I remember having some confusion about the nature of The Alan Parsons Project. From my initial and very peripheral experience with the prog/soft/pop rock outfit, I just thought it was a group fronted by a guy named Alan Parsons, the singer and guitarist of a band that followed the format of one typical of the 1970s and ’80s. But some years ago, I learned that the band behind “Eye in the Sky” utilized a rotating group of vocalists for songs written and produced by the titular Parsons but also Eric Woolfson. Indeed, at some point, Woolfson almost became the primary creative force behind The Alan Parsons Project. Parsons, for his part, was an engineer by trade, best known in that capacity for working on The Beatles’ ABBEY ROAD (1969) and LET IT BE (1970), and shifting into a producer capacity after. When he and Woolfson met, they formulated the Project as a producers’ showcase. In the end, the duo and their ever-changing crew of session musicians and guest vocalists (some of whom became longstanding collaborators) were active together from 1975 to 1990. But from 1976 to 2014, a 38-year span, 12 TAPP (as I’ll often abbreviate from now on) albums were released. That’s because the last, THE SICILIAN DEFENCE, was released outside the bounds of their active years, a holdover “collateral” album produced in the late ’70s but never released. I’ve included it, however, in the rankings here, as part of the “canon” of The Alan Parsons Project: an oft-derided, oft-worshipped group (as I found out while researching this piece) that, despite my criticism or at times lukewarm approach, turned out some great, fun rock cheese.
#12 — THE SICILIAN DEFENCE (2014)
Favorite track: “P-QB4”
Let’s start at the end. Released after the biggest gap between Alan Parsons Project albums (24 years, because the band was no longer together, duh), THE SICILIAN DEFENCE was made by Parsons and Woolfson in 1979 as collateral for record label Arista, which put out most of the Project’s albums. Before and since its release, Parsons has been relatively critical of the record, saying it was never intended to be heard by the public. Woolfson died in 2009, so we don’t know his word on the subject, but in my opinion, THE SICILIAN DEFENCE is in fact a pleasant, mostly classical focused listen. As with most Project albums, even those that weren’t literally concept albums with a solid narrative, THE SICILIAN DEFENCE has a central theme: chess. Hence, the titles of the album and tracks all represent chess moves; “P-QB4,” as my favorite, was kind of chosen at random, although its relaxing piano is indeed enjoyable. It’s just strange to isolate a specific track because THE SICILIAN DEFENCE isn’t a pop/prog/electronic rock record, although it has some identifiable elements of TAPP’s other work, because it’s an all-instrumental, album-length experience. It doesn’t make much of an impact in chunks. As noted by its placement on this list, it also doesn’t make the greatest impact as the sum of its parts, but mostly because it doesn’t always feel like a TAPP album. THE SICILIAN DEFENCE is interesting and, as a whole, less glaringly cringe-y than the band’s worst songs, but it doesn’t scratch the TAPP itch.
#11 — STEREOTOMY (1985)
Favorite track: “Beaujolais”
As I indicated in my introduction and in the write up of THE SICILIAN DEFENCE, The Alan Parsons Project was certainly capable of some boring, bland, annoying, or excessively “prog” rock. As with many bands, it came to a head in the mid-’80s with STEREOTOMY. Its pop songs ramble for too long, as in the title track, and its instrumentals…well, they noodle for too long as well, as in “Where’s the Walrus?” My favorite track, “Beaujolais,” has an enjoyable jangle and catchy chorus delivery from frequent vocal collaborator Chris Rainbow, but even it gets annoying towards the end of its four-and-a-half minutes. The Alan Parsons Project had been playing with synth and electronic sounds for a decade by this point, but in hitting the established ’80s sound, they fell into a rote trap.
#10 — PYRAMID (1978)
Favorite track: “Can’t Take It with You”
As with basically all of the Project’s albums, PYRAMID had a central concept or theme. Fittingly, considering its name, PYRAMID concerned the rise in the belief of “pyramid power” that was running around in the late ’70s. Bringing the fit to a further point, PYRAMID is at times spacey and self-indulgent (like pyramid power proponents), a trait that could be applied to the worst or fleeting work by TAPP. I should stress, however, that among the Project’s “worst” records are pieces that, despite their length or deep instrumental dive into prog sounds, flit by. By which I mean, the Project’s worst stuff is often just kind of insignificant, or it fails to make too strong of an impression. It’s often not offensive. So with PYRAMID, I should make clear that I don’t think it’s bad, but I also don’t think it’s very good either. Apparently, the focus on pyramid power wasn’t entirely straightforward; there’s some satire at play, I suppose. But besides the groovy ramblings of “Can’t Take It with You,” PYRAMID does, at its lowest points, succumb to the eye-rolling, thumb-jerking, “get a load of this guy” skepticism faced by the advocates of such mysticism.
#9— I ROBOT (1977)
Favorite track: “Some Other Time”
TAPP avoided copyright infringement with the removal of the comma from the title of I ROBOT, which is of course thematically inspired by the work of Isaac Asimov, who apparently personally sanctioned the project. The Project’s sophomore album also represented the group’s steadily growing commercial cachet throughout their ’70s work, even if critical reception found, at times justified, fault with their heady attempts. I ROBOT, from what I can tell, stands as a well-regarded Alan Parsons Project album today, and in spite of its placement, I bear it no ill will. The simple truth is that it carries too few standout tracks for me, a sentiment that may not be appreciated by the proponent of prog rock excess. Even still, the beautiful “Some Other Time” is the right kind of exercise in ethereal rock, and the soaring vocals from Peter Straker are successfully gripping. It’s a great song, and one of my favorites by the Project, among others I find middling by the band’s own standards.
#8 — GAUDI (1987)
Favorite track: “Standing on Higher Ground”
In some ways, GAUDI was the last “true” Alan Parsons Project album. Its follow up, FREUDIANA, was almost a Woolfson solo project, and we’ve already covered THE SICILIAN DEFENCE’s nature. So this record, inspired at least in part by famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, represents the end of an era. And it did so as an essentially effective conclusion, offering a step up from the “jangle” (I don’t know what other word to use to describe the annoying drive of ’80s production excess) of STEREOTOMY. “Standing on Higher Ground” is just super catchy, as lead vocalist Geoff Barradale hits the cheesy delivery of the strong rock and pop of the era. In its case, the jangle is welcome, and indeed, other elements of GAUDI that could have been rendered annoying or bland grew on me. The album ultimately does require a bit of patience, as it doesn’t do TAPP’s own version of rock extremely well, but GAUDI does end up a fine, offbeat listen in the midst of the Project’s discography.
#7 — FREUDIANA (1990)
Favorite track: “Funny You Should Say That”
Even though it came only three years after GAUDI, FREUDIANA also represented the end of an era, and perhaps in a truer sense. The last album attributed to The Alan Parsons Project before the retrospective release of THE SICILIAN DEFENCE was a rock opera following the life and ideas of Sigmund Freud, pioneered by Woolfson. Indeed, its development could nearly lead to its exclusion from TAPP’s “canon;” ultimately, though, Parsons himself and a number of other Project collaborators contributed to the project. Complicating things is the full staging of FREUDIANA for German theater, resulting in what is termed the “Black Album” (1991), the cast recording of the piece. But what is evaluated here is the Project’s original “White Album” version, a fittingly eccentric record that could maybe stand as TAPP’s goofiest release. And that’s saying something, although in this case I believe it was mostly intended. Woolfson turned to musical theater for the rest of his career after FREUDIANA, and even with this early effort, he displayed a great talent for creating a sonic vibe. Of course, he was already doing that across the ten previous Alan Parsons Project albums, but with FREUDIANA, that aptitude was funneled into a stronger narrative and a sharp theatricality fused with the spacey prog of its predecessors. The best example can be heard on “Funny You Should Say That,” with a silly, bouncing verse that gives way to a soaring chorus indicative of musical theater camp, as well as the instincts of the Project’s “concept-lite” approach to rock music.
#6 — AMMONIA AVENUE (1983)
Favorite track: “Let Me Go Home”
AMMONIA AVENUE emerged after the huge success of EYE IN THE SKY. By comparison, AMMONIA AVENUE is a paradox: it’s “weaker,” even as it goes a little rockier. My favorite track, “Let Me Go Home” (lead vocals by another frequent collaborator, Lenny Zakatek), is a good example of that. His ’80s light growl runs over whining guitar (in a good way) and the bass and drums keep things moving. But as a standout track, it’s not amazing. That applies to the whole of AMMONIA AVENUE, hence its middle placement; it’s decent and it grabs some attention, but its impression doesn’t last very long. Not every album, nor every Alan Parsons Project album, needs a strong theme or concept, but perhaps because of AMMONIA AVENUE’s lack of consistency in that department (its concern with industrialization isn’t totally represented in the music, I think), the record doesn’t stand up too high. Still, in the moment of listening to it, I had a good time. AMMONIA AVENUE is perhaps TAPP’s “hardest” album, which is definitely a relative statement, and that provides a unique experience in the midst of the band’s discography.
#5 — TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (EDGAR ALLEN POE) 
Favorite track: “The Raven”
The Alan Parsons Project made clear the path they would tread with their debut. TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (EDGAR ALLEN POE) is a concept album adapting the story and themes of Edgar Allen Poe’s most notable works, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Raven;” the latter is the best song on the album, with a moody verse building to a great, catchy, soaring chorus. Critics of TALES have pointed out that it’s not macabre enough, to the standards of Poe’s stories, but I think that’s to the album’s credit. The Project interpreted the tortured artist’s work in, if not a faithful manner, an inventive way, and it resulted in an especially strong first half of a record. But even as it turns to instrumental spacey-ness on the second side, devoted almost entirely to the “Fall of the House of Usher” “suite,” TALES stands as one of the best examples of the Project’s prog instincts.
#4 — EYE IN THE SKY (1982)
Favorite track: “Eye in the Sky”
EYE IN THE SKY was The Alan Parsons Project’s most commercially successful album, probably on the strength of its title track and hit single, which I believe ended up as the Project’s best-known song. And it’s deserved, as I find “Eye in the Sky” to probably be the band’s best song as well. With lead vocals from Woolfson himself, the soft, kind of whimsical rock track hits some really satisfying pop cheese, culminating in a chorus that just leads to someone belting it out, even if that someone is just me. Kind of retroactively, its source album is also known for “Sirius,” a short instrumental track that opens the record and ended up a major theme for the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s, and ultimately a number of other sports teams. Indeed, the Spotify version of the album goes so far as to put “- Chicago Bulls Theme Song” in the “Sirius” title. So EYE IN THE SKY, both in its time and today, is probably TAPP’s biggest album. And while I don’t think it’s their best, it is clearly among them. Those first two songs are iconic, but the record that follows them is also pretty strong. It gets a little less wistful or spacey on a song like “Psychobabble,” then returns to prog noodling on instrumental “Mammagamma,” but these changes make the album a fuller experience. But EYE IN THE SKY , in spite of “Sirius,” “Eye in the Sky,” and the relatively strong feeling it imparts, ends up without the kind of tracks that define a really good record, even one of the best Alan Parsons Project records.
#3 — THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD (1980)
Favorite track: “Snake Eyes”
THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD, in its vinyl form, is in my house, due to the fact that it’s my girlfriend’s favorite Alan Parsons Project album. While I don’t fully agree, I do think that it somehow positively inverts the problems (or relative criticism) I had with EYE IN THE SKY. THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD doesn’t have a song as good as “Eye in the Sky,” although its standout “Snake Eyes” is really fun rock, but its cohesion renders it better than its successor. The “Turn of a Friendly Card” “suite” (made up of alternating vocal-led and instrumental tracks) is appropriately epic, and the whole album carries a kind of slinking, hook-y rock that undercuts the perception, which even I have, that The Alan Parsons Project just does silly, ineffectual, light prog stuff. Well, THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD is still kind of silly, but it rocks too.
#2 — EVE (1979)
Favorite track: “Winding Me Up”
Admirably, EVE was The Alan Parsons Project’s statement about the strength of women in the face of male control. Ironically, only two female vocalists appear on the record’s nine tracks (although I guess one of them was instrumental). To further the irony, my favorite track, “Winding Me Up,” is one of those male-fronted songs (by Rainbow). However, the whole of EVE is just made up of really strong and, by the standard of the Project, tight pop songs. There’s spacey-ness and rambling to be found on EVE, but it’s in short supply relative to the great hooks. And even when the experimental or indulgent stuff pops up, it’s kind of welcome, as in the instrumental, string-based interludes on “Winding Me Up.” There’s nearly no other TAPP album I’d rather listen to than EVE because it so squarely hits the symphonic pop rock that, when the band did it well, balances the cheese with pleasing and downright beautiful sounds.
#1 — VULTURE CULTURE (1984)
Favorite track: “Sooner or Later”
While I don’t know that it gets as symphonic or beautiful as EVE, VULTURE CULTURE does embrace the cheese and brings it to bear on an unfaltering string of great pop rock songs. When I began revisiting The Alan Parson Project’s discography, I would not have expected this album to come in at #1; I thought that EYE IN THE SKY or THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD would receive that recognition. Indeed, when I had first listened to VULTURE CULTURE some time ago, I had thought it kind of forgettable. For whatever reason, on renewed listens, I appreciated the record’s refinement of the instincts to be found on EYE IN THE SKY, after the slight detour that AMMONIA AVENUE represented. Each of VULTURE CULTURE’s eight tracks are just groovy as hell, delivering the ’80s pop sounds we’re all familiar with while injecting just enough of an intellect in composition to prevent the songs from sliding into write-off material. While VULTURE CULTURE is my favorite album from TAPP, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily one of the great pop, rock, or pop rock albums of the ’80s. I also wouldn’t say that The Alan Parsons Project, even in their vein of music, were one of the greats of their era. But the band delivered satisfying stuff, of which VULTURE CULTURE is their most satisfying, in spite of the place they held as a kind of punching bag for certain critics (and still kind of do). Just chill and dive into the cheese, man.