Sunday, 30 May 2021

The spirit of Jamaica - Ten favourite reggae albums

Reggae is not quite as homogenous a genre as many would have you believe, although admittedly the foundation always remains the same. So, here I have tried to cover several different styles of reggae in this hopefully varied choice of ten albums. 

* To read detailed, track-by-track reviews of the albums, click on the images.

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Rastaman Vibration (1976) 

The previous year’s live album had put Bob Marley fully into the “mainstream” and his releases now catered for not only a Jamaican audience, but a predominantly white “rock” group of followers in the UK, the USA and Europe. He was now on the way to becoming a global music figure. Rastaman Vibration, however, is a surprisingly uncommercial, often low-key album. It is fervent in its roots approach and is still pretty credible in its roots authenticity. Indeed, the album’s opener, the laid-back rasta exhortation to be positive in the name of Jah, Positive Vibration, is hardly the commercial lead-off many were expecting. It was a call-out to the faithful, a call to prayer.

Toots & the Maytals - In The Dark (1973)

Toots Hibbert, although a reggae legend, was not a roots man, a Rasta or a DJ. His sound was a highly individualised gospelly soulful one that was almost unique among reggae artists. He successfully merged soul, gospel, blues and rock with a solid skanking reggae beat and this album, from 1973, was a classic example of that. Energy, jubilation, devotion but not preachiness - Toots reaches out to all here, whatever their faith, just make sure you have one.

Gregory Isaacs - Night Nurse (1982)

Reggae had changed somewhat by the early eighties. That essential, clear bass, cymbals and “One drop” drum sound that so characterised Bob Marley & The Wailers, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse and the many roots groups of the mid to late seventies had been replaced by a heavier, synth drum -dominated sound and more dance floor-oriented sounds. “Ragga” was on its way. Groups like Black Uhuru still expressed black consciousness and Rasta devotion, but against a less tuneful, less musically diverse backing. Gregory Isaacs bucked this trend, however. Firstly, although a dreadlocks, he was not one for singing out his religious fervour, praising Jah or warning of damnation. He was the self-styled “Cool Ruler”, the “lonely lover”. He was not a political man, either, at least not in his songs. He was a lover, interested in women, and, seemingly, little else. This is not to the detriment of his material - it was a kind of roots rhythms meets the burgeoning “lovers rock” genre of light, romantic tuneful songs. It was, to be honest, a breath of fresh air, after all that consciousness, Armagideon and crucial, speaker-pounding dub.

Steel Pulse - Handsworth Revolution (1978)

Possibly British roots reggae’s finest ever. This stunning 1978 debut album from Steel Pulse is remastered here to an exceptionally high quality. Bass heavy but not Sound System booming, it sounds just perfect. Like most "roots" reggae bands from the mid to late seventies, their message was one of social justice, cultural awareness and Rastafarian religious fervour. As a UK based band, many of their songs were written in direct response to the social milieu of Britain in 1977. Handsworth, of course, is an area of inner Birmingham, not Kingston, Jamaica, so that leant a slightly different perspective to their music. They had a unique sound - rootsy but with catchy hooks, a melodic tone to the vocal delivery and a rhythmic musicality.

The Abyssinians - Satta Massagana (1976)

This was the debut album from The Abyssinians, and is up there as one of the most crucial roots reggae albums. Like other roots groups The Mighty Diamonds, The Gladiators and Israel Vibration, The Abyssinians managed to mix a devout Rastafarian message with some absolutely sumptuous, tuneful, catchy reggae. They had excellent vocal harmonies and a lightness of sound that was really infectious. Whereas the "toasters", DJs like Big Youth, Prince Far I, Tappa Zukie, I-Roy and U-Roy often croaked out their devotions fervently over a deep dub beat, groups like The Abyssinians delivered their Rasta paeans in a completely different, lively and energising manner. There were other roots groups like Burning Spear and Black Uhuru who were also much deeper in their sound. Although the pace of the songs remains constant throughout the album it doesn't really matter, its subtle, serene grooves offer a relaxing, seductive listen.

Peter Tosh - Bush Doctor (1977)

Peter Tosh’s 1977 Equal Rights was something of a breakthrough album, commercially. It was his second album and he was attempting to match old mate Bob Marley’s incredible global success (1977 was the year of Marley’s massively successful Exodus album). Equal Rights did pretty well, and Tosh became more well-known as a result, but despite his best efforts, he never quite made it. Tosh was an “issues” kind of guy. The album was very political. For more so than religiously devotional. Political matters were far more to the fore than the common Rasta “give thanks and praise” roots fare. He didn’t have the ability that Marley did to mix political awareness with an instinct for a commercial tune, neither did he feel the need to occasionally leave the politics and go down the Three Little Birds or Is This Love route. There lies the explanation for his never being as big as Marley. Peter was too political, Bunny Wailer maybe too Rasta, Marley was both, and much more. Marley could always ensure his political utterances never overwhelmed his material by releasing a Kaya after every Rastaman Vibration, or releasing Jamming as a single, or One Love.

Third World - 96˚ In The Shade (1977)

After an impressive, inventive and often inspirational debut album, the intriguing Third World returned in 1977 with this equally notable album. Theirs was a mesmerising mix of roots reggae, soulful vocals, disco stylings on occasions and many “world music” sounds. The opening track, Jah Glory, is a perfect example of this - great, airy, tuneful vocals and all sorts of tropical sounds in the backing. Just perfect music for a hot summer’s day. There is, of course, a rasta consciousness to the band’s lyrics but it never overwhelms the music, that washes over you like a cool Caribbean breeze.

Prince Far I - Message From The King (1978)

Prince Far I was one of the “toaster” DJs, who chanted/spoke/half sung lyrics over deep, dubby “riddims” in the mid to late seventies and early eighties. His style was that of a righteous preacher, railing in his deep, gravelly tones about Rastafarian ideology and dispensing warnings of damnation. Where he differed from other DJs was that instead of toasting over existing backing tracks from previous well-known recordings, the rhythms here were created by Far I and his team themselves.  Far I also preferred to label himself as a "chanter" as opposed to the more rhythmic "toasters". Despite some preferences for other artists and other genre variations, there is something very atmospheric about these big, thumping, dread-inducing, mysterious creations. It reminds me of Notting Hill Carnivals in the early eighties just as it was getting dark and it all got a little menacing.

Buju Banton - 'Til Shiloh (1995)

Buju Banton came along at the time when classic reggae and roots reggae had begun to morph, via Ragga, into the hip-hop influenced digital stuff that would see the new millennium in. It was here that my own reggae tastes changed as I stuck with the sounds from my youth, uninterested in the new sub-genres. The devout, roots consciousness of the seventies had given way to hip-hop style macho bragadocio, drug and gun culture, homophobia and sexism excused under the umbrella of “slackness”. Now, I’m certainly no prude, but this sort of ignorant posturing just isn’t my thing. I didn’t like the sound of the music either - I prefer my reggae traditional, played on “proper” instruments or, if it is programmed, done so in a dub style. This is an album, though, that I can enjoy - lyrically it is surprisingly sensitive and musically, it has several fine moments. That was because, despite Banton’s earlier (and now disowned) unfortunate descent into homophobia (an easy target and one that offered no threat to his lifestyle), the recent Rastafari convert got all rootsy and came up with an album that contained one absolute, dog’s bollocks evocative classic in Untold Stories - a moving, acoustic-driven song totally different to anything else on the album  - lyrically sensitive and inspiring. It is an acutely aware conscious song and stands as Banton’s Redemption Song. “It’s a competitive world for low budget people...”. Great stuff.

Lucky Dube - The Rough Guide To Lucky Dube

Lucky Dube was the "king of South African reggae". He unfortunately lost his life a few years ago, which was a tragedy because he was a true reggae great.
His music combines traditional reggae sounds with the lilting, melodic music of the South African townships to great effect. What a beautiful, uplifting combination. His voice is intoxicating, full of personality. He uses female backing vocalists a lot too, the closest Jamaican artist to compare him to would be Peter Tosh. Lyrically, he is politically motivated, religiously observant, passionate and sensitive. His 
best material is all gathered here on this excellent compilation.

There are, of course, loads of artists and albums who haven't been included. Check out my reviews of these here :-

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