Prog rock wasn’t born in the 1970s, but that’s when the genre came of age and reached its commercial peak. Inspired by King Crimson‘s late Sixties work, a whole new generation of bands such as Yes and Genesis quickly grew from tiny art rock bands to enormous stadium rock acts. Some rock fans found the work pretentious, but huge cults formed around these bands that loved their every move. To the true believers, no song could be too long and no light show could be too elaborate. (Many rock fans turned off by Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer still loved Pink Floyd and Rush, though.) We asked our readers to vote for their favorite prog rock albums of the Seventies. Here are the results.
Pink Floyd were one of the biggest bands on the planet when they cut Wish You Were Here in early 1975. The Dark Side of the Moon turned the band into a stadium rock act, but their thoughts kept going back to Syd Barrett. He started the group and wrote all their early songs. They owed their tremendous success to the guy, but nobody had seem him in years. They all agreed their next album should pay tribute to their founder. The album starts and ends with the nine-part epic "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which looks back at a time when Barrett "shone like the sun." The title track is another tribute to a lost friend, while the album's other two songs ("Have a Cigar," "Welcome to the Machine") are biting attacks on the music industry. The album is a masterpiece, and it marked the last time that Pink Floyd truly worked together as a band. By the time they cut Animals two years later, Roger Waters had taken over. They continued to make great music for a few more years, but things were never the same.
Relations within Pink Floyd completely broke down during the making of their 1979 double LP The Wall. Roger Waters was now writing most of the songs by himself, and he froze out the rest of the band – even booting founding keyboardist Richard Wright midway through the process. Producer Bob Ezrin somehow kept the sessions moving along, and he even convinced Waters to add a disco beat and a children's choir to Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2, helping the band score a rare hit single. The album itself is a rock opera about a Waters-like rock star named Pink who's haunted by the death of his father in World War Two. Waters has spent the last three years taking a revived version of the original Floyd stage production on tour all over the world.
Most prog albums have at least one really long song, often spanning the entire side of an album. Jethro Tull's 1972 LP Thick As a Brick brought that trend to its logical conclusion: the entire album is just one song. Side one is "Thick As a Brick, Part I" and side two is (you guessed it) "Thick As a Brick, Part II." The two-part song lasts 44 minutes. The group's 1971 album Aqualung won them many new fans, and they took them on a pretty crazy ride with the follow-up. The group wasn't completely crazy – they allowed a three-minute radio version to be cut for radio. To many Tull fans, this album is Jethro Tull at their peak. In 2012, the group's frontman released a sequel to the album called Thick As a Brick 2, which follows the life of protagonist Gerald Bostock. It's likely this move didn't sit well with the others members of Jethro Tull. The band hasn't officially broken up, but they tour in separate camps now and appear to be over.
Roger Waters had a very negative view of mankind in the Seventies. On Floyd's 1977 LP Animals he divided humanity into three categories: pigs, sheep and dogs. The pigs are the corrupt politicians. Dogs are the aggressive, uncaring capitalists. The sheep are the masses that question nothing, going through life in a state of pure ignorance. Put another way, he had disdain for absolutely everybody. He also had little interest in recording songs like "Wish You Were Here" that would work on the radio. Instead, there's really just three songs on the album, though "Pigs on the Wing" is divided into three sections. The LP turned off some casual Floyd fans who loved songs like "Money" and "Have a Cigar," but the true believers were enthralled by the complex, epic songs. They supported the album with a huge stadium tour that only served to make Waters hate the world even more, though it did inspire him to start writing The Wall.
Rush's 1978 LP Hemispheres was the group's last indisputable prog album. They went out with a bang. The success of 2112 and A Farewell to Kings gave them complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. The first side of the LP is taken up by "Cygnus X-1," a six-part song about an explorer that goes into a black hole. (That's about as proggy a storyline as you can get.) Side two wraps up with "La Villa Strangiato," a 12-chapter instrumental. The subtitle of that song is "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence," a clear sign the band knew they had taken prog rock as far as they could without seeming ridiculous. The band re-emerged two years later with shorter songs, and suddenly they were all over the radio. That wasn't anything they had to worry about with the songs on Hemispheres.
Selling England By the Pound is the fifth Genesis album, but it's the first time the group completed an album without a single weak song. All five members of the group worked as a team, crafting prog masterpieces like "The Cinema Show," "Dancing With the Moonlight Knight" and "Firth of Fifth." The latter song features a stellar guitar solo by Steve Hackett and a brilliant piano intro by Tony Banks. Peter Gabriel ceded vocal duties to drummer Phil Collins on "More Fool Me," foreshadowing a big change coming to the band a few years in the future. "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" was their attempt at a hit single, but the group really shines on the long and truly weird songs like the 11-minute "The Battle of Epping Forest." Nobody else was making music quite like this in 1973, or really any time since.
By 1974, Peter Gabriel was experiencing what Roger Waters went through just a few years later. He had a hugely ambitious idea for a rock opera, and he didn't think it could work if the band functioned as a democracy. Gabriel, however, is a little better at playing politics than Roger Waters, and he let the band write the vast majority of the music while he wrote the lyrics and plotted out the story. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tells the story of Rael, a half-Puerto Rican who gets sucked into an alternate universe. The story is very hard to follow, and the version that Gabriel typed up for the record sleeve does little to alleviate that confusion. It barely matters. The double LP is a prog masterpiece, even though songs like "Counting Out Time" and "The Carpet Crawlers" work pretty well as traditional pop songs. Most of the other songs are extremely dense, and they provide showcases for all five members of the band. We'll never know how the group would have evolved from here. Gabriel quit the band during the tour in support of the album.
If aliens ever land on earth and demand to hear a single prog album so they can understand the genre, it would be a wise move to play them Close to the Edge. It's got everything: a song that takes up the entire side of the record (with bold time signature changes), freakishly talented musicians, songs divided up into multiple chapters, a keyboardist who liked to wear glittery capes and a song called "Siberian Khatru." Their previous album, 1971's Fragile, had a few long songs, but on Close to the Edge they dove into the deep end of the prog pool. Sadly, it was the final Yes album of the 1970s with drummer Bill Bruford – a guy so progged-out he played in Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. After this, Yes began changing their lineup more often than most people change their bed sheets. They produced some great work, but never quite recaptured the magic of Close to the Edge.
Even people who absolutely hate progressive rock often love Dark Side of the Moon. It's a very hard album to hate, and songs like "Money" and "Time" are prog rock covered with enough sugar to make them go down very easy. This is the album that changed everything for Pink Floyd. They were a reasonably popular art-rock band prior to this, but every day since the release of Dark Side they've been immortal rock gods. No song on the album even goes over eight minutes, but they all flow together into a seamless whole. This is partially due to the fact that the band toured the album before they recorded it, slowly crafting each song until it was perfect. The group was pleased by the final result, but they had no idea it would become a worldwide sensation. They had incredible success over the next decade, but Dark Side of the Moon hovers above anything else in their catalog. Generation after generation of teenagers discover it, earning enough money to guarantee that David Gilmour's great-great-great grandchildren will be extremely wealthy.
It's the year 2112, and the world is in rough shape. The evil Priests of the Temples of Syrinx control everything, and they make Big Brother seem almost friendly by comparison. Everything is censored, and rock & roll is strictly forbidden. Things begin to change when a man discovers an old guitar. He dies before he can fulfill his musical dreams, but a new planetary war breaks out that seems to result in the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx going down. (It's a little ambiguous.) It's a fine story, but the brilliance of 2112 isn't found in the story. It's the music. Rush were in a tough spot when they started the album. They weren't scoring hits songs, and their label was on the verge of dropping them. Instead of making a commercial album, they quadrupled down on prog. It didn't lead to a hit, but the album found a huge cult audience. It's nearly 40 years later, and that audience hasn't let go at all. Rush remain the biggest cult band in the world, and every show on their last tour wrapped up with the title track from 2112. Nobody left disappointed.