Trying to whittle down the 10 best King Crimson songs of all time isn’t easy. This is a band with a career that spans decades, that’s released more albums and more singles than most of us have had hot dinners. They’re a band that’s been pigeonholed as ‘prog rock,’ but that’s managed to incorporate elements of everything from jazz to heavy metal, folk to industrial, gameplan to classical in their music. In short, they’re one of a kind. These are their most timeless moments.
King Crimson have been through countless lineup changes over the years, with Robert Fripp being the only founding member that’s stuck around. By 1974, they’d whittled their numbers down to a core group of Fripp, John Wetton, and Bill Bruford. It was a powerful trio, but the writing was on the wall: shortly after “Red” was released, the band disbanded, albeit to re-emerge 6 years later. But if they had to go out, they couldn’t have picked a better way to do it. The album is among their best, while its title track is as menacing as it is magnificent. With a brutal riff and more heaviness than the band had ever attempted before, it’s an intense listen, but a rewarding one.
9. Thela Hun Ginjeet
When King Crimson disbanded in 1974, Fripp spent a little time in spiritual retreats before eventually getting back into music. After working with the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno, he decided to form a band alongside guitarist and singer Adrian Belew. Initially, the new band went by the name of Discipline. But who wants Discipline when you can have King Crimson? Que a quick name change, a visit to the studio, and the boys were back in town. They were different boys (bar Fripp) and they had a different sound, but they were still epic. The fast and funky “Thela Hun Ginjeet” is one of their best tracks from the period.
If you’re a guitarist looking to add some King Crimson to your repertoire, don’t even think of attempting “Fracture.” Described by Fripp as “impossible to play,” this 11 minute epic from King Crimson’s 1974 album “Starless and Bible Black” is legendary for its nonstop barrage of notes. Still, Fripp manages it with ease, adding a sense of dynamism and motion to an already very satisfying piece.
7. The Night Watch
“Starless and Bible Black” gave us some amazing songs. Most of the album was recorded as a live jamming session, but thanks to the tight production and the band’s very obvious talents, it sounds as polished as a standard studio offering. “The Night Watch” is a sumptuous affair with a lush melody and a swooning guitar riff that as finely worked as the Rembrandt painting the song takes its name from.
6. Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I
As Society of Rock says, “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I” is more than just a song. It’s a “thrilling and exciting musical experience” that ranks as one of the most intelligent and innovative prog-rock songs of all time. If you want to know why King Crimson are considered prog royalty, this explains why.
5. Ladies of the Road
As The Guardian writes, one of the aspects of King Crimson that’s always gone underappreciated is their swagger. It’s not as self-aggrandizing as the swagger you’d associate with some of their contemporaries, but it’s still there, and it’s there more than ever on “Ladies of the Road.” Boz Burrell’s raspy vocals cut through the deliciously bawdy lyrics like a swathe, with Mel Collins’ rapacious sax providing the perfect complement. Add in some drunken guitar from Fripp, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Led Zeppelin.
4. Cat Food
King Crimson might be a band that does fear and loathing very well, but when they went to party, they’ve got the goods. With its slinky bassline, snarky lyrics, and jazzy keyboards, “Cat Food” is a playful reminder of the band’s lighter side. It’s one they rarely indulge, but when they do, put down what you’re doing and listen up.
During a piece with loudersound.com, King Crimson’s very own Jakko Jakszyk named “Starless” as one of his favorite pieces. It’s not hard to see why. Taken from the masterful “Red,” its sumptuous melody, mournful overtones, and explosive climax are hypnotizing. How the band managed to layer such delicate, fragile verses against such a fierce instrumental is a question only they can answer, but they did, and the result is immense. It’s a rollercoaster, but one you’d gladly pay to ride again.
Recorded for their 1969 debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” “Epitaph” is little short of an assault on the senses… but in a good way. Wrought with emotion, it rages at the senselessness of war with a passion and a depth that’s staggering, particularly for such a young band. Deeply affecting lyrics, a mournful guitar, weary vocals, and a swelling Mellatron all combine to create something that’s as poignant as it is powerful. If you want easy listening, try Phil Collins. If you want something that’s going to linger in your memory long after the last note fades, listen to this instead.
1. 21st Century Schizoid Man
“21st Century Schizoid Man” isn’t just one of King Crimson’s best songs, it’s one of the best prog anthems of all time, period. Taken from their 1969 debut, it represents a defining moment in prog history, combining elements of metal with rock, Avant -classical, and jazz in a way that had never been attempted before. It was new and it was wonderful, with nasty lyrics, a thunderous riff, and a violence and an aggression that may have been a world away from the flower children in San Francisco, but which was all the better for it. It was masterful then and it’s still masterful now, over a half-century later. If ever there was a reason King Crimson are still packing out arenas and selling records while most of their contemporaries have either been forgotten or sidelined, this is it.