Sometimes, reggae gets a bad rap in hipster circles. This is often less about the music itself and more about the culture surrounding it. More specifically, it has to do with misgivings over white Westerners misappropriating reggae music and Rastafarian culture.
However you feel about that particular debate, there’s a lot of terrific reggae out there. If you’re looking to add some reggae to your record collection, here are five must-have reggae albums to start your journey with.
Israelites by Desmond Dekker (1969)
Dekker probably isn’t as well-known today as the other artists mentioned below, but he helped make them possible. His classic 1968 single “Israelites” was one of the first undiluted Jamaican songs to make Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. Featuring Dekker’s signature falsetto, an irresistibly skanking beat and hard-bitten lyrics about living in poverty, it still sounds fresh after five decades.
“Israelites” anchors this 1969 album of the same name, which also features such first-rate tunes as “It Mek,” “Intensified,” “Problems” and “Rude Boy Train.”
The Harder They Come (1973)
Two albums are generally credited with making reggae popular in the US. One is The Wailers’ Catch a Fire. The other is The Harder They Come.
This soundtrack to the 1972 Jamaican film of the same name helped make Jimmy Cliff an international star. His three songs on the album—the defiant title track, the upbeat “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and the soulful “Many Rivers to Cross”—are arguably the finest work of his career.
Not only does The Harder They Come showcase Cliff’s songs, it also features classic tracks by such renowned reggae artists as Desmond Dekker, the Melodians and Toots and the Maytals. No reggae collection is complete without this one!
Burnin’ by The Wailers (1974)
Bob Marley released plenty of classic albums in his lifetime, including Catch a Fire and Exodus. However, Burnin’ explains best why lots of people in the third world see him not just as a great musician but as a revolutionary icon.
You probably know “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff” already. However, hearing them alongside the mournful “Burnin’ and Lootin’” and the deceptively mellow “Small Axe” reminds you just how angry those songs are.
Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals (UK: 1973 / US: 1975)
No matter what kind of mood you’re in, you can’t listen to Toots and the Maytals and not feel at least a little better. The Maytals have undergone lineup changes over the years, but the heart of the group has always been Toots Hibbert, whose ebullient presence and deft, booming vocals have earned him comparisons to Otis Redding.
Funky Kingston had a UK and a US release with different track listings. Both are good, but the US version wins out thanks both to irresistible originals like “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” and the title song and to covers of “Louie Louie” and John Denver’s “Country Road” (don’t laugh—it’s pretty great).
Two Sevens Clash by Culture (1977)
Marcus Garvey predicted that the apocalypse would occur on July 7, 1977. It didn’t, obviously, but at least it inspired this reggae masterpiece.
Two Sevens Clash balances catchy tunes with lyrics that celebrate paradise and divine justice. It also features outstanding work by the legendary rhythm section Sly and Robbie.
For such a small country, Jamaica has produced an astonishing amount of amazing music. These five reggae albums are just the beginning; check out other releases by these artists as well as Lee “Scratch” Perry, U-Roy and many more. Check out the reggae records at Vinyl Lovers Unite on sale today!
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