From a new live album from a late legend to new LPs from long-running reggae stalwarts, here are Rob Kenner's editorial picks for year's 10 best reggae albums.
1) Bob Marley, Easy Skankin' in Boston '78
To mark the 70th anniversary of Bob Marley's birth, the artist's estate has blessed his legions of fans with live recordings of two shows at Boston Music Hall during the Kaya tour, previously available only as bootlegs. There's an accompanying DVD (what the live footage -- shot by a fan in the front row -- lacks in polish, it makes up for in immediacy) but the real story here is the music. By this point in his all-too-brief life, Marley was both a star musician and a larger-than-life hero who had already survived a 1976 assassination attempt, recorded his landmark album Exodus, and courageously returned to Jamaica for the historic One Love Peace Concert. By the time Bob Marley & The Wailers' tour bus rolled into Boston, they were internationally known and they used every bit of that leverage to drive home a powerful message. Contrary to the album's unassuming title, the Tuff Gong treated Bostonians to a hardcore set, which opened with "Slave Driver" and continued into "Burnin' and Lootin'" with Bob singing "How many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss?" Backed by the Barrett brothers rhythm section and underscored by the I Threes' harmonies, the pungent sting of every word was unmistakable and unstoppable. Easy Skankin' serves as a timely reminder of the reason why Marley is called the King of Reggae.
2) Jah Cure, The Cure
"I’m trying something new with a new feel," said Siccature Alcock, better known as Jah Cure, when his fourth studio album, The Cure, first hit the market. "We need that in reggae.” After spending three consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Reggae chart and earning a nomination for the Best Reggae Album Grammy award, the 38-year-old singer's vision for his self-produced project has worked out beyond a doubt. "I’m not trying to relive the past, cause no man can bring back the past," he explains. "I’m trying to implement some of the old and modify it and move forward in this time." Songs like "Life We Live" and "That Girl" have already joined the singer's growing catalog of modern classics. Blessed with one of the most powerful voices of his generation, the Rasta vocalist's raw talent was discovered by Jamaican soul legend Beres Hammond, who produced Cure's first album, Ghetto Life. Even while serving a lengthy prison sentence on rape and weapons charges, the artist who would come to be known as Jamaica's "World Singer," found a way to get his songs out to the world. Although resulting visa issues have prevented him from touring in England or the U.S., his many fans have been more forgiving and those who have witnessed his live performances know that reggae music could ask for no greater standard-bearer.
3) Morgan Heritage, Strictly Roots
Twenty-one years ago, five children of Jamaican crossover star Denroy Morgan -- sister Una plus brothers Peter, Gramps, Lukes, and Mr. Mojo -- performed together at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica as Morgan Heritage. They brought down the house and were offered a deal with MCA Records as they stepped off the stage. Although their debut album, Miracles, suffered from heavy-handed creative interference, the group’s chemistry turnt up when they relocated to their father’s homeland of Jamaica after growing up between Brooklyn and Springfield, Massachusetts. “We moved to JA and started working with Jamaican producers like Bobby Digital and King Jammy's,” recalls Mojo. “By revisiting the roots of Jamaican music, we discovered what made the music special over the years: that craft that the legendary producers put into it.” Their fourteenth album, Strictly Roots, dropped earlier this year on their own Cool To Be Conscious label, thus affording them total creative control. Lo and behold, the disc earned the group's first Grammy nomination. "You can party and still be conscious," says Peter. "We want to break the barriers and the stigmas of all these things." At a time when Jamaican taste is starting to return to traditional roots reggae after years of dancehall dominance, the family's steadfast devotion to classic reggae is winning new admirers. Not that they buy into the popular notion of a "reggae revival" -- after all, as Peter points out, "The rest of the world never let go of reggae music."
4) Protoje, Ancient Future
From his debut album, Seven-Year Itch -- whose title refers to a season of making music without financial rewards -- to the follow-up, Eight-Year Affair, Protoje’s music has always communicated a sense of restlessness, yearning and striving for something greater, even as early hits like "Kingston, Be Wise" and "Rasta Love," featuring Ky-Mani Marley, elevated the level of discourse within Jamaican music. "I'm done singing things that are synonymous with reggae," he says. "Like, 'You're a reggae artist, sing about this... These are some buzzwords you can say.' No, I'm singing about whatever I feel to sing about. Whoever have a problem come check me and talk about it." His third full-length release, Ancient Future, represents a quantum leap forward in his quest for creative freedom. Executive produced by Winta James -- whose Overstand label has emerged as a force in recent years, and who plays keyboards for Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley -- the album features guest appearances by Chronixx, Jesse Royal, Kabaka Pyramid, fellow travelers in Jamaica's "reggae revival" movement, some of whom first met via Protoje. As the title suggests, Ancient Future strikes a balance between vintage Jamaican music in all its forms and a modern sound and sensibility, all driven by the artist’s witty, introspective lyrics. Whether addressing the perils of romantic relationships on "Stylin," political tribalism on the Junjo-esque scorcher "Sudden Flight," or the economic existentialism of "Who Can You Call," the taut, 11-track set is held together by Protoje's pen. As the artist explains, "I want to sing about what keeps me up at night, what I worry about, what I feel insecure about. I need to feel myself speaking on it.”
5) Barrington Levy, AcousticaLevy
Accounting the power of his own raps, the late great MC Guru once observed that "It's mostly the voice." As with Guru so it goes with the legendary reggae singer Barrington Levy, whose vocal instrument can only be described as a phenomenon of nature. Armed with the sheer power of his pipes, and unique slurring techniques that he perfected as a teenager in the dancehalls of Jamaica, Levy would go on to record an abundance of straight-up classics that form the foundation of reggae music as it transitioned into the dancehall era, tracks like "Murderer" and "Under Me Sensi" and "Broader Than Broadway." AcousticaLevy, his first original album in over 10 years, contains new recordings of many of the singer's greatest hits, plus two new compositions, all stripped down to showcase his voice. The concept is not a new one -- in fact, the last two tracks on the album, "Vicey Versey Love" and "Vibes Is Right" are actually older album cuts, from the '90s and '80s, respectively, that were originally released with minimal instrumental accompaniment. Although some of the arrangements here are more easy listening than the rock-hard originals, the album has earned Levy new listeners -- as well as his first Grammy nomination. As great as any given reggae rhythm may be, it's easier to do without it when you’ve got Barrington’s voice to keep you company.
6) Alaine, 10 of Hearts
Like many female artists in a male-dominated industry, Alaine Laughton’s creative contributions are too often overlooked. After giving up a good job at a New York bank -- and singing hooks for rappers like Cam'Ron and Freeway in her spare time -- she said goodbye to the corporate lifestyle and returned to Jamaica to devote herself music full-time. Making her way through Kingston's studio scene in the thick of the mid 2000s dancehall era, Alaine used to lay her sweet vocals over whatever backing track was popping at the time -- whether Don Corleone’s gently lilting "Seasons" riddim or hardcore tracks like Daseca’s "Anger Management" riddim, alongside the likes of Mavado, Bounty Killer and Vybz Kartel. After proving she could make hits consistently in a variety of styles, the accomplished vocalist, pianist, and songwriter began putting in work behind the scenes, co-writing international smashes like Tarrus Riley’s "One Drop" and Samantha J’s "Tight Up Skirt." After 10 years in the music business, the reggae songbird was ready for a fresh start -- which is what she accomplished with her new album 10 of Hearts. “Of course everyone knows I sing love songs,” says Alaine. “But it’s not just one type of love. The number of hearts represents the many types of situations that I talk about: whether its relational or love for my creator or love for life or love for my friends. I thought that that name captured everything that I wanted to talk about.” The significance of the album’s title goes beyond the concept of love. “Ten is a perfect number,” Alaine explains. “It’s a number of completion, and it’s also the number of years that I’ve been in the music industry.” Executive produced by Shane Brown of Jukeboxx Productions, the album is a cohesive body of work that shows off the full range of Alaine’s talents. On collabs with the likes of Tarrus Riley, Dexta Daps, J. Boog, and Dre Island, Alaine does more than just hold her own with the boys -- she gets them singing to her tune.
7) Dub Syndicate, Hard Food
British production genius Adrian Sherwood formed Dub Syndicate as one of many personal passion projects to expand the sonic possibilities of the Jamaican music he grew up loving. "I just didn’t see the point making records that were trying to copy or sound like the Jamaican stuff," he says. "I was also brought up to try and create your own sound, cause it would put you in good stead. So that’s what I always did." Evolving out of the group Creation Rebel, Dub Syndicate was born of a the creative chemistry struck up between Sherwood and Lincoln Valentine "Style" Scott, the renowned Jamaican session drummer, famous for his seminal work with the mighty Roots Radics band. Dub Syndicate's 1982 debut, The Pounding System (Ambience in Dub) set the stage for more experimental fare like Tunes From The Missing Channel, which continued appearing sporadically until the mid 2000s. The release of Dub Syndicate’s fifteenth album -- their first in over a decade -- in January of this year, was supposed to be a celebratory event. But since the murder of “Style” Scott in October 2014, the new disc has become more of a somber affair. With guest vocals by the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bunny Wailer, U Roy, plus Sherwood's masterful mix, this album stands as a fitting tribute to Scott’s legacy.
8) Junior Reid, The Living Legend
Like many future Jamaican stars before him, Delroy "Junior" Reid got his start with the late great Sugar Minott's Youth Promotion sound system. Early hits like "Foreign Mind" and "Boom Shock-a-Lock," produced by King Jammy's, established the young dread-locked singer's name, and then in 1983 he got the chance to join the legendary roots harmony group Black Uhuru, following the departure of charismatic lead vocalist Michael Rose, with whom the group had recently won a Grammy. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Reid stepped into Rose's big shoes, bringing an excitingly fresh vocal style to hits like "Fit You Haffi Fit," which blended Uhuru's menacing Waterhouse sound with dancehall cadences. After a few years, Reid stepped out on his own with classic singles like "One Blood" and crossover collaborations with UK's Coldcut and Soup Dragons. He would go on to maintain a strong international profile, lending his distinctive vocal stylings to records by American rappers Wu-Tang Clan, The Game, Lil Wayne and Mims over the years. But on his latest album, The Living Legend, JR sticks to his Jamaican roots with hard-hitting tracks like "Out Deh" and "Same Boat," as well as a cover of Bob Marley's "Guiltiness." Collaborations are carefully chosen, from Rasta firebrand Sizzla to incarcerated stars Buju Banton and Vybz Kartel. Down near the end of the album, Reid is joined by his son, Yung J.R., as well as Blaw Minott, son of Sugar, on the track "Dancehall City." Although the tempo may be faster than in his Youth Promotion days, it feels right to bring the album forward to where it all began. As Mr. Reid sings, "Everything we have, a dancehall give we.”
9) No-Maddz, Sly & Robbie Present No-Maddz
The members of No-Maddz first met as classmates at Kingston College where they formed a dub poetry collective whose free-form blend of consciousness and sharp-edged comedy won them a loyal following. Between 2005 and 2009, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo "Evie" Creary, Christopher "Birdheye" Gordon, and Oneil Peart won the Jamaican Prime Minister's Youth Award for excellence four out of five years in a row. They would go on to appear in a series of humorous Puma ads alongside Usain Bolt as well as the acclaimed independent Jamaican film, Better Mus' Come. Their first musical recording, the lovingly scathing "Sort Out Yuh Life Jamaica," injected a much-needed dose of real talk to the celebrations surrounding the island's 50th anniversary of independence in 2012. Ever since their slightly skewed sensibility connected with the legendary drum and bass duo Sly & Robbie, the band has evolved from an underground sensation to an international vibration. First came the tune “Romance,” which sounded anything but soft, followed by a selection called “Shotta,” which manages to condemn gun violence, big up musicianship, and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up at the same damn time. Although there is still a sense amongst their hardcore fans that the rest of the world just doesn't get it -- not that they seem overly bothered -- No-Maddz's debut album serves as a proper introduction to their unique alchemy.
10) Mr. Vegas, Lovers Rock & Soul
Although he made his name with dancehall smashes like "Heads High" and "Bruk It Down," Mr. Vegas would be the first to admit that these songs do not necessarily push his vocal talents to the limit. His older brother Carlton Smith, a member of the renowned Jamaican vocal trio The Tamlins, would often criticize his recordings, pushing him to become a more rounded artist. On a previous album, Sweet Jamaica, Vegas paid homage to the vintage reggae songs that first inspired him to sing. This year's Lovers Rock and Soul is a different kind of throwback project, shining a spotlight on Jamaica's long tradition of reinterpreting popular love songs of all eras and genres. Aside from the cover of Alton Ellis's "Girl I've Got a Date," the entire album consists of foreign songs delivered in a reggae style -- and set to vintage rub-a-dub tracks laid down by ace Jamaican musicians. "If I tried to sing better than Cyndi Lauper I would flop," says the singer, songwriter, and producer, who insists that covering the likes of Lauper, Luther Vandross, or even Ed Sheeran is "part of our culture." Having racked up more international hits than most dancehall artists could ever hope for, Vegas is perhaps even more interested in earning his respect as a well-rounded artist. He's already won his brother over.
Aidonia, Project Sweat
This digital-only EP presents one of dancehall's most under-rated talents at the top of his X-rated game.
Ky-Mani Marley, Maestro
His last name notwithstanding, Ky-Mani's album cannot truly be categorized as a reggae project. But tracks like "Get High" and "Keepers of the Light" featuring his younger brother Damian deserve plenty of attention.
Collie Buddz, Blue Dreamz EP
The title of the Bermuda-born dancehall star's latest EP refers to a certain strain of marijuana, and cuts like "Prescription" will please fans of his breakout hit "Come Around." But not all the tracks are devoted to the holy herbs. The track "Sweet Wine" finds him stepping to a next man’s lady.
Various Artists, The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems
VP Records took a different approach for the 2015 edition of its popular The Biggest Reggae One-Drop Anthems series. Rather than compiling tracks from various labels, they stuck with one great producer, Clive “Uglyman” Hunt -- who’s worked with the likes of Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and The Wailers, not to mention The Rolling Stones and Grace Jones. They put Hunt in the studio with such rising talents as Jah 9, Iba Mahr, Raging Fire, and Randy Valentine, with predictably brilliant results.
Seanizzle, Music My Way
The producer responsible for the Beenie Man x Fambo hit "Rum and Red Bull" delivers a full anthology of up-to-the-minute dancehall tracks by the likes of I-Octane, Konshens, Dexta Daps, and Demarco.
Tommy McCook, The Sannic Sounds Of Tommy McCook
First released in 1974 on white label vinyl with a plain cover rubber-stamped TOMMY MC COOK DUB, this exceedingly rare album was reissued by the Japanese label Dub Store Records in May 2015. Dub producer Glen Brown reworks the saxophone master’s work on such gems as “Scatterlight Rock” and “Determination Skank.”
Gussie Clarke, From The Foundation
From Mighty Diamonds "Pass The Kutchie" (which paved the way for Musical Youth's smash hit "Pass The Dutchie") all the way to Shabba Ranks & J.C. Lodge's "Telephone Love," Gussie Clarke's clean and heavy sound has provided the sonic template for generations of reggae hits. This double CD captures the lion's share of his definitive work.
Mr. Spaulding, Twelve Tribe of Israel
A genuine discovery, this almost forgotten 1983 gem is the first and only album Mr. Spaulding ever recorded. The 19-year-old's powerful performance sees new life thanks to this UK double-disc reissue replete with heavy dub versions.
Alborosie & King Jammy, Dub of Thrones
Dub aficionados take note: Some of King Jammy's hardest vintage instrumentals receive a tasteful new dub mix courtesy of the King himself alongside Italian-Jamaican reggae star Alborosie, whose Kingston, Jamaica studio is a paradise of vintage sound equipment.
Various Artists, Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee & Friends: Next Cut! Dub Plates, Rare Sides & Unreleased Cuts
A collection of dubplates and rarities from reggae's most prolific producer of the 1970s, including vocals from Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell, and Linval Thompson.