From ska and reggae to dancehall and dub (and beyond), the Caribbean island of Jamaica is one of the most musically inventive countries in the world. Through this list, however, we’re focusing on presenting a selection of the best reggae songs ever. Many of the best songs in reggae music are not written in the manner preferred by composers in other genres, musing over a piano or guitar; they are tailored to fit a pre-existing rhythm track. But reggae is blessed with inventiveness and artists full of imagination, and selecting just 25 great songs from music that reflects both the sunny side of life and an eternal fight to survive is a difficult task.
This list offers everything from love stories to tales of how Jamaica’s poor live. But above all, it is focused on matters philosophical, spiritual, and militant, because that is what reggae has brought to the world more than anything: songs with a conscience.
Check out just a few of the classic reggae songs from our list in the playlist below, and scroll further to read our selection.
The Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up
As a teenager battling to build a career, Bob Marley quickly grasped the importance of the songwriter’s craft. As a result, his songbook is packed with material that resonates beyond reggae. “Get Up, Stand Up,” co-written by Bob’s fellow Wailer Peter Tosh in 1973, served as a wake-up call to the world about the talent of both artists, as well as the spirituality and militancy of Rastafarian reggae. It reveals Bob’s understanding of the Black struggle, and Peter’s righteous fury about it. Their God is not a cosmic figure, but a living God; that’s why they were calling for justice in this life, not the next.
Junior Byles – A Place Called Africa
The roots of Black people were a hot topic for reggae songs in 1971, but polemic was not enough for Junior Byles when he wrote “A Place Called Africa.” He focused on a personal story: his mama told him that was where he was from, and he demanded to know why he was suffering in Jamaica when his roots lay elsewhere. The result placed a complex subject in a context that could move any heart. One of several moments of genius in the career of a singer who has never been given the rewards he deserved.
Toots & The Maytals – Sweet And Dandy
If you want to know how ordinary country folk live, laugh, and love in The Isle Of Springs, hear this glorious song from 1969, in which The Maytals tell the story of a wedding. It’s all here: the price of the wedding cake, the disputes, the fun, and their drink of choice. A taste of the real Jamaica in one of the best reggae songs ever recorded.
UB40 – One In 10
Some fans regard the British band UB40 as a pop-reggae outfit, especially given the massive success of “Red, Red Wine.” But Jamaica takes them at face value: they are a proper reggae act that tackles both heavy topics and lighter ones. “One In 10,” a 1981 hit, examines how everyone suffers, and how much of that suffering is ignored. Highly political yet movingly humane, it is firmly in the reggae tradition.
The Specials – Ghost Town
The original incarnation of 2Tone founders The Specials signed off with this dark and brooding tune from 1981, when the UK was going through a deep economic slump. “Ghost Town,” spookily resonant and weighty, hit No 1 in Britain. It was an influence on The Rolling Stones’ song of the same title, just as it was inspired by Prince Buster All Stars’ 1967 obscurity “7 Wonders Of The World.”
Althea & Donna – The West
Althea & Donna are widely known for “Uptown Top Ranking,” an amusing UK No.1 in 1977-78 which presented two seemingly trivial teens boasting about how fashionable and sexy they were. But note their hit record’s line “I strictly roots”: their Uptown Top Ranking album holds a number of serious reggae songs, including this gem, which insists the West will receive just punishment for the crime of slavery.
Junior Murvin – Police And Thieves
Junior Murvin had been recording for the best part of a decade with little success when he showed up at Lee Perry’s Kingston studio in 1976 and auditioned “Police And Thieves.” It told an uncomplicated if pointed tale about crime in Jamaica, presenting both parties as two sides of the same coin. It caught the mood of that year’s long hot summer in London, appearing to soundtrack the rioting around that year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London. Punk band The Clash covered it, and the original charted in the UK two years later.
Burning Spear – Slavery Days
Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey is packed with some of his best songs and it is difficult to pick one. But “Slavery Days” remains a potent reminder why Black African people found themselves in Jamaica and are still suffering hundreds of years later. Spear, a singer full of the light of life, makes a bleak subject a celebration of the unperishable Black soul.
Deborahe Glasgow – Champion Lover
Reggae songs can be overtly carnal. “Champion Lover,” delivered in Jamaica by British lovers rock singer Deborahe Glasgow, was full of female desire – Deborahe was threatening to “kill you with it”! It was a reggae smash in 1989, and Shabba Ranks climbed aboard the rhythm that year to create “Mr. Lover Man,” Deborahe’s vocal still prominent. When Shabba remade his version in 1992, Deborahe’s voice was replaced by Chevelle Franklin’s. While this makeover became a huge pop hit, the song’s sexual identity was flipped. “Champion Lover” offers the song’s original attitude: a strong, proud woman at her passionate pinnacle.
Delroy Wilson – Better Must Come
Delroy Wilson was one of reggae’s signature voices, relied upon to deliver the vocal goods for decades. He is known for tales of love, but had a knack for making a powerful point, as heard on 1972’s anthem of hope over dissatisfaction, “Better Must Come.”
Ken Boothe – I’m Not For Sale
Slavery is a recurring theme in Jamaican music, but Ken Boothe’s powerfully direct “I’m Not For Sale” examines it at another level, the singer rebuffing a woman who thinks he can be bought. It was inspired by the phenomenon where comparatively wealthy tourists sought sexual gratification with poor Jamaicans, not bothering to consider the grim implications. Aided by mournful horns that underline this unhappy situation, Boothe, one of reggae’s most lauded vocalists, shakes your ideas as well as your hips here.
Bunny Wailer – Blackheart Man
Children in Jamaica were told to avoid Rastas, counsel that treated these serious religious adherents like bogeymen. Bunny Wailer recalls this in a song that melds folklore, his own upbringing, and the Rastafarian beliefs he acquired when he understood the reality of the situation. Full of his customary stateliness and gentle, folky way with a melody, “Blackheart Man” was an instant classic when released in 1976.
Bob Andy – Life
Bob Andy was reggae’s philosopher, singing his best songs in an utterly controlled, highly soulful voice. While he is best known for hit duets with Marcia Griffiths such as a cover of “Young, Gifted And Black,” his own material is just as strong and deep. “Life,” from 1972, urges the listener to take a path of creativity, effort, and peace. If you think that sounds rather bumptious, this gifted writer was not fooled into thinking he had his subject worked out: Bob sings “Heed my foolish words.”
The Abyssinians – Satta Massagana
Rastafarianism had been an alternative way of life in Jamaica for decades, its adherents scorned like a criminal underclass. Reggae gave this religion an outlet for its reasonings, and among the key figures who put it on record were the harmony trio The Abyssinians. “Satta Massagana,” meaning sit down and give thanks, is delivered with religious fervor; the group even sings in Amharic, showing true devotion. First recorded in 1969, it has resonated in reggae ever since.
Culture – Innocent Blood
Culture, a vocal group, came to prominence in 1977 with Two Sevens Clash, singing of serious issues in a way that lifted the spirits. “Innocent Blood” is a lesson in Black history, Jamaican history, slavery, and imperialism, delivered in a manner that prompts a smile. From the 1979 album Cumbolo, produced by reggae premier female producer, Sonia Pottinger, the roots message is here, as is the soul of Jamaica.
Dobby Dobson – Loving Pauper, AKA I Am Alright
Released by the silky-voiced Dobby Dobson in 1967, this story of ghetto passion in the ghetto has been a reggae standard ever since, with Gregory Isaacs fitting it to his romantic outsider persona in 1973, I Roy adapting it that same year, Augustus Pablo delivering an instrumental cut, Ruddy Thomas crooning it in 1978, Freddie McGregor in 1991… The protagonist cannot compete with your rich fella when it comes to cash, but if you desire true intimacy, look no further. One of the best Jamaican love songs ever.
Gregory Isaacs – Word Of The Farmer
Gregory Isaacs is in deep roots mode with a song that tackles slavery from the ground up – literally. Gregory presents a story of someone who works the soil, yet the so-called master takes the fruits of his labor. Some of the lines are highly affecting: “Now when there was no water to water the crops/Jah know I cried and I cried/And I used my teardrops,” he laments. This tune, one of the best reggae songs ever, comes from his 1978 album Cool Ruler.
The Heptones – Book Of Rules
“Book Of Rules” is a reggae song penned by The Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn in 1973, but its roots are older: it is adapted from RL Sharpe’s philosophical poem A Bag Of Tools, written in the early 20th Century, and muses on how everyone, from commander to commoner, is equipped to shape their life. Recorded for producer Harry Johnson and released in the UK by Island, the song was covered by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and was quoted by Oasis in “Go Let It Out.”
I Roy – Sufferer’s Psalm
It is sometimes assumed that DJs – reggae rappers – do not write songs, but release a lyrical flow over a rhythm. The greatest DJs do both, though few have created a lyric as profound as I Roy’s 1974 gem, “Sufferer’s Psalm.” It sets out its stall with “The Capitalist is I shepherd, I shall always want” and goes on to take in homelessness, a lack of sanitation, starvation, the beaten-down spirit caused by poverty… and that’s just the first 40 seconds. Its power is magnified by I Roy’s matter-of-fact delivery, which suggests the truth can brook no argument.
Judy Mowatt – Black Woman
One of Bob Marley’s I-Three and a member of The Gaylettes in the 60s, Judy Mowatt is also a formidable solo artist, and on 1980’s “Black Woman,” draws a line between the struggles of Black females today via slave women to those who fought to survive in Biblical times. But this is no cry of despair: her lush voice is audibly proud of how women light the world and find a path, despite the cards stacked against them.
Damian Marley & Nas – Patience
Most folks know Damian Marley, the fast-chatting son of Bob, from “Welcome to Jamrock,” of course. But this song from 2010’s Distant Relatives, sees Damian and hip-hop legend Nas explore the way those of African blood are portrayed in the media and disregarded by the scientific and political establishments. The song takes in spirituality, the environment, the way humans have lost touch with life’s nitty gritty, and numerous other causes for concern along the way. Breathtakingly ambitious, “Patience” realizes all it sets out to achieve.
Demond Dekker – Israelites
While plenty of records channeled the misery of Jamaica’s poor before Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” none were a worldwide hit. Few of the fans who bought it in 1968, 1969, and 1975 would have understood what Desmond was singing about, but those attuned to songs of the reggae experience understood its story about a poor working man at the end of his tether. Never did misery sound so light and joyous.
The Paragons – The Tide Is High
Written by John Holt and a No.1 for Blondie in 1980, “The Tide Is High” was a perfect slice of rocksteady when recorded by Holt’s consummate vocal group The Paragons in 1967. Holt’s determined voice gains an unlikely romantic twist thanks to that most unusual of reggae solo instruments: a wailing violin. Reggae elegance perfected.
Jimmy Cliff – Many Rivers To Cross
One of Jimmy Cliff’s most heart-rending songs is not really in reggae time; there isn’t even a riddim. Nonetheless, it became Cliff’s calling card, and has attracted covers by artists as diverse as Nilsson, Percy Sledge, and Cher. Yet the original, written when Cliff was struggling to realize his dream of stardom in the UK, remains the definitive cut. It appeared in 1969 on his highly underrated Jimmy Cliff LP, and received a boost on the soundtrack of the 1972 movie he starred in, The Harder They Come. He was only 21 when he wrote this world-weary statement: he was not the only writer who could never better it.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Redemption Song
“I Shot The Sheriff”? “Three Little Birds”? “No Woman, No Cry”? “One Love”? All of them could have been included here, but we instead decided to go with the song that has come to be seen as Bob Marley’s final song. (Even though it technically wasn’t.) Bob says goodbye with a lyric that tells of how he came to be where he was, who he was, and urges the rest of us not to fear fate. “Redemption Song” is reggae at its best. It’s touchingly personal, yet somehow simultaneously universal. This is why there have been no “new Bobs” since he left us in 1981. Who else could do it like this?
Think we missed one of the best reggae songs ever? Let us know in the comments below.