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Unit/10 top ten – Krautrock!

Our latest Top Ten post in celebration of our decade in publishing turns to music, specifically the cosmic sounds of Krautrock. As a lifelong fan of the genre, Adrian Shaughnessy picks ten of his favourite records – from releases by Can and NEU!, to Harmonia and Cluster.

If you are a fan of John Lydon, The Fall, Julian Cope, Boards of Canada, Stereolab or Berlin-era Bowie, you’ll already be a fan of Krautrock. I prefer the name Cosmische Musik, but I’m talking about the school of music that flourished in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was music made with guitars, drums and keyboards, but it wasn’t pop music. It was much closer to the 20th-century classical avant garde and the experimentalist wing of US and UK rock.

By the late 1970s, the Cosmische sound was forgotten. Today, however, it has been rediscovered by a generation of musicians and fans attracted to the motorik rhythms, synth drones and ‘cosmic’ meanderings of bands such as Can, Faust, Neu, Amon Düül and, of course, Kraftwerk.

Here are my top ten Cosmische/Krautrock albums. I’m heartbroken not to include A.R. & Machines, Walter Wegmuller and Tangerine Dream. I could easily do a Top 50, but this list will be useful for anyone who needs an introduction to the weird and fractured sounds of post-war German youth. I have selected currently available CD versions as they are easier to find than original pressings.

Can – Tago Mago (Mute/Spoon)

One of the numerous Can albums I might have selected. Tago Mago stands out because it encapsulates the Can ethos of fusing funky, chugging rhythms with space rock drones and the whispered far-away vocals of Damo Suzuki.

Faust – IV (Virgin)

One of the great Cosmische albums by one of the great German experimentalists: drones, beats and ghostly folk resonances abound.

Amon Düül II – Phallus Dei (Gammorock Records)

A record titled God’s Penis has to be good! The second incarnation of this group is closer to prog rock than other German bands but laced with the Cosmische other-worldliness we have come to expect.

NEU! – NEU! 2 (Gronland)

The ür-Krautrock album, full of hallucinogenic guitar noodling (Michael Rother) and the pulse of motorised beats (Klaus Dinger). I could easily have chosen any one of their three (official) albums, but NEU! 2 has a grandeur that has rarely been surpassed. NEU!’s influence on everyone from Bowie to Eno to Mark E Smith is immense.

La Düsseldorf – Viva (Captain Trip Records)

Formed by NEU drummer Klaus Dinger, La Düsseldorf were a Krautrock hybrid – anthemic prog rock stylings, gurgling electronics, birdsong and weird vocals that hinted at punk! Like visiting a carnival in a nightmare – it’s that good.

Cluster – Cluster II (Brain)

Formed by Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, Cluster were defiantly avant garde. Cluster II was one of the great albums to come out of early 70s Germany – it was often shapeless, hypnotic and beatless. It was co-produced by Conny Plank, and its influence can be felt in albums by Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and many others.

Harmonia – Musik von Harmonia (Brain)

Roedelius and Moebius, with the addition of NEU guitarist Rother, made an album of propulsive rhythmic grandeur. Could have been made today, it is a high-water mark for Cosmische Musik. Later the trio were joined by Eno, who recorded one album with them, and identified their pivotal role in the development of ambient music.

Popul Vuh – Aguirre (Ohr)

Best known for their transcendent soundtracks to the films of Werner Herzog, Popul Vuh offered a radical alternative to the relentless rhythmic surge of most Krautrock bands. Often using acoustic instruments, choral singing and elements from indigenous music from around the world, Popul Vuh leader Florian Fricke is one of the great originals of 20th-century music of any kind.

Cosmic Jokers – Cosmic Jokers (Spalax)

The psychedelic house band for the ballrooms of Mars. True space rock. Dreamy guitar-led jams by the great Manuel Göttsching that unravel over a rhythmic bed of synths (Klaus Schulze), drums and bass. Five Cosmic Jokers records were made by unscrupulous producer Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, who invited the group to jam sessions which he recorded and, without the musician’s knowledge, released as albums.

Kraftwerk – Tour de France (Kling Klang)

Arguably as influential as the Beatles, without Kraftwerk electronic music (pop music, even) might have mutated into something quite different from its present incarnation. I might have been expected to choose Autobahn, the group’s most famous album. But I’ve gone for this much later work (2003), which is like inhaling a blast of life-affirming oxygen every time I hear it. Back when I designed record covers for a living, I met many famous rock stars, but meeting Ralf Hütter was the only time I felt overawed.

Unit/10 is our celebration of ten years of Unit Editions. Look out for more top tens, book lists and details of other projects over the next few months.