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The 25 Best Classic Era Progressive Rock Albums

The initial and still-golden era of progressive rock started in 1969 and ended in 1981, and these are the 25 best prog rock albums of that era.

20. Gentle Giant – Octopus [1972]


Gentle Giant have always been relegated to the second or third tier, worshipped by a select contingent. This of course is a phenomenon that imparts a certain aesthetic credibility; only the people who are really in the know are aware of them. Or, you have to work harder to find your way to this band. Octopus ably matches the group’s lofty aspirations and their impeccable musicianship and stacks up nicely with other prog masterpieces of the era, no mean feat. Typical period pieces like “The Advent of Panurge” (if you are going to get literary, don’t half-step!) and “Raconteur Troubadour” are stylistically and sonically all over the place but always in control. On this outing, Gentle Giant know what they are after and can achieve it.

19. Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts [1971]


For people to whom even Gentle Giant is not out-there enough. This, as much as any music of the genre, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, which might explain why Van der Graaf Generator (and, in particular, this album) has unwavering disciples while those who dabble in progressive rock — assuming such people exist — may have never heard it. Here it is, for better or worse, work that embodies many of the best accolades and worst epithets of the genre: ambitious, self-conscious, literate, sprawling, obscure, and unadulterated.

18. Genesis – Foxtrot [1972]


If Genesis took a major step forward with Nursery Cryme, they took an Olympic vault with Foxtrot. Ominous, dark, and dense where they were previously more whimsical and wide-eyed, this is where Peter Gabriel made his play for the whackiest and most wonderful frontman in the crowded prog circus, circa 1972. Lyrically, the album touches on everything from space travel to ancient rituals to ecology, homing in on man’s arrogance and ignorance. Then there’s “Supper’s Ready”, which most fans consider the ultimate Genesis song, if not the apotheosis of progressive rock. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

17. Jethro Tull – A Passion Play [1973]


It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Ian Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops, and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off splendidly: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.)

16. Camel – The Snow Goose [1975]


As critics of this list will no doubt agree, certain bands seem to suck up all the oxygen. This is neither the fault of those groups nor those making the lists. But while a handful of excellent groups should receive more praise, it’s difficult to think of one more unjustly overlooked than Camel. Granted, for the uninitiated, a lazy overview might suggest they sound something like Ian Anderson fronting Genesis, with the flute replacing the vocals. Camel is much more than that, and while their first several albums are all close-to-excellent, The Snow Goose is their masterpiece. More, it’s one of the underappreciated jewels in the Prog Crown. No distracting and/or flamboyant lyrics to contend with, it’s one extended, often gorgeous, and always engaging musical suite.

15. Yes – The Yes Album [1971]


Just as Fragile was a showcase of sorts for Rick Wakeman, The Yes Album introduced Steve Howe as the guitar player’s guitar player. On each song, he pulls another riff out of his hat and his solos still sound immaculate, all these years later. Jon Anderson, progressive rock’s choir boy, is in all his multi-tracked glory and the remarkable rhythm section (Bill Bruford and Chris Squire) represents possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard. With ludicrous lyrics, an interesting album cover, unparalleled musical proficiency, and an all-time progressive rock epic (“Starship Trooper”), The Yes Album has something to offer anyone.

14. Pink Floyd – Animals [1977]


Interestingly, while the two albums that preceded it and the blockbuster that followed it receive — if demand — most of the attention, Animals is arguably the most cohesive and satisfying concept album Pink Floyd recorded. Neither as immediately arresting nor as alluring upon repeated listens, Animals is, among other things, the last time all principal songwriters came together in the service of a project that superseded ego and personal ambition. Separating the human species into three basic groups, Roger Waters gets politicians, corporate strivers, and their timid victims into his sights. David Gilmour and Rick Wright, working gamely within this structural framework, lend some of their best support, helping turn what might have been an irredeemably dark and disconsolate work into something that illuminates the filth without wallowing in it.

13. King Crimson – Discipline [1981]


After an extended hiatus and just as progressive rock’s first decade ended, Fripp got behind the wheel for another series of remarkable efforts. Retaining Bruford and recruiting agile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound. Fripp’s exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky”, Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he’s always asked more of himself.

12. Rush – Hemispheres [1978]


Let’s give it up for a band that, while disco raged, punk roared, and progressive rock was already deep into its death spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represents at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the 1970s. This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point.

By 1978 the trio were truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

11. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [1974]


How much further out could Peter Gabriel go after this often impenetrable, messy, and miraculous album? Nowhere at all, at least with Genesis, and it could be suggested that the rest of his consistently rewarding solo career is a journey inward, back from whatever near-insanities he courted while recording Lamb. The album is “about” the split personality of a homeless kid named Rael, adrift in New York City, like Moby Dick is about a whale. Consistent with so much exceptional music from this genre, whatever it ostensibly means is minor in comparison with the music and the emotion. Urgent, exceedingly dark, disorienting, and, at times, almost unbearably beautiful (“Hairless Heart”, “The Lamia”), it also features one of the all-time examples of progressive rock perfection: “The Carpet Crawlers”.