Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists – the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.
Pop quiz: name three bands in the history of western popular music that are more influential than Kraftwerk. Who do you got? The Beatles? Sure. The Velvet Underground? Maybe. While you could argue the case for a few others, any objective analysis of the impact of Kraftwerk will reveal the group to be in truly elite company. While they weren’t the first musicians to explore the possibility of electronics, they were the group who did the most to push those explorations into the realm of mainstream consciousness. And the impact of these efforts on the evolution of rock, rap, pop, and dance music was nothing short of seismic.
Formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 around the musical partnership of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk came up as a part of the rich German rock happening that would eventually be tagged as “Krautrock.” Contemporaries with similarly experimental groups such as Can, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Cluster, and Neu! (the latter of which was formed by former Kraftwerk members), Hütter and Schneider would eventually abandon the electric guitars and motorik beat that defined the scene, in favor of a style that built rich soundscapes from synthesizers, electronic drums, and vocoders that delivered lyrics of a deadpanned, mechanical, and often satirical nature.
Though initially greeted as something of a curiosity, Kraftwerk would ultimately establish themselves as artists of the highest order on a series of five albums released between 1974’s Autobahn and 1981’s Computerwelt. During this period, the group settled into a consistent four-piece lineup – including Hütter and Schneider, plus percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. Kraftwerk’s recordings from this era would be publicly celebrated by the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie, incorporated into early hip-hop productions (most famously Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 landmark, “Planet Rock”), and influence multiple generations of synthpop musicians and producers.
By the mid-eighties, one could have reasonably argued that Kraftwerk’s influence loomed larger over contemporary pop music than that of the mighty Beatles. At this point the band were respected elder statesmen, and though their subsequent records wouldn’t exactly represent the future of music in the same way that their classic material had, Kraftwerk continued to release worthwhile new albums (and embarked on a series of highly acclaimed tours) until Schneider departed the group in 2008. Hütter continues to tour with Kraftwerk to this day, though Schneider’s death in 2020 ended any hope of a reunion between its two founding members.
With their recording career coming to an apparent close on 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks, Kraftwerk leaves behind a studio catalog of twelve full-length albums: including one released under the name “Organisation” in 1970. Curiously, Hütter and Schneider have long treated their pre-1974 work as little more than a prelude to the real arrival of Kraftwerk. While the Autobahn through Computerwelt run is a five-album stretch that virtually any musical act would envy, the early Kraftwerk recordings are not only worthwhile additions to the catalog, but they trace a fascinating path that eventually led to even greater heights. The group may not consider them to be part of their official canon, but they merit a close listen and will be represented on this list. Lastly, regarding the group’s peak-era albums, fans often argue that the original German versions are superior to the American mixes. I wish I could tell you that wasn’t the case – seeing as how they are not presently available on streaming services in the U.S. – but after shelling out for the German releases on vinyl, I must say that those versions are stunning, even if they make only marginal improvements to already remarkable albums.
While the playlist format could serve Kraftwerk well, the parameters that I long ago set for Catalog Crawl won’t exactly present the group in the best possible light. Rather than seeing the resultant assemblage of songs as a cohesive listen through Kraftwerk’s best material, merely consider each selection as an essential/representative track from each of the dozen albums discussed here. This somewhat disjointed nature is further magnified by the unavailability of the band’s early releases on streaming services. Kraftwerk has always presented themselves as an album-centric group anyway, so if you’re new to the group, consider the chosen tracks as ambassadors for their respective LPs. Enjoy!
Tone Float (as Organisation)
Recorded by an early lineup of Kraftwerk, but released under the name Organisation, Tone Float is of a similar spirit with much of the contemporary experimental German rock scene. Sparse, meandering, and vocal-less, the album established Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider’s ability to conjure a rich atmosphere – and their early foundational relationship with producer Conny Plank – but it lacked the electronic instrumentation and melodic heart that would ultimately make Kraftwerk such a beloved act. Released only in Britain, the album predictably flopped. However, fans of the group’s more experimental work will likely find plenty to enjoy here.
Released in late 1970, Kraftwerk’s self-titled debut is the closest that the group would ever get to the sound and spirit of the nascent Krautrock scene that they have often been associated with. Catching the group in a transitional state – their true debut as Organisation was released just months prior, and Ralf Hütter would briefly leave the group following Kraftwerk‘s release – the album sounds embryonic compared to the milestones that would follow in a few years time. With that said, the combination of freewheeling performances – including future Neu! founder/drummer Klaus Dinger on the closing “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above”) – experimental spirit, and Conny Plank’s spartan production, yields frequently thrilling results.
One for the playlist: The Krautrock sound is present and accounted for on the opening track, “Ruckzuck” (“Right Now”). Florian Schneider’s flute provides a welcoming melodic hook, but the shifting tempos and rhythmic changes keep the listener on their toes throughout. In lieu of the original studio version – which is not available on streaming services at present – I’ve included a live take from 1971.
Ralf und Florian
The retconning of the first three Kraftwerk albums out of the band’s official canon has unfairly impacted the reputation of some genuinely excellent music. This is particularly true in the case of 1973’s eponymous Ralf und Florian. Meeting somewhere in the middle between their first two Krautrock-aligned LP’s and the electronic overhaul of 1974’s Autobahn, Ralf und Florian provides a sensible and satisfying bridge between two distinctly different phases of the group’s career. While it may not shimmer with the consistent brilliance of their ensuing five-album run, this is an expressive and frequently outstanding record from a creative partnership that was truly beginning to hit its stride.
One for the playlist: Though it certainly catches Kraftwerk in their transition from a rock band to an electronic group, there is nothing half-hearted about Ralf und Florian‘s sparkling centerpiece, “Tanzmusik” (“Dance Music”). Propulsive, sparse, and undeniably inviting, the track provides far more than a mere glimpse into the nuance and heart that would make Kraftwerk such a cornerstone group for so many. Like the rest of Ralf und Florian, it should be available on streaming services and reissued on vinyl.
Featuring Kraftwerk at their most minimalistic, Radio-Aktivität was the follow-up to the group’s commercial breakthrough, 1974’s Autobahn. While it was an even bolder step into electronic music than its predecessor – it was the first Kraftwerk album to not feature any acoustic instruments – Radio-Aktivität‘s sparse sound didn’t exactly burn up the charts upon its 1975 release. Time has been quite kind to the record however, and while it’s generally regarded as the least impressive of the band’s “big five” consecutive classics, Radio-Aktivität has deservedly become a dark horse favorite among many fans.
One for the playlist: Chronologically speaking, this is the first album in which there is reasonable room for debate as to which song the highlight. Both “Antenne” and the closing “Ohm, Sweet Ohm” are rightfully viewed as classic Kraftwerk tracks. However, the clear choice remains the obvious one. Following a brief scene-setting opener, “Radioaktivität” (“Radioactivity”) is one of the chilliest, most spellbinding recordings in the band’s catalog, and is certainly not to be missed.
The last truly classic Kraftwerk album, Computerwelt arrived toward the beginning of a decade in which the band’s influence would be omnipresent in the world of contemporary pop music. Continuing in the spirit of their previous four records, Computerwelt is a thematically consistent song cycle, focused on the home computing technology that was beginning to become a reality in the early eighties. While it doesn’t quite have the same ability to transport its listeners to the romanticized locales of the German Autobahn or the Trans-Europe Express, it provides a nostalgic trip back to a time in which a computer-augmented future seemed to promise an exciting new world of possibility, without any of the consequential drawbacks that said future would also bring.
One for the playlist: Unquestionably one of the finest tracks in their discography, “Computer Liebe” (“Computer Love”) is peak Kraftwerk. Its skittering beat and undeniable melodic sensibilities are little short of arresting, and its wide-eyed optimism remains affecting decades down the road.
Few albums in the history of pop music represent such a clear delineation between the past and the future as Kraftwerk’s 1974 game-changing Autobahn. With the single version of the epic title track, Kraftwerk helped to prove the commercial viability of electronic music. However, that side-long piece is hardly the only revolutionary thing about Autobahn. Yes, Side A dominates, but the supporting tracks on the album’s second half further deepen the transformation from the band’s embryonic early work into something that completely set them apart from their contemporaries on the German scene. This is impossibly rich stuff: shockingly warm and far more human than anything that had ever relied so heavily on electronics. On Autobahn, Kraftwerk truly began to shape an entirely new language for popular music, but it’s no mere museum piece. Autobahn still lives and breathes, nearly fifty years after its arrival.
One for the playlist: Look, Side B often gets overlooked and short-changed, but let’s be real here: the undisputed draw of this album is the title track. Nothing less than one of the most resplendent and influential pieces of music ever recorded, “Autobahn” remains a stunning listen, despite the generations of copycats that have since followed the bold path that it blazed.
The closest that Kraftwerk ever came to making a straightforward pop album, 1978’s Die Mensch-Maschine is a marvel of compact hooks, glistening arpeggios, and infectious beats. Each of the record’s six tracks is a genuine highlight, and each find these “man machines” finely tuned and in perfect harmony. Nearly forty-five years after its arrival, Die Mensch-Maschine sounds like little else in the history of popular music, despite the fact that its influence is paramount. Perhaps it’s really due to the perfect combination of material and production, but I’d argue that there’s something else at play here. On Die Mensch-Maschine, Kraftwerk aimed to build upon the myth that they were, in fact, the robot pop group of which they sang. And while at a certain point, you start to believe that it just might be true, the pulsating rhythms are a perfect metaphor for the beating hearts that stand at the center of this virtually-unprecedented marriage of man and machine.
One for the playlist: Kraftwerk’s star turn, “Das Model” (“The Model”) is the alluring centerpiece of Die Mensch-Maschine. Whether it’s the English or German version that you prefer, the sparkling synths and propulsive beat are the true focal point of this utterly remarkable track.
Trans Europa Express
Simply one of the finest albums ever produced, Kraftwerk’s sixth record – yeah, those first few count – is the group’s masterpiece. A tour de force of melody and rhythm, Trans Europa Express imagines a romanticized trip across the old continent, through bustling cities, pastoral countryside, and snow-capped alps. Marking the peak of the group’s unique brand of retro-futurism, Trans Europa Express transcends any contemporary scenes or reference points, creating something that is altogether timeless.
While the album largely trades in the welcoming optimism of Autobahn, it also incorporates the darker shades of Radio-Aktivität – namely in the Side A tracks “Spiegelsaal” (“The Hall of Mirrors”) and “Schaufensterpuppen” (“Showroom Dummies”). These nuanced tones mark the record’s most famous composition, the three-part title suite that spans much of the album’s second side. Though not presented as a wholly-seamless piece, Trans Europa Express nevertheless maintains a remarkable sense of cohesion throughout.
Ultimately, it’s Kraftwerk’s ability to hit both ends of multiple spectra (dark/light, forward-thinking/nostalgic, experimental/accessible, human/robotic) that makes their work so frequently striking. Nowhere else in their catalog do they quite capture these dichotomies in such a compelling and arresting manner than on Trans Europa Express.
One for the playlist: While the multi-part title track is one of the greatest achievements of Kraftwerk’s career, so too is Trans Europa Express‘ gleaming opener, “Europa endlos” (“Europe Endless”). Given the fact that the former is spilt into three distinct sections on streaming services, I’ll go with the latter to provide a warm introduction for potential newcomers.