When I wrote these notes I was planning for the start of my book about favourite NZ songs. All of these songs made it into that book – and were written about in further detail. In most cases I spoke with the songwriters or key players/producers involved with the music. On Song featured 30 tunes, there was no ranking, no list of preference. I arranged them in an order that made some narrative sense to me. The same is true here. These are not the 10 best songs from that book, more a set of steps towards the writing of it. And still, to this day, 10 of my favourite songs that come from New Zealand, that speak to, from and about this country.
More than that though – they’re just 10 of my favourite songs.
Split Enz, Spellbound – the tinkling piano is cool at offsetting what should be a prog-rock classic. But it’s that ever so slightly unsettling acoustic guitar, a version of a “Maori strum” that allows for anything else to be thrown at the tune. And that right there, from the opening, is the thing that separates this from any other song of the era. It’s bold, audacious, incongruous. It’s also one of the songs that announced Split Enz as writers of unique, original material in an era when so many Kiwi bands still performed covers or obvious parodies of song styles.
In the Neighbourhood, Sisters Underground – social commentary, Polynesian flavours, hip-hop – it all combines for a memorable pop song.
Chris Knox, Liberal Backlash Angst – the first song I ever heard by Chris Knox after hearing a lot about it and about him. Knox is rightly celebrated for his punk roots and DIY ethos but the real magic is what happens within that seemingly simple framework: biting lyrics that challenge cynicism, that send up parochial attitudes and intelligently create political debates. Within that same simple framework he also creates beautifully irregular alternative-pop melodies.
The Clean, Anything Could Happen – take a drive around this country with this song playing. It makes sense. Perfect sense. You could even make your own music video for it. I would make sense. Perfect sense.
The Mutton Birds, A Thing Well Made – this song stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. Third song on the album and I turned the CD off as soon as I heard it. Took a few minutes to let it wash over me. Then went back to track three to hear it again. And again before making it through the rest of the album. I loved that self-titled debut but I had to hear this song (over and over) before getting to the rest of it. Over 20 years from that first listen I’m stopped in my tracks every time I hear it. It feels like heartland New Zealand is having some of that heart ripped out, exposed for what it is.
Jan Hellriegel, The Way I Feel – okay, in a sense, this song could have come from anywhere but it was finding out that it came from New Zealand that had an impact. I liked it when I heard it and that was at a time when there were so few New Zealand artists making music that made it through to rock radio on its own/on its own merit. I feel Jan Hellriegel, with this song, broke down a door. I think she ushered in a lot of the mid/late-90s female-led bands and female singer/songwriter guitar-slingers.
Darcy Clay, Jesus I Was Evil – in a way this is similar to the Hellriegel example. It wasn’t so much the subject matter or style of Jesus I Was Evil that felt distinctly Kiwi (though there is a certain DIY rawness that leaves its indelible stamp). This was in how a little lo-fi gem made it to a mainstream audience. This song was played on bFM to create a following in Auckland. Here in Wellington we pushed the EP so hard that we managed to get Darcy Clay to Wellington to appear in store at the record shop I was working in at the time. It felt like a triumph.
The Chills, Pink Frost – that opening guitar lick just feels like something that had to come out of Dunedin. It is, in a sense, a representative for so many other Dunedin bands that could be on this list. Likewise when the upbeat pop riff falls away it gets all together more, erm, chilling. It’s still – to this day – the perfect evocation of an era, of a place (both mentally and geographically). Perfect use of space in this song too; the tension builds with each verse.
Crowded House, Don’t Dream Its Over – and there again is a version of the “Maori strum”, it’s on an electric guitar this time. And it’s slower. But it’s as if in the changeover from Phil Juddworking with Tim Finn to Neil Finn working on his own to spur Tim on (almost as if in direct competition with one another) this “Maori strum” was the baton passed as Split Ends ended its artiness and Split Enz eyed the charts. That might well be over-thinking it – but I know that when I heard this it was identifiable, from the opening chords, as a Kiwi song.