Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn was a game-changing record for the group, ushering in a series of seminal albums in its wake in the form of Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine which would leave their mark on popular and alternative culture indelibly in the following decades.
The title track is nothing short of iconic, a 22 minute depiction of travelling along the A555 from Koln to Bonn, the first ever Autobahn, with pastoral synth washes, mechanical vocals and motorik beats passing by the Volkswagen’s window on an endless drive. Close to four decades after its release, the attention to detail achieved on this masterpiece is astonishing, with a sense of orchestral depth conjured from electronic equipment considered rudimentary by today’s standards.
The occasional bursts of harsh and terrifying vocoded vocals make this far from easy listening, and add an ambiguity to the group’s predominantly optimistic relationship with technology which only deepens the piece’s sense of majestic mystery. The second side of the album also has some real gems in the form of ‘Mitternacht’, where the dead of night is described though bursts of piston noise and disembodied machine yelps, and ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, which moves through dappled chords in slow motion. ‘Autobahn’ is, simply put, an incredibly important document in the history of electronic music.
Surfing on 1975 sine waves, Kraftwerk plug into possibly one of their finest moments, their fifth studio album, ‘Radioactivity’. The album was their first bilingual release featuring lyrics in both German and English and the notably it featured the first use of the Vako Orchestron keyboard, distinctive for its harsh caustic sound, most apparent on ‘Antenna’. Elsewhere, there is the majestic and exploratory title-track ‘Radioactivity’, the dizzying Gregorian chants of ‘Radio Stars’ and the strangely-sweet lonesome machine pop of ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’. An incredible milestone in Kraftwerk’s evolution from experimental adventurers to global success stories.
German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk helped shape modern music with their 1970s output, and few records have had as much influence as Trans-Europe Express. Just ask Afrika Bambaata, whose ‘Planet Rock’, and therefore hip-hop in general, is heavily indebted to this album’s title track. Mechanised, robotic sounds represent the literal and imagined conundrums of life in a technological age, the slow but steady shift beginning from human personae to the rigid Robots we know so well. Melodies meander through the regimented electronic rhythms, charmingly imperfect vocals adding a very real heart to crisply accurate synthesised material. To call this essential would be a gross understatement.
The Man Machine
What can we even say about this one? German masters and forefathers of electronic music as we know it today, Kraftwerk were at their most accessible with The Man Machine. Alternate-universe singalong favourites like 'The Robots' (which had a heavy influence on LCD Soundsystem's 'Get Innocuous') and UK Number 1 hit 'The Model' sit alongside the lengthy shimmer of 'Neon Lights' and the nervous tension of 'Metropolis', each track a model of perfection in its own right, yet even more magnificent in context. If this isn't already in your collection, it's about time you rectified that.
Kraftwerk demonstrate yet again their supremely modernist outward view with their eight studio album, ‘Computer World’, a lingering glance into the trepidation and burgeoning curiosity of a world at the feet of computer dominance. Originally released in 1981, the group had some way to come to discover the true extensity of the supreme control the digital world was to achieve, yet tracks such as ‘Computer Love’ and ‘Computer World’ convey the rising consternation with moments of gliding serenity and suspicion. Elsewhere, tracks such as ‘Numbers’ and its liquid rhythms go down in unparalleled music history as they help give birth to Detroit electro and its own extraordinary legacy.
Originally released in 1986, ‘Techno Pop’ (some may know it as ‘Electric Cafe’, the title that preceded the original working title before their five year hiatus) is the ninth studio album to come from electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. As they are accustomed too, the group break new ground with their first excursion into digital recording, and with that they leave behind the powerfully oblique music of their earlier recordings and instead begin with an album immersed in funk. Production wise, we hear vocal work taking on new a form as a percussive detail, and convoluted rhythmic endeavours such as on ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ and heavy evocative funk on ‘The Telephone Call’.
Avoiding the usual ‘Best of’ selections, Kraftwerk opted for a live album/synopsis of sorts with 1991’s ‘The Mix’ album. Featuring re-recorded versions of a varied collection of tracks from albums including 1974’s ‘Autobahn’, all the way through to their 1986 album, ‘Electric Cafe’, the group reinterpret their canon of legendary compositions in a modern idiom. The album also captured the results of the group’s efforts at digital improvisation, recorded at their newly digital Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf.
Tour De France
After a hiatus of over a decade, Kraftwerk returned to the fold with their conceptual celebration of the centenary anniversary celebrations of the Tour de France. Not to be confused with the exquisite 1983 single of the same name (although the track does appear in a remastered format), the album remakes the original single into a sum of three parts, a ‘Tour de France’ mega-mix made up of nervous micro-house, mesmeric fluctuating house rhythms and glistening arpeggiated synth life forms respectively. Elsewhere there are the technoid manipulations of ‘Aero Dynamik’ and the original title-track, which is of course, a thoroughly grandiose celebration of the group’s second favourite past-time with arpeggiated synthesizer melodies, slap bass, fatigued breathing and glistening harps. A deep synergy of progress in action.