Can: The Singles

Photo courtesy of Spoon Records

A compilation of singles by legendary German experimentalists Can may seem bizarre at first, but it helps brings their pop-minded tendencies to the forefront like never before.


The Singles

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2017-06-16
UK Release Date: 2017-06-16

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 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.







Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.