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The Most Important Progressive Rock Albums of All Time

Updated on February 22, 2017
Source Amazon.com
Source Amazon.com

They Didn't Care What Critics Thought

Progressive rock music is about pushing the envelope. That was sometimes the primary concern with progressive rock artists, with perhaps acid rock and or art rock being other monikers to describe the music in the late 1960's.

Certainly those art/acid rock bands fell into a proto-prog niche, those band's developed into the genre of music that is thought of today as progressive rock.

The music can be bloated, over long exercises in pretentiousness, absolutely perfect of course for the open-minded iPod play-list shuffler of the modern-day.

Many times these bands were not concerned about taste, and frankly could have cared less what the press or even their own fans had to say about the music they were creating....but for those not initiated, here's some ideas where should you start a collection of progressive rock albums?

King Crimson: A good place to start

Honestly, you could just go out and buy the entire discography of King Crimson and have a pretty good start. I am biased, in that I think that King Crimson is the best of the early progressive rock bands.

YES, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd are right there, but Crimson are the quintessential progressive rock band in my opinion. Any of Crimson's "FIRST LINE-UP" albums such as In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Lizard are masterpieces. Any of those albums are a great place to start.

The next line-ups brought albums like Islands and Red, are all worth having too. These first 3 albums of 69-70 are breathtaking in originality, the soundscapes they paint in one's mind are startling.

Colosseum: The Valentyne suite

Colosseum's Valentyne Suite was one of the first albums from the genre outside of King Crimson that turned me on my ass.

That Hammond organ sound on the title track is insanely cool. John Hiseman's drumming is magnificent, he's one of the best drummers in rock history and most people don't even know who he is. SHAME on them!

The title track is the reason to get this album no doubt. I am a modern jazz aficionado, so it's not surprising I like the saxophone of Dick Heckstall-Smith, he does a nice job adding an extra element to the music. Don't think this is something like Soft Machine though, it's 80% Rock and 20% jazz.

David Greenslade plays vibrophone and Hammond organ on "The Valentyne Suite", both bring this ominous/sinister vibe to the music that I find extremely interesting.

I have listened to this 17 minute track, that's broken up into 3 section, I know 100 times, and it never gets old. "January's Search", "February's Valentyne", and "The Grass is Always Greener".

Original vocalist James Litherland is underrated too, and his guitar and vocals on "The Kettle" start the album off well.

The Valentyne Suite album came out the same year as King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, it's different, but I feel like the music is on the same wavelength. Admittedly I prefer Chris Farlowe on vocals from Daughter of Time onward, but this early album is a treat.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here

It's hard to explain the emotion that the unbelievably simple ringing notes around the 4:00 minute mark brings into the mind:

Those notes conjure up in my mind a feeling of isolation, perhaps a feeling of hopelessness? It is ironic that "Crazy Diamond" is a tribute to former founding member and singer Syd Barrett, who was one of the real heroes of proto-prog music.

Crazy Diamond offers a mood that completely nails the vibe of what it must have felt like, when the band saw what an utter shell of his former self he had become.

The rest of the album is full of wonderful moody synths and sparse guitars, for my money this was David Gilmore's masterpiece as far as guitar solos go too.

As I mentioned in the open, I am not at all a Pink Floyd fan boy, but I would be a fool to suggest them as being overrated, though I do hear a lot more of that talk in recent years than I used to. I have never been a fan of much post Animals, and never cared much for The Wall.

I tend to gravitate toward to the pre Dark Side of the Moon albums more, I feel like the sound for my taste is a bit too refined. I know this is splitting hairs, and honestly not that big of a deal. I like Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals equally, but "Crazy Diamond" is so good it's ridiculous.

Caravan Land of the Grey and Pink

Caravan was the quintessential Canterbury Scene band, Soft Machine and possibly Camel the other most notable on the scene.

Caravan is a band that took some time for me to warm to, their sound isn't as hard-edged as King Crimson for instance, and it took some time for me to get that first love of thrash metal out of system from my youth.

Caravan really has a tasteful and not at all forced jazzy approach to their style. with expert musicianship. they can rock a bit too, don't get me wrong.

You must hear the 22 plus minute "Nine Feet Underground" a track that is every thing great about prog, never once lacking in taste, and plenty of groovin' rock sounds throughout.

Barclay James Harvest: Once Again

Barclay James Harvest's Once Again is one of the most gorgeous symphonic prog albums I have ever heard.

I don't say that lightly either. The album is easily one of the lost classics of the genre, right up there with the Moody Blues best.

Dare I say I like this better than anything I have heard from the Moody's. I don't mean that as a slight to the Moody Blues, I like them.

I really like most of their music, but I am just trying to convey how fantastic the album Once Again is. It is very very good, and I do return to it quite often.

What makes Once Again so special?

The full orchestra doesn't hurt, much like the Moody Blues, they use the Orchestra and keyboards to great effect, really creating a very much classical music vibe.

Much like that newer band Big Big Train, Barclay James Harvest knew how to milk a melody. No question this ability sets apart the men from the boys in folksy symphonic prog.

Another thing about this album that I like and is missing on much of the Moody's stuff is a harder rock edge. Don't get me wrong here, you won't mistake BJH for King Crimson, but they do dig into some acid rock riffs and a few over the top lead vocal growls for effect. "Ball and Chain" comes to mind.

Yes: Relayer

Oddly enough, Relayer is my favorite Yes album, even considering Rick Wakeman is replaced on keyboards by Patrick Moraz.

Most people always go for the Fragile, Close to the Edge cliché', those are great albums of course, but Relayer is not inferior at all, and I think "Gates of Delirium" is the best track they ever had. The 20 plus minute Gates of Delirium is worth the price alone, some serious hard-driving progressive music here.

The Anderson crooning ballad "Soon" tacked on at the end of "Gates" brings us back to a better day, at least hoping for one . I just love this album, as much as I love Wakeman, Moraz really does a great job on Relayer.

Van Der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts

Depending on what mood I am in, I could interchange any of these as my favorite, but I do seem to really enjoy this bloated, overlong, pompous, and completely tasteless masterpiece called Pawn Hearts... That was a compliment.

"Man-Erg" was the first track I ever heard from this very original sounding progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator. The album Godbluff is considered their masterpiece, Pawn Hearts is considered a bit long-winded to many.

Many of the excesses within prog music are clear: Long drawn out compositions, that seem to drag on and on, perfect! "Man-Erg" is a 10 minute plus track that gives no sign what is going to happen around the 3 minute mark.

You're being drawn along in a very easy-going way, a typical crooning ballad of sorts, then wham! This bass heavy ominous groove explodes from the speakers with honking saxophone.

This section is quite unlike anything I had ever heard, the saxophone contrasting with the guitars and bass, just a thrill in every sense. Peter Hamill's vocals may cause some people to cringe, he has a vocal delivery that wears its heart on its sleeve.

The music is typical hard prog with heavy jazz overtones. The sax is used in a very exclamatory way on much of this album.

King Crimson's Robert Fripp also appears on a few tracks on guitar, If you like early Crimson or early Genesis, you will like Van Der Graaf Generator

King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King

When I considered the question, what was the first progressive rock album, my thinking was within mainly the symphonic progressive rock genre.

Most would consider symphonic prog to be the classic progressive rock sound, after "Crimson King", Yes and Genesis would also join suit very soon, with their own unique styles.

Pink Floyd were also working in this direction at around the same time, though in my opinion they didn't arrive at totally at symphonic prog until Dark Side of the Moon.

It's just me, and it's not really a complaint, but doesn't Pink Floyd after Ummagumma soften up a bit? They seem to be more produced, and have rounder edges than before? You could say they matured I guess?

A music that combines heavy hard rock style riffs and classical music sensibilities, the mellotron or other keyboards are present and is basically the foundation of the music. Those electronic elements are very present in the mix, and can not be ignored.

The Beatles, in my opinion were the classic proto-prog band, and you can see this album being a direct descendant to their later albums, But nothing like this, When you think about Symphonic Progressive Rock, King Crimson and "In The Court of the Crimson King" are what you think of.

Robert Fripp on guitar, Ian McDonald on flute, saxophone,and mellotron, Greg Lake on Bass and lead vocals, Michael Giles on drums, and Pete Sinfield as the Lyricist. Hard to imagine a better lineup than this, how could they miss?

The album consists of 5 long compositions, broken down into subtitled sections: Side one of the record consists of "21st schizoid man", "I talk to the Wind" and "Epitaph". One of the greatest sides in progressive rock history for sure.

The production mix on this album would be what I would call average at best. The vinyl copy sounds decent, but the volume is so low you really have to crank it up.

if you don't have a near mint copy the noise would be unbearable. Steven Wilson remixed this album and it is available right now, in my opinion the best way to hear this classic, and I am a vintage vinyl fan.

I have considered many albums that were released around the time Court was released. Iron Butterfly, Renaissance, and Colosseum come to mind.

None of those bands sound that close to In the Court of the Crimson King, Those bands used The Hammond organ, even though Iron Butterfly was pretty heavy with the riffs, they could not hold a candle to King Crimson's overall talent.

PFM: Per Un Amico

II Balletto Di Bronzo's Ys is one of the real lost classics of prog, a Keyboard lovers delights and released in 1972, which ranks it up there in the upper tier of prog originators.

Keyboardist Gianni Leone steals the show, and I can't say enough how bizarre and complex this music is, it really is ahead of its time. This is some of the greatest bass playing I have ever heard as well.

The musicianship on the record is startlingly good. On par with some of the best jazz fusion bands of the era like John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea's Return to Forever. The Italian vocals should not scare you off, they meld well, even if you don't understand them.

Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood

Songs From the Wood is not a typical progressive rock album, it really works best as a folk album, but the music is very progressive none the less.

The tracks really have an authenticity that draws me back for more. In fact, this is the Tull album I return to the most often.

Most aficionado's of Tull, will usually deride Songs From the Wood as not heavy enough, or over folksy. Maybe? but certainly this does not mean it's not a great album. I believe it is the best kept secret in the Jethro Tull discography.

I can see no reason why a Tull fan shouldn't like this music, and fans of 60's folk music will have open ears for it as well, I love it.

Wolfgang Dauner: Etcetera

Et Cetera is an album I bet has slipped under your radar as a progrock fan. I only stumbled upon it about 3 years ago myself. Wolfgang Dauner is best known as an avant-garde pianist, who was a jazz rock pioneer and an originator inside the Krautrock genre.

Et Cetera definitely combines many diverse elements of music. avant-garde, kraut-rock, and jazz with a splash of psychedelic rock, even some Stockhausen style electronic music.

The track "Thursday Morning Sunrise" charges out of the gate with a galloping rhythm. that predates Metallica or even Iron Maiden by many years, listen to it, I know that sound, it's very familiar.

Also if you have a good surround system, Et Cetera will give that system a workout, some of the wildest electronic noises and ping-pong effects I have heard. This music might be a little out there for some, but if you're coming from a modern jazz or classical perspective, I think the highly enjoyable Et Cetera will be to your liking.

King Crimson: Lizard

Lizard Is probably the most jazz influenced King Crimson Album. All Music guide's Bruce Eder says: "The influence of Miles Davis, (particularly Sketches of Spain) is most prominent".

I have cross compared the two albums: As a Davis fan, I am not sure that I get the comparison. The point is, I at no point think of Sketches of Spain listening to Lizard.

The album may be the most twisted album Crimson did, with a very strange sense of humor through out. It is most rewarding hearing Yes' Jon Anderson sing "Prince Ruppert Awakes," and his lament about staking a lizard by the throat is quite bizarre for Anderson.

Overall, Lizard is a bridge album to a heavier style in my opinion. Some of the early style is here, this is also right before Bill Bruford Joined the band on drums, and went in an even heavier direction, check out the album Red for that.

The new remastered edition with the 5.0 sound is really nice with improved sound, but if you can get an original vinyl promo copy of Lizard, I have a hard time believing a CD would sound better than that.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick

Many consider this to be one of the quintessential Progressive Rock albums. It certainly deserves it's reputation, a 40 plus minute suite, with plenty of English folk styles and Hard rock smatterings. Plenty of organ and guitar, and of course Ian Anderson's flute.

Thick as a Brick would be the perfect example of an album length statement, that must be heard in total and not in excerpts.

Nothing seems excessive at all, or without taste, if that is a concern of yours? Thick as a Brick probably is one of the top 2 or 3 prog albums of all time.

Over the years I have really grown to appreciate Songs From the Wood, that's my go too Tull album now. Aqualung and War Child never quite live up to the vibe I like from Tull. I like the folkier vibe from them.

Anglagard: Hybris

Swedish prog band Anglagard and their debut album Hybris is a study of different prog styles, and somehow unbelievably, they regurgitate the influences back into something unique and very entertaining. The 17-year-old drummer Mattias Ollson is beyond his years here.

To my ears the King Crimson Influences definitely stand out, Genesis and Yes to a lesser degree; but the lead off track "Jordrok" sure reminds me of something Robert Frip may have come up with, but definitely not a knock off.

Anglagard is heavy prog with a heavy mellotron. I will also mention this album is easily in my top ten prog albums of all time.

My only complaint is the mix of this album, it always seemed to have soft flute laden things, so down in the mix, you must crank up the volume to hear anything. The hard-edged music explodes way up in the mix and will blast your ears, I actually have to hold the remote to tweak the volume.

Soft Machine: Third

Probably no album on this list will be as an acquired taste as Soft Machine's Third will be. A double album with 4 side long tracks of avant-garde jazz influenced progressive rock.

Fans of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew might be more akin to enjoy this album. I like Brew, and this is even more abstract to my ears. Understand

Third doesn't exactly offer much blues relief, I will honestly state this is one of those albums that might take a while to grow on you, especially if you are a fan of the first 2 Soft Machine records. This is a decidedly more jazzy album, with a real spontaneous creative bent.

Third isn't just art rock but abstract art more properly, "Facelift" is the most "out there" track on the album and very experimental. If you crave experimental music, Third is definitely something you need.

"Moon in June" is the most straight ahead track, with a typical prog rock vibe, this Third is a 2007 release that really improves the sound of an earlier issue.

In fact, as a vinyl usually sounds better guy, even I will state that this CD issue is every bit as good as the original vinyl, if not better, and it adds a load of bonus material. Third is easily one of the lynch pins of progressive music of any genre, if you have open ears, it must not be missed.

Babe Ruth: First Base

Babe Ruth may be the dumbest name of all time for a progressive rock band, and that cover doesn't help much with the prog-rock knock of being cheesy and lacking taste, but what does the music sound like?

Well it's pretty good and certainly very tasteful. the standout track is " Wells Fargo" and singer Janita Haan has a very good vocal delivery, her voice has almost a desperate quality, manic in nature for sure.

The guitar work of Alan Shacklock is also stellar on First Base. Most of the music is a heavy hard rock music, with that early 70's organ sound.

Also some Latin influences pop up, there really isn't a weak track on this album. Babe Ruth reminds me more of say a more progressive Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple than King Crimson for instance, but still very solid prog.

Jade Warrior

Jade Warriors self titled debut just might be one of the strangest progressive rock albums you will ever hear. Perhaps Jethro Tull would be the only real comparison, to this band, but the breadth of influences are much more varied than Tull.

If only that Glyn Havard's vocal delivery is similar to Tull's Ian Anderson a bit, and there is a sprinkling of flute throughout. The folk music that's fused throughout is far eastern, rather than the English folk variety.

The entire album feels like one long track, with many moods touched upon, you must hear the album in its entirety to understand my point. I do have an original pressing of this on vinyl, though the compact disc available sounded very good.

Genesis: Trick of the Tail

Those true prog aficionados might be surprised that I would include Trick of the tail on a best of list, and not the early Peter Gabriel as the front man albums?

While I Love albums like Foxtrot, and Selling England by the Pound, I have always been partial to Phil Collins doing the singing. I have always been quite surprised how many people mark this album as the point where Genesis went down hill.

Many claim this album was the point where they went from prog to pop. While it is true the music is better produced, and has some more mainstream styles. Any of the Genesis albums from Trick to Abacab are still very progressive and completely enjoyable.

A Trick of the Tail is my favorite Genesis album, as the track "Dance on a Volcano", and the instrumental"Los Endos" are both my favorites in the Genesis catalog.

Ii Balletto Di Bronzo: Ys

II Balletto Di Bronzo's Ys is one of the real lost classics of prog, a Keyboard lovers delights and released in 1972, which ranks it up there in the upper tier of prog originators.

Keyboardist Gianni Leone steals the show, and I can't say enough how bizarre and complex this music is, it really is ahead of its time. This is some of the greatest bass playing I have ever heard as well.

The musicianship on the record is startlingly good. On par with some of the best jazz fusion bands of the era like John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea's Return to Forever. The Italian vocals should not scare you off, they meld well, even if you don't understand them.

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    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 11 months ago from New Jersey

      Songs From the Wood is one of my all time favorite albums. It's different from other Tull albums, and is an homage to Earth. But Ian Anderson played all the instruments on it himself. The band went home and left their instruments there, and he wasn't sure how they would respond to the sound. The Tull Christmas album is in the same style.

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