Nature’s Best? 30 Great New Zealand Songs

Welcome back for the 4th and final episode of my run through of New Zealand’s 30 greatest pop songs – today we look at the final 6 songs. If you missed them, the first three installments are part 1, part 2, and part 3.

#6 – Sway – Bic Runga (1997)
I have mixed feelings on ‘Sway’ from Christchurch’s queen of pop – on one hand, it’s a good song, and remains arguably Runga’s best known, featuring on the American Pie soundtrack. But I find the arrangements of Runga’s first album dull. So I’ve chosen another Runga song instead – ‘Winning Arrow’, from 2005’s Birds. OUT.

Replace with:
Winning Arrow – Bic Runga (2005)
It’s perhaps a less memorable song, but ‘Winning Arrow’ is a more interesting record with a full sound. It features guest appearances from other notable New Zealand musicians who’ve already featured on this list – Neil Finn is on piano, Trinity Root’s Riki Gooch on drums, and Anika Moa and Shayne Carter on backing vocals.

#5 – Six Months in a Leaky Boat – Split Enz (1982)
I often find Tim Finn inconsistent as a songwriter, but outside his early collaborations with Phil Judd, this is his best moment. From Split Enz’s later, pop-oriented period, ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ is a tale of Finn’s nervous breakdown, framed with nautical metaphors. It was famously banned by the BBC as its release coincided with the Falklands War. IN. 

4. Counting the Beat – The Swingers (1981)
After leaving Split Enz in 1977, Phil Judd fronted this infectious new wave ditty with its distinctive descending bass line. It’s great, but since I’m only allowed one Judd song, I’m opting for an early Split Enz tune. OUT.

Replace with:
Sweet Dreams – Split Enz (1976)
Split Enz’s early phase was their most creative, and this Judd written and fronted effort is my favourite, even if something like ‘Spellbound’ or ‘Late Last Night’ might be the canonical choice. Their costumes and make up must have been a shock – perhaps ahead of their time for New Zealand, they famously finished second to last in a National TV talent quest in 1973.

#3 – Loyal – Dave Dobbyn (1988)
‘Loyal’ is a great song and great guitar riff that drags a little at close to five minutes –  and ‘Whaling’ is already taken my Dobbyn choice. OUT. If only there was a replacement that rhymed with “Loyal”….

Replace with:
Royals – Lorde (2013)
Barely out of her teens, Lorde’s already vying with Crowded House for the highest international profile of any New Zealand musical act. ‘Royals’ is the only New Zealand song to go to number one on the US charts.

#2 – Don’t Dream It’s Over – Crowded House (1986)
Neil Finn has written a lot of great songs, but I agree with the list voters that ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ is one of his best. Even though the lyrics are universal, and the organ solo is reminiscent of Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’, there’s a key New Zealand element – Neil Finn’s rhythm guitar employs the percussive “Maori strum”. Neil Finn later wrote that he regretted not putting “Hey now” in the title, and that it might have turned a US #2 hit into a #1. IN.

#1 – “Nature” – Fourmyula (1969)
The 1960s were a key time for the maturation of pop music in other countries but produced little of note in New Zealand. The Fourmyula were a covers band live, and never played ‘Nature’ live in the 1960s, but Wayne Mason’s charming piece of psychedelic pop still reached #1 on the New Zealand chart. IN.

And here’s my final list of 30 Great New Zealand Songs (limited to one song per writer, presented chronologically):
Blue Smoke – Pixie Williams & The Ruru Karaitiana Quartet (1949)
Nature – Fourmyula (1969)
Sweet Dreams – Split Enz (1976)
April Sun in Cuba – Dragon (1977)
Six Months in a Leaky Boat – Split Enz (1982)
French Letter – Herbs (1982/1995)
Victoria – Dance Exponents (1982)
Whaling – DD Smash (1983)
Poi E – Patea Maori Club (1984)
Pink Frost – The Chills (1984)
Husband House – Sneaky Feelings (1985)
Don’t Dream It’s Over – Crowded House (1986)
(Glad I’m) Not a Kennedy – Shona Laing (1986)
She Speeds – Straitjacket Fits (1987)
Not Given Lightly – Chris Knox (1989)
Down In Splendour – Straitjacket Fits (1990)
Hold Me 1 – Able Tasmans (1990)
System Virtue – Emma Paki (1993)
Scorpio Girls – Supergroove (1993)
Anchor Me by The Mutton Birds (1994)
Chains – DLT featuring Che Fu (1996)
Jailhouse 4.00am by The Verlaines (1997)
Jesus I Was Evil – Darcy Clay (1997)
Home Again – Shihad (1997)
Screems From Tha Old Plantation – King Kapisi (2000)
Winning Arrow – Bic Runga (2005)
In The Morning – Anika Moa (2005)
Home, Land, and Sea – Trinity Roots (2005)
It’s Choade My Dear – Connan Mockasin (2010)
Royals – Lorde (2013)

Making a list of 30 New Zealand songs was a fun exercise. Like the original list, mine is weighted towards the 1980s and 1990s – perhaps justifiably, but there are probably a few great new acts out there that I’m yet to catch with. There were plenty of artists that I enjoy that I couldn’t fit – significant Flying Nun bands like The Clean and The Bats were unlucky to miss out, and I also enjoy albums from artists like Ed Cake and Phoenix Foundation, but couldn’t pick out individual songs to include. Probably the unluckiest omission from my list was this 1997 hit – it’s infectious and distinctively Pasifika New Zealand, but I’m a little burnt out on it:

Thanks for reading! Did I omit one of your favourite New Zealand songs?

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

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      • I love the intro of Six Months in a Leaky Boat, beautiful. Your #1 Nature is indeed fantastic, are Fourmyula a one-hot wonnder?

        Shame Peter Jefferies didn’t make the cut, but I fully understand this is your personal list, and you can’t have it all when only 30 spots. Are you intending to do a best New Zealand albums countdown as well?

        • In retrospect The Fourmyula are essentially a one-hit wonder I think – they had a bunch of top 20 hits, but ‘Nature’ is the one that’s remembered. I wasn’t thinking of an album countdown at this stage.

  1. WICKED COOL! That’s some great posts man, totally enjoyed all of them but where the hell is The Dead C, The Bats?Plus how in hell didn’t I Love My Leather Jacket by The Chills didn’t make the cut? Most likely my own fave Kiwi song of all-time, If you wanna know?
    I guess, each to their own so I’m most def going to write up some of my fave NZ music real soon but once again great work and to hear it all from a New Zealander too!
    Cheers 🙂

    • I went with original lists’ Chills pick of ‘Pink Frost’ – they have a lot of great songs, I would have been happy for ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ or ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ too, but I went with the status quo. I mentioned The Bats (and The Clean) as regretful omissions from my list – I just couldn’t make the whole list guitar bands, even though that’s generally what I listen to. Dead C are probably going to struggle to make a list of songs – I think that type of music is better suited to full albums.

  2. Fantastic! The CH song is absolute gold. I played that Lorde album for a drunk review and, um, it didn’t fare well. Still, hard to argue with success.

    This was a brilliant series. Well done!

  3. Great exercise, executed with lots of thought and respect. Nicely played, Sir! Having Phil Judd’s superb ‘Sweet Dreams’ so high simply made my day.

    I don’t know enough to dispute any of the decisions (and wouldn’t want to anyway – it’s your list!) but as a mark of respect for your sterling effort, here are a couple that would appear on a ‘Made in NZ’ comp I worked on…

    The Chills – Male Monster from the ID. (A bit darker – and more powerful – than other Chills songs I know. Just love it).
    Neil Finn – Into Temptation. (Impossible to choose one NF song, but this is my favourite song about infidelity, ever).
    Tim Finn – I See Red (The twitchy neuroticism of this punky dragster has always been a fave)
    The Bats – don’t know what, but something!
    Mike Nock?

    Cheers, Bruce

    • Hey Bruce, thank you. My list wasn’t in order, but the original list was – I just tried to keep the swaps thematic, eg keeping a Judd song at #4.

      I haven’t even heard that Chills song – I really like them, but have only heard a couple of their albums, and need to explore further. Martin Philipps was really struggling with health for a while, but he’s doing better now.

      I like Into Temptation too, but there are about 20 songs of his that are good enough for this list – I just stuck with Don’t Dream It’s Over, which was the first I fell in love with and his biggest chart success in US, even though something like Private Universe or Distant Sun is probably my favourite.

      North by North tends to be The Bats pick, right?

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