A Guide to Progressive Pop

A Guide to Progressive Pop

The term “progressive pop” sounds like an oxymoron. Ever since progressive rock emerged as a distinct art form in the late 1960s, the subgenre has been defined by its experimentation, its virtuosity and, most of all, its antipathy to commerciality. But pop, in the broadest sense, is all about commerciality, about reeling in the average listener with a hummable hook. Despite that conceptual paradox, prog-pop has existed for over half a century, evolving alongside its sonic siblings. It’s just harder to discern its shape without squinting.

Before we define “progressive pop,” let’s trace the broad outlines of its history. One chief innovator is Beach Boys visionary Brian Wilson, whose equal obsessions with symphonic arrangements and breezy melodies flourished on mid-’60s projects like Pet Sounds and the long-unreleased Smile. Channeling the maximalist vision of Phil Spector, Wilson crammed his songs with non-rock instrumentation (strings, brass, Theremin, harpsichord, tack piano), dizzying key changes and complex vocal harmonies. The Beatles were also crucial messengers, using masterworks like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as gateways to other cultural styles (the Indian influence of sitar epic “Within You Without You”) and jagged song structures outside the verse-chorus format (“A Day in the Life”).

King Crimson’s debut LP, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, brought a seismic shift—presenting a heavier, menacing atmosphere that impacted an entire generation of ’70s prog adventurers like Genesis and Yes. But midway through that decade, a crop of more hook-minded songwriters brought the form back into a radio-friendly space—a tough task few others have achieved.

That elusiveness is what makes “prog-pop” a slippery term. By definition, the material must be somewhat sophisticated, even highbrow, in a way “mainstream” music is not—whether through left-field instrumentation, unusual time signatures or the general high caliber of musicianship on display. (There’s a decent chance somebody in the band went to music school, though that’s not a prerequisite.) But the pop component is equally essential: These songs have melodic lines, riffs, grooves and imagery that leeches on to your brain.

For further exploration, here are 10 tracks that epitomize prog-pop throughout the years.

The Beach Boys
“Good Vibrations” (1966)

The subgenre’s most obvious starting point is this Beach Boys tour de force, a sugary pop tune draped around one of the most elaborate arrangements ever heard on commercial radio. The original single clocks in at under four minutes, yet it contains an entire sonic universe, as the band’s robust harmonies navigate a psychedelic terrain of Electro-Theremin, thumping double bass, sawing cellos, clomping harpsichords and mountains of auxiliary percussion.

“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974)

Sparks’ shapeshifting style has veered into glam-rock and synth-pop over the decades. But they reached an artistic peak with a string of quirky albums in the mid-’70s, combining Roxy Music’s flamboyance and art-school weirdness with a penchant for winding, elliptical melodies and idea-per-second arrangements. U.K. hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” is three minutes of prog-pop perfection: candy-coated synths, rumbling arena-rock riffs and Russell Mael’s operatic wail.

Electric Light Orchestra
“Mr. Blue Sky” (1977)

ELO’s primary songwriter, Jeff Lynne, is one of prog-pop’s signature architects, infusing the Beatles’ kaleidoscopic post-Peppers sing-alongs with symphonic grandeur. And “Mr. Blue Sky” is his definitive statement—a rainbow distilled into sound, painted with blindingly bright colors and childlike glee. Here, Lynne crams an album’s worth of ideas into one kitschy, irresistible package: goofy low voices, syrupy strings, vocoders, choirs, fire-extinguisher percussion—there’s even an overdriven guitar solo barely a minute in.

“Breakfast in America” (1979)

Prog fans love to debate Supertramp’s prog credentials, and they definitely straddle the line. They’re top-shelf musicians capable of showy solos, but they never flaunt that virtuosity. And their songs, like this classic late-’70s hit, revolve first and foremost around tight melodies. Their progginess comes from the artful, colorful presentation: “Breakfast in America” is an aural carnival, with John Helliwell’s clarinet gliding over the fabric of glassy keyboards and a (just barely audible) thumping tuba.

Tears for Fears
“Head Over Heels/Broken” (1985)

Progressive pop, like its rock relative, went into commercial hibernation in the 1980s, as New Wave and punk suddenly made dense, fanciful songs appear unfashionable. But some mainstream pop acts, including Tears for Fears, were brave enough to challenge their audiences with more experimental ideas. The falsetto-heavy “Head Over Heels,” a top three U.S. hit, is already full of muso touches: counterpoint backing vocals, wild synth eruptions and tumbling drum fills. But the proggiest moment, the live art-funk workout “Broken,” arrives in the final minute.

Kate Bush
“The Sensual World” (1989) 

Kate Bush infiltrated the pop airwaves with avant-garde concepts that reflected her formative prog influences: the fidgety time signature of her breakout hit “Wuthering Heights,” the unusual voicings and spacey synth tones of “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” One of her unsung masterpieces is “The Sensual World,” in which the singer moans lyrics inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses over a dizzying spiral of bouzouki, fiddle, chiming bells and Irish bagpipes.

Sufjan Stevens
“Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition, Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)” (2005)

Sufjan Stevens excels in almost any style, from madcap electronica to hushed spiritual folk. But he’s one of the few songwriters alive who can craft songs as joyously nutty as “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” In just under seven minutes, the multi-instrumentalist orchestrates a ragtag indie-pop symphony in multiple movements, with horns and woodwinds brushing up against string sections, syncopated trap kits and tuned percussion.

“Love Like a Sunset, Pts. 1 & 2” (2009)

These synth-loving Frenchmen aren’t afraid to get weird, showcasing their atmospheric side on periodic instrumental sections. The two-part “Love Like a Sunset” seamlessly travels through ping-ponging keys, fingerpicked acoustic guitars, prickly palm-muted riffs, mechanical white noise and four-on-the-floor dance grooves—all before climaxing as a folky acoustic anthem.

“Slow Motion” (2014)

PHOX understood the power of dynamics—of building a piece that crests and recedes, depending on the emotion at play. On “Slow Motion,” Monica Martin’s smoky voice rumbles like a train and flutters into a feathery falsetto, as the band churns out unexpected flourishes like banjo and slide-guitar textures and jazzy clarinet solos. The song ebbs and flows, inhales and exhales—after a swirl of ambience around three minutes deep, it surges into a breathtaking start-stop pattern, builds back to another chorus and bids farewell with a slow, soft coda.

Jonas Brothers
“Sucker” (2019)

Yes, even the Jonas Brothers are progressive in their own way. There are so many unique ideas in this whirlwind pop tune, it takes four or five listens to fully process them all. The song opens with Nick Jonas in a slinky falsetto over a coiled, palm-muted guitar, and the intensity builds on the chorus with a stabbing synth progression and heavy kick-snare groove. But the post-chorus is the cherry on the sundae, with a dusty whistled melody and a drum break funky enough for a James Brown record.

Ryan Reed is a writer, editor, professor and record collector with regular bylines at Rolling Stone, Relix, Ultimate Classic Rock and Revolver. He’s also contributed to Billboard, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Esquire and Salon, among other outlets. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, two dogs and cat.

Image: Electric Light Orchestra in May 1979. Credit: Fin Costello/Redferns


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