The Absolutely Essential Progressive Rock Listening Guide


June 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: 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)


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)


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: 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 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 (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 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 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)


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: 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 (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 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 (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.