Top 50 Progressive Rock Songs

The joke writes itself: “How do you know when a prog tune ends?” “When it’s time to flip the record over.”

In all seriousness, picking the best progressive rock tracks can be tricky on a practical level — projects like Tubular Bells and Thick as a Brick blurred the line between “song” and “album” in the first place. And other pieces, like Genesis epic “Supper’s Ready,” are so expansive that it feels weird comparing them to four-minute singles. Then there’s the issue of genre: Can a non-prog band moonlight with a song or two? And should pop-friendly moments from canonical prog bands be on the table? Ah!

Decisions, decisions — but, ultimately, fun ones. If Yes can solve the creative puzzle that birthed “Close to the Edge,” we can suck it up and put this list together — even if we lose a little sleep in the process. What other musical style could spark such nerdy debate and deep thinking?

So take the Roundabout, travel down the Inca Roads and head for the Court of the Crimson King. Behold our Top 50 Progressive Rock Songs.

50. Aphrodite’s Child – “The Four Horsemen”
From: 666 (1972)

It’s the emotional anchor of Aphrodite’s Child‘s third and final LP, 666, building a dramatic psych-prog atmosphere befitting lyrics of biblical apocalypse. “And when the lamb opened the first seal / I saw, I saw the first horse / The horseman held a bow,” Demis Roussos quivers angelically over timid wind chimes and a Vangelis organ that seems to part the clouds from heaven. Naturally for a song about the Book of Revelation, we end with a “fa fa fa” sing-along.

 

49. Area – “Luglio, agosto, settembre (nero)”
From: Arbeit macht frei (1973)

Area cemented their brand of fusion-infused chaos with “Luglio, Agosto, Settembre (nero),” which opens the Italian band’s debut LP. The amount of changes is vast: anti-war spoken word in Arabic, dizzying violin and sax riffs in 7/8 and Demetrio Stratos’ inimitable, octave-leaping voice. But it all feels fluid and purposeful, earning a visceral response from each arrangement idea — the tempo acceleration at 2:30 is one of the most thrilling moments in prog history.

 

48. Audience – “The House on the Hill”
From: The House on the Hill (1971)

It’s debatable whether Audience fully crossed the threshold from art-rock to prog, but there’s no doubt about the gothic, gloriously rambling closer from their third LP. “The House on the Hill” highlights all of the British band’s distinctive flavors: Howard Werth’s clipped vibrato and flowing classical guitar (an instrument rarely utilized in a pure rock context), Keith Gemmell’s torrent of flute and sax (here sliding into jarring, echoing dissonance in the solo section), Trevor Williams’ booming bass riffs and Tony Connor’s jazzy finesse behind the drum kit. It’s a perfectly strange combo for such a demented storybook tale. “There’s a King Rat who wears a judge’s black cap,” Werth sings. “And I wouldn’t go near the house on the hill.” Um, advice taken!

 

47. U.K. – “In the Dead of Night”
From: U.K. (1978)

U.K. arrived at a more concrete personality on their second LP, with Terry Bozzio adding immediacy and edge to the rhythm section. But “In the Dead of Night,” which kicks off the prog supergroup’s debut, is still their definitive track: forceful and atmospheric all at once. In five and a half minutes, the quartet deftly balances its heaviest and jazziest elements, moving from John Wetton‘s scratchy belting to a torrential guitar solo described thusly by drummer Bill Bruford: “94 seconds of liquid passion married to a blinding technical facility that was to go down in the annals of rock guitar history.”

 

46. Bubu – “El Cortejo de un Día Amarillo”
From: Anabelas (1978)

Every turbulent second of Anabelas, Bubu’s lone ’70s LP, is worth exploring. But this Argentinian band needed only one song to rank among the obscure greats. “El Cortejo de un Día Amarillo” makes for a grab bag of references: PFM, Gentle Giant, Lizard-era King Crimson, big-band Frank Zappa. Ultimately, though, the piece sounds like only itself, bundling psychedelic guitar, funky rhythms and fusion saxophone freak-outs into a 20-minute tangent.

 

45. Sebastian Hardie – “Four Moments”
From: Four Moments (1975)

Australia wasn’t exactly a hotbed for ’70s prog. But the high points of Sebastian Hardie’s two LPs — still largely obscure outside of their native country — deserve a seat at the table with the era’s usual suspects. “Four Moments,” their debut’s four-part opener, sails the high seas of synth cheese — it’s a bit stuck in time. But it’s also beautiful, packing a handful of classic melodic themes (the central springy keyboard line, the regal mellotron section) into a 20-minute mini-symphony.

 

44. Happy the Man – “Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest”
From: Happy the Man (1977)

If you were to rank all the big prog countries by musical quality and originality, the U.S. would fall middle of the pack at best — well short of England, Italy, France and Germany. Happy the Man are one of the few American heavyweights, releasing a trio of classic LPs that balance quirky melodic interplay with fusion-y chops. The flashiest moment from their self-titled debut is instrumental “Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest,” offering a wide dynamic range (check out the time and tempo change at 1:00) and making even the wildest flights of fancy (solos on Moog and saxophone) feel accessible.

 

43. Big Big Train – “The Underfall Yard”
From: The Underfall Yard (2009)

Most bands that channel classic prog sound like weak imitations — low bit-rate MP3s compared to near-mint vinyl pressings. Big Big Train have overt influences of the ’70s British symphonic school, notably Genesis and Yes. But they’re one of the few modern prog acts nodding to the past tastefully, with their own subtle variations in tone. On “The Underfall Yard,” a 23-minute epic about Victorian engineers, they amass towering sonic sculptures from layers of keyboards, guitars and flute — refined and elegant, even at their heaviest.

 

42. Can – “Bel Air”
From: Future Days (1973)

Of all the prog subgenres, “Krautrock” is the most slippery — a loose label rejected by many of the artists it describes. But the qualities most associated with the style — hypnotic rhythms, repetitive riffs, balanced band soundscapes — are clearly present on “Bel Air,” the 20-minute closer from Can‘s fourth LP. Jaki Liebezeit’s funky, grinding drums ground their slow-build between serene groove and freaky ambience, with Damo Suzuki softly cooing throughout the trance.   

 

41. Caravan – “With an Ear to the Ground You Can Make It”
From: If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You (1970)

It’s the definitive Caravan tune, exemplifying the playfulness, breeziness and subtle jazziness of the so-called “Canterbury scene,” which cohered in that region of England during the early ’70s. The four-part track arrives midway through their underrated second LP, pairing singer-guitarist Pye Hastings’ subdued coo with David Sinclair’s distorted Hammond leads and the pastoral flute of guest player Jimmy Hastings.

 

40. Porcupine Tree – “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here”
From: Deadwing (2005)

Most Porcupine Tree lyrics are dark and depressing (just ask the memes on Google Images), even if the music behind them is more tonally varied. A good example is “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,” a 12-minute staple from the group’s eighth LP. Bandleader Steven Wilson opens on a supremely bleak note — “Never stop the car on a drive in the dark” — as the arrangement swells from Morse code-like synth goo into chiming guitar arpeggios, mellotron and echoing vocals. Wilson sings of car crashes and deja vu and drinking “poison” — wherever we’re arriving, it isn’t somewhere you want to stay long. But every second of the drive is riveting.

 

39. Supertramp – “Fool’s Overture”
From: Even in the Quietest Moments … (1977)

Supertramp skillfully balanced prog showmanship with pop-rock craftsmanship, but they rarely waded all the way into the former pool. “Fool’s Overture,” the 11-minute centerpiece of their fifth LP, is a notable exception: Led by multi-instrumentalist and co-frontman Roger Hodgson, the track stretches out from a buzzy synth theme into mournful solo piano and a rousing full-band finale highlighted by John Helliwell’s smooth jazz saxophone. “’Fool’s Overture’ was a pretty magical piece of music that came together out of three different pieces that I had had for about five years,” Hodgson told Something Else! “One day, they all kind of stuck together and became the piece that I called “Fool’s Overture.” It’s still gives me goose bumps playing that piece onstage.”

 

38. Opeth – “Ghost of Perdition”
From: Ghost Reveries (2005)

Sweden’s Opeth evolved away from harsh metal sounds in the ’10s, but bandleader Mikael Akerfeldt was once the master of a very specific domain: elaborate epics grounded in whisper-to-scream dynamics. “Ghost of Perdition” exemplifies that range, building from minor-key acoustic balladry to death-y distortion with blood-curdling growls. Opeth pulled off this trick time and time again — but never so seamlessly or with such edge-of-your-seat excitement.

 

37. Van der Graaf Generator – “The Sleepwalkers”
From: Godbluff (1975)

Van der Graaf Generator took four years to follow 1971’s Pawn Hearts, but the long wait was worth it. Every song on their fifth album, Godbluff, is a prog classic, with 11-minute closer “The Sleepwalkers” at the head of the pack. Peter Hammill’s voice — at turns grating and soothing — presents macabre visions (“From what tooth or claw does murder spring / From what flesh and blood does passion?”) over David Jackon’s jittery saxophone and a Hugh Banton’s haunted-house Hammond.

 

36. Pulsar – “Halloween (Part I)”
From: Halloween (1977)

The album cover might be to blame, but the opening strains of Pulsar’s “Halloween” are incredibly creepy: Despite the major key piano and the innocent-sounding choirboy, the intro projects a sort of foreboding — like looking at a serene photograph of a plane pre-crash. You just know this one’s going somewhere dark. And boy does it: The first side of this album-wide epic sustains tension through droning synths, post-midnight fusion grooves and borderline-gothic balladry.

 

35. Genesis – “The Carpet Crawlers”
From: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Corridors, spiral staircases, wooden doors: Peter Gabriel’s images on “The Carpet Crawlers” focus on movement and escape. Rael, the protagonist of Genesis concept LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, is now deep into a surreal journey of the soul, seeking direction at every turn. But this glowing ballad mostly operates on raw emotion, outside narrative, with Gabriel and Phil Collins harmonizing sweetly through the raindrop synthesizers and weeping guitar leads. “We got to get in to get out,” they sing. And so we do — way far out.

 

34. King Crimson – “Starless”
From: Red (1974)

One of prog’s most adored tracks nearly wound up as a reject. “When I presented the idea — the melody, chords, everything — I got a totally cold reaction. Nobody liked it,” John Wetton told Boffomundo Show of this smoldering King Crimson tune. “So I pouted and stomped out of the rehearsal hall.” Instead, the band finished off their sixth LP with the propulsive, wandering improvisation “Starless and Bible Black.” Months later, while workshopping ideas for follow-up record Red, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford asked if they could revive Wetton’s piece for the corresponding tour, playing it live numerous times in summer 1974. They eventually tweaked the piece even further in the studio, adding ominous bass riffs and jazz-fusion freak-outs to a 12-and-a-half-minute song now titled “Starless.”

 

33. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – “Inca Roads”
From: One Size Fits All (1975)

“Did a vehicle come from somewhere out there / Just to land in the Andes?” George Duke asks in a pristine falsetto. Frank Zappa had already satirized hippies, rock operas, American politics — why not also take aim at UFOs? “Inca Roads” could be the composer’s most blatantly prog piece, highlighting the virtuoso skill of his mid-’70s backing band, including percussionist Ruth Underwood (dig those vibes and marimba) and Duke (wow, those synths). And beyond his own vibrant guitar solo, the track also lets Zappa flex his editing muscles, weaving live recordings into this complex tapestry.

 

32. Yes – “Heart of the Sunrise”
From: Fragile (1971)

“That seemed to have it all,” former Yes drummer Bill Bruford told Rolling Stone. “That was a shorter version of what was to become ‘Close to the Edge’ and some of the longer-form things that we did.” It’s an apt description: In some ways, “Heart of the Sunrise” feels like a practice run for that later side-long epic, flaunting the same amount of brain-rattling counterpoint, structural drama and instantly memorable melodic themes. But “Sunrise” has trouble earning its due — a lot of people overemphasize the possible influence of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” particularly on the chromatic opening riff. The piece casts a shadow all on its own, not just as a footnote or building block.

 

31. Pink Floyd – “Dogs”
From: Animals (1977)

Pink Floyd unveiled this 17-minute behemoth, then using the rough title “You Gotta Be Crazy,” live in 1974. But they made some significant tweaks for the final studio version on Animals: dropping the key, taking the weed-whacker to Roger Waters‘ verbose lyrics of human ruthlessness and deception. Every band member is at his peak here: Richard Wright uses a full arsenal of keyboards, creating texture via synth-strings, soulful Fender Rhodes and dissonant Minimoog figures. But David Gilmour is the clear MVP, moving from syncopated acoustic strums to stacked, harmonized electric leads.

 

30. Camel – “Song Within a Song”
From: Moonmadness (1976)

In the prime Camel days, guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens were completely synchronized — their writing styles, both defined by oceanic melodies and tight band arrangements, were almost impossible to pull apart. No better example than “Song Within a Song,” where synth and flute crescendo into a lightly fusion-y instrumental sprint. “It was something that Pete and I just wrote, at a time when we worked really well together,” Latimer told Prog. “When he had a great idea, I’d just let him go with it, like, ‘Go on, more of that! Keep that bit! No, not that bit!’ and then if I’d got the bit between my teeth, he’d let me go. So it was very much a give-and-take sort of relationship.”

 

29. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – “Tarkus”
From: Tarkus (1971)

It’s not worth picking apart the goofy lyrical concept for “Tarkus,” which involves the battles of a futuristic armadillo-tank … and, supposedly, the futility of war. Anyway, Greg Lake could make just anything sound profound. His charismatic belting is the engine that keeps this mutant machine running more than 20 wild minutes — allowing plenty of space, naturally, for Keith Emerson‘s virtuoso workouts on Hammond organ, piano and Moog.

 

28. Premiata Forneria Marconi – “Appena Un Po”
From: Per un Amico (1972)

In their prime, Premiate Forneria Marconi were masters of sonic variation, just as natural lifting you into the heaven as they were yanking you down into hell. “Appena un Po” kicks off their second LP with a definitive example: opening with tranquil dream-sequence harp and mellotron, adding folky layers of nylon-string guitar and flute, descending into discordant darkness with violin stabs and low-octave piano. And that’s just the first three minutes.

 

27. Banco del Mutuo Soccorso – “Canto Nomade Per Un Prigioniero Politico”
From: Io sono nato libero (1973)

Italy’s Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had sweet acoustic ballads and catchy choruses up their sleeves, but few could match the splendor of their longer, more elaborate works. “Canto Nomade Per Un Prigioniero Politico,” the 16-minute opener from their third LP, leans into the natural drama of Francesco Di Giacomo’s operatic belting and the cache of acoustic and electric keyboards from brothers Vittorio and Gianni Nocenzi. Numerous moments are jaw-dropping: the dissolve into a quiet rim-click drum groove at 1:54, the subsequent rise into a full-band 10/8 attack at 2:40, the transition into dissonance around 4:30.

 

26. Focus – “Hocus Pocus”
From: Moving Waves (1971)

Otherwise known as “that one ’70s rock song where the guy yodels.” Really, though, Focus cram every second of their signature tune with jolting wackiness. In a performance so virtuosic it borders on hilarious, singer Thijs van Leer also eefs, scats, whistles, uses the overblowing technique on his flute, bounces merrily on his Hammond organ and skyrockets into operatic high notes. But the song is more than novelty acrobatics, grounded by Jan Akkerman’s scorching hard-rock riffs and Pierre van der Linden’s jazz-rock drum solos. (The reworked “Hocus Pocus II” revs up the speed but loses a bit of the nuance.)

 

25. King Crimson – “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two”
From: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)

“The question I posed myself might be put like this: ‘What would Hendrix sound like playing the ROS or a Bartok string quartet?'” Robert Fripp wrote in his online diary. “If an older man might look back at this and be struck by that young man’s arrogance, well, an ignorance of limitations sometimes allows the young of any age to achieve impossible things!” The guitarist was describing the first two segments of King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” series, which added an occasionally free-form spin to the band’s aesthetic. It’s hard to separate these two pivotal pieces, even though they technically booked the group’s fifth LP. But the second part, with its frightening metallic edge, would stand out on any album, even one this unique.

 

24. Rush – “La Villa Strangiato”
From: Hemispheres (1978)

Rush really should have given the “Exercise in Self-Indulgence” subtitle to “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” another enormous track from their sixth LP. (Then again, that title already had Roman numerals, a hyphen and a colon, so it would have been tough to fit in anything else.) The instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” may stretch out to almost 10 minutes, drawing moods from Alex Lifeson‘s real-life nightmares, but it’s tasteful and focused overall — full of hard-rock riffs, swinging jazz grooves and volcanic solos.

 

23. Yes – “Awaken”
From: Going for the One (1977)

“‘Awaken’ is just one of those momentous musical things Yes created,” singer Jon Anderson told Newsweek. To say the least. The centerpiece of their eighth LP, Going for the One, is a miniature rock symphony in the tradition of “Close to the Edge” — full of drastic shifts in texture and tone. The scattered pieces feel like they shouldn’t fit: Steve Howe‘s aggressive main riff, full of harmonic pings and vigorous slides; Rick Wakeman‘s ghostly church organ; Anderson’s new age musings (“Awaken, gentle mass touch!“) But every second is transportive — glimpses of old-school grandeur on a largely scaled-back album.

 

22. Kansas – “Carry on Wayward Son”
From: Leftoverture (1976)

If only a handful of prog songs have transcended the genre, it’s probably because very few are hooky enough for mainstream rock radio. “Carry on Wayward Son” — Kansas‘ second-highest-charting single, trailing the fingerpicked ballad “Dust in the Wind” — is one of the rare exceptions. It’s intricate enough for the prog-heads, crammed with heavy guitar riffs and unexpected tempo changes. But the chorus, with its stacked vocal harmonies and soaring Steve Walsh lead, make it accessible enough for a stroll through your average supermarket.

 

21. Curved Air – “Metamorphosis”
From: Air Cut (1973)

Multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson was only 17 when he joined Curved Air, effectively replacing keyboardist Francis Monkman and violinist Darryl Way in one hire. But the teenager was more than ready for the gig: Though he stuck around for only one album, leaving to join Roxy Music (then, later, cofounding U.K.), he left behind a legit masterpiece with the 10-minute “Metamorphosis.” Sonja Kristina’s gently operatic vocal offer helps this intricate epic take flight, but it’s mostly Jobson’s playground — from his dramatic synth march to a breathtaking solo piano section that rivals any rock keyboard showcase ever recorded.

 

20. Gentle Giant – “The Advent of Panurge”
From: Octopus (1972)

Gentle Giant kicked off their fourth album with this strange melting pot of ideas, which borrows lyrical themes from Gargantua and Pantagruel, the 16th-century adventure novel series by French writer Francois Rabelais. The arrangement is bananas: jazz guitar licks, swirling vocal counterpoint, trumpet interjections, heavy rock riffing, a resounding chorus from singer Derek Shulman. “That’s one thing we tried to do: heavy and soft, gentle and giant, together in a seamless way,” the frontman told UCR. “The thing we really enjoyed was surprise: We didn’t want to have people sit in their hands and know what’s coming next, or have pretentious keyboard parts that tried to be like a symphony orchestra. We wanted to keep people on their feet.”

 

19. Tool – “Lateralus”
From: Lateralus (2001)

Let’s get the super-fan stuff out of the way first. “Lateralus” originated from a knotty bass riff that evolved into measures of 9, 8 and 7 — and drummer Danny Carey happened to notice a connection to the Fibonacci Sequence. (That pattern correlates with the “Golden Ratio,” which appears throughout nature. And 987 is the 16th number in the sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987.) Driving home the parallel even further, singer Maynard James Keenan wrote lyrical sections in a repeated syllabic format that mirrored the first several numbers. Whew. All that stuff is fun for a bong-side chat, but “Lateralus” is an all-time classic because of the drama and raw emotion Tool bring to the math, whether stripping back the music to Carey’s thick tom patterns or cranking up their amps to the max.

 

18. The Mars Volta – “Cygnus … Vismund Cygnus”
From: Frances the Mute (2005)

The first sound we hear on the Mars Volta‘s second album is purposely faded and trebly — a strummed acoustic guitar theme shrunk to the fidelity of AM radio, a transmission seemingly captured by accident. Joined by a nursery rhyme vocal melody and a salvo of noise, the piece then erupts in volume and intensity, leading to a Latin-fusion groove that blows you back like the guy in that old Maxell ad. It’s technically the foundation of a heady lyrical concept, but Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s paint-splatter syllables feel like one more color in this kaleidoscope.

 

17. Harmonium – “Histoires sans paroles”
From: Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison (1975)

Harmonium released three studio albums, each varying slightly in the ratio of “prog-folk” to “prog-rock.” But the crown jewel of their catalog is this 17-minute track, which stacks majestic theme upon theme via mellotron strings, 12-string guitars and harmonized woodwinds — not a drum kit in sight! Unlike so many super-long prog songs that thrive on disorientation, “Histoires sans paroles” nurtures one sustained mood of elegance — the perfect soundtrack for crying near a waterfall.

 

16. Mike Oldfield – “Tubular Bells, Part One”
From: Tubular Bells (1973)

Both sides of Mike Oldfield‘s teenage prog classic are essential, but the first is more iconic. Most of the famous bits are here — including the frosty opening piano theme, immortalized (and made unsettling by association) via The Exorcist soundtrack. (“I’m the godfather of scary movie music,” the composer told The Guardian.) But the remaining 22 minutes are equally gripping: winding through timbres and overdubs, building to the triumphant tubular bell section with fanciful instrument introductions by Vivian Stanshall.

 

15. Genesis – “The Musical Box”
From: Nursery Cryme (1971)

On this, the first Genesis masterwork, sex and violence smolder underneath a proper, dignified Victorian landscape. Peter Gabriel’s warped fairy tale highlights his growing interest in the surreal, detailing a horny ghost’s attempt to seduce a young girl via musical box. The band — elevated by the firepower of two new recruits, guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins — bring the requisite musical drama, from Mike Rutherford‘s chiming 12-string guitars (tuned, bizarrely, with the top three strings to F#) to a crashing full-band finale. “Touch me now, now, now, now, now,” Gabriel pleads, his voice at peak rasp and his words at peak weirdness. “The Musical Box” was a tough act to follow, but as you’ll see below, Genesis pulled it off.

 

14. Yes – “And You and I”
From: Close to the Edge (1972)

“The idea was very straightforward at first,” Jon Anderson recalled of this blissful four-part tune. “It was going to be a very pretty folk song that I wrote with Steve [Howe].” But as they tended to do in camp Yes, plans changed: While “And You and I” does feature one of the band’s most stripped-down arrangements (see Howe’s country-tinged strumming on part three, “The Preacher, the Teacher”), it’s also full of tidal-wave mellotron, Minimoog and pedal steel. The most impactful moment — Rick Wakeman’s cosmic keyboard collision during “Eclipse” — couldn’t be further away from folk.

 

13. Rush – “Tom Sawyer”
From: Moving Pictures (1981)

“Tom Sawyer” isn’t the proggiest Rush song — it’s just the best Rush song in pure prog mode. (“Closer to the Heart” is a jam, but it couldn’t qualify here.) Part of what makes the song stand out is its restraint, like how Geddy Lee initially sings the verse hook over only Neil Peart‘s heartbeat drum pattern and a faint synth drone — when the fidgety riffs kick in, it’s only that much more satisfying. The track’s tale of rebellion — developed by Peart from a poem by lyricist Pye Debois — only add to the mystique. “‘Tom Sawyer’ is a real trademark song for us,” Alex Lifeson told Classic Rock. “Musically, it’s very powerful, and lyrically, it has a spirit that resonates with a lot of people. It’s kind of an anthem.”

 

12. Pink Floyd – “Shine on You Crazy Diamond Parts I-V”
From: Wish You Were Here (1975)

The backstory of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on Your Crazy Diamond” tends to overshadow the song itself. When former frontman Syd Barrett famously showed up at Abbey Road Studios during the recording, his bloated appearance moved Roger Waters to tears — only underscoring the weight of his philosophical lyric. But the multipart track would have also worked as an instrumental, conjuring storm clouds from David Gilmour‘s main, four-note guitar theme. “When you’re a musician, you’re constantly hunting for little icons, little bits, little phrasings of things which have a memorable aspect to them,” he once said, noting how this pattern captured “the feeling of something calling — some night creature, if you like.” In retrospect, “Night Creature” would have been an equally perfect title.

 

11. Jethro Tull – “Thick as a Brick, Part I”
From: Thick as a Brick (1972)

For Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson‘s ambitious songwriting was limited only by the physical constraints of vinyl. The piece, simultaneously satirizing and celebrating the genre, is technically one 44-minute work split in half — with Jethro Tull setting the epic poem of fictional child “Gerald Bostock” against an ever-evolving backdrop of folk-rock riffs, heavy Hammond organ insanity and flute-driven marches. It’s almost silly to split hairs, but for the sake of sheer excitement, it’s tough to top “Part I.”

 

10. Genesis – “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”
From: Selling England By the Pound (1973)

Genesis embrace the extremes of their quintet-era sound — pastoral politeness and hard-edged, fusion-inspired intensity — on “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.” Peter Gabriel’s twinkly opening section cements the lyrical theme (“the commercialization of English culture,” as he recalled on the Selling England reissue bonus DVD), but the musicianship does most of the talking. “I was starting to listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra,” Phil Collins added, “so I was trying to put my weirdness — my weird time signatures — into anything that would move.”

 

9. King Crimson – “The Court of the Crimson King”
From: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

Drums rarely feel like a “lead” instrument. Then again, drummers rarely play with more panache than Michael Giles, whose sputtering, flailing fills on “The Court of the Crimson King” can still trip you up and leave you scratching your head decades later. Giles’ lightning-in-a-bottle performance elevates “The Court of the Crimson King” into another echelon, but it also stands out because of his bandmates’ subtlety and grace: Robert Fripp’s acoustic arpeggios, Ian McDonald’s sun-ray mellotron, a Greg Lake vocal that softly savors every syllable.

 

8. Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”
From: OK Computer (1997)

Radiohead may object to this inclusion — multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has blasted the genre numerous times over the years. “Most of it is awful,” he told Q in 1997. “I’ve got it into my head that prog-rock must be good because it attracted a lot of fans. So far, I’ve just trawled through fairly tedious Genesis albums.” Ironically, his band reached peak prog that very year with OK Computer epic “Paranoid Android.” The harmonic tension, suite-like structure, explosive guitar solo, choral vocal harmonies (the “rain down” section) and 7/8 riffs make this a clear candidate for our list — whether Radiohead like it or not.

 

7. Yes – “Roundabout”
From: Fragile (1971)

Many of Yes’ proggiest songs began life in intimate spaces. The seeds of “Roundabout,” the band’s definitive ’70s single, were planted by Steve Howe and Jon Anderson during a writing session in a Scottish hotel room. “We had all these bits of music, tentative moments,” Howe told Guitar World. “I was big on intros back then, and the classical guitar intro I came up with for ‘Roundabout’ was really one of the most signature things.” Correct. That flourish, starting off with a perfectly articulate harmonic pluck, became the pivotal starting point. But their bandmates, as always, brought the piece to life: Chris Squire’s growling bass (double-tracked with an electric guitar), Bill Bruford’s stacked percussion, Rick Wakeman’s bluesy Hammond solo. Prog is rarely this much fun.

 

6. Genesis – “Firth of Fifth”
From: Selling England by the Pound (1973)

Tony Banks is a famously blunt critic of his own band’s work — the keyboard genius would probably even object to “Firth of Fifth,” the sweeping centerpiece of the fifth Genesis LP, even making this list. “Well, it’s not my best lyric,” he told Songfacts, describing the song’s vague flow from a river into the cosmos. “Mike [Rutherford] and I wrote the lyric together, although it was mainly me — I won’t put too much of the blame on Mike.” But the impressionistic words are merely one color on the canvas. Every arrangement choice is staggering — from Banks’ opening classical piano motif to Steve Hackett’s shuddering-vibrato guitar solo.

 

5. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”
From: Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

UCR’s third-best classic rock song is also a top five prog song, even if it’s rarely mentioned as a pinnacle of the genre. “Well, we always used to think that [Led] Zeppelin was a progressive rock band until it became … a slightly dirty word,” John Paul Jones once said. And “Stairway to Heaven” could be the band’s clearest flag-plant prog move — an eight-minute epic with multiple sections, mystical lyrics, harmonized recorders, a hair-raising guitar solo and a glorious slow-climb from fingerpicked acoustics to hammer-of-the-gods hard-rock riffing.

 

4. Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
From: A Night at the Opera (1975)

Queen are one of those classic fringe-prog bands. A good portion of their early work fits the bill of grandiosity — on the other hand, no one’s mistaking “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” for a Yes tune. But there’s no arguing against “Bohemian Rhapsody,” still probably the most popular prog-rock song ever written. We’ve all heard it on the radio — and in movies … and everywhere else — so often that we’re numb to its weirdness. How many hit rock songs have stacked choral harmonies, classical piano, key and tempo changes, guitar solos and full-blown operatic sections with references to Beelzebub and Galileo? Queen would never top Freddie Mercury‘s mercurial masterpiece. But who could?

 

3. King Crimson – “21st Century Schizoid Man”
From: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

We’ll all be debating “the first prog song” until we’re dead, but it’s hard to argue against “21st Century Schizoid Man.” In fact, the opener from King Crimson’s debut LP might be even more monumental than that description suggests, pairing a partly chromatic proto-metal riff with surreal lyrics fit for a horror film and a big-band jazz strut (courtesy of Ian McDonald’s Army tune “Three Score and Four”). “You had that sort of free-jazz sensibility, but it was done with rock sensibility,” Steve Hackett told Rolling Stone, recalling how he first heard the song during a Crimson show at London’s Marquee venue in 1969. He added, “We hadn’t really heard anything else like it.” Nobody else since has either.

 

2. Genesis – “Supper’s Ready”
From: Foxtrot (1972)

It’s a guaranteed eternal perfect prog-rock song. But it’s also demented: Peter Gabriel delightfully inscrutable text nods to Egyptian pharaohs, Christian theology, Greek mythology, “Winston Churchill dressed in drag” and shadowy, supernatural beings; meanwhile, the band cooks up everything from layered 12-strings to treated pianos to carnivalesque pop hooks — and somehow it all hangs together, adding up to a 23-minute spectacle longer than most sitcom episodes. Keyboardist Tony Banks looks back at the piece, particularly the “666” pivot in the “Apocalypse in 9/8” section, as the band’s finest moment. “You have a lot of drama in the chords themselves, then what [Gabriel] did on top just took it to another level,” he told Classic Rock. “Yes, that half-minute or so is our peak.”

 

1. Yes – “Close to the Edge”
From: Close to the Edge (1972)

How did Yes do this? Seriously? Even beyond the vast emotional impact of “Close to the Edge,” this 19-minute rock symphony is a marvel of construction — like any towering skyscraper or suspension bridge. The band stitched together the song from various fragments, and engineer Eddie Offord was their behind-the-scenes magician, achieving cohesion within the constant tonal shifts. All the brain-smashing counterpoint, psych-fusion doodling (the free-form opening inspired by Mahavishnu Orchestra) and call-and-response serenity — it’s the pinnacle of progressive rock. “Each part of [the song] ‘Close to the Edge’ in itself, is a segment,” Steve Howe told Newsweek, reflecting on the piece’s fluid form. “Like when you take the void in the middle, with the ‘In her white lace‘ and ‘I get up, I get down‘ with the organ. That’s another world.” Come to think of it, “Another World” would have been a pretty good title.

https://youtu.be/GGaai0AII3E

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From ‘The Lamb’ to ‘Octopus’ to ‘The Snow Goose’ — the best LPs that dream beyond 4/4.

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