Having sold more than 40 million albums worldwide since 1975, Rush ranks only behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum albums by a rock band. Not only that, but they married heavy rock and progressive rock like no other act in the 1970s, incorporated New Wave and pop into their music in the 1980s, and continued to put out vital music well into their later years, still proving to be every bit as potent a live band as they ever have.
Still, to some, there’s always a stigma when it comes to Rush. Only guys like it (explored with great humor in the 2009 film I Love You, Man). It’s pretentious. It’s about technique and gear rather than songwriting and nuance. The lyrics are verbose and silly. The singer shrieks all the time. The fans are all gigantic nerds. Of course, all gross exaggerations (except for us fans, we embrace our nerdiness), but they always seem to stick whenever a Rush fan tries to get someone he or she knows interested in their favorite band.
Consider this list of ten songs another attempt to coerce a newbie into the vast, rewarding, fun, and often beautiful Rush back catalog. Most of the usual classic rock radio staples have been eschewed in favor of some deeper cuts or underrated singles, all of which show there’s more to this great band than some lazy assumptions that far too many people, especially Baby Boomer-aged critics, have been lazily tossing out for decades. Listen with an open mind, discover, and enjoy. We’ll see you at the next show in the gigantic line for merch.
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1. “What You’re Doing” (Rush, 1974)
Although Rush’s debut album lacks the personality and dexterity that the band developed after drummer Neil Peart joined the band in 1974, there’s a simple charm to that record. Cut from the same cloth as the breakthrough single “Working Man”, “What You’re Doing” is a straightforward yet very effective blast of bluesy heavy rock, featuring bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson locked into a terrific groove throughout the track. Sure, it’s a Zeppelin/Cream knock-off, but it’s a very good one. And if John Rutsey had one thing on Peart, he could swing, which this track proves.
2. “Xanadu” (A Farewell to Kings, 1977)
1976’s 20-minute “2112” is a justifiable progressive rock classic, but “Xanadu”, released the following year, is every bit as strong. Long and complex but never self-indulgent, “Xanadu” is an impeccably arranged, very dynamic, vibrant epic that not only sees Rush sounding more focused and controlled to date, but synthesizers start to become a prominent instrument, adding much richness to the music. Meanwhile, Lee’s vocal delivery is far more controlled, as is Peart’s lyric writing, taking inspiration from the Coleridge poem of the same name.
3. “La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres, 1978)
Rush’s wave of progressive rock was cresting in the late ‘70s, and Hemispheres was the high water mark. The nine and a half-minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” perfectly encapsulates Rush’s charm during that period. Multifaceted and somewhat arch, the 12-part suite is nevertheless made accessible by the playfulness that creeps into the performance, the three members showing tremendous chemistry along with staggering musical skill. By 1978 Rush had taken their progressive rock as far as it could go, and it was time for a change in direction, but not before the band had some fun one last time.
4. “Entre Nous” (Permanent Waves, 1980)
Rush’s seventh album marked a significant change in the band’s sound as the band started to embrace shorter song structures, restrained, hooky melodies, and the burgeoning New Wave scene. French for “between us”, “Entre Nous” is not the staple that “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” are, but it’s just as good an example of the much more spacious sound Rush was tinkering with at the time, Lee’s keyboards becoming more prominent, Lifeson’s guitarist starting to exhibit a very strong Andy Summers influence.
5. “Red Barchetta” (Moving Pictures, 1981)
One of Rush’s most universally loved albums, Moving Pictures remains a perfect balance between the band’s adventurousness and an undeniable pop sensibility. “Red Barchetta” is one of the most enchanting tracks on the album, a beautiful combination of wistful verses and hard-charging passages that vividly mirrors Peart’s fantasy tale of a young man’s need for speed (“Sunlight on chrome, the blur of the landscape, every nerve aware”).