The Absolutely Essential Progressive Rock Listening Guide

pink_floyd_fisheye.jpgJune 1, 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of what was the first "progressive rock" album to receive mainstream acclaim as such: The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. In that spirit, we asked Ian Alterman -- a founding moderator and senior writer for (the number one prog website in the world) -- to undertake a truly hopeless task for Culture Catch: create the definitive Top Ten list of prog albums. He provided that and more. Take it away, Ian....

Imagine yourself -- a progressive rock aficionado -- on that hypothetical desert island to which you can only take a given number of albums (usually around 10). Now imagine that you are going to share that island with someone who has a keen interest in, but little real knowledge of, progressive rock music, and you are looking to choose the dozen or so absolutely essential albums that will not only serve to give this person a fairly broad perspective of "prog," but will not become tedious after a few hundred listenings: i.e, the cream of the genre.Given the history of and variety in the genre, I get sick just thinking about this exercise in futility. However, having what amounts to a gun pointed at my head (i.e., Dusty has positively dared me to do this), I am going to attempt it -- though I know I am going to have to duck as unchosen prog CDs are flung at my head. However, as punishment for the insane level of angst this is causing me, I have blackmailed Dusty: if he wants me to do this, he has to accept two lists: one of "classic" prog, and one of "neo-prog," since the latter is a major subset all to itself. The latter list will follow in a few weeks.

A few words about this ridiculous attempt.

First, it is necessary to define "prog." "Progressive rock" is a mindset, a conscious and deliberate approach to writing rock music based on certain elements, which usually include some or all of the following: incorporation of Western (classical, jazz et a.l), Eastern (Indian, Middle Eastern, et al.) and/or "world music" (African, Latin, et al.) influences; use of non-standard (for rock) chord progressions; use of odd and/or shifting time signatures; use of non-standard (for rock) instrumentation (from sax, flute, or violin to sitar, bagpipes, or African percussion); an "orchestral" (i.e., "score") approach to arrangement; extended compositions, often including extended instrumental passages; virtuoso musicianship, often including extended solos; lyrics that tend toward the esoteric or fantastical and/or include numerous literary references; and the use of keyboards (Mellotron, synthesizers, etc.) and the recording studio itself to create effects, textures, and atmospheres. An imperfect definition, to be sure, but a good start.

Second, although many countries developed prog cultures, the genre's birth and development were primarily British in nature. America certainly played a role, and countries as diverse as Italy, Sweden, Germany, Canada, and France had, and continue to have, very active prog communities, and have given us some of the best prog bands out there. However, for purposes of preventing irreversible brain freeze, I have chosen to focus solely on English-speaking prog for the list below. (Maybe this will become an ongoing series, with neo-prog next, and then non-English prog after that!)

Finally, I have derived my list by choosing what I believe to be the dozen or so most "essential" prog bands, and choosing what I believe to be their most important or representative works. Note also that the albums are listed in chronological order of their release, not in order of when the artists appeared on the prog scene. So, off we go: "baker's dozen" of prog "Desert Island Discs" -- the absolutely essential progressive rock albums.

I. Seminal Prog (1969-1977).

king_crimson_court.jpg King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) Although plenty of experimentation had occurred since 1967 (the year that also gave us Sgt. Pepper, Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed), the vast majority of it was noodling with various elements of progressive rock. Yet nothing -- absolutely nothing -- prepared the world for this groundbreaking, trend-setting, dark, and frighteningly brilliant album, the one that virtually single-handedly defined the genre. Master guitarist and composer Robert Fripp, bassist Greg Lake (pre-ELP), keyboardist Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield created a gestalt of prog sensibilities and virtuoso musicianship. From the opening eerie effects, aggressive guitar and "fritched" vocals of "21st Century Schizoid Man's" to the paranoiac Mellotron-laced fade-out of the title track, this album broke so much ground that it still stands today as a singular achievement in rock. No collection is complete without it, and it never fails to create goosebumps no matter how often it is listened to. (second choice: Larks Tongues in Aspic, 1973)

moody_blues_threshold.jpg The Moody Blues: On the Threshold of a Dream (1969) Having helped create the genre with their debut album (Days of Future Passed, 1967), the Blues were producing an average of two albums per year of the most well written, astoundingly produced prog out there. This album -- with its emotional mixture of joy, melancholy, sadness and hope -- brings it all together for them, and remains among the most awe-inspiring albums of the genre. (second choice: A Question of Balance, 1970)

elp.jpg Emerson Lake & Palmer: Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970) This prog power trio (comprised of former members of The Nice, King Crimson, and Atomic Rooster) created "bombast" prog at its best, taking classical pieces and adapting them for rock instrumentation, and writing quasi-classical and pop pieces with a decidedly "pompous" edge. Top-notch virtuoso musicianship takes it to another level entirely. (second choice: Trilogy, 1972)

jethro_tull_brick.jpg Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (1972) Led by the quirky and brilliant songwriter-vocalist-flautist Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull had already long been producing the most wide-ranging prog of any band when they released this "magnum opus" -- among rock's great full-length narrative concept albums. Extremely approachable, it relates the (fictitious) story of a young man who is suspended from school for writing a quasi-pornographic poem. The album masterfully blends elements of classical, medieval, jazz, rock and pop. (second choice: Minstrel in the Gallery, 1975)

yes_close_to_edge.jpg Yes: Close to the Edge (1972) Once master axe-man Steve Howe and legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman joined founding members Jon Anderson (lyrics/vocals), Chris Squire (bass), and Bill Bruford (drums) early in 1972, Yes (and their rival, Genesis) dominated their subgenre (symphonic prog), putting out consistently creative, challenging, technically virtuosic, heavily textured, and heavily produced albums, often writing LP-side-length masterworks of stunning musical and vocal complexity, and lyrical fantasy. Widely considered their best work, this album joins King Crimson's In the Court as one without which no true prog collection is complete. (second choice: The Yes Album, 1971)

gentle_giant_octopus.jpg Gentle Giant: Octopus (1972) Among the most highly revered but lesser-known prog bands, this sextet of virtuoso multi-instrumental intellectuals created among the most intricate, and often exciting, amalgams of classical, medieval, and rock ever produced, adding in a healthy dose of humor and ending up with something complex yet approachable, even by the novice. Note should be made that their vocal harmonies rank with -- and often surpass -- the best of Yes, Queen, and other harmony-heavy bands. (second choice: In a Glass House, 1973)

pink_floyd_dark_side.jpg Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon (1973) There is little that has not been said about this album, which richly deserves all the accolades it has received. Nor are there enough adjectives to describe its brilliance, nor enough words to explain why. Having helped create the genre with its debut album (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967), having continued to develop as a psychedelic band with an unrelenting experimental edge, and having influenced both the genre as a whole and dozens of other bands, Pink Floyd's masterwork brought prog to the masses, perfectly combining it with pop sensibilities. There is a reason this is the top-selling prog album of all time, spending a record 20 years on Billboard's Top 200. Needless to say, another album without which no prog collection is complete. (second choice: Animals, 1977)

genesis_selling_england.jpg Genesis: Selling England by the Pound (1973) Along with Yes, Genesis dominated symphonic prog for well over a decade. Founded in 1970 by theatrical-minded lyricist/singer Peter Gabriel, the internal progression of the band was among the most natural of any group, as viewed through the lens of their first four albums. Thus it was that on this, their fifth album, the band would bring it all together and create a true masterpiece of prog. Combining the confident classical style of keyboardist Tony Banks, the deceptively simple, solid bass of Mike Rutherford, the moody, minimalist guitar work of Steve Hackett, and the almost frighteningly brilliant complexity of Phil Collins' drumming, Gabriel brought the band to its pinnacle with this winsome quasi-conceptual ode to the homeland. (second choice: Foxtrot, 1972)

zappa_apostrophe.jpg Frank Zappa: Apostrophe (1974) With over 100 albums to his credit (the vast majority of which are very much worth listening to), trying to choose a "best" Zappa album is an exercise in futility inside an exercise in futility. However, if one is going to choose a single album that is approachable (especially by the novice) and not likely to get tedious after repeated listenings, Apostrophe is a good place to start, as it includes three of Zappa's funniest, funnest compositions ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Cozmik Debris," "Stinkfoot") and one of his best instrumentals (the title track). (second choice: Over-Nite Sensation, 1973)

rick_wakeman_king_arthur.jpg Rick Wakeman: The Myths & Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975) If prog is about the elements listed in the preface above, then this album is as good a place as any to start the novice, as it is almost without question the perfect blending of concept, fantastical lyrics, orchestra, chorus, rock band, and almost every other element of prog noted above. It also happens to be an exceptionally brilliant and exciting album as fresh on the one-hundredth listen as it was on the first. (second choice: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1973).

nektar_recycled.jpg Nektar: Recycled (1975) Nektar had been creating experimental and psychedelic prog since 1971, and truly found their footing in 1974 with Remember the Future, their first cohesive full-length concept album. [N.B. Along with Pink Floyd, Nektar was one of the progenitors of the type of stage and light shows later associated with arena rock.] However, with Recycled, the band finally mastered a crucial element: the use of keyboards and the recording studio to create textures and atmospheres that truly enveloped the music (it helped that they brought in guest keyboard master Larry Fast). With ecology and the environment as their theme (an issue about which they truly care, and would use again), Nektar delivered a masterwork of beauty, poignancy, and complexity, centered around guitarist-songwriter Roye Albrighton's unique and compelling guitar style. (second choice: Remember the Future, 1974)

mahavishnu_emerald.jpg Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) As much jazz fusion as prog rock, Mahavishnu produced among the most complex and demanding music in prog, and included some of the most technically gifted musicians in any genre. And although Birds of Fire (1973) is considered by most Mahavishnu aficionados to be their "magnus opus," I chose Visions because it is a more approachable album, and thus might be less frightening for the novice (well, at least a little bit!). (second choice: The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971). klaatu_hope.jpg

Klaatu: Hope (1977) For my "baker's dozen" final choice, I have chosen this album for a host of reasons in addition to the fact that, despite its obvious brilliance, it is perhaps the most under-appreciated album in all of prog. Keeping in mind that I am going to be on a desert island with only thirteen albums, the other reasons I chose this obscure, but undeniably extraordinary, album are (i), since I can't take any Beatles with me, Klaatu is the next best thing, given their unabashed, unapologetic Beatle-esque sound, and (ii) the story is about a man who is the sole survivor of his entire planet -- and what could be more appropriate under the circumstances?! (second choice: Klaatu, 1976)

And there you have it. As noted, I realize that many people will argue with my choices, and I fully admit that I have left much out, and might have made other choices had I not found myself writhing on the floor helplessly, in a state of extreme panic and dissociation, after finishing this list. However, I am better now (the scrips are kicking in), and feel ready to tackle the next list in the series: Neo-prog, from 1983 to the present. It promises to be a good list. Watch this space. Peace. - Ian Alterman ian_alterman.jpg

Ian Alterman is a founding moderator of, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)

Van der Graaf Generator -

Van der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts (1972 I think) is pretty seminal. Magnificent stuff.

Happily, this is one of the

Happily, this is one of the few times that Tony and I agree on more than we disagree re music.

Re Soft Machine, PA categorizes them as "Canterbury," which is probably closest, though I agree they straddle jazz-rock. Don't know "If2."

Re BS&T, it is on regular rotation on my CD player, and is one of the most underappreciated albums in any genre.

I accept Tony's comment re "60-70%" etc.

Re The Lamb, I need to once again remind you that the "focus" of my article was having a desert island companion who was interested in learning about prog-rock, and which albums I felt not only represented each group, but were most "accessible" to the novice. (Though I admit this seemed somewhat at odds with the term "essential.") While The Lamb is unquestionably Genesis' tour-de-force, SE is almost as good (particularly as it is a full disk shorter), and far more "approachable."

Re 10CC, I have never actually considered them "prog" (even Une Nuit de Paris and stuff from HDY only barely straddles it). Rather, I have tried in vain to get PA to add a category called "progressive pop," into which I would put (imho) 10CC, Klaatu, Supertramp, XTC, Queen, ELO, and a few others.

Re Bowie, I agree that a certain period contained truly progressive work (Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters), but I'm not sure that qualifies him as a "progressive artist" overall. No question, though, that his collaborations with Eno put him there for a while.

Re Pepper, the reason it is considered the first "prog" album (accepting a somewhat broader definition of the term) is that, at the time it was created, 99% of rock was either straightforwardly blues-based or straightforwardly four-instruments-vocals-and-fairly-basic-chord-progessions. (Yes, there were some exceptions.) It was not only The Beatles use of "non-standard" progressions, harmonies, instruments, etc. that made it "progressive," but even more importantly the use of the studio itself as an "instrument" - recording techniques, effects, etc. - that set the album apart. (Only PF, MB, JT and maybe a couple of others were doing this by then.) Again, there were certainly some exceptions here - earlier uses of studio-as-instrument etc. (Vanilla Fudge comes to mind) - but The Beatles, being The Beatles, were able to reach a much broader audience in this regard. And, of course, historically, this was only made possible by the band having quit touring in 1966: I don't think I am overstating it to say that Revolver, Pepper, MMT etc. would not - could not - have been written and produced had The Beatles remained a touring band. All that said, I continue to agree with Tony that, despite the "prog" label that Pepper gets, it was not "prog" the way most "prog" developed, particularly after In The Court.

Re The Church, their "progginess" developed later in their career, and (I agree) took a neo-psychedelic/acid form rather than a "traditional" one. [N.B. I will be posting my interview with Marty Willson-Piper of The Church on PA before month's end: what he has to say about the "progressive" label is superb.] Similarly, Porcupine Tree actually started out more "proggy" (their early albums are actually very experimental, including lots of instrumental stuff), and became less "proggy" and more neo-psychedelic (with a healthy helping of prog metal) as time went on.

I think that about covers it. Nice to see that Tony and I are edging toward each other re "prog" et al.


Prog Reactions

Surpised that Ian doesn't know Ambrosia, though I must say I only "know" Ambrosia in that I heard one or two of their albums, oh, hmmm, maybe 37 years ago.... At that time there were a number of groups - Hawkwind, Ambrosia, Ossibisa, Tangerine Dream, a few others - who were doing some interesting electronic and harmonic stuff that was worth a listen. (This is before "prog rock" became a category, and when "interesting" could mean Atom Heart Mother or Moondog or Harry Partch.) But I have to agree with Ian, at the time I discovered this along with some of my college friends, it did not seem to rate with any of the stuff he picked. We'd listen to *Court, Threshold, Thick as a Brick etc. a hundred times before anyone would put on Ambrosia. Which doesn't mean they're bad, just not quite as important.

Somebody above mentioned Soft Machine's Third - jazzrock at the time had a sort of prog bias, and this was supposed to be SM's breakthrough, but I never really got into it. If *2* is another, which I happen to like a lot but never owned. (I think I have their first album, not quite as good.) "Echoes and Shadows" is the most proggy cut, I think. BS&T's first album is one brilliant jazz-rock synthesis; if that counts as prog then this would be my choice to represent the trend. (Chicago's third album a distant and somewhat pretentious second.)

The stuff Ian picked wouldn't be exactly what I would pick, but maybe 60-70% overlap of albums and/or groups. 10 is definitely a challenge, almost guaranteed to leave out some top contenders even if you limit it to one album per group. I'd say you've got the core 6 groups - MB, PF, KC, Yes, Genesis, Nektar - and the rest is more or less in contention between a dozen others.

Regarding specific albums: (1) For Genesis I'd go with *The Lamb* partly because I thinl "In the Cage" is almost a definition of prog, and "The Lamb" and "Carpet Crawlers" are so definitive of Gabriel-era Genesis. But if I had to pick a second choice it would be what Ian picked. (2) Tull barely gets on my prog list at all, because I think they alternate between hard rock and folk rock and not much prog rock. But "Aqualung" (the song) makes a good stab at prog, so I'd pick that album if any. (Another option would be *Minstrel* for "Baker St. Muse" and maybe one or two other tracks.) (3) I cannot seem to convince Ian (or any other Klaatu fans) that *Hope* is absolutely their worst album, overdone aimless orchestral posturing (etc........) - I'd pick their first or *Sir Army Suit*. But I will grant that by some definitions *Hope* is more obviously prog rock than their others. (4) Whether Zappa really belongs here is questionable. Part of what identifies something as prog for me is that you not only offer extended compositions with complex harmonic and metrical aspects but that you take them seriously, as manifested in the lyrics. Zappa was a serious composer, but *Apostrophe* and many of his albums are very tongue in cheek. Maybe it's "prog" in the sense that Peter Schikele's goofy compositions are "classical".

10CC, on the other hand, does not fit with "prog" for Ian, and based on what I just said they shouldn't for me either. But they most songs on *How Dare You?* and about half the ones on *The Original Soundtrack* seem to me closer to prog than to anything else. And if 10CC counts as prog, they have to be on the list. Another artist I am willing to admit to the prog list who Ian isn't is David Bowie. If Heroes isn't prog rock I'm not sure what it is. And if it is it goes in my desert island prog collection. (E.g., replacing Apostrophe, which has no better claim...)

Sgt. Pepper is not prog, it's acid rock (or psychedelia). Ian actually insisted on this distinction before I did, and though I may have different criteria for the difference, the more I have thought about it the more I am convinced it's right. I can even see it in a single group sometimes - e.g., The Church, XTC and Porcupine Tree all strike me as having some albums more in the neo-psychedelic vein and other stuff in the prog rock vein. PF clearly migrated from acid to prog - maybe the only clear case, because the early MB and JT albums were not clearly acid rock.

Just picked up remastered *Revolver* plus *After bathing at Baxter's*, speaking of the acid connection... Almost makes me want to scrounge in the bottom of an old drawer for some leftover resin..... :-)

To Art Ramos: You make a

To Art Ramos: You make a good point: P&G is a true concept album where Octopus is not. And I do love P&G! I simply felt that Octopus was a more "approachable" album for my desert island companion.

To Anonymous: I am actually not familiar with Ambrosia (feel free to fling the CD at me...LOL). However, in your heart of hearts, would you really put them in the same category as the dozen bands chosen? If so, it seems I am going to have to find the album!

To Harpo 73: Re Renaissance, I would have chosen Scheherazade, mostly (again) due to its overall approachability for my desert island companion. As Dusty noted, I did leave out Canterbury - though I was definitely angsted by doing so... I'm very pleased that you agree with the Wakeman choice: so many people are not even aware of that album, and it really is an amazing agglomeration of all of the elements of prog that I noted in my (admittedly personal) definition of prog... Finally, re PFM, they will be included in my list of foreign prog - indeed, if KC's In The Court can be said to be the nearly single-handed progenitor of English-speaking prog, PFM's Storia di in Minuto and Per un Amico (both released in 1972) are almost unarguably the progenitors of a huge swath of European prog. (Museo Rosenbach's "Zarathustra" is also up there.)

Thanks and peace to all.


I truly love "Spring" by "Spring" - 3 mellotrons going at once.

I really like Rennainsce - Ashes are Burning.

I like Camel - "Snow Goose"

Chirs Squires "Fish out of Water"

PFM has a couple great albums.

I totally agree with Close to the Edge - best Prog album of all time bar none.

agree with Rick Wakeman - King Arthur (You have this and not Rennainse, hmm)

aggree with Moody Blues - Dream

Yea Ambrosia's first album

Yea Ambrosia's first album mixed by Alan Parsons is brilliant! One of the greatest recorded albums of all time!

Ambrosia's debut album is

Ambrosia's debut album is Drop Dead Brilliant!!

Addition to the list

Several of your choices I do not consider prog rock but then we get into that whole definition debate. Anyway, I would include Ambrosia's debut album. And their sophmore album, "Somewhere I Never Travelled" is also quite good. These guys seem to always get overlooked when it comes to these lists.

Alternate Choices

I would have chosen Gentle Giant's "The Power And The Glory" because it is a complete package, a great concept album... it used dissonance to great effect which means it takes several listenings to catch on.

Also, not to mention ELPs "Tarkus" and "Brain Salad Surgery" which are two of the greatest Prog compositions is a crime. I listen to these albums more than "Emerson, Lake & Palmer" and "Trilogy"!

An overlap of three

My list, for what it's worth. I can't stick to your English-language rule, though -- I'd love to hear your thoughts on Krautrock.

Frank Zappa: Freak Out! (1966)

Zappa's (self-)schooling in avant-garde classical meant he was light years ahead in the inclusion of progressive elements in his music; he was skeptical and anti-authoritarian ahead of the curve as well.


King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

It's not my favorite among their albums (that would be Red), but its chronological primacy earns it the nod.


Procol Harum: A Salty Dog (1969)

The combination of classical influences with pop song formats and rock instrumentation was never better.


Soft Machine: Third (1970)

The jazz edge of prog, part 1. Even better now that a bonus live disc's been added.


Mahavishnu Orchestra: Inner Mounting Flame (1971)

The jazz edge of prog, part 2. This album created a new template; they never bettered it.


Achim Reichel: Echo (1972)

Possibly the greatest Krautrock album ever. Even if you're straightedge, listening to this will make you feel stoned.


Yes: Close to the Edge (1972)

Epic and poetic without being pretentious (although I'll grant that they come close!), complex without being convoluted, in many ways this is the epitome of prog.


Genesis: Foxtrot (1972)

Majestic and witty, every track a classic, including the 23-minute "Supper's Ready" (someday I'd like somebody to tell me what it's "about,"but I can enjoy it without knowing).


Popol Vuh: In den Garten Pharaos (1972)

About as mystical as music can get.


Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

I like their earlier space-rock style more, but a) aside from perhaps Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the early albums all have one or more dud tracks; b) they're more psychedelic than progressive (though whether that's an important distinction is a topic for much debate). Really what I'd like to list is the live disc of Ummagumma with the omitted "Interstellar Overdrive," which should have been included when the album was reissued on CD and time considerations ceased to matter.


Kansas: Leftoverture (1976)

They were proggiest when Kerry Livgren dominated, as he did here. There's much more to this album than "Carry On Wayward Son."


Art Bears: Hopes and Fears (1978)

More focused than Henry Cow (most of which appears here), less bleak than their striking (and highly political) farewell Winter Songs, this opens with a cover of Kurt Weill's "On Suicide" and peaks with "In Two Minds."


U.K.: U.K. (1978)

Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford left after this album, but with Eddie Jobson and John Wetton, these all-stars of prog made one of the genre's great underrated albums as prog's heyday wound down.