A lot of people ask me for some good reggae albums to get as an introduction to the genre.The first thing I’ll say about this list is that it is intended as just that – reccomendations for a person who knows nothing about reggae. As such, some reggae fans may disagree with some of these choices, or find that many artists have been omitted or misrepresented. The reason for this is that some popular artists (such as Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy, Dennis Brown etc) have never captured a place in my heart and so I feel I cannot rightly give an opinion on their work. This list would probably not be too far off my own personal Top 40 Reggae Albums Of All Time, but that is not what it’s intended as. There’s no Chris Blackwell-produced Bob Marley albums on the list because I don’t like them very much, and besides I think most non-reggae fans would at least own a copy of his “Legend” compilation.
Secondly, I’ve tried to limit this list to just “reggae” – there’s no dub as I think that genre is too daunting for most outsiders who are unfamilliar with the genre, and if I were to include ska, rocksteady, ragga, jungle etc albums the list would just be too long. I originally wanted to avoid compilation albums but as the Jamaican music industry has always been more about singles than LPs this has proved to be difficult. Also, I have avoided listing the same artist twice, but I have suggested further listening in the case of some artists.
Finally, here’s a little glossary of some terms used in the reviews:
Black Ark: see Scratch.
Dancehall: 80s style of reggae, riddims are usually electronic, with singers offering a faster delivery more akin to rap music.
Deejay: Ironically, a deejay in reggae terminology is a kind of singer. Deejays would toast (improvise lyrics) over the instrumental of another artist’s song. The deejay style was an early precursor to rap music. A singjay is a deejay who sings rather than toasts.
Dub: usually instrumental, a style of reggae with focus on the drum and bassline, with jarring studio effects like delay and samples.
Nyabhinghi: Slower, medititative style of roots reggae, emphasis on percussion, style is akin to African drumming.
Riddim: term used for the backing track of a reggae song. A lot of reggae songs use the same instrumentals (sometimes played by different groups) and these are generally known as “riddims”.
Rocksteady: early version of reggae.
Roots: probably the style of reggae most non-listeners are thinking of when they think “reggae”. Slow pace, vocal harmonies, lyrics focused on religious and social themes.
Scratch: Lee “Scratch” Perry, madman and genius producer behind a good number of these albums, mostly in his infamous Black Ark studio.
Version: alternate cut of a song, can be an instrumental, dub or deejay version.
40 – Joseph Cotton – 100% Pure Cotton
I couldn’t find much info about Joseph Cotton on the web, but this compilation is an enjoyable collection of deejay cuts. Cotton’s voice is tuneful and endearing. Fun album.
39 – Jah Lion – Colombia Collie
LP of deejay versions of Black Ark productions. “Soldier And Police War” is a crucial version of Junior Murvin’s “Police And Thieves”. The rest are also worth checking out, standouts include “Dread In A Jamdong” and “Hey Fever”.
38 – U-Roy – Natty Rebel
There are probably better U-Roy compilations out there, so I’d reccomend checking out a few, but this one has the most classic cuts and is a pretty good starting point for anyone wanting to get into the deejay style.
36 – Viceroys – Ya Ho
Dodgy album art aside, this is a solid compilation of early roots cuts.
36 – Abyssinians – Satta Massagana
Great solid roots LP with sweet vocal harmonies, classic riddims and ace instrumentation. Not much to say about this one other than it’s a classic and a great roots LP for anyone wanting to get into the style. In fact, other reggae fans would probably rank it a fair bit higher than I have done, but this group never did catch my imagination as much as other vocal groups have done, for some reason.
35 – Horace Andy – Pure Ranking
There’s plenty of Horace Andy material out there, but the title track alone makes this LP worthy of any list. Horace Andy’s distinctive voice soars above the tracks and earns him a place in the listener’s heart.
34 – I-Roy – Heart Of A Lion
I always preferred I-Roy to U-Roy; in terms of lyrics and delivery, I-Roy is superior in my opinion, and this LP is exemplary of his style. Again, there are many great I-Roy cuts not on this album, but those who are new to reggae should start with this album to get a flavour of his deejay style.
33 – John Holt – Police In Helicotper
John Holt is traditionally seen as a singer of love songs, but this Greensleeves LP sees him as a dreadlocked rootsman singing over more dancehall-style riddims. If you want to hear him singing reggae version of well-known love songs, get “1000 Volts Of Holt”.
32 – Johnny Clarke – Rockers Time Now
It was either this album or “Enter Into His Gates With Praise”. Why this one? I just think it has a better selection of tracks. Get both if unsure, you can’t go wrong.
31 – Tenor Saw – Fever
A brilliant singer tragically taken before his time. This LP makes a good introduction to the 80s digital style as a whole, in addition to being a great recording its own right. No “Ring The Alarm”, though.
30 – Jacob Miller – Tenement Yard
As above, Jacob Miller’s promising career as a singer was cut short at the age of 27 years. This is my favourite LP of his and shows his character and strong voice, especially in the rocking title track.
29 – Keith Hudson – The Hudson Affair
Keith Hudson, the Dark Prince of Reggae, is my all-time favourite reggae producer. As an artist, not so much – his rough voice can take some getting used to. This compilation showcases some of his best work, and features many great and well-known vocalists, deejays and players of instruments.
28 – Various – Rockers Original Soundtrack
Get this if you really don’t know where to start on your journey into the world of reggae. And buy the DVD of the movie as well (make sure it has subtitles).
27 – Justin Hinds & The Dominoes – Prophecy Live
Lead vocalist Justin Hinds (of ska vocal group the Dominoes) slows it down for this live concert recording. The band is tight and JH gives a solid performance. There’s also an interview conducted by someone who can only be described as the whitest man on earth.
26 – Linton Kwesi Johnson – Forces Of Victory
LKJ’s militant and unflinching dub poetry is timeless, songs like “Fite Dem Back” are still relevant today. May be a little hard if you’re looking for sweet vocal melodies and catchy hooks though.
25 – Tennors – Rock Steady Classics
Yeah, I know it’s rocksteady and not technically not reggae, but maybe we can call this one “early reggae” and get away with it. Besides, the Tennors are one of my all-time favourite vocal groups, and every one of these singles is a classic.
24 – Maytones – Brown Girl In The Ring
Again, this is probably more rocksteady than reggae but it’s my list so whatever.The Maytones are a vocal duo whose singing style is distinctive and sometimes a little unnverving, but this compilation is the best collection of their early work. It’s also worth checking out some of their later roots stuff as well.
23 – Eek-A-Mouse – Wa-Do-Dem
Eek-A-Mouse is a real character! His deejay style really is unique, and after listening to this album you will find yourself singing “wa-diddly-bing-bing-shu-diddly-diddly-beng” (etc) for days on end.
22 – Cornel Campbell – I Shall Not Remove
My compilation of choice for the mighty Gorgon, others might disagree, but you can’t go wrong with this one. If you like it (and you probably will) there are many other CC albums out there.
21 – Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus – Peace & Love
Great meditative LP. Long tracks, relaxing and slow-paced, and a perfect introduction to the nyabinghi style.
20 – Silvertones – Silver Bullets
Reggae meets doo-wop! Real sweet vocal harmonies, I think most of these are covers of 50s tunes. Although a little out of place, “Rejoice Jah Jah Children” is a definite standout track. This album is not so popular with reggae fans but to me it’s very listenable indeed. The Silvertones’ earlier ska stuff is also great.
19 – Sylford Walker & Welton Irie – Lambs Bread International
Half roots vocal, half deejay cuts. Each song has a few different versions but each is great in its own right, thanks in part to Welton Irie’s entertaining deejay style.
18 – Bob Marley & The Wailers – Rebel Revolution
I was going to list the Wailers’ “African Herbsman” but this compilation includes that album and quite a few other tracks recorded at the Black Ark. Also try the Gold compilation for more great early Wailers tracks, before they were brought to massive mainstream attention by Chris Blackwell and Island records.
17 – Peter Tosh – Legalise It
I prefer Peter Tosh to Bob Marley – the Stepping Razor was tough, militant, and a great songwriter, and this is his best solo work, although his other albums are well worth your time too – try “Wanted Dread And Alive”.
16 – Ijahman Levi – Are We A Warrior
In my mind Ijahman is the Bob Dylan of reggae. The songs on this LP are long, the lyrics are great and the arrangements are fantastic, complex and heavily layered.
15 – Burning Spear – Social Living
Great singer, great production, his best LP in my opinion. Like this? There’s plenty more out there!
14 – Johnny Osbourne – Musical Chopper
Great singjay style, this album showcases JO’s voice over many well-loved and familiar riddims.
13 – Desmond Dekker – Music Like Dirt
I know, some of the tracks on this compilation are ska and the rest are rocksteady, but I can’t make a list like this without mentioning Desmond Dekker. This is one of the first reggae albums I bought and DD will always have a place in my heart.
12 – Toots & The Maytals – Time Tough
Ditto – this is a great overview of the Maytals’ work, and there’s loads more out there for those who haven’t already heard of this group through GTA soundtracks and TV adverts.
11 – Mikey Dread – World War Three
I LOVE Mikey Dread’s voice! I could listen to it all day. Great album, riddims are all perfect, Mikey Dread deejays in his laid-back style; not a song out of place. Get the Dread At The Controls label version as it has extra tracks and dub versions.
10 – Yellowman – Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt
King Yellowman. Not only one of my favourite reggae singers, but one of the most inspiring figures in music (to me). The guy overcame his albinism, cancer, and a stroke – and is still performing today. Some prefer “Mister Yellowman” but I think this one has better cuts, some using the same riddims. Get both if in doubt, then get more. Yellowman’s deejay style is addictive!
9 – Yabby You – Jesus Dread
Huge collection of roots, deejay and dub cuts. Be warned that the same riddim is sometimes used on three or four cuts. Some people don’t get this when they first get into reggae. I prefer to think of it as listening to a super-duper-extended version of the same song, where singers, deejays and players all get to show off their talent. Every one of these tracks is outstanding.
8 – Keith Hudson – Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood
I know I already listed a Keith Hudson album, but “The Hudson Affair” is more of a showcase of his production talents, and acts more like a compilation album (like the above). This album shows KH’s unusual vocal style embellished by wonderful musical arrangements and sweet harmony vocals. The title track and others such as “Testing Of My Faith” are poignant and KH’s vocals ooze character and feeling despite their gruff nature.
7 – Lacksley Castell – Morning Glory
An underrated singer in my opinion, this is one of my favourite roots reggae LPs. Every track on this one is great, and each is paired with a dub version after the vocal cut.
6 – Mighty Diamonds – Right Time
Crucial roots album, again not much to say except every track is a killer and if you like it, there’s many more to check out (“Heads of Government” being my next choice).
5 – Lee Scratch Perry & The Upsetters – Super Ape
Scratch’s masterpiece.The man has a HUGE back catalogue, most of it from the 80s onwards is not up to scratch (heh) but this one serves not only as a crucial reggae album but also a gentle introduction to dub.
4 – Culture – Two Sevens Clash
Another roots reggae masterpiece. Hugely powerful and prophetic vocals, great production, one of my favourites of all time.
3 – Little Roy – Tafari Earth Uprising
Another underrated singer, Little Roy’s vocals are passionate and exude an incredible amount of emotion. See also “Packin’ House” for a great compilation of cuts from Little Roy and other artists.
2 – Israel Vibration – The Same Song
Perfect album, beautiful harmonies, a good mix of slow, hypnotic roots reggae grooves and more upbeat cuts.Not much to say other than this is probably the roots reggae album you should get if you like the sound of the style but can only afford one LP.
1 – The Congos – Heart Of The Congos
My favourite reggae album of all time, and one of my favourite albums in any genre. Scratch’s production is phenomenal – minimalist yet enormous, with the huge vocal harmonies resulting in a haunting and otherworldly sound that manages to be eerie and powerful yet catchy and melodic. Obviously a hard act to follow but see also “Lion Treasure” for a good compilation of post-Scratch recordings.