zaterdag 2 juli 2011

Best reggae albums lists

I somewhat avoid giving something like “my personal top 5 or 10” of, for instance, reggae albums. Mainly because of the definitive character of it: personal tastes can change, not all that seems pleasing stands the test of time as well, and new artists and/or new albums appear. Another problem with such lists is that they almost can’t help but being somewhat simplistic, even if words like “my” or “my personal” accentuate subjectivity.

I therefore choose in this post to approach the theme I in itself consider interesting - favourite reggae albums of people - on a “meta” level. I analyse criteria, and do research on the Internet, such as through Google, combined with my personally acquired experience and knowledge as a reggae enthusiast/lover for over 20 years. Something of my personal taste might come through, but hopefully not that definitive.

First of all: how to define “best”? Music has for many mainly to do with emotions, passion, feelings, senses (e.g. of identity, or existentially). This is all too human and in itself not bad. It can be seen even as positive. An ideal picture is that black artists in a developing country make songs that appeal to the hearts and feelings of people of all races and backgrounds, all over the world. In a world of racial and social conflicts, war, and inequality this sounds as a beautiful promise for a better world.

But this may be too ideal a picture: it is not totally unrealistic, it occurs, but is at the same time not very common. Racism and opportunism combines when white rappers or reggae artists do indeed reach more white fans more easily, irrespective of the relative quality. Generally it seems to be the case that people search also in their adored artists ethnic and social similarity with themselves: Europeans often (not always) prefer European music, Africans African or Black music.
Such boundaries are evident but are not that rigid. Reggae’s popularity in Europe, for instance, crosses these boundaries.

Then there is a possible “rational” approach to judging albums, which is (quasi-) scientific and scholarly. Like the “canon” ideas in official academic circles. Though it seems too “cold” when delving into a phenomenon that appeals to emotion like music (as all art). At school we’ve learned the definition of art: “expressions evoking emotions” or “meant to evoke emotions”. This in mind, I still believe a certain rationality can be good when judging musical or artistic quality. Not just inherent quality of works, but also their wider social and cultural significance, their place in history. Also regarding reggae albums this can be very interesting.


Looking at reggae’s history and sociocultural context an “as rational as possible” approach should include a set of thought-out criteria making sense. These relate to innovative artists and musicians, relative influence and reach, certain “periods”, and of course subgenres.

Reggae originated as such around 1968, following ska and rocksteady. Early reggae between 1968 and around 1972 was somewhat faster than later reggae (and even than some rocksteady). From around 1973 the “roots reggae” period set in, which remained the most popular in Jamaica itself until the early 1980s, representing a creative peak period. In the roots reggae period the Rastafari influence was relatively stronger. Roots reggae kept being made, but in the course of the 1980s the deejaying and “early dancehall” period set in with barer bass and drum riddims, as well as since the mid-1980s more “digital dancehall reggae”, Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ being known as the first instrumentally digital reggae song (in this case Casio-based). In the 1990s came “later” dancehall, with more digital (sometimes more minimal) riddims, alongside the reusing of older roots and reggae riddims, with deejays toasting or singers singing over them. This reusing of riddims/music of course remains in the present.

Within these general periods innovative and creative artists went their own way, pointing at a healthy individualism in Jamaican musical culture. Thus subgenres within subgenres developed, such as dub, harmony vocal groups, dub poetry, lovers rock and soul-influenced, or African and Jamaican folk-influenced stylings. All had a temporary and relative popularity in periods in Jamaica itself before they reached international popularity. Therefore they should all be included with representatives in any canonical or “best reggae albums” list.

For the sake of argument: let’s say that a “best reggae albums of all time” list includes 20 albums (more would probably be better, but still). A rough distinction would I think ideally be:

*two or three Early Reggae albums (e.g. Toots & The Maytals, Ethiopians) from between 1968 and 1971. One conveying US Black music influences, other of Jamaican folk music like mento, Burru or Pocomania.

*about 10 in total for the broad genre of Roots Reggae since 1973/1974. Further subdivided in:

-harmony vocal groups (Wailing Souls, Abyssinians, Mighty Diamonds, Israel Vibration)
-relatively innovative and influential vocalists (e.g. Dennis Brown, Hugh Mundell, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller)
-influential, renewing producers: (e.g. Lee “Scratch” Perry, Augustus Pablo, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and others)
-influential innovative musicians (e.g. Sly & Robbie)
-Rastafari lyrics, as it is often “message music”. Including different branches within Rastafari: Twelve Tribes (e.g. Israel Vibration, Ijahman Levi, Dennis Brown) or more recently influential Bobo Ashanti adherents (Sizzla, Capleton, Lutan Fyah)
-‘Rockers’ (a change within Roots Reggae starting around 1978, with a distinct drumming pattern, e.g. Mighty Diamonds album ‘Right Time’), and Steppers (another musical drum change)

-Dub: instrumental, remixed reggae songs, originated by King Tubby (e.g. Augustus Pablo)
-Dub Poetry (Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson)
-Lovers Rock (e.g. Gregory Isaacs)

*Early Dancehall. Many artists in this period were in fact partly in Roots Reggae (also with Rastafari lyrics), (e.g. Half Pint, Barrington Levy, Ini Kamoze, Sugar Minott, Michael Prophet, further Tenor Saw, Yellowman, Charlie Chaplin, Eek-a-Mouse etcetera)

*Digital dancehall (early and new: e.g. Wayne Smith, Prince Jammy, Bobby Digital, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel)

*New Roots on reused (non-digital) riddims, mostly Rastafari-inspired: deejaying/toasting (e.g. Capleton, Louie Culture, Jah Mason), singing (e.g. Luciano, Bushman, I-Wayne, Tarrus Riley, Jah Cure) ,or the in-between “singjay-ing” (e.g. Sizzla, Queen Ifrica, Junior Kelly, Lutan Fyah)

As one may note: this way a list of 20 albums is reached easily, even leaving too many valuable albums out.

Having my criteria set, let’s go to the Internet


Doing my Internet research on “best reggae albums” lists I encounter several of these lists. Some admit to be subjective personal favourites, and some are very succinct (without explaining stories or anecdotes). Some add such explanations or stories: “it was in the time when I used to go to a club etcetera”. Some more, let’s say ”self-assured” (I’m not saying arrogant) people refrain from everything that points to subjectivity. This can be a sort of authoritarian way of hiding one’s insecurity or lack of knowledge, but can also be – more positive? – their passion or enthusiasm taking the better of them.

A quasi-rational approach is what characterizes this list on this (British-based) website of “top” reggae albums, said to be aimed at “newbies”. I note however a pro-“British reggae” bias.

Since I’m not a newbie to reggae anymore it is maybe difficult for me to judge but I do not agree entirely with the list. Not that these albums are not interesting somehow, but are all these 25 really among the best? Only some artists or albums are in my opinion rightly included, according to my criteria, and from the “defining” point of view: Sly & Robbie, Burning Spear’s ‘Marcus Garvey’, Horace Andy, Mutabaruka, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. I can at least understand these being in a “best of” list.

They are influential, although there are better, historical examples of specific albums. But Daddy Freddy?, Super Cat? Maybe fun, but the top? Or crossover acts like Shaggy or Shinehead? Dubious. Let alone UB40’s ‘Labour of Love’. Really, the best? (the songs on that album are even covers, of which some I consider mediocre cover versions of better originals). Very roughly, subgenres and periods of my criteria are included. Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff represent Early Reggae for instance. Roots, dub and toasting/dancehall is there. Yet, in my opinion not the most representative albums or names. Again, due to a pro-British bias.

In comparison, the journal Mojo’s list of greatest reggae albums makes – I find – more sense.

Again, Burning Spear’s ‘Marcus Garvey’, but also rightly included are: Culture, Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds ‘Right Time’, we’re talking. Good examples of harmony vocals, as well as musically “early rockers” (Right Time), by “early” Sly & Robbie and “later”, modernizing Sly & Robbie (Black Uhuru), dub (Augusts Pablo), and the somewhat underrated classic “Truth & Rights” by Johnny Osbourne.

There are still some head-scratchers on the admittedly more extensive list. Some notable omissions as well: where are Alton Ellis, the Ethiopians, Israel Vibration, Peter Tosh, Little Roy, Mutabaruka, or the Wailing Souls? Still, it comes closer to true reggae, beyond crossover acts.

Then there is:

This Amazon-based list is more subjective, although the inclusion of Jacob Miller is a plus (another notable omission in the former lists), as well as of Bunny Wailer.

Another subjective list has some arguably odd choices which relate to personal taste.

Interesting artists and albums, maybe, but not the most representative or original. It lacks some of the periods and subgenres of my criteria.
Then there is this one:

This list is “safely” extensive, but includes, in my opinion justly, names not on the other lists: Hugh Mundell, Itals, Half Pint, and, there they are, the Ethiopians and Alton Ellis. Ijahman Levi and Israel Vibration are on the other hand wrongly left out, I think. Somewhat strange according to me is the choice of albums by some artists. No list seems perfect, I guess. Personally, I prefer Bob Marley’s ‘Uprising’ over ‘Catch A Fire’ but that is my taste. Largely, this list makes sense, according to my, aforementioned criteria.

Mark H. Harris of the Reggae Reviews website (still online but no longer updated: I contributed some guest reviews to this site in the past) has this interesting reggae album list for starters (or “newbies”).

Having read many of his reviews I noted that his taste within reggae is comparable, though not totally similar, to mine, but he is without a doubt knowledgeable on the genre. I agree with several of his choices, though it has a slight US-based or US Virgin Islands bias. US Virgin Island-based Dezarie and others are talented artists, no doubt about that. Some non-Jamaican artists can of course be included and the mentioned Chilean band Gondwana’s album ‘Together’ is indeed very nice Spanish-language reggae.

I agree with most album choices, but of the Twinkle Brothers I enjoyed their groovy album ‘Rasta Pon Top’ more than ‘Countrymen’, but that is personal and probably related to my life stage then (“because I used to go to this club where..”..just kidding). Of Bushman I enjoyed the almost-classic album ‘Signs’ more than ‘Nyah Man Chant’ (which still had nice songs), but that’s nitpicking. It’s a good list with maybe only a bias toward the US-based reggae (where the author lives), and toward Roots Reggae, which I admittedly have too, but some more Dancehall or New Roots – like Richie Spice - examples could have been given (they are there in the compilations of course). In Roots there still are some notable omissions, such as Mutabaruka and Culture, which I probably would have included. As I would have Misty In Roots.

Yet overall: if my collection ever got – Jah forbid - lost or stolen this list would be a good starting point for replacing it...

Interesting is the following list from, what I gather, is the Argentina-based version of Rolling Stone magazine of best “international reggae albums”:

This combines sensible, just, as well as odd choices. The latter include too commercial acts, but even acts that are not really reggae (albeit reggae-influenced): Massive Attack, Police, The Clash, and Taj Mahal. Still, the inclusion of the Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, even Alton Ellis and Ini Kamoze is good and just, as well as the chosen albums, although of Israel Vibration I would have chosen another album. Also the inclusions of Alpha Blondy, toasting “originator” U-Roy, and the (internationally!) very popular band Midnite (from St Croix/US Virgin Islands) are defendable.

Somewhat mistaken in my opinion is the choice for Gentleman, while Sizzla and Richie Spice are absent, but it is a list of international reggae albums. British reggae band Matumbi was also more commercial than my favourite British reggae act Misty In Roots.

Dancehall, however, is largely absent in this list, but maybe a distinction is made between Reggae and Dancehall. A distinction also found in Jamaica itself nowadays, in charts for instance.

The following shorter list is okay – not perfect – but includes some explanations, lacking from other lists.

From New Zealand comes the following list:

I consider this list mediocre at best. This is especially problematic, because it is called “important reggae albums”, suggesting objectivity. It includes some representative names that deserve to be included, but even for a short list wrong choices were made. Apparently, vocal harmony from the roots era (Abyssinians, Mighty Diamonds) are not the list maker’s “thing”. The list further shows a bias in favour of Dub and Early Reggae, and somewhat against “not Wailers-related” Roots Reggae, which may be due to a lack of knowledge.

From Germany comes this album list. It is better and more representative than the previous list, but also, perhaps ironically, presented as more subjective (“Meine” is German for “My””).

The author is apparently a Black Uhuru as well as Gregory Isaacs fan, and likes Roots Reggae more than (later) Dancehall. However, justly included – even from a more objective point of view - are names like Burning Spear, Ini Kamoze, Wailing Souls, Dennis Brown, and yes also Gregory Isaacs, and Black Uhuru. Also good that it includes the beautiful album ‘Africa’ by Ijahman Levi. Good reggae travels internationally, although since the 1970s Germany already has a quite extensive reggae fan base.


Interestingly, specific albums recur most. The most recurrent in the sources I found was Burning Spear’s ‘Marcus Garvey’. Justly so, I think. A good example of original vocalists, Rastafari and Garvey-ite lyrics, and even of harmony vocals as Winston Rodney still combined then with two other male vocalists. These left afterward.

Recurring are Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s/the Upsetters ‘Super Ape’ and Dennis Brown’s ‘Words Of Wisdom’. Also justly, I think. The innovating genius of Scratch has been documented enough, and Dennis Brown was a great, original vocalist, as well as a talented songwriter. His vocal style even influenced a whole “school” of later Jamaican reggae singers. This school includes Luciano, Bushman, Natty King and more. Some of these artists also say that Dennis Brown was one of their influences. They still remained original though.

Somewhat less consistently some other albums do recur as well: the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Right Time’, Culture’s ‘Two Sevens Clash’, the Congos’ ‘Heart of the Congos’, and the Abyssinians ‘Satta Massagana’. Justly so: classic Roots Reggae with strong Rastafari influence, and great harmony vocals. Also, from a bit later historically, Black Uhuru recurs, especially albums when Michael Rose was lead singer. Justly: Michael Rose influenced another vocal “school” in Jamaican reggae, including Junior Reid and Yami Bolo.
Further recurring, a bit less often, is Peter Tosh’s ‘Equal Rights’, the Gladiators ‘Trench Town Mix Up’, and Horace Andy’s ‘Skylarking’. I can understand this as well.

Less recurring – and in my opinion wrongly – are the Wailing Souls, Hugh Mundell, Little Roy, and Ini Kamoze, having put out a few classic albums, I think. Israel Vibration could recur a bit more as well, I think.

Even more rare, Mutabaruka and Misty In Roots. Also unjust, I think. Mutabaruka’s ‘Check It!’ is for instance a great album, plus representative of Dub Poetry. Misty In Roots’ ‘Jah See Jah Know’ is a sincere, strong album. One of the best Roots examples from Britain. Ijahman Levi is another talented artist that could be mentioned more in such lists. The same applies to the unique vocals of Don Carlos. The Ethiopians and Alton Ellis, both skilfully bridging ska, rocksteady, and reggae, are also mentioned too rarely in my opinion.

Finally, New Roots receives not much attention in the lists. Maybe, people think that it is too new to judge if it is lasting, influential talent. This in some cases is reasonable. Yet not in all. The appeal of Sizzla is proven, as is of Richie Spice, Bushman, and Luciano. I-Wayne is not very prolific, but his album ‘Lava Ground’ is almost a classic.

Too much recurring were in my opinion UB40, maybe Bob Marley’s specific album ‘Catch A Fire’, Jimmy Cliff, or Steel Pulse.

This all inspired me somehow: to listen again to some of these artists, sometimes from albums mentioned in lists. I was even stimulated to make such a list of “top reggae albums” myself. I formulated criteria for it, didn’t I? I almost wanted to “answer” these lists with my own. Almost...