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Best Kraftwerk Songs: 20 Great Tracks From The Electro-Pop Godfathers
Photo: 360B/Alamy Stock Photo
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Best Kraftwerk Songs: 20 Great Tracks From The Electro-Pop Godfathers

Pioneering electronic music and the use of experimental synths, the best Kraftwerk songs lit the way for electro-pop, techno and dance.

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Toiling away in their custom-built Kling Klang studio in the city of Düsseldorf, German synth innovators Kraftwerk spent the 70s fashioning Moog soundscapes and getting to grips with electronic percussion pads to forge a wholly original sound. Pivotal in the development of new wave synth-pop, the breathtaking work of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos on classic albums such as 1974’s Autobahn and 1977’s Trans-Europe Express would go on to inspire David Bowie’s late-70s “Berlin Trilogy” and set the stage for the second British Invasion (particularly Duran Duran, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Depeche Mode and The Human League). From artful concept gems to sprawling ambient instrumentals, the best Kraftwerk songs positively sparkle, proving why the group deserve to be acknowledged among the most influential musicians of all time.

Listen to the best of Kraftwerk here, and check out our best Kraftwerk songs, below.

20: La Forme (from ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’, 2003)

Upon being tempted to musically revisit the concept of the world’s most famous cycling tournament for its centennial anniversary, Kraftwerk released their eleventh album, Tour De France Soundtracks, in August 2003. A notable highlight was La Forme, on which Ralf Hütter chants a digitally distorted mantra expressing his fondness for cycling, physical fitness and the mechanics of the human body. “What makes Kraftwerk brilliant is the combination of fascinating textures and sounds, simplicity and efficiency in production, and a habit of writing beautiful melodies,” said Joe Goddard of indie synth-pop band Hot Chip, after he remixed La Forme in late 2007, helping to raise this lesser-known track’s profile among the best Kraftwerk songs.

19: Musique Non-Stop (from ‘Electric Café’, 1986)

As the lead single to their 1986 album, Electric Café, Musique Non-Stop quickly became a live favourite among Kraftwerk fans and is still often played as the closing number at their shows. Perhaps what made the song even more special was its innovative promotional music video, directed by the pioneering digital artist Rebecca Allen. “Kraftwerk came to me because I was specifically working on human motion, simulation and facial animation,” said Allen. “This was great in the early days, because nobody was doing anything like that.” Recreating Kraftwerk’s shop-dummy doppelgängers as 3D animated talking heads, the video was just as cutting-edge for the mid-80s as Peter Gabriel’s celebrated Sledgehammer clip, and it went on to receive regular airplay on MTV.

18: Tour De France (single A-Side, 1983)

By the early 80s, Ralf Hütter was in his late 30s and had taken up cycling in an effort to keep fit. His new-found hobby wheeled its way into Kraftwerk’s standalone 1983 single, Tour De France, an electro-pop ode to the physical endurance of cyclists as they traverse the scenic routes of the Pyrenees and the Alps. “After the modern world (trains, motorways, radioactivity, etc) and the machines from Computer World, we want to glorify the muscles of the human being,” Hütter said following the single’s release. Full of electronically-recreated slap bass and radial rhythms, the laboured breathing on the song’s introduction was allegedly recorded by an exhausted Hütter after he finished running up and down the stairs in Kling Klang.

17: The Telephone Call (from ‘Electric Café’, 1986)

Built around a memorable Moog hook and a “number unobtainable” tone, The Telephone Call is a conceptual tour de force which easily ranks among the best Kraftwerk songs for the way it perfectly captures the melancholia of personal disconnection and communication breakdown. As the only Kraftwerk song to be sung by Karl Bartos, it’s also a unique and playful entry in their canon, turning the group’s gaze to telecommunications as they craft a sonic metaphor for personal longing while tinkering with rotary dial tones. “We took the sound of the telephone bell and made music around it,” Bartos said. “It is still a typically Kraftwerk piece with its mixture of funky rhythm, musique concrète and pop music.”

16: Airwaves (From ‘Radio-Activity’, 1975)

One of the best Kraftwerk songs to come from their 1975 studio album, Radio-Activity, Airwaves once again sees the group celebrate the wonders of modern technology, in this instance the life-changing power of radio communication. With a key lyric translating as “When airwaves swing, distant voices sing”, the song kicks off with a swirling synth line before letting loose with a noodling Moog melody. A mesmerising fusion of Kraftwerk’s desire to merge pop melodicism with the avant-garde experimentations of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Airwaves perfected the group’s tendency to marry conceptual themes and newfangled electronic instruments with experimental verve.

15: Pocket Calculator (from ‘Computer World’, 1981)

Proving Kraftwerk had a sense of humour, Pocket Calculator is a fun synth-pop ditty that sees the group toy with herky-jerky bleeps and bloops like schoolkids let loose in a gadget factory. The song’s inspiration was all thanks to a pocket calculator Florian Schneider bought into Kling Klang. “It was a new thing for us,” Ralf Hütter said. “It was a minimalistic liberation for us. I think that mini electronics are very interesting.” Proving how Kraftwerk were synth-pop originators to whom the best New Romantic bands owed a huge debt, Pocket Calculator dabbles in a jaunty electro beat with lyrics that almost make calculators seem as musically versatile as a Casio keyboard (“By pressing down a special key/It plays a little melody”).

14: Kometenmelodie 2 (from ‘Autobahn’, 1974)

Inspired by witnessing Comet Kohoutek pass over German skies in 1973, Kraftwerk paid tribute to this interstellar visitor with a pair of spacy songs issued on their breakthrough album, Autobahn. Released as a single in July 1974, Kometenmelodie 2 is an instrumental track that deserves to be regarded as one of the best Kraftwerk songs for the way its ascending Minimoog melody paints a vivid sonic picture of a sci-fi voyage. Many years after he had left the group, Wolfgang Flür singled out the song in an article for The Quietus after seeing his former band play a 3D show in 2013. “The graphic projections in 3D were a hit,” Flür wrote. “During Kometenmelodie it felt like you could grab the space capsules coming out of the screen.”

13: Numbers (from ‘Computer World’, 1981)

With an eerie vocoder voice counting from one to ten in multiple languages, the crunching beat of Numbers is the perfect vessel for Kraftwerk’s subtle social commentary on global capitalism and the slow creep of numerical data that underpins the world of finance. Oddly haunting and unsettling, there’s an almost nightmarish quality to the song, implying that the binary logic of numbers only serves to atomise and divide us. Just like George Orwell’s 1984, Numbers could well be interpreted as a dystopic premonition of the rise of Big Data and the mining of personal information. “Our whole society is computerised,” Ralf Hütter said, “and each one of us is stored into some point of information by some company or organisation, all stored by numbers.” Like modern-day Cassandras, Kraftwerk saw it coming.

12: Spacelab (from ‘The Man-Machine’, 1978)

After hearing of plans by the European Space Agency to build a special laboratory in orbit around planet earth, Kraftwerk wrote Spacelab, a gravity-defying and atmospheric instrumental from their 1978 album, The Man-Machine. Reportedly namechecking German compatriot and rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun in interviews, Kraftwerk launched themselves into an evocative sci-fi soundscape propelled by a Giorgio Morodor-esque Eurodisco groove that more than earns its place among the best Kraftwerk songs. Amazingly, in July 2018, before Kraftwerk played Spacelab live audience in Stuttgart, German astronaut Alexander Gerst addressed the crowd during a special transmission from the International Space Station. “The ISS is a man-machine,” the astronaut declared. “The most complex and valuable machine humankind has ever built.”

11: Computer World (from ‘Computer World’, 1981)

Sensing that an international conspiracy might be afoot, Computer World sees Kraftwerk explore how the rise of computers in modern life might allow corporate and government institutions – each one hell-bent on power and dominance – to exert their control over us. Calling out specific organisations by name (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard”), the song breaks away from the techno-utopianism Kraftwerk espoused in the 70s and instead expresses a fear that computers might inadvertently create a world where civil liberties are rendered redundant and human beings become nothing but nodes on a network. “Every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology,” a press release said upon the Computer World album’s release, in 1981, “and our language has become the language of computer software.” No truer words have been spoken: if anything, Kraftwerk’s stark warning is more relevant today than it was over 40 years ago.

10: Showroom Dummies (from ‘Trans-Europe Express’, 1977)

Paving the way for the introduction of the robot doppelgängers they would soon send out in their stead, Showroom Dummies was a seminal synth-pop single in 1977 that saw Kraftwerk venture into the realm of performance art. Creating a promotional video in which the band performed as shop mannequins, the song aimed to parody the dehumanising effects of their recent post-Autobahn fame while countering criticisms of their stiff-limbed stage presence (“We are standing here/Exposing ourselves/We are showroom dummies”). “It was a really important track for them,” Duran Duran’s John Taylor later said of Showroom Dummies. “It was like a very cool, very chic, dancefloor-filler.” It was this song that prompted Kraftwerk to create artificial replicas of themselves – something they would explore further when they turned their attention to robots on The Man-Machine – enjoying the novelty of hiding behind anonymity so they could let the music do the talking.

9: The Robots (from ‘The Man-Machine’, 1978)

The opening track to their 1978 album, The Man-Machine, The Robots was nothing short of revolutionary, and it still stands tall as one of the best Kraftwerk songs. Taking to the stage in red shirts and black ties, the group captured people’s imaginations by portraying themselves as pasty-faced androids from a sci-fi B-movie, pairing Ralf Hütter’s deadpan vocoder tones with uncanny-valley stage antics. “The image of the robot is very important to us,” Florian Schneider said. “The robots may be an image, a projection, a reflection, a mirror of what happens – I think people understand that.” Released as a single in May 1978, The Robots defined Kraftwerk’s visual identity and went on to encourage the group to build animatronic cyborg versions of themselves to use on stage. Not only did this mess with public perception, but it also lent extra weight to the ideas of automation that sat at the very heart of Kraftwerk’s pioneering brand of electronic music.

8: The Hall Of Mirrors (from ‘Trans-Europe Express’, 1977)

Given that David Bowie was such a huge fan of Kraftwerk, speaking glowingly about them in interviews in the late 70s, it’s no surprise that the group returned the compliment. A creepy, neo-gothic track from their sixth album, Trans-Europe Express, The Hall Of Mirrors invokes the myth of Narcissus and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture Of Dorian Grey as Ralf Hütter explores fame and sings of shifts in self-identity and perception under media scrutiny (“He made up the person he wanted to be/And changed into a new personality/Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass”). Featuring references to French architect Louis Le Vau’s Baroque creations for the Palace Of Versailles, The Hall Of Mirrors uses echoey synths to conjure an almost ghostly feel, instantly establishing itself as one of the best Kraftwerk songs as he group ruminate poetically on Bowie’s chameleon-like artistic endeavours.

7: Neon Lights (from ‘The Man-Machine’, 1978)

A fond tribute to the nocturnally illuminated streets of Düsseldorf, which is frequently lit up with signage for its hotels, bars and shops, Neon Lights is one of the best Kraftwerk songs of the late 70s, masterfully layering synth parts to soundtrack the city’s bustling nightlife. “I thought Neon Lights was strikingly beautiful,” said Ultravox’s lead singer, John Foxx. “That was one beautiful, dignified, romantic song.” As the group’s Kling Klang studio was based in Düsseldorf, it’s best to see Neon Lights as Kraftwerk’s evocative and atmospheric homage to the place they considered home, nostalgically capturing the confluence of the city’s hypermodern late-night entertainment and its gaudy advertisements.

6: Radio-Activity (from ‘Radio-Activity’, 1975)

Seemingly endorsing nuclear power and its role in 20th-century technological innovation, Kraftwerk originally wrote Radio-Activity to explore what Ralf Hütter called “our dedication to the age of radio and radiation at the same time, breaking the taboo of including everyday political themes in the music”. It was an artistic decision they would eventually double back on. “In 1975 I had no idea what an atomic power plant was all about,” Karl Bartos said. “They [our record company] sent us into a real Atomkraftwerk [nuclear power plant] for silly promo pics.” By the early 90s, the group had started to perform the song differently; mindful of how the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island accident had changed public attitudes to nuclear energy, they now beseeched listeners to “stop radioactivity”. Despite this, the original version of Radio-Activity, released as a single in 1976, remains a thought-provoking exploration of modernity that still ranks among the best Kraftwerk songs.

5: Europe Endless (from ‘Trans-Europe Express’, 1977)

As keen travellers and unashamed utopians, Kraftwerk were on a mission to use synthesisers to capture the spirit of modern Europe. A sparkling paean to the continent’s open borders, Europe Endless is an expansive tone poem to freedom of movement and beautiful landscapes, and features as the opening track on the group’s 1977 masterpiece, Trans-Europe Express. “After a tour in the States, we realised that Europe is mostly parks and old hotels, promenades and avenues,” Florian Schneider said in a 1976 interview. “Real life, but in a world of postcards.” Positively glistening with neo-classical flourishes courtesy of Ralf Hütter’s Vako Orchestron keyboard, Europe Endless was a picture-perfect portrayal of a dreamlike world unhindered by border controls, and it made for a perfect fit with the album’s idealistic concept of a transcontinental railway journey.

4: Autobahn (from ‘Autobahn’, 1975)

Not only one of the best Kraftwerk songs, but possibly the most innovative song of all-time, Autobahn was a pioneering work of ambient synth-pop described by Ralf Hütter as “a Kling-Klang-electro-symphony”. With a motorik beat which brings to life Germany’s most famous motorway, the 22-minute song begins with the slamming of a car door and uses engine noises, car horns and sweeping synths to take the listener on a highly imaginative journey from the industrial Ruhr valley to the Münsterland countryside. “The music came from our reality,” Hütter said, calling the song “music of a poetic realism”. Co-produced by Conny Plank, an edited version of Autobahn was released as a single in 1975 and peaked at No.11 in the UK and No.25 on the US Billboard Hot 100, introducing Kraftwerk to the world and ushering in a brave new world of electronic musical innovation.

3: Trans-Europe Express (from ‘Trans-Europe Express’, 1977)

Celebrating the awe-inspiring wonder of taking a train journey across Europe, Trans-Europe Express revisited the transportation-related themes of Autobahn with a fully electronic ode to the rolling beauty of Kraftwerk’s home continent (“Rendezvous on Champs-Elysées/Leave Paris in the morning on TEE/Trans-Europe Express”). “If you go by train today, you can see, besides the famous castles, the wonderful villas,” said Wolfgang Flür. “The TEE had the panorama carriage where you could sit and look out all around. You could see everything, the panorama on both sides of the Rhine.” An electro-pop classic that ranks highly on our list of the best Kraftwerk songs, Trans-Europe Express would later grab the attention of Bronx-based rapper Afrika Bambaataa, who recreated its icy synths – and the beats from Computer World’s Numbers – for his famous hit Planet Rock, which reached No.48 in the US in April 1982.

2: The Model (from ‘The Man-Machine’, 1978)

Originally released in 1978 but later becoming a UK No.1 hit in 1981 – following its release as double A-side with Computer Love – The Model is one of Kraftwerk’s biggest success stories and easily one of their most recognisable tracks. Reportedly inspired by fashion model Christa Becker – a suggestion which Ralf Hütter later refuted – the song was the result of the band’s experiences at Köln-based nightclub The Bagel, a famous haunt for models in West Germany. “It’s about the context of an object, paying money: for beauty we will pay,” Hütter said in a 2009 interview with Uncut magazine. Ostensibly a character portrayal that satirises people’s obsession with beauty, The Model instantly became one of the best Kraftwerk songs thanks to its catchy and futuristic synth lines and its unbridled art-pop gumption.

1: Computer Love (from ‘Computer World’, 1981)

Selling more than 550,000 copies in the UK, Computer Love is widely regarded to feature the group’s most exquisite and melodically complex arrangement. With remarkable foresight, the song’s lyrics seem to predict our computerised modern age of online dating and hook-up apps, depicting a lonely soul resorting to desperate measures to find love (“I call this number/For a data date, for a data date”). “We’re only just starting to go in this direction, with the help of musical machines, computers or whatever it takes to put ideas across to other people,” Ralf Hütter said. “Communication between people in the technological society is what we are about.” Later interpolated by Coldplay for the single Talk, from their 2005 album, X&Y, Computer Love’s sublimely epic synth riff cemented Kraftwerk’s legacy as immortal electro-pop pioneers, and that’s why it tops our list of the best Kraftwerk songs of all time.

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