September 29, 2014

Thoughts on the Prog 100

Back in my college days, when I was young (*sigh*), to find discussion about progressive rock you had to dig deep into the Internet.  These were the days before Facebook, before Youtube, and even comprehensive websites like ProgArchives.  The best you could do, usually, was a Usenet newsgroup - all text, all the time!  I remember downloading 15-second samples (over dial up!) of the first Spock's Beard album, for crying out loud!

Which is all a way of saying that I'm still stunned that I can find a regularly published, glossy magazine devoted to prog on newsstands every month.  The appropriately named Prog (from the folks at Classic Rock magazine) is very British and, thus, very a month behind when it arrives in the states.  Still, it's great to be able to pick it up and dive deep into interviews, reviews, and album features every month.  It's a sign of how far things have come in the past twenty years.
In honor of its 50th issue, Prog conducted a reader poll to sort out the top 100 prog albums of all time.  The results ran in the August issue and, naturally, prompted discussion in various parts of the prog universe.  Who am I not to chime in?

It's worth keeping in mind that this was a reader poll, although several noted musicians chime in with their top albums as well.  As a result, it reflects the tastes of the readership of a magazine that tends to stick to the more classically "prog" end of the spectrum.  It's pointless to complain that the results look like a popularity contest - it is a popularity contest.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, and I'm hardly one to complain about the collective choices - I own 77.5 of the 100.*

That focus is partly why the list had a lot of choices from prog's modern era, from bands like Porcupine Tree, Opeth, and Spock's Beard.  The mods even cracked the top 10, with Steven Wilson hitting the ninth spot with The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).  On the one hand, I think that's great - it speaks to the vitality of modern prog.  On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that there aren't a lot of older albums that were overlooked that should have taken those spots.

As for the overlooked - where do we start?  How about with the really avant garde, which is almost completely neglected.  Aside from Can's Tago Mago (#98) and Henry Cow's Legend (which current King Crimson front man Jakko Jakszyk singles out as his number one), there's nothing of the more adventurous and, dare I say, challenging side of prog.  No Magma, no Univers Zero, no Present, no Krautrock (Can aside).  That's a pretty big hole, given that the entire point of prog is to push boundaries.

Another odd gap in proceedings involves the Canterbury scene, which has some of the most interesting and beloved artists in prog.  Caravan and Robert Wyatt each get a mention, but there's no Soft Machine, no Hatfield and the North, and no Steve Hillage or Gong.  At the very least, National Health's Of Queues and Cures should have made an appearance.  It would be in my top ten without doubt, maybe battling for the top spot.

The final blind spot that really sticks out for me is that, for the most part, this is an English (and related nations) list.  There's not a single album on the list with lyrics in a non-English language, which overlooks the fertile prog land of Italy completely.  Any top 100 list that lacks PFM, Banco, Le Orme and others is questionable.  Granted, it's a British magazine, but there's still no reason, in 2014, to not embrace the wide world of prog in all its multinational wonder.

That being said, if you knew nothing about prog and stumbled upon this list, there are worse places to start learning about the genre.  Just remember, that there's much more to the world out there, to the delight of your ears and the distress of your wallet!

* Big Big Train's English Electric was originally released in two parts, but it appears on the list as one volume.  I have the first part, but not the second.