Peter Gabriel during his tenure as Genesis' frontman.
In the evolution of rock music, there is a fascinating branch of eclectic work from the late sixties through the seventies that quickly became a source of mockery and parody. When serious, classically trained musicians started to cash in on the rock scene, progressive rock began to dominate record stores and radio waves. Bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Genesis focused their chops on long, album centered music and tossed the traditional three minute rock song out the window. Throw in a little psychedelia, and you have a musical movement that stretched the boundaries of pop art to its very bizarre and eccentric edges.

Before long, audiences grew tired of bloated pretentious meandering and started clinging to the reactionary punk movement, where songs were loud, angry, and short and the phrase 'guitar solo' was a naughty word. Then MTV happened and ensured that if anyone wanted a career in the music industry they would have to give in to the under five minute verse-chorus-verse-bridge format that became the standard. They would also have to be fairly good looking, and probably avoid dancing in tights and stage makeup playing the flute, like some of these progsters were known to do.

But these bloated pretentious psychedelic masterpiece albums are among the best audio every put to tape. Some of the best musicians to ever sign a recording contract bled their musical hearts out, leaving a trail of cerebral sonic landscapes that you can get lost in over and over again. Mostly because the songs are really really long, and the best part usually comes in at the fifteen minute mark. So you don't have a choice, you have to listen all the way through.

Here are some of the best prog-rock albums ever. In no particular order:

Yes, Fragile

Yes represents everything that was great about the prog-rock phenomenon. Pristine, falsetto vocals, ornate classical guitar noodling, and long symphonic processions of songs broken down into movements or parts. In the eighties, Yes survived by adapting to the new wave movement with their massive hit, "Owner of a Lonely Heart." But before that, they put out album after album of brilliant music that helped define the genre. Everything is present here, from trippy fantasy artwork by Roger Dean, to long orchestrated rock songs, and tracks featuring pompous virtuosic solo pieces from each band member. If you only listen to one prog rock album in your whole life, shame on you, but it should be this one.

Key tracks: "Roundabout," "South Side of the Sky," "Long Distance Runaround."

Genesis, Nursery Cryme

Like Yes, Genesis enjoyed a prolific and successful post-prog career as the Phil Collins led trio, but before that they were the Peter Gabriel fronted trip outfit that boasted thirty minute songs like "Supper's Ready" and the bizarrely adult-themed coming of age rock opera, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But Nursery Cryme is some of the best Gabriel-era Genesis, with songs like "Musical Box" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed." Not only are these songs full of classic Peter Gabriel character performance and explosive hard rock sections where we hear exactly why Phil Collins is one of the most celebrated drummers in all of rock music, but they're also incredibly nerdy. Whereas "Musical Box" seems to play on the nursery theme that the album title suggests, some of these other songs read like politically charged poetry from an English major Dungeons and Dragons level 30 dwarf-mage.

Key Tracks: "Musical Box," "Return of the Giant Hogweed," "Fountain of Salmacis."

King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

King Crimson is one of those bands that has adapted and rearranged so many times it's hard to keep track of who's who and what incarnation did what, when. All that aside, their debut album has been critically lauded for its cosmic performance and seamless melding of jazz improvisation and hard rock with a dash of epic themes and allusions to both madness and fantasy. There is a darkness to this album that can go unnoticed in its overlong symphonic breakdowns, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Key Tracks: "Twenty First Century Schizoid Man," "In the Court of the Crimson King."

Pink Floyd, Animals

As one of the most successful bands to ever dabble in prog-rock, Pink Floyd is known for their spacey and dark themes on albums like The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon. And those are great, sure, but Animals is the peak of the mid seventies Roger Waters-led Floyd. Released during prog-rock's big late-70's moment, Animals is the rock version of George Orwell's Animal Farm. In typical Roger Waters fashion, the whole album is made up of four songs; "Pigs on the Wing," "Dogs," "Pigs," and "Sheep," rounded off with a reprise of "Pigs on the Wing" at the end. In between the bookended, somber acoustic "Pigs on the Wing" is an onslaught of gritty hard rock guitar solos, trippy variations on "The Lord's Prayer," and brutal political undertones reflecting Britain's mid-twentieth century struggles. As an added bonus, Pink Floyd advertised this album by letting a giant pig-shaped balloon float over London. When the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released, J.K. Rowling expressed a desire to implement Pink Floyd's marketing plan, but with a giant Aunt Marge balloon in place of the pig.

Key tracks: "Dogs," "Sheep."

So there you have it. If prog-rock is the hard science fiction of the music literary world, then these are the undeniable great classics. In some ways, the genre has survived the last couple of decades, but punk rock, cynicism, and creativity molding to commercialism have stripped it of its former psychedelic glory. Lucky for us, these albums miraculously stand the test of time. Enjoy!

- Cody Ray Shafer

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