Monday, 12 October 2015

My Top 15 Reggae Chart

In my teens I listened to a lot of music genres (though the word hadn't been coined then, even though music audiences were quite tribal). And one that was very influential was reggae. I'm not sure how I came by it, although I lived in London where it was very prevalent, also I was into punk and New Wave which were both acknowledging their affinity for reggae. John Peel almost certainly had something to do with my love for it, as he promoted reggae artists on his show along with all the other music he introduced the likes of me to.

But as I grew older, reggae fell away from my music loves and was replaced by US rap and hip-hop. However now in my early 50s I find that I am returning to reggae with a renewed enthusiasm to expand my old musical favourites in the genre and explore further. I still love rap and hip-hop, but I am delighted that I've rehabilitated myself to embrace reggae as well. There is plenty of crossover between reggae and rap or reggae and dubstep, while industrial funk 80s band 23 Skidoo even did a straightish reggae song in amongst all their musical experimentation.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are my fifteen favourite reggae songs. Normally when I do one of my music charts I'm a bit snarky about the bands or the video. but in this case it is straight up veneration.

1) Ras Michael And The Sons Of Negus - "None Ah Jah Jah's Children No Cry"
First and foremost reggae is a spiritual music. And in Ras Michael's words and phrasing you really get a sense of that as he sings of a world to come free of pain and misery. The drum beat also has direct links back to a style of traditional African drumming though this style of reggae made it its own.

2) Misty In Roots - "How Long Jah?"
A British Roots Reggae band from West London who were very active in the Rock Against Racism movement playing gigs on the same stage as The Clash, Specials and The Ruts. Roots Reggae connects the spiritual messages of Rastafari directly with the lives of its followers usually in city ghettos, linking the two within the lyrics.

3) Scotty - "Clean Race"
This song is more demonstrative of the playful side of reggae as deejay Scotty morphs in and out of singing and 'toasting'. Many early reggae singles had an instrumental version of the song serve for the B-Side and certain artists 'borrowed' these tracks and did their own vocals over them. Toasting is improvising or chatting over the beat as Scotty does to wonderful effect here asserting his prominence in the hierarchy over both record producer and the public who buy his music. And yet the song is utterly catchy. In reggae, deejays are not those who produce the beat and spin the records as in hip-hop, they are called 'Selectors' in reggae. A deejay in reggae is the singer over the beat.

4) Dillinger - "Cocaine"
Reggae became big in the UK and other European countries because of the emigrant Caribbean populations living here. But on the back of Bob Marley it made some inroads into the US and here Dillinger wonderfully observes US culture through the eye of a near neighbour. Many reggae artists took their names from US gangsters (Dillinger, Capone) or cowboys (Clint Eastwood & General Saint).

5) Wailing Souls - "Kingdom Rise, Kingdom Fall"
A band with more line up and band name changes than most who have been around since the 1960s, again here the vocals remind the listener of the devotional spiritual nature of the music.

6) Barrington Levy - "Murderer"
One of the most prolific reggae recording artists, he started singing at age 14. He has also crossed over working with artists such as Snoop Dogg. The 7" single has always been important in reggae, at times more important than albums, but Levy has always committed to albums as much as singles.

7) Soul Vendors - "Swing Easy"
Trojan, Studio One & Coxsone records were perhaps the most significant record label in the 1960s and early 70s, releasing 7" single gem after gem by a multitude of artists. This was one of them by a group I can tell you nothing about. But the song itself sounds so mournful and plaintive, despite it's upbeat title. A song packed with emotion despite its lack of lyrics.

8) Althea & Donna ' "Uptown Top Ranking"
This was a hit when I was growing up and I hated it because I hated pop music (still do). But when I rediscovered it a few years ago, I fell in love with it because it is both poppy and yet completely from outside the pop realm with its uncompromising patois delivery. Teenagers when they recorded this, sadly one of them died very young from cancer.

9) John Holt - "Police And Helicopter"
A singer associated with a sweet voice and songs of love often backed with strings, here issues a defiant and wrathful political song to his government.

10 Steel Pulse - "Handsworth Revolution"
Another British band who were brilliant on stage, this 1978 song forecast the riots of the 1980s, particularly the one in their home borough of Handsworth in Birmingham. Even though it is somewhat of a call to arms, it still drips with a sense of spirituality, hinting at a different kind of calling.

11) Burning Spear - "Marcus Garvey"
Oh what a voice!

12) Sylford Walker - "Chant Down Babylon"
A song I only recently discovered once I had come back to reggae, through the happenstance that it was on the same YouTube page when I was searching for Scotty. Again I know nothing of him. But put it this way, it's the first song on my reggae playlist.

13) The Congos - "Fishermen"
One of the qualities of reggae (and particularly of dub) is a certain liquid or watery sound as befits a music made mainly within a group of islands. Ostensibly this song appears to be about the noble profession of fishing, but actually it's a paean to ensuring the smugglers successfully bring in the collieweed, or marijuana.

14) Keith Rowe - "Groovy Situation"
Reggae also has a fine line in romance and songs to lovers. Gregory Isaacs, Denis Brown and John Holt to name but three. A genre called Lovers' Rock encapsulated this although it largely grew out of London initially rather than Jamaica. This Keith Rowe song predates Lovers' Rock but to me is the finest example of a reggae love song. It starts playful and giggly before his voice goes stratospheric as he proclaims his deep love. Wonderful stuff.

15) Augustus Pablo - "King Tubby Meets Rocker Uptown"
Perhaps the most significant legacy of reggae, one which has spread into many other sorts of music, is dub. Dub uses electronic effects to make the music more spacey with echo and reverb and focuses more centrally on the rhythms of the drum and the bass. More often that not it removes the vocals so that they are instrumentals. Augustus Pablo is one of the finest exponents of dub, but what makes his sound unique is the use of a melodica. Sublime stuff, you can just switch the lights off and bask in his albums for an evening in perfect bliss.

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