We pick our ten favourite ‘Krautrock’ classics. Albums that define the wide-ranging musical explosion in West Germany at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s and went on to inspire generations of electronic, ambient and alternative acts in the decades that followed.
What’s in a name? In the case of ‘Krautrock’, quite a lot. Originally coined by the British music press as a derisory term for the wide range of incredibly creative music coming out of primarily West Germany in the late 1960s, it is pretty much universally hated by those to whom it refers.
Whatever the name, there’s no denying that the German music scene at this time was doing something very different to the globally dominating scenes in the UK and America. ‘Krautrock’ – as we are still going to refer to it here, sorry – was born out of a love of the avant-garde, and early electronic music (the later practitioners of which often cite the ‘Krautrock’ acts as major influences on their work. The same is true of many other modern artists who have taken elements of ‘Krautrock’ to develop such genres as post-rock, alternative and ambient music. This includes names such as Radiohead, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and of course David Bowie and Brian Eno who both experimented with the style to great effect during their careers.
It’s an incredibly wide pallet to work with, and this is just a selection of some of our favourite ‘Krautrock’ albums – a jumping off point for a seemingly endless goldmine of classic music.
Ironically for an album rightly regarded as a ‘Krautrock’ classic, 1973’s Faust IV was primarily recorded in England and was a commercial failure that saw the band lose their record contract with Virgin. But from the opening track – the sarcastically named ‘Krautrock’, almost 12 minutes of sprawling electronics and guitar to a pulsating, relentless bass line – to the closing acoustic number this album hints at much of the diversity of ‘Krautrock’ in one album.
Can’s third album finds the band in transition. While they were never a straight ‘rock’ outfit in the accepted sense, this double LP sees the start of a lot more in the way of jazz and avant-garde influences coming to the fore. This is particularly the case on the second LP, where wonderfully dark Aumgn takes up a whole side to itself. The video below is a live clip of the opening track Paperhouse – but the complete album is a must have.
Kraftwerk is possibly the most famous of the acts that can be included under the ‘Krautrock’ banner, and the one that stretches the ‘rock’ element further than any of the others. Autobahn is the album that sees them heading down the electronica path; after three instrumental albums of a more avant-garde nature this is where they truly embraced the emerging ability to produce purely electronic music. This was a movement they would lead from the front and they are justifiably regarded as an influence on countless electronic acts since. Over 40 years after release this album still sounds like the future!
Formed by two former members of Kraftwerk, Neu! enjoyed limited commercial success, but their ‘motorik’ drum style became the backbone for many of ‘Krautrock’s’ leading lights, and has been a massive influence on numerous acts since. Incredibly repetitive, always solid, motorik’s relentless forward motion drives this amazing, timeless debut album.
Cluster sits at the experimental heart of ‘Krautrock’. Their style ranged over time from highly experimental, through ‘motorik’ influenced rhythms to ever more ambient recordings which included collaborations with Brian Eno. This incredible debut is very much in the experimental and ambient domain, with washes of multi-layered sound hitting you in waves. Featuring three, long, unnamed tracks, Cluster 71 is a fantastic headphone album.
Musik von Harmonia
Possibly the closest thing to a ‘Krautrock’ super group, Harmonia featured all the members of Cluster plus Michael Rother of Neu!. This combination truly shows the breadth of the movement, with the ambient sounds of Cluster merging perfectly with the more rhythmic approach of Neu! The result is an amazing sounding album, that is well worth sourcing on vinyl.
Ash Ra Tempel
Ash Ra Tempel
This incredible album features only two tracks, each taking up one side of the original vinyl release, but it still clocks in at close to 45 minutes. This album definitely hits on the more psychedelic elements of the time, with wide open spaces and endless freak-out moments. This is perhaps reflected in the term ‘Kosmische Musik’ that is often applied to Ash Ra Tempel and others that fall under the ‘Krautrock banner’. Whatever you call it, this is a great sounding album.
Cosmic Jokers was never an actual band, but still managed to release five albums in 1974. In something of a scam, musicians from a selection of ‘Krautrock’ bands had gathered together to jam at a series of acid parties. The jams were recorded, edited down and released – as legend has it without the artists being aware! Whatever the circumstances, this echo-laden first offering is a thing of blissed-out beauty.
Amon Düül II
Amon Düül II met at the Amon Düül art commune, and took that spirit as far as actually living together as a band. This, their second album, is a mixture of the improvised compositions that characterised their earlier work and actual compositions, introduced here for the first time. The result is at times spell-binding; a mix of psychedelia, prog and folk that is incredibly engaging. This fantastic live video includes Eye Shaking King from the album.
It’s hard to pick a single album from an act that has released over 100. But this seminal recording was the first to feature Tangerine Dream’s characteristic sequencer-heavy sound, and is a great starting point not only for this band, but for the entire electronic music scene. The meandering, mesmeric title track is worth the price of admission alone!