The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed (1967)
King Crimson’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, is largely credited as the first progressive rock album; however, British quartet The Moody Blues’ second record (and first with guitarist/singer Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge), Days of Future Passed, surely helped set the stage. Its colorfully eclectic arrangements, hooky songwriting, and robust orchestral flourishes became characteristics of the style; likewise, elements like an opening overture, repeated motifs, and the overarching thematic device — the emotions and experiences one might endure over the course of a full day — demonstrate the ambitiously theatrical sounds and subject matter that progressive rock is known for. Be it the classical gravity of “Dawn: Dawn Is a Feeling”, the flowery poppiness of “The Morning: Another Morning”, the tonally dynamic “The Afternoon”, or the bittersweet enrapture of finale “Nights in White Satin”, Days of Future Passed is resoundingly responsible for what progressive rock became.
Top Track: “Nights in White Satin”
Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick (1972)
Created mostly as a satire of what founder Ian Anderson saw as the pretentiousness of the burgeoning genre, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick is ironically one of the most influential, striving, and rewarding pieces in its class. Built around a poem written by a fictional child (Gerald Bostock), its seamlessly catchy and cohesive progressive rock/folk splendor examines boyhood, destiny, and lineage with equal parts wit and wisdom. It bursts with mesmerizing melodies, wide-ranging instrumentation, and ornate yet inviting structures from start to finish; furthermore, its original packaging (a detailed spoof of daily newspapers) and noteworthy form as a single 44-minute composition (broken into two halves) clearly pushed boundaries. Without it, Jethro Tull’s superior — but much less approachable — follow-up, A Passion Play (as well as newer LPs like Echolyn’s Mei, Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and Gazpacho’s Night), wouldn’t exist.
Top Track: “Thick as a Brick (Pt. I)”
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Whereas Genesis’ previous few collections solidified them as masters of magnificently pastoral English observations (an aesthetic that would carry over to acts like Marillion and Big Big Train), this sixth entry walks a far darker, harsher, and weirder path. It’s the swan song of singer Peter Gabriel (before drummer Phil Collins took over lead vocal duties), and it tells the tale of a Puerto Rican punk named Rael, who embarks on a fantastically macabre journey to rescue his brother amidst encounters with otherworldly creatures and situations. Along the way, they explore topics like consumerism, sexuality, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Partially aided by experimental musician Brian Eno, Lamb offers a feast of abstract sound collages (“Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats”), hypnotic angst (“In the Cage”), gorgeously mournful instrumentation (“Hairless Heart”), and radio-friendly liveliness (“Counting Out Time”). Forty-five years later, it’s still revered as an awe-inspiring slice of exquisite strangeness and sophistication.
Top Track: “In the Cage”
Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)
The Wall mostly substitutes Pink Floyd’s trademark trippy complexities and elongated durations for a more grounded, simple, and concise trajectory somewhat tied to punk, disco, glam rock, and new wave. (It also fits in-between the vivid grandiosity of the early 1970s and the generic vapidity that befell many of their genre brethren in the 1980s.) Even so, its fluid segues and recurrent keynotes — the three-part “Another Brick in the Wall” and the reprise of “In the Flesh?” near the end, for instance — still give it plenty of stylistic credibility. The harrowing cinematic heft of “Goodbye Blue Sky”, “Empty Spaces”, “Don’t Leave Me Now”, and especially “The Trial” make it seem justly united and dramatic, too. Hell, it even suggests a never-ending loop of self-imposed madness in that it begins and ends with someone saying, “—where we came in?” and “Isn’t this where—,” respectively. What’s more “prog” than that?
Top Track: “Hey You”
Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)
Initially, Dream Theater didn’t plan to expand upon “Metropolis — Part I: ‘The Miracle and the Sleeper’” from 1992’s Images and Words. However, fan expectations, together with their own growing interest, led to this narrative triumph. Centered around hypnosis, reincarnation, murder, and an ill-fated love triangle — and introducing keyboardist Jordan Rudess — Scenes from a Memory is unequivocally Dream Theater’s masterpiece. The storyline is among the most fascinating, coherent, and moving in all of progressive rock — with a superb twist ending to boot — and tracks like “Scene One: Regression”, “Scene Five: Through Her Eyes”, and the closing trio exemplify the group’s best songwriting. Plus, they achieve an ingeniously infectious instrumental balance of rock and metal influences like Rush, Yes, Frank Zappa, Metallica, and Iron Maiden on “Scene Two: I. Overture 1928”, “Scene Four: Beyond This Life”, and “Scene Seven: I. The Dance of Eternity”. Thus, Scenes from a Memory is pretty much perfect.
Top Track: “Scene Seven: I. The Dance of Eternity”
Click ahead to explore more essential prog-rock concept albums.