Fur Patrol – Lydia (2000)
Where many of the 1990’s biggest local successes had their roots in the decade before – think Headless Chickens, The Mutton Birds, DLT and Ardijah – the 00s mostly allowed a new generation to take the reins. Channel Z existed as a plausible path to the charts for guitar bands, while the b-Nets were at arguably their most populist ebb. Those forces combined to push Wellington’s Fur Patrol to No.1 in the final chart of 2000. In the UK that would’ve made it a Christmas No.1, the most coveted chart position of the year. Sadly we don’t share that obsession, so it’s a just a regular ol’ humdrum chart topper. ‘Lydia’ is a plaintive, emotional ballad propelled by Julia Deans’ crestfallen vocal. This was as pop as they ever got – only one other single went Top 20, and their deal with Universal Australia never really amounted to much. Still, this maudlin song inserted itself into the New Zealand canon from the first.
Goodshirt – Sophie (2002)
The 00s were, on the whole, a bigger decade for New Zealand music than the preceding one. There were 23 No.1 singles compared to 18 in the 1990s – though, to be fair, NZ On Air’s $50,000 album grants, starting in 2000, would have helped a bit. The fruits of that expenditure took a while to show, though: Goodshirt’s ‘Sophie’ was the only other local chart topper between 2000 and 2002. The parallels don’t end with the girl’s-names-as-song-titles. Goodshirt came from the b-Nets too – their new wave-y ‘Green’ had been inescapable a year or two earlier and was included in demo form on the CD single* and each had a neat novelty video. Fur Patrol’s video featured the band playing invisible instruments, while Goodshirt’s involved a room being robbed while a pretty, distracted young thing listened to her headphones. Along with the likes of Goldenhorse, Tadpole, Zed and The Feelers, Goodshirt and Fur Patrol represented a popularity peak for guitar-based pop. From here on in, though, it was hip-hop’s decade.
* This was solid, reliable strategy in the 90s and 00s – the Headless Chickens had a once-over-lightly remix of ‘Cruise Control’ on the ‘George’ CD single, which helped that hit the top in 94.
Scribe – Stand Up/Not Many (2003), Dreaming/So Nice (2004)
The biggest-selling single of the year, with an unbelievable five separate stints at the top, spanning from August until the end of November, but even those facts don’t convey how in love with these songs we were.
A generation of young rappers had come up via Dawn Raid and P-Money’s excellent Big Things CD, but no one had yet leapt across to mainstream fame. Around this time bFM’s True School hip-hop show was mandatory listening, and was playing the likes of Frontline, PNC and 4 Corners alongside the key US rappers of the era. It seemed like every week brought a bolder, more mature sound from the local contingent. They just needed someone with enough starpower to break radio’s ‘only Che Fu and King Kapisi’ rule. The Decepticonz had nearly accomplished it, thanks to ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’, but that still played biggest on “urban” radio – despite Mareko’s charisma, they never quite went over the top.
Scribe, at first glance, might have seemed an unlikely man to do it. He’d moved up from Christchurch with a fairly conscious sound and style, and, aside from his P-Money cuts, was mostly known for his role in live hip-hop group Verse 2. The group played a great residency at the very backpack Khuja Lounge on the corner of of K Road and Queen St, and he seemed very much at home in that scene. But within a year ‘Stand Up’ would have launched a wave of rap patriotism with its “New Zealand hip-hop, stand the fuck up” lyric, along with its “North Can-ter-buuuury” refrain stolen from Petey Pablo. It was, of course, a double A-side, and when the remix of ‘Not Many’ dropped, with a young David Dallas and the Decepticonz’ Savage, it arguably eclipsed ‘Stand Up’. The rejoinder ‘if any’ became a national catchphrase which lingers to this day, while the remix itself was as catchy and impactful as any out of the USA at the time.
The following year ‘Dreaming’ and ‘So Nice’ repeated the AA side trick, a more laidback counterpart to their hyperactive predecessors. Scribe became a star in Australia, but despite looking like he had the world at his feet, he never again regained his potency. Now he’s a media punchline, getting into trouble on Twitter, selling his NZ Music Awards and parting company with management. But for one shining spring he was one of the biggest stars this country has ever seen.
3 The Hard Way – It's On (2003)
Nearly a decade after ‘Hip Hop Holiday’ had topped the charts, 3 The Hard Way returned during New Zealand hip-hop’s banner year. They needn’t have bothered – ‘It’s On’ is a transparent attempt to get back into the charts now hip-hop had some heat around it again. Despite a nice lush production, the rapping is comically bad, its blandness suffering particularly by comparison to Scribe’s ‘Not Many’, whose run it interrupted for one week. ‘It’s On’ isn’t even the best New Zealand hip-hop single called ‘It’s On’ – that would be Nesian Mystik’s ‘It’s On’. Disappointing.
Ben Lummis – They Can’t Take That Away (2004)
The original New Zealand Idol was a good time on television. Who can forget Luke Wha’anga’s maniacal howl? Actually, don’t answer that. It was good television. But as often happens, the blandest won out. Ben Lummis’ ‘They Can’t Take That Away’ was the biggest-selling single of the year, and doesn’t sound so bad on reflection. It has something of the power ballad drama of what I like to call the MOR&B era – think Jordin Sparks’ ‘Tattoo’ or Usher’s ‘Moving Mountains’. But Lummis is a slightly unconvincing singer, all the notes, none of the feeling. Despite selling 40,000 copies, Lummis found himself unceremoniously dropped by Sony without releasing a second single from the album, making himself New Zealand music’s answer to the fabled batsman Rodney Redmond, who scored a century on debut but never played another test for his country.
Misfits of Science – Fools Love (2004)
2004 was a crazy year for New Zealand music – 21 weeks saw a local single atop the charts. Most of the chart toppers were hip-hop of one form or another, to the point where it started to resemble a rap version of the then-recent dotcom bubble. That is, any old crew with a semi-plausible single could have a hit. Aside from the Fast Crew, no one typified this more than the Misfits of Science, whose ‘Fool’s Love’ spent four weeks at the top in 2004, part of an 18 week Top-10 run. The lyrics gave ammunition to the ‘our rappers sound like Americans’ set: “Y’all better come well equipped/ Champagne, caviar/ Meet me at the bar/ Take a sip” – it opens, depressingly. The music is actually world class, calling to mind the sample-driven Beatnuts productions of the era, and these kids could rap – but there’s no discernible identity to them at all.
Adeaze feat. Aaradhna – Getting Stronger (2004)
Easy to forget now, but for a few years there fraternal soul duo Adeaze were enormous – touring the country and topping the charts with this duet with fellow Dawn Raid singer Aaradhna. This is probably their best effort, crisp guitar and a supple beat that lets the three terrific voices sit front and centre. They had a weakness for sappy balladry (their debut album included covers of both ‘How Deep is Your Love’ and ‘Tears in Heaven’), but this stays on the right side of sentimentality. The strong churchy element of the PI community wasn’t evident on other Dawn Raid releases – Adeaze’s career alone balances that ledger. This song seems to be missing from the internet.
Michael Murphy – So Damn Beautiful (2004)
Murphy was runner-up to Lummis in season one of Idol, the teen white rocker to Lummis’ brown balladeer. This is much, much worse than Lummis’ single, a ridiculous parody of rock music. Murphy, an unconvincing lover man, croons lyrics like “the mystery of life surrounds you, I kno-ow!” while guitars stumble about aimlessly. The chorus is even worse. He went on to try and go punk or emo or something in 5 Star Fallout, but it was a lost cause – this frightful song is tied to his name; no matter how hard he struggles, it’ll always find its way home.
Dei Hamo – We Gon’ Ride (2004)
‘We Gon’ Ride’ was the hip-hop bubble at its height. Dei Hamo’s single was massive at the time, spending five weeks at the top in spring of 2004. Hamo never met a rap cliché he didn’t like (the other tracks on the CD single were ‘Pop Dat’ and ‘Hot Girl’), and Chris Graham’s video was awash in the iconography of Ja Rule-era commercial rap flash. Rims spin, lowriders bounce, chains swing*. High-pitched and energetic, Dei Hamo does a reasonable job – and the lyrics are endearingly silly: “My voice/ So choice/ Your favourite.” The true star is Chong Nee, though, whose production here is enormous – any passable rapper who knew how to write a hook could’ve had a hit with it. It’s tough to be too critical of any component part of this, but something about the cumulative impact feels a little overblown – like, this is New Zealand. We can’t possibly afford to live that life. And, as big as it was, Hamo became a bit of a punchline afterwards, which is mostly unfair – it wasn’t his fault things got out of control. He just happened to stranded when the tide started to turn.
* Nerd fact: The two reporters in the video are played by Jesse Peters and Jane Yee, each of whom would go on to work in promotion for Universal, the single’s distributor.
P-Money feat. Scribe and PNC – Stop The Music (2004)
Three weeks at the top, a year after his breakout, and already Scribe sounds beaten down by fame. P-Money’s production is pretty masterful – it leans on the then-popular sped up sampled voice, and has outrageously good dynamics, with sombre verses giving way to a near-metal chorus. This was the era when Limp Bizkit were all over the charts, but Money did it right – even down to the hair rockin’ solo in the outro. Scribe repeats his lyrics, and close listening reveals his limitations, but PNC rescues things with raw energy on the hook. Around this time a P-Money beat was all a local rapper could wish for – this sophisticated work shows why.
Savage – Swing/Moonshine (2005)
I interviewed Savage for a Real Groove cover story around the time ‘Swing’ came out. We met at the Universal Music offices. He was unfailing polite, thoughtful and quiet – quite unexpected given the maniacal presence he is on record. At this point no one knew just how big his debut single would become – a legitimate US hit, with remixes featuring Soulja Boy and Pitbull. Strangely, in the early years he was seen as almost comic relief in the Decepticonz – Mareko was tapped to be the star. But while his White Sunday was a landmark, it never really broke out. And Savage, who had provided the addictive hook to ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’, started to gain in popularity. “That song was huge for us,” he said at the time. “The hook itself was written by Devolo, and they told me to go really hard on the song. So that kind of brought out a different side of me.” When Scribe tapped him for the ‘Not Many’ remix, suddenly it was clear to all involved that Savage warranted serious attention. “Everything changed after that,” he told me. ‘Swing’, with an astounding beat by the extremely underrated RES producer Nate D, is a monster. Brutish drums, a nasty two-note bassline and Savage hollering and near demented on top. This was an era in rap where subtlety was off the menu – Lil Jon and Ying Yang Twins were providing its thrust, and ‘Swing’ fit right in, staying at No.1 for five weeks.
A few weeks later – after Mario’s sublime ‘Let Me Love You’ had taken its turn – ‘Moonshine’ came out. The song was highlighted by a big hook from Akon, who was at that time arguably the biggest R&B singer in the world. That came about through Kirk Harding, an Aucklander living in New York who had incredible connections within the city. Harding would go on to start Move the Crowd, a label which would spawn an even bigger hit toward the end of the decade in Smashproof’s ‘Brother’. Savage has since largely faded from view, but in these heady months, and for some time afterwards, it felt like he might have the legs to become a legitimate pop star. It never happened, but these perfect chart singles remain.
Rosita Vai – All I Ask (2005)
The second New Zealand Idol No.1 commences a run of pretty ropey singles. This might even be the best until ‘Nesian 101’ broke the spell in 2008. I have a theory that NZ, being such a small nation, should only be allowed to have an Idol or X-Factor-style show every four years. There’s not enough talent to sustain it annually. Vai was fine, but still a little soapy, and ‘All I Ask’ is just regulation pop melodrama. If you’re not Celine Dion, you’re probably not getting a career out of this stuff. This song seems to be missing from the internet.
Boyband – You Really Got Me (2006)
Boyband were a creation of the Edge, a parody of and tribute to the boy band. They claimed to be putting together “New Zealand’s first ever manufactured boy band” and cast five roles (gay boy, fat boy, mummy’s boy, etc) before releasing this utterly functionless cover of the Kinks’ classic single*. Tough to know what to say about this – a pop radio station trivialising and making fun of pop music? Bizarre. Two good things came of it: ‘Hot Boy’ Pieter T has carved out a nice little R&B career, and The Edge’s manufacturing has markedly improved – while still faintly silly, Titanium are an infinitely more palatable proposition.
* Nerd fact: This is the first local No.1 single to be uploaded to YouTube contemporaneously, a landmark of sorts.
Matthew Saunoa – Hold Out (2006)
Matthew Saunoa won the third and final season of Idol, once the wind was truly out of its sails, and like Rosita Vai’s ‘All I Ask’, this AOR ballad is oddly hard to find. Neither are on iTunes, or YouTube – some rights dispute must be playing out behind the scenes. Anyway – we’re not missing much. This is more of a guitar-driven thing, but it’s pretty bloodless. Like Lummis before him, Sony barely gave a shit about Saunoa, and didn’t release an album, despite ‘Hold Out’ showing impressive staying power, hanging around the charts for six months. Idol was, ultimately, done on the cheap here, and the lack of love showed in both the show, and fate of its contestants. Another song MIA from the digital world.
Atlas – Crawl (2007)
Ex-Zed bassist Ben Campbell was living in LA, working on music with his sister Beth, when they met Sean Cunningham, a jobbing singer from Kentucky. They formed a band, and might have stayed to inflict their empty modern rock on that city were it not for New Zealand’s lavish funding regime. Move back home and boom! Here’s $50k to make an album. As a result we get ‘Crawl’, a dirge of song straight from the Bush/Creed/Nickelback school of tortured pierced dude rock. In fact, the song it most resembles musically is Hinder’s diabolical ‘Lips of an Angel’, which had topped the charts a few weeks earlier. Clearly, New Zealand was in a dark place, and needed help getting its sensitive feelings out.
The Underdogs - A Very Silent Night (2007)
Well, this is bizarre. An SPCA fundraiser, The Underdogs’ ‘A Very Silent Night’ featured sounds audible only to dogs – that is, the CD single sold was effectively silent – which is still preferable to Atlas. It made the Christmas No.1, thanks to being sold at the Warehouse for $4 and nailing the media via its launch at a “doggy disco”. The video featured Dei Hamo, at surely the last point when he was still famous enough to front a campaign like this, and was directed by Chris Graham, then high off Sione’s Wedding. A strange episode in chart history.
Tiki Taane – Always on My Mind (2008)
Chris Brown, before he became irreparably tainted, was a dynamite pop star. He held No.1 for 19 of the first 27 weeks of 2008, with smooth, impeccably produced pop/R&B. In the midst of that reign, though, Tiki Taane had a couple of weeks at the top with ‘Always on My Mind’, a song which could not have been further from Brown’s hyper-produced style. It’s just Taane and a heavily rhythmic acoustic guitar, an approach which somehow feels deeply and undeniably of New Zealand. I found the song fairly trite at the time, and it got hammered into submission (while re-making the charts all over again) during a BNZ campaign. But ‘Always on My Mind’ speaks to people, for whatever reason, and will outlast us all.
Nesian Mystik – Nesian 101 (2008)
A terrifically elastic 80s funk beat highlights a song which does what it says on the tin – a showreel for everything Nesian Mystik had been doing for years by this point. They never got a lot of critical attention, but their style – singing and rapping over a mix of Polynesian and pop music – is arguably the most original of any mainstream New Zealand artist of the 00s. Warped synthesisers, Fatman Scoop-esque call-and-response vocals and a popping freestyle beat made this a perfect summer jam. It’s perhaps an unfortunate metaphor for the group’s career that it was released in the depths of winter. Nesian Mystik always had the tools, but never quite the management and timing to make a career of it.
P-Money – Everything feat. Vince Harder (2008)
‘Everything’ had three non-consecutive weeks toward the end of 2008, presaging P-Money’s holiday from hip-hop, during which he made crisp, disco-inflected house both alone, and with Dan Aux. For one glorious moment, that rather niche pursuit smashed its way into the charts, courtesy of a terrific hook written by PNC and delivered by Vince Harder. ‘Everything’ predicted the urban music obsession with house, which was not to kick off properly until the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’ the following year. This is very different to that banging breed, the beat not nearly so relentless, the synthesisers light and playful. Its parent album received mediocre reviews, and perhaps chased Money back to rap production eventually. That would be a shame, because the music he made in this period was some of the most vibrant and free of his career.
Smashproof – Brother (2009)
One of the most sophisticated and complete New Zealand singles of all time, Smashproof’s ‘Brother’, featuring a then-unknown Gin Wigmore on the hook, still sounds like a global hit in waiting. Perhaps its failure to leave our shores is down to how much inspiration it drew from within them. The death of Pihema Cameron, killed while allegedly tagging the year prior, is referenced in the song*, as is the trial of the Rotorua policemen who were acquitted of raping Louise Nicholas. This helps make ‘Brother’ easily the most politicised song to top our local charts.
Just having a message isn’t enough, though – you need a hook, too. ‘Brother’ has two of them, which might explain its taking the record for most consecutive weeks at No.1 for a local song. The strongest, I feel, is Tyree’s: “Why did you turn your back?/ Why did you go away?” – which feels like its aimed at society, absent fathers, friends who weren’t there when needed most. It’s incredibly affecting. Gin’s is fine too, but doesn’t feel so integral to the song as Tyree’s. There’s no doubt, though, that her distinctive tones helped turn a hit into a smash. The production, too, deserves praise – an enveloping synth pillow with an understated, percussive beat. To my mind this is as fine a hit single as the country has ever produced, courageous and life affirming. Young Sid’s solo album which came a year or so later was an expansion of these themes – he remains a peerlessly affecting rapper, and his verse to open up ‘Brother’ sets the sober, serious tone for this masterful pop single.
* It’s also referenced in the video. This was no doubt done with good intentions, but it feels heavy-handed.
Stan Walker – Black Box (2009)
After the harshest of upbringings in the Waikato, Stan Walker found God and music at 15. His talent for the latter – and a move across the ditch – saw him take out season seven of Australian Idol, and ‘Black Box’ was his debut single. It’s a straight-ahead pop song, about nothing in particular, but the craftsmanship is impeccable. There’s layer upon layer in the production: Piano, synths, acoustic guitar and lots of cool whooshy noises. No doubt it cost a shit-ton more than the NZ Idol-winners’ singles – but as a result of the care and attention Walker has become a star, with multiple hits on both sides of the Tasman. You can smell the church a mile away with Stan, which blands him out a little. But he has a great voice, and a big, generous personality – both of those elements are in evidence on ‘Black Box’.