JC’s Top Ten Progressive Rock list.
Roger CortonSo after last week’s opera-thon, we agreed to get back to some red-blooded progressive rock. And what’s more red blooded than a good old fashioned Top Ten List? I guess we should start with the question, why does the world needs another ‘ten best list’?
JCHLook, Chris Squire is gone. Most of the founders are no longer productive. It’s becoming a memory. Like I said ten years ago, it’s a museum piece. And frankly, what passes for progressive rock these days is so far removed from what I thought it was about that I think it’s worth periodically revisiting the source.
RCTo stay on course. Fair enough. Then while we’re at it, we should finish defining our terms; what we’re trying to accomplish.
...the majority of ‘prog’ you’d hear today would not sound like anyone on this list. Hell, the majority of prog that was made back in the day didn’t much sound like this. That’s how it is with all music but even more so with progressive rock.
JCHRight. First off, I’m not saying these are “the best” although they may well be. As with any good survey, the idea is that if you make yourself familiar with these, you’re getting an idea of what ‘prog’ is supposed to be about. That’s a very different thing from what it actually is.
RCNot sure I follow.
JCHUnless you were to see some tribute band, the majority of ‘prog’ you’d hear today would not sound like anyone on this list. Hell, the majority of prog that was made back in the day didn’t much sound like this. That’s how it is with all music but even more so with progressive rock. It’s almost a crime to do any survey class because what you are obliged to discuss is the crème de la crème.
RCWhat’s so bad about that?
JCHThere’s nothing ‘bad’ about it, per sé. But people always get the idea that when they’re listening to Beethoven that’s what music sounded like in 1810, which is not true. In the same way that watching Michael Jordan doesn’t tell you about the average state of basketball in 1990.
RCSo greatness isn’t like Barry Bonds; a good idea on steroids. It’s fundamentally different.
JCHRight. These albums are so far beyond the other 90% of what was/is out there. OK, next point: I’m limiting the list to one album per artist just to cut a wider swath. Otherwise, the list might be a bit different. And last but not least, these are orderd chronologically, not by merit. I wanted people to get a sense of a progression (no pun intended). Because the whole idea of progressive rock grew over time into the established conventions.
RCGot it. And now with a drum roll in 7/8, take it away:
King Crimson — In The Court Of The Crimson King
This is kind of the wellspring. It covers all the food groups of virtuosity and spacey lyrics and beautiful, majestic arrangements and the songs are just memorable and pretty. It has it all. It’s probably the one album that sums up progressive rock and it also conforms to my theory that the first of a genre often ends up being the best (despite our best efforts!)
The Who — Tommy
Tommy really is a rock opera. Or at least a rock operetta. It’s a great story; at least as good a story as a lot of opera in the standard repertoire. And it actually has a lot of musical unity. There are leitmotifs and real characters. It’s the one “rock band meets Symphony” record that actually lives up to the billing. And the funny thing is there’s no orchestra!
The Moody Blues — In Search Of The Lost Chord
The first five or six Moody blues records were all much the same. I picked this one just because I think some of the tunes are a little stronger. None of them really have any grand design, but they were going for this combination of eclecticism and a particular ‘sound’. They messed with a bunch of different timbres and poetry and the overall effect for me is kinda like ‘the intentional Sergeant Pepper’. I did not choose the concept album ‘Days Of Future Past’ because although it’s iconic, I think there is something very artificial about it. As nice as some of the songs are, the orchestra is frankly nothing more than an add on as with so many other ‘Rock Band With The London Symphony Orchestra’ records. The albums where they played were the real Moody Blues.
Yes — Close To The Edge
Yes had a few records that could be chosen. In fact, I feel guilty that I made the obvious choice. But this is the obvious choice for a reason. It kind of defines the stereotype of ‘prog’ with one side of the record having the epic and the other two shorter but equally slamming tunes. The playing is just stellar. In fact Yes was the only band on this list that really was a team of equals. All other groups are one or two ‘players’, but Yes was five soloists almost like the great fusion jazz groups. In fact, at each position there has never been another guy like that guy. There’s no guitarist like Steve Howe, there’s no bassist like Chris Squire, there is no drummer like Bill Bruford, there’s no keyboard player like Rick Wakeman, and there was certainly never a lead singer anything like Jon Anderson.
Emerson Lake & Palmer — Brain Salad Surgery
Like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer had several records that were desert island discs, but this one has it all. At the height of his powers Keith Emerson really did create a whole orchestra from his keyboards. His arrangements of classical pieces were works of art in themselves. Speaking as a composer Karn Evil 9 is probably the best of any ‘epic’. You could also argue that Greg Lake’s younger voice defined prog.
Jethro Tull — Thick As A Brick
Well first of all, it’s a poem. And it’s a great poem. And the second of all, it has a really great thematic unity. Frankly, most progressive rock albums are more just a collection of tunes. There’s no shredding per sé but so what? The playing is great. There’s just no overplaying. The acid test: this is one of the few progressive rock albums that could be orchestrated and still be interesting. Ian Anderson was a great songwriter, showman and an under-rated player.
Genesis — The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
This reminds me a great deal of Thick As A Brick and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gabriel hadn’t been influenced by Ian Anderson. The Lamb is more like an experimental Broadway musical than anything. It has all these separate scenes and many are great, but it’s a fantasy world that all hangs together as a piece. The playing has a certain amount of virtuosity and complexity and you can listen to it over and over and get new things out of it every time. My only criticism of the album is that there’s a certain amount of instrumental noodling. I frankly would’ve cut some of Tony Banks’ solos in half.
Gentle Giant — The Power And The Glory
In some ways, this is the best of the bunch. Again it has great playing but there is absolutely no noodling. Ever note is there for a reason. The lyrics are extremely sophisticated and it tells a great story ( the downfall of Nixon). I could easily see this being turned into a very effective one act opera.
King Crimson — Discipline
Okay, I’m breaking my rule of one artist. But the 1980 version of King Crimson was as revolutionary as the 1969 the version. And like In The Court Of The Crimson King, every track is a gem. This was such a great idea it really should have blossomed into a whole new genre of music. But no one seemed to take up where they left off. This came out at the height of Weather Report’s influence and it seemed reasonable to me then that there might even be a coming together of progressive rock and fusion. (Sigh).
RCOK, we’re going to stop there for now and has some Q & A along with a second ten that may not be on your radar. For now, students. If you do not already own all these discs? Now’s the time to get up to speed!