50. Jethro Tull: “My God” (Aqualung)
Even though to this day Ian Anderson insists Aqualung is not a concept album, there’s no question it focuses on a handful of recurring themes, to devastating effect. The first side explores the less savory brothers and sisters in our midst who we’d often just as soon ignore; the second side sets its sights higher (pun intended) and is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into. (Or was it always thus?) On “My God” Anderson gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image.
Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets have only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Martin Barre’s larger-than-life chords.
Then, in the extended middle section, we’re treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects. It’s an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also functions as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.
49. King Crimson: “In the Wake of Poseidon” (In the Wake of Poseidon)
So what’s this one about? How about everything? Well, it’s ambitious, and with name-checks of Plato, bishops, kings, slaves, madmen, and the earth itself (indeed, “In air, fire, earth and water / World on the scales” proves this particular song is a prescient ode to the environment). Resident lyricist Peter Sinfield outdoes himself on this, the title track of Crimson’s second album, and remains a rare prog opus that can work purely as poetry. The band is up TO the challenge, ratcheting up the intensity (including some of the drummer Michael Giles’s most furiously rewarding work) courtesy of more mellotron than is normally advised or healthy.
If the hands are heavy on the mellotron, any complaints are akin to a sports fan suggesting too many punches were thrown in Ali and Frazier’s “Rumble in the Jungle”. Greg Lake, with one foot out the door (about to embark on his adventures with Emerson and Palmer) does not betray any ostensible lack of commitment; his vocals are among his rawest and most affecting. Not many singers could credibly put voice to such solemn and bleak words, but he turns the proceedings into precisely what is required: an all-in offensive against cliché and conformity. Not for nothing, the list of couplets that sum up the malign influence of religion as well as this one is exceedingly small: “Bishop’s kings spin judgment’s blade/Scrach “Faith” on nameless graves.” This is disillusionment with a clear intention, and it succeeds on all levels.
48. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Karn Evil 9” (Brain Salad Surgery)
Speaking of Mr. Sinfield, he joined old colleague Greg Lake to contribute lyrics to this song, which manages to be epic, convincing, overlong, indulgent, and over-the-top. Just what the doctor ordered, right? (Speaking of the doctor, the album title is an appreciative nod to a lyric from Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”.) Always a fan of wordplay and packing as many words and potential interpretations into a piece as possible, it’s a title like “Karn Evil” (Carnival) that caused certain eyes to roll, and certainly, a song that is even longer than one album side is either extravagant or awesome — mileage, as always, will vary.
What can’t be denied is that for only three men, ELP crammed as many instruments and effects into a single song as would seem imaginable. There were more “works” (see what I did there?) to come, but this album and song signal the last time ELP made a convincing statement worthy of their considerable aspiration and egos.
47. The Nice: “The Five Bridges Suite” (Five Bridges)
Perhaps the most successful distillation of Keith Emerson & Co.’s fly-paper approach, incorporating classical, jazz, blues, rock, and any or everything else he could ensnare in his musical net. On Five Bridges the band covers Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Bob Dylan, and that’s just the second side of the album. Side One is occupied by “The Five Bridges Suite”, which features sections like “Fantasia”, “Second Bridge”, “Chorale” and “High Level Fugue”.
Here’s the thing for haters: this work was actually commissioned for the 1969 Arts Festival in Newcastle, where it premiered with the assistance of a full orchestra. Sign of the times, certainly, but also indicative of the street cred Emerson already had, getting “serious” musicians to perform with him. The piece itself, as one might surmise, is a romp full of pomp and pretense cut by humor and if there’s a bit of bombast, so be it. Emerson was already setting a high bar, and the story of his life is that, for many years, he was the only person interested, or able, to meet the challenges he threw down as a matter of course.
46. Gentle Giant: “Pantagruel’s Nativity” (Acquiring the Taste)
Taken from the original liner notes, let’s allow the band themselves to explain what they were after, and what they anticipated: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with one thought — that it should be unique, adventurous, and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset, we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead, we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”
Presumptuous? Check. Defensive? Check. Alienating? Check. True? Check. Commendable? Check. Bonus: this song calls out Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.
45. Kansas: “Song for America” (Song for America)
Appropriately entitled for one of the (inexplicably?) rare progressive rock bands from the United States. Kansas, like ELO and Supertramp, would eventually break through with less experimental and more accessible music, but they paid their proggy dues, with various degrees of success. Many of the hallmarks of the genre are ably represented here: tight and proficient chops, varied time signatures, string embellishments, and lyrics like this: “Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder.” Again, if much scorn and occasional ridicule can be placed at the feet of the progressive movement, it can never be claimed that the hearts and minds of its practitioners weren’t in the right place.
44. Supertramp: “Crime of the Century” (Crime of the Century)
An opus in miniature, this remains one of the most successful of Supertramp’s prog statements. As an album closer, it works wonderfully, summing up the themes of alienation and disenchantment explored throughout the album; as a single statement, it’s both moving and compelling. It’s also perhaps the best example of co-founders Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson working together, united as songwriters with a focused aim. It seems clear the band had been paying careful attention to both ELP and Genesis, but their vision is unique and, with the long sax serenade courtesy of John Anthony Helliwell, indelible.
43. Yes: “Heart of the Sunrise” (Fragile)
As much as any other band, Yes epitomizes progressive rock, and as such, they are entitled to the praise as well as the disapproval that accrues from this (at times, dubious) honor. Certainly, this band, with the possible exception of Rush, gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Never mind that (like Rush) its musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have very played.
Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion; his mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from the fruitful era that produced their best work. “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford, and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Jon Anderson’s nonpareil vocal workouts. The band made longer, more intricate, and segue-laden songs, but none of them pack as much emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, that it manages to please — and even, on occasion, shock — four decades on.
42. Van der Graaf Generator: “Scorched Earth” (Godbluff)
Especially recommended to those for whom Peter Gabriel, circa 1971-1974, wasn’t theatrical enough. Peter Hammill brings his very British, very unconventional bag of tricks, and the band checks in mid-way through the decade with a leaner and more resolute set of songs. Not to worry, the passion is ratcheted up, and we get tasty contributions from flute/sax player David Jackson. There is a concentrated ferocity that reaches a boil but never overwhelms, and while fans may prefer the earlier work, it remains impressive that Van der Graaf Generator was able to evince development and dexterity where many of their colleagues were choking on their own bloat.
41. King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man” (In the Court of the Crimson King)
The first song from the first official (and best?) prog album ever. Locked-in and cranking on all cylinders from the start, “21st Century Schizoid Man” helps slam the iron gate shut on any vestige of the hippie era with a song that’s equal parts discourse on Vietnam and an unflinching nod to Orwell’s 1984 (in spirit if not literally). Influential, sure, but what continues to impress is the way this song still sounds fresh, timeless, and nerve-shattering almost a half-century later.
Greg Lake’s processed and distorted vocals, like a machine shriek, and the surreal interplay of Robert Fripp’s guitar lines and Ian McDonald’s squealing sax contribute a vibe that goes for the jugular and leaves the listener gutted. The rest of the album would be, in turn, bucolic, surreal, strange, and disquieting, but the opening volley is a straightforward scorcher, serving notice that this was still rock and roll, but it was quickly being taken to a deeper, much darker place.