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Power Windows (1985)
Power Windows probably won’t top many Rush fans “Best Album” lists, but the album at least deserves recognition for giving listeners a helluva lead-off track. The first few notes of “The Big Money” come up so quickly, more than a few listeners have probably jumped if their volume was turned up too high. The “greed=bad” message may be a bit generic, but Lee’s singing (yes, singing) make “Big Money” one of the most effortless and confident songs in the Rush catalog.
Moving Pictures (1981)
In the ‘80s, there were two ways to kill your credibility if you were in a hard rock band. The first way was to “sell out” and appear in a commercial. The second way was to use a keyboard or synthesizer. But even the most devout keyboard detractors had to admit the opening on “Tom Sawyer” sounded absolutely badass.
Concept-wise, “Tom Sawyer” is all over the place. It’s both futuristic, with its spacey, sci-fi like effects, and steeped in tradition with obvious references to Mark Twain. And as Rush’s biggest hit, it sounds like no other band could record it. Just as Rock Band owes a debt to “YYZ”, the cloudy, smoke-filled laser light shows of the ‘80s owe a tribute to “Tom Sawyer”.
Permanent Waves (1980)
You almost have to flip a coin between “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” for a top ten list, as both songs perfectly capture Rush’s sound. But “Sprit” gets the nod for Lifeson’s memorable guitar intro and amazing middle section that leads up to Lee’s famous “concert hall!” callout. The track opens with the wide-eyed idealism of the power of radio—at the time, still a powerful vehicle of bringing people together for a shared single experience. But through the slightly cheesy, dated keyboard effects and the idealistic line “one likes to believe in the freedom of music” comes a degree of cynicism as Lee sings, “But glittering prizes and endless compromises / Shatter the illusion of integrity.” For a progressive rock band, that’s about as punk as you can get.
Almost 25 years before the Arcade Fire wrote a full-length album about the subject, Rush summed up suburban life in five words: “Conform or be cast out.” Other bands have tacked urban sprawl with snark or anger, but Peart’s matter-of-fact lyrics and Lee’s plainspoken delivery told kids, “That’s just the way things are, deal.” But at least you could take comfort that millions of other cast outs were feeling the exact same thing.
Sound-wise, “Subdivisions” showed a cleaner sounding Rush, taking full advantage of the rich, digital sound that would be on full display for all to hear in a few years with the compact disc. Big topics. Big sound. “Subdivisions” was the audio equivalent of a brainy, big-budget summer blockbuster.
There’s a reason Rush fans hold a special degree of reverence for the band’s instrumentals. Their first “full” instrumental, clocking in at almost ten minutes and featuring not an ounce of filler, remains one of the best instrumentals in rock. Divided into three parts, the song was inspired by a dream from Lifeson. While Lee and Peart have each received near-universal adoration for their respected instruments, Lifeson shows why he is the unsung “quiet one” in the band on “Strangiato”, keeping three diverse movements together with his playing. In an interview, Lee stated that it took longer to record “Strangiato” than the entire Fly by Night album. The band’s ambition paid off, as this track remains the song that all other Rush instrumentals will be judged against.