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King Crimson Albums, Ranked Worst to Best

Breaking down the highlights and lowlights of King Crimson’s 15-album studio career.

King Crimson Albums Ranked From Worst to Best

Ranking King Crimson’s 15 Studio Albums

With heavy, sweeping Mellotron chords, poetic lyrics and the crunchy, free jazz guitar of Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s musical work focused on dark, emotional themes. Sometimes atonal, often majestic and pastoral, but never dependent on blues licks or heavy jamming.

King Crimson’s music drew from many sources including 20th century composition, British folk, free jazz, and heavy rock ala Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and even The Moody Blues.

Since that first incarnation, the band has existed in various combos, each one unique to its time and personnel. King Crimson is a band that never looks back or imposes any sort of nostalgia. Theirs is a forward-thinking vision. Although they’ve aspired to the same energy and musicality of their first album, each subsequent record has added more energy, sonic fury, and originality than the previous ones.

Although this is a list is ranking King Crimson’s studio albums (and two live ones), the band is best enjoyed through various live recordings available through their website, dgmlive.com

15 . Earthbound

King Crimson Albums Ranked: 15 - Earthbound

Why it’s King Crimson’s “Worst” Album

Although Nick Cave admits that Earthbound is his favorite Crimson album, it’s always been considered their worst. Not that there is such a thing as a bad King Crimson album, but sonically speaking, this record is lacking, but what it lacks sonically it more than makes up for in power playing. Lots of free jazz and improv moments plus, possibly the best version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” ever recorded. This is an abbreviated set list from shows they played in the Midwest and northern states (one of the improvs is titled “Peoria,” having been played and recorded there). Is this an accidental heavy metal album? Yes, probably.

14. Lizard

Best King Crimson Albums: 14 - Lizard

Why it’s King Crimson’s 14th best Album

Lizard usually ranks low, but it should not be considered a bad album in any way. It is just as focused as anything that came before or after. Every King Crimson album is built with 100% investment in its quality. Probably the last great prog album before bands like Yes and ELP took the pomposity of orchestra inspired rock to excessive and pompous heights. There are some poetic and soft moments in Lizard but there are also the typically scary and dark Crimson songs like in “Cirkus” and the bolero portion of the epic second side. This album is Crimson’s tribute to The Beatles and their breakup, including the satirical and witty “Happy Family.” There are funny moments in Crimson albums and this one probably contains most of them. If you look closely, you can see The Beatles on the cover.

13. ConstruKCtion of Light

Top King Crimson Albums: 13 - ConstruKCtion of Light

Why it’s King Crimson’s 13th best Album

ConstruKCtion of Light was an album recorded in Adrian Belew’s home studio in Tennessee. These songs arrived from the few years of improv ProjeKCts that the band had toured with. The double trio of THRAK was now reduced to a double duo and the band was more than ready to tear through these heavy and poignant songs. The album closes with the monumental “Larks Tongues Part IV,” sectioning off into different parts in true prog rock tradition. As a bonus, a ProjeKCt X song fades in at the end as a somewhat ambient and rock reminder that not all hope is gone.

12. The Power to Believe

King Crimson Albums Ranked: 12 - The Power to Believe

Why it’s King Crimson’s 12th best Album

The Power to Believe is the last studio King Crimson album to date. Created out of the music played on the ConstruKCtion of Light tour, this is a carefully assembled collection of music that brought Crimson to the forefront of guitar-based rock bands. This is a heavy metal album, nuovo metal if you will, at times sounding like a Tool record but with lots of techno and dance input that’s not off putting in the very least. The songs are sequence in the way their live shows were played. A very powerful sequence of songs about love and the end of the world.

11. Three of a Perfect Pair

Best King Crimson Albums: 11 - Three of a Perfect Pair

Why it’s King Crimson’s 11th best Album

Three of a Perfect Pair is the third part of the 80’s band’s trilogy of colorful and highly original albums. The band would take a ten-year hiatus after this was recorded and it contains some great fractal playing in the way of the title track and in “Larks Tongues Part III.” Still clinging to that new wave sound, this is more of a Belew album with some wonderful ballads and less hard and loud playing. It does contain improvisational moments like “Industry” and parts of “Dig Me.” The title track is an exercise in complicated guitar playing with interlocking finger picking.

10. Islands

Top King Crimson Albums: 10 - Islands

Why it’s King Crimson’s 10th best Album

Islands summarized everything the band had done up to 1971.  This was the second live line up of the band since the original 1969 group had disbanded. With a new singer/bass player, drummer, and carrying sax player Mel Collins over from In the Wake of Poseidon, this surrogate version of the band carried on with these new songs. Songs based around chamber and stringed music, composed by Robert Fripp.

Perhaps the band suffered a bit of an identity crisis. This is a band that carried over the fury and metal, if you will, from the last three albums, however added more free jazz than previously. There are flute and sax moments (by Collins) that are influenced by the free jazz of the period: Sonny Sharrock and Pharaoh Sanders. In fact, this version of the band once covered Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Turning point to this record is the song “Sailor’s Tale,” the heaviest song on the record. This song planted the seed for all future heavy songs by the band, setting a standard that pointed to not only songs on Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black, but also the guitar work Fripp did on albums by Brian Eno and David Bowie. If you enjoy the heaviness of that song, you’ll love the first King Crimson live album ever released: Earthbound (see above).

9. Beat

King Crimson Albums Ranked: 9 - Beat

Why it’s King Crimson’s 9th best Album

Beat is a sequel to Discipline and continues Adrian Belew’s lyrical tribute to the beat writers of the ’50s and ’60s. Songs like “Neil and Jack and Me,” “The Howler,” and “Satori in Tangier” are all dedicated to writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Karouac and William S. Burroughs. The album contains the future-shock ode to New York, “Neurotica” with its many guitar and synth driven sounds. The album ends with the long improv “Requiem” that’s a strange, new wave version of noise, coming off like Wire or maybe ever Einstürzende Neubauten.

8. USA

Best King Crimson Albums: 8 - USA

Why it’s King Crimson’s 8th best Album

USA was the second live King Crimson album released. This is an abbreviated set from their show at the Casino on the boardwalk of Asbury Park. Contains a very powerful opener in “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 2” and goes through the sequence of their sets at the time, including a one-off improv that promises heavy metal, funk and the avant-garde all in one breath. You’ve heard these songs before from their perspective albums, but never this loud. The improv “Asbury Park” is a funky creature all its own that almost sounds like it doesn’t belong.

7. Discipline

Top King Crimson Albums: 7 - Discipline

Why it’s King Crimson’s 7th best Album

Discipline sailed the band into the 80’s and a new era of musicking. Taking notes from post-punk, new wave, and The Talking Heads (whom both Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp had played with), this version of the band was all gamelan rhythms and locked guitar patterns. The title track sets off a trend of guitar picking and song building that probably began back with the middle section of “One More Red Nightmare” on Red but became the new standard. Along with that there is the touching ballad, “Matte Kudasai,” but you also get comical excursions like “Elephant Talk” and “Thela Hun Ginjeet” which recalls an incident where Belew was accosted by a group of young men in the street asking him why he was carrying around a tape recorder and capturing random sounds from the streets of New York.

6. Starless and Bible Black

King Crimson Albums Ranked: 6 - Starless and Bible Black

Why it’s King Crimson’s 6th best Album

Starless and Bible Black followed Lark’s Tongues in Aspic and all but three of the songs were recorded live. Not that you can tell. This is the one that started them on the road to Red with very heavy playing, crazy improvs, and a fierce sense of Crimsoning. Inspired by The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi record, this album contains the most difficult song that any guitarist has ever attempted: “Fracture.” It contains melancholy miniatures like “Trio” and some well-timed asymmetrical lines by way of the instrumental “Starless and Bible Black.” Is it metal? Is it prog? It’s something else altogether.

5. THRAK

Best King Crimson Albums: 5. -THRAK

Why it’s King Crimson’s 5th best Album

THRAK was an important album released in 1995. The band had been on hiatus since 1985, having fractured and then regrouped with the 80’s lineup: Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford and Robert Fripp plus newcomers Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelatto. This is heavy rock with class. Heavy rock at its finest. There’s some humorous riffing going on, beautiful ballads and ruckus numbers like drum showcase “B’Boom,” “THRAK” and “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream.” “VROOM” is the beginning of this great version of this long-standing group.

4. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic

Top King Crimson Albums: 4 - Larks’ Tongues in Aspic

Why it’s King Crimson’s 4th best Album

From the remains of the Islands group arrived this powerful ensemble and their proto-metal ferocity. The personnel of the group changed once again, this time bringing new, powerful players into the fold: bassist John Wetton from Family; drummer Bill Bruford from Yes, and percussionist/drummer Jamie Muir from the British free-jazz collective Music Improvisation Company. This reboot established a tone that followed them throughout their career with the understanding that when the time comes to make music like King Crimson, King Crimson appears to make that music.

The opening title track (Part 1) rolls in quietly like a Trojan horse, starting slowly, and stirring its way to a loud, crashing crescendo. Two beautiful ballads follow that including the delicate and wonderful “Book of Saturday,” leading into the slow, grunge metal of “Easy Money.” “The Talking Drum” begins like one of their live improvs (the sound of buzzing bees was created by spinning a saxophone reed on a string) and builds up the terror that immediately cuts into the second part of “Larks’ Tongues,” cementing a suite of music that would always be a part of their live repertoire.

This album was but a blueprint for how the songs were played live and is as important as their first record… and the number one spot on this list.

3. In the Wake of Poseidon

King Crimson Albums Ranked: 3 - In the Wake of Poseidon

Why it’s King Crimson’s 3rd Best Album

In the Wake of Poseidon is almost better than the first album AND is built exactly like In the Court of the Crimson King: powerful opener, ballad, power ballad, improv, etc. It moves through hard and soft songs, exquisitely written and performed, still channeling British folk, classical and heavy rock with a touch of free jazz. Heavy on Mellotron and jazz guitar and ends with the apocalyptic “The Devil’s Triangle” which was adapted from Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”. Powerful, emotional stuff.

2. In the Court of the Crimson King

Best King Crimson Albums: 2 - In the Court of the Crimson King

Why it’s King Crimson’s 2nd Best Album

In the Court of the Crimson King is the album that put King Crimson on the map. While working within a rock format, King Crimson released music that had no genre, though its closest genus would be jazz, avant-garde, and classical. In the Court of the Crimson King became a template for all of the great records that followed; the evil flip side to The Moody Blues, this was music for the end of the world. Recorded in 1969 after several shows played in their home country of England helped them to get a strong cult following.

They were asked to open for The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park and that show helped to establish them even before this album was released. The music therein contains some powerful pieces of ensemble playing with one of the greatest hard rock songs ever written, “21st Century Schizoid Man” exploding out of the gate like the future version of Jimi Hendrix playing the music of Igor Stravinsky. Many great songs on this album, including the title track.

1. Red

Top King Crimson Albums: 1 - Red

Why it’s King Crimson’s Best Album

The momentum built up since the first King Crimson album all leads to Red: a powerful, groundbreaking, and unexpected slam of atonal and orchestral rock played at full force. By this point in their career the members of this version of the band had rehearsed and attempted some of these songs live on their 73-74 tours. By the time they arrived as a trio (Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, John Wetton) they knocked it all into place, creating some very original rock music that was peerless when it was recorded in 1975. Highlights include pretty much the entire album since there are only five songs on it. “Red” set a precedence that reached out as far as their 1995 release, THRAK. They probably invented prog-metal with this album.

Share Your Thoughts on King Crimson’s Best Album

Have thoughts on this list? Feel free to share your ranking of King Crimson’s studio albums in the comments below.

Manny Torres

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Manny Torres resides in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also a photographer and painter. For 15 years he was a programmer and co-conspirator on Step Outside: The Strange and Beautiful Music program on WMNF 88.5FM in Florida. He is the author of the road-noir Dead Dogs, and its follow-up Perras Malas, which will be published in 2022. He’s written and directed several documentaries and music videos, including The Trespasser, Unendangered Species, The Abby Go Go Christmas Special and "Change Your Mind" by Sara Rachelle. He is currently working on a series of crime novels.

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