pure postgrunge menace, and while other bands on the radio were staring at their navels, Rush continued to preach their philosophy, and while it sounded heavy-handed and trite in the '80s, it became a refreshing respite in the all-irony era.
Test For Echo (1996)
Key Tracks: "Driven," "Half the World"
Quick Take: Rush's '90s surge also saw a number of bands paying homage to the Canadian trio, with Primus' Metallica-meets-2112 moves and the serious '70s-art-rock undercurrent of Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The buffed guitar and synthesizer contours of Test for Echo proved the band still had staying power, as the title track sat atop the mainstream rock chart and "Half The World" even scored some MTV airplay in the wild west that was the post-grunge era.
Different Stages (1998)
Key Tracks: "Limelight," "Working Man"
Quick Take: Taken from three different tours in 1997, 1994 and 1978, Different Stages acts as the definitive Rush live collection, running through all the band's big hits and prog explorations.
Vapor Trails (2002)
Key Tracks: "One Little Victory," "Stars Look Down"
Quick Take: The tragic death of Peart's wife and daughter within a 10-month span brought Rush to a halt. Fortunately, the lifelong friends stuck together and, after a forgettable Geddy Lee solo outing, returned in 2002 with a new, geeky-as-ever album and subsequent world tour. Vapor Trails abandons the prog-rock jams of Test for Echo for a harder approach. On tracks such as "Earthshine," "Stars Look Down" and "One Little Victory," Alex Lifeson proves he can still generate plenty of guitar crunch. Neil Peart's lyrics became less abstract and much more personal (for obvious reasons). This is refreshing, even on the earnest, M. Scott Peck-worthy "Sweet Miracle." Otherwise, though, there are few surprises: Geddy Lee sends his voice to the rafters through his nose, while his remarkable bass playing mixes in a showy display of virtuosity with Lifeson's and Peart's colossal guitar-and-drum show.
Rush In Rio (2003)
Key Tracks: "O Baterista," "The Spirit of the Radio"
Quick Take: Rush in Rio is, by far, the most satisfying of the band's many live collections. The hits all sound big and polished, and even sweaty prog albatrosses like "By-Tor & The Snow Dog" sound fresh and revitalized.
Key Tracks: "Heart Full of Soul," "The Seeker"
Quick Take: Fans already knew it, but these eight classic-rock covers (including "Mr. Soul") prove that, beneath all the virtuosity and Dungeons and Dragons fantasia, Rush have always been a decent bar band. With this disc, the trio finds a surprisingly reserved way to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. Their take on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" is suprisingly understated and ruggedly presented as though they've been sweating it out for decadeds on the blues circuit rather than selling out stadiums.
Snakes & Arrows (2007)
Key Tracks: "Far Cry," "Malignant Narcissism"
Quick Take: By this point, Geddyheads know what they're getting and Rush are well aware of what they're doing, making Snakes and Arrows a nice extension of the classic aesthetic on Vapor Trails with few new twists and turns thrown in. Lifeson continues to reach for the stars, as "Malignant Narcissism" overcomes its cumbersome title with glorious six-string blasts.
Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)
Key Tracks: "The Way the Wind Blows," "Malignant Narcissism"
Quick Take: Though the title is a bit misleading, Snakes and Arrows Live does focus on the still-fresh material from 2007's Snakes and Arrows. Those songs work well in this setting, but the stuff that goes over best is still usual suspects like "YYZ" and "Tom Sawyer."