Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’80s
It wasn’t easy calculating the Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’80s: Canada’s finest have one of the most varied and massive catalogs in the vast canon of rock music. We’ve already geeked-out with Rush once before, journeying through the band’s more traditional prog-rock era with our list of Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’70s. Here we tackle the 1980s, with all its synthesizers, new-wave leanings, commercial success, and—yes—Flock of Seagulls-styled haircuts. This was still a difficult list to make (we nearly included the entire ‘Moving Pictures’ album out of principle), but most of our choices come from the band’s early-’80s trifecta: ‘Permanent Waves,’ ‘Moving Pictures,’ and ‘Signals.’ So gather round, Geddy-heads, and check out our list of Top 10 Rush Songs of ’80s.
Prog nerds unite! If there’s one song in the Rush catalogue that truly showcases these virtuosic Canucks at the height of their technical powers, it’s this instrumental classic from 1981’s ‘Moving Pictures.’ While Rush may have moved toward more commercial territory elsewhere on that LP, they saved space for one indulgent behemoth: ‘YYZ’ is a whiplash journey through time-signature shifts, an avalanche of jaw-dropping Neil Peart percussion, and perhaps Alex Lifeson‘s most beloved guitar solo. Realizing that the tune’s opening 5/4 riff actually spells out the title in Morse code? Icing on an incredibly geek-tastic cake.
‘Time Stand Still’
While our list of Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’80s focuses mostly on the early ’80s, we did manage to squeeze in one classic from 1987: ‘Time Stand Still’ is one of the band’s purest pop moments, boasting a chilly, atmospheric chorus (with guest vocals courtesy of Aimee Mann) and plenty of glistening, arpeggiated guitar riffs from Lifeson. While much of Rush’s mid-’80s material now sounds dated, ‘Time Stand Still’ remains a heart-tugging anthem. (Also highly recommended: the absolutely cheese-tastic music video.)
The longer the ’80s wore on, the deeper Geddy Lee’s passion for synthesizers grew. As a result, guitarist Alex Lifeson was often relegated to a more supportive role. Early in the decade, though, Rush were discovering inventive ways to incorporate synths into their guitar-heavy sound. The eerie ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is a perfect example: Mostly an instrumental, the track builds from a brooding, atmospheric march to a masterful Lifeson guitar solo to a spacey synth section, climaxing in a frenzy of epic time-signature riffing.
‘New World Man’
Rush were never afraid to expand sonically beyond prog’s traditional reach—it’s one reason the trio survived (and thrived) throughout the 1980s as other dinosaur prog bands went extinct. They’d flirted with new-wave stylings on their 1981 prog-pop landmark, ‘Moving Pictures,’ but with 1982’s buoyant ‘New World Man,’ they more or less immersed themselves in the genre. Lifeson’s guitars are bright and punchy, while Lee and Peart propel a funky, Police-esque groove underneath. That newfound accessibility gave Rush had their first (and still biggest) U.S. hit.
This reggae-influenced jam has a tumultuous history: Terry Brown, Rush’s longtime producer, was so unimpressed that he initially refused to participate in the recording; as a result of that rift, both parties went their separate ways after the ‘Signals’ sessions. Brown’s crankiness was unwarranted: ‘Digital Man’ is one of Rush’s most dynamic and visceral ’80s tracks, built on an absolutely mammoth Lee bassline, climaxing with a robotic, jittery, synth-driven bridge.
Drummer-lyricist Neil Peart had a knack for taking outlandish sci-fi narratives and making them work as song lyrics: ‘Red Barchetta’ is a prime example – a futuristic tale of a man on a countryside joy ride, outrunning mysterious bad guys in his outlawed sports cars. But this classic also makes our list of Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’80s for its musical powers, namely Alex Lifeson’s chiming guitar riff and Geddy Lee’s passionate vocal delivery.
This synth-heavy prog epic remains one of Rush’s most beloved tunes, and with good reason: ‘Subdivisions,’ like many other tracks from the band’s early-’80s period, captures a distinct sonic mood, blending Lee’s eerie synthesizers with Lifeson’s hard-hitting guitar crunch and Peart’s cymbal-heavy blasts. It’s also one of Peart’s most touching lyrics – painting an introspective portrait of the literal and figurative subdivisions lurking in suburban lawns, cowering in high school shadows.
‘The Spirit of Radio’
It’s fitting that Rush’s first major U.K. smash was inspired by the radio: Nodding to Toronto station CFNY, Neil Peart wrote the lyrics to this pummeling 1980 classic as a tribute to the freedom and magic of discovering ‘music at your fingers.’ It’s one of his most empowering lyrics, romanticizing the everyday act of listening to the radio in your car: “Invisible airwaves crackle with life,” Lee sings, engulfed by Lifeson’s anthemic crunch and Peart’s delirious drumming, ‘Bright antenna bristle with the energy.’ They do indeed.
If there’s one Rush moment even casual fans know by heart, it’s ‘Tom Sawyer,’ the band’s undisputed prog-rock classic. Maybe this ubiquitous track’s popularity stems from its now-iconic status in at-large pop-culture (like its hilarious appearances in the bro-mance comedy ‘I Love You Man’); a more likely answer is its jaw-dropping blend of epic melody and mystical virtuosity: Few rock songs are able to get this proggy (morphing from 7/8 to 4/4 to, um, 13/16) in the presence of such extreme catchiness. “Catch the mystery!” Lee squeals with delight. Two decades later, that mystery’s never been more contagious.
We’ll be honest – as we calculated our Top 10 Rush Songs of the ’80s (using, of course, science and mathematics), it was a photo-finish between ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Limelight.’ The latter track tops our list for a number of reasons: It’s home to Geddy Lee’s most emotionally resonant vocal melody, Alex Lifeson’s catchiest guitar riff, and Neil Peart’s most poignant lyric – chronicling touring life’s glazed-over disconnect in a way only he could. “Those who wish to be / Must put aside the alienation,” Lee cries, “Get on with the fascination.” It’s a rare spine-tingler in rock’s vivid time-capsule.