The Best Progressive Rock Albums of All Time
The ’60s saw pop music come into its own as a medium for actual artistic expression within easily digestible singles and catchy melodies, and the increased room for experimentation allowed by genres like psychedelic rock led to the development of an influential, decidedly anachronistic form of rock music. This was progressive rock — a genre that’s tricky to pin down, but typically includes unusual time signatures and shifts, very long songs, concept albums, complex instrumentation, and influences from jazz or classical music. While the boundaries are loose at best, the movement spawned some of the most interesting and enduring music of the ’70s, and we’re celebrating some of the most visionary bands and artists within the genre.
1. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd is undoubtedly the most famous and influential of ’70s progressive rock bands, and half a dozen of their albums could easily belong on this list. But I’m going with a fan favorite that’s often overlooked, sandwiched as it (along with the similarly stellar Animals) is in between the more popular albums Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The five-song album contains their greatest acoustic ballad in its title track, a pair of sleek songs satirizing the materialistic music industry, and the multi-part epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” a meticulous masterpiece filled with fascinating musical ideas and a moving melody dedicated to the band’s original leader, the LSD-addled Syd Barrett. Rarely do lofty ambitions translate so well to record.
2. Fragile by Yes
The fourth album from Yes saw the band reach a potential they arguably never equaled again, thanks in no small part to the addition of their legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman without whom classic prog anthems like “Heart of the Sunrise” and especially the opening track “Roundabout” would be considerably less interesting. The album cycles through a collection of songs, most of which are either under three minutes or over eight, each one distinct in its instrumentation and surprising melodic ideas but united by their commitment to creating songs that feel anthemic while boasting some of the oddest time signatures you’re likely to hear in any sort of rock music.
3. In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson
Robert Fripp and his frequently-rotating roster of collaborators in King Crimson were a ways ahead of the curve when they released this album in 1969, before progressive rock had yet become recognized as any sort of genre or movement. The album shook away the blues and country influences of rock music in favor of ambition only equaled in jazz, classical, and avant-garde genres and managed to capture the imagination of millions of listeners after being labeled as “the acid album of 1970.” The band piles on layers of sound to create melodies and sprawling tracks bathed in fascinating noise, each one distinct from the last, and all of them exuding a dark surrealism that has since defined the sound of so many experimental bands and albums in rock music since.
4. Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull
One of progressive rock’s greatest pleasures is hearing unusual instruments placed in the context of rock music, including Ian Anderson’s virtuoso flute-playing on many Jethro Tull records. His flute and idiosyncratic vocals are present in full force on Thick as a Brick, an album containing only one song split into two sides that was acutally meant to parody the then-prevalent concept album trend but works well on the merits of its own concept as well. The potential monotony of the single song idea is nowhere to be found here, because the song cycles through so many distinct parts with so many musical and melodic ideas, evoking striking imagery and involving one emotionally with opaque lyrics that never distract from the unpredictable musical progressions that make progressive rock such a joy to listen to.
5. Pawn Hearts by Van der Graaf Generator
The early ’70s saw a wealth of visionary progressive rock artists reaching early peaks, though many overlooked this four-track wonder from British prog-rockers Van der Graaf Generator, who split only a year after this album’s 1971 release. The songs on Pawn Hearts are as long and ambitious and crammed full of ideas as you’d expect from a prog-rock classic, but what really separates this band from the pack is their sense of melodrama, using their melodies, piano drama, and singer Peter Hamill’s affecting howl to involve viewers emotionally as well as intellectually in their epic songs.
6. One Size Fits All by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Never one to be pigeon-holed into any single genre, Frank Zappa frequently embraced the jazz influences and unpredictable time signatures of progressive rock while gleefully subverting expectations with his offbeat sense of humor. The peak of this unusual combination came with 1975’s One Size Fits All, an album filled with goofy sound effects that can’t distract from the constant inventiveness on display throughout. Funny surreal lyrics combine with funky jams like “San Ber’dino,” bizarre musical breaks and righteous guitar solos that can only be described as the work of a mad genius — in other words, as progressive rock by way of Zappa.
7. Selling England by the Pound by Genesis
Unlike the early rock-and-roll of many British Invasion bands, progressive rock bands often embraced their Britishness, spinning tales that conjure up pastoral English countrysides and characters through lyrics and music that go beyond the simple setting to become soaring, unexpected masterpieces. Few progressive rock records match the Britishness of this peak album from Genesis about the overrun of consumerism infiltrating their nation at the time, a contradictory situation mirrored in musical segments that chug along between meticulous psychedelic detours and delicate piano balladry. It’s a strong showcase for the band’s musical talent and their ability to use them in support of a well-thought-out concept.
8. Future Days by Can
Can’s country of origin may have earned them the label Krautrock (they come from Germany), but the band’s long compositions, jazzy influences, and instrumental ingenuity make them a clear contender in the race for best progressive rock band. Their brand of progressive rock finds them moving through ambient tracks that often pass 10 or even 20 minutes but manage to morph slowly, almost imperceptibly into new instrumental portions that blend together like an impressionist painting. Their blend of spacey experimentation and jazz-funk improvisation is in rare form on Future Days, an album too weird and wonderful to belong to any other genre but progressive rock.
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