If you’re an aging Gen X-er like me, chances are you have an indie rock snob in your life. That indie rock snob may even be you.
Sure, they were insufferable during the 90s, with their constant insistence that Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel were somehow good. But that shit is now more than 20 years in the past, and if your whole attachment to a band is based on the fact that it’s independent of the constraints of mainstream music, then you must give it up when the band in question has not only been in the mainstream, but is now flogging the nostalgia circuit for the millionth year.
I enjoyed a lot of indie rock at the time when it was popular, and I still do, in a lot of cases. PJ Harvey is still one of my favorite musicians in any genre, and I owe Hüsker Dü the fact that I survived high school. But little else of it really had much staying power for me.
Prog rock, on the other hand, is still going strong in my life, 35 years after hearing Yes for the first time. I have taken nonstop, endless shit for listening to it by people much hipper than I, and if the accusation is that prog rock is terminally uncool and dorky, they’re right. But I still listen to it every day, and I still enjoy it as much as ever.
If you are a Gen X-er pushing 50 like me, and the idea of seeing one of these bands suit up in a cardigan sweater and party like it’s 1994 does nothing for you, let me be the devil on your shoulder, beckoning you to join me under the bleachers with the smelly, uncool kids who are even more hopelessly unhip than you. Let me give you a few samples of excellent progressive rock that I’ve always loved, and who knows? Maybe you’ll develop a taste for 25-minute paeans to the goddess’ teat too.
NOTE: This playlist is only 8 songs instead of 10, because the songs are so goddamn long. Also, you will not find Genesis on this list, either with or without Peter Gabriel, because I hate them.
Yes – “Heart of the Sunrise”
This song reconnected me with Yes after the metal years. I was mostly attracted to the bass of Chris Squire and the drums of Bill Bruford, but every performance on this song is phenomenal, and it still floors me every time I hear it. It also pained me that I could only pick one song by them.
Van Der Graaf Generator – “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”
If you’re a guitar fan, you’re shit out of luck with Van Der Graaf Generator, because they don’t really use any. You won’t miss it though. Peter Hammill uses his shades-of-Bowie bizarre singing voice to great effect, and the band’s entire sound is uniquely “them.” I’ve never heard another band ever attempt to copy them, or sound like them.
Il Balletto di Bronzo – “Primo Incontro”
For completely unhinged, psychotic musicianship, it’s hard to beat Il Balletto di Bronzo from Italy. Their entire “Ys” album is utterly, dissonantly and discordantly nuts from start to finish, and will either chase everyone from your home or attract weirdos who will never leave.
Premiata Forneria Marconi (P.F.M.) – “From Under”
Italy’s Premiata Forneria Marconi used to sing in their native language, but Emerson, Lake and Palmer (who I also hate) signed them to their Manticore label, shortened their name to P.F.M. and waited for the hits to roll in… which they never did. But it’s still great music, and if people at the time wanted to be listening to Poco or Anne Murray instead, that’s life.
Rush – “Xanadu”
Rush is simultaneously the most beloved and the most hated band on earth. It’s next to impossible that you’ve never heard their music before, and if so, there’s no way that you don’t already have a strong opinion about them. But this is one of their best songs, and it features lyrics about dining on honeydew, so if you don’t like it, you have emotional problems and should see a doctor immediately.
Pink Floyd – “Echoes”
Is Pink Floyd prog? This argument still rages today and is unlikely to ever be resolved. People during the 1970s took a shit ton of acid to their music and they have songs that stretch past the 20-minute mark, so they certainly display the symptoms of prog. Whatever the final determination is, people should be aware that they’ve done other stuff besides “Money” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” before judging them.
Jethro Tull – “Cross-Eyed Mary”
Jethro Tull is another band whose prog credentials are the source of great debate. They won a heavy metal Grammy in 1989, which no one saw coming, but they also use flutes, which has caused many an otherwise open-minded rocker to run screaming in the other direction. As far as hipness goes, however, they have absolutely none, which qualifies them for inclusion in any prog rocker’s collection.
King Crimson – “Red” (Full Album)
Every King Crimson album up through the 1970s has something fantastic to recommend it, but their 1974 album “Red” is a top-to-bottom masterpiece which I’m including in its entirety here. They did other stuff after this, and they’re still together today, but this is where it all came together, and this album is one of my favorites of all time, by anybody, and should be heard all the way through.