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Music

The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 2, 80-61

Photo: Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery

Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends. It's the 100 best classic progressive rock songs.

80. King Crimson "Red"

(from Red)

Red is the paradigm that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don't realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. Robert Fripp, who has never been boring or unoriginal, outdoes himself while John Wetton and Bill Bruford do some of their finest work as well. It's the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of "Giant Steps", and it sets a suitable tone for the immensity to follow.

 
79. Pink Floyd: "Hey You"

(from The Wall)

Even if you believe The Wall isn't overstuffed and self-indulgent (but it is), there's absolutely no doubt that some of Floyd's finest work can be found alongside the hysteria and hubris. Not coincidentally, many of these moments feature David Gilmour on vocals. Still, the reason "Hey You" remains so powerful, unsettling and ultimately… uplifting, is because it's Floyd doing what they do best: operating as a functional unit, playing to their strengths (Waters' lyrics, Gilmour's voice and guitars, solid support from Mason and Wright). Not yet consumed by his cynicism (and ego), Waters channeled his sullen but sound poetic sensibilities into a song that contains some of his most consoling, hopeful (!) lyrics: "Hey you, don't help them to bury the light / Don't give in, without a fight." While his towering solo from "Comfortably Numb" deservedly steals the show, Gilmour's succinct but soaring work here is to be celebrated.

 
78. Strawbs: "Hero and Heroine"

(from Hero and Heroine)

This is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons come to life, complete with mellotron. "Hero and Heroine" is notable for packing practically a full album of aspiration, mood and progginess into a remarkably brief three and a half minutes. These lads had paid proper attention to early Genesis (indeed, this could almost work as an outtake from Trespass). Like so much excellent music from this genre and this time, it's difficult -- and ultimately irrelevant -- to ascertain whether this song is more imitated or imitative (in a good way), but despite many telltale prog touches (the bombast, the emotions amped to 11, etc.), it's a very distinct, and convincing effort from a band that doesn't get nearly enough love.

 
77. Gentle Giant: "Proclamation"

(from The Power and the Glory)

Whenever one listens to any song by this band, two things are obvious: it's prog rock, and it's Gentle Giant. Certainly, like so many of their compatriots, there are obvious musical and stylistic threads connecting them, but it could be argued that Gentle Giant remains the most idiosyncratic of progressive groups. This has not always been a blessing: their take-it-or-leave-it sensibility, reveling in their own abilities as they do, is simply not for everyone. Suffice it to say, admiration of Gentle Giant can be somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition; you're in or you're not. "Proclamation" is a confident opener to one of their best-loved albums. It demonstrates the power and the glory this band had at its disposal throughout the early '70s.

 
76. Jethro Tull: "Baker St. Muse"

(from The Minstrel in the Gallery)

Perhaps the finest distillation of Ian Anderson's reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, "Baker St. Muse" showcases the band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for David Palmer's string arrangements, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment.

It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

 
75. Curved Air: "Piece of Mind"

(from Second Album)

Unapologetically pretentious, with pastoral imagery giving way to movie soundtrack melodrama, complete with frenetic piano and whirling strings, "Piece of Mind" is equal parts art for art's sake and a big middle finger to convention. Grand designs and determination only take any artist so far, and like all the successful acts, Curved Air had the collective ability to back up their lofty objectives. As ever, Sonja Kristina's vocals supply the exceedingly rare feminine presence in the prog genre, and "Piece of Mind" features one of her most affecting vocal performances. This one also boasts one of keyboardist Francis Monkman's (look him up) finest workouts.

 
74. Caravan: "Nine Feet Underground"

(from In the Land of Grey and Pink)

Some bands (like non-proggers who nonetheless dipped their toes into proggy waters at times) were content to drop Tolkien-esque allusions in their lyrics; others, like Caravan, quite literally put the LOTR aesthetic right on their album covers. In the Land of Grey and Pink pulls no punches and, ahem, gives no quarter to accessibility. But that's not to say the music, even on this 20-plus minute opus is not welcoming, in its way. While the sentiment may seem from Middle-earth, "Nine Feet Underground" is less whimsical and more unwavering. Pye Hastings, on electric guitar, turns in some career-best work, and even while (in classic prog fashion) the tune is broken into eight separate sections), the momentum never flags and by the time the aggressive outro fades away before a suitable bang, the mission here is very much accomplished.

 
73. Supertramp: "Fool's Overture"

(from Even in the Quietest Moments)

Roger Hodgson is nothing if not earnest, and his vulnerable, immediately recognizable voice lends a human element many would claim is sorely missing from so much progressive rock. In terms of themes and concerns that resurface throughout their albums, it could be said that Supertramp is among the more "human" prog bands -- whatever that means. For one thing, both in terms of instrumentation and production, there's a certain clarity that tends to distinguish them from their more-is-more prog brethren.

To be certain, the wind effects, Floydian "found noise" and mellow-to-urgent energy, "Fool's Overture" is anything but sedate. Still, more than much prog (and for better or worse), this album closer sounds like music made by fallible (and sensitive) human beings.

 
72. Electric Light Orchestra: "Fire on High"

(from Face the Music)

If Supertramp, during the '70s was "human", what did the other extreme sound like? "Fire on High" would represent the other, outer limit, with mastermind Jeff Lynne -- who never heard an instrument, sound effect, sample or inside joke he didn't like -- pulling out all the stops. This, of course, is the one that cheekily employs backmasking (for the record, the mumbled "vocals", when played backwards, intone "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back…").

Is that a snatch from Handel's "Messiah" you hear? Of course. Are there string trappings and cymbals crashing? Obviously. Is there, beyond the histrionics, a brilliant, even catchy tune that emerges? Most definitely. Even though they already had radio success and would go on to more commercial things, this was a last gasp of pure out-there experimentalism by Lynne, who used a studio to his advantage like few others.

 
71. King Crimson: "Cirkus"

(from Lizard)

A Salvador Dali painting put to music, "Cirkus" is a dark, brooding masterpiece stuffed with surreal imagery. The lyrics, courtesy of the ever-reliable Peter Sinfield, are astonishing and the music perfectly creates a mood suitable for the topic: spooky, intense, yet oddly beautiful (kind of like much of Crimson's output). Possibly an allegory for the postmodern human condition, it works on a literal level as a harrowing assessment of what we do to animals for our entertainment ("Elephants forgot, force-fed on stale chalk ate the floors of their cages / Strongmen lost their hair, paybox collapsed and lions sharpened their teeth"). Heavy on the mellotron and what sounds like Mel Collins's sax filtered through a Leslie speaker, with suitably gloomy vocals from Gordon Haskell, "Cirkus" is a definitive statement that the hippie dreams of the '60s are over and done with.

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