Yes were formed in 1968 by Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Peter Banks, keyboardist Tony Kaye, and drummer Bill Bruford. Over the coming decades, members would come, go, return, and leave again. With a revolving door policy to its membership, each album was a guessing game about who’d be in the rock band that week. But while you could never be certain about the lineup, you could always be certain about the music. They may have flirted with various genres over the years, but Yes have always been prog-rockers at hearts. Their sonic adventures in time and space helped define and popularize the genre more than almost any other band to emerge from the ’70s. Since 2015, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes, singer Jon Davison and bassist Billy Sherwood have all been flying the Yes flag, with their latest album, The Quest, set for release on 1 October 2021. To celebrate this most influential and enduring of progressive bands, here are the 10 best Yes songs of all time.
1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans may have given the band one of their most commercially successful albums, but the critics were unsure of it and Rick Wakeman downright hated it, deriding it for being too much filler and not enough thriller. Such was his dislike for Yes’ new musical direction, he stepped away from the band and spent the next few years pursuing solo projects. But by 1977 he was back. His influence is all over the sublime Parallels, which represents not just one of the few times Yes rocked out, but the only time anyone, ever, has rocked out to a church organ.
9. Lift Me Up
Trevor Rabin bought a lot to Yes, not all of which was gratefully received. After he joined, the band stopped experimenting and starting playing it safe. The slick and shiny AOR of the Rubin-era is a definite “No” with many fans of Yes’ earlier work, but it’s not without its merits. Named as one of Yes’ best songs by Louder Sound, Lift Me Up from the 1991 album Union is a somber, dark affair brightened by some glorious harmonies between Rabin and Jon Anderson and a masterful guitar solo from Rabin.
8. Don’t Kill the Whale
As The Guardian writes, the advent of punk in the late ’70s prompted Yes to move away from their sprawling, LP side-long epics and veer more towards the kind of short, succinct songs that had a chance of chart success. Don’t Kill the Whale didn’t do much commercially, but the way Jon Anderson’s vocals dip and weave over Steve Howe’s guitar bends is sensational.
The Trevor Rubin era may have prompted thousands of prog purists to throw their toys out of the pram, but even they can’t deny he ushered in some of the most commercially successful years of the band’s career. Walls, a co-write between Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson and Rubin, was bouncy and stylish enough to take the band to number 24 on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
6. The Gates of Delirium
Who else but Yes would ever dare try and set Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to music? It took up an entire side of an album (the last time, coincidentally, that Yes would attempt such a thing), but despite being one of the least radio-friendly things Yes ever did, The Gates of Delirium is still sublime, with some stupendous vocals from Jon Anderson and some immense instrumental sequences.
5. And You And I
A snippet of And You And I managed to breach the Top 50 in the US, but you’d need to listen to the whole ten minutes to get a true appreciation of this monumental four-movement rock opera. Taken from the career-defining album Close to the Edge, it doesn’t get quite so much love as the titular track, but it’s still astonishing.
4. Heart of the Sunrise
The closing track on Yes’ fourth album, 1971’s Fragile, is something of a mystery, not least to Jon Anderson. As Wikipedia notes, on tours, he’s often introduced it as a song about being lost in the city. In some interviews, he’s said it’s about the power and energy of the sunrise. Other times, he’s said it’s about the power of love. Ultimately, if it’s songwriter doesn’t really know what it’s about, then the rest of us don’t stand a chance, Fortunately, you don’t have to get the meaning to appreciate those choirboy vocals and that frenetic instrumental opening.
3. Fly From Here
When Jon Anderson fell victim to Yes’ revolving door policy to bandmembers in 2008, the band filled the vacancy with Benoit David, the former frontman of Yes tribute act Close to the Edge. As it turned out, David was capable of doing more than just impersonating Anderson, and quickly established himself as a quality vocalist in his own right. The multi-part suite of Fly From Here showcases his soulful timbre and impressive range perfectly. The rest of the band doesn’t exactly disappoint either.
When Rick Wakeman signed up to Yes in 1971, the band found its groove. On Roundabout, his virtuoso organ playing interplays beautifully with Steve Howe’s guitar and Chris Squire’s bass, resulting in a song that plays out with more passion and energy than almost anything else in their cannon.
1. Starship Trooper
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Yes were nothing before Steve Howe joined, but equally, his influence is impossible to overstate. If Trevor Rabin made the band commercial in the ’80s, Howe made them phenomenal in the ’70s. The Yes Album, the first full album to feature the twin delights of his acoustic and electric guitar, was more adventurous and more experimental than anything the band had done before. Starship Trooper is its pinnacle. Spanning over 10 minutes in length and featuring quite possibly one of the best instrumental climaxes ever recorded, it’s Yes’ magnum opus.
*We’re well aware of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” but it just didn’t feel right next to these songs.