Reggae is more than just a wildly popular Jamaican musical style. It’s a powerful symbol of the Jamaican spirit, and has been the medium of choice for a generation of civil rights activists and the Rastafarians.
But there’s a lot more to Reggae than getting stoned and saying “One love” a lot.
It grew from the Ska, Calypso, and popular US music that had been the soundtrack to the Jamaican independence. Unlike its predecessor, Reggae was the first truly Jamaican music that was able to propagate throughout the world - and it owed all of this to the very first albums the Jamaican artists of the time were able to put together.
It was on the backs of these early albums that Reggae grew as a genre in its own right as a commercialised genre. Of course, there were many more Reggae recording artists later on, but the best of the best Reggae albums to own on vinyl are firmly dominated by the roots of the genre - the creative force behind them came from the gritty reality of the lower social classes.
When the first recording studio in Jamaica (Studio One) to be owned by a black man was set up, the doors were flung open for a new wave of music.
And lo - Reggae was born.
But that’s enough history for today. The best way to understand Reggae is to listen to it. There’s a lot more than just Marley out there. Although he codified the genre for most of the world, he was far from inventing it.
At a Glance: Our Choice Of The 7 Best Reggae Albums To Own On Vinyl On The Market
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Ok let's look at each album in more detail. We've provided you with a description of the album and then a link should you wish to explore the album further. So without further ado, let’s take a look...
7 Best Reggae Albums To Own On Vinyl
1. Heart of the Congos - The Congos
An intense and complex album, ranging from melancholic to lighthearted. It’s a deep album, full of political and cultural strength. It’s hard to understand the lack of success the album had when it was released, as it’s now a cornerstone of the Reggae genre.
Although Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry doesn’t appear on the album itself - it was recorded and mastered by him at Black Ark studio, and is possibly his greatest achievement in this capacity. For the Congos themselves, this album demonstrates a perfect weave of their drastically different vocal styles and is a brilliant showcase of their songwriting abilities. It’s atypical of the usual ‘roots’ Reggae style, which is all the better for it.
2. ‘Super Ape’ - Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and The Upsetters
One of the ‘classic’ Reggae albums that no collection would be complete without. It’s hard to believe that the album was put together with only the bare essentials of studio equipment, and is a testament to Perry’s irrepressible passion and skill for Reggae music.
It has an ultra laidback sound, and is one of the shining examples of the ‘dub’ sub-genre. Listening to it today is a welcome break from the loudness war that has gripped the music industry. We’re not saying that it’s the best reggae album, as it’s extremely difficult to choose just one - but it’s definitely a strong contender.
3. Catch a Fire - Bob Marley and the Wailers
Released in 1973, Catch a Fire is hailed as one of the greatest Reggae albums of all time.
Critics are often hyperbolic when they praise an album they like - but in this case we couldn’t agree more. It’s quite possibly the best Reggae album to own on vinyl. The original 1973 release featured the iconic Zippo lighter as the cover art, and that’s just the start of what makes the album so great.
7 of the tracks were written by Bob Marley, the remaining 2 by Peter Tosh. The enduring popularity of the album’s musical achievements have resulted in numerous re-releases and the originals have become a prized collector’s item. If you’re lucky enough to get one of the first pressings, hold onto it. Sign it into your will for your kids. But if you can’t find yourself in such a lucky position, you can still buy one of the newer releases for a steal.
4. Marcus Garvey - Burning Spear
This album was the first recorded by Island Records and named after a key figure in the Rastafarian religion. The lyrics are inextricably linked to the Jamaican culture, religion and one of the key ‘roots reggae’ creations ever made. Musically it can be slightly repetitive, but the simpler melodies and rhythms belie the album’s deeper complexity.
Most reggae musicians in the early 70’s weren’t comfortable with the album format, and Marcus Garvey was one of the few albums that was recorded in such a way from the very beginning, and its critical acclaim and commercial success were the impetus for a new style of Reggae recording.
5. Two Sevens Clash - Culture
If you only own one Culture recording, make sure it’s this one. Joseph Hill’s voice is perfectly captured and the strength and resonance makes it infinitely memorable.
The recording is rich, warm, deep and was a groundbreaking album. It helped to set a standard that up and coming Reggae musicians could aspire to - and the deep religious significance of the tracks make it a must have for anyone with an interest in Rastafarianism, Jamaican culture.
But if you’re just a casual Reggae fan, you won’t be disappointed. To keep things simple, the music is beautiful and you’d be doing yourself a solid favour by adding Two Sevens Clash to your collection.
6. Satta Massagana - The Abyssinians
If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to choose between The Abyssinians impressive discography, let us put that problem to bed once and for all.
Satta Massagana is the best album they ever recorded. The title track has had such a massive impact on the Reggae genre that it’s transcended the commercial music industry and become a bona fide Rastafarian hymn.
You might not be a Rastafarian - but even a casual listener will be blown away by the depth of emotion and spirit encapsulated on every single track of this album. There’s only so much that you can explain in words, so do yourself a favour and get a vinyl copy of this album to get the purest experience. They can be hard to find online, so whenever one does show up, get there fast.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of the best reggae albums to own on vinyl. Unfortunately we couldn’t include all of our favourites, and we’re sure that you’ll have a few you’d love to share with others. So let us know in the comments which albums you think should’ve made our list and why below!
7. Jamaican E.T. - Lee “Scratch” Perry
Although Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry was one of the first ever Reggae musicians, his best work as a solo artist wasn’t released until 2002. Jamaican E.T. received the Grammy Award for ‘best Reggae album’ in 2003.
It features a lot of multi-layered vocals that give it an otherworldly feel. There is a strong connection to his early work, listen closely to the various layers and the repertoire of sampled sounds and modern sounding effects and you will find that the creative influences reach right back to his earliest work with The Upsetters.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.