Top 10 Best Classic Reggae Songs
Though reggae, like any genre, is sometimes maligned by haters as “all sounding the same,” we find the classic reggae canon overwhelming in its size and diversity. Considering that what’s considered “early reggae” is often considered to come from a span of only about a decade, and was mostly made on a relatively small island, the breadth and depth of the genre are impressive. Still, within the thousands of great sides, that era produced some truly special songs — popular, influential, or just plain dance-worthy — and these ten are as fresh and relevant today as they were the day they released.
Desmond Dekker and the Aces – “Israelites”
“Israelites,” written by Desmond Dekker and legendary producer Leslie Kong, was the first reggae song to really become an international hit, reaching #1 on the UK charts and breaking into the Top 10 in the U.S. upon its release in 1969. Desmond Dekker was already a well-known ska artist, and musically, “Israelites” is transitional — it bears many elements of classic ska but features the slowed-down tempo that characterized the new genre of reggae. The relatively simple lyrics, which talk concisely about the hardships of poverty, were difficult for international audiences not yet familiar with the Jamaican accent, let alone the nuances of patois, to understand, but Dekker’s irresistible falsetto had no trouble captivating worldwide audiences regardless.
The Melodians – “Rivers of Babylon”
This Rastafarian ballad, originally released in 1970, takes its lyrics from Psalm 137, which paints a picture of the Jewish exile that took place after the destruction of the first temple. As Rastas believe that they (and all people of African descent) are the lost tribe of Israel, the imagery of Jewish exile is a common theme in Rastafarian writing. Though “Rivers of Babylon” never became an international hit single in its original version (a cover by disco vocal group Boney M did chart), it remains an enduringly popular song among Jamaican musicians and fans around the world, and it’s probably the best-known explicitly religious Jamaican song ever recorded.
Johnny Nash – “I Can See Clearly Now”
Johnny Nash wrote and recorded this 1972 song, which reached #1 on the Billboard Charts in the United States and was certified gold, thus having a major part in popularizing and mainstreaming reggae in mainland North America. It’s an up-tempo feel-good number with unabashedly positive lyrics and remains a staple in the sunshine reggae repertoire. A cover version was recorded by Jimmy Cliff in 1993 for the soundtrack to the movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, but Nash’s original is still the stronger version. A little-known fact: Johnny Nash was actually an American by birth, but he recorded in Jamaica, befriended most of the rest of the artists on this list, and had several hits in the Caribbean.
Eric Donaldson – “Cherry Oh Baby”
This ballad of unrequited love has become one of reggae’s most covered classics, with everyone from the Rolling Stones to UB40 offering up their own versions, but there’s nothing quite like Eric Donaldson’s soaring tenor and that iconic organ riff. Though it never charted outside of Jamaica, it was a mega-hit within the country and won the prestigious Jamaican Song Festival Competition in 1971.
Bob Marley – “One Love / People Get Ready”
You can’t have a list of classic reggae songs without including Bob Marley, of course, but the question ultimately becomes, “Which song?” If you asked 10 Bob Marley fans which of his songs has been the most influential and the most timeless, you’d probably get 10 answers. So after a bit of dithering, we chose the song that BBC named “Song of the Century.” Bob Marley actually recorded “One Love” three times (in the studio, that is — there are a number of live recordings available as well): the first time, as a ska single with the original Wailers; the second, as part of the “All in One” medley (1970) which saw the Wailers re-recording their ska hits in a reggae style; and finally, a straight-up reggae throwdown, with extra-musical phrases from the Curtis Mayfield-penned Impressions hit “People Get Ready,” released in 1977 on the essential album Exodus. They’re all great, but the final is a gorgeous, glorious recording that remains as relevant as it does listenable.
The Abyssinians – “Satta Massagana”
Another seminal Rastafarian anthem, “Satta Massagana” (“Give Thanks” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia) is a crucial piece of the roots reggae canon and, indeed, is sometimes used as a hymn in Rastafarian services. The song itself was first recorded in 1969 but was not released until 1976, after being turned down by a number of labels. The song has a great old-school feel, with vocal harmonies surrounding the minor melody and a slow, heavily back-beated rhythm punctuated by dirty, dirge-y horns. Perhaps more influential on Jamaican artists than on international ones, this song is nonetheless an important one to know.
Peter Tosh – “Legalize It”
The title track of Peter Tosh’s first solo album after leaving the Wailers, “Legalize It” is a no-holds-barred pro-marijuana song. Now, ganja is a sacrament in the Rastafari religious movement, so Tosh is actually making a political statement about religious freedom with the song, but it’s become an anthem for a certain segment of the pro-marijuana lobby, and by extension, a generally well-known countercultural protest song. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got a great, catchy hook and lyrics that lend themselves well to singing along.
Burning Spear – “Marcus Garvey”
Rastafarians consider Pan-Africanist writer and orator Marcus Garvey to be an important prophet; in fact, the final prophet who told of the second coming of the messiah, which they believe took the form of Ras Tafari Himself, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. This song, which talks more about Garvey’s prophecies (as seen from the viewpoint of Rastas), is one of roots reggae legend Burning Spear’s most enduring, featuring his signature soulful vocals and a first-class horn section.
Toots and the Maytals – “Pressure Drop”
Toots and the Maytals managed to make their mark on an enormous range of Jamaican music, from ska through rocksteady and right on into reggae (the genre name reggae is often attributed to their 1967 song “Do The Reggay,” in fact). Their sound is defined by their tight vocal harmonies surrounding frontman Toots Hibbert’s rich and expressive lead vocals, which are among the greatest in reggae history, and this R&B-flavored treasure is an exceptional example thereof.
Jimmy Cliff – “Many Rivers to Cross”
One of several songs from the seminal soundtrack of the movie The Harder They Come that made this list (most of which had been previously released before they were included on the film soundtrack), this scorcher from Jimmy Cliff, who played the lead role in the movie and contributed several songs to the soundtrack, is a gospel-tinged anthem that has become unquestionably one of the most influential reggae songs of all time.