Top Prog Albums of 1994-2013

Top-25

PREAMBLE
Okay, that title may seem a bit grandiose. Fair enough. It’s certainly pretty presumptuous, and not just a little pretentious, but hey, this is Prog Rock, we’re talking about.

Now, I’ve got two problems with these sorts of lists, and they’re my problems, not yours.

The first is, these lists, even if taken from polls of readerships, are usually VERY subjective, and rarely meet with everyone’s approval. My list? Won’t even pretend to solve that problem. It’s all based on my tastes. That’s what blogging is all about, folks.

My second problem is, I know you folks want me to grade these albums 1-25 or vice versa, because we just love the idea that, somehow, these albums need to compete, and anything less is chickenshit. I call bullshit. It’s the kind of thinking that gives us crap television like Big Brother and The Weakest Link and fucking Survivor. There is nothing noble or cool about ranking music.

Then why do a list at all? Well, because I frequent a few music fan pages here and there, and there seems to be a bloody rash of ‘most/least fave album’ lists going around again, and as an on-again-off-again album reviewer, I felt it behooves me to participate, if for no other reason than to disseminate information about albums some folks might not think of as qualifying for Top Prog Rock.

Yeah, it’s a geek thing. And no, I’m not lazy. I really care about all of these albums, almost equally, and trying to grade them on any sort of scale would take me possibly weeks, which is pointless for a free blog site. Life’s too short, folks. Get over it.

But to show you I’m not lazy, I’ll at least try to justify including my choices on this list, as briefly as possible.

CAVEATS
It IS about the last twenty years, but there are a few albums from the last twenty years that I feel deserve honourable mention, and one album so far from this year that I think might have made it on this list if it weren’t so new to me. I’ll mention them at the end. And finally, these album choices are not the only albums by these acts that I really enjoyed. I deliberately avoided double dipping, which wasn’t easy. There may be a few double albums, but only one album by each band, because allowing more than one would have forced me to double the size of this list. Sorry, I’m not much of a reductionist.

THE LIST (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
Marillion – Brave: Marillion gets pretty short shrift from the prog community these days, I think. Particularly by those who are still living in the past, waiting for Fish to return. But for me personally, this album is as prog as it gets, and is hands down their finest moment. Not the only Marillion album I love; just their finest Prog statement. One of my all time favourite Concept Albums.

Dream Theater – Metropolis II: Here’s another band that has trouble getting love from the more discerning Prog Rock aficionados, despite having created a truly spectacular body of work. I can’t claim to be a fan of every album they’ve released, but they’ve released more than a handful in the last twenty years that I consider some of the finest music ever committed to disc. Whether you agree with Prog Metal as legit Prog Rock, and regardless of which side of the Mike Portnoy debate you fall on, these guys have fairly consistently composed and performed some of the scariest, most memorable prog of the last twenty years.

The Flower Kings – Retropolis: They have more progressive, more jazzy, more conceptual albums, and they have several pieces and songs that I consider superior to many found on this album, but it still stands up as their first truly cohesive, truly progressive, truly band-oriented statement. This was the album that made me a fan. I kind of drift off a bit with much of their later albums, but this period, including the two following albums (Stardust We Are and Flower Power) are their great period. Some of the finest Retro Prog around.

Transatlantic – Bridge Across Forever: Of course, you can’t talk Retro Prog without mentioning the finest Prog supergroup of the last twenty years, Transatlantic. Choosing one of their four albums is not easy, as every album is a gem in its own right. The most recent, 2014’s Kaleidoscope, might actually be their strongest effort of all their studio albums, but I’ve only heard it once so far, and should probably just write a separate review of it. So I’ve chosen Bridge, because it’s hands down the most coherent and least affected of their catalogue, outside of their excellent live albums (I love Live In Europe).

Yes – Keystudio: Now, here’s an album that technically isn’t a true studio ‘album’, and yet truly should have been, and I rather think it actually is, despite its confusing pedigree. For starters, it’s the last Yes studio album featuring the whole classic mid-to-late 70s line-up (plus Billy Sherwood, handling production and the ‘Trevor Rabin parts’). Rick Wakeman came back yet again to perform live with them after this period, (mostly, I think, because they finally opted to release this album), but this truly was the most progressive, most classic Yes-sounding album they recorded in the last thirty years. I don’t care whether or not you’re a Jon Anderson fan, a Rick Wakeman fan, a Steve Howe fan, or even a Yes fan: this music is the very definition of Classic Prog in the modern age. I’m considering reviewing this one as a Classic Album Review.

Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power: A neo/retro-Prog band with a superb back catalogue that just gets better with each listening. But truly, their most recent release, the final edit of English Electric, is a marvellous statement, and perhaps the finest double album ever recorded. I know that sounds like a tall order, but consider how many double albums over the decades have earned the ire of rock critics with exhausted ears and little patience for the gratuitous wankery that earned Prog its long winter hiatus. This album is the antithesis of that. Not a dull track. Not a moment of unnecessary excess. Not an ugly duckling in the pack. That’s an unheard of achievement, and the only argument I can countenance is that it IS a very long two discs of music, which is a challenge for even me to sit through in one sitting (FYI: I have, and it’s glorious). Wonderfully tuneful, memorable Symphonic Prog. My wife and I actually like the same (very ‘pointy’) song from this album. I reviewed the two (originally) separate halves, before they were put together with the final pieces of the puzzle.

Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut: Simon Collins and former bandmate Dave Kerzner truly forged an incredible debut album. You haven’t heard truly modern Prog until you’ve heard this. A classic in the making. It’ll be incredibly hard for Simon to top this, especially with the line-up changes SoC has been through in the last few months. Here’s my review.

Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep: Okay, perhaps a peculiar choice, given that it’s not their most progressive album. I would have a hard time telling you which album is their most progressive, but it almost certainly features Neal Morse, who hasn’t been a band member in over a decade now. But there’s something truly epic feeling about this album, featuring their newest vocalist and their live drummer (now a full member of the band), and clearly highlighting the compositional and performance skills of Alan and Dave, as well as the songwriting partners they’ve worked with since Neal left. What I truly enjoy about this album is how great it sounds; it’s a cohesive, enjoyable, crunchy little album that delivers on all fronts, despite the setback of losing their drummer to BBT. I reviewed this one.(I was sure I’d reviewed this, but sure enough, no I haven’t).

Rush – Clockwork Angels: Rush came back to Prog. It’s not 2112 or Hemispheres. It’s a concept album, the likes of which they’ve never truly tried before. It’s a tour de force album, covering the styles of pretty much every period of their long and storied career. It’s also my favourite Rush album since Hold Your Fire, or perhaps even Moving Pictures. I wrote a review of this one, if you’re interested.

King Crimson – The Power To Believe: I’ve been a fan of King Crimson for some time now, but some of their most aggressive pieces have always left me a little nonplussed. It’s taken me decades to come to grips with 21st Century Schizoid Man, and some of the pieces they wrote in a similar vein afterwards. Despite that, I am still struck by how powerful and cohesive a statement TP2B is, especially considering it was born more or less in two halves and melded together in the studio. I truly believe it is their thesis statement; the musical statement they had been working towards for thirty years. I suspect Robert Fripp feels similarly, which explains the long hiatus and the radically different lineup for 2014.

Lifesigns – Lifesigns: The latest and perhaps least anticipated Prog Rock supergroup proves to be one of the absolute highlights of 2013. John Young, Nick Beggs and Frosty Beedle generate some of the most accessible, melodic neo-prog I’ve ever heard. This is what Prog Rock could have sounded like had more of the 70s stalwarts survived the transition to the 80s intact. A great first album.

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell: the last studio album by the venerable Floyd, and to my mind, their most cohesive statement of them all; yes, even more so than The Wall or Dark Side, with the possible exception of Animals, which was a very unhappy album for the whole band to make, but generated some of their most progressive material. Division Bell isn’t their most progressive work, but it’s got plenty of what made the Floyd great, regardless of how you feel about Roger. Sadly, with Rick Wright gone, there will never be a true follow-up to this.

[Well, shut my mouth… perhaps there will be a follow-up of sorts after all. Say what you will about reviving the old Big Spliff tracks to make another Pink floyd album, but hey, it’s the only way they could do it, for my money. ~Ed.]

Arena – The Visitor: an older album by a band I’d only really heard a little about for a number of years, before I finally heard this album, and was struck by how strong it was. The pedigree is considerable, and the music is truly compelling. I don’t list Arena in my top ten, but it’s a solid second tier band that deserves more recognition for helping to keep the neo-prog banner flying high through the bad years.

Big Wreck – The Pleasure and the Greed: Okay, here I’m sure to get some criticism for including a band with blues rock chops and hard rock hits under their belt. The thing is, I’ve always considered them Progressive Blues, which is a peculiar appellation, I know. The chops and the compositional complexity of these seemingly straightforward blues rock numbers on this incredibly underrated album are truly part of the grander Prog landscape, even if it’s firmly center field. You might dismiss The Oaf or even That Song as hard rock ear candy, but if you truly sit and listen to this album in particular, you’ll see this band in a whole other light. Further, Ian and Brian are back, making new BW music that is a little less complex and frenetic, but just as enjoyable. I may review this album one day.

Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo v2: I’ve listened to a fair bit of C&C’s music, and find them quite good, but this album in particular was truly their most cohesive, most clearly progressive statement, and it also contains some of their most memorable hooks, which isn’t a bad thing to have in prog music these days.

The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute: Still their most balls out progressive album. They have more accessible and more driving tunes elsewhere in their catalogue (The Bedlam in Goliath is host to some of their most solid song smithing), but this is truly the best melding of their Santana-meets-King Crimson formula. Truly a watershed moment in Neo-Prog.

David Bowie – Outside: Okay, this is more Art Rock than Prog, I know, but it’s the most progressive album ever recorded by Bowie, and it’s also one of the most offbeat, brilliant efforts of the 90s. I still love this album, despite it being somehow a largely forgotten classic. I’ll definitely review it some day.

Carptree – Man Made Machine: Here’s a left field writing duo with a formula that sounds like it should generate smooth jazz hits like Steely Dan or 10CC, but instead, we get crunchy, tasty Prog in a not quite familiar vein, despite a lot of familiar instrumentation. Fresh and familiar at the same time. I love these guys, and hope they record more soon. And this album is amazing.

Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick II: I don’t care if you think Ian pissed Martin off, and I don’t care if you think it isn’t right for Ian to record a sequel to a classic Jethro Tull album without Martin. It’s a modern day masterpiece, and proof if you needed any that Ian still has it, and still understands what makes Prog work. The irony is still not lost on me, as I suspect it is not lost on Ian. I reviewed this album some time ago.

Steve Hackett – Beyond The Shrouded Horizon: Some might not consider this to be a truly progressive album, because it has so many shorter bits and etudes and such. I also think Steve’s bent for quirky pop numbers to break up the flow might distract some people. But when you consider his pedigree, is it really that hard to understand? Even Classic Genesis had its three minute ditties. So this album works perfectly for me. Another album I’ve previously reviewed.

IZZ – Crush of Night: Here’s an album that doesn’t make it onto my playlists nearly enough, and most unfairly so. IZZ is a cool NYC prog band with great male/female vocal harmonies and smart, modern prog sounds. Not the flashiest of the Neo-Prog bands, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play with them. This is perhaps their most blatantly progressive album yet. Great stuff.

Peter Gabriel – Up: Another Art Rock album, but perhaps his most progressive material since leaving Genesis. I love every minute of it, including the Barry Williams Show. Truly some of his most poignant, compelling music ever, and that’s no small feat, given a career of work that can only be described in those terms. If you still haven’t heard it, you need to correct that.

Saga – Generation 13: The closest Saga ever got to Progressive Metal, and their most cohesive concept album outside of The Chapters Live. Saga may not get universal Prog acclaim, but when they play prog, they don’t muck about. A truly underrated album, and just comes in under the wire.

Neal Morse – Momentum: Fans of classic Spock’s Beard might not enjoy Neal’s more overtly Christian solo music, but truly, Momentum succeeds, where most of his catalogue doesn’t, in delivering a message that doesn’t make me cringe. Even Freak is an acceptable number. My favourite of all his solo output, and not just because it’s also some of Mike Portnoy’s finest work.

Flying Colors – Flying Colors: One more storm of controversy, as a supergroup with such amazing prog and fusion chops manages to write and record some of the most accessible Progressive Pop recorded since Trevor Rabin joined Yes. A remarkable album, and I’m eagerly awaiting their next album. I believe I reviewed this one, as well.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
I’d like to say that I wanted to vote in Genesis’ Calling All Stations as a very-nearly wonderful Progressive Pop album with some real edge. Sadly, I think it’s not their greatest album, even though I happily reviewed it. It IS a great transitional album, however, and pointed to greater things to come that sadly never materialized.

[Upon careful reconsideration, I have since amended my assessment of this album once more, and now consider it to be a lost classic masterpiece, when listened to with the entire catalogue of B-side material that didn’t make the album. I actually resequenced the entire thing to reflect a more concept album-feel, and I think it works tremendously. ~Ed.]

As well, I would like to mention The Memorials, and particularly their eponymous first album, which has some truly crunchy prog moments. Sadly, not precisely a Prog band, unless you buy into the appellation Progressive Funk (like I do). 😉

And finally, I wanted to give a shout out to Billy Sherwood and his Prog Collective and Fusion Syndicate efforts. I’ve really enjoyed them, and look forward to hearing more.

SUMMARY
So there you have it. Twenty-Five albums I consider to be proof positive that Prog never died, and is in fact alive and stronger than it ever was. Welcome to the Silver Age of Prog. This is what your kids will be listening to when they’re old and grey, smoking legal marijuana cigarettes, scaring trespassers, and blasting their quasi-jazz/symphonic rock at the masses of ludicrously dressed teens in the latter days of the 21st Century.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.

Lee.

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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