Choosing the Music

Coming up with the 50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums wasn’t easy, but we had help.


John Heckathorn
The inspiration for this issue was not Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums issue, although that project was well under way by the time we went to work on this issue.

The real inspiration was Memphis Magazine, which, a year ago, published a cover story titled "Soulsville," about the origins of the Memphis Sound. (Yes, you've heard it-Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Booker T & the MGs and so on.) We thought: Well, the city of Memphis might have its own sound, as do Motown, Philly, Nashville.

But Hawai'i is the only state with its own distinctive music. There's American popular music, but you're never likely to see an album called "The Music of Connecticut" or New York or California.

The music of Hawai'i, however, is part of the culture we all share. Inspired by the landscape and the indigenous Hawaiian culture, it draws inspiration from around the world. It incorporates influences from sources as diverse as country and western and reggae, all the while remaining distinctively itself.

We wanted to remind people in Hawai'i of the music all around them. So the magazine assembled a panel of a dozen distinguished musicologists, music executives, musicians, radio personalities. Everyone we asked was more than willing to participate.

We asked each panelist to draw up a list of up to 30 to 40 albums, divided into "must haves," "hard to leave out" and "nice to have on the list."

Note that we asked for Hawai'i albums, not individual songs. That meant we began with the 33-1/3 LP records of the early '50s and continued to the CDs of today. Younger people sometimes use the word album to mean record, and think CDs aren't albums, but the word album fits both formats.

In addition, we asked for the best Hawai'i music albums, not the best Hawaiian albums. We know without the Hawaiian language and musical sensitivity, Hawai'i music might have disappeared into the mainstream generations ago. But we wanted to avoid arguments about whether any particular album was "truly Hawaiian." To us, it didn't matter, as long as it truly was music of the Islands. We asked the panelists for albums by Hawai'i-based artists, of whatever ethnicity, born here or not, lyrics in Hawaiian or not. Most of the albums on the list were recorded in Hawai'i, even if mixed or augmented somewhere else. A few were recorded on the Mainland, but by Hawai'i artists.

Our original panel included former radio personality and founder of the Na Hökü Hanohano Awards, Krash Kealoha. At the last minute, health issues kept Kealoha from participating. Because time was of the essence, I was pressed into service as the 12th panelist. I was humbled by the company I was in-it's difficult to know as much about Hawaiian music as someone like Alan Yoshioka of Harry's Music. Still, I was pleased to have a small say in the selection.

The list doesn't reflect any single judge's choices. It's a consensus of many minds, tallied by our projects editor Mike Keany.

We're proud of the final list, it's a distinguished one. It covers albums from Honolulu City Lights to The Best of the Kahauhanu Lake Trio, from traditional to contemporary.

Of course, no list of the 50 Greatest Hawai'i Albums is ever going to please everyone. This one's likely to generate discussion, dissension, maybe even a few alternative lists. That's great, because it will mean that people are likely to dust off a few albums on their shelves, perhaps buy a few they've been meaning to replace for decades-and really listen.

Because, after all, it's about the music.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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