No list of music from a country as large as Germany will ever satisfy everyone’s tastes. Nonetheless we have tried to compile a list of the 10 musicians that have been most influential on German music in a variety of genres.
Critics of the list will no doubt point out that bands such as Ton Steine Scherben, Tangerine Dream and Die Ärzte aren't there. But hey, you can't satisfy everyone.
Franz Josef Degenhardt
Degenhardt, a lawyer by training, was a key figure in the student movement of 1968, later becoming known as “the voice of ‘68.”
A died-in-the-wool communist, he said of the collapse of East Germany that “the battle is lost, but this isn’t over.”
He was as famous in his time for defending members of the Baader Meinhof terrorist group as for his song “Spiel nicht mit dem Schmuddelkind.” The chipper vocal style belies the fact that he is singing about a man who grows rich through revenge before being crippled in an accident.
A psychedelic rock band formed at the end of the 1960s, Can are considered pioneers of Krautrock.
They are hard to pin down to a single genre, encompassing as they do many different styles even within a single song. I Want More, one of their best known singles, travels seamlessly between funk and psychedelia. They sound almost implausibly modern for their time, and have been cited as influences by everyone from David Bowie to Primal Scream.
The central figures in the band came from a classical background, training under the visionary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
No one will be surprised to find the German electro pioneers on this list. The logical link between Can and Kraftwerk might well be NEU! a Krautrock band formed by former Kraftwerk members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother.
But whereas NEU! remain relatively obscure to this day, Kraftwerk's synthesized, industrial sound has made them household names.
The band started as part of the Krautrock scene in the early 1970s before veering further in the direction of synthesizers and drum machines. Their most famous song Autobahn musically described the experience of driving down Germany's famous motorways. The minimal lyrics remind us that “wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.”
This Düsseldorf outfit were one of the most significant bands of the Neue Deutsche Welle scene, a musical genre that choked on its own enormous success in the early 1980s.
Their album Monarchie und Alltag was named the greatest German album of all time by Rolling Stone, which described it as “eleven songs full of inside jokes, contemporary slogans and observations about Düsseldorf street life.”
Fans of Joy Division and the post-punk movement of the late 1970s are sure to be engrossed by this dark and intriguing band.
Fehlfarben are just one of a whole host of bands loosely tied together in the Neue Deutsche Welle scene. Other luminaries who marked out West German music in the 1980s are Ideal and DAF. The former’s description of Kreuzberg in the song Berlin is necessary listening for any residents of the capital interested in the era before the fall of the wall.
Element of Crime
Element of Crime make deceptively simple music that doesn’t fit tidily into any genre, but the whimsiness and story-telling nature could perhaps be compared to the Divine Comedy.
The band is the brainchild of multi-talented writer and musician Sven Regner, who is as famous for his novels – including Herr Lehmann – as for his music.
Regner likes to muse in his songs on why there is an U-Bahn line through Berlin that barely travels underground and gives his songs names like “love is colder than death.” The music is simple and poetic. Once you start listening, Regner will lull you in with his gentle, mournful pondering.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of German pop music knows Grönemeyer, and he is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. His later music is often horribly sentimental. But he is still the most accomplished male crooner in German music and the best-selling German musician in Germany of all time.
Whatever the Göttingen-born singer’s later sins, Was Soll Das and Männer are almost perfect pop songs that you will struggle to get out of your head. And on top of that, he put in a great performance as Lt. Werner in the classic war film Das Boot.
Hagen was born and brought up in East Germany and released her first music in the grey communist state. But she found fame after her family fled to the West. A trip to London inspired her to become a punk singer and she is sometimes called the Godmother of Punk. But her extravagant and theatrical music sometimes sounds closer to glam rock than punk.
Like Kate Bush if she grew up angry and embittered in a dictatorship, Hagen was never boring and was one of the few German musicians to make it to a wider international audience.
This wonderfully wacky creation was brought to us from the town of Flensburg in the mid-1990s. Their two studio albums might remind some listeners of the Beastie Boys. Apparently a hip hop group, Fischmob mix in so many other influences and have such a frech and absurd sense of humour that it seems hopeless to pin them down with any one label.
Their goofy style can clearly be heard as an influence on chart-topping contemporary German rappers like Alligatoah.
This foursome who emerged in the mid 1990s are the central band in the Hamburger Schule scene. Their melancholic tones may remind some of British indie rock bands such as Radiohead. And like the Oxford rockers, they are also revered for the poetic quality of their lyrics.
Tocotronic are still going strong. They brought out their 12th studio album in January and it hit the top of the charts in Germany.
The other key band in the Hamburger Schule were Blumfeld, whose album Testament der Angst is critically acclaimed. But singer Jochen Distelmeyer's smooth vocal style isn’t to everyone’s taste.
Anyone familiar with the voice of Hamburg rapper Jan Delay probably has an opinion on it. Whiny and nasal as it is, you recognize Delay’s voice as soon as you hear it. Delay, who is still a central figure of the German music scene, found fame in the mid-1990s with Absolute Beginner.
Another band to have emerged from Hamburg, Absolute Beginner merged smooth flows, socially critical lyrics and catchy hooks. The song Liebeslied is still a club favourite 20 years later.