Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends.
After gamely, if humbly attempting to track the 25 best old-school progressive albums of all time, it’s inevitable to turn our attention to the best songs of the genre. In the spirit of more expansive representation and to avoid, as much as possible, redundancy, I’ve tried to limit selections to one track per album though, of course, this proved impossible in several cases. To remain consistent with the previous installment, I’ve maintained my own arbitrary criteria and kept consideration to English-speaking bands and only songs released during the decade of 1969 to 1979. And again, while the more obscure cuts the better, there’s an honest effort here to celebrate songs that represent the best of the genre, meaning some (very) familiar friends are invoked. Believe me, if I were choosing my personal favorites, this list would look pretty different, if indulgent.
To repeat a prior admonition: you’re not going to agree with this list. It’s possible you’ll abhor it, and that’s the point, pretty much. I’ve never seen a list of this kind that I concur with, which is one reason recalcitrant writers roll our rocks up that hill. If my word’s but a whisper, your deafness is a shout, etc.
- Yes: “The Revealing Science of God” (from Tales from Topographic Oceans)
Inexorably, this list has to begin with Yes and of course it must include a song from perhaps the most maligned album in the prog canon. It could (should?) be chosen just because of its title, which—like many of the subsequent selections, for good, bad and obvious reasons—epitomizes much of what makes progressive rock beloved, misunderstood, mocked and mostly ignored. Where many of the elements making this band such a force to be reckoned with—or wrecked—all congealed on their previous three efforts, it’s difficult to deny the blokes set up more draughts than they could drink on this overstuffed, undercooked double album. Those same elements, including the remarkable individual abilities of each player, the focus, drive and naysayers-be-damned desire, are all accounted for, but despite typically solid vocals from Jon Anderson and the always-reliable guitar exploits of Steve Howe, Tales from Topographic Oceans is like Jackson Pollock doing Dali, in the dark, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or Something. Unlike so much denigrated or willfully misconstrued prog music, this one actually is everything everyone says it is.
- Curved Air: “Vivaldi” (from Air Conditioning)
Sure it’s pretentious and more than a little earnest. It’s also brilliant: an extended violin and electric guitar workout, a quirky but compelling tribute to, well, Vivaldi. If the music, much less the execution, was in the least bit sloppy or uninspired, it would crumple under the weight of its own pomposity. Ripe for ridicule and like many prog rock compositions, almost inviting ill-will—especially from the elitist types who sniff condescendingly at any invocation of sacred cows like the creator of The Four Seasons—a band like Curved Air wrote and performed a song like this for the most obvious of reasons, which at once explains and inoculates it: because they wanted to; because they could.
- Pink Floyd: “Fearless” (from Meddle)
With two key elements (the guitar sound and the vocals) solidly established on this mature, confident album, a final one—Roger Waters’ increasingly mature and topical lyrics—comes to fruition on the third track, “Fearless”. This tune, which could be viewed as a poignant nod to Syd Barrett, is definitely an early installment of a growing Waters obsession: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against (or reeling from) a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as an early blueprint for the sound effects and ironic employment of actual voices used on later albums, specifically The Dark Side of the Moon.
- King Crimson: “Trio” (from Starless and Bible Black)
Perhaps the most mellotron-y of prog songs from the most mellotron-y of prog bands. A few words about the mellotron: its sounds may be undeniably dated, kind of like movies without CGI—which helps explain why certain folks have an unapologetic nostalgia. Put another way, the mellotron was a novelty instrument replacing proper string sections the way auto-tune and overproduction are de rigueur these days. When used judiciously (which may seem oxymoronic, but bands like Crimson and Genesis did not use mellotron to replace other instruments), this odd device was best utilized as a layering effect, and for the occasionally otherworldly sounds and feelings it could invoke; a hallucinogenic edge that “authentic” instruments could never approximate. Robert Fripp, clinical, obsessive, even cold or at least calculating, honed the capacity of conjuring up profoundly emotional sounds and sensations, and “Trio” illustrates that machines (and machine-like men) can convey—and possibly have—soul(s). On this number, recorded live, the restraint from all musicians is notable, especially drummer Bill Bruford who had the good sense to lay out and, because his instincts were so sound, Fripp insisted he receive co-composer credit.
- Genesis: “Ripples” (from A Trick of the Tail)
Gabriel, gone? They could not go on. They went on. And, for a while, more capably than any reasonable fan could have expected or hoped for. Phil Collins, as it turned out, was not only a suitable, but almost perfect replacement for the former frontman, albeit—at least through the duration of the decade—in a subtler and more self-aware fashion. “Ripples” is as close as the band came to a thoroughly convincing, and satisfying, mini-epic post-Gabriel, and it remains one of Collins’ most effective, and affecting, vocal performances.
- Jethro Tull: “Wind Up” (from Aqualung)
Ian Anderson upped his already impressive lyrical game on Jethro Tull’s breakthrough masterpiece, Aqualung, a song cycle that remains as scornful and relevant as the year it was recorded. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely–if ever–been improved upon by other mainstream acts. Anderson arguably saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive –or sentient– person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.
- Caravan: “C’Thlu Thlu” (from For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night)
You can discern everything from a hint of Sabbath to a touch of Dead and a smattering of Genesis, with Peter Gabriel in full freak mode. It seems a certainty that Blue Oyster Cult was paying attention, and everyone from Randy Rhoads to Metallica owes at least a partial debt. Matching mood to lyrical and thematic content was something every prog band hoped to achieve, but only the best practitioners could pull it off with consistency. “C’Thlu Thlu” (Google “Cthulhu”) is a case study in creeping doom, a song that could only come from this genre, yet anticipating so much of what was to come.
- Camel: “The Snow Goose” (from The Snow Goose)
In a sensible world, this band would get a lot more love. While any number of their albums warrant reexamination or discovery, The Snow Goose stands not only as their masterpiece, but one of the first-tier concept albums from the prog genre. The title track ably encapsulates what is essentially a free-flowing suite connected by “chapters”, using only music to narrate the band’s interpretation of Paul Gallico’s novella. If all this sounds like impenetrable mish-mash to the uninitiated ear, the music is almost surprisingly accessible. A dreamlike production influenced equally by classical music and film scores, it’s possibly the closest prog rock ever got to Ennio Morricone—and yes, that’s intended as the highest form of praise.
- Gentle Giant: “Nothing at All” (from Gentle Giant)
Possibly the most controversial of all prog rock outfits, Gentle Giant has indefatigable supporters, semi-enthusiastic fans, and everyone else who’s never heard of them. This, of course, is not fair, and the band did enough exceptional work over an extended period of time that they should be name-checked more frequently, both in and outside proggy circles. It should go without saying that on this song (like the album it’s taken from; like most of their other albums) the musicianship is top notch. An acoustic-based number, its charms are reserved, somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from Gentle Giant’s typical more-is-a-half-measure modus operandi. Of course there are some mid-song explosions and an extended drum solo, among other things. Probably as appropriate an introduction to this outfit’s intimidating oeuvre as anything.
- The Moody Blues: “Have You Heard?” (from On the Threshold of a Dream)
On the Threshold of a Dream is definitely The Moody Blues’ Progressive-with-a-capital-P album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass. The band goes for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.
- Rick Wakeman: “Catherine of Aragon” (from The Six Wives of Henry VIII)
Wakeman looms large as a prog deity, providing memorable keyboard handiwork throughout the ‘70s for Yes. But as more than a few people know, he was also busy with other projects. His solo efforts at once validate his status as a prog monster, and provide plenty of ammunition for haters who, taking one look at the album titles, would dismiss him as a monstrosity. As much or more than later works Journey to the Centre of the Earth and (take a deep breath) The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, his arrangements on The Six Wives of Henry VIII are an ideal vehicle for his seemingly unlimited range and, yes, ambition.
- Rush: “Xanadu” (from A Farewell to Kings)
After three albums the band itself would declare full of hits and misses, everything came together during the recording of 2112. After that, Rush did the most prog thing possible: upping the ante and doubling down on the determination. Using the all but requisite literary reference as point of departure, lyricist Neal Peart did not half-step, selecting “Kubla Khan”, a poem by Romantic heavyweight Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Whether or not old Samuel spun in his grave or headbanged in approval, “Xanadu” gets full marks for concept and execution. Love or loathe them, Lifeson, Lee and Peart are among the better players in all prog-dom (Lifeson’s extended solo during the song’s climax features some of his all-time guitar heroics). While they were gradually getting away from side-long marathons and easing into more straightforward snippets of song, in 1977 they were somewhere in the middle, stretching out with confidence but also expressing maximum feeling with something that could almost be called moderation.
- Traffic: “Roll Right Stones” (from Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory)
If their earlier stuff was, by turns, more folk and jazz oriented, in the early-to-mid ‘70s Traffic was incorporating multiple elements and idioms and crafting something decidedly prog-like, albeit funky as all get out. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and creative dynamo Steve Winwood was on a hell of a run by the time Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory dropped; if this one gets less love and wasn’t as radio-friendly as the previous efforts, there is a darker, at times deeper vibe in effect. Piano, organs, sax, flute and those vocals: this is the soundtrack for a trip that need not be augmented with drugs or lava lamps; Traffic was always more substantial than any simple reduction, and they never pushed the boundaries of what was possible quite like this.
- Pink Floyd: “The Great Gig in the Sky” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)
It wasn’t so much that Pink Floyd “got” prog better than other bands, in part because everyone on the scene was making it up as they went along. Rather, they were the outfit that, arguably, used the idiom to its fullest effect, showcasing musicianship and experimentation with (increasingly) mature and, yes, universal themes. For The Dark Side of the Moon, the Alpha and Omega of concept albums, Roger Waters & Co. explored the pressures of modern, mechanized life and the devastating effects it has on us all, especially the ones “hanging on in quiet desperation”. The title here, like those of the other songs, makes it clear what the song is “about”. However, using no vocals, only the off-the-cuff caterwauling of Clare Torry, the most deliberate prog band (possibly excepting King Crimson) embraced improvisation, and between Rick Wright’s mournful keyboards, David Gilmour’s solemn slide guitar and the aforementioned Torry, this track goes somewhat beyond its already ambitious subject matter.
- The Alan Parsons Projects: “I Robot” (from I Robot)
Already a minor prog legend for his involvement as engineer on The Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons went on to make significant contributions to prog rock before becoming somewhat of a household name in the early ‘80s. I Robot, like the album the preceded and followed, might be classified as “thinking man’s prog” or prog that moved keyboard-propelled formulas into territory that, while borrowing a little from Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, also anticipated the synth-laden music that would dominate the next decade. Like Eno, the Alan Parsons Project proved that one could be both meticulous and curious, and like his most lauded and disparaged compatriots, Parsons was unabashed about being intelligent, driven and willing to take risks, all in the service of art that took its audience as seriously as it took itself.
- King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)
At times cerebral, others sullen, always extraordinarily sensitive, make no mistake, Robert Fripp could throw down and wail with the aggression of a caged honey badger. On an astonishing album that contains a bit of everything, for the final number the band follows Fripp’s lead into the abyss. Like the best Crimson, there are moments where the tension threatens to overwhelm and absorb everything, and then, there’s release; here, courtesy of David Cross’s surreal violin stylings. Anticipating grunge, there’s a feel here that shifts from far-East to outer space, but with Bill Bruford and John Wetton (barely) keeping the back-end stable enough to avoid lift-off, this is a roller-coaster of wrath and control.
- Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)
This song almost single-handedly ensures that even the most intractable cynics can’t dismiss everything about progressive rock. A musical marvel, it is by turns self-assured and over-the-top, and it has an almost sing-along appeal (even if no one joining in has any idea, as ever, what the hell Jon Anderson is on about). Interestingly, this is likely the gateway drug for neophytes who quickly and wisely head for murkier waters, “Roundabout” remains almost impossibly fresh and unsullied, even after decades of radio overplay. Courtesy of Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, the song sounds at one moment like something from medieval times and the next like robots getting electrocuted. Special mention for Bill Bruford who somehow managed to be the busiest, most unorthodox and inventive drummer in rock.
- Genesis: “Return of the Giant Hogweed” (from Nursery Cryme)
God bless Peter Gabriel. Appearing on stage dressed like a flower, or a fox, or with a faux-hawk, he had brilliance to burn. Still a tad rough around the edges, Gabriel’s earliest work with Genesis mixes heady ambition with elements of rock’s most admired iconoclasts: there are pieces of T-Rex, David Bowie and Roky Erickson in his approach, but the entirety of his artistic personas is utterly unique. This song, about a giant hogweed (obviously) only hints at how wonderfully weird Gabriel was before he became Peter Gabriel. What is generally—and unforgivably— overlooked is how incredible this band was all through the early ‘70s. The song bristles with anger and energy, and while the atmosphere is unquestionably of its time, everyone seems (and sounds) dead earnest.
- Egg: “Long Piece No. 3” (from The Polite Force)
A delight for those who find even the most anarchic time signatures in progressive rock too conventional, and who like a side of keyboard with their keyboards. This is another one that more or less sums up all extremes of all-things-prog: indulgent, interminable, incredible. Perhaps not the ideal point of entry (the shorter pieces, particularly the better known “A Visit to Newport Hospital”, might be safer sledding), this at times seems like the band asked “You know that organ solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? That was too short,” and at other times, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mahavishnu or Weather Report album.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “The Endless Enigma” (from Trilogy)
One way of looking at the complicated case of ELP: easily distracted, or thrown off-course because they had too many ideas and were too talented to do anything the easy or easily predictable way, they turned into a home run hitter who strikes out too much. But when they got hold of one, there was no doubt. This, which on earlier (or, amusingly, later) albums might have been unwisely stretched into a side-long suite, is, at just over ten minutes, a convincing and even economical min-epic. Never willing or able to do half-measures, there is a discernible beginning, middle and end here, and it combines the usual audacity (I mean,“The Endless Enigma”?) with a sort of hero’s quest narrative scope, in miniature (the first time the word “miniature” has ever appeared in any consideration of anything by ELP). And, in the end, it’s always all, and only, about the music. Here, the lads are locked in and letting their boundless proficiency do the talking.
This piece originally appeared on PopMatters on 3/27/17