Let’s get this party started (Image: Tina Tiller)
Let’s get this party started (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureMay 20, 2023

The greatest New Zealand album of all time? These are our picks

Let’s get this party started (Image: Tina Tiller)
Let’s get this party started (Image: Tina Tiller)

It’s New Zealand Music Month – what better time to reappraise Aotearoa’s entire musical catalogue?

It’s a diabolical, impossible mission. Only a fool would attempt to distil New Zealand’s complete national discography – from Aaradhna to Zed – into a long, long list then ask people to pick just one favourite. How do you separate Dobbo from Deceptikonz? How do you compare Marlon Williams to The Mutton Birds? How do you split P-Money and Push Push?

Over at Audioculture, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. This month, you’re invited to vote for your favourite Aotearoa album from a lengthy list of nominees. Yes, you’ll find many of the obvious inclusions. Lorde’s Pure Heroine and Melodrama are on there, so too is Scribe’s The Crusader. Fat Freddy’s Drop and Pātea Māori Club are in the mix, as well as four Shihad albums (notably, not their notorious ‘Pacifier’ album.)

But, by the website’s own admission, “there are just too many great albums to list them all.” So, there are some notable exceptions. Nothing from The Clean’s catalogue is in the mix. Neither is there anything from David Dallas, The Naked & Famous, or The Black Seeds. (You can, if you want to, use the “other” box to nominate your own favourite album and Audioculture’s editors appear to be amending their list if certain albums show a spike in popularity.)

In the interest of wanting to stoke some good old debate, here are some of our nominations for the best albums Aotearoa has to offer. After you’ve read through these, don’t forget to go and vote, otherwise you’re not allowed to complain if Six60 or L.A.B win.

Avantdale Bowling Club – Avantdale Bowling Club (2018)

Tom Scott, the GOAT of New Zealand hip-hop, described Avantdale Bowling Club’s self-titled debut as a “self-help book addressed to myself”. I think we all have something to learn from it. If you’re searching for smooth lyricism and performances by some of our most talented jazz musicians bathed in poignant social commentary – from mental illness to suicide, addiction, wealth inequality and colonisation – look no further than Avantdale Bowling Club, my vote for New Zealand’s best album. /Tommy de Silva

Lorde – Pure Heroine (2013)

I think it’s entirely arguable that Lorde’s best work, her magnum opus, is actually Melodrama. It’s a perfect album and one that eloquently summarises feelings, thoughts, vibes and whatever else you could want. But is it a New Zealand album? I think no, which is why I’m content with arguing that Pure Heroine, Lorde’s full length debut, must be included on this list. At the time of release, it sounded like nothing else. Its low-key production and synth sound has influenced dozens of pop artists who’ve followed, though few have been able to pair that sound with lyrics as evocative as Lorde’s. This is an album that speaks to the teenage experience (or at least the teenage experience of suburban New Zealand in the early 2010s). And while ‘Royals’ become overplayed within weeks of its original debut, it’s Pure Heroine’s deeper cuts that demonstrate this album’s excellence: ‘Ribs’, ‘Buzzcut Season’, ‘White Teeth Teens’ never achieved the same level of success at the time, but chuck them on at a party in 2023? They may as well have. / Stewart Sowman-Lund

Marlon Williams – My Boy (2022)

It’s probably because he wrote most of it after doomscrolling through lockdown, but Marlon Williams’ My Boy truly feels like opening someone else’s laptop by accident and breathlessly clicking through their open tabs – the despo DMs (‘Soft Boys’), the Wikipedia article about a fatal 1600s sea voyage (‘Trips’), the black screen asking ‘Are you still watching The Americans?’ (‘Thinking of Nina’). Every song is a portal to a vivid and vastly different cinematic universe, and can send you from hip-waggling across the kitchen in jubilation, to immediately flopping down on the bed in a moment of self-aware melodrama (“ngā mihi to your friends when they stop calling”). Bookended with love songs – not both necessarily romantic, but love songs nonetheless – Williams holds onto to enough of the swoony croon that made his name, but takes the listener on a magical, synthy, thoughtful, bizarre, occasionally bilingual and boppy as heeellll journey. Call it recency bias, but I reckon nothing can touch my boy. /Alex Casey 

The Mint Chicks – Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! (2006)


The last time I saw The Mint Chicks play live was also one of the last times The Mint Chicks played live. They wore ski masks, sprayed the front rows in champagne, passed out a fruit bowl and covered Lil Wayne’s ‘A Milli’. That Red Bull Soundclash show at Auckland’s Powerstation in 2010 was just one of many unhinged gigs that earned The Mint Chicks a reputation as New Zealand’s most unpredictable band. I loved the stories – the time they kidnapped a Rip It Up journalist, chainsawed through the Big Day Out stage, and fought another band at SXSW – almost more than the music. Then Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! came out to prove The Mint Chicks could write incredible, indelible, incisive and electric songs. I’ve listened to this album so often it’s nearly lost all meaning, but the title song still stops me in my tracks and makes me wonder how they pulled it off. /Chris Schulz

Bic Runga – Drive (1997)

An album that has two of the best songs in the New Zealand canon (‘Drive’ and ‘Sway’) and launched Bic Runga to icon status within weeks of its release should be a big part of this conversation. What makes Drive such a special album for me is that whenever I put it on – be it in my mum’s car on cassette when I was a single-digit child, on my janky stereo, gingerly taken out of second-hand jewel case when I was a surly double-digit child, or on a streaming service now – it feels entirely timeless. Earnest, heartfelt, still revealing on every subsequent listen. It’s the GOAT for me. /Sam Brooks

The Beths – Future Me Hates Me (2018)

In the summer of 2018, I was 19 and living with my grandmother between flats, spending days listlessly weeding the garden, sending text messages and hoping my crush would reply or watching YouTube in the bedroom with the curtains closed. Then I started listening to Future Me Hates Me, leaning against the windows on the bus and imagining myself in other places. ‘Happy Unhappy’ hit me like the ground after falling out of a biplane. It seemed to capture my impossible uncertainty, the belief that things might not turn out all right. For at least three months I listened to it over and over, convinced that the music contained the key to understanding why I was sometimes terrified and sometimes effervescent. Then I moved into a new flat, found a few things to be certain about – and kept listening to Future Me Hates Me, the sound of a weird summer and angsty possibilities. /Shanti Mathias

Renee Louise Carafice – Tells You to Fight!

My first exposure to Renee Louise Carafice came via the inclusion of ‘Lorazepam’ on the second instalment of Real Groove magazine’s Awesome Feeling compilation series in 2008. It sat there alongside early dispatches from future Aotearoa music stars and award-winners, but even in that company, I remember that jagged, waltz-timed anti-ode to benzodiazepines arriving with a particularly sharp impact. Her debut full-length Tells You to Fight! arrived a few months later, an in-hindsight ridiculously well-formed debut which moved effortlessly from darkly sweet ballads (‘Lady of the Sea’) to post-rock-inflected should’ve-been-anthems (‘To Run (For Emily Dickenson)’), but of that strong and varied bunch it’s lead single ‘(I’m Your) Bodhisattva’ that’s endured most for me. Like Slint playing The Jesus and Mary Chain, ‘Bodhisattva’ expertly walks the line between austere and bombastic, Carafice’s powerful voice ferrying the listener between the twee Casiotone bossa of its verses and the bandsaw-sharp guitars of its still-thrilling chorus. It’s a song that in its crispness and clarity reminds me of what a song can be; the power of stripping back the bullshit and believing in what you’re saying. And it’s an album that, 15 years later, still hits like a truck. /Matthew McAuley

OMC – How Bizarre (1996)

Thoughtful spoken word delivered by Māori-Niuean Elvis Pauly Fuemana over surfy guitar twangs, lap steel and mariachi trumpets: as far as albums go, OMC’s 1996 release is, as its title might suggest, pretty peculiar. A sonic time capsule of a bygone central Auckland teeming with late-night cafes, trendy boutiques, clubs, art, fashion, potential. There’s no point in trying to box How Bizarre in, it’s an album of dualities: Ōtara meets High Street, Polynesian pop meets rock, swagger meets quiet awkwardness. Thoroughly oddball, and yet somehow unpredictable enough to encompass tracks which are played on the regular at All Blacks matches (‘How Bizarre’) or that, in my opinion, could easily replace the national anthem (‘Land of Plenty’). Almost three decades since its release, it still sounds just as unusual, just as remarkable. /Charlotte Muru-Lanning

Goldenhorse – Riverhead (2004)

Early 2000s Aotearoa music saw a surprising injection of pop-folk with the arrival of Goldenhorse’s Riverhead album. A delayed acknowledgement of greatness only came when Riverhead reached number one two years after it was released. ‘Northern Lights’ is a clear banger due to how complex, intriguing and original it is, but the rest of the album from ‘Maybe Tomorrow,’ ‘Baby’s Been Bad’ and ‘Golden Dawn’ give a deep listening experience with its solid rock foundations and soothing melodies, making Riverhead one of Aotearoa’s best albums of all time. /Sela Jane Hopgood

The feelers – supersystem (1998)

I am begging you to listen to the feelers’ supersystem with fresh ears. Released 25 years ago, the Christchurch trio’s debut album has been unfairly maligned for approximately the last 24.5 years as the band became lazily synonymous with “bad music” in the much same way as their North American contemporaries Creed and Nickelback. That may be true of the band’s later material, but supersystem still holds up as a perfect distillation of the best melodic 90s grunge and alternative rock. Some credit for this has to go to producer Malcolm Welsford, who pushed the York Street mixing desk to its limits to give the record its futuristic sheen, and to Pitch Black’s Paddy Free (supersystem’s secret weapon) for programming the beats that underpinned tracks like ‘Pressure Man’ and ‘Pull the Strings’. But some of the album’s finest moments came via its more stripped-back compositions, like ‘Float’ (a precursor to the equally gorgeous ‘Fishing For Lisa’) or pub classic ‘Venus’ – further evidence that at least for a brief moment at the end of the 20th century, the feelers were New Zealand’s best band, and recorded the album to prove it. /Calum Henderson

PNC – Bazooka Kid (2009)

PNC was always a little late. His debut album arrived in late 2006, just as that golden wave of NZ hip hop was starting to recede. The follow-up arrived in the depths of the GFC three years later, in that bleak period when downloads had killed music, but streaming had yet to revive it. Still, look past the timing and examine the object. Bazooka Kid might be the most coherent and electrifying rap album to ever come out this country. It has a rudely synthetic Miami Vice sound, with PNC’s kinetic, exuberant flow rapping about figures as diverse as league legend Roy Asotasi and indie film writer Diablo Cody – a wholly original concoction which still sounds like a window into an alternate hip-hop history to this day. /Duncan Greive
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