Progressive Rock, much like Dr Who, was far more enjoyable in the 70s. While it is undeniably glossier these days, it has lost much of the intangible brilliance that caught the imagination back in the day.
As for me, I’ve had a love / hate relationship with the genre for decades. There are some prog rock bands that I genuinely don’t ‘get’. The likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, despite being among the biggest selling prog rockers, are two acts that I have never fully understood the appeal of. On the other hand, there are the likes of Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, two bands that are so deeply ingrained into my personal development as a music fan, that I simply cannot begin to imagine what my taste in music would be like if I hadn’t heard them at pivotal moments in my life. Then there are those prog acts that produced a handful of stand-out albums whose appeal endures to this day, as well as any number of lesser works. Of course there are many prog rock acts whose oeuvre I have yet to explore. I cannot recommend you where to start with the likes of Egg, Van Der Graff Generator or Barclay James Harvest, simply because I haven’t really explored their output, despite the fact that I have been told that they are very good indeed.
Perhaps my difficult relationship with prog rock can be put down to the fact that as a music fan I focus on lyrical content and the lyrics of so many prog rock acts were absolute twaddle. On top of that there’s the tendency for the much celebrated musicianship of prog to descend into little more than an excuse to play as many notes as they can as quickly as possible, with little regard for economy, accessibility or tune. Also, given that I am someone very much grounded in the realities of life, I can find the standard fantastical lyrical themes of prog difficult to connect with, but this same escapism could very well be why prog-rock appeals so very much to the inner teenage boy at the heart of so many progressive rock fans (I know it does mine).
The sheer diversity of Progressive Rock means that any buyers guide will be mildly controversial, for no other reason than by its sheer nature it’s almost impossible to define a set of parameters of what is and is not prog rock without infuriating someone. With a list of just twenty albums, I’ve had to make some harsh decisions to give the widest range of albums and omitted some of the genre’s biggest acts.
Here then is a chronological list of twenty recommended Progressive Rock albums from the late 60s to the mid 90s. It won’t please everyone, and it will no doubt infuriate some, but each album here is worthy of investigation.
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed – 1967
One of the earliest concept albums, Days of Future Passed was the result of a one hit wonder band being invited to record an album by a record label which showed off fancy new studio technology. Against the odds, it resulting sessions produced the huge hit single in “Nights in White Satin” and a hit album which cemented The Moody Blues as one of the biggest bands in the world well into the mid 70s..
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King – 1969
If Days of Future Passed was a proto concept albums, then the downright freaky and strange Court of the Crimson King gave the first real hints about how odd Progressive Rock could get. A challenging album on its release, it’s now seen as a classic of its time and is one of the few prog rock albums considered genuinely ‘cool’. Actually King Crimson have actually weathered the prog tag better than most, and are considered one of the major influences on much of the ultra-fiddly math-rock of the last decade.
The Who – Tommy – 1969
Of course The Who had already established themselves as one of the key rock bands long before they released Tommy, but it was the success of this album ensured that they would go truly global. A few of the songs worked well as stand-alone singles, most notably “Pinball Wizard”, but to get the full effect, you needed to hear them in the context of this most famous of this narrative-heavy concept album. Not full on prog, but one of the finest examples of a concept album you’ll ever hear.
Comus – First Utterance – 1971
First Utterance is in many ways the ultimate cult classic. A freaky folk-prog masterpiece, it’s chattering hand drums and paganesque chanting can now be heard in the psyche-folk movement that has been established in the USA over the last decade. For years Comus’ was obscure and as rare as hens teeth, but these days, thanks to the internet, it’s readily available.
Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink – 1971
Along with Soft Machine, Caravan were stalwarts of the Canterbury Progressive Rock scene. In the Land of Grey and Pink was their commercial peak and is a playful album that has a strong commercial element. Tunes like “Golf Girl” and “Love to Love You (and Tonight Pigs Will Fly)” have the pop nous, while a side long concept suite reminds you that you’re listening to a Progressive Rock album.
Groundhogs – Split – 1971
By the early 70s Progressive Rock was big news, and hairy blues rockers The Groundhogs wanted a piece of the extended song-suite action. Harder rocking and more deeper rooted in the blues than a lot of prog, Split was one of the band’s biggest hits, and was arguably the peak of their career, though guitar player Tony McPhee still fronts a line up of The Groundhogs to this day.
Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick – 1972
Progressive Rock had(and still has) a nasty tendency to take itself far too seriously, however Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull realised that such straight-faced studiousness was ripe for lampooning. Instead of a series of songs laced together with a concept or theme, Thick as a Brick was one long song over both sides of an album, thus one-upping every other prog rock act in the process. Tull kept a tight-leash on the album and at no point do they lose sight of the tune, ensuring that the first parody prog rock album is also one of its most accessible.
Genesis – Foxtrot – 1972
The commercial success of Peter Gabriel’s solo career and his subsequent dabbling in world music and multi-media has since overshadowed his years fronting Genesis. It took a while for their definitive line up to stabilise, but when they hit their stride on Foxtrot, they released a series of enduring albums. It’s often a toss-up between this and Selling England by the Pound as to which the best Genesis album actually is, but Foxtrot edges it for the inclusion of the epic “Supper’s Ready”, which is one of the definitive progressive rock tunes.
Hawkwind – Space Ritual – 1973
Hawkwind’s back catalogue is ridiculously labyrinth and complex due to the mind-melting amount of personnel and record labels involved over the decades. While their studio albums are wildly variable, this live double album remains an enduring monument to their psyche-pummelling space-rock stage show and is quite rightly their most famous release. The only way they could have improved this is by including a live version of their biggest hit single, “Silver Machine”.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells – 1973
Should a nuclear holocaust wipe out the rest of life on Earth, the only thing that will survive other than cockroaches will be Tubular Bells. Mike Oldfield has spent the last four decades trying to improve upon his debut album, even to the point of pointlessly re-recording it in recent years on new-fangled technology in an attempt to eliminate it’s none-existent audio flaws. Don’t be fooled, the 1973 original remains the best version of Oldfield’s definitive work.
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom – 1974
Rock Bottom is frequently mistaken as the former Soft Machine drummer’s solo debut., when it’s actually pre-dated by 1970’s awful End of an Ear. Recorded as Wyatt came to terms with losing the use of his legs, Rock Bottom is an avant-garde classic of beautiful soundscapes and Wyatt’s plaintive vocals which has influenced countless albums since. A unique album from a unique artist.
Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth – 1974
A supremely daft orchestral-prog classic. Ace keyboard twiddler and the most sensible member of Yes, Rick Wakeman put all his cards on the table with this one. It’s a Progressive Rock version of the Jules Verne classic, featuring a choir and more synthesisers than the mind can comfortably cope with. Not only did it feature the London Symphony Orchestra, but it was live too.
Supertramp – Crime of the Century – 1974
Supertramp had been struggling since the start of the 70s, and having released two flop albums, this was effectively their last chance to record a breakthrough album. Combining Dark Side of the Moon style self-analysis, with strong melodies and lashings of Fender Rhodes, it was band’s strongest album and one of the poppiest Progressive Rock albums.
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 1975
Of course, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall are two of the biggest selling albums of all time, but Dark Side… has become effectively obsolete due to over-familiarity and The Wall, although brilliant, was one of the least representative albums of Pink Floyd’s career. Wish You Were Here by comparison sounds oddly contemporary even today.
Queen – A Night at the Opera – 1975
Another album on the more pop side of Progressive Rock, A Night at The Opera was the album where Queen went for diversity above everything else, and it paid off. Sure, it has “Bohemian Rhapsody” – easily prog rock’s biggest hit single, but this album is so much more than that.
Rush – 2112 – 1976
Almost all the big prog rock acts originated in Europe, however Rush were the exception. Kings of the “twiddly riff” approach, 2112 was their break-out album. While the fortunes of most prog rock acts have waxed and waned over the years, Rush have weathered the decades better than most and this album is one of the reasons why.
Jeff Wayne – War of the Worlds – 1978
A genuinely bonkers musical version of the Victorian science fiction classic narrated by Richard Burton. Regardless of Jeff Wayne dragging around a tired live version around arenas for the last decade and even re-recording it with lesser talents in recent years, the original remains a unique double album that no one has come close to emulating since. Regardless of the star-power of the various vocalists involved, and a red hot session band, it is Burton’s narration that made this album the massive success it has proved to be.
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel – 1980
A veteran of Genesis, Peter Gabriel released a pair of self-titled solo albums during the late 70s with mixed success, but it was his third self-titled effort which established him as a solo star. Was he still Progressive Rock though? Gone were the extended song-suites and conceptual doo-dahs, but in terms of musical experimentation he was at the very cutting edge of things at the start of the 80s.
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – 1985
Strictly speaking, Progressive Rock was on the whole made by bands rather than solo artists, and a few rare honourable exceptions aside, it was a boys club. Rising to prominence in the late 70s, Kate Bush broke all the rules of progressive rock, being lyrically brilliant, economical, female and recording music that appealed to both genders equally. Prog rock had never been sexy before. She released a string of brilliant albums through the late 70s and early 80s, all of which are worthy of investigation, but it’s Hounds of Love that remains her masterpiece.
Marillion – Brave – 1994
There are no fans more scarily obsessive than Marillion fans. Guardians of the now massively reduced progressive rock flame through the 80s, their split with charismatic frontman Fish seemed to be the death-knell for them. Only their most loyal fans could have anticipated them to still be a going concern in 1994 and few of them would have expected them to be releasing one of the key albums of Progressive Rock. Brave is a breath-taking album and even more astounding for the fact that it was released by a band who so many had assumed were washed up and lacking in any sort of inspiration.
Of course, these twenty albums barely scratch the surface of progressive rock, but they do make the start of a good grounding in what was a massively diverse genre that could be equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Be careful though, what you may think may be a passing fancy could expand to a full blown obsession with hammond organs.