Yes, There Will Be Drama
Yes Albums Ranked Worst To Best
Do I really need to expand on that title?
Of course I do, if only to speculate for a moment on what it is about the pioneering British progressive rock ensemble whose very name declares the affirmative that inspires the passions of its fans like no other. I have observed flamewars between conservatives and liberals, atheists and evangelicals, San Francisco Giants fans and Los Angeles Dodger fans, but nothing north of Hades could approach the sheer, oxygen-depleting heat of two Yes fans arguing about—well, anything, really. You could start a thread about whether Jon Anderson should have dyed the grey out of his beard as well as his hair on the 2000 Masterworks tour and spark a full-on insult-riddled verbal throwdown inside of five replies.
Part of the reason for this volatility is the sheer breadth of styles and range of quality to be found within the band’s sizable catalog. At its best, Yes was not just pioneering but transcendent, a group that overran the boundaries of rock to make some of the most memorable and significant music of their era. At their worst, they could be distressingly ordinary—which for a band with Yes’ musical pedigree, translates into extraordinarily disappointing.
So, a ranked list of Yes albums is a fraught exercise. I’ve second-guessed a few of the rankings that follow several times myself, but in the end, this is my story and I’m sticking to it. Flame on!
(NOTE #1: I’ve stuck with studio albums here, as is traditional in these lists, and increasingly necessary as veteran bands have tended to flood the market with live releases in recent years. That said, 1973’s live triple-LP Yessongs was my point of entry to the Yes canon and would surely rank in the top five if I had included it. NOTE #2: All cover images link to my original reviews.)
20. Heaven & Earth (2014)
"As a fan, this album just makes me sad.” There’s not a lot I can add here beyond that quote from my review. Bland, listless, and free of most of the distinguishing characteristics of classic Yes, this is simply the weakest collection of music they’ve ever issued.
19. Union (1991)
The album that keyboardist Rick Wakeman calls Onion is a Frankenstein monster patched together by producers and lawyers with minimal participation from most of the two competing band lineups whose unification it was intended to herald. There is exactly one song on this album (the Chris Squire/Billy Sherwood collaboration “The More We Live – Let Go”) that’s worthy of the Yes name.
18. Talk (1994)
The nadir of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/producer Trevor Rabin’s 12-year tenure as the driving force behind the arena-rock-oriented lineup that came to be known as YesWest. There are admittedly fans who swear by this album and love the very same bits that feel to me like a set of ten very long fingernails making their way down an enormous chalkboard. There are also thousands of Americans who apparently think Donald Trump would make a great president. I trust we can at least agree that there’s no accounting for taste.
17. Big Generator (1987)
There are a couple of okay songs here—“Shoot High, Aim Low” ranks among the better cuts from the Rabin era, and “Love Will Find A Way” is decent enough AOR, even if it sounds more like The Babys than Yes. But I stand by my previous assessment of lead single “Rhythm Of Love” as an “arena-rock cheese log,” and the rest of the album is eminently forgettable.
16. Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)
This ranking will likely inspire more brickbats tossed in my general direction than any other found here. A vocal contingent of Classic Yes fans adores TFTO, with its four 20-minute-plus suites, and some members of the band (chiefly Anderson) remain justifiably proud of its adventurous spirit, while others (chiefly Wakeman) were clearly disillusioned by its extreme lack of focus. There are some brilliant bits hidden in the folds of these overly expansive tunes, but taken as whole, this album is an audacious, disjointed mess.
15. Time And A Word (1970)
Yes’s first go at recording an entire album with an orchestra was a failure, despite a handful of decent tunes and the lilting title track, an enduring reminder the band’s folk roots. Founding guitarist Peter Banks was so frustrated with the recording process for this album that he departed soon after, clearing a path for Steve Howe.
14. Fly From Here (2011)
As much as I wanted to detest this album—cobbled together from spare parts after the rest of the band left an ill Jon Anderson by the wayside and hired Yes tribute band singer Benoit David to replace him—it has its moments. Almost all of them occur during the extended title suite, based on a leftover demo from 1980’s Drama. This album might actually have ranked higher if not for the fact that, beyond the title suite, the rest is pure filler.
13. Open Your Eyes (1997)
Open Your Eyes has taken a lot of abuse from Classic Yes fans over the years for its rather poppy bent. There are two things to understand. First, these tunes were originally written and recorded for a Squire-Sherwood side project that was subsequently hijacked, overdubbed and issued under the Yes name. Second, this album was issued a time when fans were eager for more from the Classic Yes lineup that had reunited in 1995-96, which inevitably colored the reception this album received. It certainly sounds more like Yes than most of the Rabin-era catalogue, and the title cut has genuine drive and impact.
12. The Ladder (1999)
Producer Bruce Fairbairn helped give the Ladder-era band focus as they crafted a set of tunes that straddles—sometimes comfortably, sometimes not—the group’s ’70s and ’80s approaches. “Homeworld (The Ladder)” is one of their stronger latter-day tunes and energetic numbers like “Lightning Strikes” and “New Language” show promise that’s only intermittently fulfilled by the rest of this uneven affair.
11. Tormato (1978)
The last gasp of the “Classic Yes” Anderson-Howe-Squire-Wakeman-White lineup for 17 years, Tormato is nearly as messy as its awful tomato-splattering cover. A handful of solid-to-good tunes—highlighted by the superb Squire workout “On The Silent Wings Of Freedom”—are surrounded by some of this lineup’s least memorable efforts. And I suspect even my favorite Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman might concede that the tinny synth tones he adopted for this album have not aged well.
10. Magnification (2002)
Yes with strings and horns had been tried before, of course. But where the young band of 1970 seemed ill-matched with an orchestra, the more mature 2002 Anderson/Howe/Squire/White edition of the band fares substantially better. The group sounds energized and dynamic on tunes like “In The Presence Of,” “Dreamtime” and the title track, and the subsequent symphonic tour featuring the superb Tom Brislin on keys was excellent. The most serious flaws here are a feeble attempt to write a hit single (“Don’t Go”), and the patchy quality of Anderson’s lyrics, which took an unfortunate turn for the cloying here.
9. 90125 (1983)
This one is tricky, because 90125 is the album that, for better or worse, brought Yes back from the brink of oblivion. Fans have been debating ever since whether that was a good thing—we owe an awful lot of latter-day concert memories to this album’s existence—or a bad thing, since the specter of this one commercially successful arena-rock outing has seemed to haunt the band’s studio work ever since. The inescapably catchy hit “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” led the way through a set of tunes that were both heavier and sleeker than anything the thoroughly transformed, Trevor Rabin-dominated band had ever delivered before. Unlike on later YesWest albums, 90125 locates a relatively happy medium between Rabin’s sleek, thumping AOR and Anderson’s airier classic-prog vibe. I don’t love this album, but it would be foolish to deny its strengths, or what a milestone it turned out to be in the band’s journey.
8. Drama (1980)
Classic Yes minus Anderson and Wakeman plus The Buggles (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes) equaled change and controversy. Different as this mostly driving, muscular album is from much of what preceded it, it has a fire that later versions of the band have sometimes labored to recapture. “Tempus Fugit” and “Machine Messiah” are especially strong tracks, and once you get past new vocalist Horn’s occasional struggles (rescued by Squire virtually singing co-lead with him) and songwriting mishaps (see: “Into The Lens”) there’s much to enjoy here.
7. Keystudio (2001)
Here it is: The Comeback Album That Could Have Been. Keystudio collects the seven studio tracks that were tacked onto the Keys To Ascension 1 + 2 albums, which otherwise featured live tracks from the classic lineup’s 1995 reunion shows in San Luis Obispo. Despite its neither-fish-nor-fowl status in the band’s catalogue, I count Keystudio as not just one of their studio albums, but the best collection of studio work they’ve assembled since 1977. “Mind Drive” is among their better epics and “Foot Prints” and “Bring Me To The Power” ripple and shine, suggesting a band with plenty of creative juice left in the tank. The remaining less consistent tracks are nonetheless impressive in the context of the group’s latter-day output.
6. Yes (1969)
Yes’s self-titled debut holds up surprisingly well against the rest of its catalogue, a portrait of a dynamic young band full of ambition, though still learning to focus and flex its talents. While lacking the cinematic scope and impact of the group’s best work, rangy jazz-rock / proto-prog numbers like “Beyond And Before,” “I See You,” “Looking Around” and “Every Little Thing” pack a potent punch and provided the essential fuel that allowed them to grow into and fulfill those ambitions.
5. Relayer (1974)
A mirror-image of Close To The Edge in terms of structure, with a sidelong epic plus a pair of tracks in the nine-to 10-minute range, Relayer features sharper edges than most albums in the Yes catalogue. There’s a Zeppelin-esque heaviness in some places (e.g. the “battle sequence” of “The Gates Of Delirium”) and a careening psychedelic jazz feel in others (e.g. the manic opening and closing segments of “Sound Chaser”). The only Yes album to feature keyboardist Patrick Moraz, it’s a bit of an odd duck, but in “Gates” features one of the group’s finest works, a genuinely gripping 22-minute epic.
4. The Yes Album (1971)
If the band owes its post-1983 career to 90125, it owes much of what came before that to The Yes Album. After the failed orchestral experiment of Time And A Word and the departure of Peter Banks, the band was navigating troubled waters. With the arrival of Steve Howe, the group focused its energies on crafting a major evolution of its sound, delivering a six-song set that bent and stretched the rock form with longer compositions while also featuring stronger melodies and increasingly spectacular musicianship. The yin/yang Anderson/Squire suite “I’ve Seen All Good People” would become a radio staple, while the propulsive “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “Perpetual Change” and perpetual fan favorite “Starship Trooper” would join it as cornerstones of the band’s dynamic live show.
3. Going For The One (1977)
Some will object to this album—the final entry in the group’s 1971-77 “main sequence”—beating out either Relayer or The Yes Album. Admittedly, I’m a tad sentimental about it because it’s the one truly great Yes album that came out after I started following the band in late 1974, but I honestly don’t think that’s the reason so much as that the songs are just that damned good. The title track rocks, led by Howe’s wailing slide guitar and Anderson’s soaring vocals; “Turn Of The Century” is a sublime ballad; “Parallels” is my favorite Squire song of all time, propelled by his thundering bass and Wakeman’s sky-scraping church organ; and the slight “Wonderous Stories” is nonetheless a concise summation of the group’s entire ethos. And then there’s “Awaken,” a stunning 15:38 tour de force that periodically trades places with “Close To Edge” as my favorite prog epic ever.
2. Fragile (1972)
There’s no way around it: Fragile is a weird album. Heading into the studio directly after jettisoning founding keyboardist Tony Kaye for classically-trained virtuoso Rick Wakeman, the band felt compelled by its tight write-record-tour schedule to fill out a half-album of mostly longer group compositions with a series of shorter solo pieces. The solo pieces range in quality from the superb (Squire’s brilliant “The Fish,” Wakeman’s “Cans And Brahms” and Howe’s “Mood For A Day”) to the whimsical (Anderson’s “We Have Heaven”) to the just plain odd (Bill Bruford’s 38-second head-scratcher “Five Percent For Nothing”). The group tracks, on the other hand, range from terrific to stupendous. “Heart Of The Sunrise” epitomizes the heavy-light dichotomy at the heart of the Yes sound, the multifaceted “South Side Of The Sky” is among the group’s underappreciated gems, and the bounding, jubilant “Roundabout” is still spectacular in its fifth decade as the band’s theme song.
1. Close To The Edge (1972)
It was Yes’s second album of calendar year 1972 (wrap your head around that one for a moment). It was their final album with founding drummer Bill Bruford. And it was that one special moment that every band hopes for, dreams about, and almost always falls short of—a crowning achievement that sets a new standard for others to chase and secures the band’s artistic legacy for good. Close To The Edge is simply the gold standard of progressive rock. Its groundbreaking, 18-minute title suite is genuinely epic, ranging through one compelling, exquisite moment after another while building a cathedral of sound and energy and emotion. The remaining two tracks, “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru,” also stand among the group’s finest, the first soaring and sentimental, the second driving and urgent. For anyone out there still struggling to understand why some fans treat this group’s lesser albums so harshly, this is the reason; because Yes set the bar so impossibly high in the first place.