“One good t’ing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley
Bob Marley is the most recognizable face of reggae, but hundreds of inventive artists, working in dozens of varying sub-genres, have released a staggering number of hits and grooves that have inspired musicians the world over. ‘Dub’ – the practice of re-arranging instrumental tracks for their own use – inspired the art of re-mixing, while the competing mobile soundsystems of Kingston provided the blueprint followed by South Bronx Hip-Hop DJs of the late-70’s.
With well over 100,000 albums released during the last 50 years, Jamaica produces the most music per capita of any country on earth. Here’s some of the best…
20] Various Artists | Heavyweight Sound: A Blood & Fire Sampler – Dub music isn’t for everyone, but Heavyweight Sound provides the perfect starting point for the aspiring dub fan. If these classic plates from Prince Jammy, Horace Andy, King Tubby, I. Roy, Burning Spear and others don’t work for you, nothing will.
Listen: Real Gone Crazy Dub [King Tubby & The Aggrovators]
19] Jackie MIttoo | The Keyboard King At Studio One – As musical director for Studio One in the mid-60’s, Jackie Mittoo oversaw and played on sessions for some of the most important reggae albums of the day. But the mostly-instrumental jams he led from behind the keyboard and under his own name are as much funk as reggae, and fall into the latter category mostly because of the country in which they were recorded. Reggae just doesn’t get any funkier.
18] Easy-Star All Stars | Dub Side Of The Moon – What looks like a gimmick is actually one heck of a reggae album. Dub Side Of The Moon uses the stylistic variations within reggae to do justice to the entirety of Pink Floyd’s far-reaching 1972 masterpiece. And no, it doesn’t sync up with the video of The Harder They Come…
Listen: Time [featuring Corey Harris and Ranking Joe]
17] Half Pint | Classics In Dub – Half Pint (aka Lindon Roberts) created many dance hall hits in the mid-80’s, but here his songs get dubbed and tweaked by Sly & Robbie, who echo and loop his tunes into something resembling the chilled-out house music of the mid-90’s. Classics In Dub is a nice detour from the well-worn path created by reggae’s brand names.
Listen: Days I Can’t Forget
16] The Congos | Heart Of The Congos – This classic 1977 release was the work of Cedric Myton and Roy ‘Ashanti’ Johnson, but it has all the earmarks of a Lee Perry/Black Ark production. It took nearly two decades for Heart Of The Congos to see general release, but its driving backbeat and melodic spirituality place it among the first tier of reggae albums.
15] Bunny Wailer | Blackheart Man – Ex-Wailer Bunny Livingston’s 1976 debut is an engaging portrait of life as a Rasta in a land where mothers warn their children to beware the ‘Blackheart Man’ with the natty hair. From oppression to reincarnation to courtroom appearances, the “ten messages” here tell of a true believer standing tall in the face of religious persecution.
Listen: Blackheart Man
14] U-Roy | Super Boss – “The Originator” wasn’t the first deejay to rap over existing reggae songs to create fresh tunes, but he was clearly the best at it. Super Boss rounds up all his hits in one fan-friendly package, including his version of ‘The Tide Is High’ – a song that Blondie would turn into a chart-topping smash. A skilled linguist who took something old and made it new again, U-Roy was an important forefather of the modern Hip-Hop MC.
Listen: Wake The Town
13] Bob Marley & The Wailers | Catch A Fire – The first indication that reggae might be much more than just niche music, Catch A Fire is an electric showcase for Bob Marley’s emerging mega-watt talent. He smokes a giant spliff on the cover, but the music inside is politically charged and emotionally focused. This is where Marley truly started chanting down Babylon…
Listen: 400 Years
12] Sly & Robbie | Sly & Robbie Present Taxi – The best rhythm section in reggae, Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare provide the rhythmic vehicle for a variety of reggae acts – from Dennis Brown to Wailing Souls to Gregory Isaacs and beyond. It’s unusual for a drum & bass duo to receive top billing on any album, but reggae is all about the riddim, and nobody does it better than Sly & Robbie.
Listen: Smiling Faces Sometimes [The Tamlins]
11] Peter Tosh | Equal Rights – On his 1976 album Legalize It, Peter Tosh shilled for ganja, but on the following year’s Equal Rights, he sang with a higher purpose. Throughout the album – and particularly on ‘Downpressor Man’ and the title track – he sings like the booming voice of justice itself. Neither album made Tosh an international star, but both rank among the best reggae albums ever produced.
Listen: Downpressor Man
10] Burning Spear | Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost – Winston Rodney’s 1975 tribute to black leader Marcus Garvey took Kingston by storm and remains a cornerstone of Jamaican roots music. The liner notes laud Garvey as a “Jamaican National Hero” and as Rodney told journalist Chris Salewicz in 1977, his connection to Garvey was “Just prophecy, just hist’ry. When sing about Marcus singin’ strictly bout me roots.” Marcus Garvey has been re-issued on disc as a handy two-for-one, along with its dub version Garvey’s Ghost.
Listen: Marcus Garvey
9] Various Artists | Trojan Club Reggae [Box Set] – Trojan’s vaults are stuffed full of great reggae, and in the late-90’s they began emptying those songs out into affordable ($15 or so) three-disc box sets covering a wide range of topics. The Trojan Club Reggae Box is a primo example of reggae’s cost-effective approach to musical creation, featuring cool covers of Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’ (by Skin, Flesh & Bones), Tom Jones’ ‘Take A Letter To Maria’ (by Dandy) and Carl Douglas’ ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (by the Cimarons), as well as old-school originals like ‘Star Trek’ (by the Vulcans). A top shelf reggae collection at a bargain basement price.
Listen: Take A Letter To Maria [Dandy]
Listen: Kung Fu Fighting [The Cimarons]
Listen: Star Trek [Vulcans]
8] Abyssians | Satta Massagana – Although Rastafarianism is a religious movement, all too often the music associated with rasta focuses on ganja and the outsider status of its adherents within Jamaican society. But Satta Massagana is akin to reggae gospel – all joyous melodies and good vibrations. The album title means “give thanks and praise” in the Ethiopian tongue, and its title track is one of the most deeply spiritual tunes in all of reggae.
Listen: Satta Massagana
7] Culture | Two Sevens Clash – Taking his cue from a prophecy by the great Marcus Garvey, Culture lead singer Joseph Hill had a vision that the end of the world would occur in 1977. He wrote a song detailing his prediction, and that song – the title track of this album – became a major hit in Jamaica. So much so, that on July 7th, 1977 (the “day the four sevens clashed”) the entire city of Kingston came to a complete standstill, as people stayed inside rather that risk the apocalyptic wrath of Jah Rastafari. Powerful stuff.
Listen: Two Sevens Clash
6] Various Artists | Tougher Than Tough [Box Set] – Covering most of Jamaica’s musical sub-genres – including Ska, Rock Steady, Dance Hall, Dub, and Ragga – this 1993 box set tracks the history of Jamaican music over four discs and 95 carefully selected songs. From the Folkes Brothers 1958 tune ‘Oh Carolina’ – widely considered to be the first reggae song – to Shaggy’s version of same tune from 35 years later, this is a meticulously researched, lovingly compiled set that belongs in any music collection.
Listen: Oh Carolina [Folkes Brothers]
Listen: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner [Black Uhuru]
Listen: Bandolero [Pinchers]
5] Toots & The Maytals | Funky Kingston – Toots & The Maytals were one of the few reggae acts to span several different eras of the genre’s development. They were ska sensations in the mid-60’s and created some of the best ‘rock steady’ reggae of the early-70’s before shifting gears to a more standard roots/rock/reggae sound. This 1976 compilation brings together all of their best-loved songs in one convenient (and colorful) package. Few albums of any genre are as uplifting and positive as Funky Kingston.
Listen: Funky Kingston
4] Various Artists | The “King” Kong Compilation – Legendary producer Leslie Kong’s work is marked by the shuffling beat of Rock Steady – a more danceable precursor to reggae music. Because of his role in helping transform the music of Jamaica through some of the island’s most talented artists, Kong has been referred to as “the Sam Phillips of reggae” by critic Greil Marcus. It’s an apt, if rather mind-bending, comment on the dimension of Kong’s influence upon the genre. The songs on The King Kong Compilation were all recorded between 1968 and 1970, and it’s a murderer’s row of great tunes. From Desmond Dekker’s ‘Isrealites’ to The Maytals ‘Monkey Man’ to Ken Boothe’s ‘Freedom Street’, the music compiled here represents reggae at its best, and adds up to an appropriate tribute to one of the genre’s founding fathers.
Listen: Israelites [Desmond Dekker]
Listen: Freedom Street [Ken Boothe]
3] Bob Marley & The Wailers | Exodus – Bob Marley is the single most important artist to emerge from the impoverished, but musically rich, island of Jamaica. This charismatic rastaman became reggae’s first international superstar, and almost single-handedly made its riddims a worldwide commodity. While previous Marley albums had chipped away at an international audience, Exodus represented a breakthrough on many fronts – it spent 56 weeks on the UK charts, and the title track found heavy rotation on black radio stations in the US.
Exodus is deeply spiritual, fiercely political, and genuinely romantic. Album opener ‘Natural Mystic’ sets the tone with a shuffling rhythm and haunting lyrics about the spirits blowing around in the breeze. ‘So Much Things To Say’ offers encouragement to stand strong in the face of detractors. ‘Jamming’, ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Three Little Birds’, ‘One Love/People Get Ready’, and the title track became instant staples of Marley’s live act, and together formed a significant chunk of the posthumous 1984 best-of Legend. But even in light of that greatest hits package, Exodus still stands as Bob Marley’s finest hour.
2] Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & Friends | The Upsetter Box Set – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is one of the most important figures in the history of Jamaican music, and even though his profile rose during the 90’s, he remains unknown to all but the most ardent fans of reggae. Perry’s Black Ark studio was home to inventive, high-octane music that was created from found sounds, on cheap equipment, and with the help of his house band, The Upsetters. His output as a musician and producer is astounding – except for an extended hiatus during the 80’s, he has been in constant motion since the late-60’s. Perry has seemingly worked with every reggae artist of any import, and was a key mentor for Bob Marley and The Wailers.
The 1997 box set Arkology is a worthy overview of Perry’s Black Ark production work during the 70’s, but his finest three albums of that era are captured in their entirety on The Upsetter Box Set. This three-record set, released to little fanfare in 1985, features Africa’s Blood (1973), Double Seven (1974) and Rhythm Shower, which had previously been available only in a limited Jamaican pressing. Splitting the difference between the junk funk reggae of the late-60’s and the dub haze to come, these albums represent some of the funkiest grooves ever cut into wax.
Like Thelonious Monk before him, Perry has a knack for twisting a rhythm to its breaking point and then pulling back just before chaos ensues. His kitchen-sink/mad-scientist approach to production ensures that his music is filled with interesting textures, zany noises, and killer drum tracks. A song-by-song breakdown of The Upsetter Compact Set is futile – from the beginning of side one to the end of side six, it’s all good.
Listen: Kentucky Skank
Listen: Double Six
Listen: Soul Man
1] Various Artists | The Harder They Come – “Every day hundreds of kids flock into the slums of Kingston from the hillsides of Jamaica – drawn by the promise of the transistor – sure that they can get it if they really want.” As the liner notes for the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come made abundantly clear, the character of Ivan Martin was a nearly non-fictional portrait of a young man looking for his break in the music business – his only chance at redemption and escape from the ghettos and shanty towns that are so vividly depticted in the film.
Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan in the film, and gets top billing on the soundtrack, but it’s an ensemble effort that features many talented performers, including The Melodians, Toots & The Maytals, and Desmond Dekker. Cliff’s three songs are spiritual in nature, and cast his efforts towards musical stardom as something of a holy quest. But the most important tracks on the album are The Slickers’ ‘Johnny Too Bad’ and Scotty’s ‘Draw Your Brakes’, which take on the twin cultures of violence and grief that are at the heart of the Jamaican ghetto, and the center of the movie.
Released in 1972, The Harder They Come was the first introduction to reggae music for many people outside the island of Jamaica. The soundtrack gathers legendary performances that not only enhance the action of the film, but on their own play out as nothing less than the greatest reggae album of all-time. Whether or not you’re familiar with the movie, this is an impeccable collection that remains the best possible introduction to the genre.
Listen: Pressure Drop [The Maytals]
Listen: Johnny Too Bad [The Slickers]
Also receiving tokes…
Dr. Alimantado | Best Dressed Chicken In Town
Finley Quaye | Maverick A Strike
Black Uhuru | Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
Max Romeo & The Upsetters | War Inna Babylon
Glenn Brown | Check The Winner
Steel Pulse | True Democracy
Herman Chin Loy | Aquarius Rock
Barrington Levy | Here I Come
Augustus Pablo | King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown
Desmond Dekker | Rockin’ Steady: The Best Of
The Gladiators | Trench Town Mix Up
Various Artists | The Roots Of Reggae II: 20 Ska & Reggae Classics
The Mighty Diamonds | Right Time
Junior Murvin | Police & Thieves
Cedric ‘Im Brooks | Cedric ‘Im Brooks & The Light Of Sabu
Niney The Observer | Niney & Friends: Blood And Fire 1971-1972
Various Artists | 100% Dynamite
Third World | 96° In The Shade
Inner Circle | Reggae Greats
Various Artists | If Deejay Was Your Trade: The Dreads At King Tubby’s 1974-1977
Tags: Abyssinians, Blood & Fire, Bob Marley, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Culture, Easy Star All-Stars, Half Pint, Jackie Mittoo, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Peter Tosh, reggae, Sly & Robbie, The Congos, The Harder They Come, The King Kong Compilation, Toots & The Maytals, Tougher Than Tough, Trojan Club Reggae, Trojan Records, U-Roy