Kraftwerk: their 30 greatest songs, ranked!

<span>Photograph: Kraftwerk/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Kraftwerk/Redferns

30. Expo 2000 (1999)

Kraftwerk’s first new and original music since 1986, this single started as a commissioned jingle for the Hanover Expo 2000 world’s fair, but returned Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider to the UK Top 30. The trademark mix of subtle techno grooves and melody find them – of course – peering into the 21st century.

29. Elektro Kardiogramm (2003)

After paving the way for so many others, and with percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür having departed after the Electric Café album, the band’s later material started to sound recognisably contemporary. This track from 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks, their first album in 17 years, subtly assimilates modern clubland and minimalist house.

28. Franz Schubert (1977)

Kraftwerk would pose with gramophones as well as synthesisers; a deep vein of classical music tradition underpinned their futurism. This gorgeously dreamy track from the Trans-Europe Express album uses electronic melody and a synthesised vocal to sweetly and delicately pay homage to the 19th-century Austrian composer.

Kraftwerk playing in Brussels in 1981
Kraftwerk playing in Brussels in 1981. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

27. Vitamin (2003)

A keen cyclist who thought nothing of riding between concerts (and had a bad bike crash, too), Hütter delved deep into his hobby’s minutiae for Tour De France Soundtracks. There is a hint of Kraftwerk fans Orbital in this groovily melodic electronic ode to pre-ride proteins and nutrition.

26. Metropolis (1978)

The Man-Machine (Die Mensch-Machine) album doesn’t sound as futuristic now as 1981’s Computer World, but on release it trailblazed what the music press briefly dubbed “machine rock”. This track is typical of the kind of synthetic pop that enthralled Gary Numan, David Bowie, Ultravox, Depeche Mode and countless others.

25. Antenna (1975)

“I’m the antenna, catching vibration, you’re the transmitter, give information,” begins this sweet hymn to radio from Radio-Activity. By now, the entirely electronic band had built their famous Kling-Klang studio and were using Micromoog synths, the Orchestron (a primitive sampler) and their own custom-built electronic percussion, played with what looked like knitting needles.

24. The Man-Machine (1978)

A highlight of Kraftwerk’s concerts, the eponymous album’s title track uses banks of synthesised voices and ticking rhythms as Kraftwerk sing about their synergetic bond with their instruments. The previous year, they told the incredulous rock critic Lester Bangs that “when it gets to a certain stage, the machines start playing us”.

23. The Hall of Mirrors (1977)

From Trans-Europe Express, this is Kraftwerk at their most mesmerically disturbing. To sounds like echoed footsteps, this is the narrated story of a young man who ventures into a hall of mirrors and loses himself in his own reflection. Lines such as “even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass” eerily contemplate celebrity, narcissism and insecurity.

22. Spacelab (1978)

Pop music inspired by space travel doesn’t always date well. For every timeless curio such as Bowie’s Space Oddity, there are a dozen astronaut-suited forgotten synth groups. From The Man-Machine, Spacelab’s thin and whirry synths now sound slightly too reminiscent of 70s sci-fi programmes – but the tune is as earworming as they come.

21. It’s More Fun to Compute (1981)

Computer World’s second anthem to home computing, although the music is rather different to Home Computer. The banks of stark, metallic sound give things a more ominous feel, more funny-peculiar than fun, fun, fun.

20. Numbers (1981)

This Computer World cracker features the numbers one to four recited in a range of global languages, hinting at the interconnected world of finance and business that digital technology would supercharge. The clanging backdrop is stark and sinister, suggesting all might not be well with the free market.

19. Musique Non Stop (1986)

By the time of the underrated Electric Café album, Dusseldorf’s finest had gone digital, creating what they called techno pop. New Order – who were huge Kraftwerk fans – sampled 1975’s Uranium on Blue Monday, and were so taken by this much later Kraftwerk track that they played it as they left the stage (music non-stop, geddit?).

Kraftwerk in concert in New York in 2005
Kraftwerk in concert in New York in 2005. Photograph: Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic

18. Tanzmusik (1973)

From the Ralf und Florian (ie Hütter and Schneider) album, this was a favourite of Sheffield’s own electronic pioneers, Cabaret Voltaire, who started out soon after this was released. The lovely gurgling synths and gently motorik rhythms point to what we now know as electronica.

17. The Model (1978)

Implausibly but brilliantly covered by both Big Black and Rammstein, The Man-Machine’s best-known track gave Kraftwerk a surprise UK No 1 in 1982 after it was re-released at the height of the Kraftwerk-inspired Human League/OMD synth-pop boom. The track explores postmodern disconnection, as the melancholy singer eulogises someone he has barely met.

16. Kometenmelodie 2 (1974)

This beautiful, gently pulsating gem from the Autobahn album shows where Kraftwerk were headed as they started to dispense with acoustic instruments and longer hair to become a sharply-coiffured, neo-uniformed, fully electronic pop group. The influence on “the Wirral Kraftwerk”, OMD, is audible.

15. Showroom Dummies (1977)

The third track on Trans-Europe Express is simultaneously one of the German group’s most sinister tracks and best attempts at storytelling. Window-display mannequins come to life, starting to “move and break the glass”, before heading for the nearest club to start dancing, presumably robotically.

14. Computer World (1981)

Kraftwerk’s best album’s title track peers into the future for a sinister and inviting glimpse of today’s information age. “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” are dispassionately referenced alongside “time, travel, communication”. The beat is the Kling-Klangers’ funkiest.

13. The Telephone Call (1987)

Although The Model is probably Kraftwerk’s best-known pop hit, this sublime Karl Bartos-sung single, edited from 1986’s Electric Café, is arguably their poppiest song. It’s a brilliant combination of unrequited love (“You’re so close but far away”), bleeping dial tones, kitsch and the everyday irritation of not being able to get through on the phone.

12. Home Computer (1981)

“I program my home computer, beam myself into the future,” Kraftwerk sang when the idea of family laptops was still the stuff of science fiction. The proto-techno grooves of such tracks were a huge influence on Detroit techno. Juan Atkins both sampled this and 1977’s Hall Of Mirrors for Cybotron’s 1983 electro classic Clear.

Kraftwerk in 1977
Kraftwerk have a train to catch … the band in 1977. Photograph: Kraftwerk/Getty Images

11. Europe Endless (1977)

Trans-Europe Express’s minimalist 10-minute opener employs just two alternating electronic melodies and a simple, fizzing rhythm but gloriously evokes and eulogises Europe’s vast expanses as old wartime rivalries and divisions healed. Hütter and Schneider’s human and vocoder voices celebrate a European union of landscape, mankind and machine.

10. Ruckzuck (1970)

It is not that widely known that when they formed in Dusseldorf in 1970, Kraftwerk (meaning “power plant”) used traditional instruments. The first track on their debut (ruckzuck means “right now”) uses guitars, organ, violin and drums. Hütter plays the main riff on a flute, but the driving repetitive rhythms are almost proto-techno.

9. Sex Object (1986)

Kraftwerk’s inscrutability somehow makes it harder to imagine them as hot-blooded young men, but they certainly weren’t averse to sauce. With cheekily darting string sounds, this hilarious track from Electric Café brings bone-dry humour to the traumas of being an object of pleasure (“You turn me on, then you forget”). A retort, perhaps, from The Model of their biggest hit.

8. Tour de France (1983)

A hit in 1983 and again in remixed versions in 1984 and 1999, then rerecorded for the 2003 album Tour de France Soundtracks. This is the best known of Kraftwerk’s many odes to the joys of cycling: beautifully symphonic synthesiser melodies find sweet harmony with the sounds of deep breathing and whirring bicycle chains.

7. Pocket Calculator (1981)

Electronic calculators were still relatively new technology when Kraftwerk paid enraptured homage to them on Computer World. Today, as with so many of the group’s best, this charming pop single sounds simultaneously quaint (“By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody”) yet still somehow futuristic.

6. The Robots (1978)

Kraftwerk’s fantasy of watching their own music performed by automatons became reality. One of the highlights of their concerts is still the moment when this song is “performed” by increasingly sophisticated robot replicants (“dancing mechanik”), which, amusingly, have been ageing during the passing years like their human counterparts.

5. Autobahn (1974)

It is impossible to overstate how radical and plain odd Kraftwerk seemed in the 1970s, when they appeared on the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World and landed at No 11 in a chart full of fading glam rock bands and moustached MOR singer-songwriters. They described their signature hit’s motor engines and Beach Boy harmonies (“Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn”) as “the sound of cars singing”.

4. Computer Love (1981)

Kraftwerk’s problem in the 1980s was how to possibly top Computer World, an album of perfect music that heralded the future with near-pinpoint accuracy. This synth-pop single finds a lonely Hütter seeking a “data date”, effectively predicting online dating. Coldplay repurposed the sublime melody for their 2005 smash Talk.

3. Neon Lights (1978)

Recognition of Kraftwerk’s electronic invention and innovation can sometimes overshadow their almost equally formidable prowess as songwriters and melodists. This sublime Hütter-crooned homage to the city after dark has been covered by U2 and Simple Minds, but would have been worthy of Frank Sinatra.

2. Radioactivity (1991 version)

Kraftwerk’s best music both embraced and feared the future. On 1975’s Radio-Activity album, the song features Geiger counters, radio signals and “radioactivity, discovered by Madame Curie”. By the time of the supremely techno-retooled version on The Mix, the song has become anti-nuclear, with references to the Chernobyl and Harrisburg disasters and a hook of “Stop radioactivity” as the line “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me” now oozes with foreboding.

1. Trans-Europe Express (1977)

The quintessential example of why Kraftwerk are the most influential pop group since the Beatles. Keen to establish a post-war German musical identity, they assimilated classical music, Weimar folk, the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground but gradually became a unique, electronic pop group. Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force repurposed Trans-Europe Express’s hypnotic melody for the pioneering hip-hop single Planet Rock; the danceable machine rhythms laid the foundations for electro, techno, house, dubstep and beyond, and influenced artists from Joy Division to Daft Punk. The song eulogises intercontinental train travel, encounters “Iggy Pop and David Bowie”, and heralds a dazzling future where pop is made electronically – one that Kraftwerk, and the late Schneider, very much created for themselves.