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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. 

Pink Floyd, 'Wish You Were Here'
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Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

Alienation has rarely sounded as majestic as on this sentimentally psychedelic follow-up to the landmark Dark Side of the Moon. Inspired by Floyd founder Syd Barrett's disappearance down a psychic black hole, Wish You Were Here sandwiched an extended nine-part ode to their bandmate ("Shine on You Crazy Diamond") around a pair of songs castigating the music industry ("Welcome to the Machine," "Have a Cigar") and the haunting title track, also about Barrett. For Roger Waters, who wrote the album, Barrett was a "symbol of all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it's the only way they can cope with how fucking sad modern life is." Recorded amid clashes over process and content (band members rarely spent studio time together), Wish was titled by cover artist Storm Thorgerson, who designed its striking series of surreal photographs, including the iconic cover shot of one businessman literally burning another. R.G.

Rush, 'Moving Pictures'
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Rush, ‘Moving Pictures’ (1981)

"You'd have to be a fool to ignore constructive criticism," drummer-lyricist Neil Peart told Rolling Stone upon the release of this album, which featured Rush's shortest tracks to date. Coincidentally or not, the Canadian power trio's conceptually downsized project would become its most popular and commercially successful. Their ability to establish a Rush sound "in six minutes, as opposed to 20 minutes," as Geddy Lee put it, led to such elegantly accessible headbangers as the swaggering "Tom Sawyer" and the Morse Code-rhythmed instrumental "YYZ." And while the John Dos Passos-influenced "Camera Eye" clocked in at 11 minutes, shorter gems like the freedom-riding "Red Barchetta," the introspective "Limelight," and the reggae-flavored "Vital Signs" were the prog equivalent of punk-rock tunes. R.G.

King Crimson, 'In the Court of the Crimson King'
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King Crimson, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)

One of the most influential progressive rock albums of all time, King Crimson's debut eschewed the bluesy bluster of late-Sixties British rock for a Mellotron-drenched mixture of jazz and classical influences, dragging psychedelia to a darker place than it had ever been before. "King Crimson will probably be condemned by some for pompousness," wrote Rolling Stone's John Morthland at the time, "but that criticism isn't really valid. They have combined aspects of many musical forms to create a surreal work of force and originality." With guitarist Robert Fripp and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald piling on layers of majestic sound, and bassist Greg Lake intoning evocative and foreboding lyrics, tracks like the unrelenting opener "21st Century Schizoid Man," the haunting "Epitaph" and the stately closer "The Court of the Crimson King" set the tone and template for the coming prog revolution. D.E.

Pink Floyd, 'The Dark Side of the Moon'
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Pink Floyd, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973)

Easily the peak of prog rock's commercial success — and often cited as trailing only Michael Jackson's Thriller in total global album sales — Pink Floyd's lean concept album has soundtracked countless planetarium light shows and just as many critical unpackings. From its sync-up with The Wizard of Oz (press play after the lion's third roar) to the Flaming Lips and friends' track-for-track covers project to Krusty the Clown's lost Dark Side of the Moonpie to the endless hawking of the prism-and-rainbow logo, the album has endured as a pop culture touchstone since its release. Sonically, it covers classic rock ("Money"), soul ("The Great Gig in the Sky"), glam symphonia ("Brain Damage"), chiming clocks ("Time") and analog synthesizers (pretty much all of it). Lyrically, Roger Waters was universal yet personal, peeling back the human condition's paper-thin skin. For all its Alan Parsons-led studio innovations, the underlying accessibility of Dark Side is its greatest strength. After all, they're only ordinary men. R.F.

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