The 25 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs of the New Century
As voted by a panel of experts. Plus, read the stories behind the music.
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It’s hard to believe we’re already 15 years into the 21st century.
In musical terms, that’s long enough for a full generation of music to blossom. HONOLULU Magazine has published stories on the Greatest Hawai‘i Albums and the Greatest Hawai‘i Songs, but those pieces were assembled in the mid-2000s, and contained mostly 20th-century compositions. We were curious: What’s the best of the new crop? To find out, we assembled a panel of esteemed musicians, historians and producers to vote for the songs released since 2000 that have represented the best in Hawai‘i music, tabulating the results with a weighted point system. We’re excited by the list—it’s got everything from beautiful, traditional Hawaiian-language mele to bouncy local-radio favorites—and have been playing it nonstop in our headphones while writing this feature. We hope these songs make their way to your ears, too. Enjoy!
1. Ka Nohona Pili Kai
Composed by: Keali‘i Reichel and Puakea Nogelmeier
Performed by: Keali‘i Reichel
Appears on: Ke‘alaokamaile
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co.
This song, the centerpiece of the Ke‘alaokamaile album, was inspired by the passing of Keali‘i Reichel’s grandmother Kaimaile Puhi Kāne, who lived just outside of Pā‘ia. She had helped raise him, and her lessons were deeply imprinted on him. “It was a challenging time, a very emotional time,” Reichel says. “That song was born out of that life challenge.”
The melody he borrowed from an Okinawan song, “Nada Sōsō,” a sentimental smash hit in Japan that was also about the loss of a loved one. Drawing from his memories of his grandmother and her home, he then crafted a chorus and some snippets of verse, before getting stuck on the rest of the lyrics. Reichel sought out composer Puakea Nogelmeier for help. “Keali‘i had part of the song, and he kept describing the pictures, the imagery he wanted,” Nogelmeier recalls. “I said, give me a minute, and I went to the computer and sat down and it was really only a few minutes of writing, and I showed him, and he said, I love it. And that became the song.”
Reichel is perhaps best known for his mele aloha (love songs), but the familial ties sung about in “Ka Nohona” hit home for many listeners. It’s an intensely personal song that also manages to hit a universal tone, so you can’t help but feel a connection to the message.
The song went on to become a hula blockbuster, and Reichel says he continues to be surprised by how much the world has embraced it. Last year, he embarked on a concert series in Japan, playing at 2,000- to 3,000-seat venues. At the first show, when he launched into “Ka Nohona Pili Kai,” the audience started singing along, loudly. “I didn’t expect that reaction,” he says. “I just burst into tears. It was so overwhelming that I stopped, but the audience continued the song until I could get caught up. I’m pretty hardcore, but, in one fell swoop, within five seconds of hearing them sing all the lyrics of this song, it made me realize that my grandmother, my family, that place, lives on.”
2. Ka Pilina
Composed by: Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett
Performed by: Sean Na‘auao
Appears on: Neutralize It
Photo: Mountain Apple Co.
“That lead line from the guitar signifies the song. Every time I play that song, whether I’m in Japan or East Coast or West Coast, I start, da dun dun da dun dun ... and everyone already knows it,” says Sean Na‘auao. With amazingly concise, poetic lyrics, a heartfelt melody from Frank Hewett and an arrangement from Na‘auao, “Ka Pilina” has become one of those songs that every Hawaiian musician has to cover at some point. It’s simple, it’s catchy, it’s a new classic of Hawaiian music.
3. Nā Vaqueros
Kuana Torres Kahele
Composed by: Kuana Torres Kahele
Performed by: Kuana Torres Kahele
Appears on: Kaunaloa
Photo: Marcus Turner
At first glance, a Hawaiian song that mixes in Spanish-language lyrics might be taken for a misfit, but “Nā Vaqueros” blends all its different elements into a beautiful composition that just works. “I wrote the song for my dad,” says Kuana Torres Kahele. “It’s the whole story of how Hawaiians became cowboys, and when I sing this song, I think about my dad, and about my grandparents. All the men on that side of the family were cowboys, every single generation going back to the beginning, when the vaqueros first came over. It’s in his veins.” Kahele says he was a little worried about how the song would be received, since the Hawaiian music community can be a bit orthodox, but “Nā Vaqueros” quickly became one of the standout hits on Kaunaloa.
4. Life in These Islands
Composed by: Kāwika Kahiapo
Performed by: Kaukahi
Appears on: Life in These Islands
If you’re a fan of Jon & Randy, C&K, Kalapana or Country Comfort, this track will take you right back to that nostalgic Hawaiian Renaissance-era of easy-rocking radio hits. Kawika Kahiapo says he composed the tune while driving to a gig at The Kāhala Hotel, thinking about the whole experience of working and playing in the ‘āina. “If I could capture what I feel about Hawai‘i, that song does it,” he says. “The words are in English, but you’re still moved with this strong Hawaiian feeling.”