Island Song

Our list of “The 50 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs” will have you singing along.


photo: Linny Morris
June has become our traditional month for a music issue, ever since 2004, when we named (with expert help) “The 50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums of All Time.” This year, we thought we’d try a different approach. We polled 35 local musicians, Hawaiian historians, record label executives and radio personalities, to compile a list of “The 50 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs.”

Why songs? While we were happy with the list of the 50 greatest albums, we knew that it missed a lot of Hawai‘i’s musical tradition. The list was tied to a format that boomed in the postwar era—the long-play, or LP, vinyl record—as well its successor, the CD. But not all of the Islands’ best, or best-loved songs, originated on an album.

Consider the No. 1 song on our “50 Greatest” list: “Aloha ‘Oe.” I can’t think of a song more closely identified with Hawai‘i, more intimately of the Islands. But its composer, Queen Lili‘uokalani, never released an album, not even a single. (Historical note: For decades, the commercial success of a song was measured by sheet-music sales—you’d buy the lyrics and music and take them home to perform with your family and friends.)

On this year’s list, songs from the monarchy era are better represented overall, as are songs from the hapa haole era.

Songs have a way of getting into our heads and hearts in ways that albums simply can’t. A song can capture a moment in history, a mood, a fleeting experience. It takes on a life of its own, often separate from an album it may have appeared on.

It’s fascinating to see songs such as “Aloha ‘Oe” (No. 1), “I’ll Remember You” (No. 2) and “Honolulu City Lights” (No. 3) appear side by side—echoing each other in their melancholy, their evocation of loss, though separated by as many as 70 years. Their sentiments are timeless, even if the language, music, production values and references all change.

Other interesting points: “Blue Hawai‘i” pops in at No. 11, written by a professional Hollywood songwriting duo and performed originally by Bing Crosby, but, in the Islands, we’ve come to claim it as our own. Then there’s No. 32, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s cover of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” In this case, Iz—the man, his voice, his ‘ukulele playing—performs a kind of reverse colonization, in which a Hawaiian artist takes an old Mainland song and redefines it.

These days, every film or TV show with a tearjerker moment wants to use Iz’s song. But that’s the universal appeal of a great song. It still chokes me up every time I hear it, and I don’t mind admitting that. It might be my favorite on the list. (I did not have a vote, in case you were wondering.)

Ultimately, we developed this list because everybody has a favorite song. Even couples will declare, “That’s our song!” We know a list such as this can be controversial, but it’s hardly meant to be definitive. This is just to start a conversation, with us, and with your friends and families. In the end, we hope this list will inspire you to dust off these songs and give them another listen. If you know the words, by all means, sing along.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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