Nature’s Best? 30 Great New Zealand Songs (part 1)

Welcome to the Various Artists/Various Blogs Festival! Check out this page at the Vinyl Connection for all the posts as we go along!


In 2001, members of the Australasian Performing Rights Association voted for the top 100 New Zealand songs of all time. Of course, creating polls and lists is an integral part of music geekdom, but this list proved more influential than most. The top 30 songs were compiled into a tremendously popular double album titled Nature’s Best, which was followed by three sequels. It was ubiquitous –  I’ve heard most of these songs while on hold with the tax department – and defined New Zealand popular music perhaps more than any other cultural artefact has.

It’s certainly not a bad list – as you’d expect from an item designed by a committee, it is weighted towards the mainstream, and a few writers, notably Dave Dobbyn and the Finn brothers (Split Enz, Crowded House), contribute a lot of the songs between them. It’s also dominated by the 1980s and 1990s, which makes sense. Famous 1960s songs by Ray Columbus and The La De Das were covers, and the New Zealand music scene felt very safe. Groups like Space Waltz and Split Enz gained artistic freedom in the mid 1970s, while the late 1970s and early 1980s opened the floodgates as punk hit, the indie Flying Nun record label was formed, and prolific mainstream writers like Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn began their careers.

Over the next week, I’ll examine the songs from Nature’s Best one by one, and if I don’t think a song should be in the top 30, I’ll suggest an alternative. At the end of the process, I’ll publish my final list of 30 great New Zealand songs. Since the list was made in 2001, I have an extra 16 years of songs to choose from. I’m also implementing a one song per writer policy – so Don McGlashan only gets one song, whether it’s from Blam Blam Blam, The Front Lawn, The Mutton Birds, or his solo career. On the other hand, bands with more than one writer are allowed multiple songs.

Here we go:
#30: Home Again – Shihad (1997)
Wellington’s Shihad flew the flag for New Zealand hard rock during the 1990s. I’m not enough of a “bogan” to be a big Shihad fan, but this track deserves inclusion – it’s a tuneful, propulsive riff rocker. IN

#29 – Beside You – Dave Dobbyn (1998)
Dave Dobbyn is a great songwriter, with five songs in the Nature’s Best Top 30. I love this gentle, honest love song, but I can only fit one Dobbyn track on my list. OUT.

Replace with:
Husband House – Sneaky Feelings (1985)
Matthew Bannister’s Sneaky Feelings were one of the more pop-oriented groups on the Flying Nun label. In Bannister’s book about his band and about Flying Nun, Positively George Street, he tells the story of meeting a Dunedin flat of Christian girls, and how they referred to a nearby Christian boys’ flat as “husband house”.

#28 – I See Red – Split Enz (1979)
‘I See Red’ was a breakthrough pop hit for Split Enz, abandoning their art rock for punchy pop-rock with producer David Tickle. It’s a raucous dance floor filler, but there’s only room for one Tim Finn song. OUT.

Replace with:
It’s Choade My Dear – Connan Mockasin (2010)
Connan Mockasin’s outsider music is along the lines of Syd Barrett or early Ween. The gauzy guitar riff fuels a piece of dreamy, languid, psychedelic pop.

#27 – Be Mine Tonight – Th’ Dudes (1979)
A young Dave Dobbyn got his start in this band, which also gave us the drinking song ‘Bliss’. It’s a tuneful piece of bar band rock, with nice twin guitar interplay. But the rules of this list only allow room for one Dave Dobbyn song, so OUT.

Replace with:
System Virtue – Emma Paki (1993)
Emma Paki only released one album before leaving the music business, struggling with her mental health. But ‘System Virtue’ is a lovely, atmospheric piece of socially conscious pop.

#26 – Tears – The Crocodiles (1980)
To my ears, ‘Tears’ is generic, mid-tempo pop product; not especially New Zealand and not especially good despite the strong vocals. OUT.

Replace with:
Hold Me 1 – Able Tasmans (1990)
Like ‘Tears’, ‘Hold Me 1’ is a piano pop song, but it makes for a more interesting song if you build from a gorgeous baroque piano figure than if you build from a boring three chord vamp. From the poppier end of the Flying Nun label’s roster of acts.

Join me in a couple of days to look at more of New Zealand’s most popular songs.

This is part of the series on compilations organised by Vinyl Connection.

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  1. Listened to them all via Youtube. Highlights for me was that Dave Dobbyn song, “Beside You”. Nice acoustic ballad. The Split Enz song “I See Red” is quirky, original new wave/pop and I liked that a lot too.

    • Wow – that’s commitment. ‘Beside You’ is very good – Dave Dobbyn has never had much attention outside of New Zealand, and maybe Australia, but he had some great, quirky singles in the 1980s, and made three strong albums in the 1990s.

  2. Not familiar with New Zealand music besides Split Enz and Lorde, so it’s fun and educational for me to read these type of lists! That Able Tasmans tune is beautiful. A kiwi blogger I emailed with once recommended me Peter Jefferies and his 1990 solo album The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. The piano-based ballad On an Unknown Beach is particularly haunting. Look forward to part 2 of your series!

    • New Zealand’s small enough that there’s a limited pool – I think we only have about 15% of Canada’s population – and I imagine that only a couple of artists (Neil Finn and Lorde) are known outside New Zealand and Australia. So you get a fun assortment from one hit wonders to established artists, and diversity from Dunedin Indie music to Pacific Island sounds.

      • I looked, NZ has about 4.8 million people, Canada has about 35 million. But we’re spread out over a HUGE tract of land. Probably feels about as small as NZ, sometimes!

        I love the sounds of everything you mention. Thriving music scenes are vital.

        Henry Rollins used to rave about a band called the Beasts Of Bourbon…

        • Beasts of Bourbon are Australian actually!

          Canada would probably yield an interesting list – I imagine you’d need to start dipping into a few artists who aren’t that famous outside of Canada?

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