Progressive rock is one of the genres that got its start in the 60s, having grown out of London’s psychedelic scene. It achieved a remarkable level of sophistication by the end of the decade and continued to evolve further in the 70s, when it reached its peak. Although there are young(er) artists nowadays whose work could be described as prog, there is not much space left for innovation anymore, similarly to other styles within rock music.
It’s not usually easy to label any form of art, especially if it’s unique and original. Neither of the 10 records listed below is easy to put into a single box, and that’s exactly what makes them so great. However, they all possess certain features that tend to be attributed to prog: eclectic rhythms and time signatures, lenghty compositions bordering on the precision of classical music, elements of jazz, philosophical lyrics and experimentation with various sound effects.
10. Gentle Giant – ‘Octopus’ (1972)
During their short-lived but incredibly productive career, Gentle Giant contributed considerably to the evolution of the progressive rock genre: they released a total of 11 studio albums between 1970 and 1980. The first track on ‘Octopus’, “The Advent of Panurge”, alone is enough to put them on this list, with its spectacular use of symphonic elements and changes in rhythm. They cram a lot into each song, never sticking with one musical theme for too long. ‘Octopus’ has survived the test of time and still is exciting to hear from start to finish, keeping the listener engaged throughout.
9. Frank Zappa – ‘Hot Rats’ (1969)
Frank Zappa’s music is probably the hardest to label out of all the artists on this list. Although he’s certainly not the first to come to mind when progressive rock is mentioned, his second studio album bears all the characteristics of the genre. It features some of Zappa’s finest compositions, including “Wille the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations”. Released in 1969 (on 10th October, the exact same day as King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’), ‘Hot Rats’ was undoubtedly influenced by the symphonic rock and jazz fusion records of the time, and it has gone on to inspire other artists until the present day.
8. Mike Oldfield – ‘Tubular Bells’ (1973)
Mike Oldfield’s iconic instrumental work “Tubular Bells, Part One” and its multi-layered orchestral arrangement makes his name worthy to be mentioned alongside the greatest classical composers of all time. Oldfield was only 19 years old when he wrote the album and recorded it by playing all of the following instruments himself: acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, organs, flageolet, fuzz guitars, glockenspiel, piano, mandolin, percussion instruments and tubular bells, in addition to providing some of the vocals.
7. Rush – ‘Moving Pictures’ (1981)
Written years after the peak in the popularity of progressive rock, the Canadian group’s 1981 release is one of the last great examples of the genre. The masterful use of synthesizers and complex guitar solos are blended with elements of early 80s hard rock, differentiating ‘Moving Pictures’ from the other albums on this list. Nonetheless, there’s still a clear connection with earlier works of prog: the instrumental track “YYZ”, for instance, sounds very much like Emerson, Lake and Palmer with heavy drums.
6. Yes – ‘Close to the Edge’ (1972)
1972’s ‘Close to the Edge’ is the most commercially successful and one of the most critically acclaimed records by Yes. The psychedelic sound of Rick Wakeman’s organs blend brilliantly with Steve Howe’s more traditional acoustic guitar parts and Jon Anderson’s powerful vocals, creating a musical landscape with fine textures that almost feel palpable. According to music critic Henry Mendoza, with ‘Close to the Edge’ the band had reached their full potential.
5. Genesis – ‘Selling England by the Pound’ (1973)
‘Selling England by the Pound’ received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but opinions have been steadily getting more and more favourable since then. It includes “Firth of Fifth”, one of the band’s most famous tracks and a notable example of the progressive rock genre. Peter Gabriel’s vocals are a perfect complement to the adventurous and often experimental musical backdrop. The classical piano and guitar melodies combine well with the electronic elements, creating an exciting and versatile sound, which has influenced several generations of musicians.
4. Jethro Tull – ‘Aqualung’ (1971)
Most authors compiling the best progressive rock albums tend to feature Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’ close to the top instead of ‘Aqualung’. This is because the former is considered Ian Anderson’s first purely prog composition. However, ‘Aqualung’ bears enough of the genre’s signature qualities to deserve its place on this list. The title track’s classic guitar riff could be one of the most recognizable couple of notes ever played in a rock song, and “Cross Eyed Mary”, “My God” and “Locomotive Breath” are just as expertly arranged as they are inviting to sing along to.
3. Pink Floyd – ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973)
This is the record that propelled Pink Floyd to worldwide fame after the few moderately successful attempts that preceded it. It’s the third best-selling album of all time, which begs the question: how can a piece of art with so much depth, both musically and lyrically, be so broadly appreciated? The answer is likely to lie in the group’s talent to blend the serious with the easily consumable, creating compositions that please those who like experimentation with soundscapes, while also being accessible to an audience who prefer a more traditional rock sound. The tracks “Time” and “Money” are the best examples of songs that have the power to appeal to a very wide array of listeners.
2. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – ‘Emerson, Lake & Palmer’ (1970)
If the previous year’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ had been an experiment, then Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s self-titled first record is the proof that the experiment had turned out successful. After leaving King Crimson, Greg Lake contributed to the composition of the record that’s arguably one of the greatest masterpieces of the progressive rock genre, and on this list it’s a close second to the prior year’s magnificent musical achievement. The group’s debut is the archetypal evidence that rock can be as complex as classical music – and if anyone still has any doubts, they should listen to ELP’s album from the following year, where they covered and rearranged Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ in its entirety.
1. King Crimson – ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)
King Crimson’s debut album was very much ahead of its time. It’s considered an important milestone in the development of the genre, and it’s likely to have influenced all of its competitors on this list, with the exception of Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’. It established the group as one of prog’s most prominent masters, and it serves as a great example of all the attributes that define this style of music, including elaborate arrangements and intricate time signatures. At the time of its release, Rolling Stone wrote that King Crimson “combined aspects of many musical forms to create a surreal work of force and originality”, and Pete Townshend of the Who hailed it as “an uncanny masterpiece”.