50Prog50: The Best Prog Albums, Part One
For some, the progressive rock movement was when rock ‘n roll grew up. For others, it’s when the institution fell apart. Popdose presents, in five installments, my choices for fifty important prog rock albums, but I should warn you a few things in advance. First, my definition of progressive rock is pretty inclusive. You’ll see bands in here that don’t necessarily fit the category, but some of the music they made certainly does. Second, there are some sacred cows of the genre I intend to slap in a bun and drown with ketchup. They may be interesting, they may be influential, but they might not be what I’d consider essential. Third, as with all criticism, my list is subjective and is not intended to be the end-all/be-all. When you write in to ask why I excluded Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, understand that it might fit your criteria but not mine.
Oh, spoiler alert: I excluded Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. Guess I should have started this off with that. Oh well, too late to drag on about the past, so let’s start with #50.
50. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) Prog rockers consider this probably the second most influential of the form, and I couldn’t agree more. Peter Gabriel’s last studio album with the band is spread out across two LPs and spotlights both their rock and their compositional chops. As a concept album, it loosely centers on the character of Rael who leaves Puerto Rico to experience the ups and downs of New York. You’re not likely to really get the story out of the music, but for all the propaganda prog puts out about having “libretto” and “book” to collude with any band’s vision, most of these grand ideals are usually just thinly woven rock tracks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, and Genesis sounds like a full band on the album, as opposed to the first two Phil Collins-led albums, A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering, where Steve Hackett’s guitars increasingly are losing the battle to Tony Banks’ keyboards. You can attempt to follow the plot or you can enjoy this as is.
After Gabriel’s departure, Genesis would become much more streamlined and much less likely to go off on musical jaunts like this, consequently becoming a huge rock/pop entity in the 1980s. Gabriel also became a star but never lost his singular weirdness, a trait that he would work to his advantage. More on both performers later.
Direct descendants – Spock’s Beard – Snow (2002)
49. The Alan Parsons Project – Gaudi (1987) The Project started as nothing more than a working title for Alan Parsons, Eric Woolfson and their collaboration, the Edgar Alan Poe tribute Tales Of Mystery and Imagination. Like many ’70s prog outfits, though, the transition to the 1980s proved smoother than expected, providing hit tracks and high profiles. However, by 1987, the group’s star was on the wane, albums passed with less fanfare and, in an odd way, the shackles were loosened. Arista Records probably would never have released an album like Gaudi as the follow-up to the smash Eye in the Sky. It is, after all, a tribute to architect Antonio Gaudi, his driving passions and his monumental achievement, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family.)
Woolfson’s burgeoning penchant for musical theater is evident on the opening track, “La Sagrada Familia” as the song acts as a footlights-rattling overture. The theme of sacred inspiration is all over the album, in tracks like “Closer To Heaven,” “Inside Looking Out” and, in spirit, the single “Standing On Higher Ground.” “Too Late” and “Money Talks” (sung by band mainstays Lenny Zakatek and John Miles) don’t really fit the concept at all, but both are enjoyable slices of Eighties pop. The Project would make one more album, albeit under no specific band banner, the concept album Freudiana (1990) which contained the songs from Woolfson’s first stage venture.
Direct descendants – There really are no bands that could cite the Alan Parsons Project as a primary influence musically, but the idea of multiple vocalist contributions can be found in the prog/metal rock operas of Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia and Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon.
48. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997) This is technically an alternative rock album, but by 1997 alternative rock could have meant just about anything. What it meant to Radiohead was a break from the big guitar sound of The Bends and a serious turn toward musical textures. The Mellotron suddenly experiences a revival, that precursor to the Moog synthesizer keyboard. It was comprised of tape loops that were triggered by the touch of a key on the fingerboard, but because of the peculiarities of analog tape combined with the heat of an enclosed unit, the sounds produced often sounded warbly, unearthly — sort of like a string section, but a lot more not like a string section. Band members would be quoted jokingly saying, “We wanted to make it sound like an old Genesis album, but good.”
The subjects of alienation and confinement inside the supposedly free modern world collect the songs into a concept piece although none of the band members have explicitly stated that was their intent. Critics swooned, fans took to it instantly and the band even scored a modest hit with “Karma Police.” The album reveals itself through many different styles, from the sad sigh of “Let Down” with vocalist Thom Yorke breaking into three-part harmonies in the chorus, to the soft anti-lullaby “No Surprises,” to the big guitar revival in the seething “Electioneering.” The band’s next two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, would be equally singular in approach but nothing quite like OK Computer — at least not yet.
Direct descendants – After OK Computer, who wasn’t a direct descendant? Any moody, texture-conscious alternative and indie band would get saddled with the Radiohead comparison years after this album’s release. The highest profile of these would be Coldplay’s Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head.
47. Dire Straits – Love Over Gold (1982) Mark Knopfler and company couldn’t have confused the fanbase more with Dire Straits’ follow-up to Making Movies. That prior album also had some songs of size, but the overall mood was that of the hometown storyteller — a UK Bruce Springsteen, if you will. That feeling was not accidental, as Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan stood toe-to-toe with Knopfler for the duration. Love Over Gold, on the other hand, opens with the 14-minute epic “Telegraph Road,” which is nothing less than a travelogue through the industrial revolution. Because of the construction of the track, with a steady build and many an ebb and flow, and Knopfler’s fantastic guitar leading the way, those 14 minutes feel almost brief.
The band got another rock radio track out of the jaunty, joking “Industrial Disease,” but concluded the LP with two precise, understated ballads, “Love Over Gold” and “It Never Rains.” The former song has a specific meaning for Knopfler, as the phrase “love over gold” was a piece of graffiti on the wall of his hometown of Deptford. Later on, after the recording of the album, the band donated money to the school system of the town which, in turn, helped create a mural on that same wall, the theme of the imagery, love over gold.
Here’s a tidbit — One of the songs that was recorded at these sessions, but didn’t make the cut, was “Private Dancer.” That would become the title track of Tina Turner’s enormous comeback album. Although the band might have missed the opportunity to score a big hit, it is a track that simply wouldn’t have fit on the album as it stands. A painful deletion, but ultimately they made the right choice.
Direct descendants – While Dire Straits has many descendants, most of them tend to lean to the country/rock side of the band. Even Knopfler’s later solo albums sound very little like Love Over Gold.
46. Electric Light Orchestra – Out of the Blue (1977) ELO was originally meant as dual showcase for Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, both freshly graduated from the Move. Both members enjoyed a bit of bombast, but where Wood favored off-the-wall rockers, Lynne preferred layered, Beatlesque songs. It wouldn’t be long before Wood left and subsequently left Lynne to his devices. By 1977, the band was already big and sporting hits like “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” “Evil Woman,” and “Telephone Line.” It was time for their bid at the brass ring, which in the 1970s meant the double LP. It was an excess, but only if it couldn’t be filled from top to bottom with worthwhile music.
Fortunately, Lynne was in a productive mood at the time, following what he himself described as writer’s block. Among the songs that arrived were hits “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” and deep cuts like the mariachi-flavored “Across the Border” and the guitar rocker “Night in the City.” The most ambitious composition was the song-cycle Concerto for a Rainy Day, which sounds more high falutin’ than it really is. In fact, it’s four concise pop tunes centering around a rainstorm and its aftermath: “Standing in the Rain,” “Big Wheels,” “Summer and Lightning,” and the instantly recognizable “Mr. Blue Sky.” That last track counted as a deep cut for awhile until directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry included them in their films. Alongside the traditional rock instrumentation is strings and choir, supervised by famed producer Mack who also worked with Queen and Billy Squier. Somehow all the disparate elements cohere and leave the listener with over an hour of ear candy.
A side note: “Birmingham Blues” is a tribute to the band’s hometown and the town’s soccer team. Another Birmingham connection is that of their manager and Jet Records owner Don Arden, whose daughter would marry the former lead singer of another Arden client, Black Sabbath. That former lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, would begin his storied solo career on Jet Records as well.
Direct descendants – Surprisingly, few modern prog bands have taken ELO’s lead, but they’ve become an inextricable force within the power-pop movement. Both the sound of ELO and Queen can be found in Spilt Milk from Jellyfish (1993).
45. Dream Theater – Scenes from a Memory (1999) What a hairy situation. Dream Theater is too metal for the prog-rockers and the metal heads think they water their stuff down too much. There’s a bit of truth to that if you take into account albums like Train of Thought (metal), Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (a double-disc set, one primarily metal, the other a prog-metal suite) and Scenes from a Memory, definitely in the prog camp. Using a track from the Images and Words album as a jumping-off point, the band returns to Metropolis via the story of a man undergoing past-life regression therapy. As he is hypnotized, he recalls the tale of two powerful brothers and the woman who came between them. She is murdered, but who pulled the trigger and why?
The story gets a bit convoluted; usually that’s for the best in rock-based songs. Explicit storytelling may help advance the plot but it can be hell to sing along with. What this album does so well, and sometimes isn’t as well executed on other Dream Theater albums, is maintain a consistent tone, which is probably a function of having a concept constantly keeping the band in check. There are no sudden segues into the thrash metal aside here, but they manage to be aggressive at points nonetheless. Those moments remain a piece of the whole versus the often uncomfortable wink at the audience to try to remind them they’re metal too. James LaBrie’s voice is sometimes cited as a problem as well, especially when he goes into the high register. Some have likened his skyscrapers to Warner Bros. characters on helium, but I’ve always appreciated his talents, and he is never better than on this album. The closing track, “Finally Free,” does what any good concept album should by tying all the musical themes up from the set into a satisfying finale. Just remember to listen all the way to the end or you’ll miss the twist.
Direct descendants – By defying not only their own chosen genres as well as the mainstream of popular music, Dream Theater has carved their own peculiar niche for themselves. Many power metal and prog-metal bands coming up now have more than a slight resemblance to them.
44. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) It’s fashionable these days to consider Revolver the superior Beatles album; all the tricks they pulled on Sgt. Pepper were first utilized on that prior record, and arguably to better effect. And, actually, I completely agree with that. As an overall conceptual statement, however, Sgt. Pepper showed the world how a band could thoroughly immerse themselves in their project. Sgt. Pepper‘s is regarded more for what it did for artists stretching out of their imposed stage outfits than what it might have meant as game-changing pop music. Right to the cover and its iconography, here are the four most influential people of their time, dressed in outlandish bandmaster’s garb, mixing psychedelia (“Good Morning, Good Morning,” “A Day in the Life”), Indian raga (“Within You Without You”) and old-time concerthall standard (“She’s Leaving Home” and “When I’m Sixty Four”) with their already dizzying brand of pop.
The most prog-centric part of Sgt. Pepper’s is “A Day in the Life” which has a very orchestral structure, from the first section to the “Woke up, got out of bed” digression, separated by strings in a musical climb, then back to the primary theme and that crashing piano by the end. It is that juxtaposition that still fascinates new bands looking to try something a little daring, only it doesn’t seem as daring as it did in ’67, back when they loved to turn… you… on.
Direct descendants – Are you kidding? Just about everyone that came after, possibly. Except Aqua. I hear no Beatles in “Barbie Girl.”
43. Genesis – We Can’t Dance (1991) Seriously? We Can’t Dance ranks higher than The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? I promised controversy, no? Now, for the record, I can’t back the entire album as being essential progressive rock, not with the title cut being what it is or with the obvious soft rock moments the band had fallen into, but “No Son of Mine” was one of the most rock-oriented tracks the band had produced in years, “Driving the Last Spike” returned them to the long-form songs of old, and anybody who would deny that the closer, “Fading Lights,” isn’t as good an instrumental workout they’ve done is just being spiteful. It also comes completely unexpected, as that piece is musically bookended by what seemed to be a standard Phil Collins ballad. It was thrilling to hear the track transform from Lite FM grist into something so complex. You never thought they still had it in them.
I don’t know if the band thought this would be the last song from this most successful version of Genesis. It certainly comes off like a grand valedictory speech, summing up their strengths at both sides of the spectrum, and if you must go with a swan song, why not make it more than ten minutes long?
Direct descendants – Genesis returned with vocalist Ray Wilson, previously from the band Stiltskin. The album, Calling All Stations, is not on this list and that’s all I’ll say about that. However Wilson’s solo albums, and especially The Next Best Thing (2004), are full of good songs and it’s worth seeking them out.
42. The Moody Blues – To Our Children’s Children’s Children (1969) Playing with the concept of time, from early man to modern age to old age, the Moodies concluded their big psychedelic period with their most psychedelic album of all. Sometimes the devotion works and sometimes it doesn’t. The album crashes to life with their most rocking effort to that point, “Higher and Higher” (Come on, guys — this is not plausible deniability at all). “Gypsy” is one of their standards now, and the album closing “Watching and Waiting” is undeniably gorgeous, with keyboardist Mike Pinder making the Mellotron positively ache. Unfortunately, the album also has “Beyond,” which is flat-out trip music, with the main theme fading in and out, revealing atonal ambience underneath, then flipping left and right channels. I suppose all this is really groovy depending on what you were smoking when it was on. I don’t dig it, though, brother.
The album wasn’t one of the band’s bigger hits and, even today, doesn’t get oodles of love, but on the strength of its hits you can afford to forgive the misses. The Moodies will pop up again on this list, often in vastly different forms, but in terms of single compositions, “Watching and Waiting” is just as necessary as “Nights in White Satin.”
Direct descendants – While the new psyche movement in indie rock is more electronic, early Moodies is in the D.N.A. As for the prog end of things, Rocket Scientists covered “Gypsy” on their album from 2006, Revolution Road.
41. The Who – Tommy (1969) Rock opera. The term sounds suspicious, doesn’t it? In later incarnations, The Who’s Tommy would become more theatrical, but upon its release in 1969, it must have been quite the puzzlement. A two-disc set with a continuous storyline, recurring musical motifs and disturbing subject matter must have been a real step off the curb for the fans. Even so, some of the group’s highlights are on this recording, the “See Me Feel Me” thread that ties it all together, the cathartic closing of “Listening to You” and the big hit “Pinball Wizard.” Meanwhile, the story of Tommy is lurid and strange as the young boy sees something he shouldn’t have and falls into a state of being deaf/mute. His parents want to reinforce his non-witness status, his cousin Kevin wants to torment the weak little sucker, and Uncle Ernie wants to fiddle about. I realize that audiences in ’69 were not so naive that they couldn’t get what that meant. In the back half of 2010, the dangers that threaten children today, the staggering rise of autism and Pete Townshend’s own personal controversies throw Tommy’s plight into sharp relief. This album couldn’t come out, brand new, on a major label for this and many other reasons.
As a piece of music, it was boundary-breaking. Just as the Beatles said the artist could do anything he desired, the Who took the sound of the times, merged it with one of the oldest forms of popular cultural expression — storytelling through music — and found out what happened. And it was a classic in its own right.
Direct descendants – The dirty trick Tommy pulled was that anyone with a half-baked plot now tried to elevate it to a higher plane in this new rock opera realm. A lot of really bad concept albums found their way to racks just on the possibility of being a new Tommy, and one has to wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber would have been better off not having ever heard it (I might have been better off if he hadn’t heard it, that’s for sure.) Very few of these came close. One surpassed it and became a classic rock staple (more about that later on.)
Next time, we get Frippy with it.