Prog is the genre that refuses to die. Since its inception 50 years ago, it has swung in and out of fashion, from the glory days of the 1970s to its glorious resurgence in recent years. To celebrate its enduring durability, we look at the key albums that have shaped it from the 60s to today. These aren’t necessarily the biggest or most famous albums – they’re the ones without which prog would sound very different. We start by going right back to the beginning…
The Mothers Of Invention – Freak Out! (1966)
“Before prog and shock rock, you had Frank and his musicians who were doing something unlike any other band I’d heard before,” says onetime Zappa protégé Alice Cooper. Freak Out! was a sprawling double album too, that not only kick-started Zappa’s memorable career but also hinted at where psychedelic sounds might be heading.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
Before Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys were best known for their early-60s surf anthems. When main songwriter Brian Wilson went head to head with The Beatles, having heard their Rubber Soul album, he not only sent himself round the twist but also created a world of sonic wizardry that suddenly had aspiring and creative psychedelic rockers realising that maybe there really were no limits to what they could achieve.
The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
If Pet Sounds showed what a band could achieve in the studio, then The Beatles’ masterpiece exploded psychedelic stardust over a host of musicians, and off they went in a whirlwind of creativity. It also began as a concept album – an idea that’d soon find favour with proggers.
Procol Harum – Procol Harum (1967)
Despite having enormous hits with A Whiter Shade Of Pale and Homburg, Procol Harum’s debut album bombed in the UK – probably due to both those songs being left off. The US version of the record carried both, which certainly helped the Top 50 success it had there. The album’s blend of blues rock, classical ideas and psychedelic sounds was very much a blueprint for many of the prog rock releases that followed in its wake.
Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
Named after a chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, Pink Floyd’s swirling blend of psychedelia and space rock was highlighted by Syd Barrett’s astounding songwriting talents. From the whimsy of Bike and The Gnome to proto-prog epics like Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive, the album is a colourful mix of the sounds of its time – and a peek into the future.
Moody Blues – Days Of Future Passed (1967)
Originally an R&B band who’d had minor success, Birmingham’s The Moody Blues were were asked by their record company to work on a rock version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The Moodies had other ideas, and recorded material they’d already been working on, inventing symphonic prog and unleashing the last-dance knee trembler Nights In White Satin in the process.
The Nice – The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack (1967)
The debut album from the prodigious The Nice (the LP title played on the four members’ surnames) might have suffered from the band’s initial unfamiliarity with studio techniques, and the title track may have come across as twee psychedelia, but in the ostentatious Rondo keyboard player Keith Emerson was mapping out the future of his style of progressive rock for the next four decades.
King Crimson – In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
“I grew up listening to this album, and its influence on my teenage self still forms a large part of my musical DNA,” says modern prog figurehead Steven Wilson, who – under the auspicious eye of band leader Robert Fripp – undertook the immense task of remixing King Crimson’s debut album, one of the all-time great prog-rock landmarks. The title track and 21st Century Schizoid Man are prog evergreens. And as for that sleeve illustration…
Fairport Convention – Liege & Lief (1969)
The point at which folk music and prog collided. Fairport Convention might have been known as a bunch of English folkies, but they had all come from more traditional rock backgrounds. “The great thing about being in Fairport was fusing traditional music with electronic music,” says longstanding bassist Dave Pegg, who also did a stint in Jethro Tull.
The Soft Machine – Volume Two (1969)
Having parted company with main songwriter Kevin Ayers after their well-received debut of 1968, Soft Machine’s second album found the Canterbury band beginning to find their feet with the jazzier sound that would come to typify their later work. Volume Two was inspired by Frank Zappa and is centred on two lengthy compositions. The band (uncredited) backed former Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett on his solo album The Madcap Laughs.
Curved Air – Air Conditioning (1970)
The part women have played in the development of the male-dominated prog genre has been frequently overlooked. And Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina is a case in point. Her band’s debut album, Air Conditioning, blended rock, classical, folk and electronica, and with Darryl Way’s violin most often the lead instrument, it reached an impressive No.8 in the UK in 1970. It was also one of the very first rock picture discs.
Van Der Graaf Generator – The Least We Can Do is Wave To Each Other (1970)
Like King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator – formed at Manchester University in 1967 – were intent on challenging themselves and listeners at every turn, with ear-jarring blasts of sax instead of featuring a guitarist. Their second album was their first for the famous Charisma label, VdGG being the label’s very first band signing.
Magma – Magma (1970)
In Germany progressive rock mutated into Krautrock. In France the enigmatic Christian Vander, inspired by jazz, came up with confounding visions that inspired him to create an entire new mythos and language (Kobaïan) to spend his creative time on. The first recorded fruits of percussionist Vander’s outlandish visions was his band Magma’s self-titled debut album, which kick-started a genre all its own.
Barclay James Harvest – Once Again (1971)
Despite being unfairly tagged by the press as a ‘poor man’s Moody Blues’ – something they would later react to by writing a self-mocking song of the same name – Barclay James Harvest specialised in presenting their own singular brand of symphonic prog. Their second album features the eloquent Mocking Bird and delicate Galadriel, and remains one of the highlights of a long and distinguished career.
Jethro Tull – Aqualung (1971)
The prodigious Tull, led by enigmatic singer/flautist Ian Anderson, were one of the most consistently creative of the 70s prog bands, throwing folk, blues, country and hard rock into the mix whenever they felt like it. The intellectual Aqualung – one of Tull’s most famous and lauded records – was not, as many thought, a concept album. (Although the press believed that it was, prompting Tull to create the definitively conceptual Thick As A Brick as its follow-up.)
Caravan – In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971)
Leading lights of what became known as the Canterbury scene, the quintessentially English Caravan brought a more avant-garde, jazzy feel to progressive rock. This, the band’s third album, housed in one of the genre’s most recognisable sleeves, was without a doubt the highlight of their career and a classic of the period.
Emerson Lake & Palmer – Tarkus (1971)
Viewed from the off as prog’s first supergroup – or “a waste of electricity” if you believed influential British radio DJ John Peel – when the trio pooled their resources in 1970, ELP pretty much hit the ground running. Tarkus was their second album, recorded in a year when they also released the live album Pictures At An Exhibition (their interpretation of a classical suite). The entire first side of vinyl was given over to the title track, a lengthy anti-war tirade.
Focus – Moving Waves (1971)
With this, their second album, Focus put Dutch prog rock on the music map. Moving Waves will always defined by and strongly linked with its opening track, the wondefully unique Hocus Pocus, which features manic yodeling from flautist Thijs Van Leer, combined with power-charged metal guitar from Jan Akkerman, who at the time swept Best Guitarist polls everywhere. Equally impressive is the lengthy Eruption, based on Peri’s opera Euridice.
Yes – Fragile (1971)
At the beginning of the 70s Yes were on a creative roll which brought them immense commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, and helped to establish both their own and prog’s fortunes. Fragile, which followed The Yes Album released earlier in 1971, is arguably one of the finest examples of the band’s work before the excesses of the mid-70s caught up with them.
Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)
Genesis’s fourth album includes the band’s magnum opus, the 23-minute Supper’s Ready, which set a benchmark for purveyors of lengthier, epic prog material. Amazingly the band would lag behind the likes of Yes and ELP until after talismanic frontman Peter Gabriel left to go solo in 1976. Within a few years, the Phil Collins-fronted version of the band would reap huge commercial success.
Gentle Giant – Octopus (1972)
The title refers to the eight songs – or ‘musical works’ – that make up the album. But then Gentle Giant were always one of the more consciously clever prog rock bands (just check out some of their time signatures). Octopus was the British band’s fourth album of quirky, intense musicality, and also very much the rockiest to date. It was also the start of what is generally deemed to be GG’s classic era.
Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
Belying the myth that prog is a minority interest, Pink Floyd’s monumental The Dark Side Of The Moon has sold in excess of 35 million copies since its release. Packaged in Storm Thorgerson’s iconic artwork, Dark Side… was recorded over seven months at Abbey Road in London. Containing a host of key Floyd tracks, including Time and Money, this was a (slightly) more democratic Floyd than would later emerge under bassist/vocalist Roger Waters. Prog aficionado or not, Dark Side… is the soundtrack of a generation.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973)
Recorded by the then 20-year-old Oldfield, who played all the numerous instruments himself, Tubular Bells is a truly remarkable piece of work. It’s classical by nature, but imbued with a broad range of influences. Without it, the iconic label Virgin Records might still be a couple of rooms in a house in Notting Hill.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds Of Fire (1973)
Jazz rock developed in the 60s via bands like Colosseum and Nucleus, and was set in stone with Miles Davis’s 1970 album Bitches Brew. But it was the eyepoppingly virtuoso Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring the scintillating guitar playing of John McLaughlin and the stunning drumming of Billy Cobham, who were at the progressive forefront of the fusion sound.
Gong – Angels Egg (1973)
Gong were a ramshackle hippy/musician collective who used to reside in a commune in France. However, they got their act together enough to record some fine spaced-out records (and later some good jazz rock), the best of which is this, the second in their Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy, which revolves around an alien vision that Gong leader Daveid Allen claimed to have had. The record features some fine guitar playing from Steve Hillage.
Rick Wakeman – Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974)
Former Yes keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman’s second solo record, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth was an outrageously ambitious undertaking. Recorded with a rock band, a symphonic orchestra and a choir – it was based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name and recorded live at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was also a massively successful album, going on to sell more than 14 million copies.
Supertramp – Crime Of The Century (1974)
Leaning towards the more commercial end of prog, the music of early Supertramp hadn’t been anything to write home about. And then they released this, their third album: eight perfectly formed songs from writers Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, ranging from the intellectual bias of School and the pomp of Bloody Well Right to the smash-hit pop of Dreamer. From then on they never looked back.
Electric Light Orchestra – Eldorado (1974)
Hugely and very obviously influenced by The Beatles, ELO’s symphonic approach was ideal to blend with prog. ELO started to take the prog genre in new directions. Eldorado, the band’s fourth album, was their first to be recorded with a full orchestra, and is a concept album about a daydreamer.
Kraftwerk – Autobahn (1974)
Emerging from the Krautrock subgenre that also gave us Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust, Amon Düül II and Neu, Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk are the most interesting and most influential of all those bands to come out of Germany. The sound in their early years was more progressive, but by their fourth album, Autobahn, their developing experimentation with electronica was in full flight.
Hawkwind – Warrior On The Edge Of Time (1975)
Earlier Hawkwind releases such as In Search Of Space and Space Ritual were more space rock in style than this one. With Warrior…, featuring future Motorhead mainman Lemmy on bass and vocals, they crafted a highly creditable album based on science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion character. Prog-meets-space rock at the band’s most creative period.
Renaissance – Scheherazade (1975)
Although Song Of Scheherazade is the only track here that actually has anything to do with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, it was with this album that Renaissance’s subtle blending of prog, folk and classical music seemed to reach its apotheosis. Led by vocalist Annie Haslam, the group, who originally began life as a vehicle for ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, was particularly well-received in America.
Camel – Moonmadness (1976)
Much like fellow Canterbury scenesters Caravan’s In The Land Of Grey And Pink, Camel’s 1976 album Moonmadness, from its evocative album sleeve to the quintessentially British prog sound, perfectly sum up what’s the genre is all about. In Camel’s case it’s occasionally whimsical, pastoral prog that flirts with a touch of jazz. The last album the original line-up would ever record, it is also their very best.
The Alan Parsons Project – Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (1976)
The news that Pink Floyd engineer Alan Parsons had teamed up with songwriter and manager Eric Woolfson was major news to fans of symphonic prog. Enlisting the help of the band Pilot (who Parsons had also produced) and an array of guest vocalists, this concept album kicked off a hugely successful career for the duo.
Rush – 2112 (1976)
Originally heavily influenced by Led Zep and Cream, Canadian trio Rush gained momentum when they recruited drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart for their second album. After some promising earlier works, 2112 is Rush’s crucial 70s album. With a whole side of vinyl devoted to the wondrous seven-part title track – complete with the ‘We have assumed control…’ grand finale – the five shorter tracks, A Passage To Bangkok, The Twilight Zone, provided a neat contrast. The production of 2112 may sound a little dated now, but live still retains all of its original power.
Kansas – Leftoverture (1976)
Although America took to prog in the early 70s, often quicker than the UK did to their own bands, it took a while for the US to make something their own in the genre. When it arrived it was pomp rock, a blend of the aesthetics of prog with the dynamism of heavy rock. It was best typified by the likes of Styx and Kansas, the latter the most proggy of them all, even if Leftoverture also features the smash hit Carry On Wayward Son.
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1978)
When frontman Peter Gabriel quit Genesis in 1976 it left most fans stunned and wondering what would become of the two parties. In fact they both went on to even greater success than during their shared history. Gabriel’s first solo album (titled Peter Gabriel, as were his next three), is his closest in feel, if not sound, to the music he’d been making with Genesis. Solsbury Hill, about the split, and Here Comes The Flood still shine today.
Kate Bush – The Kick Inside (1978)
One of the unforgettable debut, from a 19-year-old who’d written most of these songs years earlier. From the opening Moving (introduced by whale song before eulogising dance instructor Lindsay Kemp) to the brittle yet euphoric hit single Wuthering Heights, the album revelled in its literary and cinematic influences (most obviously Emily Bronte but also “spiritual teacher” Gurdjieff) while introducing a fresh, candid, keening voice, fearless in expressing lust and eroticism from a female perspective.
Asia – Asia (1982)
The derision that initially greeted the grouping together of Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and John Wetton as Asia – and amplified by their immense success – is a perfect example of the punk hangover that affected prog for years. Asia had the last laugh, however, going straight to No.1 in the US chart and selling millions with their never-beforeattempted, carefully crafted and hugely successful mix of prog and AOR.
Marillion – Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Aylesbury’s Marillion rose to fame as part of a new wave of prog that swelled up in the UK in the early 80s. With the release of this, their third studio album, the band raced ahead of the others riding in on prog’s new wave and hit the top of the UK album chart as well becoming a welcome fixture on the airwaves with the hit singles Kayleigh and Lavender.
Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Previously they’d been thought of as a slightly pretentious/preposterous metal band from Seattle, with a singer with a penchant for big quiffery and alarming spandex clobber. After this intense concept album people started taking Queensrÿche very seriously. Although musically it’s melodic metal, the ideas are undoubtedly prog.
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It Bites – Once Around The World (1988)
A prog rock band with strong pop sensibilities to boot, It Bites were an unlikely looking and sounding proposition. This second album manages to mix hugely commercial tracks like Midnight and Kiss Like Judas with epics like Old Man And The Angel and the astonishing 15-minute title track without seeming contrived. While Frank Dunnery’s voice is an acquired taste, his guitar playing and musical vision held enormous promise which as yet remains unfulfilled following the band’s implosion a couple of years later.
Dream Theater – Images And Words (1992)
Dream Theater had to overcome a number of hurdles in order to create their second album. Recovering from the embarrassing failure of their debut album, When Dream And Day Unite, for the follow-up they brought in new singer James LaBrie and butted heads with their producer, David Prater, who drummer Mike Portnoy later called “one of my least favourite human beings on the planet”. Despite all that, it’s difficult to fault Images And Words, which did far more than just enable Dream Theater to let in a vital chink of daylight. In fact its start-to-finish excellence served to open up a skylight to the cosmos.
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Eschewing the indie bluster of their earlier work, Radiohead embraced experimentation and a bleak sense of unease on their third, universally lauded opus. At once a cry of existential doubt and a snarling kick at enforced conformity, it skewered the pressures of the 21st century three years before it arrived.
Tool – Lateralus (2001)
Delving into and remoulding such diverse influences as King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails to create a shadowy, experimental sound, their impact was immense, even though they firmly deny that they’re a ‘prog’ band. Aenima, from 1996, is often heralded as Tool’s defining moment, but the progressive complexity of Lateralus gives the latter an edge. With forceful instrumental passages and hate-fuelled lyrics, Tool attracted as many Marilyn Manson fans as they did Robert Fripp lovers.
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001)
Opeth began life as a death metal band from Stockholm, but mainman Mikael Akerfeldt was also a massive fan of the likes of Comus and Camel. Perhaps inevitably, he hooked up with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree who helped reshape the Opeth sound from one of brutality to one of power, precision and sometimes beautiful melody. 2001’s Blackwater Park was the initial result, and the band have never looked back since.
Porcupine Tree – Deadwing (2005)
The Steven Wilson-fronted Porcupine Tree are – or more likely ‘were’, given their current inactive status – the great progressive success story of the past 20 years, achieving their success despite not because of mainstream media help. Picking one album from their extensive back catalogue is hard, but Deadwing – a ghost based on a screenplay written by Steven Wilson and visual artist Mike Bennion – edges it. Characterised by concise, manageable songs, with the exception of the 12-minute epic Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, It’s a surreal, sensitive and subtle experience and a triumph for artistic instinct.
Muse – Black Holes And Revelations (2006)
With its Hipgnosis-designed cover it was difficult to deny the progressive intent on Muse’s fourth album, with its themes of political outrage and science-fiction approach. In truth the Devon trio have always sounded prog, but were marketed as an alt-rock band by a wary record company. This blew that plan out the water, even if half Muse’s audience still have no idea what prog is.
Mastodon – Crack The Skye (2009)
Crack The Skye – Mastodon’s fifth album – was the one on which they threw caution to the wind, turned their backs on metal and began rocking like their beloved King Crimson and Yes. The result was a new dawn for prog
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)
Arguably the ex-Porcupine Tree man’s defining statement, Steven Wilson elected to devote his third solo album to dark tales of the supernatural kind. Engineered by Alan Parsons and backed by a road-drilled band that included bassist Nick Beggs, guitarist Guthrie Govan and in-demand drummer Marco Minnemann, the basic frameworks of its six selections – three of which last for more than ten minutes apiece – were often laid down in a single take. If the album crackles with crisp, nervous energy, the loan of King Crimson’s MK III Mellotron only served to enhance its dark ambience.
TesseracT – Polaris (2015)
Contemporary trends have seen metal bands drifting towards prog and upping their chops along the way. Few have done it so convincingly as TesseracT – their third album ties together headbanging, mathematical chugs, cascading post-rock and acrobatic technicality. Proof that prog is in safe hands.