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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.

Opeth, 'Blackwater Park'
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Opeth, ‘Blackwater Park’ (2001)

Titled in tribute to the early-Seventies German proggers of the same name, Blackwater Park marked the first time these Swedish death-metal virtuosos gave full reign to the progressive tendencies that had long lurked in their music. With Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson producing plus adding keyboards, Mellotron and backing vocals to epic, multi-movement excursions like "The Drapery Falls," "Leper Affinity" and the misanthropic 12-minute title-track climax, Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt infused the melodic, atmospheric aspects of King Crimson and Pink Floyd with Opeth's complex, dark riffs and his own sepulchral growl. "I would not call it melancholy, it's just pitch black!" Åkerfeldt told Ultimate Metal. "Everything is kind of veiled in some kind of darkness." Wilson assisted on two other similarly brilliant albums — 2002's Deliverance and 2003's Damnation — but Blackwater Park marked Opeth's ascension to metal's top tier. D.E.

Supertramp, 'Crime of the Century'
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Supertramp, ‘Crime of the Century’ (1974)

Following two flops, the band famously financed by a Dutch millionaire throttled down their progressive ambitions for an album of tighter, poppier songs. It sold more than 20 million copies, delivering the hits "Bloody Well Might" and "Dreamer," while breaking Supertramp in the United States. Like Pink Floyd without Roger Waters' arrogance, Crime focused on adolescent angst ("Hide in Your Shell"), adult alienation ("Rudy") and madness ("Asylum"). Unfortunately for Supertramp's two songwriters — the emotionally exposed Roger Hodgson and the more rocking Rick Davies – Crime was the last time the pair were on the same page. Thus, according to Hodgson, the album represents "the pinnacle of the band being together as a unified entity." R.G.

Van Der Graaf Generator, 'Pawn Hearts'
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Van Der Graaf Generator, ‘Pawn Hearts’ (1971)

The third album by Van Der Graaf Generator won over prog fans by featuring King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. But Pawn Hearts turned out to be a confusingly heady trip for even the most attentive listeners. On "Man-Eng," singer/idea machine Peter Hammill showed off his operatic chops over processional keyboards and rollercoaster drums, then yowled, "How I can be free!" during a stampeding middle section that evolves into six minutes of kiting sax and keyboard abstraction. And the 23-minute "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (Medley)" makes King Crimson sound like the Ramones, with its gaping, spacey interludes, freeblown solos, jarring shifts, and lyrics like, "When you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low/You'll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths are solemnly directed straight at you." These guys tried to channel all the myths at once, making for music that was pure prog id, minus any cohesion or concision to hamstring the majesty. J.D.

The Mars Volta, 'De-Loused in the Comatorium'
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The Mars Volta, ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium’ (2003)

"Our music demands. . .at least an hour out of your life, and with complete silence and with complete devotion," Mars Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala once proclaimed. Even a semi-monastic hour (and 51 seconds) of listening reveals a satisfyingly twisted universe within these Texas oddballs' first full-length suite, De-Loused in the Comatorium. Emerging from the vitriolic ashes of Bixler-Zavala and virtuoso guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López's art-punk project At the Drive-In, the group manically aligns triumphant metal, psychedelic rock and Latin jazz. The oft-grotesque lyrics — about a man who overdoses on morphine and rat poison and goes into a coma — are repeatedly ruptured and stitched back together with a desperate flair by Rodríguez-López. Produced with Rick Rubin, De-Loused also featured low-end rumbles from stand-in bassist Flea and drumkit pyro from current Queens of the Stone Age stickman Jon Theodore. The 12-and-a-half minutes of "Cicatriz E.S.P." — complete with a helicopter interlude — show 21st Century prog's heartbeat to be as irregular as ever. R.F.

Magma, 'Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh'
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Magma, ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’ (1973)

With Magma, French drummer-composer Christian Vander literally created a new musical language — "Kobaïan," named after a planet he also invented — melding manic opera, Coltrane-influenced free jazz, thunderous avant-rock, and extra-terrestrial lyrical themes into a self-styled genre known as "zeuhl." Vander perfected his particular brand of insanity on Magma's third LP, a barrage of choral shrieks and tricky time signatures that ranked Number 33 on Rolling Stone France's 100 Greatest French Rock Albums. Mekanik's expansive explorations are basically "prog" at its purest, pushing conventional rock structures into strange new territories. But Vander rejects any such definition. "'Zeuhl' music means 'vibratory music,'" he told The Big Takeover this year. "It is definitely not a subset of prog, and Magma isn't a prog group. Magma is an institution." R.R.