City Sounds: Berlin

This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Growing up, I can still remember learning my geography on a globe with a divided Germany, but my only real memory of the Wall is a vague recollection of news bulletins featuring people swinging pickaxes at a graffitied slab of concrete the day the Wall came down. Perhaps it’s significant that these images of protest and creativity – the very things that have kept Berlin at the forefront of artistic innovation for decades – are what made the most lasting impression on the six year old me.

And now, some 22 years later, we are presented with City Sounds: Berlin, a six disc, 71 track collection from Naïve in conjunction with La Gaîté Lyrique, determined to explore that very concept: Berlin’s indispensable role on the international music scene. To listen to this collection in its entirety (approaching seven hours) is an ambitious undertaking, but it’s an endeavor well worth the effort, because, if you’re anything like me, you have a lot to learn about Berliner music.

For one thing, there’s more to City Sounds: Berlin than Kraftwerk and techno. In fact, Kraftwerk are nowhere to be seen. Sure, they occasionally show up as members of other bands – Berlin, after all, is the capital of DIWO (“do it with others”) as the immensely informative 60-page companion booklet is keen to point out. But City Sounds does a good job of keeping things interesting by avoiding what may seem like obvious choices to some and throwing in a few surprises for the uninitiated (like me), including Nick Cave, who makes a couple of appearances on disc one.

But what sets City Sounds: Berlin apart from similar compilations (similar, at least, in scope, though perhaps not depth) is that, while it no doubt makes for enjoyable casual listening, this collection, when given the proper attention, is also intrinsically fascinating. It is better to think of this as a carefully curated audio gallery than a simple CD box set – a direct result of the fact that the music of Berlin, perhaps more than any other scene, is directly tied to the city’s history. From its geographic location – window to the West isolated in the Eastern Bloc – to a West German government that encouraged artists and creative types to settle there, within the confines of the Wall, Berlin was for many years the last bastion of free artistic expression. And it was from this position on the fringe of Western culture, that artists were encouraged to tear down all self-imposed limits and let creativity run away with them.

Whether it’s Krautrock or minimalist electronica that does it for you, there’s plenty to love here.  Or maybe punk and new wave is more your thing. There are some stellar contributions of that sort, too. But for me, it’s been disc six – “Berlin Next!” – that has spent the most time in my rotation. Some highlights from the contemporary Berlin scene, it also happens to be one of the slickest “getting stuff done” records I’ve heard in a long time.

City Sounds: Berlin is only the first in what is planned to be a series of similar collections featuring the great music cities of the world. And if this first installment is any indication of what’s to come, then the City Sounds series promises to be a set worth collecting.


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