The 25 Greatest Hawaii Albums of the New Century


Published:

In 2004, we compiled a list of Hawaii’s 50 greatest musical albums. At the time, the most recent release to be honored was from 1997. An amazing amount of music has come out since then, and now, more than a decade into the 21st Century, we wanted to know what the best of it was. To find out, we assembled a panel of esteemed musicians, historians and producers to vote for the albums released since 2000 that it felt represented the best in Hawaii music.  The results, tabulated according to a weighted point system, are a testament to the vitality of Hawaii’s music. After slack key compilations won the Hawaiian-category Grammy award year after year, the Mainland may have gotten the idea that we play nothing but instrumental guitar, but as this list shows, the scene is a lot more diverse than that. From deeply traditional Hawaiian-language chants to breezy surf rock, the new century of Hawaii music is packed with gems.
 


photo: courtesy kealii reichel

1) Kealaokamaile

Kealii Reichel, 2003

Hawaiian artists fall into two big groups,” says ethnomusicologist and UH faculty member Keola Donaghy. “There are guys that come out with a debut album and then fall off. And then there are the musicians that keep getting better with every release. Kealii is one of those.”

Considering that Kealaokamaile came out a decade after Kealii Reichel’s Kawaipunahele, a debut album that became an instant classic (it was ranked No. 5 on HONOLULU Magazine’s list of the 50 greatest Hawaii albums of all time), getting better was no small feat.

This time, Reichel was driven by the recent passing of his grandmother Kaimaile Puhi Kane. “She was the catalyst, the epicenter of the whole family,” remembers Reichel. “Growing up, I spent summers and most weekends with her. She was a huge influence on me.”

He set out to honor her memory, composing songs and chants that eulogize Kane’s family lineage, her hometown of Paia, and the impact that her life had on Reichel and others.

Jim Linkner, who engineered and mixed the album, says the emotional intensity of the task brought the best out of Reichel. “Kealii, when he’s had tragedy around him, he just has all this creativity that comes out of it,” Linkner says. “He gets inspired when things get difficult.”

As a result, Kealaokamaile is packed with impassioned vocal performances that convey the depth of Reichel’s emotion, bolstered by tight, melodic compositions. “He’s one of the few Hawaiian artists who are writing original, modern mele that you can hum immediately,” says Donaghy.

Reichel says the project was cathartic. “You never really get over someone passing,” he says. “You find a new norm in your life without them. The creation of the album, and the release, turned that page, to the new norm.”

“To put something so personal out there… It felt a little expose-y, but as with a lot of different things, you have to risk exposure to educate and inspire.”

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.

Download the Compilation Album.

 

 

2) Makani Oluolu

Na Palapalai, 2002

This Hilo falsetto group took its name from native ferns, one of the most prized adornments among hula dancers. “We thought if we took that name, people would favor our music,” says member Kuana Torres Kahele.

It worked, or at least it didn’t hurt. Na Palapalai had been performing together since 1995, but when the group released this debut album in 2002, it felt like an exciting new generation had just burst onto the Hawaiian music scene. “The energy level was just explosive,” says panelist Keola Donaghy. “They were breathing life into these old hula compositions. There was a race-to-the-finish feel to a lot of their songs.”

Most of the tracks were revived standards from composers such as Bill Lincoln and John Almeida, but the trio’s originals impressed as well. “Ke Anu O Waimea” quickly became a hula favorite, not only in Hawaii, but abroad; Kahele says it remains the most danced hula song in Japan.

Na Palapalai’s combination of youthful vigor and cultural expertise turned out to be part of a larger trend—they were soon joined by artists such as Raiatea Helm and Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole in releasing innovative Hawaiian-language albums—and by 2005, HONOLULU Magazine was referring to the movement as the New Traditionalists. Things would continue to evolve and grow, but Makani Oluolu was in many ways the turning point.
 

3) Alone In Iz World

Israel Kamakawiwoole, 2001

Bruddah Iz’s brilliant musical career was sadly cut short when he passed away in 1997, at the age of 38. Luckily, just about every studio minute he spent with producer Jon de Mello got recorded to tape—outtakes, banter, lighthearted covers. Jon de Mello says he waited a couple of years before digging into the mountain of archived studio recordings. “I had to give it a little bit of space,” he says. “There was a lot of vibrating heart stuff. I was there, so when I hear the audio track, I can picture the room, and what he was doing. I can picture him telling stories and cracking jokes. Listening to the tracks again, it felt like he was in the room sometimes.”

The result was this album, a mix of simple studio takes accompanied only by Iz’s uke, and reworked songs, embellished by newly recorded instrumentation. It was no replacement for having Iz still around, but for millions of fans, the unheard material was a revelation.
 

4) Kaunaloa

Kuana Torres Kahele, 2011

Kaunaloa, the first solo release by Na Palapalai member Kuana Torres Kahele, grew out of a promise Kahele made to his mother before she passed away, that he would make an album of his own. “My mom has always been my backbone,” he says. “Many times when I’m singing a song, I close my eyes and draw on a memory, and it’s usually a memory of my mother.” The result is, as Mountain Apple president Leah Bernstein says, “One of the most touching and complete Hawaiian albums released in the past 12 years.”

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.
 

 

5) Aina Kupuna

Hoku Zuttermeister, 2007

"When’s Hoku going to do an album?” For years, that was a frequently asked question in Hawaiian music circles. Hoku Zuttermeister finally laid it to rest with this instant traditional Hawaiian classic. On each track, says the heartfelt Zuttermeister, “I tried to remember people that influenced me or played a role in my music.” On “Nani Na Pali Hauliuli O Na Koolau,” for instance, that was his great grandmother, the hula master Kaui Zuttermeister, whose halau kicked off each performance with this number.
 

6) One Of These Days

John Cruz, 2007

As a recording artist, John Cruz may not be prolific—a decade elapsed between Acoustic Soul, his first album, and this, his second—but he’s certainly a perfectionist. For this CD he settled into Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica recording studio, surrounded himself with some of L.A.’s top session players, and fully indulged his recording geek within. The result is soulful, folksy, bluesy and technically superb, yet seemingly effortless, with a sound that has more in common with 1970s Kalapana and Cecilio & Kapono than anything else in Hawaii music today.


photo: courtesy mark tarone

7) Sweet & Lovely

Raiatea Helm, 2004

This follow-up to Helm’s celebrated debut, Far Away Heaven, solidified the young artist’s place in the Hawaiian music firmament. The album, whose title perfectly describes Helm’s high-voiced essence, won four Hoku awards, as well as a Grammy nomination—not bad for a 21-year-old from Molokai. On “‘Alika,” where Helm carries a high note for more than half a minute, she evokes the old-time mirthfulness of Genoa Keawe.  On “Hui E,” Aunty Genoa actually jumps in with guest vocals.
 


photo: courtesy guy sibilla

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.

Download the Compilation Album.

 

 

8) Kaumakaiwa

Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole, 2008

Representing the youngest generation of the renowned Kanakaole clan, Kaumakaiwa combines fluent Hawaiian-language composition skills with a willingness to experiment with modern musical forms. Jon de Mello, the album’s executive producer, says, “I’ve always said that he’s 1,000 years ago, and 1,000 years ahead. As traditional as the Kanakaole family is, they’re really edgy. They love to push the envelope.” This album, the artist’s second, doesn’t try to get by on novelty, though; one of its most electric moments, “‘Aina Po,” is a propulsive, acapella chant.
 


photo: courtesy weldon kekauoha

9) Ka Lehua Ula

Weldon Kekauoha, 2007

"For my first two albums, I was trying to figure out who I am as an artist,” says musician Weldon Kekauoha. When he started in 1999, he played it safe by incorporating both contemporary and traditional songs to “cover his bases.” For this, his third album, though, he went for a mostly Hawaiian selection. “I realized you can’t fit into anyone’s idea of traditional music,” he says. “For example, I consider hapa-haole songs to be traditional, too.” Contemporary songs such as “On the Beach at Waikiki” and “Thank You Lord” may be in English, but his steel guitar and ukulele put them right home in the Islands.
 

10) Spread A Little Aloha

The Manao Company, 2001

Producer Dave Tucciarone’s favorite track on this album is “Aloha,” which won Song of the Year at the 2002 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, so it’s hard to believe that bandmember Danny Kennedy had doubts about even including the song. “He wasn’t sure if it was too light in comparison to the rest of the album,” says Tucciarone. But after Kennedy sang the first lines of the chorus for him (“A-L-O-H-A, a little aloha in our day, spread a little aloha around the world”), Tucciarone knew it was a hit.

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.
 

 


photo: courtesy brushfire records

11) In Between Dreams

Jack Johnson, 2005

Even as his previous releases,  Brushfire Fairytales and On and On, were going platinum on the Mainland, Jack Johnson could still walk into the Starbucks at Pupukea, and nobody would notice. Then came In Between Dreams, and suddenly Hawaii was humming along with “Better Together” and “Do You Remember.” Just like that, the stripped down, acoustic surfer rock emanating from Johnson’s home studio on the North Shore entered the Islands’ musical lexicon. For Johnson, trips to the neighborhood Starbucks have probably never been the same.
 

12) Anuhea

Anuhea, 2009

As a rule, dropping out of school to chase a dream of musical stardom is a bad idea. In the case of Maui girl Anuhea Jenkins, who ditched college in order to bring her Island-inflected brand of funky acoustic soul to the world, things are actually working out. She’s touring like mad. She killed it during the Pro Bowl halftime show. She’s jammed on stage with Jack Johnson. And her self-titled debut album won a pair of Hoku awards and hit number two on Billboard’s World Albums Chart. With this CD, Anuhea made it clear that all bets are on.
 

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.
 

 

13) John Kameaaloha Almeida: 1897-1985

John Kameaaloha Almeida, 2003

Almeida passed away in 1985, making him an unlikely contender for a roundup of 21st century albums. But our panelists couldn’t ignore the impact of this 2003 release, which made available, for the first time in years, the recordings of one of Hawaiian music’s most influential figures. Harry B. Soria, who produced the anthology, says, “Almeida was the common man’s composer. He was the opposite side of the spectrum from Charles E. King. There was a lot more sexual innuendo, it was more popular entertainment.” Combined with an astonishingly sophisticated musical sensibility, Almeida’s creations have become indispensible standards.
 

14) Destiny

The Brothers Cazimero, 2008

Composer and kumu hula Alice Namakelua once accused the Cazimero brothers of “bebopping the music.” Now, their jazzy take on Hawaiian has become a respected tradition. Robert Cazimero says the recording process for Destiny was “the most haphazard out of all the albums, in a good way.” After making music for so long, he says he’s come to trust the talent and creativity of the band. “And if the album is true and real, if there’s a good foundation to work from, then I guess it’s ‘destined’ to be good!”
 


photo: courtesy mountain apple

 

15) Wonderful World

Israel Kamakawiwoole, 2007

Iz’s recordings were put through a new lens for this 2007 project. Using new studio technology not available when the singer was alive, Jon de Mello married Kamakawiwoole’s vocals and ukulele with lush orchestration, creating a sound that hearkened back to his father Jack de Mello’s symphonic albums of the 1960s. “It was an interesting project to put together,” says Jon de Mello. “I wish Iz could have been there in the middle of it.”
 

16) Na Mele No Na Hanauna

The Lim Family, 2002

Slack key guitarist Sonny Lim is well known as a solo artist, even appearing on the album that won the first Hawaiian-category Grammy award, but his entire family is bursting with musical talent.  This album, the title of which translates as Songs for the Generations, was the first the family had recorded in years, and it displayed decades’ worth of experience. “We went to Kona, was in a condo, and we stayed there for a couple of weeks, doing arrangements and recording,” Lim says. “We were together the whole time, and it was a really good creative environment.”

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.
 

 

17) Maui

Hapa, 2005

Maui the demigod turns up throughout Polynesia, connecting the enormous region through mythology.  Maui, the album, makes pan-Polynesian connections, too. In this incarnation of Hapa, Barry Flanagan collaborated with Nathan Aweau to blend Hawaiian, Tahitian and Tokelauan influences with jazz, blues, a little slam poetry and some Bob Marley. The album’s grand musical ambition is matched by its packaging: a 12-page booklet of liner notes and a CD case that unfolds into a 27-inch mini-mural depicting the album’s supernatural namesake hauling a load of islands off the seafloor with his magic fish hook.
 

18) Life in These Islands

Kaukahi, 2006

For band member Kawika Kahiapo, “Life in These Islands” is more than just an album. “It captures life in Hawaii. There’s a certain way we do things, every day.” The slow pacing, calm melodies and beautiful vocals immediately bring to mind a relaxed, Island lifestyle. The four guys in Kaukahi began their recording in Jack Johnson’s studio, and you can even hear Johnson playing slack key, a skill he was taught by Kahiapo, on “Constellations.”

 

19) Nau Oe

Kainani Kahaunaele, 2009

"Teaching is my main career, but music is my passion,” says Kahaunaele. Nau Oe originally began as songs she composed for music curriculum at Aha Punana Leo, the Hawaiian-language immersion school. Needless to say, the music didn’t stay long in the classroom. She compiled them into an album, each song filled with poetic phrases drawing from her fluency with the Hawaiian language. “We wanted to provide real life examples of Hawaii,” says Kahaunaele, “The songs are about love for land, people and kupuna.”

20) E

Natalie Ai Kamauu, 2005

Kamauu named her debut CD with a single vowel because E translates from Hawaiian as “strange” or “unusual,” and that’s how she felt stepping from behind the hula dancers she had long played behind to take center stage herself. The former Miss Aloha Hula also knew that if a self-produced album with no label behind it was going to get noticed, it would need a hook (she applied the same reasoning to her subsequent albums, A and I). But it’s really the tenderness of her voice in songs such as “Kiowao/Ua Nani o Nuuanu,” a lullaby she wrote for her daughter, that draws you in. “She reaches out to you,” says panelist and Hawaiian 105 KINE radio personality “Billy V” Van Osdol, “and you can’t help but want to smile back.”
 


photo: mark arbeit

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.

Download the Compilation Album.
 

 


photo: courtesy nathan aweau

21) E Apo Mai

Nathan Aweau, 2008

For 16 years, Aweau played bass for Don Ho, and, for eight years, he performed beside Barry Flanagan as the Hawaiian half of the group Hapa. In between, he set up a recording studio in his bathroom and produced this album, singing his own backup vocals and playing all the instruments on every track but one. It was his first attempt at writing songs in Hawaiian, and he feels he butchered the language, but he didn’t do enough damage to prevent him from winning Hoku awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Song of the Year and Contemporary Album of the Year. He also set the standard for what a talented musician with a 16-track recorder can do in a bathroom studio.
 

22) Maunalua

Maunalua, 2000

"People come to see us live,” says Bobby Moderow Jr., Maunalua’s lead vocalist, “and they always say, ‘You sound just like the album!’” They don’t mean the second, third or fourth albums, they mean this eponymous first one, exquisitely recorded on analog tape. It’s a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get production—a Hawaiian trio jamming on slack key guitars, singing harmonies and falsetto, and pouring heart and soul into every song. “What shows through the most is the innocence of the music itself,” Moderow says. “It’s just three guys playing Hawaiian music.”
 

23) Ke Ala Beauty

Na Palapalai, 2004

It can be tough to follow up your first album, especially one as explosive as Makani Oluolu. But Na Palapalai created another classic, tweaking their sound only slightly. Kuana Torres Kahele says, “The second album was more melodic, more on the slower side. It catered more to the hula people. We continued to innovate from there on out, but our heart, our mission plan, it never changes.”
 

24) Local Girls

Keahiwai, 2001

Nobody expected much for this album when it came out, including the artists, Lei Melket and Mailani Makainai. At the time, hip hoppers, Jawaiian gangstas and the like dominated local radio, which seemed to be no place for former Catholic schoolgirls singing bouncy, original, pop love songs. But Local Girls hit big, touching Hawaii’s soft spot for homegrown talent with creative voices and a light, accessible, Island sound. Up to this point, Melket and Makainai’s greatest success had been winning the talent show at Maryknoll School. As UH students, they were playing at a cyber café in Puck’s Alley when local musician Jon Yamasato persuaded them to record. “We just went for it,” says Melket. “We thought if we didn’t do it, we’re going to regret it. And that’s all we really had in mind.”

Hear more from Israel Kamakawiwoole, Raiatea Helm, Brothers Cazimero and Kealii Reichel in our web exclusive video.

Download the Compilation Album.

 

25) The Green

Green, 2010

Listening to the hooky, immersive roots reggae of this debut, you’d never guess that 70 percent of the album was recorded in guitarist JP Kennedy’s bedroom. “We would just jam in my bedroom and record stuff,” he says. “We had this vibration, this brotherhood.” This is feel-good music, for sure, but it’s anchored by an attention to Hawaii realities. “We sing about what we see around us, good and bad,” says member Zion Thompson. “We like music with substance.”
 

Mahalo to all our Esteemed Panelists:

John Aeto, Mana Magazine
Leah Bernstein, Mountain Apple Co.
Robert Cazimero, musician
Nalani Choy, musician
Jon de Mello, Mountain Apple Co.
Bruddah Wade Faildo, Hawaiian 105 KINE
Keola Donaghy, UH Maui music department
Kainani Kahaunaele, musician
Kawika Kahiapo, musician
Dennis Kamakahi, musician
Michael Keany, HONOLULU Magazine
Fred Krauss, Punahele Productions
Mailani Makainai, musician
Ken Makuakane, musician
Derrick Malama, Hawaii Public Radio
Derek Paiva, Hawaii Magazine
Kealii Reichel, musician
Jake and Laurie Rohrer, Ululoa Productions
Skylark Rossetti, radio personality
Harry B. Soria, Territorial Airwaves
Kuana Torres Kahele, musician
Dave Tucciarone, producer
“Billy V” Van Osdol, Hawaiian 105 KINE
Mark Yamanaka, musician
Byron Yasui, UH Manoa music department

Get a sneak peek at some of the albums in our web exclusive video!

 

Subscribe to Honolulu