The purpose of this column has been to revisit, reassess and, above all, celebrate classic prog rock, so it’s inevitable we name names and select the best of the best.
18 - 10
18. Genesis -- Foxtrot
If the band 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 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 the ecology, homing in on man’s arrogance and ignorance. And then there’s “Supper’s Ready”, which most fans consider the ultimate Genesis song, if not the apotheosis of prog 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
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
As critics of this list will no doubt agree, certain bands seem to suck up all the oxygen (this is neither of the fault of those bands or those making the lists, if we’re to be honest). 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
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, prog rock’s choir boy, is in all his multi-tracked glory and the remarkable rhythm section (Bill Bruford and Chris Squire) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard. Ludicrous lyrics, interesting album cover, unparalleled musical proficiency and an all-time prog rock epic (“Starship Trooper”), The Yes Album has something to offer anyone.
14. Pink Floyd -- Animals
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 principle 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
After an extended hiatus and just as prog’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
Let’s give it up for a band that, while disco raged, punk roared, and prog 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 ‘70s. 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 was 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
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 prog rock perfection: “The Carpet Crawlers”.
10. Jethro Tull -- Aqualung
One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle -- meshing Ian Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Martin Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords -- that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today. Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2015), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music, and drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.