10 Best Songs by Can

Classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt and music teacher Holger Czukay studied under Stockhausen. Both tuned into rock music as it progressed in the mid-1960s. Czukay’s student Michael Karoli played him The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’, while Schmidt discovered the music of Frank Zappa, James Brown, and The Velvet Underground on a trip to New York. They formed a band with Czukay on bass, Karoli on guitar, and Schmidt on keyboards, along with free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit.

Can’s records were often pieced together from improvisations, and each member bought their own musical personality. Liebezeit’s drumming was simultaneously funky, virtuosic, and intelligent, while Karoli’s guitar provided a rock edge. Czukay’s skill as a tape editor was crucial in honing the group’s jams into a palatable format. Can produced music that reflected the member’s backgrounds in avant-garde, classical, jazz, and rock, often sounding decades ahead of their time.

There are three distinct phases in Can’s lineup:

Malcolm Mooney Era (1968-1970, 1989): Can recruited American sculptor Malcolm Mooney as their lead singer in 1968. His soulful bluster was an uncomfortable match for the band, and he left in 1970 for mental health reasons, although he returned for the 1989 reunion album Rite Time.

Damo Suzuki Era (1970-1973): Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki was recruited after Czukay and Liebezeit encountered him busking outside a cafe in Munich. His vague and improvised vocals were a great fit for the band. His tenure included Can’s most acclaimed music, especially 1971’s Tago Mago and 1973’s Future Days.

Quartet era (1973-1979): Suzuki departed in 1973 to become a Jehovah’s Witness, leaving Can as a four-piece – Karoli and Czukay took over vocal duties. The group gradually wound down, and their music from this era is less intense and less ambitious than their earlier work.

Can are one of the most important and influential experimental bands of the rock music era – here are ten of their best songs:

10 Best Can Songs

#10 Paperhouse

from Tago Mago, 1971
Can’s 1971 double album Tago Mago is their biggest artistic statement, and it’s beloved by famous fans like Johnny Rotten and Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. Tago Mago opens with ‘Paperhouse’, a relatively normal song by Can’s standards, showing the unusual rhythm section – Czukay’s bass dancing around Liebezeit’s metronome precision.

#9 Spoon

from Ege Bamyasi, 1972
Ege Bamyasi stripped back the ambition of Tago Mago, dominated by funky and succinct songs like ‘Vitamin C’ and ‘Spoon’. Released in advance of the album, ‘Spoon’ improbably reached #6 on the German charts after it was featured in a popular German TV show. It’s one of the first songs to feature a drum machine, although Liebezeit also plays live drums.

#8 Father Cannot Yell

from Monster Movie, 1969
Can’s first song from their first official album bears a clear debt to The Velvet Underground’s garage rock. Mooney’s voice is appropriately low in the mix, and the track is dominated by Karoli’s freewheeling guitar.

#7 Soup

from Ege Bamyasi, 1972
‘Soup’ is the least coherent of Can’s lengthy epics – it feels like a series of shorter pieces stitched together. But it’s a ton of fun anyway – the propulsive opening section recalls ‘Halleluhwah’, before it moves through experimental noise-making and concludes with histrionic vocals. Incidentally, ‘Soup’ by Can is possibly the most difficult song in the popular music canon to Google.

#6 Oh Yeah

from Tago Mago, 1971
‘Oh Yeah’ finds a perfect middle ground between Liebezeit’s driving rhythms and the band’s spacey exploration. The Fall later used ‘Oh Yeah’ as the launching point for ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’ from their 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace.

#5 Bel Air

from Future Days, 1973
The entirety of the second side of Future Days is taken up by the 20-minute ‘Bel Air’. Like the rest of the album, ‘Bel Air’ presents a gentler side of Can. Czukay’s bass provides some propulsion, but Liebezeit’s drumming is splashy and relaxed while Suzuki’s voice floats dreamily over the top.

#4 The Thief

from Delay 1968, 1981
The recordings that made up Delay 1968 were intended as the band’s first album, titled Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM. They remained unreleased until 1981. Can were a clear touchstone for Radiohead’s transition into weirdness with Kid A, and Radiohead later covered ‘The Thief’ as part of their live set. Mooney sings in a raw higher register, while the band plays a hypnotic groove.

#3 Future Days

from Future Days, 1973
The title track of Suzuki’s last album with Can finds him gently ruminating: “Send that money for a rainy day/For the sake of future days.” Suzuki later told Terrascope that “Future Days is for me the best album I made with Can… I wanted nothing from them after that.” After the intensity of Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, ‘Future Days’ is tranquil and beautiful.

#2 Mother Sky

from Soundtracks, 1970
Damo Suzuki’s first recordings with Can were captured on Soundtracks, a compilation of the band’s contributions to art-house films. The clear highlight is the fourteen minutes of ‘Mother Sky’. It launches in halfway through a Karoli guitar solo, and never lets up. Suzuki’s malleable voice fits the band’s music much better than Mooney’s – he’s like another instrument that helps the band further into exploratory territory rather than dominating it.

#1 Halleluhwah

from Tago Mago, 1971
As well as influence from experimental acts like Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, Irmin Schmidt was also intrigued by funk acts like James Brown. ‘Halleluhwah’ combines the funky and the cerebral, underpinned by Jaki Liebezeit’s monstrous groove. It’s a perfect platform for experimentation, with Karoli’s guitar and violin and Suzuki’s vocals riding over the top.

Are you a fan of Can? What are your favourite songs?

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  1. Great list, especially for introducing folks to Can. They have so many great songs, hard to pick just 10 . . . but my own list (right now, probably be different tomorrow!) would include:
    Midnight Sky
    Oh Yeah
    Don’t Say No
    Below This Level
    Future Days
    She Brings The Rain
    Yoo Doo Right

    • Thanks for writing in! I’ve never heard ‘Midnight Sky’ – is The Lost Tapes worth checking out?
      Lots of good picks on your list, although I’m not a huge fan of what I’ve heard from the comeback album in 1989. I’ve always liked ‘She Brings the Rain’.

      • Yeah, I think “Lost Tapes” is close to essential. A bit of fluff, but lots of great material. The comeback albums suffers from poor/dated/time-obvious recording techniques, but “Below This Level” rises above that to be a nice bit of Malcolm doing Malcolm.

  2. I’ve never heard them before. Some very interesting rhythms and I have to say many are catchy.

    • Thanks for listening! I think they’re a pretty big keystone for experimental music, and there’s some great musicianship. Jaki L is one of my favourite ever drummers.

      • I honestly didn’t think I’d like it but I did. Many times experimental means long jams without much thought on melody… these work off a riff and play around it… I appreciate the introduction.

          • Amon Duul ( Vinyl Connection connection), Steve Hillage, Kevon Ayers etc. They all pop up if I play them. Interconnect.
            Also when I was into bands like ELP, Yes I started getting into bands like Triumverat, Khan, Steve Hillage,Focus etc. Can’s name would be mentioned just never took the plunge. I’ll be doing a take on a Triumverat record one day. I’ve been delving back into this music. You might even be interested in a take that I have. Couple more weeks until I release it. Hows that for a cliff hanger.

          • Cliff hanger! Can pretty much beat all those bands to the punch, right? Early Pink Floyd have some parallels I think, but Can are much more rhythmic.

          • You’re right on “beat to the punch’. Forgot to name the obvious in Floyd. There was so much of that stuff when I first got exposed. Like everything else Aph, it’s the choices we make. Cool thing is. we can always go back and pick up the stuff we missed.

          • Yes, I think it’s even more the case now with more access to recording technology – I’m sure there’s someone right now releasing great records that won’t get due recognition for a decade or two.

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