Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about.
Released in late November 1979, progressive rock pioneer Pink Floyd’s eleventh studio LP, The Wall, was a creative triumph. In a nutshell, it’s a semi-autobiographical rock opera — mostly conceived and written by bassist/vocalist Roger Waters — about an insecure and reclusive musician whose childhood traumas and rock star excesses force him into complete psychological and physical isolation. True, its largest themes and inspirations (loneliness, insanity, mortality, war, fatherlessness, classism, totalitarianism, and, of course, the tragic departure of founding frontman Syd Barrett) were previously investigated on classics like The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals; however, The Wall saw the quartet tackle it all at once within their sole narrative sequence (that is, unless you count its follow-up, 1983’s The Final Cut, as a pseudo sequel).
Commercially and culturally, The Wall — their last album to feature founding keyboardist Richard Wright as an official member until 1994’s The Division Bell — fared just as well. For one thing, it sold millions of copies within its first couple of months and earned the No. 1 spot on roughly a dozen international charts upon release (including 15 weeks at the top of the US Billboard 200). Beyond that, its corresponding tour took Pink Floyd’s legendarily elaborate stage shows to new heights, with ambitious gimmicks like inflatable characters, animated projections, and the construction of a 40-foot wall around the band making it a truly immersive multimedia experience. Obviously, 1982’s faithful yet flamboyantly batshit film adaption — directed by Alan Parker and starring Bob Geldof as Pink — deserves its cult following, and in subsequent years, The Wall has appeared on countless “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists.
Although it’s perhaps the most widely known progressive rock concept album of all time, it’s far from the only one. After all, the genre formally began a full decade prior, and it’s always been simultaneously beloved and berated for its virtuosic musicianship, prolonged compositional lengths, and over-the-top ideas. In fact, the majority of progressive rock LPs contain at least some sort of multipart suite (usually as the album closer) or sustained conceptual niche across several tracks. Naturally, this led many of the style’s most important creators to try their hand at a singular story at one point or another. Often mixing colorful absurdity, deeply personal universality, and biting social commentary, progressive rock concept albums represent the pinnacle of artistic expression in popular music.
It’s in celebration of The Wall’s recent 40th anniversary — as well as the form in general — that we compiled this list of 10 prog-rock concept albums every music fan should know about. A mixture of commonly known classics, relatively new gems, and moderately under-the-radar must-haves, the following picks are definitely not the only essentials (so feel free to share your own favorites below); but, they undoubtedly signify precisely what makes progressive rock so special.
Click ahead to explore 10 essential prog-rock concept albums.
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.
Spock’s Beard – Snow (2002)
Like Genesis’ Lamb, Snow is Spock’s Beard’s sixth album, as well as their last effort with the original vocalist (Neal Morse) prior to the drummer (Nick D’Virgilio) taking up the mantle. Morse actually left to focus on a theologically focused solo career, so the Christian overtones of Snow make it the ideal bridge between his two ventures. Specifically, it follows John, an “albino priest with the psychic mind” who faces persecution, uncertainty, and ultimately appreciation as he struggles to accept his gifts and fame. Aside from evoking many of the aforementioned progressive rock pioneers — in addition to Gentle Giant — the LP is indebted to The Who’s Tommy in terms of its flashbacks to John’s upbringing. It’s truly a touching tale filled with exhilarating callbacks (“Freak Boy Part 2”), sorrowful sentiments (“Solitary Soul”), and playful intricacies (“Devil’s Got My Throat”). In fact, Snow rivals most of the 1970s classics that stimulated it.
Top Track: “Devil’s Got My Throat”
Ayreon – The Human Equation (2004)
Dutch maestro Arjen Anthony Lucassen is easily one of the greatest songwriters and composers in modern progressive music, and his Ayreon albums — almost all of which connect through an all-encompassing sci-fi storyline — are the best examples of why. In particular, The Human Equation is peak rock opera opulence, with Lucassen telling a more realistic and relatable chronicle of a man stuck in a coma who confronts discretions like marital infidelity and the betrayal of his best friend via confrontations with various emotions and projections. As always, he employs some of the genre’s best vocalists and musicians to help, including James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Devin Townsend, Heather Findlay (ex-Mostly Autumn), Oliver Wakeman, Martin Orford (IQ), and longtime collaborator Ed Warby. Together, they craft an indispensable assortment of utterly entrancing dialogues (“Day Six: Childhood,” “Day Twenty: Confrontation”) and fancifully elaborate arrangements (“Day Eighteen: Realization”) that’ll stay with you forever.
Top Track: “Day Eighteen: Realization”
Gazpacho – Night (2007)
Norwegian art-rock sextet Gazpacho have always been experts at enveloping listeners in sonic worlds of elegant heartache, and in that respect, it’s their fourth outing, Night, that still reigns supreme. It’s a fifty-minute piece broken into five parts, and it deals with a man struggling to interpret existence. Jan-Henrik Ohme’s devastatingly delicate croons and poeticisms alone will bring you to tears; yet, it’s the ways in which his bandmates mix traditional rock and classical timbres — as well as scattered ethereal effects — around his confessions that make it absolutely spellbinding from start to finish. Sure, each segment stands on its own, but Night must be heard all at once (preferably when you’re feeling predominantly introspective and isolated) to fully appreciate its resourceful through-lines and cumulative weight. By the time you reach the subtly devastating transition into chilling closer “Massive Illusion,” you’ll be left in awe of this beautifully distressing magnum opus.
Top Track: “Massive Illusion”
Phideaux – Doomsday Afternoon (2007)
The middle entry in Phideaux’s trilogy about Big Brother authoritarianism (sandwiched in-between 2006’s more straightforward The Great Leap and 2018’s more theatrical Infernal), Doomsday Afternoon is a ceaselessly compelling fable that fuses folk, chamber, psychedelia, and more traditional progressive rock. Mastermind Phideaux Xavier, co-vocalists Ariel Farber and Valerie Gracious, and a host of regular musicians skillfully sketch out a warm yet worrying tale of two figures on opposite philosophical ends, set against the backdrop of a subjugated population. Opener “Micro Softdeathstar” astounds as a cleverly luscious whirlwind of piano ballad desperation, moody gothic cautions, and explosive orchestral outcries. From there, the troupe extends the sequence with friskily symphonic stateliness (“The Doctrine of Eternal Ice (Part One)”) and rustic acoustic duets (“Candybrain”, “Formaldehyde”) before concluding with one of the greatest prog rock pieces of all time (“Microdeath Softstar”). As with Spock’s Beard’s Snow, Doomsday Afternoon surpasses many of its 1970s inspirations.
Top Track: “Microdeath Softstar”
The Dear Hunter – Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional (2016)
The criminally under-known American ensemble The Dear Hunter is the brainchild of Casey Crescenzo, a brilliant vocalist, songwriter, and arranger whose titular saga about war, family, and redemption has stretched across five records thus far. The latest, Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional, paints the fullest picture of what makes The Dear Hunter a one-of-a-kind treasure. Prelude “Regress” is a sublime classical/acoustic premonition that gives way to the downright mesmeric sing-along majesty of “The Moon / Awake” (whose reprisal within the spectral ender, “A Beginning”, gives you goosebumps). Later, “Cascade” is a deliciously whimsical rocker; “Mr. Usher (on His Way to Town)” is jazzy lounge-act perfection (with female back-up singers); and “Light” is a stunningly decorated acoustic ode about regret and hope. Of course, several crucial nods to past motifs link it to the prior chapters, making Act V feel like the complete realization of Crescenzo’s conceptual arc.
Top Track: “A Beginning”