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 everyday 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, 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…
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50. Aswad - New Chapter
Classy Brit reggae blending keening harmonies, doleful brass and an early ’80s inner-London edge.
49. The Paragons - On the Beach
The tide was high, they were holding on, and rock steady crested a euphoric wave.
48. Beenie Man - Art And Life
Diverse cross-genre hook-ups from quick-lipped dancehall adventurer and early Pharrell-adopter.
47. Herman Chin Loy - Aquarius Rock
OK, it breaks our general ‘no CD comps’ rule but this collects Chin Loy’s deeply funky, borderline-psychedelic late ’60s/early ’70s 45s, tough to find elsewhere.
46. Bunny Wailer - Blackheart Man
An iron fist in a silk glove, the gentlest Wailer’s solo debut packs a hazily laid-back cry of Rasta protest.
45. Yellowman - Mister Yellowman
Sometimes ridiculous, often very rude but always mesmerising dancehall classic from albino JA star.
44. Rhythm & Sound w/ Tikiman - Showcase
A master class in juggernautical deep dub techno, at the exhilarating junction where old-school reggae and ’90s electronica clash.
43. Horace Andy - Skylarking
The best early sides from Brentford Road studio’s haunting, unsettling, honey-sweet tenor.
42. Garnet Silk - It's Growing
The first spiritually elevating and PC dancehall album – a classic.
41. John Holt - 1,000 Volts Of Holt
Ex-Paragons singer crafts pop reggae for the masses, led by perennial smoothie Help Me Make It Through the Night.
40. Scientist - Scientist Meets The Space Invaders
King Tubby's engineer borrows the boss's echo box to make humid, super-heavy dub.
39. Steel Pulse - Handsworth Revolution
Militant Rasta missives in tough militant Marley style – straight outta punk-era Brum.
38. Ken Boothe - Mr Rocksteady
Prime late ’60s Studio One pop, essayed with emotive grace. The title doesn’t deceive.
37. The Maytals - Never Grow Old
Exuberant harmonies with a gospel/barbershop tinge twist on super-early ska LP from future funky-reggae titans.
36. Barrington Levy - Shaolin Temple
A 16-year-old Levy unleashes fruity dancehall cornerstone, with dub-happy wizard Scientist manning the desk.
35. Roland Alphonso - King Of Sax
The Skatalites’ tenor sax magus blows sublimely jazzy notes over classic Studio One backing tracks.
34. The Mighty Diamonds - Right Time
Hard-bitten political ire expressed through exquisite three-part soul harmonies and unhurried roots-rocking rhythms.
33. Augustus Pablo - East Of The River Nile
Spectral ‘Far East’-sounding instrumentals blown through Pablo’s baleful melodica; takes up where the more dubby ‘King Tubby’s…’ left off.
32. Eek-a-Mouse - Wa-Do-Dem
Alias Ripton Hilton brings eccentric, squeaky singjay style to the dancehall and invents a brilliantly nonsensical subgenre of one.
31. Hollie Cook - Twice
Pinballing bings and bongs, steel pans, Bollywood strings, Prince Fatty at the desk – this year’s classy UK pop reggae update is truly up there with the best of ’em.
30. Luciano - Messenger
Luciano turned his back on smutty ‘slackness’ for an album of elevated soul-reggae balminess.
29. Sizzle - Bobo Ashanti
Return-to-form from singjay dancehall star of steely conviction and old-school Rasta fire-power.
28. Black Uhuru - Anthem
Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s polished ’80s production, all zingy syndrums and big pop tunes, creates massive seller.
27. The Heptones - Cool Rasta
Achingly soulful three-part harmonies on LP that jettisoned their previous romantic preoccupations in favour of mean ghetto vibrations.
26. DILLINGER - CB200
Named for his Honda ’bike, this was home to the funky, hypnotic deejay apotheosis that’s Cokane In My Brain.
25. Marcia Griffiths - Naturally
Fresh from Marley’s I-Threes, Marcia makes polished fem-reggae updating her old Bob Andy-penned Studio One jewels Feel Like Jumping and Tell Me Now.
24. Various - Club Ska
Essential early collection of classic ska 45s compiled for UK audience by legendary Scene Club DJ and Island A&R man Guy Stevens.
23. Mikey Dread - World War III
After working on The Clash’s Sandinista!, Dread returned to JA to create his second and best LP of deep-dub and distinctive biddly-biddlly toasts.
22. Gregory Isaacs - Night Nurse
The Cool Ruler glides effortlessly from seductive lovers rock towards sculptured dancehall mastery.
21. The Upsetters - Return Of Django
Instrumental set from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s sessioneers, heavy on funky chops and Spaghetti Western swagger.
20. The Bug - London Zoo
A confusion of dancehall, noise, hip hop and grime confirms reggae can shift-shape into sonic nourishment for modern times.
19. Peter Tosh - Legalize It
After quitting The Wailers, Tosh returned with sonically dense, admirably lazy-paced solo jewel promoting maximum spliffage.
18. U-Roy - Version Galore
Revolutionary deejay’s benchmark debut album, popularising the idea of rapping over someone else’s backing track until it ends. Hip-hop ahoy!
17. Dr. Alimantado - Best Dressed Chicken In Town
Toasting reaches dizzying heights with this punk-loved clutch of the Doctor’s early singles.
16. Culture - Two Sevens Clash
An epochal title track, and an extraordinary LP as the vocal trio combine with massive orchestration to create a mood of portentous dread.
15. Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey
Uncompromising lyrics allied to potent rhythms equals militant greatness.
14. Big Youth - Screaming Target
Intense rhythms coupled with Youth’s deep, drawling delivery make for killer early deejay disc.
13. Don Drummond - The Best Of
Minor-key retort to ska’s in-built jolliness from The Skatalites’ deeply troubled composer, trombonist and melodist.
12. ￼Lee Scratch Perry And The Upsetters - Super Ape
Perry’s 1976 productions for others are submerged in a gloriously eccentric murk of re-mixed vocal clips, horns, flute, melodica and, yes, dubby echo.
11. ￼Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus
Marley survives political shooting in JA, arrives in punk-crazed London, records squelchy, funky-reggae triumph.
10. ￼Max Romeo & The Upsetters - War Ina Babylon
Marley-endorsed landmark in socially conscious, political roots reggae crafted at Lee Perry’s Black Ark.
9. ￼Prince Buster - FABulous Greatest Hits
Legendary ska cut Al Capone aside, this collects Buster’s delightfully cheeky rock steady sides, ever full of humorous skits.
8. ￼Joe Gibbs - African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 3
A weighty sub-bass dub excursion pushing the envelope with chirpy keys and bizarro sound effects including door bells and thunderclaps.
7. ￼ Upsetters - 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle
Lee Perry and King Tubby collaborate on pioneering dub album with extraordinary split-stereo mixes that collides to make a brand new sound. A masterpiece.
6. ￼Toots & The Maytals - Funky Kingston
The rough, rustic and churchy Maytals of the ska era are updated into a raucous rock stew that's impossible not to move to.
5. ￼The Congos - Heart Of The Congos
Perfect dread harmonies amid a Lee Perry mix of staggering complexity and endless soft-edged density. The squashiest, most organic-sounding reggae LP ever.
4. ￼Skatalites - Ska Boo-Da-Ba
The definitive Jamaican ska band at their dizzyingly inventive peak, taking the island’s shuffling offbeat dance music into swinging jazz and Far Eastern territory. Still mindblowing.
3. ￼Various - The Harder They Come
The soundtrack to the film that took reggae to the world, top’n’tailed by singer/actor Jimmy Cliff’s tropical-pop title-track and hymnal Many Rivers To Cross.
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2. ￼Augustus Pablo - King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown
Electronics wizard King Tubby chops up Augustus Pablo’s mournful productions on a DIY console built to terrify loudspeaker manufacturers. An eerie, mind-melting dub monster.
1. ￼Bob Marley & The Wailers - Catch A Fire
The album that made Bob Marley – and reggae – global superstars. Peerless songs, breathtaking musicianship and, 40 years on, still box fresh.
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