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50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time

From the Court of the Crimson King to the Comatorium

For close to a half century, prog has been the breeding ground for rock’s most out-there, outsized and outlandish ideas: Thick-as-a-brick concept albums, an early embrace of synthesizers, overly complicated time signatures, Tolkienesque fantasies, travails from future days and scenes from a memory. In celebration of Rush’s first Rolling Stone cover story, here’s the best of the deliciously decadent genre that the punks failed to kill.

Caravan, 'In the Land of Grey and Pink'
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Caravan, ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ (1971)

Among the many memorable bands to emerge from Canterbury, England — including the Soft Machine, Gong and Camel — none conveyed the southeastern cathedral town's pastoral qualities better than Caravan. The title and cover art of the quartet's third album evoked a Middle Earth sunset, with the music wavering between medieval folk melodies and jazz-savvy musos rocking out over what bassist Richard Sinclair called "a load of words that half mean something." Side one consisted of short, charming songs like "Golf Girl," the Tolkien-y "Winter Wine" and the surreal Boy Scout ramble of the title track; but side two was solely devoted to "Nine Feet Underground," a 22-minute, eight-part suite with Zappa-esque subtitles — e.g., "Dance of the Seven Paper Hankies" — that unfurled a breezily grooving descent into hell and back dominated by extended fuzz-organ solos. R.G.

Tool, 'Lateralus'
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Tool, ‘Lateralus’ (2001)

By the release of Tool's third album, the band had moved far past sub-three-minute songs with in-your-face lyrics, like 1992's anti-censorship quick hit "Hush." By contrast, Lateralus' nine-and-a-half-minute title track is based, both in its time signatures and lyric patterns, on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that describes many of nature's spiraling shapes, from ferns to pine cones. Despite its musical complexity, abstruse themes and embrace of the band's King Crimson fandom, the album debuted at Number One and launched Tool into amphitheaters and arenas around the world. "Most bands have been taught that they have to write these formulaic pop songs to be successful," guitarist Adam Jones told Guitar World at the time. "As soon as you start listening to those rules, you're in trouble." B.G.

Kansas, 'Leftoverture'
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Kansas, ‘Leftoverture’ (1976)

Europe may have been the epicenter of progressive rock during the 1970s, but prog was certainly thriving in the American heartland as well. Influenced by Yes and Genesis, but also boasting serious Southern Rock fire and swing, Kansas' fourth album sold more than five million copies, largely on the strength of its bong-rattling opener "Carry On Wayward Son." But there was more to Leftoverture than a classic-rock staple; tracks like "Miracles Out of Nowhere," "Cheyenne Anthem" and the six-part mostly instrumental "Magnum Opus" (first movement: "Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat") showcased the unique sound and vision of a legit arena-rock act. In his Rolling Stone review, Alan Neister wrote: "Leftoverture warrants Kansas a spot right alongside Boston and Styx as one of the fresh new American bands." D.E.

Renaissance, 'Ashes Are Burning'
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Renaissance, ‘Ashes Are Burning’ (1973)

With a debt to psych-pop outfits Jefferson Airplane and It's a Beautiful Day, plus English folk-rockers like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, Renaissance's Annie Haslam brought a feminine energy to prog rock's sausage fest: See the title track, the band's signature, which she ends with a spectacularly held note that Geddy Lee couldn't hit if his balls were in a panini press. Formed from the ashes of the Yardbirds by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, the band went through radical personnel changes over the years, all in service of meshing classical, folk and rock, but with more of a traditional song-sense than most of their prog peers. This set split the difference between hooks and sprawl. And 40 years later, Annie Haslam is still spinning tales like Guinevere. W.H.

U.K., 'U.K.'
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U.K., ‘U.K.’ (1978)

Prog disciples looked to U.K. as one of the most promising supergroups ever — the band featured ex-members of King Crimson, Yes, Roxy Music and Soft Machine. But they only stuck around for about three years, creating an intensely melodic blend of prog and jazz fusion on their debut, achieving orchestral intricacy without drifting off into self-indulgence. Eddie Jobson's twirly keyboards and weepy electric violin duel playfully with Allan Holdsworth's soaring guitar, while John Wetton's resounding bass locks in with Bill Bruford's syncopated drumming. After the album was released, Bruford and Holdsworth bolted, expressing disinterest in working on a more elaborate follow-up. "The theory was that America needs a new ELP," explained Bruford at the time. "Half of U.K. [felt that way], and me and Holdsworth thought that America needed Holdsworth." The remaining members never quite captured the debut's groove and broke up in 1980 — though Wetton and Jobson reunited in 2012 to tour. J.W.

Dream Theater, 'Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory'
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Dream Theater, ‘Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory’ (1999)

For those who wish Rush was still stuck in 2112, Dream Theater have been a welcome alternative for decades, but this is their most impressive display of intricate, concept-metal proggery. Inspired by nine-minute-plus 1992 track "Metropolis Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper," Dream Theater reached their peak moment of high drama by extending the song's original story line about a woman who dies and the man who may have killed her. A two-act, 80-minute, non-linear production, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory is composed of nine songs that delve into the murder mystery by exploring a new character's past-life regressions and paranormal experiences. To supplement the rather bewildering story, the band weaves together epic instrumental flourishes influenced by early Rush, Fates Warning and Queensrÿche. Guitarist John Petrucci wrote on his Web site, "We'd always wanted to do a concept album, so we figured, why not?" J.W.