Side-long concept pieces, walls of Mellotrons, keyboardists in capes…such were the glories of progressive rock. And behind it all were a stack of wildly creative prog-rock albums that still hold a potent thrill of discovery. The reverberations are still there whenever a modern band takes chances with instrumentation or reaches beyond a singles-length track. But here we salute the original 70s heyday of prog rock, with a couple of late-60s and early-80s cornerstones. All of it demonstrates how much of a journey a 40-minute vinyl album could be.
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50: Premiata Forneria Marconi: Photos of Ghosts
The Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) was the first second-generation prog band, cutting their teeth on Jethro Tull and King Crimson covers. By the time of their American debut, they’d found their own style, with a strong sense of pastoral melody and European folk influences (their heavier rock side would come out in time). Purists prefer the original Italian versions (drawn from PFM’s first two European albums), but the new English lyrics are some of Pete Sinfield’s loveliest.
49: Marillion: F.E.A.R.
Marillion’s second incarnation with singer Steve Hogarth is still a bit underrated, despite his being in place since 1989. Though they’ve done pop on occasion, the Hogarth-led band took its cue from the Brexit and Trump era to go conceptual once again in 2016 (the title stands for “F… Everyone and Run”). F.E.A.R is less about specific politics than an underlying sense of disorder, it shows that veteran proggers can still have teeth.
48: Badger: One Live Badger
Perhaps the most obscure entry on a list of greatest prog rock albums, Badger was keyboardist Tony Kaye’s short-lived post-Yes band, along with Jon Anderson’s pre-Yes bandmate David Foster on bass and vocals (Anderson produced this live album, from a show that Yes was headlining). Kaye plays some of his finest recorded solos and the rhythm section really cooks, making this one of the few truly funky prog albums – comparisons to prime Traffic wouldn’t be far off. And with an underlying gospel/soul feel, the songwriting is so strong that it’s a wonder this got overlooked.
47: Genesis: Selling England By the Pound
Though they were through with side-long tracks, Genesis’ imagination continued to run wild on Foxtrot’s followup, with Peter Gabriel inhabiting a rogue’s gallery of characters and the band’s playing getting more muscular; “Firth of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show” became oft-played career standards. And wonder of wonders, the whimsical “I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe)” became a UK hit single, their only one in the Gabriel era.
46: Procol Harum: Exotic Birds & Fruit
Though many Procol Harum diehards will always prefer the Robin Trower era, the band was even grander on this later effort with the equally fine Mick Grabham on guitar. The first half of Exotic Birds & Fruit reaches a heavenly peak with the extended ballad “The Idol,” and Side Two offers “Butterfly Boys,” one of the funnier slaps a prog band has ever given to its record label.
45: Marillion: Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws
Original singer Fish’s tenure with Marillion, which only lasted four albums, ended with two conceptual epics. Misplaced Childhood is often considered the peak, since it had two indelible singles (“Kayleigh” and “Lavender”) and dealt with the timeless prog theme of loss of innocence and the end of a pivotal love. Yet Clutching at Straws is in retrospect, a far gutsier record, with a theme that cuts deep – namely Fish’s romance with alcohol and cocaine, and the toll that took on his private life. Appropriately, the band rocks harder here than it ever had before.
44: Rush: Hemispheres
Hemispheres was the deepest into prog that Rush ever got, with a side-long piece full of interlocking musical themes and a fascinating storyline (about two civilizations that represent the left and right sides of the brain). Flip it over and there’s “La Villa Strangiato,” Rush’s longest, trickiest, and most impressive instrumental. There are also changes underway: The four-minute, hook-heavy “Circumstances” hints at Rush’s more streamlined direction to come.
43: Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans
History tends to give this one a bad rap: With four side-long pieces based on Hindu Shashtric scriptures, it’s got to be dense and impenetrable, right? Wrong: Most of Tales From Topographic Oceans is as gorgeously melodic as anything Yes ever did, and the band charges hard, newly fortified by drummer Alan White. To name just one moment, Rick Wakeman’s climactic synth solo on “The Revealing Science of God” is positively celestial.
42: Camel: Mirage
At this early stage, Camel was perched midway between prog and fusion: Their second album Mirage is two-thirds instrumental (the next, The Snow Goose, had just one brief vocal), and it’s largely hinged on the interplay of keyboardist Peter Bardens and guitarist Andy Latimer, both dazzling soloists. But Mirage also has “Lady Fantasy,” their most romantic vocalized piece.
41: Supertramp: Crime of the Century
Though it produced a major UK hit (and one that predated punk) with “Bloody Well Right,” Crime of The Century was actually Supertramp’s deepest album, with songs about a tortured soul’s descent into madness: “Rudy,” “Hide in Your Shell” and “Asylum” form a highly emotive and rather dark trilogy. It makes it even more surprising that Supertramp became such a pop juggernaut a few years later.
40: King Crimson: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
There was very little precedent for the kind of racket that Robert Fripp and company were making in 1973. The music on this largely-instrumental album was dense and intense, with Fripp and violinist David Cross in constant scramble (Mad percussionist Jamie Muir was only present for this one album). And during all this chaos, John Wetton got to sing “Book of Saturday,” one of the loveliest ballads in prog history.
39: Jethro Tull: Aqualung
To some extent, Jethro Tull was still working their blues and hard-rock roots on Aqualung, along with the pastoral folk direction that first appeared on Stand Up. Yet Ian Anderson’s writing was growing more symphonic as heard on “My God.” Though he’s insisted this is not a concept album, the eleven songs do make a unified statement about organized religion and the earthly downtrodden.
38: Van der Graaf: Vital
Vital was recorded live at the Marquee club in London during the season of punk, and it sounds that way. This is arguably the most ferocious performance ever given by a prog band, especially one with two string players, and since half the songs have no studio version, it easily stands as an album of its own. The band (who’d temporarily dropped “Generator” from their name) were clearly energized by their surroundings: They positively rampage through frontman Peter Hammill’s nod to punk, “Nadir’s Big Chance.”
37: King Crimson: Discipline
Reinventing itself for a new era, King Crimson builds a fresh sound out of gamelan-like guitar parts, Adrian Belew’s songcraft, and a flexible rhythm section. The 80s Crimson threw away the musical trappings of 70s prog, while retaining the thrill of exploration.
36: Queensryche: Operation Mindcrime
Prog metal is arguably a genre of its own, but its flagship album Operation Mindcrime had to be included here. This 1988 epic expanded boundaries in both directions, bringing higher compositional ambitions into metal and modern-day political dread into prog.
35: Genesis: Foxtrot
Nothing can be more prog than an album that begins with two minutes of solo Mellotron and ends with the Apocalypse. For many fans, Genesis never topped the kaleidoscopic “Supper’s Ready,” but Foxtrot is no one-track album: “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is their funniest bit of social satire, and the lovely ballad “Time Table” finds a band in its early 20s already sounding like wizened souls.
34: Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery
On their most ambitious album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer still found room for a novelty number, an English hymn, and a classic Greg Lake ballad – all to set up the main attraction, the 30-minute “Karn Evil 9.” The song’s narrative of a computerized, totalitarian future in which the masses are kept happy with splashy entertainment sounds more resonant every day.
33: Rush: Permanent Waves
With their 1980 release Permanent Waves, Rush offered a workable vision of prog rock for the new decade: Shorter and more immediate songs with real-world lyrical themes, still evincing a high degree of musical complexity. Not many bands picked up their lead (or had the chops to do it), but it gave Rush some rich territory to explore over the next couple of decades.
32: Mike Oldfield: Amarok
Mike Oldfield waited till 1990 to make his most ambitious album, a densely packed 60-minute piece with three times the usual indelible Oldfield melodies and solos. Amarok is a lot to take in at first (including the wonderfully odd ending), but it reveals more with each listen. And apparently, it’s all meant to annoy Virgin Records label boss Richard Branson, who’s called out in a Morse code message that’s in there somewhere.
31: Genesis: Wind & Wuthering
The second Genesis studio album without Peter Gabriel and the last with Steve Hackett, Wind & Wuthering was arguably their last purely prog epic before finding their streamlined 80s direction. And a gorgeously romantic work it is, capped with a soaring instrumental suite and Phil Collins’ first great vocal performance on “Afterglow.”
30: Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
The Dark Side of the Moon is about madness and alienation, and it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time – further proof that everybody is drawn to the dark side at one time or another. Yet Pink Floyd makes the dark side a beautiful place to visit, creating a grand soundscape where the tape-loop experiments work right alongside the soaring melodies, the R&B workout “Money,” and the obligatory amazing solos from Mr. David Gilmour.
29: Gentle Giant: Free Hand
Free Hand makes a perfect entry-point prog rock album, coming at a time when Gentle Giant had learned to combine fiendish complexity with heavier rock leanings. The mood is upbeat and the whole thing rocks like mad, even the Renaissance-ish instrumental (“Talybont”) and the largely a cappella track “On Reflection.”
28: Transatlantic: The Whirlwind
Drawing its membership from four notable bands (Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, the Flower Kings, and Marillion), Transatlantic consistently represents the best in 70s-derived modern prog. The third album was their magnum opus, a 75-minute piece designed to be experienced as a whole. The subject matter largely hinges on frontman Neal Morse’s positive take on spirituality.
27: Yes: Fragile
This late-1971 album marked the arrival of Rick Wakeman and the flowering of Yes’ musical ambitions; they were now confident enough to include a solo track by each member. But each of the four full-band pieces became a Yes standard; with “Roundabout” starting the album on a high and “Heart of the Sunrise” closing it epically.
26: Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet
Mastermind Steven Wilson claimed to be under the influence of Bret Easton Ellis when he wrote this epic, but he arguably does an even better job at spinning youthful alienation into artistic gold. It’s not the brightest of prog visions, but there’s cathartic power in the churning 18-minute centerpiece “Anesthetize.” And the presence of Robert Fripp and Alex Lifeson makes a symbolic passing of the torch.
25: Argent: In Deep
Now that The Zombies have been well rediscovered, Rod Argent’s next band deserves some of the same glory. Their proggiest album begins with a fist-waver that Kiss covered (“God Gave Rock & Roll to You”) but goes from there into headier territory, with much grandeur and keyboard wizardry. The nine-minute “Be Glad” could be the prog answer to the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.
24: Tangerine Dream: Encore
Masters of the cosmic soundscape, the peak-era Tangerine Dream got into an outgoing mood on the largely improvised, double live album Encore. They loosen up, experiment more with rhythm, and compose some lovely tunes on the spot. Leader Edgar Froese even gets in a couple of killer guitar solos.
23: Magma: Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh
Grand opera meets fusion meets space travel, with some reimagined church music thrown in – all in a language that the eccentric French band made up. This was prog rock at its most abstract, and after all these years, nothing sounds quite like it.
22: Steve Hackett: Voyage of the Acolyte
Steve Hackett had a foot out the Genesis door when he made his solo debut, which laid out all the territory he’d explore for the next 30-odd years. Always a bit cosmic in his lyrics, he could be as down to earth as the frantic instrumental “Ace of Wands.” This album especially benefits from a strong supporting cast, with Sally Oldfield doing one gorgeous vocal and Phil Collins taking one of his first turns at the mic.
21: Mike Oldfield: Ommadawn
Mike Oldfield made more famous albums, but he never topped the first half of Ommadawn, a melodic feast that culminates with a thrilling guitar solo and a healing wash of African drums. Side two has its pleasures too, including a gorgeous Paddy Moloney pipe solo. If you love this check out the 2016 sequel, Return to Ommadawn.
20: The Moody Blues: In Search of the Lost Chord
You could make a strong case for any of the “classic seven” Moody Blues albums but In Search of the Lost Chord stands out for its theme of mind expansion, offering three possible paths to enlightenment: Acid (via Ray Thomas’ ode to Timothy Leary, “Legend of a Mind”) meditation (keyboardist Mike Pinder’s mystical “Om”) and love (“The Actor,” a vintage Justin Hayward ballad).
19: U.K.: U.K.
It wouldn’t be right to do a list of the best prog rock albums without including a record that the late John Wetton sang on. The original UK was simply too good to last: Wetton and Eddie Jobson wanted to go further into pop while Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth were drawn to jazz; for this one brilliant moment, the two planets collided.
18: Camel: Moonmadness
Camel had two terrific soloists in keyboardist Peter Bardens and guitarist Andy Latimer, so the band’s best moments came when both got to cut loose. Moonmadness’ extended tracks showed off their dexterity, from the frantic solo-trading on “Lunar Sea” to the cosmic grandeur of “Song Within a Song.”
17: Strawbs: Hero and Heroine
Prog rock was just one stop on the Strawbs’ long journey from acoustic folk to relatively straightforward rock. But they nailed it on this album, where leader Dave Cousins’ flair for drama infuses every track. The peak is the title song, where a lyric about heroin addiction meets John Hawken’s heavenly chorus of mellotrons.
16: Peter Gabriel: Security
Peter Gabriel had disowned the “progressive rock” tag by 1983, yet his work continued getting more exploratory. This one broke new ground both sonically (he’d just discovered African music and gotten his hands on the Fairlight) and lyrically. He also brings some prog friends along: “Shock the Monkey” is the only Top 40 single Peter Hammill ever sang on.
15: Kansas: Leftoverture
Nearly all of the best prog rock albums were by English or European artists, but Kansas was one of the few who was both undeniably proggy and heartland American. Their fourth album was actually recorded deep in the Louisiana swamp and though it was partly radio-friendly, it also housed the Native American-inspired epic “Cheyenne Anthem” and the instrumental “Magnum Opus,” with some downright Zappa-esque moments. And how many hit singles (“Carry On Wayward Son”) ever begin with a full chorus sung a cappella?
14: Renaissance: Ashes are Burning
Because Annie Haslam had one of the loveliest voices in prog rock (or anywhere else), and because there was no electric guitar, Renaissance sometimes get written up as too sweet. But their finest album adds a lot of emotional weight to the mix, courtesy of the epic title track, and the shimmering “Carpet of the Sun.”
13: Caravan: In the Land of Grey and Pink
This edition of Caravan had the same jazz leanings as their Canterbury mates the Soft Machine, but singer/writers Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair also brought in some pop mastery to In the Land of Grey and Pink. The side-long “Nine Feet Underground” is a seamless mix of stretched-out playing and sublime melodies. And if you also want some quirky British humor, “Golf Girl” adds that to the mix.
12: Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus
ELP’s masterpiece actually leaves out some of their trademarks: There isn’t that much Moog (Keith Emerson was still into piano and organ), and Greg Lake never gets an acoustic-guitar ballad. But the side-long concept suite is a landmark, exploring war, peace, and tricky time signatures. Don’t overlook Side Two’s short pieces either; “The Only Way” attacks organized religion in a way that later punk rockers would appreciate.
11: Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die
Unlike most bands in the progressive rock movement, Traffic (or at least its leader Steve Winwood) was always solidly grounded in R&B. Started as a Winwood solo project, John Barleycorn Must Die has plenty of soul but also covers joyful jazz on “Glad” and mournful English folk on the title track, which used to be a jolly drinking song.
10: Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts
Take everything fiddly and pretty out of the best prog rock albums, ramp up the intensity, and you have Van der Graaf Generator’s classic, Pawn Hearts. Fueled by Peter Hamill’s existential lyrics and wildly dramatic singing, the power here never lets up. It’s no wonder they were the one prog rock band that English punks (famously John Lydon) admitted to liking.
9: Jethro Tull: Thick As a Brick
An album-length piece wrapped in a Monty Python-esque newspaper, Thick As a Brick was at once a musical masterstroke and a grand joke. Ian Anderson clearly identified with the angry misfit lyrics, but sent up his own pretensions at every turn.
8: Todd Rundgren: Utopia #1
The guys in the first Utopia (not to be confused with the later quartet) were jazz-informed musos who could solo at length, so on paper, it makes no sense to throw in a pop songwriter of Rundgren’s caliber. But on disc, it works perfectly, with Rundgren’s catchy moments setting up and amplifying all the instrumental fireworks (plenty of which came from his own lead guitar). “The Ikon” was at the time the longest album side ever (30:22), but it’s anything but a slog; the opening riff takes about five seconds to hook you in.
7: Gong: You
Gong’s Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy saved the best for last. Their trademark “pothead pixie” whimsy is here, but so is some deep spirituality and powerful jams, with the dueling virtuosity of guitarist Steve Hillage and saxophonist Didier Malherbe. You boasts all this, plus a finale that will leave you floating.
6: Rush: Moving Pictures
Rush was progressing like mad in 1982, writing arena-ready anthems (“Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight”) alongside high-wattage thrill rides (“Red Barchetta”). But there are also signs of a more sophisticated touch on Moving Pictures, with the synth-driven “Camera Eye,” harking to the next decade. It’s no surprise that this was the only album they ever performed fully in order.
5: Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyd were kings of the thematic album between 1973-80, releasing four conceptual classics albums in a row. This one gets special resonance from the spiritual presence of group founder Syd Barrett, who turned up in the flesh during the sessions. They even get funky, and funny, on “Have a Cigar.”
4: Gentle Giant: The Power and the Glory
Gentle Giant’s earliest albums were fiendishly difficult, while their final ones were AOR crossover. The Power and the Glory lands in the sweet spot directly in the middle. “Aspirations” is one of the most beautiful tunes prog rock has ever produced. And the still-timely theme of political power and its abuse proves you can do a concept album without leaving the real world.
3: Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Perhaps the most outlandish concept album ever, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway takes you on a surreal ride with Rael, a New York graffiti artist who wakes up in a netherworld. The narrative came mainly from Peter Gabriel, but everyone in Genesis was by now a first-rate songwriter, and you could feel their later pop success coming.
2: King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King
It’s hard to settle on one King Crimson album, since each incarnation (including the current one) was jaw-dropping in its own way. But their debut really pushed the limits, with the band’s avant-jazz leanings somehow meshing with Greg Lake’s choirboy vocals. It makes perfect sense that “21st Century Schizoid Man” sounds even more necessary in the 21st century.
1: Yes: Close to the Edge
The most glorious moment among all of the best prog rock albums has to be the climax of the “Close to the Edge”, where Rick Wakeman’s Hammond organ solo ascends into the heavens, and then the song’s majestic closing chorus takes you along. The two shorter pieces are no slouches either: Prog rock never got more soaringly romantic than “And You & I,” or more joyful than “Siberian Khatru.” And did we mention Steve Howe’s amazing guitar tone?
Listen to: “Siberian Khatru”
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