Rush Album Countdown: #4-#1

Well we’ve arrived, and not a moment too soon! Snakes & Arrows is mere days away, and I look forward to seeing it take its place in the Rush pantheon. But before I reveal the four greatest Rush albums ever, let’s recap one last time:

Part 1 (#17 – #15)Rush, Hold Your FireRoll the Bones
Part 2 (#14 – #12) —  Test for Echo, Vapor Trails, Fly by Night
Part 3 (#11 – #9)Caress of Steel, Power Windows, Presto
Part 4 (#8 – #5)Counterparts, Hemispheres, 2112, A Farewell to Kings

For those who have been paying attention, a pattern has been developing over this countdown. Most of the early and recent albums, while good, don’t seem to stack up as well. Last time we got into the creamy center of Rush’s catalog, and now we reach the rich, nougat center. I think. I don’t eat enough candy to make that analogy work.

#4 – Signals (1982)

Rush - Signals album coverAny doubts about Rush’s intentions to explore new musical territory were put to rest on this one. And just as the band wore their influences on their sleeves the first time they staked out their territory (’74-’75 or so), so did New Wave and Reggae-lite (aka The Police) figure prominently in the territory carved out by Signals.

“Subdivisions” needs no introduction – it’s simply a classic entry. The rest of the album, while not uniformly great, sounds strong and assured – not at all the sound of a group unsure of where they’re headed. “The Analog Kid” grooves righteously, and contains some great lyrics centered on longing, a theme Neil Peart writes about quite well.

Two under-appreciated gems reside on Signals – “The Weapon” and “Losing It.” The first is not particularly dynamic, but pulses insistently and always sticks with me long after I’ve listened to it. “Losing It” is, in a word, gorgeous. If it’s true that pain is art, then this song is high art my friends. There is no solace to be found here, but there is still beauty.

As for “Countdown” – yeah, some of the lyrics are from 7th-grade Creative Writing class. But I will give Neil a pass here, as they were written in the exuberance of being present for the first-ever Space Shuttle launch. In any case, the song is musically strong enough to overcome the lyrical faux pas.

More than any of the Rush albums in my Top 10, Signals is much greater than the sum of its parts. I think this is one of the reasons many fans might be down on it. It really has to be taken as one large work, rather than eight individual songs.

Rush - Grace Under Pressure album cover#3 – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

I remember reading a bit in the Rush biography Visions (released around the Hold Your Fire era) that the band nearly broke up after this album, because they didn’t think they would ever release anything better. While I obviously disagree, I can see why they might have thought that.

A lot of Rush fans point to this album as the point where Rush lost the plot, so to speak. They point to the abundance of synths and especially to the dreaded (*gasp!*) electronic drums. But really, those are just tools. They don’t write the songs – and this album boasts some great ones.

There is nothing laid back or humorous about Grace Under Pressure, and that suits me just fine. Well, except the horrid video for “Distant Early Warning.” That’s just cringe-inducing. But the song is forceful and dark, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Alex Lifeson returns with a vengeance, after being buried for most of Signals. Geddy Lee’s vocals are some of the best and most nuanced he ever delivered, and Neil is…Neil.

Other than the aforementioned “Distant Early Warning,” my favorites here are “Afterimage” and “Between the Wheels.” They are powerful musical, even artistic, statements. Even the odder tracks like “Red Lenses” are delivered with unexpected forcefulness. Grace Under Pressure is not a “fun” album to listen to by any means, but it resonates with emotion like no other entry in the Rush catalog.

Rush - Permanent Waves album cover#2 – Permanent Waves (1980)

As Rush entered the ’80s, they began to leave behind their prog rock sound like a Pet Rock. And boy did they do it with style. According to the Rush bio Visions (and my memory), Permanent Waves was originally planned as another album in the vein of Hemispheres. I even remember reading that one of the songs (at least) was going to be a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I can’t help but think they made the right choice in ditching that idea.

To be sure, some vestiges of the old style remained, particularly in the moody “Jacob’s Ladder.” But other than that, the rest PW ain’t your older brother’s Rush. “The Spirit of Radio” is one of those songs that has been played so many times, it occasionally risks losing its impact. Luckily it’s so damn good.

Then there is “Freewill,” one my Top 5 Rush tracks ever. My posterior is still booted by the ferocious bridge section. Rock on indeed. Then there are the mellow duo – “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings.” I would point to these as the only time this album sags at all, but it’s not very much.

The album closes with what must have been one of Rush’s most challenging numbers ever, “Natural Science.” I say this because whenever I’ve heard it played live, it seems they are mustering all the skill they have to keep up with things. But on the album it’s preserved forever in its perfection.

Rush - Moving Pictures album cover#1 – Moving Pictures (1981)

Yeah I know, what a shocker. But really, it’s the obvious choice. The transition away from classic prog that began with Permanent Waves continues even more forcefully on Moving Pictures. And while longtime fans may bemoan what was to come, few can take issue with the fact that Rush seemed to have a whole new musical vocabulary at their disposal on Moving Pictures.

Has there ever been a better sequence of songs to start an album than the ubiquitous “Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ” (the song that launched a million air drummers), and “Limelight”? Don’t bother thinking, the answer is no.

“The Camera Eye” turned out to be Rush’s last epic song, and it is a classic (although I prefer “Natural Science”). But what really rounds this album out as Rush’s greatest are the final pair of songs – the dark and minimalist “Witch Hunt” and the ferocious New Wave-inspired “Vital Signs.”

So there you have it. I hope this was entertaining, enlightening, or both. And if you do actually disagree with any of my choices, please consider the possibility that I am just correct. And in the end, that’s really what this blog is all about, isn’t it?

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