Reggae 101: The Dirty Dozen
12 Slabs of Reggae Vinyl to Begin Your Record Collection
For Vinyl 101’s Dirty Dozen, here’s a list of excellent reggae LPs to seek out. This is by no means an exhaustive list – just a few personal favorites that are readily available as reissues. Local record shops should be able to stock each of these records, or order a copy for you.
*Disclaimer: Although Bob Marley and Peter Tosh have put out dozens of brilliant albums, I’ve excluded them from this list. Ditto for compilations and reggae soundtracks. As a general rule, all compilations released by record imprints mentioned in Reggae 101: The Labels are safe bets. Albums chosen for the Dirty Dozen have been limited to single artist LPs. Future articles will delve deeper into the various genres which exist within the world of reggae music. Stay tuned.
The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977, Black Art)
The Congos’ debut lp winds up on nearly every “Reggae Essentials” list. This vocal trio team up with The Upsetters to record one of roots reggae greatest and most enduring musical documents. This legendary session also featured some of Lee Perry’s finest moments as a producer. Recorded at his Black Ark Studio, “Heart Of The Congos” is a dense psychedelic journey, accompanied by sugary sweet vocal melodies delivered by three masters of the genre. Tracking down a vinyl copy should be quite easy as it’s been reissued a number of times. If you nab the 2LP version reissued in 2008, it includes an additional 11 tracks that serve as far more than just filler. Recommended.
Symarip – Skinhead Moonstomp (1970, Trojan Records)
Symarip performed under many names, most notably The Pyramids. They were one of the UK’s top backing bands in the late 60s and early 70s and have appeared on dozens of albums. Produced by Trojan records, this lp successfully capitalized on the huge UK skinhead reggae market. “Skinhead Moonstomp” delivers a raw, funky slab which features both instrumentals and tunes with soulful vocals. While an original 1970 pressing might be harder to come by, Trojan reissued the LP in 1980 (different sleeve design). Sunspot’s 2013 reissue should make this album widely available.
Hopeton Lewis – Take It Easy With The Rocksteady Beat (1967, Merritone)
One of the top rocksteady LPs ever produced. Indispensible. The title track is sometimes cited as the “first” rocksteady track. Owner of the genre’s most soulful voices, Hopeton Lewis delivers a flawless set of songs made all the better by the excellent recording quality of Federal Studios. Original 1967 pressings can fetch a hefty sum, but Dubstore Records put together a beautiful reissue package back in 2012, making this classic a fairly easy dig.
Horace Andy – Skylarking (1972 Studio One)
Possessing a unique vocal style and phrasing that is unmistakable, Horace Andy gained widespread popularity in the 1990’s for his collaboration with English electronic group Massive Attack. 1972’s “Skylarking” was Andy’s full length debut and still remains one of his best. His fragile, trembling vocals are featured to devastating effect, sitting atop Studio One’s hallmark heavy bass lines. This lp is often in print and easy to find. “Skylarking” was also reissued by United Artists and Liberty Records as “The Best Of Horace Andy”, as part of their abundant “Anthology of Reggae Collectors Series”.
Ras Michael Dadawah – Peace & Love (1974, Trojan Records)
Ras Michael was really the only traditional Rastafarian drummer to ever achieve any measure of commercial success. Much of it was due to the fact that his records incorporated a lot of regular reggae instrumentation, along with the nyabinghi drumming and chants for which he was known. “Peace And Love” was produced by reggae great, Lloyd Charmers, who also played keyboards on the album. Expect a sprawling atmospheric session that will pull you deep into a meditative trance. It’s quite unlike any other reggae album ever made. Originally released in 1974 on Jamaica’s Wildflower Records and in the UK on Trojan, the LP has seen a recent reissue on Dug Out and can be easily found online or ordered by your local record shop.
Jackie Mittoo (with The Soul Vendors) – Evening Time
(1968, Studio One)
Jackie Mittoo was the consummate reggae session musician, a prodigy who became the Booker T of Jamaican music. Mittoo played organ and piano behind all of the top vocalists of the day and arranged some of the genre’s top hits. In addition to his session work for other artists, Mittoo released a number of terrific instrumental LPs under his own name. This 1968 album features Studio One session band, The Soul Vendors. Mittoo works his magic on this groovy set of early rocksteady tracks. All Jackie Mittoo LPs have plenty to offer, but this one is particularly good and is often available and in print.
Laurel Aitken – The High Priest of Reggae (1970, Pama Records)
In my humble opinion, the great Laurel Aitken can do no wrong. It was almost painful to have to include only one of his records for this list. Originally released in 1970, “The Original Priest of Reggae” represents a high point in the development of the early UK reggae sound. Rough around the edges and perfect as such, it typifies Aitken’s ability to turn simple lyrical and musical themes into reggae gold. This is music to move to! There have been recent pressings by Get Back and Radiation Reissues, so affordable copies should be easy to hunt down. Crucial!
Ken Boothe – Mr Rocksteady (1967, Studio One)
Ken Boothe is my favorite reggae singer. His body of work for the Studio One and Trojan labels represents some of the most soulful music ever to come out of Jamaica. His 1967 debut LP is a fine example of the Studio One rocksteady sound. Backed by ace keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and crack session band The Soul Vendors, Boothe injects his cool crooning style into a wonderful batch of songs . This one goes in and out of print frequently, and can be found easily through online vendors.
John Holt – A Love I Can Feel (1970, Studio One)
With a career as prolific and consistent as that of John Holt, it’s tough to pick just one LP. His catalog of work, both with The Paragons and as a solo artist, is nearly unparalleled. This 1970 debut, “A Love I Can Feel” provides a perfect backdrop for Holt’s distinctive voice, with producer Coxsone Dodd laying down the classic Studio One sound. This lp set the stage for the cool romantic style that became Holt’s trademark, and its immense popularity has guaranteed that his discography is almost always in print and available.
Augustus Pablo – This Is Augustus Pablo (1974, Kaya Records)
Master of the melodica. There is quite simply no one that sounds like Augustus Pablo, he is practically a genre of reggae unto itself. His 1974 debut album still stands as one of the most important instrumental reggae albums of all time. Supported the mighty bass lines of Aston “Family Man” Barrett (Hippy Boys, The Upsetters,The Wailers), Pablo produced a stunning set of early reggae that is now very highly regarded by fans of reggae. “This is Augustus Pablo” features not only his trademark melodica, but also a variety of other keyboards. There’s not a weak song in the bunch, matching it up to any of his later, more dub influenced, classics. The LP has been reissued by several labels over the years, making it easy to come by with a little searching online.
Toots & The Maytals – Funky Kingston (1973, Dragon/Island)
There is no such thing as a bad Maytals record but if you have to pick one, start here. Toots Hibbert is a powerhouse vocalist whose gospel fervor is completely infectious. When matched with one of reggae’s tightest and funkiest bands, Toots lays down an exceptional vocal performance. “Funky Kingston” features clean production on a solid track listing which includes the best version of “Louie Louie” you’ll ever hear. “Funky Kingston” was one of the first big label pushes of reggae music, into the international marketplace. Copies are plentiful and turn up frequently. Perhaps even one you may even find for cheap in your local shop. EVERY reggae fan needs this LP.
The Upsetters – Super Ape (1976, Upsetter)
This 1976 masterwork effectively illustrates everything that made Lee “Scratch” Perry one of reggae’s most important artists and producers. “Super Ape” was created, in large part, by recycling rhythms he’d already used on other albums which featured vocals. One such example, Max Romeo’s “War Inna Babylon”, is part dub, part vocal, part deejay, and all wickedly brilliant. With The Upsetters laying down some tough grooves, Perry uses an an arsenal of studio effects and trickery to create an atmosphere that induces an immediate high. A stone cold classic.