Until the emergence of Lorde, song-smith Neil Finn was New Zealand’s most recognisable pop export. Born in Te Awamutu, Finn was enamoured by the tuneful pop of The Beatles and Elton John. Still a teenager, he joined his brother Tim Finn in Split Enz in 1977, originally as a guitarist. He soon became a key writer, penning their 1980 breakthrough hit ‘I Got You’.
When Tim Finn lost interest in Split Enz, Neil formed Crowded House and enjoyed international success with songs like ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and ‘Weather With You’. After Crowded House wound down in the mid-1990s, Finn recorded as a solo artist, with the collective Seven Worlds Collide, and in combination with other family members. He’s also reformed Crowded House for two further albums, and substituted for Lindsey Buckingham with Fleetwood Mac.
Neil Mullane Finn has recorded music under many different entities, and I’ve listed the five best studio albums from his forty-year career. Finn’s also recorded some excellent concert albums; there was a great live disc included with some editions of the 1996 Crowded House collection Recurring Dream, and there’s a lovely joint live album with Paul Kelly from 2013.
Neil Finn’s Five Best Albums
#5 Finn – The Finn Brothers
Neil and Tim Finn’s previous attempts at writing together had been folded into Crowded House 1991 album Woodface. Their first album together is low key, the two brothers playing most of the instruments themselves; Tim handles drums and Neil is on bass. There’s fun garage rock material like ‘Kiss The Road of Rarotonga’, but it’s the pretty ballads like ‘Last Day of June’, ‘Angels Heap’, and ‘Suffer Never’ that make this album a standout in Finn’s career.
#4 Out of Silence – Neil Finn
Most of my favourite Neil Finn material comes from the 20th century. 21st century albums like The Finn Brothers’ Everyone Is Here and Crowded House’s Time on Earth are too subdued and too close in tone to past triumphs to register. But Neil Finn’s recent work has been more inventive, and Out of Silence purposefully stakes out new ground. Finn recorded these songs live in-studio while broadcasting to the world. He showcases his gorgeous piano work and is backed by strings and a choir of notable New Zealand musicians. There’s an underused falsetto on ‘Chameleon Days’ and the strings shimmer on ‘Love Is Emotional’.
#3 Temple of Low Men – Crowded House
Crowded House’s second home stalled their momentum in the USA, after ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ had achieved number two on the US charts. Temple of Low Men is a darker album than its predecessor, and there’s nothing that sounds like a hit single, so the lack of commercial success is understandable. But Temple of Low Men is one of Finn’s most consistent efforts – it features beloved tracks like ‘Into Temptation’, one of many songs where Finn draws on his Catholic upbringing, and ‘Kill Eye’, which could pass for a John Lennon song from The White Album. The politely funky ‘Never Be The Same’ is one of my favourite Finn deep cuts.
#2 Time and Tide – Split Enz
When Neil Finn joined Split Enz in 1977, they were in a state of flux. Finn replaced Phil Judd who, together with Tim Finn, wrote the band’s early art-rock material. The band struggled along before stripping down their sound to new wave pop for 1980’s True Colours, and their most successful period was in the early 1980s. Their best record from this period is 1982’s Time and Tide; while most of Neil Finn’s Split Enz material is very good, it’s Tim Finn’s writing that elevates Time and Tide, as he drew on his failed marriage and mental health struggles. The anxiety of ‘Dirty Creature’, the isolation of ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’, and the autobiographical sea shanty ‘Haul Away’ overshadow Neil Finn’s songs, but he contributes typically excellent work like the jaunty ‘Take A Walk’ and the sci-fi tinged ‘Giant Heartbeat’.
#1 Together Alone – Crowded House
Neil Finn’s work is often a little too polite and mannered. Together Alone remedies this by pairing Finn with wildcard producer Youth, and recording on the isolated New Zealand beach of Karekare. Together Alone features Crowded House at their most beautiful, like the atmospheric ‘Private Universe’ and ‘Catherine Wheels’, but also at their rawest on songs like ‘In My Command’ and ‘Black and White Boy’. Together Alone is also significant in marking Finn’s return to New Zealand after years living in Australia, as marked in the Polynesian flavour of the title track.
There is a tendency for Finn’s best-loved songs to feature on less accomplished albums:
- Finn’s best-known song, US #2 single, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, appears on Crowded House’s eponymous 1986 debut. Overall the album’s writing is less mature than Finn’s later Crowded House efforts, and the bright 1980s production is distracting.
- Crowded House’s 1991 album Woodface features some of Finn’s best-loved songs, including ‘Weather With You’, co-written with Tim. But the album suffers from CD-era bloat – cut the 14 songs down to 10 or so, and it would be one of Finn’s best.
- Finn’s 1998 solo debut Try Whistling This is another record that could have used a trim – losing the last four songs would have worked. ‘She Will Have Her Way’ is a fun singalong, and ‘Sinner’ is Finn at his most brooding.
Are you a fan of Neil Finn’s work? Do you have a favourite album?
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