For nearly 50 years, Can have sustained their status as a critical touchstone in the lineage of experimental popular music as a result of their enigmatic and independent spirit, their fragmentary history, and, of course, their singular, transcendental musical style. Ironically, those are all elements of the band’s legacy which, in one way or another, could easily be undermined by the release of The Singles, a compilation of some of the band’s most popular (and some of their most forgotten) songs, free from the context of their classic albums like Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days and, in a way, divorced of their essential mystery.
Depending on your perspective, the idea of singles may have always seemed antithetical to Can’s primary methodology of recording hours of improvisational jams and paring them down to the best bits via tape editing. Or perhaps it made perfect sense that a band more interested in concentrating their best moments into relatively easily-digestible packages than preserving the spontaneous integrity of their recording sessions would embrace a format that put their best (and least alienating) foot forward. In either case, The Singles is no conventional marketing ploy. Yes, it necessarily includes the band’s most popular tracks from their prime middle period — “Vitamin C”, “Halleluwah”, “Mushroom”, “Spoon” — and their more mainstream-leaning tracks, like the disco-tinged “I Want More” from 1976, a song that landed them on Top of the Pops in the UK, but it also draws from the vault a fair amount of rarities, curiosities, and lesser-known B-sides. It kind of has to, really; Can didn’t exactly make hits.
Of course, that’s not to say the band strictly avoided all appearances of commercial viability. After all, they wrote an album’s worth of songs for movie soundtracks — two of which, “Soul Desert” and “She Brings the Rain”, appear in this collection — and their best songs always reflected a peerless aptitude for timeless and infectious rhythms and melodies. (Note, for instance, the band’s ongoing legacy for being sampled in popular tracks by hip-hop visionaries from Kanye West to A Tribe Called Quest, and, just this year, Tyler, the Creator.) While The Singles may push Can’s most buttoned-down tendencies to the forefront of the conversation (as opposed to, say, the 40th anniversary edition of Tago Mago from 2011, which included, among other things, a half-hour live version of “Spoon”), they were always very much there.
Indeed, in most contemporary obituaries about the ‘70s music canon, Can, like most German bands from the Krautrock era (including everyone from Neu! to Kraftwerk), have had their experimental sensibilities played up and their more commercial sides played down, so a collection like this goes a long way to making more sense of that legacy. The band’s reverence for pop conventions is all over the album, from the lounge jazz sashay of B-side “Shikako Maru Ten” to the funk-fusion groove of “Splash” and the band’s awkward electric disco take on Christmas staple “Silent Night”. It’s that particular discord that made them such a major point of reference for the post-punk and indie rock movements of the coming decades, and as such, The Singles plays like a series of key influential moments for the next 50 years of alternative rock; you can still hear “Mushroom” on Nirvana, “I’m So Green” on the Stone Roses, “Spoon” on the Raincoats, and dozens of stray moments within the works of Radiohead, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and Pavement.
It’s doubtful that handing someone a copy of The Singles as an introduction to Can would get them delving into the band’s legacy any more than simply playing them “Vitamin C”, the full version of “Halleluwah”, or, hell, just Side A of Tago Mago. Whatever it’s going for, the album can hardly be said to stand as a true representation of Can when the longest tracks are cut down, Monster Movie is ignored, and many of the band’s greatest moments aren’t included. It obviously can’t do for Can what 1 did for the Beatles, for instance. It’s hard, then, to judge exactly what The Singles is meant to be other than a vehicle to re-release Can rarities and conveniently collect some (but certainly not all) of their stellar work in one place.
Maybe it’s just for posterity. The more-or-less chronological track sequencing situates the album as a historical document as much as an artistic one, tracking the band’s sonic biography across their tumultuous tenure in linear fashion. There seems to be a statement there about the band’s notoriously inscrutable backstory and how vital it is (or isn’t) in order to come to a comfortable understanding of the music. After all, there’s a reason author Alan Warner focused on his own first youthful encounters with Can’s music in his installment of Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ book series on Tago Mago rather than the creation of the album itself (much to the dismay of a handful of Amazon.com reviewers). Does anyone really need to read tedious accounts of background drama, witness the band’s formative years through second — and third — hand accounts, sit through tired meditations on rock star excess, the purpose of the music canon, or the apparent oxymoron of “pop experimentalism”? No, probably not; the music is the story, and The Singles, whether it’s filling in the gaps or just presenting the band’s legacy in a slimmed-down package, is all about the story.