King Crimson: Five Best Albums

King Crimson aren’t so much a band as a series of bands, all featuring idiosyncratic guitarist Robert Fripp. With a demeanour that resembles a University professor more than a rock star, Fripp’s plotted an erratic course for his band. The group formed in London in 1968, but their ninth album, 1982’s Beat, was the first time the band’s lineup remained the same for two consecutive albums.

While the term “progressive rock” has come to mean a specific style of music that’s symphonic and complex, King Crimson’s shifting lineups, fondness for improvisation, and changes of musical direction mark them as truly progressive. This daring approach can make for some difficult listens, but makes them constantly interesting – their discography is a wild ride, especially in the early 1970s as Fripp struggled to replace the mighty lineup that created their stellar 1969 debut, In The Court of The Crimson King.

I’ve been working through their King Crimson’s studio discography recently, and I’ve picked five favourite albums, but you should bear in mind that a lot of their live material is also acclaimed – albums like Epitaph from the initial lineup or Absent Lovers from 1984 are considered key parts of their discography.

Five Best King Crimson Albums

Starless and Bible Black


1974, #5
Of all King Crimson’s lineups, my favourites are the mid-1970s iterations of the band, featuring John Wetton on bass and vocals and Bill Bruford on drums. Starless and Bible Black is less coherent than the two albums that bookend it, as it’s largely formed around live improvisations, but it’s still full of highlights like the complex, heavy instrumental ‘Fracture’ and the beautiful ‘The Night Watch’.



#4, 1981
After breaking up King Crimson in 1974, Robert Fripp rebooted the band in 1981, retaining Bill Bruford from the previous lineup, and adding guitarist and vocalist Adrian Belew and Tony Levin on Chapman Stick and bass. The new lineup’s extreme virtuosity is impressive, a unique blend of new wave, progressive rock, and world rhythms. Belew’s persona is similar to David Byrne on songs like ‘Elephant Talk’, while the band let loose on ‘Indiscipline’.

Larks Tongues in Aspic


#3, 1973
After some unconvincing albums in the early 1970s, Fripp replaced his entire band, bringing in Wetton and Bruford along with percussionist Jamie Muir and electric violinist David Cross. Larks Tongues in Aspic is split between complex instrumentals, like the two parts of the title track, and strong songs like ‘Exiles’ and ‘Easy Money’, featuring Wetton’s gritty vocals.

In The Court of the Crimson King


#2, 1969
King Crimson immediately made an impact with their debut, with Fripp sharing the limelight with Greg Lake on vocals and bass, Michael Giles on drums, and Ian McDonald on woodwinds; McDonald contributed a lot of the song-writing to the album. It’s not perfect, as ‘Moonchild’ drags, but it’s a landmark of progressive rock, effectively defining the symphonic prog genre with highlights like ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ and ‘Epitaph’. This remains King Crimson’s only gold record – they never capitalised on its success, as the initial lineup disintegrated – Lake went on to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer.



#1, 1974
Gradually whittled down to a trio over the previous couple of records, the dominant sound on Red is the hard, complex rock of the title track and ‘One More Red Nightmare’ from Wetton, Fripp, and Bruford. But it’s the majestic closing ‘Starless’ that’s the gem of King Crimson’s oeuvre, a twelve minute epic that builds to a triumphant, unforgettable climax.

Do you have a favourite King Crimson album?


  1. I’ve been a huge Crimson fan since the ’80s and you’ll get no argument from me about these selections. I might add Thrak to the mix but otherwise these five albums would be the ideal primer for the uninitiated. I saw them recently and they are still a formidable musical force. Three incredible drummers at the front of the stage was quite a bold choice, but being a drummer myself I had no problem with that. I hope this lineup records new music soon. Fripp seems more energized than I’ve ever seen him. They should catch lightning in a bottle while it lasts.

    • Cool – I’m glad we largely agree. Thrak is pretty solid – I generally admire most of the Belew era, but find it harder to love than the 1970s material.

      I’ve seen some recent videos and they look pretty crisp – nice to see Tony Levin and Mel Collins back. Who are the writers in the current band – I imagine Belew wrote a lot of the material when he was in the band?

      • Not sure about the breakdown of songwriting in any of the lineups, but I imagine Belew contributed a lot of music and vocals during his tenure in the band. I’m a huge fan of his solo work and his band The Bears. Both are different from Crimson but equally impressive.

        The current lineup has only recorded a handful of new tunes which I believe were all based on improvisation, so the writing is probably credited to all of them.

        • OK – I didn’t realise they’d recorded some improvisations already – that’s definitely interesting.

          I have a stack of Belew’s solo albums (Desire of the Rhino King, which is a compilation of his first three solo records, then the next few) which I’ll probably write about some time.

          • I have that compilation as well as the original albums on vinyl, which I got when they were released. My favorite of his solo albums is Mr. Music Head. I was working at Atlantic Records when it was released and was so excited that he was recording for us. Listened to that album dozens of times, and I can say it holds up really well as I played it recently. It might be one of those “you had to be there” albums, though. Will be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

          • I don’t really have an opinion on that one yet – I’ve spent the most time with Inner Revolution and Here from the 1990s – but I do like it so far. Did you get to meet Belew?

          • Inner Revolution is really good but didn’t impact me as much as Mr. Music Head. I love Here and Op Zop Too Wah. If you’re not familiar with The Bears I highly recommend all of their albums. They were kind of like Belew’s “Utopia.”

            I did not meet Mr. Belew when I worked there…I was toiling away in the Royalty Accounting department where few artists appeared. I did, however, have brief conversations with Phil Collins and Debbie Gibson, nodded to Peter Frampton in an elevator, and missed one of my all-time heroes…Robert Plant…by about 10 minutes. He apparently hung out just outside my office chatting with people for 20-30 minutes. I left at 8PM that day even though I normally stayed until close to 9. A missed opportunity.

          • There are some pretty clear parallels between Belew and Rundgren, right? Both multi-instrumentalists who recorded entirely solo albums, both seem highly intelligent, with a goofy streak that comes across in their work. Sounds like I need to hear Op Zop Too Wah.

            Did Phil Collins talk about his Alamo collection? I heard that’s what he spends most of his time on now.

          • Yep, I agree about the Rundgren/Belew parallels. Love them both equally.

            Phil did not speak about his Alamo collection. Didn’t know about that until years later. I spoke with him for about 15 seconds, and drumming was the topic of discussion.

  2. Thanks for this! A band I’ve been very interested in, but so far I’ve only explored In The Court of the Crimson King – which I like muchly.

    • Glad to be of service! It’s probably a good idea to check out some of the 1973-1974 era next – it’s a different vibe, more metal and gritty, but it has the best concentration of good material, If you want more stuff that sounds like In The Court, it’s worth checking out the followup, In The Wake of Poseidon – it’s almost like a carbon copy in places, and it feels less inspired, but it has its moments.

        • Actually, I’d probably go straight for Red. In The Wake is an interesting record – there’s some new stuff, like the jazzy Cat Food, but a few of the songs are essentially copies of songs from the debut.

  3. I’d really love to argue or nitpick and thus show off my devotion to and knowledge of KC (ie: be a wanker) but really, my list would be so similar that I’ll simply say ‘Amen Comrade!’.

    I think the fifth spot for me would float – I do have a soft spot for ITWOP and, on occasions, Thrak. But if I had to lock in #5, it would be Starless. ‘Fracture’ is one of their greatest moments.

    Now I might read what others have said, and ponder the Top 5 LIVE King Crimson albums…

  4. Great list and a fine number 1. I’m familiar with them all except number 5, so I’d probably consider “Islands”, which I rather liked, to replace it. Great post! Will you be doing an E.L.P. top five?

    • I’m not actually very familiar with ELP – I just never saw their albums in second hand bins, so I’ve only really listened to them recently. Much easier to do these lists with bands I’m known for years, although I’m sure I’ll get to ELP sometime.

        • They haven’t actually made that many albums, as they’ve had a lot of hiatuses. Off the top of my head I think it’s:
          1960s: 1
          1970s: 6
          1980s: 3
          1990s: 1
          2000s: 2

          If you try out In The Court of the Crimson King, Red, and Discipline, you get a fairly good cross-section of the different eras. All the post 1970s albums have Adrian Belew as front-man.

  5. thanks for the article i love your reviews on here I hope you dont mind Ive reblogged them a few times is there any chance you could do a further extension of the other King Crimson albums , I adore John Wetton’s vocal its so perfect for the sound of King Crimson.
    have you done anything to cover Warren Zevon musical output I would like to see your hoices here one of the great songwriters

    • Hi Liza,

      I have done more detailed coverage of King Crimson here: I’m still working on Thrak, but I’m not planning to cover their 21st century albums.

      I haven’t covered Zevon – all I have is a compilation. I really like him, but it will take a while for me to get to him.

      Thanks for reblogging my articles. Is it OK to put a link/attribution back to my site at the bottom of articles that you reblog?

  6. I’ve waded into this band slowly over the years. I own and very much enjoy the top 4 albums on your list, and have been trying to decide where I want to go next. I also own “In the Wake of Poseidon.” I’ve read positive and negative reviews of “Islands,” but when I’ve sampled it I find it kind of boring. Perhaps I’d like it if I heard the album in full. To answer your question, “In the Court” is my favorite, but having finally picked up “Red” and “Larks,” the gap is closing quickly.

    • There was a reasonable amount of consensus in the comments that those are the big 4 – there’s lots of other good music in their catalogue. I like Starless a lot, but it’s pretty similar to Larks and Red.

  7. I agree with the list , although I have a soft spot on Islands and would maybe put it on #5 instead of ” Bible black”

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