Eno, Bowie, PiL, The Fall, Negativland, Stereolab, Orb, Sonic Youth, Th’ Faith Healers, Cul de Sac, Tortoise, LCD Soundsystem, Fujiya & Miyagi, even Wilco among many many others were profoundly influenced by German space rock. For years, the albums were nearly impossible to find, and I was only able to play a smattering of Can and Neu! on my radio show, Uncle Fester’s Bucket O’ Nasties from 1987-92. A slew of reissues came out, thanks partly to The Teardrop Explodes’ Julian Cope’s book, Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik , first published in part as an article titled “Kosmische Echoes” in the December 1994 issue of The Wire. It was hard to tell which his overall favorites were, because nearly everything got the same level of hyperbole, even the ridiculous Cosmic Jokers, while he dismisses key Can albums.
Another book, Steve and Alan Freeman’s (publishers of Audion magazine) The Crack In The Cosmic Egg: Encyclopedia of Krautrock, Kosmiche Musik and other Progressive, Experimental & Electronic Musics from Germany quickly went out of print. Over the next decade, most of the major albums gradually became available, and so did the Freemans’ encyclopedia, in the form of a much-expanded CD ROM through Wayside, including videos and three hours of music.
Despite concerns that the Kosmische revival was another hipster fad, the influence continues to grow every year. The time since my original 2006 version of this piece saw many more lovingly remastered reissues of Harmonia, Michael Rother, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Klaus Schulze and others. Fujiya & Miyagi’s Transparent Things is essentially a Kosmische-pop homage, while Justus Köhncke covered Michael Rother’s “Feuerland” on his new album Safe And Sound (2008). With increased availability and influence, I expect to see key albums move up in the all-time list canons. They may not infiltrate them as much as they have creeped up mine (47 albums in my all-time top 1000 so far), but we’ll see.
35 years after much of this stuff was recorded, it still sounds fresh. Imagine—in 1970, 35 year-old music was from 1935. Here’s some recommendations to start your collection. Some may notice I didn’t write anything about Kraftwerk. While most of their albums made my overall list, they were a pretty separate entity, my first impression being their new wave era albums. Their first two are interesting as experimental music, but not really suited for repeated listens.
1. Can, Ege Bamyasi (1972)
By far the most canonized (yar) of the Krautrock bands, and for good reason. Two students of Stockhausen (Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt) were shaken out of their avant-garde snobbery and introduced to leading-edge pop music (“I am the Walrus,” Hendrix, Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground) by Czukay’s 19 year-old student, Michael Karoli. Black American sculptor and teacher Malcolm Mooney applied his untrained vocals with utter abandon. Monster Movie (1969) was an excellent debut that built upon their influences, taking the first step towards defining their sound. Mooney freaked out and left the country, land Can found a new singer in Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Soundtracks (1970) features the often-covered “Mother Sky.” Tago Mago (1971) is considered by many as their peak. Chaotic and tribal, it can be difficult listening. Ege Bamyasi is to Tago Mago like Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby was to Troutmaskreplica—more focused, concise, better. Plenty of people prefer the more crystalline, symphonic sounds of Future Days (1973) and the space rock of Soon Over Babaluma (1974). Pink Floyd fans should be sure to check these out. The entire catalog was remastered and reissued 2005-2006.
2. Harmonia, Deluxe (1975)
Frustrated with trying to assemble a live band for Neu! shows, Michael Rother visited Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius at their bucolic, woodlands studio home in Forst, Weserbergland in 1973 to ask them to join. He clicked with them so well creatively that he decided to put Neu! on hiatus and stayed. The result was two incredible albums in which they eschewed repetition for a variety of short burts of experimental sounds, including torturing a long-suffering drum machine by putting it through effects and chopping up the rhythms. Brian Eno played keen attention to Music Von Harmonia (1974) before recording Another Green World (1975). Bowie was also a big fan, which was reflected on side two of Low (1977). On Deluxe they let the drum machine alone, recruiting Guru Guru’s Mani Neumeier for a more powerful sound. Eno joined them and made some demos that were released 20 years later as Harmonia 76, Tracks And Traces. While it was fascinating stuff, it wasn’t nearly great as the two official releases. Live 1974, issued by Water in 2007, offers a rare peak of a live performance of mostly different material, with more of the improvised space rock feel of earlier Cluster. It also, however, lacks the magic of the studio albums.
3. Neu!, Neu! 75 (1975)
Neu! was an offshoot of Kraftwerk. Ralf Hunter temporarily left the band before a scheduled TV performance, and Florian Schneider recruited Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, and they performed “Truckstop Gondolero.” Without Florian, they recorded Neu! (1972) and totally eclipsed Kraftwerk with a new, spare, motorik rhythm that would influence countless bands. Even the cover art was classic, with the band’s name spray-painted on white in day-glo pink. Neu! 2 (1973) is slightly disappointing in that the second side is a single, “Neuschnee” and “Super” replayed at varying speeds. If only they had commissioned Lee Perry to give it a truly creative dub mix. After a two year hiatus with Rother doing Harmonia and Dinger forming the early stages of La Dusseldorf, they reconvened at Conny Plank’s new studio to finish their three album contract. Side one is them as a duo, featuring Rother’s lovely spacescapes. On side two, Dinger wanted to move to vocals and rhythm guitar, leaving drumming duties to the double team of brother Thomas Dinger and Plank’s recording assistant Hans Lampe. They don’t disappoint, blowing their tops with crunchy guitars, doubled-up drums and screaming punk Dinger vocals. Bowie liked “Hero” so much he named one of his best songs after it.
4. Amon Düül II, Yeti (1970)
Grown like fungus from a harry, hippie commune, the first incarnation managed one decent album in Paradieswärts Düül. However, it’s the offshoot that produced the most awe-inspiring music, starting with Phallus Dei (1969), translating to “God’s Cock.” Yeti is even better, both heavier (lurching psychedelic guitar freakouts) and prettier (“Sandoz in the Rain”). Dance Of The Lemmings (1971) is more fragmented and contentious. Some think it’s their best, Cope thinks it’s a “pile of pedestrian shit.” I’d say it’s their fifth best and leave it at that. Carnival In Babylon and Wolf City (1972) are much different, with acoustic guitars and slightly more structured songwriting. Some swear by these as their best. Repertoire reissued the first three, remastered with bonus tracks, and Revisited did later albums in similarly lush digipacks. All are available at Wayside.
5. Ash Ra Tempel (1971)
Just two long tracks, “Amboss” is a massively heavy guitar freakout, while “Traummaschine (Dream Machine)” is all floaty afterglow. Cope calls it “one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll LPs ever made.” No doubt. Schwingungen (1972) is nearly as great, and was reissued in 2003 as a deluxe edition by Cleopatra. For fans only is 7Up (1973), their collaboration with acid guru Timothy Leary.
6. La Dusseldorf (1976)
Continuing in his more energetic, punky side two of Neu! 75, Klaus Dinger recorded three stunning albums as La Dusseldorf, including Viva (1978) and Individuellos (1981) all remastered and reissued on Warner’s German label, and available at Wayside Music. With his singing and relatively catchy melodies, some might argue that these albums have as much to do with Krautrock as Kraftwerk’s late 70s synth albums. However, La Dusseldorf has too long been ignored, and have enough in common with Neu! to merit inclusion here. Sadly, Dinger’s death in early 2008 dashes hopes for any Neu! or Dusseldorf reunion.
7. Popol Vuh, Einsjäger & Siebenjäger (1974)
Unlike Tangerine Dream’s bland new-age music of the late 70s, Popol Vuh are often considered to be at their peak in the late 70s. With over 20 albums to choose from, I think this one is a good representation of both their early and later sound. Affenstunde (1970) features founder Florian Fricke on Moog synthesizer, the first and last all electronic Popol Vuh album. After that, he becomes a sort of cosmic music archeologist, investigating ancient Eastern music and applying it to soothing music perfectly suited to soundtracks, particularly Werner Herzog’s films. It’s a deep pool, so don’t be afraid to dive in. Wayside has a combo Einsjäger & Siebenjäger and Letzte Tage – Leizte Nachte (1976) CD.
8. Cluster, Zuckerzeit (1974)
Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius changed their sound quite a bit from their first two albums (not counting earlier works as Kluster). Pure electronic sugar (the title means “Sugartime”), the melodies and textures are sweet and tasty. Recorded at their new studio nestled in the woods, it was produced by Harmonia cohort Michael Rother from Neu!. Brian Eno listened to this quite a bit alongwith the first Harmonia album while composing Another Green World, and he would later collaborate with them. Eno & Cluster sound more like Eno’s ambient series, while After The Heat features some of the last vocals from Eno in some time. However, Sowiesoso (1976) will satisfy anyone itching for more of that sound, and to a lesser extent, Grosses Wasser (1979).
9. Guru Guru, Känguru (1972)
Guru Guru are kind of the Spinal Tap of the German avant rock scene, with the aptly named Ax Genrich peeling off gonzoid slabs of guitar madness inspired by Hendrix and Blue Cheer, but also anticipating the likes of Chrome and MX-80 Sound with flashes of brilliance that sounds positively post-punk. Their first and fourth albums, UFO (1970) and Guru Guru (1973) are often cited as their best. They’re wrong. Their third album Känguru reflects bandleader and drummer Mani Neumeier’s peak. Learning from his friends Conny Plank and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster/Harmonia, it’s also their best sounding album. Try Hinten (1971) next. Unfortunately, of their first half dozen albums, Känguru is the only one currently out of print. The cover may look familiar to Pavement fans…
10. Faust (1971)
This is a strikingly original debut, from it’s brilliant clear x-ray cover to the insane cut-up tape manipulations inside. It’s definitely one of those groundbreaking albums that took the world over two decades to catch up with. Even now, it’s awe-inspiring. And like many works the teeter into avant-garde territory, it’s not exactly easy listening.
11. Michael Rother, Sterntaler (1978)
Michael Rother has been a key Kosmische player since before he briefly was a member of Kraftwerk. He and Dinger established the influential “motorik rhythm” (a misnomer due to the fact that the subtle inconsistencies are distinctly humanoid) in Neu!, and breaking further boundaries in collaborating with Cluster in Harmonia. It’s often been mentioned that Rother turned down an opportunity to collaborate with Bowie. The truth came out, according to David Buckley’s Bowie bio, Strange Fascination, in a 2001 email exchange between the two that neither had turned the other down, but rather Bowie’s management tricked them into thinking so. How Rother would have influenced Bowie’s Berlin trilogy is anyone’s guess. The elliptical guitar playing in his solo work is certainly mellow, but the sublime, subtly shifting melodies end up with something more personal and emotional than he’d previously achieved. Working with producer Conny Plank and Can’s Jaki Leibzeit, his solo debut Flammende Herzen (Flaming Hearts) actually sold more copies initially than the Neu! and Harmonia albums combined. It also inspired a movie of the same title, created around the album as a soundtrack. The epic Sterntaler edges it out as the one to start with. Named after a Brothers Grimm tale, the sound is filled out with keyboards and vibraphones, bringing his background in Arabic music (he lived in Karachi, Pakistan as a child), Chopin and Hendrix into fullest realization. His creative arc continued with Katzenmusick (1979), which made NME‘s year-end top 40 list, and Fernwärme (1981), which mostly drops the guitar for chilly electronics. Impatient listeners might dismiss them as too new agey, but they’re far more rewarding than any other contemporary ambient work.
12. Tangerine Dream, Zeit (1972)
Hard to imagine, but these New Age giants used to rock. I can’t say I’ve listened to them as often or as passionately as many of the bands listed above, but this album seems to be the most elegant and affecting of their consistently good other efforts, including Electronic Meditation (1970), Alpha Centauri (1971), and Atem (1973). For those interested in their mid-period ambient work, Phaedra (1974) is the place to start. Green Desert (1973) is a previously unreleased bridge between Atem and Phaedra.
13. Klaus Schulze, Blackdance (1974)
After playing drums on Tangerine Dream’s Electronic Meditation, Klaus Schulze co-founded Ash Ra Tempel. Not a team player, Schulze grew bored after one album and embarked on a solo career. Like many so-called synth pioneers, Schulze did not use synthesizers on his early solo albums, but rather used organ and an actual orchestra on Irrlicht and augmented with oscillators. The hypnotic drones on that and Cyborg (1973) helped pioneer the beatless floating-in-space cosmic music. Blackdance was the first album Schulze used synths, smoothing out the roughness but also maintaining the sinister autumnal mood of the earlier work. I prefer it for its captivating melodies, while some consider Moondawn (1976) as his peak.
Full List of Kosmische Faves
- Can – Ege Bamyasi (Spoon/Mute) 72
- Harmonia – Deluxe (Brain) 75
- Neu! – Neu! 75 (Brain/Astralwerks) 75
- Harmonia – Music Von Harmonia (Brain) 73
- Can – Soon Over Babaluma (Spoon/Mute) 74
- Can – Future Days (Spoon/Mute) 73
- Ash Ra Tempel (Spalax) 71
- Amon Düül II – Yeti (Liberty/Revisited) 70
- Amon Düül II – Phallus Dei (Liberty/Revisited) 69
- La Dusseldorf (Radar) 76
- Popol Vuh – Einsjager & Siebenjager (Kosmische/Ohr) 74
- Cluster – Zuckerzeit (Brain) 74
- Neu! (Brain/Astralwerks) 72
- Guru Guru – Känguru (Brain/Universal) 72
- Faust (Recommended) 71
- Michael Rother – Sterntaler (Sky/Water) 78
- Faust – So Far (Recommended) 72
- Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Capitol) 77
- Can – Monster Movie (Spoon/Mute) 69
- Can – Tago Mago (Spoon/Mute) 71
- Popol Vuh – Hosianna Mantra (Kosmische Musik/SPV) 72
- Michael Rother – Flammende Herzen (Sky/Water) 77
- Tangerine Dream – Zeit (Relativity) 72
- Tangerine Dream – Electronic Meditation (Sequel) 70
- Michael Rother – Katzenmusik (Sky/Water) 79
- Hans Joachim Roedelius – Durch die Wüste (Gyroscope/Bureau B) 78
- Popol Vuh – Affenstunde (Tempel) 70
- Ash Ra Tempel – Schwingungen (Spalax) 72
- Popol Vuh – In Den Gärten Pharaos (Pilz/Ohr) 71
- Popol Vuh – Das Hohelied Salomos (UA/Spalax) 75
- Can – Soundtracks (Spoon/Mute) 70
- Amon Düül II – Wolf City (UA/Repertoire) 72
- Cluster – Sowiesoso (Sky) 76
- La Dusseldorf – Viva (Radar) 78
- Popol Vuh – Coeur de Verre (Spalax) 77
- Popol Vuh – Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts (Brain/Spalax) 78
- Amon Düül II – Dance of the Lemmings (Liberty/Revisited) 71
- Guru Guru – Hinten (Brain/Spalax) 71
- Neu! – Neu! 2 (Brain/Astralwerks) 73
- Tangerine Dream – Atem (Relativity) 72
- Klaus Schulze – Blackdance (Universal/SPV) 74
- Michael Rother – Fernwärme (Sky/Water) 81
- Klaus Schulze – Irrlicht (Ohr/Revisited) 72
- Cluster – Cluster II (Brain/Revisited) 72
- Cluster And Eno – After The Heat (Sky) 78
- Amon Düül II – Carnival In Babylon (UA/Repertoire) 72
- Klaus Schulze – Moondawn (Universal/SPV) 76
- Faust – Faust IV (Virgin) 73
- Can – Landed (Spoon/Mute) 74
- Kraftwerk – The Man Machine (Capitol) 78
- Kraftwerk – Autobahn (Philips) 74
- Popol Vuh – Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächte (Kosmische/Ohr) 76
- La Dusseldorf – Individuellos (Radar) 81
- Moebius & Plank – Rastakraut Pasta (Sky/Water) 79
- Amon Düül I – Pardieswarts Duul (Spalax) 70
- Popol Vuh – Seligpreisung (Kosmische/Ohr) 74
- Cluster – Grosses Wasser (Sky) 79
- Cluster – Cluster 71 (Philips/Captain Trip) 71
- Klaus Schulze – Timewind (Universal/SPV) 75
- Hans Joachim Roedelius – Jardin Au Fou (Gyroscope/Bureau B) 79
- Kraftwerk – Radio Activity (Capitol) 75
- Guru Guru – UFO (Brain/Spalax) 70
- Faust – The Faust Tapes (Cuneiform) 73
- Klaus Schulze – Cyborg (Ohr/Revisited) 73
- Harmonia 76 (with Eno) – Tracks And Traces (Rykodisc) 76
- Can – Saw Delight (Spoon/Mute) 77
- Tangerine Dream – Alpha Centauri (Relativity) 71
- Can – Unlimited Edition (Spoon/Mute) 76
- Tangerine Dream – Green Desert (Castle) 73
- Amon Düül II – Vive la Trance (UA/Repertoire) 73
- Hans Joachim Roedelius – Lustwandel (Gyroscope/Bureau B) 81
- Guru Guru – Dance On The Flames (Atlantic) 74
- Cluster And Eno (Sky) 77
- Guru Guru (Brain/Revisited) 73
- Tangerine Dream – Phaedra (Virgin) 74
- Tangerine Dream – Stratosfear (Virgin) 76
- Tangerine Dream – Rubycon (Virgin) 75
- Tangerine Dream – Force Majeure (Virgin) 79
- Hans Joachim Roedelius – Wenn Der Südwind Weht (Gyroscope/Bureau B) 81
- Popol Vuh – Aguirre (Barclay/Spalax) 75
- Popol Vuh – Sei Still, Wisse Ich Bin (Spalax) 81
- Popol Vuh – Agape-Agape (Spalax) 83
- Guru Guru – Don’t Call Us We Call You (Atlantic) 73
- Harmonia – Live 1974 (Water)
- Can – Flow Motion (Spoon/Mute) 76
- Tangerine Dream – Encore (Virgin) 77
- Cosmic Jokers (Brain) 74
- Kraftwerk – Ralf And Florian (Philips) 73
- Kraftwerk 2 (Philips) 72
- Kraftwerk 1 (Philips) 71
- Klaus Schulze – Mirage (Metronome/Universal) 77
- Klaus Schulze – Body Love (Metronome/Universal) 77
- Klaus Schulze – X (Magnum/Revisited) 78
- Klaus Schulze – Body Love, Vol. 2 (Metronome/Universal) 77
- Tangerine Dream – Tangram (Virgin) 80
- Tangerine Dream – Cyclone (Virgin) 78
- Amon Düül II – Hijack (Atco/Revisited) 74
- Can – Rite Time (Mute) 89
- Can (Mute) 79
- Can – Out Of Reach (Purple Pyramid) 78