More Earth than Sea: Best 15 Progressive Rock Albums

By Last Updated: June 21, 2014Views: 3477

Progressive Rock. It is a term that inspires love, deep and heartfelt. And hate, venomous and cruel.

To some it means complex musical suites comprised of off-beat time signatures, extended themes and orchestrations and philosophical concepts. To others it is simply masturbatory self-indulgence, pomposity and pretentiousness.

Oddly enough, no one is wrong.

Prog Rock is wonderfully and ridiculously weird. It can be at times transcendent and inspirational and glorious; at other times painful, silly and annoying. And the thing is it is almost impossible to tell.

I have listened to a piece of music that has made me cry because it was so beautiful and poignant. But then I have played that same piece of music for another only to be told it was a wretched bit of noise that induces headaches. Then I’ll go back later and listen to it and think I must have been delusional because it is overblown and overproduced only to be told by my friend that once hated the piece that they had “gotten it” and loved it now. And then the situation reversed again. And again.

When prog rock is done well it is difficult. That is the best thing about it and its worst trait. It is a type of music that wants to be rock and roll, but it also wants to be jazz and classical. It wants to be arty and sophisticated but also wants to be commercial and accepted while trying its damndest to run away from success. It is a schizophrenic form of music. And when it is done well that dichotomy, that polarization, that split personality creates a sound that is … unique. Love it or hate it, progressive rock is unlike anything else in the history of rock and roll.

You may have guessed by this point that I am one the few that adore this type of music. And while it is impossible to rank or even narrow down the huge amount of progressive rock music to a simple list that would do it justice…I will do it anyway.

So here it is: the definitive list of the 15 best Prog Rock albums as chosen by me; the ultimate expert on progressive music! (Please note: not an expert in any way)

15: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – King Crimson
The fifth album and third incarnation of King Crimson. Released in 1973 this is everything Prog Rock should be. It is psychedelic, it is jazz, it is a sonic wall. It is difficult and beautiful. It is not for everyone.

14. Another Green World – Brian Eno
Released in 1975 this album continued Eno’s “oblique strategies” technique of using random instruction cards as guidance producing some obscure and dark songs. Still the music can be very light and romantic and dreamlike at times.

13. Hot Rats – Frank Zappa
This is the second solo album from Zappa and completely instrumental. Zappa would probably say this was not prog rock and would probably punch you for saying so, but it is very jazz influenced and experimental. The sleeve describes it as “a movie for your ears”. That’s prog dude.

12. Tales from Topographic Oceans – Yes
A double album with four songs. No more really need be said. But it is also based on the four classes of Hindu scripture. And, believe it or not, was a commercial success. Incredibly complex yet lilting and beautiful, this is quite an achievement.

11. Security – Peter Gabriel
The fourth solo album from Gabriel. It is moody and strange and encompasses a wide range of subjects from Jung to the Kennedy assassination to the nature of humanity and celebrity. But there is a slow unity to the sound that is a perfect mix between his Genesis sound and his African music influence. A perfect blend that Gabriel has not fully achieved since.

10. The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking – Roger Waters
The story goes that the members of Floyd were given a choice between this or doing the Wall. More than likely they made the right choice. Still Waters’ first solo album is a thing of beauty. The whole thing is a dream and the individual tracks are times of the night as the dream changes. It still manages to tell a coherent, linier story while being discordant and bizarre. Disturbing and moving at the same time.

9. Red – King Crimson
Easily the most commercial Crimson album of the “classic” period. Less experimental and more heavy. It’s like a heavy metal group decided to jam at a jazz club. It’s quite good.

8. Selling England by the Pound – Genesis
A glorious piece of work. I really do not have the words to describe how much I adore this album. The fact that I have placed it at 8 is testament to how good the next few albums are. Classical and ambient and lyrically gorgeous. There is only one song that makes it fall down the list, if that song wasn’t there ( or shorter) this would be a contender for number 1.

7. Birds of Fire – Mahavishnu Orchestra
The second album from Mahavishnu Orchestra and in my opinion the best. It is a perfect synthesis of bandleader John McLaughlin’s fusion-jazz he learned from Miles Davis and Buddhist/Hindu music he was just beginning to incorporate. Inspirational and transcendent.

6. Brain Salad Surgery – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
ELP has been accused to of being the epitome of the overindulgent prog rock band. And to be fair, they are. They can go way over the top and dive so deep into self-indulgence that actual notes disappear into a haze of ego and personal hubris. That being said they are ridiculously talented. Brain Salad Surgery is ELP at their best and near perfect. Pop songs with classical compositions. And HR Giger artwork. Wow.

5. Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull
T
he ultimate “concept” album. An epic poem supposedly written by a genius boy found in the English countryside and set to music by Tull; the album came with a copy of the “actual” local newspaper with the boy’s poem published. All of this was conceived of by Ian Anderson and is a masterwork of how to create a “buzz”. It also helps that the music is flipping brilliant.

4. Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
There are many great Pink Floyd albums. There is only one perfect one. This incorporates Water’s paranoia and fear, Gilmour’s hopeful distress and Rick Wright’s moody ambiance. All wrapped around the memory of Syd Barrett. Genius.

3. In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson
This could actually be called the first prog rock album. It is supposed to be just a psychedelic hippie album .. but it turned out to be so much more. Strange arrangements, bizarre time, mystical lyrics .. what is this exactly? Look at the cover. Is it cool? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Yes, that’s it.

2. Foxtrot – Genesis
We could simply say “Suppers Ready”. But that would not do it justice. Now Supper’s Ready can stand up to any classical piece of music (yes, I said that. And I mean it) but the whole album is quite brilliant and can get lost in the shade of one side. Basically it’s just great.

1. Close to the Edge – Yes
Glorious. I tend to use that word a lot, especially when I talk prog rock. When I say it I mean this album, I use this perfection as a guide to state how wonderful a thing can be. “I heard something great today,” you might say. And I will say, “As good as Close to the Edge?” and you will say with a head hung low, “No.” There is not a note that is wrong on this album. Even Roger Dean, the cover artist, who is known for elaborate landscapes and fantasy worlds opted on a simple green background. Nothing could be more fantastic than the sound from the album itself. 3 songs full of awesome.

Of course this list (however much I want it to be) is not definitive. I have left out several groups who deserve mention like: Moody Blues and Rush and Gentle Giant and Soft Machine. And of course Van Der Graaf Generator who holds a special place in my heart but sadly did not make this list. I suppose at any given moment this list could change. It could morph and become something else entirely. It could, the next time you see it, be something else entirely.

This would be appropriate and expected.

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