Making a top 10/20/25 Dream Theater list is wrought with risk. Because nobody will agree.
You might think this is an affliction for all bands. But - not really. While people might disagree on the early vs later Metallica, the top 10 will end up being a rough reordering of the same songs. Ditto with the Beatles, Deep Purple and Iron Maiden.
But Dream Theater? Ah, there are so many angles! Long songs vs short songs. Mangini vs Portnoy. Moore vs Rudess. LaBrie vs no LaBrie. Early DT vs later DT. One man's favourite song can be another person's 'rubbish' - and I know this, having trawled dozens of forums and discussions - each of my top 10 at some point have been praised as the greatest song to bless our presence, and at the same time has been lambasted. Songs that you yourself thought you hated turn out to be absolute gems on a second (or 55th) listen. And let's not forget - many people don't like DT to begin with - the apparent instruwankery and length of songs being prime barriers.
So let's just get a few basics out of the way:
Dream Theater is an American progressive metal band. While critics interpret that as a license to instrumentally show off, fans of the genre look at it as everything pop music isn't: Unconventional, challenging song structures. Deep lyrical themes. Having and displaying technical proficiency. All this and more is what draws fans to the genre, while at the same time giving fodder to critics. While DT have been proclaimed as metal poets (rightly so) let me confess right at the outset that I'm all about the music. So while many forums go on and on about their lyric-writing ability, I've only really just heard the sound.
I was first introduced to DT in 2004/5 when I was just learning the guitar. The technical mastery of the instruments was jaw-dropping and I've been hooked to their music since. I've always made it a point to read lyrics / interpretations (shout out to this site) while listening to music, and this is particularly rewarding in the case of this band. Also, Amazon reviews where you find some of the most vociferous fans and opinions.
One thing is for certain: Dream Theater is a band that demands your attention. It's not easy listening, the music will not come to you. You need to stop what you're doing and focus. Only then will the smorgasbord of notes and drumming stop being noise and make sense to you. If you're looking for easy listening, head elsewhere. If you're looking for wankery for wankery's sake look here. If you're looking for awesome but easy listening guitar, may I recommend this gent? If you're looking for music to push your boundaries, be a little frustrated along the way, and just generally be blown away by what you hear - you've come to the right place.
So then, on to my list of top 20, which will no doubt be debated :)
20. The Enemy Inside (Dream Theater, 2013)
DT has never been scared of talking about issues - ranging from AIDS to depression. And this is one example. The video perfectly accompanies the theme of the song, and while it might be radio-friendly for some, it works as an out-and-out hard rock song.
19. The Best Of Times (Black Clouds And Silver Linings, 2009)
DT was never scared to bring in other instruments in to the studio: Be it an orchestra or a violin, as you'll hear here. They're also never in a hurry to get to the point. This is about Howard Portnoy, Mike's dad. It's a touching tribute that starts off very slowly with an acoustic guitar before rushing into a fast-forward album flip of their life together. It's easy to follow but there are enough changes to keep hard-nosed prog fans interested throughout. There's a small reference to A Change Of Seasons, Mike's tribute to his mom (eagle-eyed DT fans will notice).
But as powerful as the lyrical content of the song is - people will remember the astonishing guitar solo at the end, starting 9:59 - a flurry of his emotional and shredding side both, which many have said is his finest solo ever.
18. Home (Scenes From A Memory, 1999)
It's one of those intros where you know something awesome is going to happen. Before that a word on the album itself - Metropolis Part 2 - Scenes From A Memory is one of the most stunning concept albums ever written and a best-of-list can never do justice to the genius of an album like that. Check out the story here. Home follows a pivotal part in the story, and knowledge of the theme can make the song seem more powerful. Musically this a monster: There's a sitar-laden intro / solo, crunching riffs, haunting spoken words and sounds of slot machines (again, read the story). Here's the genius of DT that many mistake for wankery: The fast-paced solo sections are where the protagonist is going through moments of anguish and the music is meant to reflect his state of mind. Sharp-eared DT fans will notice a few riffs and lyrics referencing Metropolis Part 1. I like the live version better (even though James LaBrie is better in the studio), so here it is...
17. Hollow Years (Live At Budokan, 2004)
This song is one of those examples why I love reading fan comments along with listening to the song. The original version of this of course, is on the much-lambasted 1997 album Falling Into Infinity. One fan recommended listening to the Budokan version of this song where Petrucci has probably his finest guitar solo. I would have normally skimmed over the live albums without too much of a thought, but made it a point to get it and boy - am I grateful.
While the song itself is decent - Petrucci adds a wonderful acoustic intro and then an astonishing solo at 4:39 which, I must say, was an absolute privilege to listen to. To date, it's one of my favourite guitar solos of all time and (in my book) easily Petrucci's finest. I love how he waves to the crowd at 6:26 without breaking the flow!
Being one of their most radio-friendly songs, you can give this to anyone, regardless of whether they like prog metal or not. What. A. Solo.
16. Only A Matter Of Time (When Dream And Day Unite, 1989)
Uncharacteristically hummable given its deep progness. It's hard to believe a bunch of 20-year-olds were able to write an album as landmark as WDADU, that too for a genre that hardly existed. The influence of original keyboardist Kevin Moore is apparent here. This song features first vocalist Charlie Dominici who, despite not finding favour with DT fans, does quite a decent job on the album and especially this song. Moore writes some of the most cryptic lyrics on a DT song, which manage to seamlessly flow into the complicated time signature. I mean, as you have the lyrics open in front of you, you can't help but sing along to:
I understand mine's a risky plan
And your system can't miss
But is security after all a cause
Or symptom of happiness?
Or how about the gloriously rewarding
And though the time will come when
Dream and day unite
Tonight the only consolation causing
Him to fight
A fantastic end to one of the great debut albums by a band that will continue to rule the genre for decades.
15. Forsaken (Systematic Chaos, 2008)
This comes bang in the middle of DT's most critically panned phase, and this song might be an easy target for those who like to brandish a 'sellout' label eager to pin it on someone. One can understand why: It's a piano intro, guitar riff and chorus that's pretty radio-friendly. Not to mention, it has a video! The song has been discussed to be about a broken relationship but could also be about a parasitic alien race / vampires (makes sense actually). It might be the least prog thing on this list, but is still a fantastic showcase of LaBrie's singing and the inventiveness of the rest of the band. Plus, the keyboard intro is a favourite ringtone of mine.
14. Breaking All Illusions (A Dramatic Turn Of Events, 2011)
That intro will sum up DT in a minute: Incredible riff you can't keep time to, all instruments playing a part, mood changing from cheerful to bleak without you knowing it. There are massive keyboard riffs and punctuated with that happy folksy tink-tinkery which peppers the song and keeps the upbeat vibe going. For me, the highlight is a lovely guitar solo by Petrucci which should bring back memories of La Villa Strangiato. Indeed, for those who think the man is all about mindless shredding, listen to 6:08-8:50. For most bands, a song like this might be the apex of their career. For DT, however, we're just getting started.
13. Wait For Sleep (Images and Words, 1991)
A unique song that has just keys and LaBrie singing. It's one of their most touching songs which has been best linked to various types of relationships. In an ideal world, that haunting intro should be the piano equivalent of the Smoke On The Water riff in music stores around the country. Songs like this show why Kevin Moore is held in such revere by fans of the band. Great song to try out new headphones.
12. Behind The Veil (Dream Theater, 2013)
About a kidnapping, told from the victim's point of view. It's dark lyrical matter delivered brilliantly by LaBrie - the man moves from menacing (paragraph 1) to pleading (prechorus) to operatic (chorus). The latter, by the way, is one of the best DT ever had - I would love to be in a show where they played this live. Then there is the usual Rudess-Petrucci magic happening.
11. Instrumedley (Live At Budokan, 2004)
Four masters of their respective instruments in one band. Many would say John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy, John Myung and Jordan Rudess are the greatest exponents of their respective crafts in the world and it is an absolute treat to watch them have an absolute go. I present to you Instrumedley, a 13 minute compilation of the best instrumental moments of DT (and the side project Liquid Tension Experiment) over the years - delivered to one very lucky audience in Japan. There's nothing to explain here. Just keep your jaw off the ground and enjoy, you will lose 200 calories by just watching the video. Oh and if you're wondering what the songs by themselves are - go here. The best way to watch this is split-screen!
As you see / listen to it, you are left bewildered by many things: How can they be so tight? How do they remember all the notes? What's that fish on the side of Rudess' keyboard? Has Portnoy just done the most badass thing by a guy wearing glasses? Is the moment when they break out into Ytse Jam the single best thing to happen on stage live? Phew.
10. Pull Me Under (Images and Words, 1991)
Ah, the song that critics love to pan - which automatically means it's one of their best and most accessible songs. I wonder what about this song suggests it's radio friendly: It's over 8 minutes long, is as prog / unconventional as it gets and the lyrics aren't exactly singalong. Heck, the lyrics kick in only at the 2-minute mark.
What it does have is an amazing intro that I'll never tire of, signalling the beginning of probably the finest prog metal album of all time, great singing by new recruit James LaBrie, fantastic musicmanship - I particularly enjoy Myung and Petrucci's rhythm guitaring on this. Oh, and that anticlimax of an ending!
If this song is 'accessible' and it means some more people get to try out DT, I have no problem with that. We need more gateways.
09. The Ministry Of Lost Souls (Systematic Chaos, 2008)
Some DT songs take a while to get to the point. Not this one. It was love at first keyboard riff here - I love large orchestral keyboard riffs and this one just pinned me to the wall when I first heard it.
The song has some beautiful interpretations which you should check out here. With the knowledge of some of those interpretations, it's hard to keep a dry eye while listening to this. (Yes, DT are one of those bands who are capable of making grown men cry)
This song is a perfect example of the 'instruwankery' meaning something - read the lyrics and you'll automatically draw images in your own head, and all the notes suddenly make sense. Of people running, screaming, struggling in their sleep - it's mystical, scary and magical. And it reaches a crescendo before beautifully 'dropping' back into the opening riff at 10:42. Phew. What EDM 'drop' can compete with the sheer beauty and emotion of this?
An absolute cracker of a song, this, and a highly underrated one.
08. Illumination Theory (Dream Theater, 2013)
At the time of writing, this is their last opus: A monster 23-minuter to close their eponymous album. There's a lot to like here: The orchestras, the riffage, Myung making his presence felt and last but not least Mike Mangini sounding like he belongs!
The first few minutes are all angry DT - which then gives way to some lovely solo work (please keep an ear peeled for magic by Myung here!), and a beautiful orchestra section (close your eyes here), and the usual insane instrumental show-of-prowess.
It's a complete package and a song that grows on you rapidly, despite the sheer length. It's heartening to know these guys still have it in them to belt out a monster like this.
07. Ytse Jam (When Dream And Day Unite, 1989)
The first sign of the incredible instrumental wizardry to come.
The title of this instrumental is MAJESTY in reverse - which was the first name of the band. All the chops are here: Odd time signatures, individual members showing off, headbangable moments... Most bands would be happy to pull this off as their opus, but for Theater, it's just a minor matter of announcing themselves. A bunch of 20-year olds did this, keep in mind.
06. A Change Of Seasons (A Change Of Seasons, 1995)
One of their most popular songs (well, at 23", it's not likely to be on too many party playlists - so let's just say popular as far as prog metal discussion forums go). It was written by Portnoy in a tribute to his mother. That intro is one of the most beautiful Theater has ever done.
This song has more melodies and riffs than you can count - my favourite is the one at 4:11. Encapsulates the song so well. James LaBrie - much reviled and revered both - does a terrific job of delivering the pain-laden lyrics and screams. You can feel Portnoy's emotions - hope, pain and anguish - reflected here. And as is to be expected of a song of this size, there's a lot of superb instrumental action and coordination here (how do these guys do it?!)
The 'Carpe Diem Sieze The Day' lyric is one of their most famous and will be referenced later in a few songs.
And for those who care about such things, this is the first comment on the video:
4/4, 3/4, 7/4, 8/4, 7/4, 8/4, 7/4, 4/4, 3/4, 7/4, 17/8, 21/8, 17/16, 4/4, 15/8, 7/4, 4/4, 9/8, 15/8, 7/4, 4/4, 9/8, 4/4, 9/8, 4/4, CARPE DIEM! SIEZE THE DAY!, 6/4, 19/16, 5/4, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 8/4, 3/4, 6/4, 4/4, 10/4, 6/4, 4/4, 11/8, 7/8, 11/8, 18/8, 4/4, 7/8, 7/4, 6/4, 6/8, 4/4, 3/4, 5/8, 4/4.
And well, I know we DT fans pride ourselves on our tolerance for long songs and sneer on others for their lack of patience etc, but even I feel that this was a little overblown and a few minutes could have easily been shaved off - not for accessibility's sake but I don't think the song needed it.
Big boys now!
05. Octavarium (Octavarium, 2005)
There are two ways of looking at Dream Theater's finest opus: One, as an overblown, self-indulgent exercise in excess. The other is possibly the best musical autobiography ever told. Neither approach is wrong. I lean towards the latter, of course - but let it be made clear - Octavarium is not the song you give a prog metal virgin.
However, once you submit yourself to the fact that this is going to be an awesome theatrical experience, you're in for a treat. The first 4 minutes (yes, most Bon Jovi songs are over by then) meander along like Pink Floyd at their lazy finest. Then there's a bit of synth and flute.
By the way, this song is about DT themselves - their influences (Floyd, Rush, The Beatles and others) and then how they defined this genre for themselves and got trapped inside it (Hence the repeating 'Trapped Inside This Octavarium' lyric).
The meandering, slow start gives way to the next movement, where Myung really gets into his element and the tempo really picks up (well, given that it's 13" into the song, they'd better start getting to the point, yes?). I love the next section - where there are vocal tributes to many of their heroes and the songs (you'll notice them!) though it's surprising to see no Rush reference there, given how much of an influence they are for the band.
Another musical genius moment follows: Each of the songs in the album are invoked - each of them are on a different scale - hence going to a full circle (from F to F), and LaBrie screams out Trapped Inside This Octavarium - hitting the highest notes he's ever done on a DT studio album.
It's a stunning musical extravagaza - which again, many will pan for being excessive. But hey, screw them.
04. Stream Of Consciousness (Train of Thought, 2003)
From one of DT's heaviest albums comes this fabulous instrumental.
There is nothing much I want to say here - except, you will be hard-pressed to find a better showcase of the instrumental wizardry of the band than this. The opening arpeggio is one of the darkest and really sets the tone for the magic to come.
John Petrucci - you are a God.
03. Dance of Eternity (Scenes From A Memory, 1999)
When SFAM came out, many hailed it as a progressive milestone and this instrumental as the greatest ever. I'm not too sure about that - I think La Villa Strangiato is the greatest, and perhaps Messrs Beethoven / Bach might have a point of view on that.
But anyway - this is their most famous instrumental and for good reason. It's got more time signature changes than you can possibly imagine. So many that even the drummer - one of the most acclaimed in the world - struggles.
This song is the reason why haters hate (or is it h8?) and fans adore. Sure, it's a lot of wankery on display with just a few melodies thrown in, but there are other songs for that. This is Dream Theater at their finest or worst depending on your point of view.
02. Metropolis Part 1 - The Miracle And The Sleeper (Images and Words, 1991)
If you can get past the extravagant title, what reveals itself is possibly the finest prog metal song of all time. It's a terrific introduction to anyone looking to get into the genre.
There's a storyline here (which is continued a few albums later), great musicmanship, a lovely intro that's built up, James LaBrie at his best... My favourite moment is after all the instrumental showmanship, there's a crescendo that's built up... And it all peaks and climaxes, leaving an orgasm of beautiful chiming guitars at 8:03 - that is to me, Dream Theater's finest moment encapsulating all that they are about - a lot of instrumental wankery, but with melody underlying all of it.
01. Learning To Live (Images and Words, 1991)
I am aware this is an odd choice for a top song, but I have many reasons for it.
One, that intro.
Two, that voice. James LaBrie might be reviled by many, but any man who can pull off a performance like this, especially those high notes he hits in the middle.
Three, the lyrics. I know I don't look at words too much, but Myung has some real nice stuff here, apparently about AIDS.
And finally - the ultimate DT instrumental moment. From 7:04 onwards when LaBrie delivers that goosebump-inducing shriek - it all becomes instrumental fantasy. First, Petrucci's guitar solo, 7:51 is one of my favourite DT moments, but it all comes to climax when Wait For Sleep is reinvoked and a full piece constructed around it. It suddenly gives meaning to why that odd 2 minute song was placed in the album in the first place.
Melody after melody follows - each of them could have been the cornerstone of a song by itself - here, Theater are at the height of their creative powers (Oh, Kevin Moore!) and throw them around with the gay abandon of five men in their mid-20s endowed with musical superpower.
Even after LaBrie ends with his last lines, they are not quite done - Myung gives a spectacular bass run on which the band builds, taking the listener into the outro, to end what is quite possibly the greatest progressive metal album ever.
Learning to Live had me in tears of joy when I heard it for the first time and I will weep if I ever manage to see it live.
Phew. so there you have it. My top 20. I realise this post went on for as long as a DT song itself. Feel free to criticise, give your own rankings, etc.
For what it's worth, here's what my 21-30 would have looked like:
21. In The Presence of Enemies (1+2)
22. Trial Of Tears
23. Take The Time
24. Space Dye Vest
25. The Enemy Inside
26. These Walls
27. The Spirit Carries On (which is also the name for their excellent drummerhunt documentary!)
28. Fatal Tragedy
29. On The Backs of Angels
30. Along For The Ride
PS: One of my life dreams is to watch this band live. Feel free to crowdsource etc :D