Few bands have enjoyed legendary decades-spanning career like Rush. Fewer still have been able to take their final bow on their own terms. Once Rush reached arena-headlining status, they never had to “downsize,” or even go on package tours. They rarely played multi-act festivals and towards the end of their career, even stopped using opening acts on their tours, so that they could play longer shows. They also were always able to play a lot of new music at their shows, and fans responded. They’ve had classic songs on every album, starting with their self-titled debut in 1974, up through their final album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels. Of course, that made it difficult to narrow down this list to just 50 songs — and of course so many of you will disagree with the songs we included, the songs we didn’t include, and the order. That’s part of the fun of lists, though.
Rush's final LP, ‘Clockwork Angels,’ was a complex concept album. It saw them experimenting with a string section (which they’d take on the road for the tour: it marked the first and only time they were ever accompanied by extra musicians). And on the ‘Clockwork Angels’ tour, they played a good chunk of songs from this album, to the delight of fans, who were still invested in the band’s new music, nearly four decades after their debut. “The Wreckers” was one of the most arena-ready songs from the album.
Rush doesn’t get a lot of credit for their sense of humor, and based on their songs, it’s not hard to see why that would be the case: most of their songs just aren’t funny, or even lighthearted. An early exception to the rule was this obscure jam from their third album. “I Think I’m Going Bald,” recorded while the band was relatively young and Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart were all in their twenties, poked fun at aging. But when Lee roared, “But even when I am gray/I’ll still be gray my way!” it was prophetic. They called the shots up to their final bow.
Neil Peart has always been able to set a scene, and that’s certainly true on this ‘Clockwork Angels’ jam: “A man could lose his life, in a country like this/Sunblind and friendless/Frozen and endless/And the nights grow longer, the farther I go/Wake to aching cold, and a deep Sahara of snow.”
The studio version of “In The End” from 1975’s ‘Fly By Night,’ is great but this was really meant to be played live. When the intro fades out at about 1:50 into the song and Lee whispers, “one, two, buckle my shoe!” (another rare glimpse into their sense of humor!) and then Lifeson enters with his killer guitar riff, you have to imagine lighters filling the theater.
“By-Tor And the Snow Dog,” from the previous album, ‘Fly By Night,’ saw the band moving into proggy territory: it was a four part Tolkien-esque tale of good vs. evil. ‘Caress Of Steel’ went even farther: “The Fountain of Lamneth” was six chapters, 20 minutes long and took up all of side two. What was it about? It’s kind of tough to say, but band members did admit to smoking a lot during the making of the album.
Rush was never the “MTV Unplugged” guys: they didn’t generally do the “stripped down” thing. One exception was the live version of “Resist,” which featured Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson strapping on acoustic guitars to accompany Geddy’s voice. Neil wasn’t part of the performance, but his lyrics were: “I can learn to persist with anything but aiming low/I can learn to close my eyes to anything but injustice.”
Another Tolkien-y, multi-part prog-rock jam from ‘Caress of Steel,’ this one is a bit shorter than “The Necromancer,” though. Coming in at a tight three chapters and at just twelve and a half minutes, it’s actually a bit reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” another epic tale of travellers in dangerous lands.
A song that has made its way into a number of setlists over the years, and the performance always looks cool: the song lends itself to dry ice and weird lighting. But the studio version, drenched with Lee’s synthesizers and Peart’s electronic drums, is still the best take on the song.
Rush took a long hiatus in the late ‘90s; in fact, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the band would ever work together again. Neil Peart lost his daughter (in a tragic car accident) and his wife (to cancer) within months of each other, and wasn’t sure he’d ever return to playing drums, much less being in a band. He went on a long motorcycle trip that took him from Alaska to Belize (which he documented in his book, also called ‘Ghost Rider’). This song was obviously inspired by that journey. “Pack up all those phantoms/Shoulder that invisible load/Keep on riding north and west/Haunting that wilderness road/Like a ghost rider.”
One of Rush’s sweetest and most wistful songs, it was written by Peart about a park where he spent time as a teenager.
A rocker written solely by Geddy Lee, the band played this one regularly on their first tour, before Peart joined the band. It wasn’t just Peart’s drumming, but his lyrics that drove the band to greater heights, but it’s fun to listen to their early jams when they were still heavily in the throes of Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix.
The original Rush at their bluesiest, this slow jam extended past seven minutes and, like many other songs from the era, had a huge Zep influence.
Rush’s first foray into multi-part epics, “By-Tor And The Snow Dog” was made up of four movements, but one of them had four of *its own* sub-movements! That’s right: there was I: “At the Tobes Of Hades,” II: “Across the Styx,” III: “Of The Battle,” which was split into i: “Challenge and Defiance,” ii: “7/4 War Furor,” iii: “Aftermath” and iv: “Hymn of Triumph,” before wrapping with IV: “Epilogue.” Whew! And that’s how you feel after the eight and a half minute epic. Fun fact: they got the name from two dogs owned by Rush's manager Ray Danniels (who was their manager up until the very end), which their lighting man Howard Ungerleider named “Biter” and “Snow Dog.”
For years, “In The Mood” was the only song from ‘Rush’ that made the setlist, and even in the ‘80s it must have seemed ancient. “Hey, baby, it’s a quarter to eight, I feel I’m in the mood/Hey baby, the hour is late/I feel I’ve got to move!” Ok, Geddy Lee as a lyricist is no Neil Peart, but how many party jams did Neil write?
In the ‘80s, Rush tended to lean heavily on Geddy Lee’s keyboards and synthesizers, sometimes at the expense of Alex Lifeson’s guitars, but here both instruments shine, particularly on Lifeson’s amazing solo.
For “Force Ten,” Neil Peart reconnected with Pye Dubois, with whom he co-wrote the lyrics to “Tom Sawyer.” One of the best songs from the 1987 album ‘Hold Your Fire,’ it was always better live.
The first lyrics that Neil Peart ever wrote for Rush. Once Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson saw the first verse -- “Ten score years ago, defeat the kingly foe/A wondrous dream came into being/Tame the trackless waste, no virgin land left chaste/All shining eyes, but never seeing,” they surely knew that the band was evolving quickly.
The first song from the first Rush album (although not their first release: their first single was a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”). It’s a great album opener, with one of Alex Lifeson’s coolest riffs (and you kinda hear hints of the immortal “The Spirit Of Radio” in there).
A progressive rock epic, it ended one album and ended on cliffhanger note, leaving fans waiting about another year to find out what happened. (Hey, 1977 also saw the release of a little sci-fi flick called ‘Star Wars,’ we had to wait a full *three* years until the follow-up ‘The Empire Strikes Back’!). In “Book One,” an explorer aboard the spaceship Rocinante journeys toward a black hole (called Cygnus X-1), to learn what lies beyond it. Alas, it draws his ship in, and the final lyrics are: "Sound and fury drown my heart/Every nerve is torn apart."
An 18 minute, six-part epic that took up all of side one of ‘Hemispheres,’ in “Book II” we learn that the narrator survived his journey into the black hole… but only after we meet Apollo, the Bringer Of Wisdom and Dionysis, the Bringer Of Love who are locked in battle. The traveller, as it turns out, is Cygnus, Bringer Of Balance. At the end of the lengthy but totally rocking tale, everyone kind of gets along. And that concluded Rush’s final multi-part epic, as the band began to strip down their sound and move away from cosmic lyrics.
A rather adult song, where Peart shuns the cheapening of the term “hero”: “Not the handsome actor, who plays a hero’s role; not the glamor girl who’d love to sell her soul.” Instead, he (somewhat obviously) points to the guy who “saves a drowning child/cures a wasting disease/ lands the crippled airplane/solves great mysteries.” But the song is even more compelling when he looks at people living with dignity: particularly a family who lost a daughter to violence and try to make sense of it.
Rush had been using synthesizers for a few albums (they were very prominent on much of ‘Moving Pictures’) but ‘Signals’ had less of a hard rock and more of a “new wave” feel, particularly on this reggae-inspired track, which may have owed a bit of debt to the Police. It may have upset some fans, but it’s also the band’s only Top 40 hit (it reached #21).
The studio version is from ‘Fly By Night,’ and is pretty great but this live version is even better. The lyrics were inspired by Ayn Rand’s 1938 novel ‘Anthem.’ It wasn’t the last time her books would influence Peart (“2112” was another instance).
Neil Peart has said that the lyrics were the first time he tried to write non-fiction, but what really makes the song notable is Alex Lifeson’s mind-bending guitar solo, one of his finest.
One reason that the ‘Clockwork Angels’ tour was so amazing was that the band brought a string section out with them. And while most string sections accompanying rock bands sit down, the “Clockwork Angels String Ensemble” all stood, and rocked out when they drew their bows. They were mostly there for the songs on the ‘Clockwork Angels’ album, but they played a few other songs too, “Dreamline” being a real highlight. The song, about the power of youth, has one of Peart’s most prescient lines: “we’re only immortal… for a limited time.”
Rush isn’t the band who are always jamming with other artists and inviting guests on their records. So “Time Stands Still” stands out for the vocals of Aimee Mann -- at the time, she fronted new wave band ‘Til Tuesday (you might know their big hit, “Voices Carry”), today she’s a highly acclaimed solo singer-songwriter. Her voice and Geddy Lee’s worked remarkably well together on this song about trying to live in the moment.
“Vital Signs” had the creepy, foreboding vibe of other songs on ‘Moving Pictures’ (like “Tom Sawyer” and “Witch Hunt”) but also had the new wave influence of the following album, ‘Signals.’ Lifeson’s rhythm guitar was clearly reggae influenced and Geddy Lee’s synthesizers were prominent here, as they would be on the next few albums.
Rush’s best song of the ‘90s. After years of piling on synthesizers, on ‘Counterparts,’ they stuck mostly to guitar, bass and drums. And given that this album came out at the peak of the alternative rock explosion (in fact, it was released on the same day as Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’), that was good timing. The band had been inspired by Primus, who opened for them on their most recent tour, and that edge showed up all over the album, particularly on “Animate.”
Some of the biggest rock songs of 1977 were Electric Light Orchestra’s “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” and Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” Odds are, none of them were inspired by the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, though! So even if “Xanadu” didn’t get as much time on the airwaves as those tunes, at least it might have taught listeners a bit about the classic poem “Kubla Khan.” Nerdy fact: Peart was originally writing lyrics inspired by the classic film ‘Citizen Kane’ when he got distracted by a few lines of “Kubla Khan”: “To seek the sacred river Alph / To Walk the caves of ice / To break my fast on honeydew / And drink the milk of Paradise.”
Some of Geddy Lee’s funkiest, bounciest bass playing propels this song, which seems more prescient every year: “Big money goes around the world/Big money give and take/Big money done a power of good/Big money make mistakes/Big money got a heavy hand/Big money take control/Big money got a mean streak/Big money got no soul.” Fans on the conservative side of the political aisle who loved Peart’s Ayn Rand influence a decade earlier likely didn’t appreciate this jam quite as much as, say, “Something for Nothing.”
One of Peart’s most moving lyrics. Originally from ‘Signals,’ the song tells stories of a ballerina who could no longer dance and a writer who could no longer find the words. In an interview after Rush’s tour ended, he quoted the song, saying that he wouldn’t want to be one of the characters in the song; he knew that he, and Rush retired at the top of their game. This live version was from one of the shows on Rush’s final tour, and they were joined for this performance by violinist Jonathan Dinklage (yes, brother of the ‘Game Of Thrones’ star), who was an alumni of the “Clockwork Angels String Ensemble.” Geddy vocals don’t quite match his singing on ‘Signals,’ but that just gives the performance a bit more weight.
Surely one of Rush’s most powerful songs, Peart wrote the lyrics inspired in part by Geddy Lee’s mother’s experiences; she is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. The song is originally from ‘Grace Under Pressure,’ but the live version adds more urgency.
Originally from ‘Hemispheres,’ it was Rush’s first full-length instrumental piece… but for some reason, in this live version, Geddy Lee added lyrics to somewhat humorous effect. (Decades later, on ‘Rush in Rio,’ Alex added stream-of-conscious vocals, in a precursor to his infamous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech.) The song was subtitled, “An Exercise In Self-Indulgence,” and it certainly was that, but it also works remarkably well… with or without lyrics.
As the ‘80s were coming to a close, synthesizers were giving way to loud guitars in rock music, and “Show Don’t Tell” was a good example of this shift; the song felt influenced by heavy rock band Living Colour who debuted the year before with ‘Vivid’ (and who were huge Rush fans, particularly guitarist Vernon Reid).
It feels like an epic, but it clocks in at a very svelte 5:50. As Peart said in the tour program for the tour accompanying the LP, “This song is one of our favourites on the album, as it seems to encapsulate everything that we want Rush to represent.”
One of the last songs where you can hear the Ayn Rand influence in Peart’s lyrics; here, he pretty much questions religion: “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice/If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice/You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill/I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose freewill.”
The synth-heavy song features some of Peart’s most air-drumable playing (if you’ve seen Rush perform this one live and you looked around the audience, you’ll understand). And despite Peart’s ambivalence towards religion, the lyrics are inspired, in part, by a Biblical tale. Peart once explained that the “Absalom” reference comes from William Faulkners' 1936 book ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ Absalom, however, was the son of King David. He killed his half-brother and later tried to overthrow David. A battle resulted, and later, against David's wishes, Absalom was killed by King David's men. David mourned for his son, and Peart felt that the song was about compassion, and, as he said, “It occurred to me that the Biblical story was applicable: David's lament for his son: 'Would God I had died for thee,' seemed to be the ultimate expression of compassion.”
A rare Geddy Lee/Neil Peart co-write (Alex Lifeson didn’t contribute to the writing of the song), “Fly By Night” was inspired by a trip to England that Peart took as a teenager. “Leaving my homeland, playing a lone hand/My life begins today,” he wrote. It was a prescient line: he and Rush would spend a lot of time on the road in the coming decades.
Inspired by the storming of the Bastille, which began the French Revolution, “Bastille Day” was the band’s opening song on tour for years (including on ‘All The World’s A Stage’; the original version is from ‘Caress of Steel’). It serves as a hard rocking warning to any leaders who would utter the phrase, “There’s no bread, let them eat cake.”
The opening track and lead single from ‘Vapor Trails,’ the lyrics were especially poignant in light of the fact that the band had effectively dissolved after the death of Neil Peart’s wife and daughter within months of each other. This was the song that they returned with. It was easy to imagine that Peart was writing the lyrics from his experience: “A certain amount of resistance/To the forces of the light and love/A certain measure of tolerance/A willingness to rise above… Celebrate the moment/As it turns into one more/Another chance at victory/Another chance to score.” Indeed, Peart did rise above his circumstances; he ultimately remarried and he and his wife had a daughter.
Half of the song feels like it’s another look into Peart’s path, but it could be about all of us: “One day I feel I'm on top of the world, and the next it's falling in on me/I can get back on.” But the other half is a critique of society, and how we treat each other. This was a recurring theme on ‘Snakes and Arrows’: Peart tackled faith, fear, the association of religion and war, hope and despair, and the religious billboards he saw on a motorcycle trip across the US which he detailed in his fourth book ‘Roadshow: Landscape with Drums – A Concert Tour by Motorcycle.’ The lyrics “It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit/’It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it,” might not appeal to Ayn Rand acolytes, but Peart had grown up.
If there was one song that most Rush fans related to, it would be this one. For better or worse, many Rush fans were suburban kids who didn’t fit in with the “cool” culture in their towns. Of course, this was before they could find like-minded friends in online forums. And as Neil Peart admitted, “[It was] hugely autobiographical, of course.”
Rush isn’t known for their blue collar anthems, but “Working Man” spoke as clearly as anthems by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. And even though it’s stylistically much different than Rush’s subsequent classics, “Working Man” was their first song to get significant radio play.
As Rush were becoming more and more popular, Neil Peart was becoming more and more uncomfortable with fame. Even in their final years, as Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson did “meet and greets” with fans, Peart didn’t participate (and rarely granted interviews). It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate his fans, or even that he didn’t like them. But as he wrote, “Caught in the camera eye/I have no heart to lie/I can't pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend.”
‘Fly By Night’ built some momentum for Rush, which totally fizzled out with ‘Caress Of Steel.” So what was Rush’s next move? “Let’s take up all of side one of our next album with a seven part twenty minute long super-epic!” Mercury Records must have been thrilled. But the funny thing was: it worked. The sci-fi based story, inspired by Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem,’ takes place in 2112. The evil priests of the “Temples of Syrinx” take their orders from computers, and of course, individualism and creativity are outlawed… and no one has heard music before.” Some guy finds an old guitar and learns to play it; sadly, the priests aren’t as stoked about this discovery as he is and he gets banished. He eventually seems to commit suicide: “I don’t think I can carry on/This cold and empty life/My spirits are low, in the depths of despair/My lifeblood spills over.” The song’s final movement, “VI: Grand Finale” ends with robotic voices saying, “Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control!” A bit dramatic, sure, but it also resonated with teenage Rush fans, who felt that their band was the most important thing in the world and that life without them would be empty.
One of Rush’s most enduring songs on rock radio, Geddy Lee cites it as a game changer for the band: “It was a hit as far as we've ever had a hit. It got us on the radio, the kinds of radio that would never normally associate with us, so it was as close as we ever came to a pop song, especially at that point.”
Rush recorded a lot of instrumental jams and this is the best of them all. The original version on ‘Moving Pictures’ is incredible, but the live version from ‘Exit… Stage Left’ is even better, mostly thanks to Peart’s iconic drum solo in the middle of the song.
Surely Rush’s most well known song -- and for good reason. The lyrics (co-written by Neil Peart and Pye Dubois) felt relatable. To Rush fans in the ‘80s (and ‘90s, and today) “No, his mind is not for rent/To any god or government./Always hopeful, yet discontent” was an identifying badge of honor. Peart’s drum fills are some of his most memorable, Geddy Lee’s synthesizers were so cool even the rock purists couldn’t complain (but that might also be because the song boasts one of Alex Lifeson’s best guitar solos). And yes, we’re aware that a lot of fans would rank this at #1.
From the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” to White Zombie’s “Black Sunshine,” rock and roll has a long and proud history of songs about cars and driving. But few really capture the joy and excitement of accelerating and driving fast in the way that “Red Barchetta” does. Peart’s lyrics raise the stakes too: the song takes place in a future where a “motor law” has banned cars. Luckily, the narrator’s uncle keeps his red barchetta at his country home. Peart’s lyrics describe the sensations beautifully, but the music does the job even more.
Powered by Alex Lifeson’s greatest riff (and featuring one of his best solos), no song captures the feeling of hearing that song that you love on the radio as much as this one. And yeah, we know there’s a bit of a dig at radio in the song, but decades after the song first hit, we’re still your friendly voice to begin (or to spend) the day with, and the music we play “makes your mood” whether you’re in the car or listening online.