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Germans have a rich and long history when it comes to music. They basically invented the orchestra, have made 300 years worth of contributions to opera and elevated the cheesy love song to an art form. The 20th century brought cabaret, all sorts of electronic music and, of course, metal. It’s a big pool to explore. Here are 10 musicians to help you dive right in.
Born in Munich in 1969, tenor Jonas Kaufmann burst onto the international scene in 2006 playing Don José in Carmen at London’s Covent Garden. Known for his rich and versatile voice and his dashing good looks, Kaufmann has an open invitation to the world’s top opera houses. Here’s opera’s tall drink of water, singing Franz Lehar’s “Lippen schweigen” (Though Lips Are Sealed) with fellow German Diana Damrau.
After virtually inventing the genre of electronic music during the 1970s, the Düsseldorf duo Kraftwerk has gone on to influence musicians making synth-pop, hip hop, ambient, post-punk, techno, and club music all over the world. The band still tours and is anything but washed up. In 2012, fan demand for tickets was so high, it caused London’s Tate Gallery’s website to crash. Charge your batteries with Kraftwerk’s 1978 hit, “Die Roboter.”
Often called Germany’s equivalent to Feist, BOY was founded in 2007 by Swiss-born Valeska Steiner and German native Sonja Glass after they met while studying pop music at the Hochschule for Music and Theater in Hamburg. Steiner sings, in the main, and Glass provides the guitar. Despite both members being native German speakers, BOY chooses to sing all its songs in English. After years of playing shows, their big break came in 2012, when their song “Little Numbers” was featured on an ad for Lufthansa.
In Cologne, where the local dialect is Kölsch, a lively music scene connected with Karneval gives ample opportunity for mostly-drunken sing-alongs to well-loved favorites. Bläck Fööss, which means “barefoot,” has been delighting audiences with their often clever, sometimes sentimental songs since 1970. Break out your lighter and weep along to this ode to Cologne’s neighborhoods: “En unserem Veedel.”
Turkish-German rapper Ebow (Ebru Düzgün) grew up with an aunt who loved MTV. Whenever the aunt would babysit, she would insist Ebow watched hip hop and R&B videos with her. In the ’90s, German rappers preferred English, but as the 2000s dawned, German-language rap found its footing and gave voice to many who felt excluded from mainstream German culture. “Eis auf den Asphalt” (“Ice Cream on the Pavement”), with Sheela Picar, is Ebow’s contribution to the scene.
Germans don’t have a reputation for being silly, but given the right circumstances, they can be as ridiculous as anyone. The one, the only, Trude Herr was born in 1927 in Cologne and became stupendously famous as a theater and film actress and singer. Her big hits were “I Don’t Want Chocolate (I Want a Man),” “I’m Always Tired in the Morning,” and this classic: “Because I Am So Sexy.”
Volker Bertelmann was going to be doctor, then an economist. Eventually, he settled into being Hauschka, purveyor of music for prepared piano; the principal idea of which is to expand the sound possibilities of a piano by sticking things like glass, leather or paper into, around, or on the strings. The sound is often ethereal or meditative. Sometimes even spooky. After a period of collaborating with other instrumentalists, Bertelmann’s latest album, What If, introduces electronics to take the piano even further. Here’s the song “Familiar Things Disappear.”
Every year, 80,000 metalheads converge on the small village of Wacken, just north of Hamburg, for five days of nothing but shredding, thrashing and screaming. The locals love it. Thrash metal institution Kreator has been on the scene since its formation in Essen in 1982. In years since, their music has become more melodic yet more complex, and spawned the sub-genres death metal and black metal. Still going strong, their 2017 release is Gods of Violence. Naturally, it reached number one on the German charts.
One of the world’s best orchestras was founded in 1882 because their former conductor wanted to take them on tour to Poland on a fourth class train. Since then, the self-governing ensemble has worked almost exclusively with legendary conductors and soloists. Tickets are hard to come by for shows in the Philharmonie, but it’s not impossible. Summer concerts at the 22,000-seat Waldbühne offer a whole other experience. Here’s the Philharmoniker with their long-time conductor Simon Rattle, winding up Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.
“The Princes” were choirboys in the Thomanenchor in 1970s Leipzig. Originally founded in 1212, the choir is famous for being conducted by Johann Sebastian Bach and producing musicians of extraordinary quality. Since the early 1990s, Die Prinzen have been putting their training to good use by singing well-harmonized songs that make fun of, well, just about everything. It’s a bit Dad-rock, but easy on the ears and clever. Here’s a 2009 song sending up the German marketing department’s desperate use of English as a shorthand for cool.