Progressive rock became wildly popular in the 60s and 70s, with some albums perfectly encapsulating the genre.
But what does it take to qualify among the best of the best? As it turns out, several factors determine how great a prog-rock record will be in the long run.
Today, we’re diving into the facts of this magical music and listing five of our top picks.
Characteristics of Great Progressive Rock Albums
Born in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, progressive rock fused experimental melodies, poetic lyrics, and classical music theory. The result was a psychedelic genre that transcended contemporary sound.
While prog rock requires a classical element, it also infuses technology into its repertoire. There’s a heavy emphasis on instruments like synthesizers and electric keyboards. More traditional choices include flutes, organs, and harps. Blues, jazz, and folk influences may also appear.
The genre often features ambitious compositions. You’ll hear multiple time signatures, sometimes odd ones, in one track. Songs and albums might be divided into sections and include extended instrumental solos.
Most progressive rock albums include themes from classic literature. Often, an epic tale plays out over the two sides of the vinyl. Conceptual records are also common. These may not tell one story, but each song might have a central theme.
In short, you can’t just cobble together a progressive rock album. It requires complex composition, musical mastery, and an understanding of literary history and storytelling.
#1 The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is perhaps the pinnacle progressive rock album. They recorded it in 1973 at EMI, now Abbey Road Studios, in London. It sold more than 45 million copies and went platinum 14 times.
The band conceptualized this setlist on the road as they dealt with the intricacies of greed, mental illness, and the pressures of fame. In fact, founding member Syd Barrett’s step back from the band in 1968 inspired much of the album. It’s thought that drug use and external pressures caused him to slowly become unhinged.
While the songs on this album lack the extended, drawn-out instrumental solos of many other prog-rock hits, it employs many other elements of the genre. Thought-provoking lyrics, ample studio effects, and psychedelic tones lend to its unique sound.
Money was one of two singles on Dark Side of the Moon. Roger Waters wrote the hit, but the vocals are mostly David Gilmour.
Throughout the song, you hear the constant ringing of a cash register. Its lyrics leave little to the imagination. Lines like, “Money, so they say, is a root of all evil today,” give away their stance. However, there’s no arguing that this hit brought in a lot of moolah at the end of the day.
No time to listen to a whole album? Here are the 5 Greatest Progressive Rock Songs.
#2 In the Court of the Crimson King
Progressive rock band King Crimson released their album, In the Court of the Crimson King, in 1969. This compilation paved the way for the genre, taking inspiration from jazz and classical symphony music. It’s both complex and poetic, and although the band certainly didn’t make it for commercial appeal, it was by far their most successful work.
In addition to the standard instruments like drums and guitars, you can hear clarinets, flutes, saxophones, harpsichords, and Ian McDonald’s Mellotron. In fact, McDonald played all of those himself.
While the record featured five mind-blowing tracks, some pressings included a bonus tune after the final song, Court of the Crimson King.
Don’t skip Court of the Crimson King if you want music that paints a picture. It evokes imagery of a medieval castle with jesters, pipers, and the black queen. Of course, we’re talking about psychedelic rock, so the scene has a certain amount of mystery and confusion.
This nine-minute song is divided into several sections, including The Return of the Fire Witch and The Dance of the Puppets. It’s weird and wonderful and deserves a listen.
#3 Selling England by the Pound
Genesis released Selling England by the Pound in 1973. This progressive rock album reads more like a collection of fairy tales than a major record. But that’s all part of the appeal.
With titles like Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and The Battle of Epping Forest, the band’s narrative abilities come alive. It’s whimsical and eccentric, much like the members of Genesis.
Backing up the literary lyrics is some of the group’s finest instrumental work. Heavy on classical piano, flutes, and organs, it’s hard to argue against their technical abilities.
We wondered Why Did Phil Collins Leave Genesis?
Firth of Fifth is the shining star of Selling England by the Pound. It opens with a classical piano solo that jumps between time signatures before Phil Collins comes in on the drums and kicks off the second part of the piece. Keyboardist Tony Banks composed most of the song himself. It’s still considered some of his greatest work.
A Hammond organ forms the backbone of this tune, while the flute offers an enchanting, whimsical lilt. Once again, the lyrics vaguely inspire medieval imagery. However, this hit’s instrumentals are its strong suit.
#4 Close to the Edge
By 1972, Yes had released their breakthrough album, Fragile, and were gearing up for their successive progressive rock triumph. However, much turmoil surrounded its creation. The band’s original drummer found this album so tedious that he left shortly after completing it to join King Crimson.
Fortunately, he stuck around long enough to reap the rewards. The record made the Top Five in both the US and UK. It met critical acclaim, with Cashbox calling it “a recording masterpiece.”
The album’s release would kick off the longest tour of Yes’ run, with over 90 shows worldwide.
The title track for Close to the Edge is nearly 30 minutes of musical greatness. Jon Anderson stated that while some lyrics only revealed their meaning to him after writing, others came to him in a dream. Even more were inspired by literary works such as Siddhartha.
Although the meandering poetry may seem rambling at some points, it ultimately weaves the tale of a man coming to terms with his own beliefs. In the end, he finds that God was inside him all along. This sentiment comes to life as a synthesizer slowly replaces the traditional church organ.
#5 Thick as a Brick
Jethro Tull’s fifth album, Thick as a Brick, is their first wholly progressive rock record. In response to critique of their previous release, frontman Ian Anderson declared he’d create “the mother of all concept albums.” And he delivered!
The original LP included a 12-page newspaper declaring it the musical adaptation of a poem written by a child prodigy. Of course, no child genius existed. This piece was purely the work of Jethro Tull.
British humor, particularly Monty Python, was a significant source of inspiration. In contrast to their earlier bluesy sound, they opted for more classical instruments such as flutes, violins, harps, and organs.
The entire album consists of one song, Thick as a Brick. Both sides of the vinyl spanned nearly 45 minutes. However, a three-minute radio edit introduced many to the epic creation.
Rock, folk, and classical genres collide on this record. Modern electric crescendos punctuate stretches of pure acoustic melodies.
Lyrically, it tells the story of a child who can either become a soldier or an artist. He chooses the former, slowly assimilating into a society he once reviled.
Stream the 50th-anniversary edition, or buy the CD. You can even get it on vinyl! Thick As A Brick
Which Progressive Rock Album is Your Favorite?
Genre-bending, literary, and unconventional progressive rock changed the landscape of modern music, and these albums are perfect examples. Tales of epic adventures, psychedelic imagery, and profound revelations reveal themselves throughout these works of art. Grab your headphones and pop one of these great records on the turntable.
If we missed any heavy hitters on our list, we’d love to hear your top picks in the comments!