Schneider started out playing the flute in an early version of Kraftwerk (after one album as Organisation) that created earthy, pulsating jams. Though the flute was beloved to Schneider, after the group's first three albums (which have never been officially reissued), he discovered the potential of synthesizers on "Autobahn," the group's first hit, and never looked back.
"Autobahn" proved you could have a hit song made with just synthesizers. From there, the group made several albums of inspired electronic pop, with themes that touched on the Cold War, travel, robots, emerging technology and the encroaching loneliness of the modern world. And they did it with style, creating rhythms and melodies that reverberated far beyond Germany.
Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008. (The band hasn't put out any new music in his absence.) From their early longhair hippie jams to the suave, suited man-machines they became, Schneider was a member of a group that helped define the way we see synthesizers, computers and electronic music as a whole.
Kraftwerk - Ruckzuck
Though Schneider and co. would probably like to forget this exists (all three early Kraftwerk albums have never been re-released), it's a crucial hint at the musical invention that was to come. More in line with German peers like Popol Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel, "Ruckzuck" might not have the futurism and synth savvy of later albums, but the discordant organ, proto-motorik beat and unforgettable flute offer evidence that this was a band trying to do something different.
Kraftwerk - Tanzmusik
While Kraftwerk would become known for their man-machine rhythms, their transitional 1973 record, Ralf And Florian, has decidedly human charms. Recorded with the legendary Conny Plank at the yet-to-be-named Kling Klang Studio, the band's third studio album feels of a piece with the greater exploratory spirit of Düsseldorf's Krautrock scene. There's a wooly, hippie energy behind ambient flights like "Tongebirge (Mountain Of Sound)," but it's on "Tanzmusik (Dance Music)" that the motorik cool which drove 1974's landmark "Autobahn" emerges. The track is an ecstatic mix of the organic (handclaps, wordless voices) and the electronic (synths and sequenced rhythms), a tantalizing view of the road ahead.
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
Depending on who you ask, "Autobahn" is the world's first "techno" hit, a 23-minute synthesizer odyssey distilled into three minutes of breezy cruise control for the version you'd hear on the radio. Combining the longform, upbeat experimentation of the group's early work with the simple pleasures of The Beach Boys and a penchant for melodic switch-ups and synth sweeps, "Autobahn" is where the Kraftwerk we know and love truly begins, a song that gets across one of the simplest pleasures in life—driving down the open road—with only machines, making synthesizers sing at a time when most people could barely figure out how to use them.
Kraftwerk - Radio-Activity
Radio-Activity is the most underrated Kraftwerk album, more experimental than Autobahn and also what came after. But it introduces a key thread of the group's work: technological anxiety and Cold War uncertainty. This title track's matter-of-fact lyrics—"Radioactivity / Discovered by Madame Curie"—look ahead to the deadpan vocals of future albums, but instead of feeling ironic or detached, they feel deadly serious, a taste of the moment when the group started to feel discomfort in the shiny, hi-tech future they presented.
Kraftwerk - Europe Endless
"Europe Endless" is the sound of 20th century post-war utopia, and an entire continent's landscape unfolding in front of you. "Endless" is the key word here, tapping into an optimism that must have felt infectious at the beginning of the European Economic Community. The chipper vocals and brittle arpeggio will transport you; close your eyes and you can see the verdant fields of Europe unfolding beyond the train-tracks, as Kraftwerk bottle the feeling of continental train travel with their motorik beat.
Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express
This is it—the beginning of electro. If "Europe Endless" captured the feeling of cruising across Europe, this one approximates the chug-chug of the train's inner workings, with a choppy drum pattern that would become ubiquitous in the '80s. There's a sense of wonder here, too, but it's laced with a tinge of foreboding. "Trans-Europe Express" would live another life when sampled by Afrika Bambaataa for "Planet Rock," adding another layer onto the blueprint for electro. File this under Kraftwerk you can dance to.
Kraftwerk - The Model
The Man-Machine saw the group pivoting to electro-pop, and "The Model" is its crown jewel. Re-released in 1981, the song shot to #1 in the UK, and it's easy to see why: though it came out in 1978, its shuddering beat, roving bassline and affected talk-singing vocals predicted new wave music. "The Model" also introduced a new aspect of Kraftwerk's music: humanity. "She's a model and she's looking good / I'd like to take her home, that's understood," Hütter says, injecting a wry sort of functionality into the idea of romance—something that would come to life on the duo's next album, Computer World.
Kraftwerk – Numbers/Computer World 2
If Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine helped lay the blueprint for electro, then Computer World completed it. The drum pattern from "Numbers" was combined with "Trans-Europe Express" to make "Planet Rock," one of the first-ever electro cuts, but the bizarrely twitchy drum beat of "Numbers" on its own is essentially electro at its purest. And the way it transitions into the wondrous melody of "Computer World 2?" Well that's just magic, unintentionally referencing the kind of blends that were ruling dance floors in New York at the time.
Kraftwerk - Pocket Calculator
One of the kitschiest songs in the group's catalogue, the funky dance track "Pocket Calculator" contains two core elements to the Kraftwerk sound: dry lyrics about technology and bleepy synths. The way the "special melody" plays when Hütter sings about it is genius, as is the use of 8-bit synths, capturing the technological marvel of the time and putting it into work. (Highlighting the group's international appeal, "Pocket Calculator" was released in several different languages, notably a Japanese rendition called "Dentaku," which you can see in a spirited performance here.)
Kraftwerk - Computer Love
Kraftwerk have many iconic songs, but "Computer Love" is the one that tugs the heart-strings. The group's version of a ballad, it has a warmth in spite of its subject matter. Maybe it's the mournful motif—which morphs into beautiful gossamer solos in the middle of the track, the most haunting passage in the whole Kraftwerk catalogue—or the way the electro beat, still intact, sounds whisper quiet. "Computer Love" is possibly the group's most perfect moment, capturing all their paradoxes in seven jaw-dropping minutes.
Kraftwerk - Tour De France
If every new Kraftwerk album saw a bit of humanity creeping into The Robots' sleek image, then "Tour De France" was the culmination: a chugging electro track focused on the bicycle, featuring the short breaths of a racing cyclist as percussion. Released as a non-album single in 1983, it was another big success for the band, and the last impactful piece of original music they would ever put out (1986's Electric Cafe, also known as Techno Pop, is good, but not on the same level). "Tour De France" takes the Kraftwerk sound and wraps it in the unbridled joy of movement, like a more personal version of "Europe Endless." It's hard to imagine a better way to cap off a world-changing run of albums, and it stands as one of Schneider and company's finest achievements.
Matt McDermott contributed to this feature.