Progressive rock bands took shape in the 1960s and peaked in the ’70s, but the prog rock genre still gets its fair share of new artists and listeners today.
The subgenre combines elements of experimentation with instruments in the studio, larger-than-life storytelling, and tracks that can last up to 20 minutes!
From Rush and Jethro Tull to The Moody Blues and Gentle Giant, check out this inspiring playlist of the best prog rock bands.
Tom Sawyer – Rush
“Though his mind is not for rent, don’t put him down as arrogant.” Based on one of American novelist Mark Twain’s most popular books, ‘Tom Sawyer’ is a song about a spirited rebel who isn’t afraid to embark on many adventures. Like Twain’s novel, it’s a coming-of-age story focusing on a boy becoming a man. Like other Rush songs, ‘Tom Sawyer’ contains key changes that create an eclectic styling.
Related: See more coming-of-age tunes on our list of songs about growing.
Time – Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd is probably the most well-known prog bands out there. Included in their infamous Dark Side of the Moon album, Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ deals with the often uncomfortable subject of mortality and not realizing the finite amount of time one has on Earth before it’s too late. The intro to the song is unique, with several layers of clocks ticking away in listeners’ ears. Alan Parsons, the band’s engineer, recorded these at various antique shops.
Related: Here are the best running out of time songs.
Roundabout – Yes
Prog rock is known for its non-traditional song lengths, often lasting anywhere from 7-12 minutes. For Yes’ first hit, ‘Roundabout,’ they edited the studio single’s length from over 8 minutes to just over 3 minutes to make it more radio-friendly. The song, which references a common traffic junction, uniquely combines genres like psychedelic rock and country.
Thick as a Brick, Part 1 – Jethro Tull
Originally clocking in at over 20 minutes long, ‘Thick as a Brick, Part 1’ is an epic story involving a young boy grappling with manhood. Recorded in two parts for Jethro Tull’s album by the same name (Part 1 and Part 2 were the only tracks on the album due to length), the band tells the tale of a character at a fork in the road: choosing between becoming a soldier or an artist. He chooses to be a soldier and conforms to a society he once criticized.
Related: Got some extra time? Listen to our playlist of long songs.
Firth of Fifth – Genesis
Though Phil Collins was going to include ‘Firth of Fifth’ on his first solo album, he ended up letting Genesis use it, often holding down the lead vocals part after bandmate Peter Gabriel exited the group. The near-10 minute song consists mostly of instrumental parts. The few verses contain old-English phrases a la medieval times.
Inertiatic ESP – Mars Volta
Part of Mars Volta’s concept album, Deloused in the Comatorium, ‘Inertiatic ESP’ is a narrative piece focusing on the character Cerpin Taxt, who appears throughout the album. Cerpin Taxt is based on bandmates’ real-life friend, an artist located in Los Angeles. This particular track details his last days in L.A. before he takes an illicit substance and then becomes comatose.
Related: Head over to our playlist of L.A. songs.
The Count of Tuscany – Dream Theater
The longest song on their Black Clouds and Silver Linings album, Dream Theater takes listeners on a 20-minute ride with ‘The Count of Tuscany.’ The wild story is based on actual events. During a trip to Italy, guitarist John Petrucci had an interesting experience with a count that left him feeling uneasy. The song is one of six on the album that explores life’s more difficult matters not often discussed in public.
21st Century Schizoid Man – King Crimson
With memorable riffs and saxophone coloring the track, King Crimson tells the grim tale of a young soldier dealing with the horrifying realities of war. Written in the late ’60s, songwriter Pete Sinfield had Vietnam in mind while constructing lyrics like “blood rack, barbed wire, politicians’ funeral pyre.” As the song took shape, other band members viewed the track as a commentary on injustice in America.
Related: Check out these songs that address social issues.
Eye in the Sky – The Alan Parsons Project
A common theme with progressive rock music of the ’60s and ’70s involved bands including symbolism and metaphors from their favorite books in their recordings, primarily classic novels. For ‘Eye in the Sky,’ fans of The Alan Parsons Project have long speculated the track is loosely based on George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984. “Eye in the sky” could be a reference to the theme of constant surveillance in the novel and feeling like you have no personal privacy.
Related: Listen to these great songs about blue skies.
Lucky Man – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
This 1970 release was one of the first singles to utilize a modular synthesizer. Containing a “Moog” solo, the synth instrument is named after its inventor, Robert Moog. The song ‘Lucky Man’ contains a bit of an ironic title. Though it opens up with a man with riches and plenty of women knocking at his door, he decides to fight in a war for his country and doesn’t make it through to the end.
Related: Cross your fingers and enjoy the best good luck songs.
Forty Six & 2 – Tool
Strap your thinking cap on for this one because spirituality, psychology, and conspiracy are all at play with Tool’s ‘Forty Six & 2.’ The title is a direct reference to the spiritual teachings of Drunvalo Melchizedek, who believes a special elevated human species exist on Earth containing these chromosomes (versus the standard human’s forty-four and two). These extra chromosomes connect elevated humans to a “grid” of singular consciousness. Supposedly, this collective shift is currently underway.
Carry on Wayward Son – Kansas
If you’ve ever played Rock Band, you are familiar with Kansas’ dynamic, high-energy track ‘Carry on Wayward Son.’ Besides ‘Dust in the Wind,’ this is their most popular hit. It was a last-minute add-on to their album Leftoverture and deals with themes of searching for a reality bigger than yourself. The band’s guitarist, Kerry Livgren, wrote the track after converting to Christianity. Hints of the religion can be found in the single as well.
Your Wildest Dreams – The Moody Blues
“I wonder where you are. I wonder if you think about me.” 1980s progressive rock band, The Moody Blues, covers unrequited love with ‘Your Wildest Dreams.’ Penned by frontman Justin Hayward, the song is based on his own lost love, whom he pined over for quite some time. Like many bands of the decade, The Moody Blues used synthesizers in many of their recordings. Their favorite? The keyboard instrument, the Mellotron.
Related: You’ll love these long lost love songs.
Arriving Somewhere but Not Here – Porcupine Tree
Prog rock is still going strong in the 2000s with Porcupine Tree. Their 2005 release, ‘Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,’ is a haunting track originally written for a movie script vocalist Steve Wilson was working on. But after funding fell through, the film project got put on hold. That’s when he decided to include the 12-minute “ghost story” on the band’s album.
Why Are We Sleeping? – Soft Machine
Trailblazers for the Canterbury music craze in England, this movement was closely connected to the overall progressive rock trend of the ’60s and ’70s. Soft Machine appropriately tackles different states of consciousness with their track ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ During the height of the band’s career, they opened for rock greats like the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Related: Get comfortable and listen to these songs with the word sleep in the title.
Fool’s Overture – Supertramp
Supertramp reached international fame with their hit song ‘Give a Little Bit.’ But Canada also loved their more eclectic tracks like ‘Fool’s Overture.’ With an overall theme of man’s fall from grace at the forefront, the band incorporated symbols of war within the epic-style track, including one of Sir Winston Churchill’s speeches where he referenced fighting enemies on beaches.
Proclamation – Gentle Giant
“All that you have has been due to my hand.” Prog rock contains themes of rebellion thanks to experimental artists who aren’t afraid to push the envelope. Gentle Giant, a British progressive rock band, did just that with their fan-favorite ‘Proclamation.’ The song’s lyrics focus on tyrannical rulers of the world and their faked sincerity regarding the people they wish to rule over. The eerie story both eloquently and accurately describes a life lived under the draconian rule.
A Whiter Shade of Pale – Procol Harum
“We skipped the light fandango.” Heartbreak centers around this surprising ’60s hit from Procol Harum, a band that was otherwise unknown until the track’s release. With stirring organ driving the single, open-ended poetic lyrics paint the picture of a heartbroken young man trying to make sense of love as he experiences his girlfriend leaving him.
Related: This song features on our playlist of psychedelic rock songs.
The Sleepwalkers – Van der Graaf Generator
With a band name referencing a static electricity device, Van de Graaf Generator has expertly produced quite a few popular prog rock tunes. A commonly explored theme within the genre as a whole, the group contemplates consciousness versus unconsciousness with ‘The Sleepwalkers’ late at night as one’s mind races.
Kayleigh – Marillion
Frontman Fish wrote Marillion’s popular song ‘Kayleigh’ based on much of his adult life after having success with his music. His dedication to his craft and band often negatively influenced romantic relationships he’d get involved with. After breaking the hearts of several girlfriends, he penned the single-song apology tour and invented “Kayleigh” as a composite of all the women he’d done wrong.
Related: You’ll find this song on our list of songs with girl names.
Silent Lucidity – Queensrÿche
Reaching all the way to number one on a Billboard rock singles chart, ‘Silent Lucidity’ remains Queensrÿche’s biggest hit. Band member Chris Degarmo was inspired to write the single after reading a book about ludic dreaming, which involves being aware of one’s dreams and controlling them during the act.
Related: Drift off with the best songs with dreams.
The Four Horsemen – Aphrodite’s Child
Part of a concept album dealing with the apocalyptic scenario covered in the last book of the Bible, Aphrodite’s Child directly references the Book of Revelations with their song title, ‘The Four Horsemen.’ In the Bible, these four characters are physical representations of apocalyptic scenarios like conquest, war, famine, and death. Due to the song’s popularity, the band developed a cult following, and several rock bands released their own covers of the haunting track.
Related: Prepare yourself with our playlist of songs about the apocalypse.
Hocus Pocus – Focus
Though they’ve been labeled as a progressive rock band, Dutch group Focus can’t really be put into a box—their sound is so unique and out of this world. Their single ‘Hocus Pocus’ came from pure improvisation, and due to the instrumental nature of the track, they titled the song something that rhymed with their band name so people would remember it. Heard throughout the zany track are yodeling runs and a catchy polka rhythm.
Lady Fantasy: Encounter / Smiles for You / Lady Fantasy – Camel
In keeping with the theme of their ’74 album Mirage, English prog rock band Camel pens a love note to Lady Fantasy with this dreamy track. Focusing on lyrics that play out like snapshots, the song’s protagonist seems to see his lover everywhere. But just as quickly as he catches a glimpse of her, she fades away.
Eternal Rains Will Come – Opeth
The ancient belief that time is a circle is at play with Opeth’s dreamlike ‘Eternal Rains Will Come.’ Hints of nihilism are found in the lyrics as the protagonist mentions there’s nothing he and his lover will be able to do when floods come to wash them away. As the song nears the end, the protagonist experiences his own ending, only to be met once again with images of the woman he’s been addressing in the lyrics since the start of the story.
Black as the Sky – Transatlantic
Contemporary prog rockers Transatlantic open their energetic tune ‘Black as the Sky’ with spirited drum fills and soaring synth, slowly building an epic story involving puppets, kings, and the New World Order. By the end of the track, the band succeeds in sparking a flame in listeners’ minds to give their lyrics some thought. As this dramatic tale unfolds, one of the questions you’ll be turning around is, “But what if they’re puppets like you and I, and the world belongs to a few?”
Seven Stars – Fates Warning
“Sometimes one photograph can make the whole world fade.” Fates Warning turned progressive rock into metal with their heavy sound. For ‘Seven Stars,’ a song from their album Theories of Flight, constant travel is the theme at hand in the lyrical story—something the band knows well. They’ve been together for over three decades, touring endlessly on an international scale. Despite their exhausting schedule, lead singer Ray Adler keeps a positive outlook on endless plane rides, viewing it as a “necessary evil” to get to their adoring fans.