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The Krautrock albums you should definitely own

Neu!, Harmonia and early Kraftwerk guitarist Michael Rother
Neu!, Harmonia and early Kraftwerk guitarist Michael Rother (Image credit: Ellen Poppinga - K & K/Getty Images/Pixabay)

Although it was given second wind when David Bowie and Brian Eno yammered on about it circa Low and Heroes in ‘77, Krautrock had first left the fatherland and put boots on British soil at the start of that decade. Not that any of the bands involved happily answered to the term. Some say it was coined by John Peel (who championed Tangerine Dream’s Atem in ’73); others claim it was pulled from an Amon Duul track which spoke of “the Sauerkraut band”. Faust called the opening track on their fourth album Krautrock, but that was a dig at how stupid they thought the Brits were. “When English people started talking about “Krautrock”, they said, “We thought they were just taking the piss”.

While the Dad’s Army simplification of the phrase gives an insight into the UK’s Seventies insularity, it’s nonetheless become a useful catch-all category for innovative German music of the era. It’s imperfect, however: what we tend to lump under “Krautrock” ranges from avant-garde dance to proggy space rock to minimalist electronica. Kraftwerk, for example (hardly rock) are polar opposites to Can (often funk). Some German acts preferred the term “kosmische”. Julian Cope, aficionado of the German underground scene, once wrote that Tangerine Dream echoed the space rock of Pink Floyd “but removed the rock”.

So debate will go on, as does the music’s influence still does, long beyond Bowie’s curatorial embrace. The persistent trait in these grooves and trips is the players’ determination to eschew American rock’n’roll clichés and create their own European but non-Anglicised identity. Songs? Melodies? Choruses? Not important. The machine-like, the mechanical, suggested that the blues no longer ran the game. This new West German generation (motivated by the student protests of ’68) was making its voice heard amid a post-WW2 cultural vacuum, rejecting their Teutonic ancestors and Yankee hand-me-downs, forging their own radical aesthetic. They’d admit, begrudgingly, to a fondness for The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and Floyd, but they were moving the goalposts to the far side.

’74 saw Autobahn driving Kraftwerk to cult attention, a year after the then-bold Virgin Records had flung The Faust Tapes at a larger audience. (It sold 50,000 copies, albeit at 49p each). Tangerine Dream attracted fans in the wake of Tubular Bells; Can’s Future Days, as Cope put it, “sounded only like itself, like no-one before or after”. The best Krautrock albums live up to that level, marching to their own Motorik. Halleluhwah!

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Neu! - Neu 75 (1975)

Neu! - Neu 75 (1975)

Many cite the two previous Neu! albums as their apogees but this swansong was Krautrock’s own apotheosis, showcasing diametrical approaches. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger reconvened, but now had conflicting, or complementary, aspirations. Rother led the ambient, sorrowful side one, while Dinger drove the motorik masterwork that is side two, with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe drumming. 

While the first half induces reflection, the second is a hypnotic exercise in blinkered rhythm, with E. Muzik and Hero (just for one day?) the pinnacles of the form. A whopping influence on both Bowie and John Lydon, it’s repetition as mantra; cool white heat. The new sound.

Can - Tago Mago (1971)

Can - Tago Mago (1971)

Damo Suzuki, Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, Jaki Liebezeit and Irmin Schmidt drew a roadmap to future days with the second Can album, edited by Czukay from long sessions in a high-ceilinged castle near Cologne. Conceived as a double album, it could easily have been forgotten as a masturbatory, DIY-prog noodle. 

Instead, it’s acclaimed as incomparably influential. The 18-minute funk frolic of Halleluhwah justifies its improvisations over Liebezeit’s now-famous drum beat. The almost as long Aumgn is as indefinable as its title. Everyone from Marc Bolan to Mark Hollis cited its inspiration, while Radiohead too tuned in to its tangled magic.

Kraftwerk - Radio-Activity (1975)

Kraftwerk - Radio-Activity (1975)

Kraftwerk – clinical, premeditated, never sweaty – are everything but rock, yet are Krautrock. You can’t omit the emperors of electronica from this list, such was their early cross-fertilisation with peers. (Producer Conny Plank was the eminence grise of the genre). 

They stationed their power behind synths, vocoders and drum machines, and after Autobahn built bridges to pop charts, this fifth album was their first to go entirely electronic, self-produced by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider at their Kling Klang studio. A wilfully uncommercial move, featuring spells of static and Cage-like silence, it earns their godhead status more than their later monotonous sacred cows.

Faust - Faust IV (1973)

Faust - Faust IV (1973)

Championed by Richard Branson and brought to England by Virgin, Bremen’s Faust split after this multiphrenic mixed bag, which was, unlike their debut, largely unloved at the time. 

Opening with a 12-minute spree of almost white noise guitar drone and sarcastically calling it “Krautrock” as a fuck-you to the British press possibly wasn’t the ideal charm offensive. But its eventual blend of songs and chaos becomes beguiling, and disparate threads cohere: you’re reminded that The Velvets were accused of “selling out” the moment they hit on a tune. Equal parts pretty and unsettling, it’s one of the ugly ducklings of Krautrock.

Cluster - Zuckerzeit (1974)

Cluster - Zuckerzeit (1974)

Berlin’s Cluster were steered by Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, and Michael Rother moonlighted from Neu! to produce their third album, albeit in a hands-off, you-can-borrow-my-equipment, manner. (He also joined them in side project Harmonia). 

Zuckerzeit translates as 'Sugar Time', and it’s a (relatively) more accessible, pop-adjacent work than their prior abrasive, sometimes discordant creations with Conny Plank. They’d recently moved from West Berlin to the countryside. If it is pop, it’s playful, twisted; a malicious glint in its eye as it radiates from a staccato Krautrock spine into cheeky whistles and Clangers-like sounds. Diamond-sharp, hard candy.

Harmonia - Musik Von Harmonia (1974)

Harmonia - Musik Von Harmonia (1974)

Krautrock’s “supergroup”, formed in ’73 when the Cluster duo joined forces with Rother, were described by Eno as “the world’s most important rock group”. This debut, primitively recorded, has been hailed as capturing “the Krautrock ideal”: it works on multiple levels, as in-your-face atmosphere or as bewitching, gentle background music (not an insult). 

Frustratingly for pigeonholes, it doesn’t sound like Can, or Neu!, or Kraftwerk – it’s locked into its own fascinations, sometimes bucolic and restrained, sometimes glistening like sci-fi. Naming the closing piece Hausmuzik (House Music) just emphasises that they may have been twenty years ahead of their time.

Popol Vuh - Aguirre (1975)

Popol Vuh - Aguirre (1975)

A Munich collective; early Moog adopters led by Florian Fricke who began as spacey electronica but evolved into piano-led kinda sorta world music. Yet it’s their association with the films of Werner Herzog which birthed their best-known work. Nosferatu (1978) is doomy and lovely. 

This, however, extrapolating from the music for Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, Wrath Of God, is somehow both austere and pulsating. The opening sequence is as majestic as the film’s, highlighting the tininess of humans against the vastness of nature. It’s so cosmic that when weaker tracks identify as more “normal” music they seem paltry. Add “epic” to Krautrock’s flavours.

Tangerine Dream - Alpha Centauri (1971)

Tangerine Dream - Alpha Centauri (1971)

The late Edgar Froese’s Berlin-born project perhaps hit their best-loved spell on the rivers of electronica running through mid-Seventies synths-and-sequencers classics such as Phaedra and Rubycon. Streams of film scores followed. Their early emissions though, when Salvador Dali was a fan, were darkly disturbing. 

This second album, mixed appallingly, rummages through the psyches of psychedelia, prog, and strange cracklings you might expect to hear if you were marooned alone in outer space. It’s not as developed or warm as the music of their fully realised heyday, but its experimentation and exploration place it closer to the essence of Krautrock.

Thomas Dinger - Fur Mich (1982)

Thomas Dinger - Fur Mich (1982)

Often overlooked, as the brother of Klaus who only joined in on Neu! 75, Thomas made a lighting-in-a-bottle one-off in ’82 which never features on “best Krautrock…ever!” lists. It does now. Thomas had also played with his sibling in La Dusseldorf after Neu! split: Bowie gushed, overshooting slightly, that they’d be “the soundtrack of the eighties”. 

They allowed arty curios and foxy disco-punk to co-exist: Dinger leaned into the former on this solo statement. Fed up of quarrelling with Klaus, he told Hans Lampe he just wanted to “make something by and for myself”. It’s melancholy and beautiful, a hidden treasure.