It’s impossible to pick just 10, but here is a mixture of old songs and not so old songs, in no particular order of preference.
Juice – Headless Chickens
I love the space in this song. The music is at first evocative, even a bit menacing in that Massive Attack way. It’s whimsical too. Fiona McDonald’s silky voice is hypnotic. She has a natural way of slipping through and around the instrumentation, almost like that voice is dancing. (Her sense of melody may have had some influence on Bic Runga a few years later by the sounds of it. Both beautiful singers with a gift for non-schmaltzy musical introspection). It’s definitely a travelling song in that it moves from mysterious intro and verse to dark bridge to lighter chorus to cray-cray in the middle 8 and back again. To be honest I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the lyrics but I don’t really care, the song creates an effect as a whole that makes me want to listen over and over.
I Hope I Never – Split Enz
It’s all about the song as a platform for Tim Finn’s then newly found falsetto. Some voices send you, there’s no other way to put it, they just inhabit you. Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Marlon Williams, Dusty Springfield … and Tim Finn. The line between technical excellence and emotional, edgy, heart is blurred. That’s what they all have in common and with those qualities, Tim’s vocal seems to have written the song itself. It can only be such a great song because Tim has that voice. The song is schizophrenic … it is part opera, part Broadway show, part art house and we expected that from Split Enz, however, it is also completely accessible in the way only a good pop song can be. It is beautiful! It has a leisurely elegance that is completely offset by the dramatic pain of love and that’s why I love it. Juxtaposition. Good art is all about the balance between and representation of light and dark. I can’t wait to be tugged into melancholy by this song, every time I hear it. I want to have my heart yanked out and squeezed “I hope I never, I hope I never have to see you again.”
Blend – Aldous Harding
The sparse, intense, driving, arrangement draws you to the lyrics, which are worth discovering. As naff as it sounds, I can only describe this song as unselfconsciously discomforting. It feels like she is stripping herself bare for us but completely willingly so it’s not awkward or uncomfortable. As a listener, I don’t like to be throttled by a song. I appreciate delicacy, subtlety, something left to the imagination. To me it means sophistication and class. It’s possible this is a technically uncomplicated song, because Aldous is not a virtuoso instrumentalist and therefore limited, or maybe it’s completely by design or a bit of both. Whatever the situation, this song is unique and compelling and lulls you and hypnotises you and I’m happy to go there.
This Is London – Don McGlashan
It’s the hardest thing to do in songwriting, to sound unselfconscious when you write about the day-to-day, especially your own day-to-day. Don is a master “jangleur” in this respect. As with legendary storytellers Mitchell, Dylan, Cohen, he is a clever observer. He makes it seem so easy to paint a musical picture of an everyday mood and make it moving and compelling. That’s an art. There’s lazy, effortlessness in the delivery of this song but in spite of that there is passion and urgency and it’s all energised by the driving bass. The song itself is not tricked up, the production is not starry, there is no superficiality anywhere to be heard. These are the traits of many Kiwi classics. There is a Kiwi genre and it’s all about not trying too hard, not feeling like there’s something to be proven, a “take it or leave it” vibe and somewhere in all of that you find quality, edge, uniqueness, excellence! Favourite line from the song: “She paints the windows of our house with a yellow highlighter.”
Hold Her Close – Liam and Neil Finn
I first heard it live early in 2018 at their Taronga Zoo Twilight concert and it has stuck with me. I was very moved by the delicacy of Liam’s vocal. It’s obviously one of those personal songs, written when Liam and his wife Jani were expecting their baby. There was so much that was moving about the concert that night. The fact that all members of the family were playing, Neil, Sharon and Elroy as well, the fact that it was a surreally beautiful evening, at the zoo with the drama of Sydney as a backdrop. The audience was very into the unique line-up and the consequently stellar music that resulted. And then came this song, which took my breath away. Delicate but still sturdy, it had light and shade (just the way I like it) and is so evocative. The contribution of Jimmy Metheral and EJ Barnes singing and John Carroll Kirby on keyboards didn’t hurt a bit. [At the time of writing this] I’ve only heard this song once so forgive me for lack of detail, all I know is that it will be on high rotation when it comes out and you should definitely seek it out!
My Delirium – Ladyhawke
I’m a sucker for a great pop song. I just love Pip’s whole vibe. She is authentic in everything she does, from her singing to her songwriting to her playing ... and then there’s her look. This song picks you up right at the beginning and ties you on the hem of a whirling dervish’s skirt! It’s exciting and loose and intense all at the same time. The guitar frenzy in the chorus is as effective a tension spinner as you’ll get. That along with the tricky vocal syncopation makes you want to sing along every time. (“STOP, playin’ with my Delirium”). Then comes the sparseness of the ‘Paris, Texas’ middle 8 … and that catchy guitar riff to bring the chaos back in. Makes you feel hypnotised or brainwashed or something … in a GOOD way.
More Than One Of You – Neil Finn
Of course it’s more impressive because it was recorded live, this is a beautiful, beautiful song. The lyrics are universally relatable, as are a lot of Neil’s songs and they are delivered on a sublime musical bed, with a vocal that is earnest and alive. It brought tears to my eyes. What happens time and time again in a good Neil Finn song is that you get surprised. Either the melody or the chord progression will take you somewhere other than where you expected to go, just like in a wonderful dream. In this song the first wee surprise happens in the beginning, holding the word “level” for that little bit longer than you expected. It makes you think. Yes! I agree! Wait … make what level? You’re eager to know what comes next. Then there are the surprising places that the words land on the bar. The first time you listen they are unfamiliar and changeable. Then the next time they have become totally familiar to the point that its all just so catchy. So many hooks. When I listen with headphones so I hear every nuance, I feel gratitude for the music and what it took to get it to us ... LIVE!! You cannot underestimate how easily things could have gone south without the preparation, the expertise and unbridled talent of everyone involved. I watched the recording in real time so I saw how much dedication there was to making this (and the whole album) an extraordinary piece of music ... and it is.
What’s Chasing You? – Marlon Williams
This song is Roy Orbison, Elvis, KD Lang and Prince Tui Teka, but most of all Marlon Williams who is, of course, his own man. What a love song. The vocal of course is the cream of croon but with gravitas. It feels wrong to dissect a song like this. It defies categorisation because it is, like its writer, its own thing. Complete with surf guitars and 50s backing vocals, it has a retro sound but you wouldn’t find an eight-bar a capella section in the middle of a 50s song, so it’s quirky and catchy too. Almost all of the songs I’ve chosen have a confidence to them. This one is no different. Marlon is unapologetic about his style, as he should be, and that’s a very attractive trait.
Mehe Manu Rere
One version is from the album An Hour Of Maori Favourites. All the love I have for melody and harmony was born sitting on a pillow on the handbrake of a red Mini Minor with a white top. The Morris family was big and when we travelled long distances to visit beloved cousins, we would sing Māori action songs to wile away the hours. We knew lots (but, shamefully, very rarely did we know past the first verse and chorus). I truly feel these songs are my cultural background, they’re in my blood by osmosis. I know that’s politically uncool but honestly, I and my family have the deepest love and respect for those songs. We treasure them. This one was my favourite. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry with harmonies that lift you up to fly. There’s something in the way you feel, singing or listening to this and other traditional songs, that makes you know “place” and feel “earthed”. Wherever I go in the world, this is the music closest to my heart.
Me he manu rere ahau e,
Kua rere ki to moenga,
Ki te awhi to tinana,
E te tau tahuri mai.
Kei te moe te tinana,
Kei te wāke te wairua,
Kei te hotu te manawa,
E te tau tahuri mai.
Haere, haere ra e hine
Whakangaro i konei
Waiho ahau i muri nei
Tangi hotu hotu ai.
Sweetheart, were I e'er so small a bird,
Swiftly to your loving arms I'd fly,
There to hold you and caress you,
My beloved, turn to me.
Tho my body still is sleeping,
Yet my spirit hovers near thee,
Still for you my heart is beating
Oh my darling come to me.
Now a long farewell e hine
Must you go away and leave me
Here alone in grief I'm pining
Sobbing for you tenderly.
Drive – Bic Runga
I think it’s because New Zealand is so geographically far from literally everywhere in the world, there is a boldness, a disregard for comparisons, a confidence to bravely go into metaphorical “uncharted territories” that exists in the hearts of Kiwi creators. Whether they are artists, musicians or lately, politicians, there feels to be a take-no-prisoners approach that is very healthy. Bic is an original. She has that Kiwi essence that’s all about playing your own drum, walking the walk, being authentic. This song is a beauty because it paints a picture with words and melody and chord progressions that have put you gently down before you were ever aware you were being picked up and taken somewhere. As with other good writers, Bic has that gift of simply articulating a state of mind or a time or place we can identify with. Simplicity is the hardest thing to get right and it’s what she’s very good at.
Jenny Morris is chair of APRA, the Australasian Performing Right Association, after many years as a writer-director on the board. Born in Tokoroa, her early bands included How’s Your Father, and The Wide-Mouthed Frogs. She was the lead singer of The Crocodiles when their recording of the Baysting/Flaws song ‘Tears’ went to No.17 in the New Zealand charts in 1980. Based in Sydney since the early 1980s, her 1989 solo album Shiver sold 250,000 copies in Australia, reaching No.5 there and No.6 in New Zealand. She wrote 10 out of 11 of the songs on the album, including ‘She Has To Be Loved’, which reached No.5 on the Australian singles charts and No.3 in New Zealand.