The music to come out of the small island country of New Zealand is as eclectic, varied and unique as the people themselves. Influenced by rock, pop, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the Maori people, New Zealand’s music inevitably gets its own creative kiwi interpretation.
Here are ten tracks, some well-known, others not so much, to give some insight into what musicians in the antipodean nation have produced.
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10 Keith Urban “Blue Ain’t Your Color”
“Blue looks good on the sky
Looks good on that neon buzzin’ on the wall
But darling, it don’t match your eyes
I’m tellin’ you
You don’t need that guy
It’s so black and white
He’s stealin’ your thunder
Baby, blue ain’t your color”
Keith Urban is a New Zealand born country singer who released his self-titled debut album in Australia in in 1991, before moving to the US the following year. First working as a session musician in Nashville, Urban formed a band, “The Ranch”, who released one album and charted two singles before breaking up.
Urban released his solo debut album in 1999. The second single “Your Everything” made him the first New Zealand male performer to reach the Top 10 in the American Country Musicchart.
At the 48th Grammy awards, he earned his first Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for the song “You’ll Think Of Me”. To date he has released 11 studio albums and has had 20 Number 1 singles on the US Billboard Country Chart , with over 40 tunes making it into the Top 10. .
“Blue Ain’t Your Color” was the fourth single off Urban’s eighth studio album “Ripcord” and has proved to be his biggest single to date. It spent 12 weeks at Number 1 on the Hot Country Chart and earned the country singer American Music Awards for Favorite Male Country Artist, Favorite Country Song and Favorite Country Album.
Urban is also known for his roles as a coach for one season on the Australian version of the singing competition “The Voice” and as a judge for four seasons on “American Idol”. The popularity of these shows increased his profile across a wider segment of the television audience.
9 Flight of the Conchords “Ladies of the World”
“Oh you sexy hermaphrodite lady-man-ladies
With your sexy lady bits
And your sexy man bits too
Even you must be in to you
All the ladies in the world
I wanna’ get next to you
Show you some gratitude”
Comedic Kiwi duo Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie formed The Flight of the Conchords after meeting at Victoria University in Wellington (fun fact: Listverse founder Jamie Frater studied music composition there!)
After doing the rounds of various comedy circuits and festivals, the BBC commissioned a six-part radio show starring the duo, which first aired on BBC Radio Two in Sept 2005. The series followed The Conchords in their capacity as “New Zealand’s fourth-best folk guitar-based jazz, techno, hip-hop duo”, trying to break into the music scene in England. Their manager, Brian (played by Rhys Darby), made regular calls to Neil Finn (see Crowded House and Split Enz) who played a patient mentor and advisor, giving advice on how to succeed in the music industry in England. Comedian Jimmy Carr also featured throughout in the series, playing a passionate fan called Kipper.
This was followed by the quirky HBO series, that ran for two seasons. Along the lines of the radio show, the plot revolved around a fictional version of the comedic duo as they try to achieve success as a two-piece folk band in New York City.
The popularity of both the radio show and the HBO series saw the band release their “The Distant Future” EP in2007. Rolling Stone magazine scathingly dismissed the EP as “a souvenir of the show” and being “hard to imagine wanting to play it over and over”. However, in Feb 2008, Flight of the Conchords became the first non-American act to win Comedy Grammy. This was an achievement that put them alongside legends of comedy such as The Smothers Brothers and National Lampoon.
For Bret McKenzie, more musical success came in 2012 when he won an Academy Award for the best original song in a film. The song ‘Man or Muppet’ was one of four he contributed to the 2011 feature film “The Muppets”. Amongst many other acting roles, Jemaine Clement went on to voice the psychopathic cockatoo Nigel in the hit movie ”Rio”, also writing and performing the awesome track “Pretty Bird”.
8 Hayley Westenra “Who Painted the Moon Black?”
Did you see how hard I’ve tried?
Not to show the pain inside
Just as you walked away from me
Who painted the moon black?
Just when you passed your love back
Who painted the moon black?
First reaching international attention as a teenager, classically trained singer Hayley Westenra released the cross-over album “Pure” in 2003. The album went on to be certified 12x platinum in New Zealand, double platinum in the UK and platinum in Australia. “Pure” went straight to Number 1 in the UK classical music chart, and entered the pop charts at a respectable number 8.
The album itself was an eclectic mix of classical, hymns, cheesy light Euro pop and re-worked traditional Maori songs.
Promoted by a somewhat cringeworthy video of the singer grooving uncomfortably in front of a green-screen, “Who Painted The Moon Black” appeared more like a New Zealand tourism commercial. Unflattering video aside, the album remains fastest selling classical debut album of all time.
7 OMC “How Bizarre”
“Destination unknown, as we pull in for some gas
Freshly pasted poster reveals a smile from the past
Elephants and acrobats, lions, snakes, monkey
Pele speaks “righteous, ” Sister Zina says “funky”
How bizarre, how bizarre”
Outside of New Zealand, OMC’s 1995 track “How Bizarre” is generally regarded as a one ‘hit wonder’. The infectious pop-rap single from OMC (in full the Otara Millionaire’s Club, a tongue-n-cheek reference to their humble beginnings in one of NZ’s poorest suburb) was featured on their debut album of the same name.
The song appeared on US Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart and went on to spend 36 weeks their Hot 100 airplay charts, peaking at number 4. It also featured in music charts in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland and throughout Europe. It reached number five in the UK, and it made the Top 10 in popular music charts everywhere from Portugal to Israel.
Record label owner, Simon Grigg, described OMC’s unique sound as being a fusion of the mishmash of sounds that New Zealanders are exposed to. It’s the classic Kiwi strum meets punk rock meets disco meets a South Pacific beach party meets classic soul meets reggae and everything in between.” It culminated in a song that “was everywhere. It was so huge. New Zealanders don’t realise how massive it was. It was such a ubiquitous radio record. It was the number one radio record in New York City that year – bigger than the Spice Girls.”
While OMC went on to find some further international success, they never stormed the charts to such an extent as “How Bizarre” had done, resulting in the song being listed as the 71st greatest one-hit wonder of all time by VH1. Sadly, charismatic frontman Pauly Fuemana died in 2010, aged just 40, due to complications from a rare neurological disorder.
6 Shihad “Comfort Me”
“Back up, evolution here
All the sick fucks being born to kill
They just need someone to tell them they’re safe again
They all need someone to tell them that somebody cares
What have we become
Could you comfort me, comfort me?
The whole world’s come undone
Could you comfort me, comfort me?“
For me personally, picking a favourite Shihad track is like picking a favourite bag of potato chips – many are favourites, most I genuinely like and only a rare few do I turn away from. Shihad put on a high energy, tight sounding, engaging show and have put out some very solid albums in their almost 30 years together.
Formed in the late-1980’s, Shihad were a well-established rock act throughout New Zealand and Australia. Through the festival circuit, they were also gaining a foothold in Europe. Off the back of their critically acclaimed fourth album “The General Electric”, many in the music industry felt that they were poised for commercial success in the lucrative Americal market, but then the Sept 11 terrorist attacks occurred. “Impeccable timing,” singer Jon Toogood later commented. “All the ducks were lined up. Then the war happened – in 2001 the name Shihad wasn’t going to fly.”
The band had chosen their name after seeing David Lynch’s 1984 cult classic film ‘Dune’, which repeatedly uses the Islamic term ‘Jihad’. Founding member and drummer, Tom Larkin, explains that “When we were 15, we were all into this sci-fi movie Dune. See, Dune uses all these Arabic words throughout the movie and the end battle is a Jihad. We were stupid and thought it’d be a great name for a band so we called ourselves Shihad ’cause we couldn’t even spell it.”
In the wake of the terror attacks, the band’s American record company and management pressured them to change their name and reluctantly, they became “Pacifier”. Unfortunately, in the tense and uncertain political climate, the timing was off and commercial success evaded the band. Two years later, they became Shihad once more.
In 2012, the band released a 102-minute long documentary “Beautiful Machine”. Described as “a wild ride from anonymity to being the next ‘It’ band, and into the present day, Shihad: Beautiful Machine is an unflinching look at the elusive reality of a true rock dream.”
Although they have yet to achieve the acclaim that many might have expected, after thirty years and nine solid albums, fans are hopeful that Shihad will keep on rocking, putting on their legendary shows for the next generation of fans. Who knows, with a little luck and better timing, they might just achieve the success and acclaim that they so rightfully deserve.
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5 Shona Laing “(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy
“The family tree is felled
Bereavement worn so well
Giving up on certainty
Wearing the fame like a loaded gun
Tied up with a rosary
I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy”
Songstress Shona Laing found fame in New Zealand as a teenager in the early 1970’s when she finished runner-up in a television talent show. Perhaps Laing’s most well known song “(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy” was released twice, first from her 1985 album “Genre”, then re-mixed and re-released on her album “South” two years later.
The song itself was inspired by a television appearance, when Senator Ted Kennedy announced his intention to become a presidential candidate. His on screen presence did not make a favourable impression on Laing, who later explained “I actually just said those words out loud: ‘God, glad I’m not a Kennedy.’ And bells went off, whistles rang and I went straight out to the shed to write it, and it was done and dusted in half an hour. It poured out.”
4 Lorde “Royals”
“And we’ll never be royals
It don’t run in our blood
That kind of lux just ain’t for us
We crave a different kind of buzz”
Singer Lorde, aka Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, leapt to international stardom with the 2013 release of her critically acclaimed album “Pure Heroine”.
The song describes the lavish and decadent lifestyle of contemporary stars with a edgy sarcasm. “What really got me,” she explained “is this ridiculous, unrelatable, unattainable opulence that runs throughout. Lana Del Rey is always singing about being in the Hamptons or driving her Bugatti Veyron or whatever, and at the time, me and my friends were at some house party worrying how to get home because we couldn’t afford a cab. This is our reality!”
The song spent nine weeks at the top of U.S. Billboard 100, making the 16-year old Kiwi the youngest artist to do so since Tiffany in 1987. Her reaction to the achievement was that “It feels like a combination of my birthday, Christmas and washing my hair after a month of not doing so.”
It also topped the charts of New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and the UK. To date, it has sold over 10 million copies globally. In 2014, the song won a Grammy for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance.
3 Split Enz “Six Months In A Leaky Boat”
Glisten like a pearl
At the bottom of the world
The tyranny of distance”
Released in 1982, “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” was the second single off their album “Time and Tide”. The song, written by band member Tim Finn, is usually interpreted as being a homage to the often perilous six month sea voyage that settlers took to come to New Zealand.
The single reached a dismal number 83 in the UK singles chart, largely due to the airplay ban by broadcasters at the BBC, who felt that the reference to “leaky boats” might have a negative impact on morale of the British Royal Navy while they were fighting the Falklands War against Argentina. They implied that the song was too provocative and was a thinly veiled criticism of the war, despite the fact that the song had in fact been written and recorded months earlier.
Split Enz members, brother Tim and Neil Finn have since confirmed that in addition to the theme of colonial settlement, the song also served as a metaphor for Tim’s relationship breakup and subsequent mental breakdown. “I was going through a lot of stuff. I had broken up after a long relationship and I was feeling a mixture of guilt and terror and sadness and whatever you go through. It was a hard time.” Tim later explained.
“Time & Tide” went on to become the band’s third number one album in both New Zealand and Australia, while eventually clawing its way to number 71 in the UK.
2 Mi-Sex “Computer Games”
“I fidget with the digit dots and cry an anxious tear
As the XU-1 connects the spot
But the matrix grid don’t care
Get a message to my mother
What number would she be
There’s a million angry citizens
Looking down their tubes at me”
How the heck can this track be forty years old???
“Computer Games” was the second release off their iconic debut album “Graffiti Crimes” (1979). The song peaked at number one in Australia, number two in Canada and number five in New Zealand. It also gained some traction in Europe and North America, although it was felt that their ‘risqué’ band name did not help them gain airplay in more conservative markets.
The video that accompanied the song was considered to be very cutting edge at the time. It starts with the band breaking into the data centre for then super-computer mainframe at Control Data in Sydney, Australia. As the band performs, the old school graphics projected behind them include a driving game and Star Wars-esque tie fighters, while data tapes spin and printers spew out a river of paper.
The synth-pop electro new wave band formed the year earlier, by frontman Ian Gilpin, keyboard player Murray Burns, Don Martin on bass, Kevin Stanton on lead guitar, and drummer Richard Hodgkinson.
Principal songwriter, Murry Burns later recalled that when Mi-Sex arrived in Australia in late 1978, bands were “still wearing white flares”. He added that “They were great but they hadn’t jumped into the edgy sound of the 80s. . . think we paved the way for a certain style of music, the likes of INXS and Icehouse . . . We got a great following very quickly.”
Following the tragic death of singer Ian Gilpin in January 1992 following a car crash, the band felt that they would never perform again, despite a nostalgic surge in popularity for 80’s pop music. But when faced with the opportunity to reunite for several gigs around Australasia, they went for it and “it’s really, really good fun”, confirms Burns.
“Computer Games” solidified their place in New Zealand music history. “It was unusual, one of those not-repeated songs . . . We got labelled with that song quite strongly, ” Burns says. The band’s unique sound, tight musicianship and futuristic imagery earned both the single and the album platinum status.
Advance one level on green!
1 Crowded House “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
“Now I’m towing my car, there’s a hole in the roof
My possessions are causing me suspicion but there’s no proof
In the paper today, tales of war and of waste
But you turn right over to the T.V. page
Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over”
Like the often bitter long-standing debate over the true origins of the humble pavlova, internationally acclaimed band Crowded House has been claimed by both New Zealand and Australia.
Fronted by former Split Enz member, New Zealand born Neil Finn (currently a member of Fleetwood Mac), who is vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter, clearly and unequivocally, this in my humble opinion is a New Zealand band!
Admittedly, Neil Finn told an Australian newspaper that Crowded House was a proud Australian band and most of its songs were inspired in Melbourne. Finn went on to state that Melbourne was the “birthplace of Crowded House and was always the town we chose to return to. It’s forever deeply ingrained in our collective psyche and was the backdrop for many of our best musical moments.” Sorry Neil, Crowded House is a Kiwi band and that’s that.
Their self-titled debut album, released in 1986, featured the single “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, which became an international hit, peaking at Number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Band frontman Neil Finn has described the lyrics of this song as “on the one hand, feeling kind of lost and, on the other hand, sort of urging myself on”.
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