The official history of New Zealand music is filled with songs by artists we all know and love. But what about the artists we’ve forgotten? Or the hits by our most loved artists that remain overshadowed by other, bigger hits? Henry Oliver traces an alternative history of New Zealand music via songs featured on the Now That’s What I Call Music series.
The official recent history of New Zealand music is easy to trace. You can connect lines from the legacy artists of the 70s and 80s (the Finns, the Dobbyns, etc.), the cool 80s (Flying Nun, the birth of New Zealand hip-hop), the alternative 90s (more Flying Nun, more guitars, more distortion pedals), the acoustic 90s-00s (Bic Runga, Anika Moa), the hip-hop explosion of the early/mid-00s (Scribe, Deceptikonz), to the post-alternative rock of the early/mid/late-00s (The Feelers, Weta, etc), the whatever-else-rock of the early-00s (UMO, Naked and Famous), the electro-pop of the mid-10s (Lorde, Kimbra, Broods), and everything in between.
But there’s another history that’s at risk of being lost. I’m not talking about the artists that made amazing music in the underground, loved by a few but unknown to most. I’m talking about the artists with huge hits that just don’t seem to get that much attention anymore. Some of them were one-hit wonders but most of them had hits (with an S). Or the artists with so many hits that only their most famous ones are remembered, leaving some of their best material, even if it charted, to slip away into the streaming aether.
So, after taking a trip back in time (on Spotify), I present my Alternative New Zealand Music History in Ten Songs (via inclusion on Now That’s What I Call Music) 1998-2008.
Neil Finn ‘She Will Have Her Way’
Okay, okay. Everyone knows Neil Finn. He is as canon as New Zealand music history gets. But, poor Neil has been short-changed by being too damn successful. Think of Neil Finn and you think of his all-time hits of hits: his Split Enz ear-worms or his Crowded House anthems. Unfortunately, most people don’t think of his solo work, some of which, like this one, both charted pretty well AND was featured on some iconic 90s TV shows: Daria, Sports Night and Felicity. It was also one of the first New Zealand songs featured on the New Zealand version of Now That’s What I Call Music (number 3 BTW with Deep Obsession).
Deep Obsession ‘Lost In Love’
Even though certified geniuses Chelsea Jade and Sam Brooks celebrated Deep Obsession’s ‘Lost In Love’ right here on The Spinoff well over a year ago, New Zealand (and the world) has still not caught up. Sam’s right, if this was played in a club it’d go off (someone should have played it at a New Zealand Music Awards afterparty TBH). Chelsea’s right too: Deep Obsession could have gone global. Get reacquainted on Now That’s What I Call Music 3.
Bic Runga ‘Get Some Sleep’
Okay, I’m totally cheating on this one. Bic Runga is both super canon and this is one of her best and most famous songs. I just listened to it again on Now 11, loved it, and wanted to remind you to listen to it if you haven’t in a while. Sorry, not sorry.
It’s impossible to overstate how huge Scribe was in 2003-4. Sure there have been bigger acts since (Lorde took over the world and Six60 broke all sorts of chart and audience records), but Scribe was just so damn famous in a particularly New Zealand way. Lorde is just famous everywhere, and Six60 have an everyday-dude appeal, but Scribe was kind of like a one-man Beatles that could only be from these islands (read about the historic Boost Mobile Tour here).
And while he’s best remembered, as he should be, for ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Not Many (Remix)’, there are a bunch of Scribe gems that no longer get love out there. ‘Dreaming’, on Now 14, is Scribe at his soulful best, singing sweetly about his origins and his aspirations. It’s his ‘Lose Yourself’. And, after everything that he’s been through and all that he seems to be continuing to go through, the bit about giving up “the drugs and alcohol” makes for sobering listening.
Dei Hamo ‘We Gon Ride’
Immediately following the Dawn Raid/Dirty, Scribe/Deceptikonz explosion of 2002-2004, there were a bunch of lighter, more pop-orientated rappers and rap groups that came in their wake, including Fast Crew, Misfits of Science and, Dei Hamo, who’s ‘We Gon Ride’ survives as the legit banger of the era. ‘We Gon Ride’ (On Now 16) takes the pop-culture saturation of Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘Without Me’ and puts in a more family-friendly New Zealand context (even the middle finger to Paul Holmes is blurred). So even though Dei Hamo is remembered as a one-hit-wonder, never forget that this song still goes and goes hard.
Mt Raskil Preservation Society ‘Bathe In the River’
Okay, I’ll be honest – I had 100% forgot about this song, a one-off from Hollie Smith’s supergroup put together for Toa Fraser’s No. 2 featuring Bella Kalolo, David Long, Sean Donnelly, and Auckland’s Jubilation Choir. Bathe in the beauty on Now 21.
Nesian Mystik ‘Nesian 101’
If, like me, you remember Nesian Mystic for their soulful acoustic jams, check this banger on Now 28. I can do no better justice to this song than Jogai Bhatt’s ode to Nesian Mystic:
We were halfway into the evening when one of the kids from the family seated next to us pulled out his speaker set and started blasting ‘Nesian 101’. They began harmonising at the top of their lungs. The kid with the speakers considered himself some kind of beatboxing savant, aiding the others through a sleek chorus before taking centre-stage with Tha Kid Oldwun’s verse. They were, indisputably, incredible. No one within a 20-foot radius was paying attention to what was happening on stage. Nesian Mystik was out here spreading Christmas cheer and they didn’t even know it.
Zowie ‘Broken Machine’
Oh, where in the world is Zowie? She was in that pre-Lorde group of women making slightly twisted but chart-friendly electro-pop like Ruby Frost and Kimbra (of which only Kimbra remains) but seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Still, this song (on Now 34) was an infectious jam, though it now somehow sounds dated and ahead of its time. And that’s hard to do.
Robinson ‘Nothing to Regret’
It’s always hard to appraise the present in the context of how it will be viewed in the future. But, in a few years time, we will look back and the question will be asked, ‘Who was the best of the post-Lorde era?’ The current contender is obviously Broods, but right behind them is Robinson with her wildly successful (57 million streams successful) hit ‘Nothing to Regret’. Still, will she follow it up, or will she become one of those anonymous Spotify stars who slips easily into repeat-listenable playlists but who never makes much a splash of her own? (The singer of one of the biggest songs in streaming history, MØ, is virtually unknown apart from that song.) Still, if Robinson is capable of one huuuuge hit (if you live under a rock, listen up on Now 57) maybe she’s capable of a bunch more. Who knows?
Drax Project ‘Woke Up Late’
Love them (the general public) or loathe them (music critics) Six60 are going down in New Zealand music history. And because nearly every single song they’ve ever recorded has charted, it’s hard to know, in late-2018, which would qualify for “alternative history” status. But what about the new Six60, Drax Project? The “Drax Boys” (and nice boys they seem to be if the Music Awards is anything to go by) could just as likely be a fountain of future hits (including more overseas potential than Six60 due to their lower dose of New Zealandness) as they could never hit again. But make no mistake – ‘Woke Up Late’ (Now 58) is a hit. A total ear-worm. The best written, best produced New Zealand pop song of 2018. Will it make the New Zealand Music canon or will it be ‘Whatever happened to?’ We’ll have to wait and see.
This content is brought to you by Now That’s What I Call Music New Zealand and Universal Music. Listen to and talk about all the Now That’s What I Call Music New Zealand compilations on Spotify and Facebook.