Reggae music, the best songs from the Jamaican music genre

Reggae music

With over 40 years of existence, reggae music has evolved from being known as a genre originating in Jamaica to becoming one of the most popular and imitated genres in the world. While today the hit-generating machinery might be a bit subdued, the reality is that it still carries the same spirit and vitality.

In the following lines, we will explore various facets of the genre with its most interesting artists, not forgetting the great Bob Marley, the prominent figurehead. However, we’ll also consider the evolutions and subgenres that have emerged leading up to 2020. From early reggae to raggamuffin, and even touching on derivative blends like rap or dub.

In fact, reggae had such a profound impact on people’s musical taste that we still witness evolutions today, like that of dancehall, which is in itself a subgenre of the previously mentioned ragga. In essence, delving into this topic is no simple task. We could open a door and enter a labyrinth where we might lose ourselves. Therefore, we will primarily focus on the core, with brief glimpses into its offspring.

The Beginnings of Reggae Music (1966-1973)

It’s worth remembering that the most popular music styles originating in Jamaica are, at least in terms of global appreciation, ska, rocksteady, and chronologically, reggae. Notably, the latter is a free blend of the two previous genres. In this regard, The Wailers stand out as the pioneering band, the trailblazers who preceded all others.

Does the name of this group sound familiar even if you’re not a big reggae aficionado? Perhaps because it was composed of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, significant figureheads of the genre (especially the first). However, we’re talking about the mid-1960s, and it wouldn’t be until the mid-1970s that the general public would come to know the musical genre that emerged in Jamaica as it’s understood today.

For example, we’re particularly excited to mention Toots & The Maytals in this section. Their band formed in 1963 and crossed all kinds of boundaries with “Funky Kingston” in 1973. Nevertheless, we mustn’t forget other names like Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, or The Upsetters.

Best Albums and Songs from 1966 to 1973

Along these lines, there are many more acclaimed albums throughout this period than we’re going to mention here, mainly to avoid overwhelming those seeking specific information. If you enjoy what you find here, transitioning from this introductory guide to something a bit deeper will be effortless. Thank you, internet, for making knowledge so accessible, especially in the realm of music, which we appreciate the most.

As indicated by the title, let’s get to the point. Considering that instrumental reggae could be defined, according to Rate Your Music, as a genre characterized by a 4/4 time signature, off-beat rhythms, organ shuffle or bubble, and guitar staccato chords (or piano) known as skank. It’s important to remember at this point that the feeling of freedom, both lyrically and sonically, is another allure. It’s a spirit that both advocates for and releases itself, in summary.

As we’ve mentioned, reggae developed from rocksteady and ska, and it bears strong influences from those genres (like the ruggedness and bravado of Spaghetti Western, for example). It also incorporates elements of Rhythm & Blues, as well as traditional Caribbean Calypso and Mento, which are also present in the genre’s original sound.

Artist or band Album Title Release Date
Bob Marley and The Wailers Catch a Fire 1973
Desmond Dekker & The Aces Intensified 1968
Jimmy Cliff Jimmy Cliff 1969
The Wailers Burnin’ 1973
Toots & The Maytals Funky Kingston 1973
Artist or band Song Title Release Date
Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come 1972
Toots & The Maytals Monkey Man 1969
The Slicker Johnny (Too) Bad 1970
Harry J. All Stars Liquidator 1969
Toots & The Maytals & Beverley’s All Stars Pressure Drop 1970

Reggae Reaches Its Fullness and Success is (Almost) Always Assured (1974-1981)

Despite the major reggae boom in the United States and Europe, in terms of local production, occurring mostly in the 1980s, it’s in the 1970s that Jamaicans experience the true golden age. This is when they are most productive, inspired, and create a higher number of hits each year.

By saying this, we don’t mean that reggae music wasn’t popular beyond its Caribbean borders. Quite the contrary. It was a success and had a huge influence on the creation of other music styles. Often linked to the Rastafarian spiritual movement, many foreigners traveled to Jamaica with the idea of experiencing the full lifestyle of a music lover. From figures like Serge Gainsbourg to Johnny Rotten, for example, many artists visited the island to immerse themselves in a very local way of life, encompassing more than just the songs themselves.

In terms of music, once again, Bob Marley is the main star, alongside The Wailers. Naturally, the pioneers are among the most celebrated figures within the genre. The big difference from the previous stage, however, lies in the evolution of these artists. While traces of the other mentioned music styles were still audible before, now we hear pure and unadulterated reggae. Why stop at 1981? Very simple: it’s the year Marley, the most representative figure worldwide, passes away. This marks a significant turning point in many ways, as we will see.

Best Albums and Songs from 1974 to 1981

During this period, we begin to hear the first steps of dub as a central subgenre in some tracks. Examples include Augustus Pablo and Horace Andy. Not included in the list, to offer a bit more variety, is the song “No Woman, No Cry,” whether in its original 1974 version or the live version from 1975. On the other hand, three other songs from the band are included, along with two albums, including “Natty Dread,” where we can find the aforementioned song.

As we say, variety is the spice of life, even when discussing a genre. In any case, the presence of the aforementioned big names in the movement prevails, along with some discoveries that emerged after international success and a warm reception. Let’s not forget, in fact, that subcultures like skinhead reggae or roots reggae, to name just two examples, are clear influences derived from the original way of crafting songs, which even the foundational groups touched upon.

Artist or band Album Title Release Date
Bob Marley & The Wailers Exodus 1977
The Congos Heart of The Congos 1977
Ijahman Haile I Hymn (Chapter 1) 1978
Bob Marley & The Wailers Natty Dread 1974
Burning Spear Marcus Garvey 1975
Artist or band Song Title Release Date
Max Romeo Chase the Devil 1976
Bob Marley and The Wailers Redemption Song 1980
Augustus Pablo King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown 1975
Bob Marley and The Wailers Could You Be Loved 1980
Bob Marley & The Wailers Is This Love 1978

The Maturity of Reggae. The Industry Grows in Europe and the USA (1982-1999)

Up until now, we’ve preferred to slightly overlook the topic of reggae’s influence on American and European music, although something has already emerged in the form of subculture and urban tribes. Basically, because even though in the 70s punk and other mentioned genres, as well as subgenres, drew heavily from this musical style, it’s from the 80s onwards that it becomes a more significant form of expression on the scene. It stops being an influence to become something pop and commercial. Bands like UB40 confirm this, but they weren’t the only ones.

Dubstep begins to gain considerable popularity, and many bands from various genres include songs of this kind on some of their albums, and everything starts to blend together to a great extent. You could find some reggae music in an art pop song or in trip hop, and it would suit you well. In a way, we can say that the rhythm becomes enriched. And if not, just ask the DJs (not the deejays) after Major Lazer.

But in any case, the good stuff continued to come from Jamaica. Even though the aforementioned UB40 succeeded in these parts with “Red Red Wine” in the 80s and with “(Can’t Help) Falling In Love” in the 90s, the real music continued to be made there on the good island (meaning, far from England). We have Noel Ellis, for example, or Scientists. Although it’s interesting to note how most of these groups ended up migrating to the United States or Canada to continue their careers there.

The Best Albums and Songs from 1982 to 1999

Anyway, before moving on to the list of the best albums and songs, let’s remind you that not everything was consistent from the UK in this regard. Steel Pulse delivered one of the best-produced albums of the 80s. Nevertheless, the Jamaican origin of their members is notable in terms of quality and results.

On the other hand, apart from dub, dancehall starts to become a reality, although it would explode worldwide in the 2000s, with artists like Sean Paul, among others. Lover’s rock also had its moments in these years, as well as other less popular subgenres like the fusion with jazz and funk (which was always there, actually).

In these years, we can say with a certain sadness that the freshness seems exhausted, giving way to a new type of music-making in the 2000s, as we’ll see in the following section.

Artist or band Album Title Release Date
Junior Delahaye Reggae 1982
Ernest Ranglin Below the Bassline 1996
Ini Kamoze Ini Kamoze 1984
Linton Kwesi Johnson Tings an’ Times 1991
Noel Ellis Noel Ellis 1983
Artist or band Song Title Release Date
Massive Attack Man Next Door 1999
Anthony Red Rose Tempo 1985
Fishmans Baby Blue 1996
Wayne Smith Under Me Sleng Teng 1985
Sublime Santería 1997

Reggae Today (from 2000 to the Present)

As we mentioned, reggae quickly internationalizes, giving rise to popular singers from other regions of the world. Names like the Italian Alborosie, the Panamanian Kafu Banton, alongside celebrated and successful Jamaicans like Sean Paul and Shaggy, as well as others who are less internationally known like Elephant Man, Capleton, or Anthony B.

It’s in these years that the musical genre undergoes a renewal, transforming into what we know today. We could also include reggaeton, as an evolution of reggae in Spanish, since it’s essentially a blend of this style with dancehall in an Afro-Panamanian format. With this in mind, we can confidently say that it’s the most popular style in the world, even surpassing other popular styles.

In these years, even Marley’s children appear, leveraging the family name for visibility. Some of them found success and showcased their talents, but their fame was generally quite short-lived. Alongside this, there was a resurgence of long-time representatives. However, it’s not all spiritually positive. Vybz Kartel also gained a certain level of fame during this period, especially with the single “Go Go Wine,” although he’s now more famous for being sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.

The Best Albums and Songs from 2000 to the Present

To conclude our monograph, we would like to add that, for us, the great virtue that has made reggae something deeply rooted in the tastes of so many cultures is its minimalism. Simple, essential, basic, complete, fluid, fresh, and direct to our ears. Let’s not forget that behind many of the productions of the best albums in this period were people like Timbaland.

Artist o band Album Title Release Date
Fat Freddy’s Drop Based on a True Story 2005
Jimmy Cliff Rebirth 2012
Easy Star All-Stars Dub Side of the Moon 2003
Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force Yermande 2016
The Aggrolites The Aggrolites 2006
Artist or band Song Title Release Date
Anthony B Give Thanks for Life 2009
Major Lazer & Amber Coffman Get Free 2012
Elephant Man Tip Up 2011
Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley Welcome to Jamrock 2005
Rhythm & Sound King in My Empire 2001

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