Confession: until a few weeks ago, I was a Kraftwerk novice. I have Computer World, and I’ve listened to Trans-Europe Express a few times, but despite or perhaps because of those albums, for years I’d dropped Kraftwerk in a metaphorical red box labeled “influential bands I respect but hardly ever listen to.” When I was lucky enough to see their recent live show at Hammerstein, I realized, to put it bluntly, how stupid I’d been. From the impeccably timed visuals to the vibrant production to the costume changes (half-way through the show, they disappeared only to reappear wearing body suits criss-crossed with electric-green graph lines), the show was flawless. It was everything you’d expect from a seasoned pop act, and nothing like what I expected from a revolutionary German 70s electronic group. Kraftwerk coined the term “robot pop,” and most people (myself included) tend to remember the robot part, forgetting that these man-machines were once international pop stars.
Minimum-Maximum illuminates Kraftwerk’s true legacy — the mind-bending, side winding melodies of Tour de France, Autobahn, and Trans-Europe Express, melodies that have seeded countless 80s hits and entire sub-genres of techno (electroclash). Listening to this double disc is a destabilizing experience, because not a single track sounds dated. Tour de France (2003) elegantly segues into Autobahn (1975), and a track from Trans-Europe Express (1977) is followed by several from Computer World (1981). Kraftwerk’s oeuvre lends itself to this a-chronological ordering; it’s not that the album is carefully sequenced so much as that the Moog synths, propulsive drum machines, and Speak-n-Spell vocals are so distinctive even a random arrangement of Kraftwerk songs (and yes, they are songs) would sound premeditated. Aside from the obvious pleasures of crisp production, a stellar tracklist, and minimal crowd noise for a live album, Minimum-Maximum showcases Kraftwerk’s sharp sense of humor. Witness the inclusion of ‘Dentaku’, the Japanese-language version of ‘Pocket Calculator’. What could be more man-machine, and more hilarious, than “I’m an operator/ with my pocket calculator” in Japanese?