In prepping for Cruise to the Edge (countdown: less than two weeks and counting!), I’ve been studying Rolling Stone’s list of the top 50 prog rock albums of all time from top to bottom. Prior to reading, I’d say I owned a third of the albums on the list. Thanks to some manic iTunes purchases, the number has climbed to more than half, I’m now uncovering bands I had never heard of previously or never realized they had specific albums in their arsenal; how could I have not heard about Happy the Man, FM and Carmen before!?
But the sad truth is, the list, in my opinion, left off some pretty glaring omissions. As a result, I’ve been poring through my own prog stash, zeroing in on another ten must-haves of the genre. I probably could have devised my own “Top 50” list, but for time and energy sake I’m keeping it – much unlike the compositions that come out of the genre – short. I’m sure my list will have its own omissions in the minds of similar prog rock lovers, but I invite you to offer thoughts to keep the conversation going on.
With that, super extended drum roll please, we’re off (chronologically speaking):
Aphrodite’s Child – 666 (1972)
I’ve previously extolled the musical virtues of keyboardist extraordinaire Vangelis. But before he was the musical god of soundtracks, he was keyboardist for this Greek powerhouse trio, fronted by noted musician Demis Roussos. Based around the Book of Revelation, this double album behemoth is a terrific fusion of psychedelia and progressive rock, featuring everything from spoken word commentary, to triumphant horn blasts, to Greek actress/singer Irene Papas’ literal orgasmic wailings. Highlights include “Babylon,” “The Four Horsemen,” and the instrumental workouts “The Wedding of the Lamb” and “The Capture of the Beast.”
Nektar – A Tab in the Ocean (1972)
Tab is the second studio release from Nektar, an English prog group by way of Germany. Containing only four tracks, this album’s core is its title track – a near 17-minute sea epic that begins and ends with ocean waves and features one of the greatest instrumental battles ever recorded. Even the production sounds like it’s been doused with water. Once the late, great Roye Albrighton proclaims, “Climb aboard imaginary waves,” you’re off on a journey taking all kinds of wondrous twists and turns.
Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974)
This is arguably the most-hated album in the Yes catalogue, but it happens to be my favorite. An audacious undertaking – four tracks all hovering around 20 minutes (anyone else besides the Soft Machine try this formula?), all based around a footnote (!) from the autobiography of a Hindu yogi. Certain band members have disavowed the work but in its everything-but-the-kitchen sink execution, everybody is highlighted splendidly. “Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” is the true highlight, including a masterful drum solo from newly-added Alan White. Yes has taken to playing the album in its entirety now along with its other dark horse, 1980’s Drama, so it seems all is forgiven by true prog fans.
Kansas – Song for America (1975)
Rolling Stone dubbed the group’s third album Leftoverture as its prog masterpiece (thanks in no small part to the track “Carry on Wayward Son”) but the group’s prior album Song for America is full-on prog – six tracks, mighty synths, crazy violins, stories abound, the mighty wail of Steve Walsh. Plus, you can’t go wrong with the album’s cover art – a menacing bird with talons galore.
Camel – The Snow Goose (1975)
Camel’s second album Mirage was featured in Rolling Stone’s list, but the band’s third opus was surprisingly left off. Arguably the group’s most Tolkien-esque release, this entirely instrumental album centers its content around Paul Gallico’s famed novella of the same name. Even without words, we encounter characters, scenes and shape-shifting moments all rolled up into an impressive prog package. “La Princesse Perdue” has Rick Wakeman written all over it, while the album as a whole can arguably be considered a precursor to the Decemberists’ breakout album The Crane Wife. Also, although I’m sure this wasn’t its intention, album opener “The Great Marsh” is one track you don’t want to listen to with the lights off.
Steve Hackett – Voyage of the Acolyte (1975)
Released while still Genesis’ lead ax-man, Hackett burned off some creative steam with his debut album – a terrific fusion of, well, fusion and prog rock. “Ace of Wands” is a full-blown Hackett attacking the guitar neck with pure ease, while bandmate Phil Collins adds his newly-discovered vocal chops to “Star of Sirius.” Everything reaches a creative boil though with the lengthy “Shadow of the Hierophant,” a staple of Hackett’s live shows to this day. If anyone can tell me what a hierophant is without looking it up, you’ll be both a prog master and my hero.
Go – Go (1976)
The eponymous debut album from this supergroup has been dubbed jazz fusion, but I’m calling its bluff, especially considering three tracks have the word “Space” in their titles. Steve Winwood has always been an earthy musician, harkening back to his days with Traffic. But in teaming up with guitar dynamo Al Di Meola and Japanese percussionist/composer Stomu Yamashta, Winwood seemingly takes to the stars with ethereal tunes resembling out-of-body experiences. Give a good listen to the album’s masterpieces “Crossing the Line” and “Ghost Machine” to see what I mean.
Rainbow – Rising (1976)
Calling this a prog rock album might seem dubious given the legendary heavy metal stature of both guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow’s late frontman Ronnie James Dio. However, everything about this six-track, little more than half-an-hour long wonder screams prog. From its glorious cover art to its synth-driven opening track (“Tarot Woman”), Dio becomes the master storyteller of wolves, magic, and celestial powers. The eight-minute “Stargazer” alone is an epic as Dio’s mighty vibrato keeps up fantastically (and unbelievably) with both Cozy Powell’s manic drumming, and the frenzied strings of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygene (1976, 1997, 2016)
Again, others might be prone to pounce on me for dubbing this a prog album but any work where the synthesizer is the lead (and really only) instrument, and contains movements built out over a 40-year period embodies the full definition of prog in my book. I discovered this album in, of all places, Houston, Texas – the cover art of a skull peeking through the planet Earth was just too good to pass up. Over the course of 20 movements and three albums, we hear how the French composer works with atmospheres and melodies to unveil a wide breadth of instrumental emotions.
Saga – Saga (1978)
Rush takes the cake for being Canada’s leading musical export (especially in a prog sense) but coming in at a close second is this quintet from the Great White North, featuring one of the most underrated vocalists of all time, Michael Sadler. On their eponymous debut, the group greets the world with eight majestic tracks. “How Long” and “Humble Stance” would be crowd-pleasers for decades while the album showcases two of the group’s famed “chapter songs” – “Will it Be You? (Chapter Four)” and “Tired World (Chapter Six).” This is arguably the most expensive single CD I ever purchased on Amazon, but to this day, it’s still money well spent.
Honorable Mention: Blue Motion – Blue Motion (1980)
When there’s no immediate information about a band on Wikipedia, you know you have to do your homework. Here’s what I know – Blue Motion was an offshoot trio of a Swiss prog band called Circus. Their debut album is keyboard heavy with two terrific extended tracks, “Stromboli” and “Stonehenge.” Really, the best compliment I can give this work is that this is likely the kind of album Billy Joel aspired to make while a member of his pre-Piano Man band, Attila.
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