5. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pts. I-V)” – Pink Floyd
Relying more on atmosphere than technical mastery, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” might not warrant its thirteen minute runtime for some listeners, but even the most ardent of haters have to acknowledge the beating heart of this song. There’s so much emotion captured in Richard Wright’s synth textures and Roger Waters’s lyrics (which pay tribute to former member Syd Barret) that many will be overcome by the sheer scope of it all. And it’s for this reason that “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” ends up on this list.
4. “Aqualung” – Jethro Tull
Jethro Tull’s signature song. What more needs to be said about “Aqualung?” It’s a dynamic track that seamlessly alternates between Martin Barre’s hard hitting guitar riff and Anderson’s soft acoustic verses, between the perverted and pitiful, between rock and folk. The dichotomy on display is what made Tull unique, and nowhere is better distilled than on this tune.
3. “Roundabout” – Yes
From 1971’s Fragile, this is the song that introduced many of us to the legendary Rick Wakeman, and what an introduction. Those backwards piano chords are inspired, the perfect counterpoint to Steve Howe’s acoustic intro, and from there, the full force of the band is let loose. Chris Squire’s incomparable bass tone, Jon Anderson’s angelic voice, the ostinatos played on Hammond and Minimoog, the solos featured throughout. It’s all perfect and makes the eight and half minute runtime feel like nothing.
2. “Watcher of the Skies” – Genesis
Genesis, more than any other band on this list, might have the best collection of album openers from the classic prog period. There’s “The Musical Box,” “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight,” “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” “Dancing on a Volcano,” and “Eleventh Earl of Mar.” All are classics and might have found a spot on this list, were it not for the fact that they had to compete with “Watcher of the Skies” (from Foxtrot) and the immediacy it provides in its opening chords. The Mellotron was forever defined by what Genesis did on this song, and the fact that they use that as the initial hook instead of the accented 6/4 riff that comes afterwards just goes to show you how masterful this composition is.
1. “21st Century Schizoid Man” – King Crimson
Though there will be debate as to whether this is subjectively better than the likes of “Roundabout” and “Watcher of the Skies,” when it comes to objective factors, this is arguably the most important song on the list. It’s the opening track to what is deemed by many as the first proper album from the prog-rock genre and shows how limitless the genre can be. There’s the jumping around of time signatures, the expansive use of musical dynamics, proto-metal riffage and distorted vocals, jazzy saxophone interludes, and experimental, atonal soloing. The fact that King Crimson managed to fit this all into a seven and half minute runtime without any template to work off (at least from the world of rock) is what ultimately proves this to be the finest opener of the classic prog era.