Reggae has a nice mix of soul, jazz, funk, and has had an immense influence upon hip hop.
As with any other list, all ten albums listed meet the following criteria: they’re in my collection, I enjoy them, and they represent a certain variety within the genre.
My first introduction to reggae was Bob Marley. That is assuredly the case with most other fans. He’s also one of my favorites and widely regarded as one of the best reggae artists and musicians ever, so he heads the list.
1. Survival — Bob Marley
As with any popular musician, Marley suffers from WNWO playing 1% of his full catalogue over and over, and the artist becomes a caricature. Then it becomes unfashionable if you list him as your favorite, especially if you haven’t tried to listen to others in the genre. Two things are certain—he is practically the face of reggae for a very good reason, and his greatness cannot be denied.
My first experience with Bob Marley came when I was around 18 dating this sweetheart of a girl who had a dub tape of the hugely popular compilation Legend. I had no idea who he was. My thing was Beastie Boys and Pink Floyd, followed by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and all the other obligatory late 60’s to 70’s giants of rock.
I was blown away. He was totally different from what I had heard before. After that, a couple years later the first album I got of his was Survival on a cassette tape for a couple bucks.
This is probably my favorite album of his. Most Rolling Stones-type lists have Catch a Fire, Burnin’, and Exodus. They’re all great to me, but this album is just so cool I can’t really express it. I think it embodies the heart, not just of Bob Marley, but of reggae, most succinctly.
The album cover with all the African flags are so next level, and goes so well with the bold title and theme.
The first track Wake Up and Live sets the stage. Africa Unite, which follows, draws me deeper into the album and the heart of the matter. Aside from the direct plea to unite Africa, there is a very real bluesy call for those redeemed by the spirit of God to unite, to not be polluted by the world system, or Babylon—one of the world empires mentioned in Scripture and specifically chosen by John in Revelation to describe the corrupt system of man.
This album made me want to dig deeper into the history of Africa as well as into the Bible. Marley, more than anyone I can think of, most resembles what I imagine an Old Testament prophet to be. Marley preaches while encouraging others in a musically healing way to look to heaven and demand it here on earth. His message, to be simple and to the point, was love, freedom, and enjoyment within God’s kingdom.
I don’t share (nor fully understand) his belief in Haile Sellaise, but find it interesting that the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-74 considered himself an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. I’ve considered myself an outsider throughout my life, and when I first came to know God as a young man, this album resonated within my heart and soul, helping me worship the Most High in spirit and truth. As with anything good, music is a gift from God. I believe every single artist on this list shares that sentiment.
Favorite tracks: Africa Unite, One Drop, Ride Natty Ride, Ambush in the Night, So Much Trouble in the World, Zimbabwe, Top Rankin’ and Babylon System.
2. Skanking with the Upsetter: Rare Dubs 1971-1974 — Lee Perry
The first track Perry in Dub is reason enough to own this album. The fact it’s Lee Perry’s rare dubs from the early 70’s is another. This 2001 compilation from Jamaican Recordings is affordably priced and a great representation of dub and the legend himself. The album is great throughout, and includes a whimsical representation of Three Blind Mice named Three Blind Dub.
Aside from the first song, I really enjoy Perry’s Rub-A-Dub, a down tempo number with trance-like, plodding bass lines, drums, low horns, skanking guitar, organ, castanets, and a wig-busting, Atari-sounding, exploding bomb effect. Other great tracks are After Beat Dub, Roots Rock Dub, Problem With Dub, Good Will Dub (which comes from Hopeton Lewis’s 1972 celebration of Jamaica’s 10th year of independence), John Crow Skank, and Kotch Up Dub, which displays a funky trio of guitar, bass, and percussion.
3. Hard Time Pressure — Sugar Minott
This 2011 compilation from 17 North Parade, part of VP Records, contains a total of ten tracks from a variety of albums released from 1978 through 1986. Two of my favorites are Hard Time Pressure—from the 1978 album Black Roots—and Good Thing Going, the title track from his 1981 LP. The latter is a great love song to play at a wedding when you need a light reggae vibe. The former and title track to this album has such an infectious groove and soulful and subtle wails that have a visceral and spiritual feel.
4. Jump the Fence — Winston Wright & The Aggrovators
I first heard Winston Wright’s funky organ playing on a dub from Lee Perry & The Upsetters’ double-LP compilation Sound System Scratch. The track is Bushdub Corntrash. All the tracks on this 1977 Third World label are funky dub instrumentals. It’s great to play all the way through as background music, or good to pull from when compiling a playlist. In addition to Jimmy Smith-like B-3 organ, you’ll hear funky bass lines and some soulful guitar.
It’s a shame I’m not including Jackie Mittoo, whose music is as good (and similar) as Wright’s, and is considered, along with Wright, one of the best and funkiest reggae organists ever. A great introduction to his music is Jackie Mittoo Rides On, a compilation released in 2008 on Jamaican Recordings that’s about as affordable as it gets for any of his albums.
5. Sleeping Bag’s Reggae Dance Hall Classics — 1987 Sleeping Bag Records
Compilations can be cool for many reasons. One is that you can let the record play two or three tracks consecutively. The second side of this has four tracks that are all exceptional, thus the title. The first one is Wayne Smith’s popular mid-80’s hit Under Me Sleng Teng, followed by Super Chick’s Roach Killer. This song from 1980 has grown on me. Under Mi Sensi by Barrington Levy is the third track. Worries in the Dance, my favorite on here, rounds the side out.
6. Augustus Pablo Meets Lee Perry & The Wailers Band: Rare Dubs 1970-1971
When you get three great names in one—Bob Marley & The Wailers, Lee Perry, and melodica player Augustus Pablo—you usually take note. Commonly found for around $15 in new or like new condition, this is an album worth having. Is it East of the River Nile or King Tubbys Meets The Rockers Uptown? Not according to most. But it’s a nice introduction to Pablo’s sound, dub in general, and early Bob Marley & The Wailers. Favorites include: Soul Rebel Dub, Don’t Rock My Boat Dub, 400 Years Dub, Concrete Jungle Dub, Put it On Dub, and Keep on Moving.
7. Be True to Yourself: Anthology 1965-70 — Alton Ellis
Released in 2004 on Earmark Records, this is a great Alton Ellis compilation to have for parties and weddings. Known as the “Godfather of Lover’s Rock,” Ellis and his musicians provide smooth and infectious rhythms and harmonies, and are funky enough with the bass and percussion to be interesting and move the crowd gently. It’s great when you want a 60s soul sound but want to mix it up with reggae flavor.
The following are standouts: Dance Crasher, Blessings of Love, Cry Tough, Rocksteady, Ain’t that Loving You, My Time is the Right Time, La La Means I Love You (a great soul cover of The Delfonics’ classic), What Does It Take To When Your Love (a great wedding song), You Made Me So Very Happy, Black Man’s World, and Lord Deliver Us.
8. Dub From The Roots — King Tubby
King Tubby is highly and widely regarded as one of the primary visionaries and pioneers of dub and electronic music. He was educated at a technical college in the late 50s or early 60s and put his skill and knowledge to good use in the music studio. According to the back cover, Tubby built his first sound system in 1957 and played jazz and R&B, then began mixing and producing. This album was originally released in 1974, and reissues are available and affordable from the label Jamaican Recordings. Iyahta, Hijack the Barber, Double Cross, Invasion, Dub of a Woman, and Declaration of Dub are all great.
9. Funky Kingston — Toots & The Maytals
This was one of the first reggae albums I gathered, and although I liked it quite a bit, I never knew until I began writing this that it’s so universally accepted as great. When listening to it recently I could see why it makes so many prestigious lists.
Released in 1975 on Mango Records, this album provides good background music throughout. Time Tough, the first song, is a great mellow, funky, and bluesy song that typifies the general style and nature of the whole album. You could also choose from several tracks to throw on at a party, but I wouldn’t count on it to move the crowd too much, although they cover Louie, Louie, which could be favorable for a 50’s/60’s theme. Pomp and Pride, the first track on the second side, rivals Time Tough for being my favorite on here. John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Road is another excellent track.
10. Heart of the Congos: Deluxe Edition — The Congos
Originally released in 1977 on Lee Perry’s Black Ark label, this 2 LP edition from 2008 includes the reissue of the universally-acclaimed first album from The Congos—Heart of the Congos—along with a second record containing 11 tracks from four previously released albums (Congo, Image of Africa, Face the Music, and Revival).
The first album oozes with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Cedric Myton provides the high octave vocals, Watty Burnett deep background vocals, and Roydel Johnson rhythm guitar. These three form the band, though the writing credits for each track goes to the nucleus Myton and Johnson.
Lee Perry mixed and produced this at his famous studio Black Ark in Kingston, and provided percussion. Other big names contribute: Gregory Isaacs provides background vocals, Sly Dunbar plays drums, and Winston Wright is on organ.
Throughout this well-balanced album there is a thread of great harmonies, groovy bass, and funky rhythms worshipping the Almighty in spirit and truth.
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to pick something that best typifies this album it would be Congoman.