FOR A SMALL CARIBBEAN ISLAND, Jamaica has had an extraordinary influence on music. Its supreme invention – reggae – emerged after the country gained independence from Britain in 1962, when bands started giving the jazz, swing, pop and rock’n’roll tunes they performed to US tourists in resort hotels a quirky local twist – notably a jerking off-beat guitar rhythm and patois-rich vocals. Electricity being a luxury in Jamaican homes, 45s were played to huge crowds on outdoor sound systems, creating fertile rivalries among the DJs who spun them. First came the loping sounds of ska artists such as Prince Buster and The Skatalites, followed, in the abnormally hot summer of 1966, by the sweet, slowed-down pop of rock steady. After that, reggae got fatter and funkier, splintering into myriad different forms and sub-genres. In March 1969, it went mainstream in the UK – where thousands of West Indian immigrants had settled in the postwar years – when Desmond Dekker & The Aces scored a Number 1 hit with the skinhead-friendly The Israelites. Four years later, Bob Marley crossed over to a rock audience to become reggae’s first international star with The Wailers’ peerless Catch A Fire LP.
Jamaica’s failing economy in the ’70s meant recycling was a part of every day life, so it followed that, with studio time and recording tape expensive, producers like Lee Perry and King Tubby began taking old backing tracks and remixing them into sonically crackpot but undeniably brilliant ‘dubs’. Others, like U-Roy and Tapper Zukie, elected to rap over records, foreshadowing hip-hop.
With Marley popularising Rastafarianism and soul rebellion amid the island’s mid-’70s descent into political chaos, reggae took a left-turn into spirituality, ‘consciousness’ and militancy; it subsequently morphed into lovers rock, stripped-down dancehall, pop-reggae, techno dub and much more, surviving into 2014 with artists like Hollie Cook revisiting traditional styles and The Bug deconstructing the 50-year-old form to make new, exhilarating, experimental sounds.
So, here’s our list of the Top 50 reggae albums, eschewing (please note) contemporary CD compilations in favour of original, vintage vinyl releases and steering clear of multiple entries by reggae’s biggest names such as Bob Marley, Lee Perry and King Tubby. Enjoy – and do let us know your thoughts…