The upsurge of academic interest in the genre known as progressive rock has taken much for granted. In particular, little account has been taken of how discourses surrounding progressive rock were deployed in popular culture in the past, especially within the music press. To recover the historical place of the music and its critical reception, we present an analysis of three British weekly music papers of the 1960s and 1970s: Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds. We find that there appears to be relatively little consensus in the papers studied regarding the use and meaning of the term ‘progressive’, pointing to either multiple interpretations or an instability of value judgments and critical claims. Its most common use is to signify musical quality – to connect readers with the breadth of new music being produced at that time, and to indicate a move away from the ‘underground’ scene of the late 1960s.