In its role as Australia’s bespectacled, mousey but kinda cute little sister, New Zealand has spent the better part of its existence eschewing the spotlight. Despite having legitimate claims to fame (such as being the first nation to grant women the right to vote, fathering the first man to scale Mt. Everest, or ranking 1st out of 149 nations on the “Global Peace Index“), New Zealand has preferred to sit quietly in the corner with its copy of Pride and Prejudice while its often indecent neighbor to the West gets all the hot rugby players.
Not surprisingly, the rock music of New Zealand is similarly reserved. There are no AC/DCs or Midnight Oils here (the closest NZ ever came was Crowded House, and they rejected their homeland in favor of the Land Down Under). The best Kiwi bands are happy to sacrifice the anthemic in favor of the intimate. Simple names, simple songs, simple pleasures. Without further ado:
Honourable Mention: Flight of the Conchords (1998-present)
A.k.a. New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk-parody duo. Sadly, only three folk-parody duos made the list. At least they have each other:
5. The Verlaines (1981-present)
As would be expected from the small-scale enterprise of NZ music, most bands’ best work was released on 7″ singles (often via the great Flying Nun label) rather than full-length records. The music of the Verlaines is no exception: while several of their LPs are worth picking up, the singles collection Juvenilia is the true gem in their discography. Enjoy the collection’s first track “Death and the Maiden” below, as well as a cover version by the one-and-only Stephen Malkmus of Pavement.
The Verlaines – “Death and the Maiden”
4. Tall Dwarfs (1981-1997)
A bit of an oddity in this list, the Tall Dwarfs preferred the off-kilter to the immediate. Pioneers of lo-fi recording techniques, the Dwarfs inspired countless American indie bands, from Guided by Voices to Neutral Milk Hotel. In fact, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum was so inspired by head Dwarf Chris Know, he came out of a 10-year hibernation to play a benefit for Knox (who sadly suffered a stroke at age 57) earlier this year in NYC. An important band indeed.
The Tall Dwarfs – “Maybe”
3. The Chills (1978-present)
Based on the name, I’m betting you can already guess what these guys sound like:
The Chills – “Pink Frost”
2. The Clean (1978-present)
More than any American band, The Clean were responsible for the development of the indie rock sound of the 1990s. Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices: none of their music would have sounded quite the way it did if it weren’t for this Kiwi trio. Start with the excellent and rather comprehensive collection Anthology, available in the U.S. via Merge records.
The Clean – “Secret Place”
The Clean – “Oddity”
The Clean – “Safe in the Rain”
1. The Bats (1982-present)
When asked to name my favorite band that I expect others haven’t heard, I invariably answer “The Bats.” The Bats were founded by ex-Clean bassist Robert Scott in 1982, and they built on that band’s groundbreaking work with a unique and remarkable pop sensibility. Reminiscent of The Smiths or Reckoning-era R.E.M. without the world-conquering streak, The Bats’ debut record Daddy’s Highway stands today as one of the great monuments of New Zealand rock. Here’s hoping you grab a copy.
The Bats – “Daddy’s Highway”
The Bats – “Candidate”