20 Essential Krautrock Songs

20 Essential Krautrock Songs

This week, Stereogum are media partners at Berlin’s intimate psych-rock festival Synästhesie. To celebrate, we’re looking back on a pivotal, deeply influential genre from Germany.

For a corner of popular music that revolutionized multiple genres at once from the late 1960s onward, it really bears noting first and foremost that “krautrock” is a pretty lousy term. It’s kind of unserious, and even if it’s been used in affection — avant-music advocate and legendary DJ John Peel is one of the people credited with popularizing it, and psych-culture musician/historian Julian Cope cemented it as a historical canon with his 1995 book Krautrocksampler — the people who actually made the music itself tended to dislike it.

They weren’t just chafing at a glibly semi-ironic usage of a derogatory term: It was at the idea of being pigeonholed by a tastemaker press in another nation entirely, one whose cultural relationship with Germany was inextricably tied into the conflict-wracked first half of a century that the country’s citizens were trying to move past during the second half. Even if you could be generous and theorize that the “kraut” in this case is a nod-and-wink reference to a certain other kind of pungent leafy green that goes good with this kind of music, it still places a future-minded art in a grotesque, horrifying past that the musicians themselves grew up aching to transcend.

And that’s the idea that the term “krautrock” eventually grew to embody. This was a music that came from a particular postwar German leftist/student/experimental art scene — the kind who saw the most national cultural musical kinship in the great 20th century avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, one that went through the same Summer Of Love paces as most of the West in 1967 before being catalyzed by the waves of student protest that followed a year later.

And with the idea of a global youth struggle against imperialism and capitalism came the idea of a global sound, one that a combination of educated music-theory exploration and psychedelic-scene adventurousness led to an international itinerary. Stockhausen at home, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra and the Velvet Underground in the States, Pink Floyd in the UK, countless ethnomusicological trips across the Mediterranean … and when the terra firma wasn’t enough, they stared off into the sky and puzzled out how to make regional music for outer space.

From 1969 onwards — the release year of the first broadly acknowledged krautrock records — countless bands out of Germany pushed psychedelic music further into experimentation when the more mainstream American and British bands were receding back into straightforward blues-rock, country, or folk influences. And their biggest divergence from their mostly-British prog rock contemporaries was the foregrounding of free-flowing improvisation and rhythmic steadiness over compositional complexity, whether it meant minimalist yet evocative ambient drones or ruthlessly steady (and danceable) 4/4 rhythms. Prog largely aimed for the head, but krautrock worked on both the intellectual and the visceral levels, whether it shook the body or stirred the heart.

Maybe that’s why it cast a longer shadow than so many of their art-rock contemporaries — that sense of noise and adventure and disregard for commercialism translated well enough to early punk and indie sensibilities that it added an additional dimension that DIY three-chord bands could aspire to. The non-German bands that sounded like they could hang with the krautrock scene started to emerge only sporadically through the genre’s heyday, UK space-rockers Hawkwind and the pan-European-formed Swiss/Belgian/Italian/German group Brainticket among them. But art-rock tastemaker Brian Eno and his role in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy would open up the door for krautrock’s influence to spread, and by the end of the ’70s, groups like Nurse With Wound, the Fall, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., and Siouxsie And The Banshees would run with it to crucial new places. (Not to mention what happened when a trio of Detroit-area Kraftwerk fans — Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson — decided to make some electronic music of their own.)

So consider this list of 20 of this movement’s essential songs the surface of an ocean with a ton of life beneath, life that gets stranger and more ineffable the deeper you go. And call it krautrock if you must — those who know it well recognize that a derogatory-sounding name has become one of underground music’s greatest marks of quality.

Can – “Father Cannot Yell” (from Monster Movie, 1969)

1968 apparently wasn’t ready for Can: When they shopped a session they cut that year, Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom (eventually released in 1981 as Delay 1968), it was rejected by every label they gave it to. That their “more commercial compromise” of a debut turned out to be Monster Movie — an album with an entire side two dedicated to “Yoo Doo Right,” a six-hour improv edited down into a 20 ½-minute railway-cadence psilocybin trip — was a fitting bit of cosmic backtalk.

But listeners could feel that spark before they even flipped the LP over: “Father Cannot Yell,” the opener of side one, is a more succinct but no less intense version of that relentless propulsion, provided by the all-time-great rhythm section of drummer Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay, the Jabo Starks and Bootsy Collins of avant-garde psych. “Father Cannot Yell” also provides a rare chance to hear short-term singer Malcolm Mooney as the group’s frontman force of nature, intoning inverse-Oedipal panic like a lost bridge between the Last Poets and Mark E. Smith. All that’s left to take in is the shimmering friction of Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards and the untethered places Michael Karoli’s spark-shooting guitar takes the melody from there.

Amon Düül II – “Archangels Thunderbird” (from Yeti, 1970)

Amon Düül originally formed as a commune of radical leftist artists based in Munich, taking on the name of an Egyptian god a la Sun Ra (though the “Düül” part was less immediately definable) and working to invent a new German identity as a clean break from everything, especially war, that had come before it. But their refusal to be influenced by mainstream British and American rock and pop — with the occasional exception for the more avant-friendly likes of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix — wasn’t enough to prevent a rift from forming in the group, and soon the more ambitious members of the band broke off from their drum-circle origins to form a band called Amon Düül II.

By the time their second album Yeti emerged in 1970, they’d channeled all their experience with psych into an improvisational, versatile fluidity that proved less mannered than their UK prog contemporaries. “Archangels Thunderbird” is a stunner, featuring a groove that triangulates early metal, deep funk, and progressive exploration — all pierced through by Renate Knaup, one of the few female vocalists to get a foothold in the scene, whose wailing delivery of the lyrics’ cryptic doomsaying (“In shock corridors/ People are standing/ With their eyes in their hands”) unites Fluxus-style absurdity and existential horror.

Embryo – “You Don’t Know What’s Happening” (from Opal, 1970)

Krautrock’s stylistic breadth meant that even a contentious genre name wasn’t nearly enough to make bands in the scene easy to pigeonhole. Munich group Embryo, led by soul-jazz organist turned worldbeat eclecticist Christian Burchard, were happy to make sure of that. As much a jazz-rock band in the ballpark of Mahavishnu Orchestra or Soft Machine as they were a collection of cosmic space-rockers, their long history of international-sound exploration started with the fusion-adjacent psych of debut LP Opal. “You Don’t Know What’s Happening” is a highlight of an album bursting with freeform structure-rattling freakouts and post-genre deconstructions, with every piece of the melody and percussion allowed to roam while still hitting straight on the rhythm.

Guru Guru – “Girl Call” (from UFO, 1970)

A band that leavened its spacey, jam-heavy tendencies with an unholy guitar squall worthy of Paranoid or Fun House, Guru Guru’s first album hit the same year as those epochal Sabbath and Stooges LPs and damn near outdid them in pure chaos and noise. (When a song called “Der LSD-Marsch” is one of the more conventional songs on a record, for the love of gott, buy that record.) A purely instrumental affair that let Ax Genrich’s guitar do all the eloquently harrowing talking, it’s head music that rattles the body, and “Girl Call” embodies their early knack to balance faux-calm tension and a release that’s somewhere between cathartically joyful and disorientingly awestruck.

Kraftwerk – “K2 (Ruckzuck)” (from K4: Bremen Radio, 1971)

Autobahn cemented them as pioneers in electronic pop, but that was Kraftwerk’s fourth LP — one that came five years after the earliest collaborative efforts between Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter in the band Organisation. Meanwhile, the first three Kraftwerk albums are halfway memory-holed, with the initial two “traffic cone” records and 1973’s transitional-phase Ralf & Florian typically considered run-ups to their proto-synth-pop brilliance. But the group’s early years are still worth exploring, and there’s nothing ordinary about the oft-bootlegged June 25, 1971 set they cut for Bremen Radio — featuring a primordial version of the band that Hütter sat out, only to feature guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger as fateful fill-ins. (Those two would move on to new(!) things later that year; more on that shortly.)

“Ruckzuck” was the standout track on the first Kraftwerk album, but Schneider’s iconic ascent-descent flute intro — resembling a prototype of the opening melody of “Trans-Europe Express” — is a feint towards familiarity. What they do to the song is remarkable: They mutate its tempo, stretch its eight minutes to nearly 20, and give Rother plenty of space to play one of the most expressive guitars ever heard out of Germany — soaring one moment, stabbing the next — while Dinger plays an entire album’s worth of pulse-rocketing fills. They were one of the decade’s greatest supergroups, and they didn’t even know it yet.

Eiliff – “Gammeloni” (from Eiliff, 1971)

While Embryo eventually expanded outward from fusion influences to more international hybrids, there were other German groups of the ’70s that stuck a bit closer to the jazz-rock category. Over their brief two-album career, Eiliff combined proggy elaboration and powerhouse drumming, and debut-album cut “Gammeloni” is one of their most breathtaking revelations. Detlev Landmann is an absolute monster behind the kit, with free jazz skronk via Herbert J. Kalveram on sax and Houschäng Nejadépour’s lacerating guitar adding some unhinged energy to a thunderous ensemble performance.

Ibliss – “Margah” (from Supernova, 1972)

Exploring the outer reaches of music and tying that exploration into the search for a postwar German identity could lead to some remarkable places, even if only briefly. Ibliss was a one-off group with a rhythmic tandem — drummer Andreas Hohmann and percussionist Basil Hammoudi — previously associated with Kraftwerk and Organisation, respectively. Hohmann and Hammoudi combined their rhythmic interests into a drum-heavy attack heavy on Middle Eastern and Afro-Latin patterns, with “Margah” the purest expression of their percussive jam-session vibe: Even when the bass and guitar come in, every note feels in service to the relentless forward motion of a restless groove.

Ash Ra Tempel – “Suche and Liebe” (from Schwingungen, 1972)

For all this playlist’s emphasis on percussively intense and/or lock-groove hypnotic pieces, krautrock’s best bands could capture more meditative, contemplative feelings with just as much nuance and openness. Manuel Göttsching’s ear for ambient beauty and intricate guitar playing made him one of the era’s more prescient artists — he’s been credited with sparking inspiration in ambient, new age, and techno artists throughout the decades — and as the founder of Ash Ra Tempel, he integrated those pioneering ideas into music that could split the difference between pre-Dark Side Of The Moon Pink Floyd and post-Roxy Music Brian Eno before the latter even happened.

Schwingungen, Ash Ra Tempel’s 1972 sophomore effort, features a bracing mixture of psych-blues noodling and slow-wave melodic builds that culminates in the side-long majesty of “Suche And Liebe.” From the gently wafting vibraphone reverb to the hazy swirl of the interplay between Göttsching’s guitar and the wordless vocals of the mysterious, pseudonymous “John L.” during the song’s floating-but-churning coda, it’s no wonder that music like this gave krautrock a less derogatory-sounding name: “kosmische,” meaning cosmic.

Faust – “Jennifer” (from Faust IV, 1973)

In their own weird way, Faust became one of the biggest public faces of krautrock for two reasons. One, and most notoriously, was their fateful role in the early history of Virgin Records, which sold 60,000 copies of their not-particularly-accessible cut-and-paste chaos suite The Faust Tapes for half a quid in the UK in 1973 — an LP for the price of a single. The other was the fact that their follow-up, released that same year, opened with an instrumental the band actually titled “Krautrock,” a semi-ironic invocation of that much-derided genre name that felt like one of Germany’s most fearless bands laying claim to the very idea of it.

Faust IV turned out to be a far easier way into the band’s sound than its 48p loss-leader predecessor, and some diehards considered it too easy. But songs like the frolic-turned-inferno “Jennifer” — a more conventionally structured but still eerily beautiful masterpiece that culminates in the unholiest squall of guitar noise, a pop hit in a more adventurous world than this one — ensured that it would be the album Faust would be most revered for. Even if it was also the album that, thanks to those very commercial aspirations, eventually broke them up.

Agitation Free – “Laila, Part 2″ (from 2nd, 1973)

Formed in 1967 and comparable to early Pink Floyd in their propensity for experimental mixed-media light shows, Agitation Free might have been fated to be eclipsed by other bands right from the start. They wound up having to add the “Free” to their name when it turned out there was another band named Agitation, and they lost far more than their name by the time they released their 1972 debut Malesch: they’d shed members to more well-known and longer-lived groups Guru Guru (Ax Genrich), Tangerine Dream (Christopher Franke), and Ash Ra Tempel (the aforementioned John L.).

No matter: the desert-blasted Eastern/Mediterranean sound of Malesch made it a space-rock gem. And when it seemed like that particular well of inspiration ran dry — concurrent with guitarist Jörg Schwenke leaving the band owing to drug problems — the introduction of new lead guitarist Stefan Diez recast the band circa 2nd as a bluesier, jammier outfit that sounded like the a trippier cousin of their contemporaries in Southern rock. “Laila, Part 2″ isn’t any relation to Duane Allman’s finest moment with Derek And The Dominos, but its transmutation of blues-rock swing into something this gracefully intense rivals anything on Eat A Peach.

Walter Wegmüller – “Der Wagen” (from Tarot, 1973)

Walter Wegmüller is far more obscure a figure than befitting of someone who used to hang out with H.R. Giger and Timothy Leary while also helming an actual bona fide krautrock supergroup. The Swiss painter and tarot enthusiast, already in tight with Ash Ra Tempel, introduced synthesizer experimentalist Klaus Schulze, members of heavy psych rockers Wallenstein, and acid-folkies Witthüser & Westrupp into a conglomerate band that could tackle Wegmüller’s sprawling ambition.

That ambition: to create an album of 22 songs, one for each card in the tarot deck. Hey, any excuse to get these guys to all jam with each other, especially when the disparate flavors of kosmische ambition — Göttsching-driven guitar mutations, the thunderous percussion of Wallenstein’s drummer Harald Grosskopf, Schulze’s circuit-warping electronics — coalesce into something as driving as “Der Wagen.” (That translates to “The Chariot,” the card that represents focus, drive, and decisive force — which you probably could’ve guessed just from the roiling rhythm.)

Popol Vuh – “Einsjäger & Siebenjäger” (from Einsjäger & Siebenjäger, 1974)

Much like Agitation Free, Ibliss, and Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh contributed to the kosmische movement by finding a sonic and cultural identity in other regions of the world, from the pre-Columbian Americas that inspired their Mayan-derived name to the deep-rooted, ancient sounds of Africa and Central Asia. This lent them well to a longtime working relationship with filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose Popol Vuh-scored films Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde were existentialist dissections of the effects of European colonialism on the rest of the world.

But it also gave them a freedom that transcended the notion of globe-hopping “world music” tropes and erased the line between intricate composition and organic improvisation. And it often led to moments of remarkable beauty. The sidelong title track to 1974’s Einsjäger & Siebenjäger is the sound of three artists — percussionist/pianist Florian Fricke, guitarist Daniel Fichelscher, and singer Djong Yun — using psychedelia as a base to find a new, ruminative, spiritually hypnotic route through music that was more about emotional thrust than genre-bound iconoclasm. Sometimes light and billowy can be more intense than the heaviest hard rock.

Klaus Schulze – “Ways Of Changes” (from Blackdance, 1974)

It takes a certain kind of visionary idiosyncrasy and auteurism to be a member of both Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel for only one album apiece (1970’s Electronic Meditation and 1971’s Ash Ra Tempel, respectively) before deciding to strike out on one’s own. Imagine being a part of either of those bands and feeling limited somehow. But Klaus Schulze’s solo career not only freed him up to experiment more deeply, it freed up the potential of synthesized music itself.

After his solo debut Irrlicht pushed the limits of what could be done with musique concrète-style floods of tone and reverb using pre-synth instrumentation, 1973’s Cyborg found intense, tactile depth in the kind of whirring electronic drones that had all the nuance of string orchestras and all the atmosphere of the unknown corners of outer space. That makes 1974’s Blackdance something of an outlier compared to Cyborg or his equally astonishing 1976 progressive electronic stunner Moondawn. Where the Berlin School of electronic music Schulze helped establish generally eschewed drums as a rule, he takes the plunge of adding a slowly cresting wall of percussion — including congas, tablas, and what sounds like a primitive drum machine somewhere down in the mix — to add another layer of momentum to the sweeping pulse of his ambient melodicism.

Cluster – “Hollywood” (from Zuckerzeit, 1974)

Kraftwerk get the lion’s share of the credit for pushing Germany’s wave of synthesized music into more pop-friendly and rock-palatable territory. But Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s band Cluster — previously known as Kluster when experimental electronics great Conrad Schnitzler was part of the group — was enough of a crucial bridge between the avant-garde and the rock worlds that they’d go on to cut two albums’ worth of music with Brian Eno during the late ’70s.

Zuckerzeit was the album that put them on that path, with each member working independently on their own solo-composed tracks to piece together an album’s worth of minimalist but catchy electronic bizarro-pop. “Hollywood” is Roedelius’s finest hour on the album — “hour” in this case meaning a hair under five minutes, an eyeblink in kosmische terms but more than enough time to build a slowly layering epic of ascending, time-dislodging warp-chords that would seep into countless subsequent art-rock landmarks from Another Green World to Kid A.

Tangerine Dream – “Phaedra” (from Phaedra, 1974)

The prevalence of side-long epics in the kosmische wing of krautrock might prove daunting to the entry-level listener, even ones curious enough to delve into the roots of ambient music. But Tangerine Dream were the kind of group that made the evocative as central as the experimental; not for nothing were they recruited by the likes of William Friedkin (Sorcerer), Michael Mann (Thief), and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) to score their films.

Phaedra is notable for its technical innovations, granted, as the usage of early digital sequencers proved to be a deeply influential move that would reverberate through every strain of electronic music to follow from Euro-disco to techno. But the title cut is also a testament to the places this sort of music can actually take both musicians and listeners. With the gradually detuning oscillators causing their sporadically-cooperative Moog synthesizer to warp the very structure of the song’s rhythmic, trancelike electronic bassline, the band compensated by building around that limitation with improvised flourishes that created and then escalated an ineffable feeling of suspense that spectacularly dissolved into one of the prettiest Mellotron symphonies you’ll ever hear.

Neu! – “Hero” (from Neu! ’75, 1975)

If krautrock’s biggest strength was how it took familiar rock & roll structures into endlessly variable new forms, whether minimalist or complex, then nobody met that potential quite like Neu!. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger’s first recording as the group, 1972’s Neu!, laid down the groundwork — Rother’s guitar technique more reliant on wavering tones than hooky riffs, while Dinger’s android-steady 4/4 motorik drumming sounded like the world’s most organic drum machine, Meanwhile, 1973’s Neu! 2 made up for a budget shortfall by devoting the second side of an already-remarkable album to a number of variations of the “Neuschnee / Super” single that, stopgap as it was, also used its sense of pop-art pranksterism to ensure their place in the roots of the remix alongside King Tubby and Tom Moulton.

Neu! ’75, their third and last album (or at least their last legit one, 1995’s aborted-session piece-together Neu! 4 notwithstanding), became one of those cases of pressure creating a diamond. As Rother and Dinger scuffled over whether to gravitate towards the ambient or the hard-driving respectively, their ability to split the difference across the LP between side one’s relative calm and side two’s high energy resulted in their greatest song. “Hero” introduces 1977 two years early, not so much anticipating as inaugurating the future via both Dinger’s proto-Lydon howl-drone vocals and Rother’s gleaming power chords, the kind that would welcome Bowie to Berlin. The lyrics may be enigmatic — a breakup allusion one moment (“Your honey went to Norway, hero, hero/ And your only friend is music”), a diatribe against their label the next (“Fuck the company/ Your only friend is money”) — but the message is clear: Keep going. Klaus and Michael’s old pals in Kraftwerk might have just garnered a hit with “Autobahn,” but Neu! wrote the song that made you feel like doing 150 MPH on it, riding through the night.

Harmonia – “Monza (Rauf Und Runter)” (from Deluxe, 1975)

The funny thing about krautrock is that it seems like eventually everybody of note winds up playing with everyone else. Playing Six Degrees Of Neu! would likely connect every major German experimental musician of the ’70s within maybe three degrees, and Harmonia was one of the most fulfilling supergroups to come from the scene. With Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius joining up with Rother, their brief existence during their initial run — only two albums, with a later archival release titled Tracks And Traces assembled from some 1976 sessions with Brian Eno — belied a sound that stands as high as any in the proto-punk/art rock pantheon.

“Monza (Rauf Und Runter)” is also a funny sort of twist on the background of Neu! 75: “Hero” was Dinger’s idea, but Rother clearly seems to have found something to love in it, as he uses the motorik beat — this time, supplied by Guru Guru’s Mani Neumeier — to follow Cluster’s synthesized ambience into piston-churning, riff-stretching ascension. It’s seven minutes that feels like three, a time-shifting exercise in turning repetition into freedom.

La Düsseldorf – “Geld” (from Viva, 1978)

As for the other major partner in Neu!’s musical legacy, Klaus Dinger emerged with a new band in 1976 that David Bowie would proclaim a few years later as “the soundtrack of the eighties” in Melody Maker. That band was La Düsseldorf, comprised of Dinger, his brother Thomas, and keyboardist friend Hans Lampe — a reflection of the side two personnel of Neu! 75 with the additional twist that Thomas sat in on percussion while Klaus took on the role of guitarist.

By 1978’s Viva, they’d become a scenester favorite that moved units on the basis of an album that sounded so expansive you could mistake it for a best-of. Where “White Overalls” was the two-minute punk nod, “Rheinita” the ambient-motorik piece, and “Cha Cha 2000″ the sidelong art-rock symphony, “Geld” was the giddy triangulation of all three: a crunchy, distortion-blasted yet oddly pretty anthem that made the slogan “make love, not war” sound cool at a time when hippies were at their least respected.

Wolfgang Riechmann – “Wunderbar” (from Wunderbar, 1978)

The story of Wolfgang Riechmann is a tragic one, albeit one lesser known outside Düsseldorf-scene enthusiasts. An early acquaintance of Michael Rother and Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür, then a frontman for the Kraut/prog group Streetmark, Riechmann recorded a single solo album, Wunderbar, that he never lived to see on record store shelves; he was stabbed by two drunken men in a bar on August 20, 1978, just weeks before Wunderbar was released, and died four days later. It’s not hard to wonder what if, especially as Wunderbar felt like a real culmination of a decade’s worth of musical ideas.

As the older forms of krautrock began to recede in the wake of punk and synth-pop, Riechmann united the ambient electronic “Berlin School” and the Düsseldorf-based influence of Neu! and Kraftwerk to create an eerie take on ambient that played up a winking sense of cold, synthetic, yet melodically stirring pop art. The title track’s the closest he comes to new wave on an album that otherwise sounds like an eclectic travelogue of ’70s German kosmische music, but its proto-schaffel beat points to a future that he was cruelly robbed of.

Mœbius & Plank – “Rastakraut Pasta” (from Rastakraut Pasta, 1980)

Circling back to the problem of nomenclature: If krautrock is too derogatory and kosmische too narrow, why not call it plankrock? Sure, it doesn’t roll off the tongue, exactly, but if there’s one thing that unites nearly every single one of the artists on this list, it’s that they recorded with producer/engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank, who became as inseparable from the scene his studio helped built as the likes of Phil Spector, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Steve Albini.

Before dying of cancer in 1987, he’d put his mark on hundreds of records from the earliest Kraftwerk LPs to Eno’s Before And After Science to old-school rap icons Whodini (!), with the complete Neu! discography, a bunch of Guru Guru albums, and even the likes of Eiliff and Ibliss during the interim. On the rare occasion when he’d head to the other side of the console, like his 1980 LP with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius, he could channel his manifold experiences producing Germany’s art-rock greats into some enjoyably off-kilter jams. The title cut to Rastakraut Pasta has a remarkable goofball profundity to it, a self-conscious distortion of the reggae and dub stylings so popular among the post-punk vanguard that grooves on rubber legs.

Listen to a playlist of all the songs above (that are available on Spotify) here.

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