Germany has a rich and diverse history when it comes to music. This vast, proud and future-embracing nation at the heart of Europe has sired innovators in cabaret and opera, and – lest we forget – many of the world’s greatest-ever classical composers, Beethoven and Bach among them, were German too. Indeed, over the centuries, the best German musicians have created a body of work whose influences courses through Western music.
It’s not all about nostalgia, however. The best German musicians of the the 20th and 21st Centuries have often been at music’s cutting edge, bequeathing us krautrock, Neue Deutsche Welle (effectively German new wave with additional electro-pop influences), pioneering acts in electronic music and heavy metal, and many, many more.
German Unity Day (Tag Der Deutschen Einheit) takes place on 3 October every year, but the best German musicians deserve to have a frothy stein raised in their honour all year round.
One of the originators of what is now referred to as “krautrock” (or “kosmiche music”) – a broad spectrum of experimental rock that developed in Germany in the late 60s – Faust were formed in Wümme, northern Germany, in 1971, and are still the preserve of two of their founding members, Werner “Zappi” Diermaier and Jean-Hérve Péron. The band became one of the first acts to sign to Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, who issued their pioneering 1973 album The Faust Tapes at the price of a 7” single – then 49 pence. The album reportedly sold over 100,000 copies and went silver, but its low price tag rendered it ineligible for a chart placing.
Undeniably one of electronic music’s most influential acts, Tangerine Dream formed in West Berlin in 1967. Primarily the brainchild of founding member Edgar Froese (their lone constant until his death, in 2015), TD have released over 100 albums. Among them are the LPs they recorded for the Ohr and Virgin label during the 70s, such as Zeit, Phaedra, Rubycon and Force Majeure, which will forever be cited as electronic and ambient music touchstones, ensuring the group’s place among the best German musicians of all time.
Enduring hard rock/metal outfit Scorpions first formed in Hanover in 1965 by the band’s one constant member, guitarist Rudolf Schenker, though vocalist Klaus Meine has also been on board since the early 70s. The band have sold over 100 million albums throughout their career, among them a series of high-profile, platinum-selling works during the 80s including Love At First Sting and Savage Amusement. 1990’s Crazy World included the band’s signature song, ‘Wind Of Change’, a symbolic anthem which sold over 14 million copies globally after it was released to tie in with German reunification.
Industrial metal pioneers Rammstein formed in Berlin in 1994 and immediately received plaudits for their debut album, Herzeleid (Heartache), a pioneering record in establishing what German music critics referred to as Neue Deutsche Härte: a crossover style influenced by Neue Deutsche Welle, alternative metal and groove metal combined with elements from electronica and techno. Having written songs concerning sadomasochism, incest, necrophilia and more, Rammstein are no strangers to controversy, but studio albums such as Reise Reise, Rosenrot and Liebe Ist Für Alle Da, have all been multi-platinum success stories.
Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can drew from backgrounds in the avant-garde and jazz, and incorporated minimalist, electronic and world music elements into their often psychedelic and funk-inflected music. Widely hailed as pioneers of the German krautrock scene, Can’s transcendent albums dating from the early-to-mid-70s, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and the blissful, ambient-tinged Future Days, still sound futuristic, and they have been cited as an influence by everyone from David Bowie and PiL to Primal Scream and Happy Mondays. The Fall’s 1985 album, This Nation’s Saving Grace, even included the track ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’ in tribute to Can’s primary vocalist.
A German-based project instigated by German-Romanian musician and producer Michael Cretu, Enigma’s sophisticated, genre-defying music takes in elements of New Age, electronica, world and ambient music, and it has resulted in 70 million album sales and three Grammy nominations. Featuring the much-lauded global hit ‘Sadeness (Part 1)’, Enigma’s 1990 debut album, MCMXC aD, arguably remains their high-water mark, but Cretu’s music has continued to evolve, with 2008’s Seven Lives Many Faces even taking in elements of rap and dubstep.
Born in Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Herbert Grönemeyer not only ranks among the best German musicians of all time, with a fierce fanbase in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but he is also an actor. English audiences may recall that he starred as war correspondent Lieutenant Werner in Wolfgang Petersen’s legendary movie Das Boot, but Grönemeyer later focused on his musical career. Known for his trademark alluring croon, his 1984 album 4630 Bochum and his 11th album, Mensch (Human) (2002), are the third and first best-selling records in Germany, respectively, making Grönemeyer the most successful musician in Germany, with combined domestic album sales approaching 15 million.
Nina Hagen was born and brought up in East Germany, and released her first music in the Communist East, 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, even though her dramatic and theatrical music sometimes sounds closer to glam rock. Forming the Nina Hagen band and signing with CBS, she enjoyed commercial and critical success with her self-titled 1978 debut and went on to record several critically-hailed albums for Mercury in the late 80s and early 90s.
Born Christa Päffgen, in Cologne, in 1938, Nico grew up in war-torn Berlin and rose to prominence as a fashion model during her teens. Discovered, aged 16, by photographer Herbert Tobias, she moved to Paris and began working for Vogue, embarking on a remarkable life of highs and lows which included roles in films such as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966). At Warhol’s instigation, Nico sang on several tracks on The Velvet Underground’s seminal debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and then began a solo career yielding a number of albums produced by John Cale, including The Marble Index and Desertshore, before her death, in 1988.
Formed in Düsseldorf, in 1970, by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk have exerted a lasting and profound influence across many genres of modern music, including synth-pop, hip-hop, post-punk, techno, ambient and dance music, and, in 2013, The Observer declared that “no other band since The Beatles has given so much to pop culture”. Kraftwerk’s 70s albums easily place the group among the best German musicians of all time, with titles such as Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine ranking among the decade’s most future-shaping discs. Their 21st-century concerts – including series of 2009 shows during which they performed with 3D background graphics – continue to innovate.
Born in Frankfurt Am Main, Hans Zimmer’s musical career dates back to the 70s, with early credits including a spell with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes’ new wave outfit, Buggles. However, he earns his place among the best German musicians thanks to his astonishing film scores, with his work gracing over 150 movies, including The Lion King, the Pirates Of The Caribbean series and Gladiator. Zimmer’s scores are notable for his ability to integrate electronic music into traditional orchestral arrangements, and his genre-defying work has rewarded him with four Grammys, three Classical BRIT Awards, two Golden Globes and an Academy Award.
Formed in Düsseldorf, in 1971, Neu!’s two mainstays, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, were both involved in an early line-up of Kraftwerk. Along with Can’s Jaki Liebezeit, Dinger is credited with creating the “motorik” rhythm (a hypnotic and repetitive drum beat in 4/4 time and of moderate pace), which became a hallmark of the Neu! sound along with Rother’s harmonic drones replacing standard guitar chords. The duo’s initial trio of albums, Neu!, Neu! 2 and Neu! ’75, sold only minimally, but they are now cited as masterpieces, with seminal artists including David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno having enthusiastically sung their praises.
Looking for more? Discover the boundary-breaking minds behind experimental German music.