The 'Progressive Rock Era' lasted between 1967 and 1977, plus or minus a year or two, with the greatest concentration of exceptional albums between 1969 and 1974. The phenomenal output in those five years marks the creative crest of rock as a musical form, and it certainly could be said with justification that the greatest rock albums of all time were released in that period, or at least within the wider 1967-77 time frame.
If one seeks a definition of "progressive rock", there are certainly several online avenues explaining in exhaustive detail the bewildering amount of definers and delineators that make the genre more digressive than progressive, research-wise (and this article from Wiki is a good place to start). But the very definition of what is "progressive" is enough to cause endless rows and vehement forum debates as zealots and generalists battle amongst each other over what performers, albums, and even songs should or should not be listed as progressive, as my black-eyed and bloody-lipped friends over at Prog Archives can well attest. But for simplicity's sake, and for my own listening pleasure, I prefer to take a more expansive view of the genre, spending less time splitting hairs and more on enjoying a sublime aural experience -- which is the point, is it not?
However, it is germane to point out that the progressive movement arose in equal parts from the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene of the late 60s, particularly the groundbreaking releases of The Beatles, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, and Pink Floyd (to name a few), and the seminal jazz fusion work of Miles Davis, Gary Burton, and Larry Coryell. Mix in a goodly amount of experimentation in the classical form from such bands as Procol Harum, Jeff Beck, and The Moody Blues, as well as the electrification of folk and traditional music by Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy, The Byrds, and Fairport Convention, and then stir this eccentric brew into a savory stew of disparate parts that coalesced into what is now known as progressive rock.
By the end of the 60s, progressive rock performers were abandoning the basic four-chord mundanity of rock-and-roll and the limitations of twelve-bar blues for more complicated arrangements than one can derive from the standard two-minute and thirty-second pop tune. Taking their cue from classical and jazz forms, the emphasis for lengthier compositions, intricate and changing time signatures, literary allusions, multi-layered instrumentation, improvisation, and musical virtuosity, forever changed how rock music was viewed as an art from. In the 21st century, many newer classical composers now list progressive rock performers as influences right along with Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Bartók.
In this three-part presentation of the sixty greatest rock albums of the Progressive Era (and various prog-related accoutrements and variations), I am not necessarily seeking to put releases in regimented order, placing a numerical designation on greatness, which I think is impossible and wholly subjective in the extreme, and merely a method to generate debate (although these first 20, give or take one or two, would by my choices for the "best of the best").
Honestly, is it not enough to say that Close to the Edge and Thick as a Brick are truly great and important albums? Is it even necessary to stamp #1 on Dark Side of the Moon or Court of the Crimson King for them to receive validation as landmarks of their genre? I love all these albums in their own, eccentric manner, and each has been influential in my personal musical experience. As for omissions based on obscure personal preferences, critics' marginalia, and unrepresented sub-genres, make your own damned list. I am sure you will like it better.
I am uninterested in presenting albums that are so discordant, minimalist, and/or droning as to be inaccessible for most listeners. There is a point at which being "progressive for progressive's sake" is merely abstracted noise and more trying and tedious than a thought-provoking or pleasant aural experience. There is much to be said for melody, harmony and lyricism in music. The albums I have chosen run the gamut from brutally hard and dark rock to pastoral mellifluousness, but each reach a point of musical splendor, a staggering apex of musical and compositional skill, that will reward those who give a listen. In the end, a good pair of headphones is all that is required to prove my point here.
By the way, here are parts two and three of the series for your progressive perusal...
More Manic Progressions, Part II
Manic Digressions, Part III
And so, without further dissembling, digression, deviation or diabolical hyperbole, here are the first twenty albums, the best of the best:
In the Court of the Crimson King -- King Crimson
The musical structure, the lyrical content, even the album cover was shocking and awesome for 1969. There was really nothing to compare it with at the time -- and it is still incomparable. From the acid rock-jazz of "21st Century Schizoid Man" to the towering mellotron-infused fantasy "The Court of the Crimson King", King Crimson put the nail in the coffin of 60s flower-power and psychedelia. There is also the tone poem "I Talk to the Wind", the minimalism of "Moonchild", and the apocalyptic "Epitaph". This was the presage of all things to come in the progressive movement (it is amusing to note that Robert Christgau rated this album a D+, which just goes to show you what pretentious twats New York rock critics are).
Wish You Were Here -- Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd took all their angst and the immense emotional drain that accompanied the phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon album, and wound a tale of despair and regret around a core attack against the greedy and anti-artistic music industry. The result, Wish You Were Here, not only succeeds as a follow-up to DSotM, it exceeds it as far as a progressive rock composition, particularly in regards to expanded musical passages and innovative use of the EMS VCS 3 synth. The synthesizer work is most evident on "Welcome to the Machine", and on "Shine on You Crazy Diamond", a reverie for Syd Barrett, Floyd offers their greatest extended jam since "Echoes" on Meddle. Top that of with the satiric jab at record labels "Have a Cigar", and the utterly sad and beautiful "Wish You Were Here", and you'll never take your headphones off.
Thick as a Brick -- Jethro Tull
Thick as a Brick should rate highly simply on the strength of having one of the best album covers ever designed: a fold-out newspaper complete with articles, comics, ads, crossword puzzle, and a bawdy connect-the-dots game! Furthermore, one cannot underestimate the effect Thick as a Brick had on folks growing up in the 70s. It was irreverent! It was rebellious! It mentioned both blackheads and peeing oneself in the night! Only in the early 70's could this album be released. It had no single! It was 42 minutes of one continuous song! How can we market the goddamned thing? But the entire package succeeds magnificently. Many critics didn't get it, and took the album at face value, which is even more ironic. Or Thick as a Brick, as it were.
Close to the Edge -- Yes
In my estimation, "And You and I" is the single greatest composition Yes ever released. During the "Eclipse" section of the suite, Yes reaches a crescendo so stunning that few bands have ever come close to reaching such heights. Add to that, the pounding bass line of the Stravinsky-influenced "Siberian Khatru" (which actually has more musical diversity within one song than both suites on the album), and the rousing "Close to the Edge" (with its beautiful harmonies during the "I Get Up I Get Down" movement), and you have the last truly great Yes album before they descended into the excess noodling about and pomposity reminiscent of ELP during their Works period.
Foxtrot -- Genesis
Foxtrot is heralded as a quintessential progressive album based on the 23 minute magnum opus "Supper's Ready", an extended sonata variation based in part on the Book of Revelation, BBC Children's programming, vaudeville, and allusions to Greek mythology and William Blake, whose "Jerusalem" is invoked in the absolutely breathtaking climax of the song. But the rest of the album is superb as well (and more consistent than Selling England by the Pound), with "Can-Utility and the Coastliners", the Bach prelude "Horizons", and the eviction theme "Get 'Em Out by Friday" as other notable tunes.
Dark Side of the Moon -- Pink Floyd
A de rigueur album for the "headphones only" set, Dark Side of the Moon is certainly one of the ten greatest rock albums of all time (from any genre). Besides being a masterwork of studio recording, the working title of the album Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics mirrors insanity in "Brain Damage", the lunacy of war in Us and Them, and the rueful pangs of regret in "Time". And "Great Gig in the Sky" is simply a wonderfully conceived and moving song (progressive or otherwise).
Days of Future Passed -- The Moody Blues
"Progressive" before that was even a term (1967), the Moody Blues limited the amount of psychedelia on Days of Future Passed (most likely due to the structured discipline required working with a symphony), and created one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded. Overall, DoFP exhibits a calm and inviting splendor, but the second half of the album is absolutely extraordinary, with "Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)", "Evening: Time to get Away/The Sunset/Twilight Time", and the culminating crescendo when orchestra and band (who had previously been recorded in a series of separate movements) come together on "Nights in White Satin/Late Lament". Remarkable.
The Yes Album -- Yes
Isn't it amazing how the change of a guitarist can either damn a band or bring it to unparalleled greatness? The addition of Steve Howe brought just such a wondrous change to Yes. This is the departure point for Yes's golden age. More accessible than the stubbornly obscurantist King Crimson, less eccentric than the flighty Gabrielesque Genesis, on this album Yes presented compositions that one could hear on FM stations that were in essence too damn good to be heard on radio. "Yours is no Disgrace", "Starship Trooper" and "I've Seen All Good People" are all classics of the genre, and "The Clap" is a damned good acoustic guitar jam (I know, I learned to play it over a couple decades, but still haven't got all the nuances down).
Aqualung -- Jethro Tull
A series of interrelated conceptual pieces that Ian Anderson proclaims is not a concept album, Aqualung is incredibly balanced, with hard rock and acoustic balladry seamlessly interposed, one tempering the other; in fact, this is one Tull album where acoustic guitar is more prominent than flute. Of course, the album is noted for rock radio staples "Locomotive Breath" (with its haunting piano intro), "Cross-eyed Mary" and the mini-epic "Aqualung", but the compositional content of the whole album is staggering, from the lighthearted "Mother Goose" to the intense "My God" to several short acoustic reveries like "Cheap Day Return".
Larks' Tongue in Aspic -- King Crimson
The title song "Larks' Tongue in Aspic" is an inspired piece, based in part on a Ralph Vaughan Williams' orientally-inspired composition "Lark Ascending", but with black, diabolical Frippian malice thrown in. "Book of Saturday" represents the first of many notable vocal contributions by bassist John Wetton thoughout his Crimson career. The manic march of greed "Easy Money", and the Eastern-tinged "The Talking Drum" are also notable tracks from an immensely varied, dissonant and innovative album. Makes you wish the music of 1973 was more fashionable in these decadent days of compositional squalor.
Brain Salad Surgery -- Emerson, Lake & Palmer
It is very rare for a drummer to receive accolades for a rock album, but this is the highlight of Carl Palmer's storied career. Palmer's work with synthesized drums (not drum machines, mind you, he's actually playing) mark this album as innovative and not merely ELP churning out classical reproductions. "Toccata" is the best adaptation of a classical piece ELP ever attempted (the composer, Ginastera, complimented this eccentric version). Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression ranks as a progressive favorite, "Karn Evil: 2nd Impression" features brilliant drumming and bright piano, and who can't deny the balls it took to bring Wm. Blake's poetry to rock in "Jerusalem". Is it pretentious? God yes! But ELP was so ungodly talented, they couldn't help their pomposity.
A Trick of the Tail -- Genesis
It may be blasphemous to say, but this is a Genesis masterpiece, a statement the remaining members of Genesis felt they needed to make after Peter Gabriel left. For this album, Genesis did not need Gabriel, gaining a new sound and voice. The musicianship is especially tight, and more reflective compositions like "Entangled, 'Ripples' and 'Mad Man Moon' offer Phil Collins a chance to really showcase his voice. But jams like "Dance on a Volcano", "Squonk", and "Los Endos" are progressive rock at its best. Peter Gabriel cast a huge shadow over Genesis, but the album is extremely well done, and doesn't have the Gabrielesque excess in long, rambling compositions that mar some earlier albums. There is no silly "Battle of Epping Forest" here.
Car (1st solo album) -- Peter Gabriel
Departing from Genesis also gave Gabriel the opportunity to focus his considerable compositional skills. Gone are the excesses that made the second half of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway an existential mess; in its place are wonderfully eccentric tunes like "Moribund the Burgermeister" and the quirky "Excuse Me" (complete with barbershop quartet and tuba solo). But there is also the exquisite personal manifesto "Solsbury Hill", the symphonic exhiliration of "Down the Dolce Vita", and the brilliant apocalyptic opus "Here Comes the Flood". From the standpoint of compositional excellence, Gabriel's recording career eclipsed Genesis, particularly in the 1980s.
Queen II -- Queen
A Night at the Opera may be more polished, with several hit tunes, but it will never have "Ogre Battles". Put simply, Queen II is progressive madness, from an impression of a painting in the Tate Gallery "The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke" to the pre-Bohemian Rhapsody jewel in Queen's crown "March of the Black Queen", the album is overrun with manic time changes, soaring vocals, biting guitar, and arppegiated piano runs. No band can duplicate that sound -- not with a roomful of synths and a choir. On the quieter side, there's the haunting "White Queen", and the moving "Father to Son". What the hell, I'll also mention "The Seven Seas of Rhye".
Octopus -- Gentle Giant
Gentle Giant made inaccessibility an art form. And if driving off possible fans was their objective, they did so quite admirably. Immensely talented but purposely abstruse, Gentle Giant has their zealous loyalists, but their work is summed up in "Knots", which is as complex as the Gordian Knot. The medieval vibe throughout the album is most evident on "Raconteur Troubadour" and "The Advent of Panurge", but "River" and "The Boys in the Band" represent the bands jazzier, more improvisational side. Gentle Giant is Prog-rock for AD/HD listeners: if you want to hear something different, just wait ten seconds and you'll be tripping down a different creative path. They do get extra credit for a witty album title (Octopus = octo opus, or eight songs).
Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra -- Procol Harum
The only live album listed here because it represents the culmination of Procol Harum's prodigious ambitions as a classically-influenced progressive band, and simply because many of their songs are better here than on the original albums, particularly the Spanish-influenced "Conquistador" and the titanic "Whaling Stories". They are superb. Additionally, "A Salty Dog" is one of the greatest tales ever recorded by a rock band, and the 19 minute opus "In Held 'Twas I" is a fascinating journey through progressively psychedelic movements wonderfully augmented by symphony and choir.
Low Spark of High Heeled Boys -- Traffic
Simply one of the best albums for headphone use ever created. There is a tranquilly pastoral nature to compositions such as "Hidden Treasure" and "Rainmaker" that relieve stress almost as well as a Korean masseuse (except for maybe 'the finish'). The mesmeric and jazz-tinged "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" is a grand progressive journey, while more up-tempo songs like "Rock & Roll Stew" and "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" are infinitely satisfying tracks. Putting the record and sleeve back into ingenious album cover was a true test of whether you were really stoned or not.
Santana III -- Santana
Latin-progressive-rock-jazz (how's that for a title). Featuring lengthier instrumental passages than the more commercially accessible Abraxas, Santana III is the last Santana release of the early 70s to maintain a semblance of rock form before Carlos ventured off fulltime into jazz-fusion. The mind-melting mamba of "Toussaint L'Overture", the Allman Brothers-tinged "Jungle Strut", the fiery "Batuka", the rousing horns of "Everybody's Everything", and the Latin boogie "Guajira", present Santana as one of the most innovative and devilishly seductive bands of all time.
Liege and Lief -- Fairport Convention
Liege and Lief has a timeless sound that transcends both traditional and new material to a point where it is difficult to ascertain which songs were first sang in the 16th century and those composed in 1969. Nigel Williamson, critic of The Times, put it succinctly: "Not only did Fairport Convention invent English folk-rock but they effectively destroyed it, too. Nobody could top the electrified versions of trad ballads such as "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves" on their classic, genre-defining Liege & Lief – after that there was nowhere left to go." Such songs as "Reynardine", "Come All Ye", and "Medley" brought a whole new element to electrified folk.
Pawn Hearts -- Van der Graaf Generator
Like Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator is an acquired taste; in fact, you either love them or hate them (like liver). Vocalist Peter Hammill obviously loves the sound of his own voice (often to the detriment of many VdGG albums). But for all that, Pawnhearts is a sprawling, amazing journey with songs like "Lemmings" which evokes the synths and saxes on Tull's A Passion Play, and Robert Fripp adds some ferocious and timely guitar on "Man-Erg", and "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". Not for the faint of heart.
JAZZ FUSION OR PROGRESSIVE ROCK?
There came a point in the early-to-mid 70s when the line drawn between progressive rock and jazz-fusion was so blurred as to become nearly indistinguishable. For all intents and purposes, the primary difference in the two musical forms was the use of vocals in rock performances. From a pioneering standpoint, the work of Miles Davis on Bitches Brew borrowed the drum backbeat from rock and emphasized a heavier bass line than previous jazz offerings; thus fusion offers jazz improvisation and lengthier compositions with the blistering guitar leads and amplified mayhem we rockers all know and love. Here are the five best examples of jazz-fusion/rock-fusion/whatever-fusion from that period:
Romantic Warrior -- Return to Forever
Blessed with perhaps the best group of players ever assembled for a jazz-fusion ensemble (or any band in any genre, for that matter), keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White got downright medieval on the jazz form with Romantic Warrior.
Songs of Note: Majestic Dance, Medieval Overture, Romantic Warrior
Hot Rats -- Frank Zappa
More than Uncle Frank merely offering one of his twisted but ingenious parody albums, Hot Rats is an entirely new venture into jazz and symphonic orchestrations. Zappa, always a decade or two beyond his peers, blurs the line of jazz, rock, blues and classical forms to such a degree, that we are not entirely sure where Frank was going. But we're glad he went there!
Songs of Note: Peaches en Regalia, The Gumbo Variations (Part I), Son of Mr. Green Genes
The Inner Mounting Flame -- The Mahavishnu Orchestra
Fresh from jamming with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin teamed up with the likes of Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer to record a blistering bit of metallic jazz that puts to shame most rock bands. Imagine if you will, Robert Fripp and Frank Zappa deciding to put out a jazz album.
Songs of Note: Meeting of the Spirits, Noonward Race, The Dance of Maya
Blow by Blow -- Jeff Beck
A jazz-rock-hybrid instrumental album with Jeff Beck on guitar and Sir George Martin producing and arranging? The results are aurally amazing. Perhaps the most consistent album Beck ever recorded, Blow by Blow had to be a humbling experience for supposed hard-core jazz aficionados to hear, as the rock effects master Beck offers one of the best jazz-fusion albums of the 70s.
Songs of Note: Thelonius, Air Blower, Freeway Jam
Caravanserai -- Santana
Carlos Santana all but abandoned the rock genre for this mystical and shimmering trip into the desert. Primarily instrumental and jazz infused, Caravanserai marks the departure point for Santana from the bounds of radio-friendly music. Evidently, later in his career he decided to return to popland and have duets with anyone and the kitchen sink.
Songs of Note: La Fuente Del Ritmo, Song of the Wind, Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation