Retrospective: The 20 Albums of Rush (1974-2012)

The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.

Hard-Progressive (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.

Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.

Progressive-Classic (’77-’81)

As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

Synth (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.

Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

Pop-Alternative (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.

Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.

Progressive-Metal (’02-’12)

The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.

Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.

How They Rank

1. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. The side helpings are frankly almost as good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”, dealing with marijuana tourism, and “Lessons”, the only Rush song composed entirely by Alex Lifeson. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).

Best Tracks: 2112, Passage to Bangkok, Lessons, Twilight Zone — in other words, virtually the entire album.

2. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, though I buck convention in favor of the operatic 2112. But seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s signature song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.

Best Tracks: Limelight, Witch Hunt, The Camera Eye, Vital Signs.

3. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.

Best Tracks: Subdivisions, The Weapon, The Analog Kid, Losing It.

4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth, and that’s not a valid objection. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.

Best Tracks: Lock and Key, Time Stand Still, Mission, Prime Mover.

5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.

Best Tracks: The Anarchist, Halo Effect, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden.

6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.

Best Tracks: Xanadu, Closer to the Heart.

7. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside my top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.

Best Tracks: The Spirit of Radio, Natural Science.

8. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see #13). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.

Best Tracks: Red Sector A, Distant Early Warning.

9. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.

Best Tracks: Nobody’s Hero, Animate.

10. Hemispheres. 1978. 4 stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.

Best Tracks: The Trees, Circumstances.

11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.

Best Tracks: Show Don’t Tell, War Paint.

12. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.

Best Tracks: Finding My Way, Working Man.

13. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.

Best Tracks: The Big Money, Manhattan Project.

14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.

Best Tracks: Test for Echo, Resist.

15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.

Best Tracks: Anthem, By-Tor and the Snowdog.

16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.

17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.

18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.

19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.

20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.

Christmas Carol Playlist (King’s College Choir)

Just to prove I’m not a complete Scrooge, here’s my ode to the holiday. Christmas carols are pretty much the only thing I like about this time of year, and there is no better choir than the King’s College of Cambridge. They’ve been celebrating their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve since 1918 (it’s almost their 100th anniversary), and have broadcast it live on the BBC since 1954. It’s as much a concert as a worship service, practically.

Here are my favorites ranked in descending order. You can click on the images to hear the carols, but if you want to listen to them all, I don’t recommend my ranking sequence. Instead, click on my playlist at the bottom, which follows a rough order used in the King’s College services. Starting with #7 and ending with #3 is the right way to do it.

firstnoel

The First Noel

1. The First Noel. William Sandys (editor), 1833. My favorite carol has obscure origins. It probably originated in 15th-century France before being brought across the English channel by the troubadours. Sandys published it in his famous Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Its structure is unusual, a single phrase repeated twice followed by a refrain that varies on the phrase. It was used as an instrumental in the final scene of Doubt, which isn’t a Christmas film though none the less powerful for it. The King’s College Choir (click right) does a great job.

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Good King Wenceslas

2. Good King Wenceslas. John Mason Neale, 1853. Social justice warrior of the tenth century: a Czech king who marches through miserable weather to feed a poor peasant, helping his page along the way who nearly dies from the cold. The story is based on the historical Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935), who was considered a martyr after his death. The lyrics were written in 1853 to the tune of an obscure 13th-century song. It’s considered a Christmas carol because the story takes place on the Feast of Stephen, the day after Christmas, but a great song that I listen to all year round. This choir version (click right) isn’t the King’s College, but it is the best.

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O Come All Ye Faithful

3. O Come All Ye Faithful. John Francis Wade, 1751. Some say that Wade wrote the song himself, others that he stole from an anonymous Latin Hymn written by monks in the 13th century. The version we know comes from the Reverend Frederick Oakeley, who was ordained into the Church of England in 1828 and then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. (Turning Roman seems to have been a thing for some of these carolists; see #5 for example.) I love the song to pieces, which surprises me, since the refrain, “O come let us adore him” should by rights sound oversentimental. It doesn’t. It’s one of the most moving in music history, and the King’s College choir nails it (click right).

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The Seven Joys of Mary

4. The Seven Joys of Mary. William Sandys (editor), 1833. The earworm of Christmas carols, catchy as hell. It tells of Mary’s happiness at key moments in Jesus’ life: Jesus (1) being born, (2) curing the lame, (3) curing the blind, (4) reading the Torah in the Temple, (5) raising the dead, (6) dying on the crucifix, and (7) wearing the crown of heaven. (I’m not sure any mother would find joy in watching her son die on a crucifix, but there you have it in the sixth joy of Mary.) The tradition of Mary’s joys goes back to the 14th century, but the origin of the song is a mystery. The King’s College choir uses tenors in the first, second, and fourth joys, and baritones in the third and fifth, to great effect (click right).

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See Amid the Winter Snow

5. See Amid the Winter Snow. Edward Caswall, 1858. An obscure gem that for whatever reason the King’s College Choir never seems to perform as part of their annual festival. But they’ve recorded it in studio (click right) which is the best version of I’ve heard. It’s a haunting hymn that Caswall wrote shortly after leaving the Church of England and becoming Roman Catholic, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the short shrift it’s given in Anglican circles. The theme of snow in a Bethlehem setting is amusing, and apparently has been justified as a metaphor of purity against the sins of the world.

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God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

6. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. William Sandys (editor), 1833. This one resonates from the mists of the 15th century, with the earliest known printed edition dating to 1760. Much has been written on why the comma comes after “merry”, and not “ye”, but less known it that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with being happy. The word “merry” means strong or mighty, as in “Merry Old England”, and the word “rest” means to keep. So the song literally means, “God keep you mighty, gentlemen,” in reference to lamplighters and other various men who were hired to patrol the streets during the holiday. Tidings of comfort in beating down rabble rousers!

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Once in Royal David’s City

7. Once in Royal David’s City. Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848. For almost 100 years now (since 1919), the King’s College choir has begun its annual service with this song as the processional hymn. The first verse is always sung solo by a boy between age 9-13, the second verse by the choir, with the congregation joining in after. The choir director chooses the soloist at the very last moment — literally seconds before the song begins — in order to prevent the poor boy from losing sleep the night before, or being a bundle of nerves all morning, from the prospect of being watched live by millions of viewers on the BBC. I chose the 2012 version (click right). The kid looks completely confident to me.

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

8. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillips Brooks, 1868. Brooks was a rather passionate American Episcopal priest who advocated against slavery during the Civil War. In 1865 he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, and he was so inspired by the village of Bethlehem that he wrote the poem for his church three years later. His organist added music to it, and they never dreamed the song would be remembered by anyone, let alone have the lasting impact it did. It’s one of those tunes that’s incredibly compulsive in its modesty (click right).

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Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

9. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. Charles Wesley, 1739. It took four people after Wesley to tweak this song into the form we sing today, which is kind of a shame. Wesley’s original had some juicy elements, for example in referencing the Fall from Eden, with the serpent bruising the heel of humanity and Adam bruising its head. Wesley was cleverly suggesting that the serpent in a believer (sin) should be bruised (defeated) by Christ, the second Adam, who reinstates the believer as a beloved son of God. In any case, this is a famous carol for good reason, and the King’s College choir does it justice (click right).

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Shepherds in the Field Abiding

10. Shepherds in the Field Abiding. George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1910. This works even better as an instrumental, so I use a pipe organ version; it sounds transcendent (click right). Woodward was an Anglican priest who often fit his songs to melodies from the Renaissance, and in this case landed a jewel. Funny as I’m writing this up, an old Peace Corps friend just posted on Facebook a folk session of this song that he did with his band at a night club, which also sounded really good. Many carols are torpedoed by creativity, but this one seems made for permutations.

If you want to hear the whole list, I’ve arranged them in a suitable order: 7->1->8->9->5->4->2->6->3.

In the Beginning: The Best of Genesis

No, this isn’t a celebration of Invisible Touch‘s 30th anniversary. Like many Genesis fans, I jumped ship in that fateful year of 1986, when the band went commercial. This is rather a commemoration of everything the band did before. In the ’70s they made some of the best progressive rock of all time, especially in the early part of the decade under the sometimes autocratic leadership of Peter Gabriel.

So here are my personal favorites, ranked in descending order. You won’t find any songs from the last three albums (which are top-40 garbage), nor even from the first two (which are painfully amateurish). That leaves the ten albums from 1971-1983. Click on the right album-icons to hear the music.

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Supper’s Ready

1. Supper’s Ready. 1972. I can name three songs of over 20 minute length that had lasting impact on me: Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, Rush’s “2112”, and this apocalyptic piece which is the best of all. It’s a journey through the pages of the Book of Revelation, and a hell of a trip. It starts with a couple about to have dinner, the wife is suddenly possessed and black-robed men descend. Things get crazier until the Apocalypse of John is in full progress — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, everything. This is what an epic song should aspire to, with a theme ambitious enough to match the music. I still get chills listening to Gabriel bellowing at the end for the New Jerusalem and the angel summoning birds to the great supper of God. But it’s an incredible song in each of the seven acts, adding up to the best prog song of all time, let alone of Genesis.

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Turn it on Again

2. Turn it on Again. 1980. There has been endless commentary on the unusual time signature, which no one can even agree on. Is it 13/8 or a to and fro between 6/4 and 7/4? Supposedly you can’t dance to it; people try but end up in clumsy fall offs. But if the rhythmic structure is off-kilter, everyone agrees about the compulsive result. It’s a concert favorite for good reason. The Duke album is based around the character “Albert” who lives in a world of fiction, and in this song it’s the TV; he believes the actors are his real life friends. The song speaks to the way we invent ourselves in imaginary relationships with on-screen characters, while screening off our real-world friends and family. Another song I can listen to anytime.

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Deep in the Motherlode

3. Deep in the Motherlode. 1978. I have more nostalgia for And Then There Were Three than any other rock album. It’s a run of glassy melodies and rhythms, suffused with themes of the American western, and the first Genesis album I bought. “Deep in the Motherlode” was an instant favorite, describing a guy who follows his family’s advice to “go west young man” and chase the Nevada gold rush. It blends progressive and pop, with distorted guitar, bass guitar and bass pedal combos, even guitar synth, with a great synthesizer segment. I can’t believe the band never performed it after the 1980 tour. It’s a song that has faded into obscurity like others on this album, which is way underrated by critics and even by hardcore Genesis fans.

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The Battle of Epping Forest

4. The Battle of Epping Forest. 1973. That’s right, my favorite song from the masterpiece album is the absurdist tale of gang wars inspired by the rival thugs who terrorized parts of London in the sixties. Every song on Selling England by the Pound is a gem, but for some people “The Battle of Epping Forest” is a bit overwrought. Not for me. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Gabriel chewed everything he bit off and shat out a masterpiece of gonzo prog. The other band members were famously aghast at his hyperventilating narrative and they insisted on hacking and trimming, but there was no time for editing, thank the gods. It turns out he really did know what he was doing, and I never tire of listening to this overblown epic.

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Mama

5. Mama. 1983. We didn’t know it back then, but the eponymous album was forcing us to take a blistering look back and an ugly look forward. Side One was the last gasp of all that was ever excellent about Genesis. Side Two announced what fans could expect from now on: top-40 garbage. Really, you could throw most of the side-two songs on Invisible Touch: “Illegal Alien” (the “Invisible Touch” of this album), “Taking it All Too Hard” (“Throwing it all Away”), “Just a Job to Do” (“Land of Confusion”), etc. But the first side was a mini-masterpiece. “Mama” is still a powerhouse, opening on menacing keys and escalating incredible tension before the drums finally break in and release the pent up fury. It’s about a guy with a mother complex for a prostitute. I linked to the live version from ’84, which is even better than the studio.

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The Musical Box

6. The Musical Box. 1971. Known for the tail-end climax in which Peter Gabriel shouts out, “Touch me! Touch me! Now, now, now, now, now!” But let’s back up and tell the 10-minute story in full: A girl asks her boy cousin to join her in a game of croquet. She soon gets pissed at him and knocks his head off with a croquet mallet. She rummages through his things and finds a musical box and opens it. The spirit of her dead cousin appears, and he starts to age rapidly as he lusts for her, harasses her, and sexually assaults her. The kids’ nurse finally rushes into the room, picks up the musical box and hurls it at the spirit, destroying both him and the box. This was Genesis’s first song on their first strong album, and it hasn’t lost its vitality (virility?).

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Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

7. Dancing with the Moonlit Knight. 1973. Many consider this the best song from the band’s best album. It’s usually interpreted as an elegy for a lost England, or a response to the economic wreck of the ’70s, especially the massive unemployment. The Labour Party had adopted a hard left agenda, and Peter Gabriel insisted the album be titled Selling England by the Pound, the reference to that party’s slogan at the time. It’s a mistake, however, to think of this as a protest album. Unlike overtly political bands like U2, Genesis never preached like SJW’s. Here they tap into the effects of the British economy on the daily lives of Englishmen and dress it up in prog legend. It starts on notes of sheer beauty and revs up thunderously.

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Cul-de-Sac

8. Cul-de-Sac. 1980. One of those hidden album gems that for whatever reason gets underplayed. Think “Ultraviolet” from U2’s Achtung Baby. Both songs are incredibly catchy but not in a commercial way. Both were eclipsed by the album’s more arresting points, in this case the six-song Duke suite which monopolized concert time. “Cul-de-Sac” is also sandwiched by two ballads, which aren’t nearly as strong but do have a way of silencing the song. It’s a parable about extinction and the need to evolve. Face-value, it’s about dinosaurs (“You know you’re on the way out/It’s just a matter of time/You thought you’d rule the world forever”/etc.), but really about the “dinosaur” prog bands like Genesis who might resist changing trends. You can almost hear this song as a warning to fans that Duke would be the band’s last prog album.

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The Colony of Slippermen

9. The Lamia – The Colony of Slippermen. 1974. I keep hoping for a musical genius to write a book about The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Two years ago The New Yorker did a pretty good write up, calling it the The “Ulysses” of Concept Albums, but we really need an in-depth scholarly analysis of Rael’s journey through the demented purgatory that only Peter Gabriel could have imagined. The final act is the strongest and most demented. First when Rael enters the pool of the Lamias; they caress him and eat his flesh until his blood kills them. Then when he comes to the colony of the deformed Slippermen who are ruled by lust, and he avoids joining them by getting castrated by a maniacal doctor. In a memorable segment the doctor places Rael’s genitals in a tube which is then stolen by a raven. These two songs back-to-back are my favorite part of Rael’s journey, both musically and conceptually.

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Dance on a Volcano

10. Dance on a Volcano. 1976. A Trick of the Tail is doomed to stand in the lamb’s shadow. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a very good album on its own right, and a solid first effort without Peter Gabriel. In the case of “Dance on a Volcano”, it’s the only group composition and clearly the album’s best, with a soundscape and measured tempo that still sounds futuristic after 40 years. It’s about taking extreme risks, and as usual one senses the band is offering a commentary on its own musical trials. In terms of sound, the song is a near microcosm of the album on whole. Just as every song on A Trick of the Tail is remarkably different, so the segments of “Dance” make surprising jumps without losing its cohesion. It’s brilliant, and a fiery way indeed of announcing a new era for the band.

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The Light Dies Down on Broadway

11. The Light Dies Down on Broadway. 1974. After the unpleasant business with the Slippermen comes the title track reprise. I consider “Light” much superior to “Lamb” and it’s the understated crux of the album. Despite the fact that his brother John abandoned him twice and kept refusing to help him, Rael rescues him from drowning. Had he ignored him and escaped through the sky-light back to New York City, he would have presumably started the whole chain of events of the story over again. By saving his brother he is freed from the weirdest purgatory ever concocted — single handedly by Peter Gabriel, though this is actually the one song (out of the album’s 23) that he didn’t write. I’d never have guessed if you hadn’t told me.

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Home by the Sea

12. Home by the Sea – Second Home by the Sea. 1983. Along with “Mama”, this prog throwback redeems an album that otherwise whores for the ’80s. It’s a ghost story about storytelling; a thief breaks into a haunted home by the sea and is imprisoned by ghosts who need to share stories: “Sit down, sit down/As we relive our lives in what we tell you”. Pictures come to life, etc. The keyboard efforts blanket the song in an ethereal quality that marks an appropriate end point, as I always think of it, to the band’s greatness. Whenever the second instrumental piece winds down, my heart sinks in bittersweetness. With “Home by the Sea”, the band was essentially reliving its own life before turning the page to “Illegal Alien” and the top-40 world of Invisible Touch.

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The Fountain of Salmacis

13. The Fountain of Salmacis. 1971. I have a peculiar relationship with this one. It seems somehow sentient — that the music is working against the band’s intentions with the music, or pushing out on its own terms. That’s the feeling I had when I first heard it dozing in a half-waking state on my couch, and it’s the way I’ve heard it ever since. It’s the best final track on any Genesis album (aside from the seven-part “Supper’s Ready”), and has fun with Greek mythology. The story is about Hermaphroditus who was seduced by the nymph Salmacis, drank her water and became fused with her. (Which of course is where “hermaphrodite” comes from.) This song is a mindworm (quite different from a catchy earworm) that stays in my head for a long time.

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Burning Rope

14. Undertow – Burning Rope. 1978. These tracks don’t run in sequence, but to me they’ve always seem connected and they’re damn good songs besides. “Undertow” is a plea to make the most of life, while “Burning Rope” shows the consequences of taking that advice too far. In the latter, the attempt to achieve something special (reaching for the moon) results in a distance and disharmony from others which can’t be undone. The first is a ballad — the best Genesis ballad ever — and the second is the longest piece on the album channeling prog and nervous bolts of energy. Prog was going out of fashion this late in the ’70s, but the band didn’t let go entirely as they evolved, and thank the gods for it.

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Man on the Corner

15. Man on the Corner. 1981. Abacab is the definition of a just-so album. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It took a commendable stab at a synth-based approach as the band tried adapting to the ’80s, and it puts me in mind of the way Rush also turned to synths as it turned from its ’70s prog roots. Rush did it very well; Genesis less so. The songs on Abacab feel rather dry and by-the-numbers, with the single exception of this rogue track about a lonely man on the corner. The synths are effectively haunting for a change, as Phil Collins cries out for a homeless man on the street who does everything he can to get attention but fails. The song is even better live, and I linked to the New York performance.

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The Carpet Crawlers

16. The Carpet Crawlers. 1974. One of the band’s most dreamlike songs, possibly the most atmospheric, and certainly the most distinguished. Reason being that Peter Gabriel wrote the music as well as the lyrics (music was usually written by the other band members, while Gabriel supplied the lyrics), and the music is minimalist in a way never heard before in the Gabriel years. There’s even a chorus. It’s a transitory point in the story where Rael enters a red carpeted corridor and sees people on their knees crawling towards a door at the end of the hall. This song has been so widely loved that it was remade in 1999, a bastardized version with choppy synths and cheap inflections. Stick with the original.

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Behind the Lines

17. Behind the Lines – Duchess. 1980. For a long time I thought these were one song, because my homemade cassette had the tracks mislabeled. It turns out I wasn’t far off. Both were originally intended as part of a 30-minute suite, along with “Guide Vocal,” “Turn It on Again,” “Dukes Travels,” and “Dukes End.” They go well together in any case. “Behind the Lines” is about a guy so consumed by the book he’s reading that he can’t tell the difference between the story and his own reality (the TV will effect him likewise in “Turn It on Again”). “Duchess” then tells of a woman’s rise and fall from musical fame, which some have interpreted as an embarrassing metaphor for the Genesis band in the ’90s. At first she plays with concern for her artistry and doesn’t give a shit about pleasing crowds, but as fame sets in she sells out and soon “nobody calls for more.” This is a strong double feature of loneliness, isolation and failure.

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A Trick of the Tail

18. A Trick of the Tail. 1976. Even on an album that seems to pride itself on dissimilar songs, the title track is especially anomalous. Which is no surprise given that it was originally written for the Foxtrot album back in ’72 and thus is a sort of homage to the mythic prog narratives the band was starting to shed at this point. It’s mournful and upbeat at the same time, and incredibly catchy, telling of a beast who leaves his kingdom and enters the human world, where he’s captured and put on display as a freak. Originally it was surely just a tale of alienation, but some have seen it as a sly parting blow at Peter Gabriel’s abrupt departure: “He left and let nobody know”. Who knows, it’s a great song in any case.

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I Know What I Like

19. I Know What I Like. 1973. The only song from the early 70s that made the U.K. charts, attracting non-prog fans. It provides a bit of comic relief between two serious tracks, with lyrics derived from the album cover, about an underachieving lawnmower who ignores advice from people because he’s content with his life as it is: “I know what I like/And I like what I know”. It basically indicts the culture of careerism in favor of simple and honest living. If the man is an underachiever, he’s at least happy in his creativity. I’ve never been sure about the line, “getting better in your wardrobe”, but suspect it’s a Narnia allusion, saying that if we spent more time in artistic creativity and indulging our “wardrobe” fantasies, society would be better off for it.

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Follow You Follow Me

20. Follow You Follow Me. 1978. The song that started it all for me. I heard it on Rock 101, Manchester (my refuge from top-40, back in the day), and the next day rushed out to by the album. This song actually did make the top-40; it was the band’s first world-wide hit. But it’s not commercial, and has such a groovy simplicity that makes a fitting exit point on what is for me the most nostalgic album of my lifetime. To many fans of the Peter Gabriel era, this song was perceived as the deepest treason, but that’s rubbish. The song shows the band evolving, not devolving, though the latter would certainly become true by the mid-’80s. At this point they were just trying to make themselves more accessible, especially to female audiences. It’s a haunting lullaby that hasn’t lost its magic.

Chvrches: Blending ’80s synth, ’90s alternative, and ’00s indietronica

Somehow I stumbled across this Scottish synth band. They’ve been around for a while with two albums to show, and the lead singer’s voice reminds me of the mezzo-alto funkiness of The Cranberries’s lead. Most comparisons, however, are made to Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Eurthymics, Passion Pit, and M83. In other words, if there’s a place in your heart for ’80s synth-pop, ’90s alternative rock, and the indietronic bands of recent decades, you’ll probably like Chvrches. Here are a few of my favorites.

Gun (Live). 2013. Probably my favorite Chvrches song, and a nice live performance here.

Lungs (Original Studio). 2013. Mayberry’s vocals are gorgeous in this one.

Never Ending Circles (Original Studio). 2015. Iconic bolts of frenetic synths.

Clearest Blue (Live). 2015. The influence of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” is clear.

David Bowie: In Commemoration

This isn’t meant to be a top-10 list in a strict sense, which I would have great difficulty coming with for someone like Bowie. They are personal favorites, but ones that span his career. Contrary to certain wisdom, Bowie didn’t lose his talent after the ’70s.

1. Heroes (1977). No justification needed for this at the top. It will always be my favorite Bowie song, and I’m amazed at how futuristic it still sounds in the 21st century.

2. Space Oddity (1969). There are three particular songs whose stories vastly increase their power: Rush’s 2112, Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh (though the entire album of The Wall applies)… and of course Bowie’s Space Oddity.

3. Strangers When We Meet (1995). As I said, I have no use for those who say Bowie lost his talent after the ’70s, and this song is exhibit-A. It’s about old friends and fading memories, and probably the most moving piece of his career.

4. Life on Mars (1971) and Starman (1972). These space epics are about as good, and certainly as majestic, so they tie. Life on Mars is the most iconic Bowie song, and Starman the most operatic.

5. Modern Love (1983). From Bowie’s most commercial album (Let’s Dance), which I remember hating when it was released. Ironically, it’s the most mainstream sounding track which holds up so well. Modern Love is a lot like Peter Gabriel’s Secret World, the rare piece that everyone loves for good reason.

6. God Bless the Girl (2013). Bowie actually cut this from the album, including it as a bonus for the Japanese release. It seems to be an ode to a social worker, or a nun, or perhaps someone let down by the divide between the promise of heaven and the reality of hell on earth. But it’s a great song in any case, and massively underrated.

7. Suffragette City (1972). If Space Oddity was Bowie’s homage to Space Odyssey, this one is loaded with Clockwork Orange references, and the tempo alone shouts the sex boasts. From the Ziggy Stardust album, about the alien rock star exploring politics and drug use and bisexuality.

8. Under Pressure (1981). His collaboration with Queen needs no comment beyond the high replay value. Most people consider it more a Queen song than Bowie, but not me, no doubt because I was never a Queen fan.

9. Hallo Spaceboy (1995). Like #3, this is from the massively underrated Outside album, and has homages to #2 as it resurrects Ground Control and Major Tom. It has a great Nine Inch Nails vibe too.

10. Blackstar (2016). The new album has yet to settle, but I will say the title track is grand. And portentous in the extreme, being a rumination about death. It’s also the second longest track of his career (after Station to Station), and inspired by Gregorian chant. RIP.

Here’s a playlist I made, with most of the above songs plus China Girl.

The Best of Peter Gabriel

Here are my dozen Peter Gabriel picks. This is some of the best rock music ever recorded.

1. Red Rain

The lead track on So made me fall in love with music in a new way. It was inspired by a nightmare about a sea parting and being filled with blood.

2. Wallflower

Songs like this aren’t written anymore. It’s my favorite when I’m feeling depressed. It was apparently inspired by an Amnesty International pamphlet about Argentina.

3. Sky Blue

Years of sweat — rewriting, practicing, and polishing — lie behind this one. It’s one of those rare songs I consider perfect in hitting the right notes in every place without fail.

4. The Rhythm of the Heat

In Africa, Carl Jung joined a group of ecstatic drummers and dancers, and became overwhelmed with fear that they would go mad. Gabriel was obsessed with Jung’s account, and he tries to capture the essence with the incredible drum sequence at the end.

5. Secret World

About the private world two people occupy, the overlap of dreams and desires, and mysteries. The music is impossible not to adore.

6. Shock the Monkey

This is the original (longer) album version, and the proper one. The crescendo of the last minute and a half is a rock-music miracle.

7. Mercy Street (Live)

An ode to Anne Sexton, who fought depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s about the bonds between father and daughter, the resulting turmoil — and the live version is simply pristine.

8. Growing Up

Gabriel’s most psychedelic song, and his best video.

9. San Jacinto (Live)

Gabriel’s live performances are always stellar, but this song especially. It’s about the culture clash between Native America and the present-day U.S., and “holding the line” of one’s cultural traditions.

10. The Tower That Ate People

I never saw Ovo, but I love this song Gabriel wrote for it. There’s a Tower of Babel vibe to it that I’m sure I’d understand if I saw the media show.

11. Washing of the Water

A broken heart and soul. And more grief than I knew a song could hold.

12. In Your Eyes

Everyone loves this one, and it’s usually the final act of Gabriel’s concerts. The Secret World version below is the best.