Hailing from Cologne, Germany, CAN is widely considered the greatest band of the krautrock genre and one of the leading innovators of the experimental rock pantheon. Formed in 1968 by bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, guitarist Michael Karoli, and drummer Jaki Liebezeit, the band underwent several different stages as a band that would contribute to their varied and ever-changing sound. The first lineup was with American vocalist Malcolm Mooney, who performed on their debut album and other material that would end up on a couple of compilations released later on. Still, after experiencing a mental breakdown, he quit the band at the behest of his psychiatrist and traveled back to America.
Soon after, Japanese artist Damo Suzuki joined CAN after the members noticed him on the street busking; from there, music history was made. They recorded a string of iconic albums before Damo subsequently quit so he could become a Jehova’s Witness with his wife. At that point, the remaining members of the group decided to continue on by themselves until their disbandment in 1979; they briefly reformed in 1986 and recorded the album Rite Time with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney before officially calling it quits.
CAN represented a revolutionary moment in rock music history, with their name being an acronym for “Communism, Anarchy, & Nihilism.” This kind of rebellious attitude, which was the result of the youth of Germany wanting to retaliate against the country’s terrible Nazi past and the uninspiring music being produced there, would usher in a new kind of popular music that would become indicative of a more progressive and free-thinking generation that bands like CAN epitomized.
Taking the avant-garde tendencies of pioneering electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom Schmidt and Czukay studied under, CAN utilized those principles to create an adventurous and cutting-edge form of music that relied heavily on nonconventional song structures, cut-and-paste style production, musique concrète, art rock, and funk music. Factor all of that in with a heavy dose of psychedelic madness and exotic construct. You have a band of uncompromising singularity whose influence is felt through every nook and cranny of the musical sphere, with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Radiohead, Talk Talk, Joy Division, Portishead, Beck, Kanye West, Pavement, The Stone Roses, Sonic Youth, Spoon, Brian Eno, and LCD Soundsystem drawing some inspiration from their music.
All of that aside, discovering a band like CAN is like discovering an extraterrestrial planet; it’s a vast and uncharted territory that’s strangely fascinating and galaxies ahead of its time. Their diverse work has something for everyone, especially fervent lovers of classic rock and anybody just looking to find something new and exciting to listen to.
# 10 – Landed
Kicking off our list is CAN’s sixth studio album released in 1975; this one’s quite an underrated one in their catalog. Unlike their previous works, Landed sought to create a more pop-oriented and easily approachable sound, in stark contrast to their wildly experimental affairs. Some of the standout cuts on here include the quirky 8-minute “Vernal Equinox,” the funky “Hunters and Collectors,” and the 13-minute ambient closer “Unfinished.”
# 9 – Unlimited Edition
This 1976 double album, a more extensive version of their 1974 LP Limited Edition, presented a plethora of unreleased music from 1968 to 1976 that featured former frontmen Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki. Unlimited Edition houses some cool music on here, which includes their little collection of world-influenced instrumentals referred to as the “Ethnological Forgery Series (EFS),” as well as the spacey krautrock jams of “Gomorrha,” “The Empress and the Ukraine King,” and “Cutaway,” which recalls their earlier psyche roots.
# 8 – The Lost Tapes
The Lost Tapes was an accumulation of over 30 hours of unused material from 1968 to 1977, much like with their Unlimited Edition compilation. These master tapes, excavated from CAN’s Weilerswist studio by band member Irmin Schmidt and his son-in-law/collaborator Jono Podmore, proved that their abandoned outtakes could be just as enthralling as some of their more conspicuous studio tracks.
Two hundred minutes worth of music is packed to the brim here, with most of it being comprised of unreleased/alternate takes from different studio sessions. These songs were meant for Film and T.V. soundtracks and killer live performances of “Mushroom” and “One More Saturday Night.” Some notable songs to check out here are “Millionspiel,” “Waiting for the Streetcar,” “Bubble Rap,” “Dead Pidgeon Suite,” and “Midnight Men.”
# 7 – Soon Over Babaluma
After Damo Suzuki left the band, there was no point in trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle they had when they recorded their iconic trio of albums with him. Instead, Michael Karoli and Irmin Schmidt took over vocal duties, and the result was 1974’s Soon Over Babaluma.
This was the moment CAN filtered their world/ethnic music sensibilities into a more exotically groove-based formula with songs like “Dizzy Dizzy” and “Splash,” which sounds like a precursor to electronica dance music. Still, you have songs like “Chain Reaction” and “Quantum Physics,” which add a nice tinge of ambient piquancy that they had previously pioneered on Future Days.
Soon Over Babaluma is, without a doubt, an underrated masterpiece that truly stacks up well against their more famous outputs.
# 6 – Monster Movie
Monster Movie, released at the very end of the 1960s,” is one of the best debuts in rock history. The band, formerly known as “The Can” here, tapped into something primal yet distinguished in its minimalist glory. Look no further than the 20-minute epic “You Doo Right,” where they take a 6-hour improv jam and cut it down to a spellbinding groove that feels like it’s locked into eternity, with Malcolm Mooney’s mantric chants filling the ether of the studio with a somniferous haze of psychedelic splendor.
Of course, the other highlights here are the three lone tracks that make up side A of the album: the Velvet Underground-esque opener “Father Cannot Yell,” the sullen vibes of “Mary, Mary So Contrary,” and the demented surf rock of “Outside My Door.” It’s amazing how well the music on this album still holds up 54 years later.
# 5 – Delay 1968
Delay 1968, according to bassist and producer Holger Czukay, was supposed to be the band’s debut album under the title Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM, but to due to their lack of support from any record company with enough common sense to sign them, the album was ultimately shelved until 1981 when it was finally released as a compilation.
This was a shame because the music here is quite strong and feels like a more proper follow-up to their psyche-tinged debut. The best track on here, “Thief,” is perhaps well-known for being covered by Radiohead during their live sets circa Kid A, while opener “Butterfly” ushers in a brooding proto-punk ferocity with an added spice of weirdness in its eerie organ drones. “Little Star of Bethlehem,” which closes the album, also serves up a nice little slice of that avant-garde funk they would cook up on Tago Mago.
# 4 – Soundtracks
If there’s one thing CAN was good at, it’s compiling some of the most killer compilations, and Soundtracks is no exception. Even though the band themselves stated that it wasn’t a proper follow-up to their debut, 1970’s Soundtracks feels like their most essential record to listen to outside of the big three coming up on this list.
Just as the title suggests, the music on here was recorded for various different films; “Deadlock,” “Tango Whiskeyman,” and “Deadlock (Titelmusik) were all included in the spaghetti western Deadlock, “Don’t Turn the Light on, Leave Me Alone” was in the film Cream – Schwabing Report, “Soul Desert” was in the film Mädchen mit Gewalt, “Mother Sky” was in the Jane Asher drama Deep End, and “She Brings the Rain” was from the film Ein großer graublauer Vogel.
All of the songs here are a great, but it’s the 13 minute long psychedelic drone freak-out “Mother Sky” with Damo, as well as the jazzy Malcolm Mooney number “She Bring the Rain” that are the true standouts, and rank among among some of the best music they ever recorded.
# 3 – Ege Bamyasi
Here’s where we start to get into the heavy-hitters now: the famous Damo Suzuki trilogy that ushered in a new renaissance of rock music, which would subsequently reshape the trajectory of modern music. Of those three, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi remains their most well-known and mildly accessible opus, filtering all of their funky rhythms and disjointed song structures into something more catchy and memorable yet still retaining some of the experimental madness of Tago Mago.
Right out of the gate, the album blows the door off of its hinges with the one-two punch of opener “Pinch,” a jagged-edged avant-funk exercise that feels as if it could go on for infinity yet the band’s individual performances make it look like they’re barely breaking a sweat, as well as the proto-trip hop “Sing Swan Song,” which was popularized by artist and producer Kanye West when he sampled it in his song “Drunk and Hot Girls” off of his 2007 album Graduation.
“Vitamin C,” their most famous song, is easily the best off of the entire album, featuring a circular drumbreak that not only predates the boom bap sounds of Hip Hop, but further demonstrates that Jaki Liebezeit was, in fact, a human metronome. Then there’s the insanely catchy “Spoon,” their hit single that was the theme music for the German television show Das Messer; this one’s especially unique for having both live drums and a drum machine interwoven together.
All of this is what makes Ege Bamyasi their sleekest and coolest affair, along with being the closest thing they ever came to pop perfection.
# 2 – Future Days
Often dismissed as the lesser of the three albums in their trilogy, 1973’s Future Days is arguably their best and most complete work, in my opinion; a perfect distillation of everything they had been doing up until this point. And while Tago Mago gets all of the attention for being ahead of its time in terms of sound and production, Future Days sits firmly in that special category of albums from that era that are just as fresh today as they were 50 years ago; seriously, this record basically predicted indie rock/electronic/techno/IDM, in addition to laying the groundwork for ambient music just a few years before Brian Eno did.
The four songs that make up the entirety of the album each inhabit their own space, with meticulously expansive arrangements that feel almost cinematic in scope. What’s most telling about the album, though, is Damo’s subdued presence. He’s not wild and over-the-top here; instead, his vocals act as a secondary instrument and add to the atmospheric nature of the music. A shining example of this would be the opening title track, one of their most laid back and relaxing, which transports the listener to a lovely beach setting with it’s kosmiche Tropicália.
Of course, no CAN album wouldn’t be complete without at least one avant-garde jam; that’s where “Spray” comes in. It starts with a driving rhythm that’s frenetically chaotic, with instrumentation that just oozes with a jazz fusion flavor. Jaki shines through here, playing a multi-layered drum pattern that sounds as if he’s operating with eight tentacles, while Damo’s ghostly vocals waft their way through the gentle fog of Irmin’s haunting organ towards the end of the song.
“Moonshake,” the shortest song on the album, and the only one to be released as a single, packs a heavy wallop with it’s crushing motorik beat and post-punk bass drones that create a nice counterpoint to the intergalactic space funk that the rest of the band lays down, but not until Irmin turns the groove on its head with a hodgepodge of delightfully cartoonish sound effects he concocts with his Farfisa synthesizer. This quirky little avant-pop tune has such a timeless quality to it that it was even featured in a recent commercial for Ketel One Vodka.
Finally, the colossal centerpiece closes the second side of the album, the 20-minute “Bel Air,” which is probably the most engaging and complex thing they’ve ever recorded. It starts off with the sampled ambiance of an ocean zephyr before slowly transfiguring into a very early precursor to post-rock; every member here contributes something virtuosic and magical to the powerful composition. Particularly Damo, who turns in the best vocal performance of his career, chiefly for that incredibly catchy yodeling he does in the first movement. Once it reaches it’s climax, though, “Bel Air” explodes into a crescendo of prog rock ecstasy, otherworldly dreaminess, and just flat-out transcendence by the end of that final bass note.
Future Days is an impeccable album in the krautrock canon and one that every lover of music should immerse themselves in.
# 1 – Tago Mago
After Malcolm Mooney’s departure, the band needed to find a new frontman. So, by some chance miracle, bassist Holger Czukay randomly noticed Damo Sazuki busking outside of a cafe in Munich and asked him to join CAN; the rest was history, as they say. Soon, they began recording at Schloss Nörvenich, a castle near Cologne that was being rented by art collector Christoph Vohwinkel who invited the band to stay for a year or so. Using a two-track tape recorder, Czukay recorded the band’s improvised jams, condensing them into more fully formed songs; a cut-and-paste technique that producer and composer Teo Macero pioneered first on the classic Miles Davis albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Three months later, the band were finished with their recording sessions, and 1971’s Tago Mago was born.
Taking it’s name from Illa de Tagomago, a private island off of the coast of Ibiza, Tago Mago is steeped in esoteric mystique, drawing inspiration from occultist Aleister Crowley; not only in the album title, but also the avant-garde sound collage “Augmn,” a reference to Crowley’s mantra which was said to be the magical formula of the universe. This kind of backstory definitely explains the dark and mysterious undertones in the music, which makes Tago Mago all the more intriguing.
The album opens with a collection of songs that bleed into one another like a cycle of sorts. The first one is “Paperhouse,” a downtempo minor key ballad that suddenly kicks into high gear with a crushing riff-infused jam that slowly begins to build up so much momentum it sounds like it’s about to crash into a brick wall. Of course, the song stops to woozily segue into the following track, “Mushroom.” Shrouded in metallic post-punk and foggy minimalism, “Mushroom” creates an apocalyptic wasteland with its nuclear holocaust imagery, only to end in an atomic explosion abruptly; this immediately makes way for “Oh Yeah,” which slowly immerges from the smoke and wreckage.
Backed by a classic Jaki motorik beat, the first couple of minutes of “Oh Yeah” are punctuated by its eerie keyboard drones, sinister bass, and backmasked Damo vocals, but not until it switches up to a more anthemic rock section. This psychedelic dance track definitely wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern club setting. Then you have “Halleluwah,” a heavy contender for best song in CAN’s entire discography. Holger is like a mad scientist here, piecing and stitching together all of the best moments from their studio noodling, and meticulously constructing the musical equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster with this 18-minute behemoth of chaotic avant-funk euphoria. “Halleluwah” is a perfect microcosm of what makes CAN masters of their craft.
Naturally, Tago Mago takes a sharp left turn and veers off of a cliff with the raving mad sound collage experiments, the aforementioned “Augmn” and “Peking O;” these two beasts are so strange and out of the ordinary, that there’s still nothing else that sounds like them. “Augmn” is a 17-minute sound collage of dark ambience and mangled up electronics that sounds more like a ritual sequence straight out of a Lovecraftian horror film; it’s utterly terrifying yet brilliantly composed.
“Peking O,” however, is even crazier. It starts out with a schizophrenic drum machine and keyboard shooting out rapid-fast beats and wacky discordance like an assault rifle, all the while Damo screams and shouts maniacal gibberish like he’s possessed by demonic spirits. Then the last couple of minutes turn into a full-blown nightmare, with a frightening array of fire-breathing cacophony that transports the listener right into the core of Dante’s 9th circle of Hell. The final track, “Bring Me Coffee or Tea,” concludes this harrowing musical odyssey with a mellow atmosphere that soon unravels into an epic grand finale.
Tago Mago is a revelatory work of art. Not many albums come along and quietly change the music world, but Tago Mago is typically viewed as the kind of album that did just that. It has inspired countless amazing bands/artists to record some of the greatest albums of all time: Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A, David Bowie’s Station to Station and Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger), and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, just to name a few.
Tago Mago will surely melt your mind if you haven’t heard it. It’s an album that feels entirely contemporary today. It’s almost as if CAN were a bunch of time-traveling soothsayers who decided to sit around their crystal ball and predict the next thousand years of modern music.
Top 10 Can Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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