Ranging from the genre’s earliest groups to modern-day stalwarts, we count down the best of the best.
Drawing up a list of the 50 best prog rock bands is an ambitious project if there ever was one. Then again, the best prog is always about ambition of some sort.
For this list, we’ve tried to represent prog and all its major subdivisions. But, crucially, this is strictly a list of bands, not solo artists (or people who usually worked under their own name) – so sorry Messers Zappa and Oldfield, we’ll get to you next time around. We’ve included a number of modern bands as well as a few who disappeared after the 70s, but the highest slots went to those bands who spanned a few different creative eras.
The question of what is and isn’t prog was a little tougher. We tended to prefer bands with a certain European approach who largely aren’t blues-based – which would exclude bands like Led Zeppelin, Wishbone Ash, Traffic, and Deep Purple, all of whom were blues-rooted bands that intersected with prog rock. (Still, there was no leaving out Procol Harum, who started as an R&B band but branched off from there.) The modern bands we picked were allowed to draw from metal or alt-rock, as long as their 70s prog roots were still prominent. Likewise, we left out a slew of bands – from Steely Dan to 10cc to XTC to Radiohead – who tend to be loved by prog fans, but are really off in some other sphere. Ultimately, we had to throw up our hands and say the simplest way to rule whether something was prog rock or not was “you simply know it when you hear it.”
50: Aphrodite’s Child
Originally a heavy psychedelic band, the Greek band Aphrodite’s Child delivered one of prog rock’s visionary concept albums in the double epic 666, a wild mind trip loosely about a traveling circus show that plays during the apocalypse. Unsurprisingly, famed visual artist Salvador Dali was a huge fan. Aphrodite leader Vangelis Papathanassiou had grand visions of writing film soundtracks, which he eventually did to great success – but he seldom matched the audacity of this work.
49: Tangerine Dream
Along with Kraftwerk, no band did more than Tangerine Dream to expand the possibilities of the synthesizer. During their heyday they used almost nothing else, and conjured up a remarkable set of soundscapes and atmospheres, improvising freely during live shows.
A modern band with a classic sound, the European-based Fragile worked as a Yes tribute band before they started writing their own material. Their 2022 original release Beyond is close as it gets to a lost Yes album, in the classic mold of a side-long and two half-side tracks. It’s all upped a few notches by the singing of Claire Hamill, whose resume includes a stint with Wishbone Ash and an appearance on a Steve Howe solo album. She’s so good with Fragile that you have to wonder why Yes never came looking for her.
Admired by Frank Zappa (who picked them as his opening band in 1973), Nektar expanded the spacier side of early Pink Floyd with a heightened sense of songcraft. Their two peak albums, A Tab in the Ocean and Remember the Future, are as tuneful as they are trippy.
The original Camel was built around two world-class soloists – guitarist Andy Latimer and the late keyboardist Peter Bardens – and was largely a springboard for their instrumental fireworks. Over time the band became more song-oriented, Bardens departed, and a rotating cast of players came in, including a handful of ex-Caravaners. The one constant is Latimer, who always finds himself some worthy partners to spar with.
Embraced by AOR radio and championed by Don Kirshner, Kansas are often pegged as the commercial side of prog rock. And while there was a lot of heartfelt music on their vintage albums (at least before the original lineup splintered in 1982), they always insisted that the singles success of “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” were accidents. Either way, few prog bands made better use of violin, or touches of rustic Americana.
44: Spock’s Beard
Reviving classic-model prog rock when it was mostly out of style, Spock’s Beard introduced the talents of Neal Morse, who’d go onto become one of prog’s most prolific and melodically inventive composers (and, eventually, the godfather of Christian-themed prog). The Morse lineup bowed out with its magnum opus, the double epic Snow, but later released some worthy albums after he’d moved on.
What do you get when one of the world’s finest classical guitarists decides to form a rock band? You get Sky, which joined the acclaimed John Williams with a lineup including Curved Air’s keyboardist Francis Monkman, and the bassist (Herbie Flowers) who made Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” so indelible. While many prog rockers dabbled in classical music, Sky was just the opposite: Most of them knew classical inside and out, so rock was exciting new territory.
42: Babe Ruth
This early 70s band was unique in a few ways: They had a strong frontwoman, they did prog rock with a strong jazz/blues slant, and their first album cover (First Base) marked the only time Roger Dean ever drew baseball players. Guitarist Alan Shacklock went onto become an 80s producer of note; he and singer Jenny Haan remain in the revived lineup.
41: Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM)
This long-running Italian band had a relatively brief, but glorious stint making English-language albums for ELP’s Manticore label. Over those five albums they gradually transformed their gentle pastoral sound into something much harder charging. Their US live album Cook, largely recorded at a Central Park show with ELP, is one of the more explosive live prog rock albums you’ll ever hear.
English folk rock overlapped with prog rock quite a few times, but Strawbs were perched right on the cusp, doing adventurous epics with roots in traditional balladry. Dave Cousins proved to be one of the more dramatic singers in either genre. The title track of their most celebrated album Hero & Heroine is one of the few great prog songs about addiction, and features soaring Mellotron from Rick Wakeman’s eventual replacement in the band, John Hawken.
39: The Pineapple Thief
Led by singer/writer Bruce Soord, this Somerset quartet is more about introspective songwriting than instrumental fireworks, though they can stretch out when the mood calls for it. At their best, they carry on the spirit of vintage Police and Peter Gabriel, and they’ve lately gotten a kick with the addition of King Crimson/Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison.
38: The Tangent
The Tangent is largely the brainchild of singer/keyboardist Andy Tillison, one of the most original lyricists in modern prog rock. He’s had numerous collaborators over the years including a few old-school prog luminaries. The 2020 album Auto Reconaissance sported two thoughtful epics, one about a New York trip and one taking on the British sociopolitical climate.
One of the few bands who kept the prog rock flag flying in the 80s and beyond, Marillion always kept their ears open (they’ve even covered Radiohead) and often kept their lyrics topical, while staying true to the drama of vintage prog. Some fans prefer the theatrical approach of original singer Fish, others the classically British approach of longtime frontman Steve Hogarth. Either way, the band’s standards have always remained high.
36: Big Big Train
If you like your prog rock to sound classically British with a strong melodic touch, Big Big Train will be your modern band of choice. Until 2020 the band included longtime prog enthusiast and ex-XTC guitarist Dave Gregory; the current drummer is Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard and Genesis fame. Sadly, an accident in late 2021 took the life of David Longdon, one of the most emotive singers in modern prog.
Many prog rock bands evolved out of psychedelia but Hawkwind never stopped being psychedelic. Though best-known for their free-form space excursions, they also had some memorable down-to-earth moments, like the proto-punk single “Silver Machine” (sung by their then-bassist Lemmy) and 1977’s “Quark, Strangeness & Charm,” where they flirted rewardingly with New Wave. Original member Dave Brock has kept the band aloft all these years.
Arguably the last old-school prog rock band, UK had two distinct incarnations, both featuring the formidable team of keyboardist Eddie Jobson and singer/bassist John Wetton. The first lineup had drummer Bill Bruford and guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who did their best to steer the band toward jazz. In the trio lineup with drummer Terry Bozzio, Jobson became a full-fledged keyboard hero while Wetton developed the pop knowhow he’d bring to Asia.
33: Procol Harum
Prog rock isn’t usually R&B-based, but Procol Harum are the great exception; most of its key members were originally in a pure R&B band, the Paramounts. And their first classic, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” found the missing link between Otis Redding, Bach, and psychedelia. But they were also pioneers in side-long suites, grand arrangements, and philosophical lyrics – all three of which played into their 1968 classic, “In Held ‘Twas In I.” The majestic voice of the now-departed Gary Brooker rates as one of prog’s finest.
32: The Flower Kings
Led by singer/guitarist Roine Stolt, this Swedish band has some of the strongest compositions in modern prog rock, often leading toward the romantic side but maintaining a slightly eccentric, Zappa-esque touch in their arrangements. They’re also remarkably prolific: Their late-2021 double album Islands was the first notable prog album to deal with the pandemic, and they delivered another strong double album, By Royal Decree, just six months later.
31: The Mars Volta
Coming from the unlikely source of two former At the Drive-In members, the Mars Volta distilled a uniquely gonzoid, distinctly modern vision of prog rock – dense with musical information, metallic edges, outlandish storylines, and a macabre sense of humor. It sounds just as jarring as King Crimson music sounded in 1969.
One of the flagship Canterbury bands, Caravan gave themselves the headway to do pure pop as well as long improvisational tracks (and in the early days, a few spoonfuls of whimsical British psychedelia). For many fans, that first lineup that made In the Land of Grey & Pink remains the ultimate. But the sole consistent member Pye Hastings remains one of prog rock’s great tunesmiths and the rest of the lineup is always worthy; they’ve made a first-rate Caravan album (It’s None of Your Business) as recently as 2022.
29: Dream Theater
The kings of prog rock metal, Dream Theater, are the only band here comprised of Berklee College of Music graduates. The band is so endowed with musical chops that they can be almost exhausting. Fortunately, they also know the value of a cheap thrill, whether it’s a mighty melodic theme or a gritty metal riff. Original member Mike Portnoy’s drumming is perfectly jaw-dropping on its own.
28: Crack the Sky
This West Virginia band was briefly a critical sensation with its 1975 debut, a unique combination of tricky instrumental turns, quirky Zappa-esque humor, and mile-wide, radio-friendly hooks. Commercial success didn’t come, but they stayed on this idiosyncratic path for decades; as of 2022 the band still has the core of its original lineup.
Grand opera meets fusion meets space travel, with some reimagined church music thrown in – all in a language that the eccentric French band made up. Led by the brilliant drummer Christian Vander, this band was prog rock at its most abstract. After all these years, nothing sounds quite like it.
As far as the pop charts go, Focus is a one-hit wonder with “Hocus Pocus.” (If you live in the UK, you might also know “Sylvia.”) But the Dutch quartet has proven the most sturdy of prog rock bands, reuniting in 2004 and staying true to their original mission of fusing jazz improvisation, classically-inspired composition, and rock energy. Multi-instrumentalist Thijs van Leer remains at the helm, classic-era drummer Pierre van der Linden is still a propulsive force, and the thrilling instrumental flights remain in place.
25: Soft Machine
Soft Machine’s albums fall into two categories: The first and all the others. That self-titled debut remains one of the great British psych/prog albums, with singer/bassist Kevin Ayers and singer/drummer Robert Wyatt both lending a unique eccentricity. After Ayers left, the songs became largely instrumental, and keyboardist Mike Ratledge realized his vision of Soft Machine as a horn-heavy, sometimes avant-garde jazz-rock band. Their third album remains a groundbreaker, a double LP with one song per side.
24: Be Bop Deluxe
Led by the flashy singer/guitarist Bill Nelson, Be Bop Deluxe stood at the crossroads of prog rock and glam, combining inventive arrangements with a Bowie-derived sense of futuristic style. They found their own groove by the time of their excellent live album Live! In the Air Age and its studio follow-up Drastic Plastic, one of the prog world’s most convincing responses to punk. Nelson remains unstoppable, his post-Be Bop Deluxe albums number well over a hundred.
Originally an outlet for leader Todd Rundgren’s grander ambitions, Utopia created an unlikely fusion of pop melody and Mahavishnu-like instrumentals (and for a time, had Luther Vandross as a backup singer). When the classic four-piece lineup came into place, Rundgren had a band where everyone could be a frontman, and that could do the trickiest epics and the sweetest pop numbers to equally strong effect.
While many modern bands are drawn to the louder and extreme side of prog rock, Pennsylvania’s Echolyn are more into the melodies and the soaring instrumental themes. Both were put to especially good use on their 2002 album mei, which explores numerous emotional tones and interlocking tunes over a single, 45-minute piece.
21: Return to Forever
With the possible exception of the equally cosmic Mahavisnhu Orchestra, no fusion band had a greater impact on prog rock and vice versa. And few prog collections are complete without Romantic Warrior. Credit that in part to Chick Corea being the leader: You wanted keyboard heroics, he had them to spare; and he was among the first jazzmen to invest in synths. But RTF’s fantasy/sci-fi imagery also made them prog-friendly, as did the dazzling solos. Just ask Yes, whose Relayer is firmly in Return To Forever’s debt.
Studio albums by this Swedish band have been few and far between: Nearly two decades passed between their second and third. But each one has been finely crafted and worth the wait. Though they employ occasional vocals, the band’s real strength is its intricate, classically-informed instrumentals, which hark back to Crimson’s prettier moments and Genesis’ more dramatic ones.
Though this modern band draws from metal, they’re not prog-metal per se: Rather, they specialize in grand, sweeping epics that bring a wide variety of sounds into play. Their thematically connected pair of double CD’s, Vector and Virus, rank as one of the richest works by a prog rock band in the past decade.
You can argue about whether Can were truly prog rock (they sure don’t sound like anybody else on this list), but they were undeniably progressive, finding rhythmic and sonic possibilities that would influence bands from all over the map decades later. Though steeped in the avant-garde, Can could also be danceable, especially in the latter days when they had an honest-to-God disco hit, “I Want More” in the UK charts.
17: The Moody Blues
The Moodies may have lost some of their prog rock cred when they shifted toward pop music in the 80s, but the albums fans call the “classic seven” (Days of Future Passed through to Seventh Sojourn) were groundbreaking in every way, with their continuous flow and embracing of spacey and spiritual themes; not to mention Mike Pinder’s nearly making Mellotron a household word.
There were so many Gong’s, so which one are we talking about? All of them, of course. Under Daevid Allen’s original leadership, they combined hallucinogenic whimsy with prodigious instrumental chops. Following the transitional album Shamal (on which Mike Howlett, later a big-time producer, make his sole bow as a lead singer), drummer Pierre Moerlen transformed Gong into a percussion-based instrumental band, fusing rock and gamelan. Allen later returned and he remains Gong’s guiding light, even if he no longer walks the planet.
15: Le Orme
This longrunning Italian band embodies the entire history of prog rock, beginning as an ambitious, psych-tinged band in the late 60s. They were fully into symphonic prog by 1974, at which time they made the landmark, sci-fi concept album Felona e Sorna, with lyrics by Peter Hammill (who briefly toured as their lead singer). Before hitting a poppier phase in the 80s, Le Orme made another landmark with 1979’s Florian, arguably the first fully acoustic prog album.
14: Gentle Giant
Now considered one of the quintessential prog rock bands, Gentle Giant had relatively little commercial success in their day. It wasn’t for lack of trying: They loved to be diabolically tricky, but they also loved to be accessible and rock out (brothers Ray and Derek Shulman respectively became successful producers and A&R executives). On their best moments, especially the still-timely political concept album The Power & the Glory, they got it right on both counts.
13: Jethro Tull
Prog rock was one of many phases Jethro Tull went through; they embraced it fully (and sent it up just a bit) on the album-length epics Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play. Ian Anderson has since delivered a number of stylistic left turns, including a folk-rock trilogy, a controversial synth-pop phase, and a return to stripped-down blues rock. But the 2022 Tull album The Zealot Gene found their progginess welling up once again.
Even in their death metal days, this Swedish band always flirted with prog rock, writing epic songs with and without growls. But this really blossomed on 2001’s Blackwater Park, a landmark album that brought the two worlds together on equal footing; it was also their first collaboration with Steven Wilson who brought the metal influence back to Porcupine Tree. Though the intensity remained, Opeth got consistently proggier on all future albums.
It’s a strange quirk of fate that Renaissance, the most ornate and classically-based of prog rock bands, began as a spinoff of the blueswailing Yardbirds (though ex-Yardbird founders Keith Relf and Jim McCarty were both gone by the time the band really caught on). Renaissance is most associated with frontwoman Annie Haslam, whose angelic tones became the archetype for female singers in prog. Her soaring vocals on tracks like “Ashes Are Burning” have seldom been equaled.
10: Porcupine Tree
Much as any other band, Porcupine Tree brought prog rock kicking and screaming into the modern era, incorporating alt-rock and thrash metal, along with Steven Wilson’s distinctly moody songwriting. Arguably their greatest album, Fear of a Blank Planet, deals with modern-world angst in unflinching terms, yet its roots in classic prog are still evident.
9: Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Arguably, ELP only worked because it was a supergroup. The flamboyant and prodigiously gifted keyboardist Keith Emerson would have overwhelmed most other bands. Luckily, in this case, he had a world-class rhythm section in Lake and Palmer, and a heartthrob vocalist in Lake. They made a few stabs at pop, but side-long epics like “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9” are their true legacy.
Everyone in Transatlantic had a profile when they first appeared in 2000 – guitarist Roine Stolt from the Flower Kings, drummer Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, bassist Pete Trewavas from Marillion, singer/keyboardist Neal Morse from Spock’s Beard. But all wound up doing their finest work in this band, taking 70s prog rock as a starting point but giving it a modern, and very personal slant. They’ve also pulled off such conceptual masterstrokes as a CD (The Whirlwind) with one 77-minute song, and an album (The Absolute Universe) that exists in completely different 60- and 90-minute versions.
7: Pink Floyd
Nobody did more with the concept-album medium than Pink Floyd: Their classic stretch of albums, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall, were large-scale epics that needed to be experienced in their entirety. Floyd were arguably at their best when concept visionary Roger Waters and guitar hero David Gilmour were on equal footing – yet the psychedelic influence of founder Syd Barrett never disappeared.
Arguably the most successful prog rock-inspired band of the past two decades, Tool proves that a band with high musical ambitions can still make it in the modern world. Armed with dense, multi-layered compositions and a dark worldview, Tool can also hook you in with their more direct rocking moments. The recent Fear Inoculum has elements of vintage Floyd and Rush, yet its theme of impending apocalypse (and some hope for avoiding it) is as timely as it gets.
Genesis arguably had the most interesting career path of them all: In 1974 they were a wildly imaginative, theatrically inclined prog rock band with a singer fond of dresses and fox masks, and precious little chance of a big hit. Ten years later, Genesis and its past and present members (Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins) virtually defined the pop mainstream. But they never stopped writing epic songs, and Genesis remained full of imagination even at their most commercial.
4: Van der Graaf Generator
Fronted by the singular Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf Generator was always a band for deep thinkers: Their lyrics probed existential crises, or looked into the darker corners of relationships. Musically they drew from raw rock and free jazz, sneaking in moments of melodic beauty when you least expected them. No wonder they were one of the few prog rock bands that 70s punks admired: John Lydon was famously a fan of Nadir’s Big Chance, an official Hammill solo album that featured the full band.
Rush started life as a hard-rock trio and when pushed, they’d still insist that’s what they were. But they spent their full career actively progressing, taking whatever sounds caught their fancy and doing it their own way, before bowing out with arguably their most ambitious concept album Clockwork Angels. Even when they became a platinum band, there were always more directions to try, more sounds to add, and more elaborate concerts to play.
For all the twists and turns of their career, Yes have remained synonymous with prog rock, and their classic run of albums – from The Yes Album to Going for the One, give or take a few – remain among its most glorious moments. Few things embody prog like Jon Anderson’s crystalline voice, Steve Howe’s fretboard mastery, or a caped Rick Wakeman in the midst of a blazing solo. The latter two weren’t present for the 90125 era, but it allowed them to have an unexpected second act as a sophisticated pop band.
1: King Crimson
Robert Fripp’s brainchild never had a permanent lineup or sound, and he was never enamored of the term prog rock. Nonetheless, no band has more consistently embodied prog’s exploratory spirit. From the jarring blast of “21st Century Schizoid Man” in 1969, Crimson’s career is full of reinventions. The orchestrated clatter of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, the streamlined 80s Crimson, the dizzying double trio, and the grunge-inspired 90s model all have their devotees. The most recent, a three-drummer lineup, found them blazing as brightly as ever. If this is really the end, as Fripp has hinted, they went out without ever making a false move.