While there have been some excellent heavy releases from Swans and Gojira, those will have to wait, because it’s summer. As they say in Jamaican patois, de reviews soon come. Meaning they’ll come soon but not too soon, soon enough, or enough time will pass by that you’ll forget you were waiting for it.
While major reissues of classic or undiscovered reggae albums have slowed down this past decade, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more to discover. That little Caribbean island that had a population of less than 2 million in the first part of the 70s put out more music per person than any other country in the world. So many that it’s a pretty chaotic mess, and there’s no way to track or catalog all of it. Of the hundred thousand plus albums, and exponentially more tracks and dubs that were created, a significant portion of those masters are probably lost forever. But there are still thousands more out of print albums that could be exhumed and reissued, or at least made available on streaming. I really hope someone will follow the Blood & Fire model (the label that lovingly remastered some amazing music and put together gorgeous artwork, but has been dormant for a decade) and put some of them out.
For a while, from about 1994 to 2004, reissues were plentiful and for once people seemed aware of more reggae artists beyond just Bob Marley. Now it feels like we’ve taken two steps back, and once again I get blank looks when I mention Toots & the Maytals or Justin Hinds & the Dominoes. Really? But for those willing to dig, at least there are half-decent rips of out of print vinyl albums floating about, and even some selections on Spotify. While these are not exactly undiscovered artists, these are albums I have either heard for the first time in my life this past month, or rediscovered after not paying proper attention, but are now in my list of all-time favorites.
1. Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus – Dadawah, Peace & Love (Trojan/Dug Out, 1974)
Nyahbinghi drums has roots in Jamaican folk music going back to at least the 1940s, and was featured in one of the first Jamaican singles, “Oh Carolina” (1958). In 1972, Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari released the double album Grounation (Ashanti/MRR), which was a fairly accurate representation of the ceremony of the same name. Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus would go on to release several albums that alternate between very rough, unadorned Nyahbinghi music (such as the Nyahbinghi album also from 1974), and more song-based work with accomplished, jazzy musicianship on Rastfari (1975) and Love Thy Neighbour (1979). Dadawah, Peace & Love achieves the perfect middle ground, with four long, hypnotic tracks that achieve a mysterious, mystical atmosphere similar to the Lee Perry-produced classic by The Congos, Heart Of The Congo (1977). Perhaps this album was an influence. In recent years its stature seems to be growing, as sort of the Nyahbinghi Astral Weeks or The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady. If you seek more, check out Cedric Im Brooks’ The Light Of Saba.
2. Noel Ellis – Noel Ellis (Summer/In The Light, 1983)
It’s discoveries like this that makes the drudgery of day to day life worthwhile, no joke. Noel Ellis was part of the great Jamaican diaspora to Toronto, following his father, the great Alton Ellis. Not long after he got there, dad left to England, while Noel stayed with his aunt and uncle to finish high school. He kept up with Jamaican music, and cut a side, “Reach My Destiny” with Jerry Brown’s Summer Records. Brown’s quirky, psychedelic dub quickly earned him the status of Canada’s version of Lee Perry. While Noel was not quite the singer his father was, he had talent, and was elevated far beyond expectations with the help of Jackie Mittoo, Willi Williams, and Johnny Osbourne on a series of extended, dubby sides recorded from 1979 to 1983. “Rocking Universally” is the best known track, having been done originally as a version of “Real Rock” by Jackie Mittoo and Willi Williams as “Armagiddeon Time,” which was covered by The Clash. Simultaneously heavy and ethereal, this should have been the beginning of a psychedelic dub renaissance. Instead, sales were poor, and this was the second and last full length release on Summer Records. This and the great work from Bullwackie’s and a handful of other showcase style albums remained lost treasures. Seattle label In The Light finally rescued this album and reissued it.
3. Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool & Playing It Right (Joint/Basic Replay, 1981)
My first exposure to Keith Hudson was one of the earliest Blood & Fire reissues in 1994, Pick A Dub (1974). He’s a unique artist with a strange, flat voice that technically is not as good as the hundreds of more accomplished, soulful singers on the island, but he made it work. While even his odd attempts at commercial success such as Too Expensive (1976) and Brand (1977) are interesting, it’s his other albums from 1974, Entering The Dragon and especially Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood that were held in high regard. But lately, it’s his 1981 album that has emerged as his most unique statement. At a time when “showcase” mixes were being employed in dancehall reggae (the song plus it’s dub in one track), Hudson got a little avant-garde with the form, mixing everything into a psychedelic swirl, like Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart meet Lee “Scratch” Perry at Black Ark. A tremendous groove for when the blazing sun goes down in a foggy haze.
4. Bob Andy – The Music Inside Me (Jigsaw, 1976)
After leaving The Paragons in 1965, Bob Andy wrote a string of hits for Cosxsone Dodd at Studio One. Some of the songs from 1967 to 1970 were collected in Song Book, one of the great all-time early rocksteady and reggae classics. More can be found in the Trojan compilation Fire Burning, which also covers his collaboration with Marcia Griffiths, including the hit “Young, Gifted And Black.” To be honest it’s syrupy strings don’t do justice to the Nina Simone song, and the duo’s work was overly commercial. Their four albums together don’t exactly hold up as classics. However, Andy’s solo work is another matter. Tracks like “One Woman” (1971), “Life” (1972), “Honey Child” (1973) and “Fire Burning” (1974) showed he still had the spark. “Fire Burning” was re-recorded and became the centerpiece of his first official solo album, The Music Inside Me (1976). While he can’t quite match the sheer number of select songs that his previous album Song Book (which to be fair, were cherry picked from four years worth of singles), his songwriting, vocals and melodies are just as strong, but with the added benefit of a better, fuller sound of peak mid-70s reggae, and holds together as a better album. One example is the descending vocal melody that simply slays on “Check It Out.” Similar to Justin Hinds who was also better known for his 60s work with the Dominoes, it’s a brilliant, underrated gem along the lines of Hinds’ Jezebel (1976). This is sorely in need of a proper reissue. All but three of the songs show up in the Retrospective collection (available on Spotify and on CD in the UK but not the US), but the title track, “Make Mine Music” and “Feeling Soul” are killers, not fillers that deserve to be heard alongside his better known “Fire Burning.”
5. Horace Andy – Dance Hall Style/Exclusively (Wackie’s, 1982)
I first encountered Horace Andy via his contributions as part of Massive Attack in the early 90s. What a great band, nurturing the fledgling talent of a young Tricky, and also bringing to light an undersung reggae legend. Andy’s real last name is Hinds, and he’s Justin Hinds’ younger cousin. While the 1972 collection Skylarking (not to be confused with a later collection of the same name) is a great introduction to his haunting falsetto vocal talents from his Studio One singles, Blood & Fire reissued his In The Light (1977) album with it’s dub version, and for years that was my favorite thing by him. However, there’s so much more. Nearly everything he did was gold, but his peak is likely the recordings he did in the Bronx, New York City studio of Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes in 1982. Dance Hall Style is just six cuts, but it stretches out to over 41 minutes, and every cut is essential, including the excruciatingly beautiful “Spying Glass” (aka Live In The City), which he later redid with Massive Attack. More song-based, from the same sessions is Exclusively, which is just as great. They should be released together as a deluxe package. Showcase (1980) is also highly recommended. Hell, how about a box set of everything he did? While we’re at it, everything from Wackies is worth hearing, and if you’re a fanatic, you can buy pretty much everything that was reissued on Rhythm & Sound’s Basic Channel label, including John Clarke, Sugar Minott, Wayne Jarrett, Prince Douglas, Milton Henry, and a bunch of dub by the Bullwackie’s All Stars.
6. Wayne Jarrett – Bubble Up (Showcase Vol. 1) (Wackie’s, 1982)
Initially I thought of Jarrett as a kind of Horace Andy acolyte. With a similar range and a style definitely influenced by Andy, Jarrett didn’t have as long and accomplished career. However, Bubble Up was recorded at the same time as Dance Hall Style and as he sang in “Magic In The Air,” they were definitely sharing something special in the air, with the material nearly the equal (reference the performance, the bridge, and the dead cool fuzztone guitar on “Every Tongue Shall Tell”). Some fans even rate this album higher than Horace Andy’s classic. After a month of listening, I have definitely warmed up to it, along with Mini Showcase (Horace Andy Meets Naggo Morris & Wayne Jarrett). Bullwackies was on a winning streak, totally fulfilling its destiny as the American Black Ark, with a series of spot-on dubby showcase psych classics.
7. Love Joys – Lovers Rock (Reggae Style) (Wackie’s, 1982)
Another treasure from the Bullwackie’s studio was a rare female duo, cousins Sonia Abel and Claudette Brown, originally from Brixton, England. While they may not obviously stand out as performers, their lyrics offer some unique social critique along with the lovers rock style lyrics from a woman’s point of view, a sadly rare thing in reggae. And the languid showcase style skilfully integrates dub into the fabric of their songs more seamlessly than anything I’ve heard so far aside from Noel Ellis’ sole album. Their debut album Reggae Vibes (1981) is nearly as great.
8. Junior Delahaye – Showcase (Wackie’s, 1982)
Another classic from Wackie’s, the only reason I hadn’t heard this sooner was my prejudice against the production of a lot of 1980s reggae. However, there’s tons of great stuff to be found that aren’t ruined by 80s production and electro-farts. Delahaye worked as an engineer for Wackie’s, and as an all-around musician. His tenor vocals are influenced by Horace Andy and perhaps Junior Murvin, but he carves a compelling style of his own on this gorgeous album, with deep dubs and some saxophone by Ronaldo Alphonso. It’s a shame Delahaye didn’t record more. Part of the problem was the Wackie’s records were issued in tiny runs of as few as 100, hardly enough to promote the careers of the artists. Instead, they became buried treasures that are only gradually gaining wider appreciation. Other 80’s production I’ve previously overlooked are albums by Dennis Brown‘s Revolution (1985), Junior Murvin‘s Muggers In The Street (1984), Ini Kamoze‘s 1984 debut, Justin Hinds‘ Travel With Love (1984), Sugar Minott’s Wicked Ago Feel It (1984) and Milton Henry’s Who Do You Think I Am? (1985).
9. Marcia Griffiths – Play Me (Sweet And Nice) (Trojan, 1974)
Marcia Griffiths had a few early hits with Bob Andy, but because they were pretty slickly produced, their several albums fell out of favor in later years when reggae enthusiasts were busy reissuing roots and dub releases in the male dominated genre. As a result, this gem has been unjustly overlooked. The original version features a stunning series of tracks starting with “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” a cover from Al Green’s classic Call Me album from the previous year. Considering the song was already perfect, it was a bold choice. She goes on to another soulful tune, Bread’s “Everything I Own,” which was also Ken Boothe’s career defining moment. “Green Grasshapper” is more slowjam soul, followed by the simmering funk of “Children At Play,” it’s rolling bassline a precursor to trip hop. It’s not until the fifth track, “Sweet Bitter Love,” that she employs a reggae rhythm. Even then, she pushes at the limitations of the genre, hinting at the massive potential of pop/soul/funk crossover that this fusion could have had beyond even Bob Marley’s scope. While that may not have happened, we still have this soulful, sensuous document of pure pop reggae pleasure.
10. Alton Ellis – Many Moods Of Alton Ellis (Makasound, 1980)
Along with Toots Hibbert, Delroy Wilson, Justin Hinds and Bob Marley, Alton Ellis is a serious contender for the most soulful Jamaican singer of all time. He was vital at every step from ska with Coxsone Dodd at Studio One to rocksteady at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, which was considered his peak. However you’re missing out if you over look the one album in his later career that covers roots reggae, dancehall and even dub. Impeccably written, arranged, and performed, with smooth backing vocals courtesy of The Heptones, this album is proof that Ellis deserved to remain a star along the very best of both the legends and new voices at the dawn on the ’80s. If nothing else, he deserves a payday for The Police’s rip of “Bless You,” (“…every breath that you take, every move that you make”).
11. Lacksley Castell – Morning Glory (Negus Roots, 1982)
Yet another classic from 1982, Lacksley Castell has been associated with lover’s rock. To be honest after 20 years reading and listening, I still don’t completely understand what differentiates dancehall from lover’s rock, especially when it’s hard to discern how they’re even different from some of the more melodic roots reggae. The main characteristic is that they are love songs. However, this is not cheesy, there’s a bit of dark humor happening in lyrics like, “Take this message to my woman, yeah. And please don’t tell her that I’m in prison. And please don’t mention no wrongs I have done, and that I’ve been on the run.” Okay, “Doctor Love” might kinda corny, but it’s a good jam. See also his collaboration with Hugh Mundell and Augustus Pablo on Jah Fire (1980).
12. Mikey Dread – World War III (Heartbeat/Dread at the Controls, 1980)
Michael “Mikey Dread” Campbell has a couple claims to fame, the first as a widely heard radio DJ on the first-ever all-reggae radio format for the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation starting in 1976. Second was his involvement with The Clash on their 1979 triple album Sandinista!. Listening to his earlier albums like the cartoon-sampling African Anthem and Dread At The Controls, I can understand why his fairly quirky approach to DJ vocalizations, mixing and dubs would not click with a mainstream audience. However, everything comes together masterfully with an aura of psychedelic, apocalyptic dread on World War III, his first project since contributing to The Clash’s “One More Time,” “Living In Fame” and “Shepherds Delight.” Honestly I have a limited capacity for DJ albums myself, but this is just the right balance of dubby boom shots and creative weirdness to make it a cult favorite.
13. Linton Kwesi Johnson – Dread Beat An’ Blood (Frontline, 1978)
Just like I have nothing but respect for the work of poets like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets and Gary Byrd, I don’t find myself motivated to listen to their stuff repeatedly, which is why I dragged my feet in getting down with Linton Kwesi Johnson. Dub poetry sounds like it could be kind of boring, right? But just like the best hip-hop that it inspired, Linton Kwesi Johnson has good flow. It also helps that the dub tracks are interesting, evocative and atmospheric. This works well in both a focused listening session, or in a mix. Credited to Poet And The Roots, Dread Beat An’ Blood belongs in any serious roots and dub collection. Recorded under his own name, Forces Of Victory (1979) and Bass Culture (1980) are nearly as great.
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Kaya (Tuff Gong/Island, 1978)
A Bob Marley album that’s under the radar? Not exactly, unless you’re one of the 15 million people who own Legend but never heard this. It’s all relative, but Catch A Fire (1973), Natty Dread (1974) and Exodus (1977) — hailed by Time Magazine as the best album of the 20th century — usually hog the critical acclaim. Recorded in the same early 1977 sessions as Exodus, the truth after all these years is that there is no drop in quality. It’s just a sunny, laid back album about love ‘n’ ganja. In other words, a perfect summer album. What kind of asshole would leave Bob Marley off a reggae mix? Not this one.
Third World – 96 Degrees in the Shade (Mango, 1977)
Ijahman – Haile I Hymn (Mango/Jahmani, 1978)
Pablo Gad – Hard Times (Form, 1980)
Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution (Island, 1978)
Leroy Brown – Prayer Of Peace (Color Barrier) (Makasound, 1976)
Althea & Donna – Uptown Top Ranking (Frontline/Virgin, 1978)
Peter Broggs – Rastafari Liveth (RAS, 1982)
Winston Jarrett – Wise Man (Tamoki Wambesi, 1979)
John Clarke – Rootsy Reggae (Wackie’s, 1979)
This last batch I feel has been somewhat overlooked in various ways. While many have sold quite well, it seems they have been critically dismissed for various reason, yet deserve re-evaluation, as each artist had a part in trying to push reggae forward into the future. Starting with their self-titled debut in 1976 through their third album, Journey To Addis (1978), Third World incorporate a more polished production with infusions of soul and funk. Not unlike Toots and Marley really, but just taking it in a jazzy direction of Steely Dan. It’s infinitely listenable, particularly their second album, and I wish there was more like this.
Ijahman Levi also reaches beyond reggae, getting assistance from Steve Winwood (Traffic) and Del Richardson (Osibisa), an Afro-rock band. Chris Blackwell signed the London based artist thinking he could appeal to fans of Astral Weeks, but it flopped at the time. Now there’s nothing else like it, aside from his follow-up, Are We A Warrior (1979), and a lost classic. Both were reissued on one disc a decade ago by the Japanese Mango imprint, the same series that also put out reissues by Rico Rodriguez (Man From Wareika is #7 on my all-time list) and Justin Hinds Jezebel is #3).
Tucked neatly near the end of the “Rough Guide To Reggae” under “Solo singers” in the UK section, I knew about Pablo Gad, but I never would have ever gotten around to hearing him if it weren’t for it’s top 50 placing in the Top 250 Reggae Albums (According to RYM’s Heavy Reggae Heads) list. Particularly mind-blowing is “Sad Mistake (Blood Suckers),” but nearly every cut is choice. Also nearly as good is Trafalgar Square (1979).
I had heard positive things about Steel Pulse since I was in college, but slept on them because they were British. Given the close ties of the UK with Jamaica, that was a lousy reason to miss out on this adventurous music. True Democracy (1982) is nearly as good as their debut. Aswad is another British reggae band that had a couple pretty great albums early on.
Leroy Brown’s Prayer Of Peace was one of the best albums of 1976, a year full of great contenders, but was forgotten and out of print until Makasound rescued it in 2005 and released it with bonus tracks and dubs as Color Barrier. The reissue market has slowed down, but it makes you wonder how many other great albums are languishing out of print.
Althea & Donna were teenagers when they recorded their debut, with the title track becoming a pretty big hit, and subsequently featured on tons of compilations. The 17 and 18 year-old wrote it in response to Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit,” simply destroying it and everything else in their path. The big secret is that the whole album is a gem, and it’s really too bad there isn’t a lot more music like this melodic, bubbly yet heavy roots with dual female vocals.
Other artists I’ve enjoyed digging up stuff by during my obsessive deep dive: Hugh Mundell, Michael Prophet, Wailing Souls, Prince Far I, Sugar Minott, Junior Reid, Cornell Campbell, Linval Thompson, Willi Williams, Earth, Roots & Water, African Brothers, Michael Prophet, Winston McAnuff, Lone Ranger, Ranking Joe, Earth & Stone, Norris Reid.