Essential Progressive Rock Albums
The 10 essential albums that will introduce you to one of rock's most ambitious sub-genres
Progressive Rock is perhaps one of the most polarizing music genres in modern music. On one hand, you have musicians and artists who were greatly influenced by these prog-rock bands, with a few still keeping the genre alive today (Tool, Porcupine Tree, etc.). On the other hand, the excessive nature of progressive rock was one of the main reasons why punk rock gained traction in the U.K. during the mid-to-late '70s.
Fueled by odd time signatures, long compositions, virtuosic musicianship, and quirky lyrics which could range in theme from fantasy and sci-fi to commentaries on society, progressive rock is certainly one of the most fascinating genres of music, and one that continues to captivate generation after generation of music lovers.
1. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Of every album on this list, this is definitely the one that most people will recognize. Having spent 741 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart, it is one of the most widely listened to and influential albums of all time. Each side of the album flows together as one piece of music, and the lyrics go over a multitude of topics and issues, such as greed, war, the passage of time, death, and many others. Seriously, if there was one album that screamed "listen to me from beginning to end!" this would be it. Though the album does not necessarily have the most technical instrumentation (save for David Gilmour's emotional guitar playing), one cannot deny that the overall compositions are intricate, with the band having employed some of the most advanced recording techniques at the time. All of these factors add up to an album that is nothing short of breathtaking.
2. King Crimson - In the Court of King Crimson
In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first true progressive rock album. Sure, there was music that incorporated progressive elements before this album (artists that come to mind are The Moody Blues and Procol Harum), but this was the album that would define the genre for the incoming decade. The album set the benchmark for complex compositions and technical skill, both hallmarks of the genre. The most impressive aspect of the album is how in sync everyone in the band plays, specifically on the opening track, "21st Century Schizoid Man" (those of you who are Kanye West fans will immediately recognize this track). Overall, a very solid album and precursor for things to come.
(Unfortunately King Crimson do not have their stuff on Spotify, so I cannot post any links to their songs here. For standout tracks I would choose "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "In the Court of the Crimson King". I would advise you to buy the album if you're looking to get into the genre, you won't regret it.)
3. Yes - Close to the Edge
I was once driving in the car with two friends, who at this point had never listened to progressive rock. They were asking me questions about the genre, as they had heard me talk about the genre before. Eventually, one of them asked me "what is the heart of prog?". I immediately interpreted this as "what's the most extreme progressive rock track out there?", and thus put on the title track from this album. To this day, I still believe that this album rests at the heart of progressive rock, or at least pretty damn close to it. In terms of sheer technical skill, Yes were pretty much the best (with Rush and Emerson, Lake & Palmer also vying for that top spot). In addition to that, they crafted some of the longest and complex songs in the genre, as is evidenced by there only being three tracks on this 38-minute album. Though it was not immediately met with the same reception as their previous album, Fragile, it now stands as one of the greatest progressive rock albums of all time.
4. Rush - Moving Pictures
Rush were latecomers to the progressive rock movement, only really starting to contribute after a majority of the other big acts either disbanded or began falling off in quality. However, they are still considered just as important as any of the other big prog acts, and have inspired an equal amount of artists themselves. This album, released in 1981, sees the band mix their '70s prog-rock sound with the sound of the burgeoning new wave movement. The songs here are both simple yet intricate at the same time, with each member really showing why they're considered some of the best at their respective instruments. The themes on this album are quite eclectic, ranging from the real-life struggle of dealing with fame in "Limelight" to the sci-fi-themed "Red Barchetta", in which the narrator tells the story of a dystopian future where motorized vehicles are banned. The end result is an album that is both technically complex as well as playful and fun to listen to.
5. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick
The story behind Thick as a Brick can only be described as ironic. Tired of music journalists calling his previous album, Aqualung, a "concept" album, Ian Anderson decided that he'd make the "mother of all concept albums": a completely over-the-top, overblown album intended to poke fun at the progressive rock genre. What he didn't know was that this would go on to become one of the most well-regarded progressive rock albums of all time. The album consists of only one song: "Thick as a Brick". That's it. The newspaper cover claims that the album is a "musical adaptation of an epic poem by 8-year-old genius Gerald Bostock", only adding to the deliberately overblown nature of the album. Honestly, it says a lot about Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull in general that they unintentionally created one of the all-time classic progressive rock albums.
6. Genesis - Selling England By The Pound
Genesis are one of those bands with an interesting history. Though they were highly successful in the '80s with Phil Collins at the helm, some may not have known that at one point he was just the drummer who did not sing on very many Genesis songs. There may be even more people who are not aware that Peter Gabriel, yet another successful '80s act, was the former frontman for the band. Although each artist is widely known for their '80s pop output, it is my belief that the best music made by either was with this band, and this album is probably the pinnacle of that era. Selling England by the Pound (and '70s Genesis in general) are unique in how theatrical they sound. As you listen to the album track by track, you can't help but feel like you're listening to a play. They have this almost Disney-esque quality to them that makes their music somehow magical. All it takes is one listen of "The Cinema Show" to see the connection.
7. Caravan - In The Land Of Grey And Pink
Caravan were a part of the Canterbury Scene, a sub-genre of the larger Progressive Rock movement which centered around the town of Canterbury. The Canterbury sound can be described as extremely chill and laid-back, featuring slight touches of psychedelia and jazz. This album has all of those factors in spades. This is definitely the album you'd listen to if you just wanted to lounge around and relax. The album is dominated by David Sinclair's keyboard playing, which can almost be mistaken as guitar playing due to the fact that he plays the instrument much in the same style you would play a guitar. The laid-back atmosphere and the totally quirky lyrics make this one a very fun and memorable listen.
8. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells
For those of you who love horror movies, the opening notes of the album will probably be instantly recognizable. The album is probably best known for being partly used in The Exorcist, but what many may not know is that the album was the first release ever on Virgin Records, thus being responsible for the start of Virgin Group as a whole. The album is unique in that Mike Oldfield himself plays nearly every instrument on it, and with considerable technical skill to boot. What's even more amazing is that he recorded it all while only 20 years old. Though he'd go on to record other amazing records. This still stands out as his most enduring work. For those interested, there is a live in-studio performance from 1973 floating around of the first half of Tubular Bells which is definitely worth checking out.
9. Camel - Mirage
Much like Rush, Camel came relatively late to the progressive rock scene. Despite this, they contributed some of the most compelling music to the genre. Their music can be considered pretty chill (at least in comparison to bands such as Yes and Genesis), though they were not part of the Canterbury Scene. Camel were responsible for some of the catchiest songs from the genre, and it really shows on this album. The main riff on "Freefall" is infectiously catchy, and the haunting flutes on "Supertwister" will stay in your head long after the initial listen. This is definitely a very easy album to love; certainly not one that needs time to "sink in".
(While Camel have a few of their albums on Spotify, they do not have this one. Fortunately, you can listen to the majority of the album through the two compilation albums available on Spotify: Echoes and Rainbow's End - A Camel Anthology 1973 - 1985. You'll have to look elsewhere for "Supertwister".)
10. Can - Future Days
Can were a part of the Krautrock genre, a sub-genre of progressive rock which developed in Germany during the late '60s and early '70s. Of all the bands to come out of this genre, these guys were certainly the most revered. Their influence is far-reaching, with musicians such as Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and even Patrick Carney (The Black Keys) citing them as an influence. This album in particular was the last album to feature vocalist Damo Suzuki, who felt that the album was Can's best work. The album itself is probably the most accessible out of the five major Can albums, with the title track in particular being a fairly laid-back and easy listening affair. This album serves as a great entry point to the discography of these Krautrock giants.
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