The 25 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs of the New Century

As voted by a panel of experts. Plus, read the stories behind the music.

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

Keali‘i Reichel  
Composed by: Keali‘i Reichel and Puakea Nogelmeier
Performed by: Keali‘i Reichel    
Appears on: Ke‘alaokamaile
Released: 2003
 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
Released: 2001
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
Released: 2006
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
Released: 2011


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.”




5. Lei Ho‘oheno

Composed by: Kainani Kahaunaele
Performed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Appears on: Ka Lehua ‘Ula
Released: 2007
Photo: Courtesy of Weldon Kekauoha 


Composer and musician Kainani Kahaunaele gave this mele, originally written as a song of love and friendship for her goddaughter, to Weldon Kekauoha in 1999, but Kekauoha says it took him a few years to figure out how to do the mele justice. “If you look at the lyrics, there’s really only one verse and one bridge,” he says. “It’s a really short song, and I didn’t really know what to do with it to make it last longer than a minute and a half.” When he finally arranged and recorded the song, though, everything came together. Says music expert Keola Donaghy, “Every time I hear it, it takes my breath away. The mele is exquisite, and Weldon’s delivery is flawless. It’s a case of syncronicity of the language, the melody and his mesmerizing vocal performance. To me, it’s a modern standard of the Hawaiian repertoire.”



6. Ke Anu O Waimea

Composed by: Kuana Torres Kahele
Performed by: Nā Palapalai
Appears on: Makani ‘Olu ‘Olu
Released: 2002

Kuana Torres Kahele says that, for him, “Ke Anu o Waimea” has always had a happy part to it, and a sad part, too. He originally wrote the song for his mom, comparing her beauty to that of Waimea, on the island of Hawai‘i, where she and and his father first met. “My idea was to write this song, not let her know about it, record it and, when the CD was finished, it would be an awesome surprise birthday present for my mom,” he says. “So we recorded it, the release was set, but, then, about a month before the album came out, my mom passed away.” It was a hard blow for Torres Kahele, and disorienting, as it happened just as Makani ‘Olu ‘Olu, the album, and, especially, “Ke Anu o Waimea,” the song, were taking off in popularity. “For a long time, I had a very hard time singing that song. I couldn’t shake certain things out of my head, because of what it was, who it was for, the timing, all that. I would make either Keao or Kehau in the band sing it, because I couldn’t. It’s a pretty song, very hula, very uplifting. I just had a hard time with it.” The happy part? Torres Kahele says he feels better singing the song today, and is gratified to see how it’s lived on, more than a decade later. “Ke Anu o Waimea” has become the No. 1 most requested hula song in Hawai‘i, on the Mainland, even in Japan, he says. “It’s become a household name within hula. It would be hard to find a hālau that doesn’t know it. To think that it’s honoring my mom, that feels good.”



7. Lawakua

Napua Greg 
Composed by: Napua Greig and Kīhei Nahale-a
Performed by: Napua Greig
Appears on: Pihana
Released: 2007
Photo: ryan siphers


In Hawaiian, “lawakua” means backbone, or strong-backed. For Napua Greig, it was the perfect word to describe her sister Kahulu. With the help of Kīhei Nahale-a, she composed a mele that describes how important her sister was to her development and her career. “I took her thoughts and feelings and put some imagery around it, using her sister’s name, and also the imagery of being in a really healthy forest, surrounded by all the things you need to be sustained,” says Nahale-a. When combined with Greig’s sweet vocal performance and a melodic piano line, the song becomes an emotional tribute to a loved one.



8. Spread A Little Aloha

Composed by: Danny Kennedy
Performed by: Mana‘o Company
Appears on: Spread a Little Aloha
Released: 2001


A-L-O-H-A! A little aloha in our day. This bouncy song has a killer hook that’ll get stuck in your head for hours. Surprisingly, composer Danny Kennedy remembers being a little doubtful about putting it on the album: “For me to be spelling out the letters of ‘aloha,’ coming back after 10 years of not having an album out, I was thinking, man, this is kind of a bubblegum song.” Luckily, Mana‘o Company went with it, and “Spread a Little Aloha” became an almost instant local-radio anthem. Fun bit of trivia: That’s Keali‘i Reichel singing on the bridge of the song.



9. Ka Lehua ‘Ula

Composed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Performed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Appears on: Ka Lehua ‘Ula
Released: 2007

One crucial element of Hawaiian composition is the process of “paka,” or constructive criticism, in which a writer will show his or her work to a trusted friend or teacher to get feedback and improve the mele. For example, “Ka Lehua ‘Ula” was literally Weldon Kekauoha’s first Hawaiian composition, but he then workshopped it with his friend Iwalani Hoomanawanuiikanaauao Apo and his teacher Ipolani Vaughn. “I knew it was going to be a song speaking about a particular flower, and it just sort of evolved into a love song honoring my wife,” he says. “They really helped put my thoughts down correctly.” The final result? A bona fide new Hawaiian classic.



10. Pili Kāpekepeke

Nā Palapali
Photo: courtesy of mountain apple co.


If you know that a “pili kāpekepeke” is an uncertain relationship, then the meaning of the image of a bird darting to and fro to drink nectar from different lehua blossoms, or a fisherman wandering the ocean in search of fish, becomes all too clear. This song melds the witty lyrics of composer Julian K. Ako with the unmistakable sound of Nā Palapalai, and musician Lihau Hannahs Paik says that, while the band has had larger hits, “Pili Kāpekepeke” is “one of the strongest linguistically and has more of a universal message.”



11. Ola‘a Beauty

Composed by: Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett
Performed by: Hoku Zuttermeister
Appears on: ‘Āina Kūpuna
Released: 2007

Start with a concise, poetic mele by Frank Hewitt and put it into a gentle, waltz-time arrangement by Hoku Zuttermeister that harkens back to earlier times, and you’ve got a winner. As Lihau Hannahs Paik of Kūpaoa says, “To me, Hoku’s rendition of this song connects different generations of Hawaiian music and I think that’s important. He made the waltz cool again with this song.”




12. ‘Ala Pīkake

Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co.


Composer Manu Boyd paints an evocative picture of an evening tryst in Wai‘alae, using flower imagery and oblique metaphor. “Pa‘ipa‘i lau i ka pā kōnane lae/I pua na‘u e kui a lawa pono lae,” I struck the leaf branches, bathed in moonlight/In order to acquire blossoms to string until complete. Never has the fragrance of a pīkake blossom been so suggestive. “This song has that perfect level of hinting at what’s going on, but not revealing too much overtly,” says Keola Donaghy. “When you get the sense, the flavor of what’s happening under the surface, that’s something I really like. When you don’t know those things, it really adds to the intrigue of the song.” 


13. Bumbye

Musical Duo Kūpaoa.
Photo: courtesy of mountain apple co. 


Queen of Bumbye. 

Puakea Nogelmeier wrote this song to affectionately tease his foster mother, Ululani, a strong, stubborn wahine. The inspiration, he says, came when Ululani, 89 at the time, was admitted to The Queen’s Medical Center with a heart malfunction. Doctors fixed the heart problem, but, the next day, she refused to drink any liquids. No water, no juice, no watery poi, nothing. Doctors couldn’t find any obstruction, and so Nogelmeier and his hanai sister Ku‘uipo tried for hours to persuade their mom, so that a tube would not have to be inserted down her throat. “All she says is, bumbye, bumbye, bumbye,” Nogelmeier recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘This could be bad; we’re going to lose this old lady, not from heart problems, but from hard head.’” At the end of the second day, Nogelmeier was heading home, cranky and tired from the ordeal, when Ululani told him, “Eh, no forget your song.” “What song?” he asked. “The bumbye song.” He went to his car, teary-eyed, and, on the way, wrote the whole song. The next morning, he pulled out his ‘ukulele, and sang it for her in the hospital room, with a crowd of nurses and doctors looking on. “She’s laughing, because the words are funny, and I get to the last verse, and it goes, ‘No Ululani he inoa …’ and she goes, ‘Don’t say my name!’ I go, ‘Say your name? I’m telling people in the elevator about this crazy old lady with the hard head.’ We’re laughing, laughing, and she reaches over … and drinks a glass of water. And the crisis is past.” He says, for months after, every time he visited Ululani’s house, she would demand to hear the bumbye song, because it made her laugh so much. She passed away at the end of that year, and “at her funeral, we had everyone there sing it. It’s not a sad song, it’s a funny, happy song about this wonderful woman, the queen of bumbye.”



14. Missing You

John Cruz
Composed by:  John Cruz
Performed by: John Cruz
Appears on: One of These Days
Released: 2007
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams 


“Missing You” is such a stark, lonely ballad, you’d never guess it started its life as a different, faster composition. John Cruz says, “It was incomplete and wasn’t coming together, but I moved back to Hawai‘i, and I was driving down the street by Kapi‘olani Park, and the thing just came out. Slowing it down brought everything out. I was like, thank god, because I knew there was a good song in there somewhere.” At the time, the heartache of the girl he had lost was “super fresh,” Cruz says. “When I first wrote the song, it was still tough for me to sing it. The way it builds to that chorus—Iiiii’ve been missing you—it almost feels like crying.” We’ve all been there, John, we’ve all been there.



15. Backfire

Brother Noland
Composed by: “Brother” Noland Conjugacion
Performed by: “Brother” Noland Conjugacion
Appears on: Mystical Fish
Released: 2006
​Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co. 


This radio-friendly earworm was born when Brother Noland was teaching performing arts to kids at Pālama Settlement. “It was about how to be poetically intelligent, write positive messages. I shared it with this all-girl band, and we put it together and recorded it.” A couple of years later, when Noland started working on his 2006 album Mystical Fish, he pulled out “Backfire” and tweaked it into the form you hear today, complete with that irresistible pidgin hook: “No go come back.” “That’s the overall theme,” Noland says. “Anything can backfire on you. What’s important is that you don’t let the devil in, but you just keep steady with the good.”



16. Huki ‘Ia

Composed by: Pila Wilson, Iota Cabral, Kīhei Nahale-a
Performed by: ‘Ai Pōhaku
Appears on: MNL
Released: 2008

Reggae sometimes gets written off as party music, but “Huki ‘Ia” puts a serious message over the Jamaican beat. Co-composer Kīhei Nahale-a says he and his bandmates were listening to an old recording of a kupuna talking about how offensive it was to see the bottom of the American flag at the head of the Hawaiian flag. “From a Hawaiian cultural perspective, the head is the most sacred place, because that’s where our ancestors communicate with us,” Nahale-a says. “Symbolically, having the ‘ōkole of the American flag sitting at the head of the Hawaiian flag is disrespectful. So, we were thinking, what if we delivered Hawaiian lyrics in a different genre? Originally, it was to the tune of “Jammin’” by Bob Marley. We wanted kids to identify with it. But then it morphed into its own melody, and really took off in the Hawaiian-language community. It became kind of an anthem for the young kids who spoke Hawaiian.” The lyrics pose the question over and over again: “No ke aha ia mea e mau nei/I luna o ko kākou?” Why is this thing always above our head like this? Why are we allowing this to happen? The chorus shifts to an imperative: “Kēlā hae lā/Huki ‘ia lā i lalo.” We have to pull that flag down. Pull it down. “We play “Huki ‘Ia” at concerts and, man, next thing you know, all these Hawaiian flags come out,” Nahale-a says. “The song has survived in kind of an underground music movement. There’s no official [physical] release of the song. It was a live recording from a KTUH event, and that went viral. It doesn’t live in a publishing house—it lives in the communities.”



17. Ku‘u Hoa Hi‘ikua

Composed by: Kalehua Krug
Performed by: Hi‘ikua
Appears on: Aia I Hi‘ialo
Released: 2011

Kalehua Krug composed this song the night his father was diagnosed with cancer. “The word hi‘ikua is, to carry on your back,” he says. “The song was dealing with getting older, and my father had been my hoa hi‘ikua, the one to carry me. But in that situation, I knew I was transitioning into a time when I would be the hoa hi‘ikua, to carry him.” Krug’s falsetto and the stately instrumentation pack an emotional punch, but the song ends by transitioning from minor chords to a fuller, warmer E, giving it a more positive sense of resolution. He says, “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, when cancer survivors hear it, it helps them build strength and keep fighting.”



18. Kawaiokalena

Composed by: Keali‘i Reichel
Performed by: Keali‘i Reichel
Appears on: Kawaiokalena
Released: 2014

On “Kawaiokalena,” Reichel pays tribute to his partner of almost 30 years, Fred “Punahele” Krauss, painting a picture of love using imagery drawn from their home, Pi‘iholo, in Upcountry Maui. “It’s a totally different universe from anywhere else on the island,” says Reichel. “The winds, the rain, the mist. The Pi‘iholo area was often mentioned in ancient chants from composers across the island chain, but the place names and wind names are pretty unknown to the average person, so I wanted to spotlight the area again.” The beauty of the natural landscape proves to be the perfect metaphor for a deep and lasting relationship.




19. Loloiwi

Paula Fuga’s childhood beach, Kaiona, in waimānalo.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams


“I was so sad when I wrote that song,” Paula Fuga remembers. “There was this guy I was in love with, and I wanted to know how he felt about me. I had this feeling in my na‘au, in the deepest part of me, I was like, what’s up with you, man?” She composed lyrics that went, “Aloha wau ia ‘oe e Kalokuokamaile/Aloha pu ‘oe ia ‘u/E hana ana au na mea like ‘ole/Ma lalo o ka lani no ‘oe”—I love you Kalokuokamaile/Do you love me too?/Anything beneath the heavens, I would do for you. Things came to a head after she performed “Loloiwi” for a weekly radio show at the KTUH studio, and realized that the object of her affection would probably be listening when the song was broadcast. “I was like, I gotta go over and tell him,” she says. “He’s going to hear his name, it’s going to be weird. He needs to be prepared.” Long story short, the two are now married.



20. Uhiwai

Nathan Aweau
Composed by: Nathan Aweau
Performed by: Nathan Aweau
Appears on: ‘Io
Released: 2012
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple co. 


In a literal sense, uhi wai means a heavy mist. But in Hawaiian poetry, it’s often used metaphorically to describe love. So when Nathan Aweau went out into his Kāne‘ohe backyard after a night of rain and saw mists clinging to the Ko‘olau Mountains, it sparked his imagination. “I had never seen the clouds and the mist settle in that way. It looked like long arms, hugging the Ko‘olaus,” he says. Coincidentally, his parents were about to celebrate their 50th anniversary and, from there, the melody and lyrics fell into place quickly.


The song starts at 1:08. 


21. Ke Aka O Ka Li‘ulā

Composed by: Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole (lyrics), Kīhei Nahale-a & Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing (music)
Performed by: Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole
Appears on: Welo
Released: 2012

When Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole wrote “Ke Aka o ka Li‘ulā,” she was in her early 20s, a point when she was still figuring out her identity, her career, her future. “The title literally means mirage,” she says. “I was chasing an image that was quite far off, it was always at a distance. I don’t know why I was doing that. But I wanted people to see me. It was all in the pursuit of finding me. I was chasing my own mirage.” Kanaka‘ole may have been wandering in the mist, but the song also throbs with forward propulsion. Listening to the cresting energy of the chorus, it’s impossible to miss hearing an artist determined to find her way.




22. Moloka‘i Jam

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole and Kekuhi Kanahele
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Can a song with a driving, electronic club beat be considered a Hawaiian song? When it’s an oli-style chant coming from two members of the highly esteemed Kanaka‘ole family, you better believe it. Kaumakaiwa says “Moloka‘i Jam,” a mele of thanks to the Helm ‘ohana, got its modern pop feel while being crafted in the studio with producer Shawn Pimental. “We have total artistic freedom,” she says, “because we don’t have to worry about the cultural repercussions. We have standing, without needing to say it, ever. It comes from decades of rapport and merit, and all the residual mana that comes from that.” Kaumakaiwa may be experimenting with bold new influences in her music, but it’s all within an unbroken lineage that goes back to her great-grandmother Edith Kanaka‘ole and beyond.


23. Rising in Love

Lehua Kalima 
Composed by: Lehua Kalima 
Performed by: Lehua Kalima 
Appears on: Rising in Love
Released: 2011
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co. 


Lehua Kalima might be best known as part of the Hawaiian music trio Nā Leo, but, when she started work on her first solo album, she needed a project that she could work on herself. “Around 2009, I was going through a divorce and wanted some distraction and some outlet for all of that,” Kalima says. “It was my way of venting and focusing on something constructive.” The title track, which described, not falling in love, but rising, was at that point a dream for Kalima, not a reality, but you can hear the optimism starting to shine through.



24. Love I

The Green 
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co. 


The Green has recorded its share of hard-hitting political songs, but with “Love I,” it all comes down to that one special girl who’s just out of reach. Says composer Caleb Keolanui, “It’s pretty much a love story, but about how love doesn’t always come through. It’s expressing this idea of, if you just would take the chance.” He swears he didn’t write the song about a specific person, but, no matter, the band turned it into a rich, narcotic torch song that, as the lead single off their debut album, offered a glimpse of the heavy-duty reggae they’d make their career on.



25. Bullet Train Song

Composed by: Kamaka Kukona
Performed by: Kamaka Kukona
Appears on: Hanu ‘A‘ala
Released: 2014

As you might guess, Kamaka Kukona composed this song while riding on a bullet train, heading for Nagata. “There were just miles and miles of green rice fields. It was so beautiful,” he says. “When I reached my destination, I had it to give as a gift to the hula students who were there to greet me.” There are Japanese touches throughout the song, from the singsong melody to the swaying, enka rhythm, making it a perfect ode to the special affinity between the Hawaiian and Japanese cultures.



Mahalo to all our esteemed panelists:

Leah Bernstein / Jon de Mello / Keola Donaghy / Lihau Hannahs-Paik  / Daniel Ito / Kainani Kahaunaele  / Kuana Torres Kahele / Kawika Kahiapo / Michael Keany / Fred “Punahele” Krauss / Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing / Derrick Malama / KĪhei Nahale-a / Derek Paiva / Jake and Laurie Rohrer / Skylark Rossetti  / Jade Snow / Harry B. Soria / Dave Tucciarone

Click here to listen to the full playlist.