As we rightfully celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' rockin'-vasion of America, it is also worth noting the 40th anniversaries of progressive rock albums released in 1974 -- a banner year for the genre.
In alphabetical rather than chronological order, here is just a short list, along with links to a representative composition from each album.
Apostrophe (Frank Zappa)
Although Zappa had been "at it" since 1966 -- as one of the earliest progenitors of progressive rock -- and although he had already put out over a dozen important albums, Apostrophe (and the immediately prior album, Over-Nite Sensation) arguably brought him to the masses through his cross-over "hit," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," which, despite its length, received regular airplay on FM stations. It didn't hurt that the album also included two of his funniest, most fun songs, "Cozmik Debris" and "Stinkfoot."
Hamburger Concerto (Focus)
For those who only know Focus via their 1971 novelty mega-hit, "Hocus Pocus" (yes, the one with the yodeling...), the band actually went quite progressive after that. This album provided a (yummy) taste of what was to come on later albums, and remains an interesting addition to the genre. The link is to the title track, which is based on Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
Hatfield and the North (Hatfield and the North)
Hatfield and the North sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus in the middle of the Canterbury era of prog rock, bringing with them an experimental edge that ran from Comus to Zappa. (It helped that they were a sort of Canterbury "supergroup," formed by ex-members of Matching Mole, Caravan, and Gong). And although they only released two albums (the other being the brilliant Rotter's Club in 1975), they were far from through: some of the members went on to form National Health, which melded Canterbury with jazz, and ranks among the very best of the Canterbury School. The video below is to "Aigrette/Rifferama."
Here Come the Warm Jets (Brian Eno)
Yes, even the prog-ubiquitous Brian Eno had a beginning as a solo artist, and this was it. And quite an "it" it was: ten of the strangest songs, straddling glam rock, art rock, progressive rock, and even some early electronica. The link is to "Baby's on Fire."
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)
After showing his keyboard and composition chops on his first solo album, Six Wives of Henry VIII, Wakeman added orchestra, chorus and lyrics to create this well-received thematic semi-masterpiece. Interestingly, the album was almost shelved by the record company. But with the help of an industry supporter or two, it finally got released -- and found its way to #1 in the U.K. and #3 in the U.S. The link is to the original live recording in its entirety.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis)
Although Genesis had already established its place as one of the two most reliable and unrelentingly creative symphonic prog bands (along with Yes), this two-LP set was their tour-de-force, a concept album that ranks among the best of the best. With the theatrically-minded Peter Gabriel providing voice to the story of Rael, a New York City graffiti artist and general ne'er-do-well (or is he something else entirely?), the songwriting, arrangement, and technical proficiency of the group is taken to extraordinary heights. The link is to "In the Cage."
One of the members of the Canterbury school of prog, Camel came out of the starting gate as a force to be reckoned with in its genre. This, their sophomore album, made it clear that they would be around for a while, writing in the "traditional" Canterbury vein, but also occasionally straddling a harder-edged rock. The link is to "Supertwister."
The Power & The Glory (Gentle Giant)
This group of uber-intellectual multi-instrumentalists had already been creating a unique amalgam of rock, folk, classical and medieval music for some time before this, the second of only two concept albums. Many of the band members consider this their favorite, and for good reason. The link is to "So Sincere," one of their most musically and harmonically complex compositions. As an aside, despite the complexity of the arrangements, the band could reproduce them perfectly live.
Red Queen to Gryphon Three (Gryphon)
Straddling prog-folk and Canterbury, Gryphon had a wonderfully light touch in its melding of classical, folk and rock, using a more "orchestral" approach than most. This album is considered their best by most prog fans. The link is to "Opening Move."
Along with Tales from Topographic Oceans, this album finds a serious split among Yes fans: they either love it or hate it; there is no in between. Part of the problem stems from the fact that master keyboardist Rick Wakeman had just left the band, and the choice of Patrick Moraz as his replacement was controversial. Still, the album was a commercial success -- though the band would not make another album for three years, when Wakeman returned. The video below is the entire album.
Remember the Future (Nektar)
Although Nektar had released two prior albums, they were both in a psychedelic-experimental vein. (And both quite good for that.) This was their first concept album, and it was clear that the band had…progressed toward a more cohesive approach to their writing, arrangement and performance. Indeed, there are those who consider this album a "masterpiece" in the prog genre. It may be. But in any case it is certainly a superb effort. The link is to the full suite.
Starless & Bible Black (King Crimson)
King Crimson all but created the progressive rock genre as we know it with its 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, and, in one form or another, has continued creating some of the most creative -- and often disturbing -- prog rock since then. This, their sixth album, is considered by many to be their darkest, and it's hard not to agree. The link is to "The Great Deceiver." (It comes in quickly and hard, so be prepared!). As an aside, it is also the 40th anniversary of the band's album Red. The second link is to the latter album's "One More Red Nightmare."
Welcome Back My Friends (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
In my book, this is one of the three or four greatest live prog rock albums ever recorded. (Genesis' Seconds Out and Gentle Giant's Playing the Fool are two others.) Recorded during their mega-successful Brain Salad Surgery tour, the production on this album is almost impossibly perfect -- and the performances equally if not more so. The link is to "Tarkus," in my opinion the greatest live prog-rock recording of all time.
Before I go, I want to give a shout out to a few other anniversaries this year, some prog, some not. Re prog, this is the 30th anniversary of Brave (Marillion) -- one of the two greatest neo-prog concept albums -- and Awake (Dream Theater). And it is the 20th anniversary of Marbles (also Marillion) and Dark Matter (IQ).
Among non-prog albums, a few stand out. This is the 40th anniversary of Average White Band's debut, Court & Spark (Joni Mitchell), Crime of the Century (Supertramp), Eldorado (Electric Light Orchestra), Natty Dread (Bob Marley & The Wailers), Sheer Heart Attack (Queen), Sheet Music (10CC), and Walls & Bridges (Lennon). And it is the 50th anniversary of The Times They Are a-Changin' (Dylan), and the 30th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A. (Springsteen), Learning to Crawl (The Pretenders), Purple Rain (Prince) and Unforgettable Fire (U2).
So hoist a glass, ye mateys, and celebrate this amazing year for rock album anniversaries!