Reggae Beyond Marley: 10 Essential Records

by Dylan Hester

With the release of the new, expansive Bob Marley documentary, it's clearer than ever that Marley is one of the 20th century's key musicians. But a reggae collection that stops with the Wailers is far from complete. Reggae music in Jamaica is some of the most original and influential music the world has seen, and there's a plethora of musical delights to be heard beyond Marley. Here's a few essentials to add to your collection (or YouTube playlist).

Toots and the Maytals: Funky Kingston [1975]

For many listeners, Toots Hibbert is the first stop on the reggae train after Marley. His is a soulful take on the classic 70s reggae sound, with a voice that has drawn many comparisons to Otis Redding. Funky Kingston is by far his most famous recording, with stunning cover versions of “Louie Louie” and “Country Road” in a reggae style. You'll be crooning along to this one within minutes. 

KEY TRACKS: Funky Kingston, Pomp and Pride, Pressure Drop


: Studio One Groups [2006]

This compilation is one of many put out by the unstoppable Soul Jazz Records, the UK's premier reissue and compilation label. Groups focuses on ska, rocksteady, and early reggae years of Jamaica's musical history. This is a time that many purists consider the apex of reggae music, and they have a good point. The vocal harmonies that these groups produced are absolutely stunning. With few tracks extending beyond the three-minute mark, each cut is a precise and groovy slab of joyful rocksteady. 

KEY TRACKS: “The Struggle” by the Viceroys, “Down Presser International” by The Stingers, “Baby Why” by The Cables


Max Romeo and the Upsetters: War ina Babylon [1976]

Take a good look at that cover and forget about reggae's association with carefree times at the beach. While Max Romeo's lyrics often preach truth and love, here it comes from a place of desperation. Kingston was becoming overrun with political gang violence at the time. This is an album about the end of the world and the destruction of Babylon: common Rastafarian themes, but there are few examples more powerful than this. With producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at his most straightforward, the rhythms bounce along with menace and Max Romeo can wail like few others.

KEY TRACKS: One Step Forward, Uptown Babies, Norman


Augustus Pablo and King Tubby
: King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown [1977]

Experimenting with mixing in the 70s, reggae producers discovered a powerful sound. By removing everything but the drum and bass of a track, they had a powerful foundation on which to build. Then, they slowly faded guitars, vocals, horns, and a plethora of effects up and down in the track to create a unique, abstract reggae sound. These instrumental remixes became known as dub reggae, and it was the first instance of letting the engineers and mixers use the studio completely as an instrument unto itself. Dub reggae has influenced pretty much all of modern music: disco, house, techno, hip-hop, UK garage, and dubstep are all indebted to Jamaican dub pioneers like King Tubby.

King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown is one of the finest, most viscous, and exhilarating dub albums. Incredibly heavy and as slow as the beat of your heart, King Tubby plays production tricks galore while Augustus Pablo meditates pensively on his melodica. Flashing echoes, guitar and horn stabs, vocals floating around the room: Rockers Uptown has it all.

KEY TRACKS: Young Generation Dub, Brace's Tower Dub, King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown


The Congos
: Heart of the Congos [1977]

The Congos are a vocal duo comprised of Ashanti Roy and Cedric Myton: a deep baritone bass and a quivering falsetto working together on these ten top-notch tracks. Incredibly spiritual, this is perhaps the height of Rasta vocal reggae. But that's not all, as the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry offers some of the wildest production work of his incredibly bizarre career. The entire record sounds like it was recorded underwater. In fact, credible sources say that Scratch tried to record cows mooing, and, failing that, had Mynton give a deep roar into a cardboard tube to recreate the sound. Heart of the Congos is reggae as a hymn to creation.

KEY TRACKS: Fisherman, Children Crying, Ark of the Covenant


The Upsetters
: Super Ape [1976]

Lee “Scratch” Perry has produced a huge number of reggae classics, but this one, with his studio band The Upsetters, is its own world. Scratch gets lost in the impossibly dense, dubby soundscapes that can often sound like audio mirages. It's deep, thick, heavy, dreaded-out Rasta dub at its most powerful. Good dub will remove as much as it adds to the mix, and this is no exception. Check out Prince Jazzbo's vocals on Croaking Lizard – suddenly, they'll drop out and leave eerie echoes behind in the track. As the cover says, “DUB IT UP BLACKER THAN DREAD!”

KEY TRACKS: Zion's Blood, Croaking Lizard, Dread Lion


Bob Andy
Bob Andy's Song Book [1970]

Bob Andy is a crooner at heart. His debut album is backed by powerful Studio 1 production, and many of the tunes here are more melancholic and downtrodden. It gets heavy at times, but the sunshine always makes it through in the end.

KEY TRACKS: Life Could Be a Symphony, I've Got to Go Back Home, Unchained


Prince Far I & the Arabs
: Dub to Africa [1979]

There's no shortage of excellent dub to be found if you know where to look. Dub to Africa is not as experimental as some of his other dub excursions (see: Cry Tuff Dub Encounters), but it has a superb sense of melody and some great poly-rhythmic percussion. The drums and bass are hard as ever, but the righteous tunes will be bouncing around your head for days.

KEY TRACKS: Hello Love Brother, Give Love, Big Fight Dub


: Dread ina Babylon [1975]

As dub became popular, a new musical style quickly emerged: deejay. In deejay reggae, toasters would take instrumental dub tracks and chant, sing, scat, and otherwise rhythmically drop proverbs, stories, sayings, or complete nonsense on top. Sound familiar? Some musicians and poets in NYC were listening to deejay reggae at the time and did the same thing on top of disco records, creating hip-hop.

U-Roy, also known as The Originator, is one of the finest of Jamaica's toasters with a swagger that's simply off the charts. Impossibly cool.

KEY TRACKS: Chalice in the Palace, Dread Locks Dread, Silver Bird


Burning Spear
Social Living [1978]

Outside of the Wailers, Burning Spear might be the best known roots reggae artist to come out of Jamaica. His earlier record Marcus Garvey (and the accompanying dub version, Garvey's Ghost) might be better known, but Social Living is another beast altogether. Consider it something like a companion piece to Marley's Exodus – long, rootsy cuts with high production values and a huge backing band. Burning Spear (Rupert Willington)'s impassioned vocal chants are unmistakable.

KEY TRACKS: Institution, Marcus Senior, Mister Garvey