Kraftwerk's 10 Best Songs: Staff Picks

Like only a select number of artists from the last century, it’s truly impossible to imagine modern music without Kraftwerk. Their metronomic, digitized and futuristic — yet still highly accessible — works of the ’70s and ’80s not only laid the groundwork for genres like synth-pop and techno, but they were also a foundational sample source for much of early hip-hop and electro. To many, Kraftwerk were nothing less than the Beatles of electronic music.

Today (May 6), it was confirmed that the group had lost one of its two founding members in Florian Schneider-Esleben. Described by group co-founder Ralf Hütter as a “sound fetishist,” Schneider was responsible for the cultivation of many of the sonic innovations that would become the group’s signatures, including most of the vocal effects that disguised their vocals as robots and/or aliens. David Bowie’s “V-2 Schneider,” an instrumental (aside from some vocoded utterances of its title) off his 1977 album Heroes, was named after Florian, and indicative of the group’s wide-ranging influence at the time.

To celebrate Schneider’s incalculable contributions to popular and experimental music, we’ve ranked his group’s ten greatest songs — life is timeless, and so are these compositions.

10. “Tour de France” (Non-album single, 1983)

A sort of sequel to the group’s “Trans-Europe Express,” but both breezier and (of course) breathier, the sound and feeling of your body churning while the wind whistles by you on the titular race’s final stretch. Like TEE, it also became a major sample source, with contemporaneous electro smashes like Egyptian Lover’s “Egypt Egypt” and early Dr. Dre outfit World Class Wreckin Cru’s “Surgery” pulling ahead of the pack on its glitching, wheezing groove. (Also worth tracking down the streamlined “Tour de France” from Kraftwerk’s essential 2005 live album Minimum-Maximum.)

9. “Tanzmusik” (Ralf und Florian, 1973)

When they found themselves in this transitional period on their third album, they named the thing Ralf und Florian – they were the only two members of Kraftwerk at the time — and created an early masterpiece of ambient contentment with “Tanzmusik.” For all the talk of Kraftwerk’s impact, too frequently we only think of their more mechanized, hard-hitting grooves: but Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were also masters of the gentle side of electronica, crafting airy beds of bubbling synths that bring to mind an A.I. experiencing the curious wonderment of a nature walk for the first time.

8. “The Model” (The Man-Machine, 1978)

The majority of Kraftwerk originals were so singularly Ralf und Florian that few artists have ever attempted to cover them — but “The Model” (or “Das Model” in its original German) was a gleaming electro-pop ditty, catchy and comprehensible enough to inspire later takes from artists like ’80s indie industrialists Big Black and ’90s alt-metal stars Rammstein. It also became an unexpected No. 1 hit for the group in the U.K., when it was released as a B-side in 1981, but became so popular with DJs that it was re-released as an A-side and topped the charts in 1982.

7. “Computer Love” (Computer World, 1981)

“Computer Love” sounds like the setup for a bad joke: A straight-faced Kraftwerk synth-pop quasi-ballad about a “data date”? But what could’ve been a cheap punchline is instead one of the group’s most legitimately affecting compositions, thanks to the unexpectedly vulnerable vocal performance from Hütter — and a gorgeously moaning synth line that plays out with unmistakable yearning for most of the song’s back half. The song’s trademark keyboard riff also found new life in the 21st century, when it was repurposed by Coldplay for their underrated 2005 single “Talk.”

6. “Autobahn” (Autobahn, 1975)

Despite being named after the famous German highway system without a federally mandated speed limit, Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” drives on cruise control, pleased to focus on the journey — which, at album length, lasts well over 20 minutes — rather than on getting to its destination. The lyrics didn’t intend to reference the Beach Boys (it’s “fahren, fahren, fahren” — meaning “driving” — not “Fun, Fun, Fun”) but it still works as a tribute to that group’s similarly leisurely driving anthems, only a decade earlier but seemingly existing in an entirely different universe. Improbably, “Autobahn” became the group’s lone Hot 100 top 40 hit, with its No. 25-peaking single edit.

5. “Radioactivity” (Radio-Activity, 1975)

Seven years before Prince urged the world to dance in the face of nuclear holocaust, Kraftwerk created the soundtrack to the pre-programmed post-apocalyptic Sunday services. Heavenly yet inhuman choral voices rise in intensity as a Geiger counter keeps time and arrhythmic radio signals seem to call out for a response that never quite arrives. One of Iggy Pop’s favorite tracks to lull him to sleep, it’s also one of the band’s most gloriously eerie and unsettling achievements.

4. “Pocket Calculator” (Computer World, 1981)

There was always a sense of humor about the band’s robo-role playing, but nowhere is it on cheekier display than “Pocket Calculator,” a song about the strangely detached experience of using a machine to create art. “By pressing down a special key it plays a little melody” could almost read as self-skewering… except for the fact that like the best of their compositions, the bouncing rhythm forces you to bop along. Which is exactly the sort of purposeless reaction that proves the inhuman can bring about the most human response of all.

3. “Europe Endless” (Trans-Europe Express, 1977)

It’s hard to think of bands whose sixth album changed the course of music, but it’s also damn near impossible to name an electronic studio album that stands as a better before/after marker for the genre’s evolution than Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. The nearly 10-minute album opener, “Europe Endless,” is so many things at once: minimalist yet expansive, using limited sounds to evoke a sense of limitlessness; mechanical but warm, like a beloved car; and relaxed yet relentlessly propulsive, like a pleasant drive down the U-Bahn at a velocity high enough to delight without terrifying. The dichotomy between Schneider’s vocoder intonations and Hütter’s singing, all-too-human in its frailty, is at the artificial heart of this song, and Kraftwerk itself.

2. “The Robots” (The Man-Machine, 1978)

The first track to 1978’s The Man-Machine functions as a bridge between electronic music’s past and future, opening with the disconnected sci-fi b-movie beee-yoooms and der-de-nerts of a Raymond Scott sonic experiment, before an unstoppably funky electro riff takes over and points to dance music’s mechanized future. Too weird to be a mainstream dancefloor rallying cry, but clearly the template for what DJs from Chicago and Detroit would pick up on within the next decade — not to mention a pair of famously robo-centric French producers a decade after that.

1. “Trans-Europe Express” (Trans-Europe Express, 1977)

The next ten years — hell, maybe the next 40 years — starts here: Among ’70s compositions, perhaps only Donna Summer’s Giorgio Moroder-produced “I Feel Love” can claim to be as predictive of the future of modern pop music as Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.” What’s more, it sounds like it’s very literally transporting you there with its chugging drums and icy synths, which within a couple years would arrive at the early synth-pop of Human League and Duran Duran, the extraterrestrial techno of Juan Atkins and Derrick May, and of course, the formative electro of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” — which turned TEE’s signature synth cascade into a hip-hop clarion call. And even as it beams you light years forward, it makes its present sound unimaginably cool, too: “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city/ Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.”