I started this thing a while ago where I made lists of the top albums that I considered important – it’s a personal list; the albums that introduced me to a genre and have become firm favourites and/or pointed the way. The idea being that I list out my ten favourites – my ten important albums and then you list yours – then we get to share some ideas, pick up some tips…
It started with ten important hip-hop albums (see here), then it was on to metal (see here). Next was a catch-all term for ten important electronica (see here) and we even shared ten important country albums (see here).
So now I’m going to look at reggae – which may well go on to embrace dub, rocksteady and other roots-related genres and sub-genres. If I can use electronica as a term and expect people to only name ten albums there probably has to be some elasticity to the use of reggae as a catch-all also. And I haven’t listed Heart of the Congos because it wasn’t important to me until after I had heard most of these records…I love it. Of course. I see it’s importance in the wider scheme, but this is about my taste and when and how I heard things…
Reggae is not a genre that gets a lot of air-time and/or print-space here – I don’t listen to a lot of reggae music these days. But I have my favourites – and I have the albums I’ve heard that I really dig. And I’m going to share those with you now – hopefully you’ll share your list also.
It’s in no order, it’s simply as I recall them.
I first heard Linton Kwesi Johnson reading his poetry (a documentary that also featured John Cooper Clarke) I picked up one of his books shortly after and the hunt for his music took me to this album. From there I picked up this double anthology (which I thoroughly recommend as an intro/one-stop survey of Linton’s recordings). I also picked up other early albums (Forces Of Victory, Bass Culture and LKJ in Dub). This work introduced me to Dennis Bovell (his Dub Of Ages could also make this list but I’ll just sneak it in here as a bonus). Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry works on the page and on the stage, it works with him reciting these pieces as a capellas or with the supple reggae backing. The playing supports and supplements his vocal rhythms and you can listen to this for the powerful words or for the music. Or of course for both.
I’m choosing this one because it’s the first Bob Marley I owned myself – his Legend compilation is still, to me, one of the great single-disc compilations but I’m a fan of Natty Dread (and Babylon By Bus) because I picked up cheap, second-hand LPs and thrashed them. Side one of Natty Dread feels perfect – still. A mix of spiritual, soulful, stirring blues, roots and reggae. And I love the playing of Al Anderson and rhythm section Carlton Barrett and Aston Barrett – so that’s where I have a fondness for this album over any other one with the Marley name. It was the first time I studied the cover and liner notes to find out about the players involved. The weave of their playing is sublime.
I picked this up in a sale bin for $2. Bargain. One of my favourite bargains ever – an album I still play a lot. I’ve checked out a bunch of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry over the years; often it’s a mixed bag – well in terms of the more recent albums.
I say that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s more recent output is a mixed bag and then I think of this album – maybe not a classic but it’s one I really dig. And one that I was given because the first international interview I ever did was a ten-minute phoner with The Mad Professor. I could hear him blowing smoke, coughing and laughing. He was in a hotel room in Christchurch. Jamming with Salmonella Dub. Apparently.
The debut UB40 album is a classic – the band should have stopped there. It may not be a purist’s idea of reggae but it went a long way toward introducing reggae to the pop market in a tasteful and honest way. I’ve seen UB40 a bunch of times now – good live act the first time you see them, after that it gets a little boring but I still look forward to songs like King and Food For Thought because whenever I hear them (live or studio versions) I think back to when I first heard this album as a very young kid. And it opened my ears.
Speaking of taking reggae to the mainstream – this album was crucial. The film (and its soundtrack) was a vehicle for Jimmy Cliff but also introduced other artists to America in the early 1970s. It’s a classic – it might be an obvious choice but the title track is still a gem and there’s not a dud cut on it. I’ve recently rediscovered this. I’ve been playing it a fair bit and it’s lost nothing of its spark.
Much like The Harder They Come and Bob Marley’s Natty Dread (and the earlier Wailers album, Catch A Fire) this album gave reggae a push outside of Jamaica. There’s a reggae cover of Louie Louie. There’s a few other Toots albums I like but this was my introduction.
I haven’t been choosing compilations (beyond the Harder They Come soundtrack) but I had to include this. Herbs are New Zealand’s great reggae band – for me. The only reggae band I was aware of from this part of the world growing up – and the only one to really make an impact on my life. Great live band too. This was the only Herbs album I ever owned and was ever interested in. That’s changed now. I’ve bought a couple of the actual albums, but this is the one that tells the story.
This is the first solo Peter Tosh album after he left The Wailers. It still features so many of those great players (for me, again it’s the rhythm section that does it). I hunted this out because I had been given a compilation tape with a song called 400 Years on it, identified as a Bob Marley song. I was then told it was by Peter Tosh – so I wanted to check out some of his music. I’ve checked out some other albums, some compilations too but this is the one for me.
And a compilation to close. Augustus Pablo is the melodica king – I discovered him at a time when I was not listening to any reggae at all. He transcended the genre for me – it was world music as far as I was concerned. And he remains one of my favourite artists. This collection of early singles is a great intro – well, it worked for me.
So these are the ten important reggae albums that I thought of straight away when it came time to list them – ten that work for me. Maybe you like some of them too? Maybe there are some here you’d like to check out.
But more importantly I’m interested in your lists; your suggestions. There is a lot of awful reggae I have had to listen to that has put me off the genre – but I’m keen to hear more of the good oil and I’m sure many of you can make some great suggestions.
What are your ten important reggae albums?