Today is February 6, which means that it’s Waitangi Day, better understood to Yanks as New Zealand Day, celebrating the 174th anniversary of the signing of the country’s founding document. It seems as good a reason as any to do some digging into the recent contributions of a country that has often been historically overlooked for its pop music. New Zealand has not originated too many worldwide superstars on the level of neighboring Australia — like Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton-John or the recent surprise breakout Gotye — or even an easily identified sort of unofficial national anthem on the level of Men At Work’s enduring ’80s classic “Down Under.”
Of course, another recent surprise star might end up changing that. 17-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor, also known as Lorde, wouldn’t be the first Kiwi musician to hit it big in North America — alt-rock legend Neil Finn did so in the ’80s with both the new wave group Split Enz (“I Got You”) and crossover stars Crowded House (“Don’t Dream It’s Over”), while pop/rock duo OMC had one of the most unavoidable hits of the late-’90s with “How Bizarre,” and comedy-pop duo Flight of the Conchords got their own eponymous HBO show in the late ’00s.
But Lorde has a chance to be easily the most popular, with the chart-topping “Royals” giving the young singer/songwriter a visibility rarely seen by New Zealand imports in the United States, and a follow-up Top 10 hit in “Team” (as well as a couple big wins at the GRAMMYs) suggesting that “Royals” was far from a fluke.
While Lorde is the country’s biggest success story at the moment, she’s far from all the country has to offer in terms of pop riches. Here’s a look at some of the other artists doing the Other Land Down Under proud in recent years — some of whom have already made an impact on American shores, and some of whom you might yet be hearing more from in months to come.
The Naked and Famous
Probably the act besides Lorde to find the most success stateside this decade would be the five-piece pop/rock outfit the Naked and Famous, who scored a pair of U.S. alt-rock hits off debut LP “Passive Me, Aggressive You” in 2011 with “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream.” The pair of euphoric singles felt like a continuation of the self-consciously youthful and anthemic dance-pop originated (and later summarily abandoned) by MGMT on their early singles “Kids” and “Time to Pretend,” and were among the catchiest, most invigorating singles of the early decade. The group’s second album, “In Rolling Waves,” found slightly less sucess, but still packed an emotional wallop with singles like “Hearts Like Ours” and “A Stillness.”
Technically, Lorde isn’t the first New Zealand artist to top the Hot 100 in the U.S., since Kiwi musical eccentric Kimbra did so as a guest artist one year before on the previously mentioned Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Kimbra’s contributions to the “she-said” part of Gotye’s breakup classic remain easily her best-known work in the States, but her entire 2011 debut LP “Vows” is exceptional, a fusion of styles ranging from electro-pop to jazz to classic soul — often over the course of the same song, as on single “Cameo Lover.” It wouldn’t be shocking if she eventually had a couple hits of her own on this side of the Pacific.
Kids of 88
The man responsible for co-writing and producing the majority of Lorde’s catalog, Joel Little, first found behind-the-scenes success in his home country as the co-writer and producer behind the Kids of 88, a nu wave duo co-founded by Little’s ex-bandmate Sam McCarthy. The Kids had their biggest pop hit with 2009’s boisterous “My House,” but have since matured their sound into the polished, diverse synth-pop of 2012’s “Modern Love,” with the Little-produced groover “Tucan” perhaps being the album’s standout cut. “Modern Love” was nominated for Best Pop Album at last year’s New Zealand Music Awards, but lost to singer/songwriter Jamie McDell’s “Six Strings and a Sailboat.”
Speaking of Little, he’s not exactly coasting this year on the crossover stardom his young collaborator has recently achieved. The producer has already found a new act to work with in Auckland brother-sister act Broods, whose self-titled EP — led by the haunting “Bridges” — follows in the vein of the emotive, minimal, ice-cold pop heard last year from the likes of Banks and Twigs, with a touch of the XX’s vocal interplay and the warm synths of CHVRCHES. They’re probably not too likely to become as big as Lorde, but then again, neither was Lorde herself, so keep an eye on the duo in 2014.
It’s not all synth-pop in New Zealand. Singer-songwriter Ginny Blackmore had a hit in her home country with last year’s compelling “Bones,” a lover’s call-to-passion which sounds like a cross between a Ryan Tedder power ballad and some of JoJo’s more recent, adult R&B fare. Blackmore has yet to release her debut album on Epic Records, but seems to have the talent and personality — as well as the industry connections, having written songs for Christina Aguilera and Adam Lambert — to find further success, already scraping the Adult Top 40 in the U.S. with “Bones.”
After a good deal of pre-release hype (as well as a coveted iPod commercial spot for promotion), out-of-time pop performer Willy Moon’s debut album “Here’s Willy Moon” came and went last year without making much of an impact stateside, but found greater success in Kiwi country, where it was a double nominee at the 2013 New Zealand Music Awards. “Yeah Yeah” was the song featured in the Apple ad and one of the album’s best tracks, mixing Moon’s fascinations with half-century-old rock and soul styles with a contemporary hip-hop aesthetic.
New Zealand is particularly famous worldwide for its contributions to hip-hop, but it does have a number of successful native rappers, of which the Samoan-European David Dallas is one of the biggest of the last few years. The bluesy “Runnin” gave Dallas his first hit, and its Willie Beaman and Al Pacino references prove “Any Given Sunday” to be an even bigger international touchstone of a movie than previously imagined. Follow-up hit “The Wire” — not affiliated with either HAIM’s pop/rock jam or David Simon’s epic TV drama — is also good, another deeply felt down-tempo number, with a soulful hook provided by fellow Auckland pop star (and “X Factor NZ” judge!) Ruby Frost.
Of course, the EDM boom of this decade has not managed to bypass New Zealand. One of electronic music’s more successful acts down under has been the dubstep duo Mt. Eden, who came to prominence in the early ’10s with the oft-remixed “Sierra Leone,” a song so textbook when it comes to the genre’s most recognizable hallmarks (whirring, off-kilter bass hook, simple and catchy vocal samples, heavy use of build-ups and drops) that it’s no surprise it became a dubstep standard. The duo has since released the “Walking on Air” EP, including further wub-wub-heavy anthems like “Air Walker” and “Chasing,” as well as an orchestral version of their signature track.
The Phoenix Foundation
The Phoenix Foundation aren’t exactly Top 40 megastars in their home country, but they’re a rightfully acclaimed album artist, with their most recent album, 2013’s “Fandango,” rightly drawing raves (and a spate of New Zealand Music Award nominations) for its expansive and transmutable brand of indie rock. The shimmering “The Captain” served as the album’s lead single and one of its most accessible tracks, but it’s well worth delving into the double album’s deeper cuts for some of the most atmospheric, immaculately produced and subtly alluring music of its kind from any country this decade.
Yes, New Zealand does have a boy band to their name — the six-piece Titanium, formed via an Auckland radio contest to create the first boy band in country history, including judges and fan voting and something called “Boyband Camp.” Appropriate for a group whose second single would be a Jason Mraz cover, their first and biggest hit “Come On Home” is an emotional, jaunty, ukelele-led mid-tempo number (with a music video set on the beach). In addition to Mraz, the group shows influences from R&B groups like Boyz II Men, and of course late-’90s American boy bands like ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys that the group are barely old enough to have grown up with.