When you think of reggae as a music genre, you probably think first of Bob Marley. It’s true. He was the undisputed king of reggae. But as you’re about to find out, there’s a whole smorgasbord of brilliant reggae tunes by other artists too.
So here’s our list of the best reggae songs. Get ready to feel irie, man :-).
54-46 Was My Number – Toots and the Maytals
From the “first” reggae musicians in 1966, Toots and the Maytals, the song ’54-46 Was My Number’ tells of the lead singer’s journey through the prison system in Jamaica. The number was his inmate prisoner ID. He and the band recorded the song shortly after his release. He was wrongfully arrested and convicted for smoking an illegal substance—and the song gives us a glimpse into the injustice many people face.
Related: Hear this song on our playlist of the best 60s music.
Welcome to Jamrock – Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley
A more recent reggae song (released in 2005), ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ has a heavy rap vibe. The song was recorded by Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, exploring this merging of the two genres. It was inspired by the side of Jamaican culture and life that the rest of the world doesn’t see—the “everyday citizens” of the island. The song’s title is a play on the title of another song, which had a similar vibe, exploring the darker side of Atlanta. For this song, Marley intentionally showcased the experience of the way life in a developing country looks.
Night Nurse – Gregory Isaacs
Released as a single in 1982 by Jamaican artist Gregory Issacs, ‘Night Nurse’ was a hugely popular song in clubs and radio stations at the time. It’s a unique and lyrically quirky love song for Gregory’s “night nurse” on occasion. “I’m hurt by love,” he sings and says he doesn’t want to see a doctor; no doctor could cure him, only his night nurse. According to interviews with Isaacs, the song was not about an actual nurse but about his romantic partner who, in essence, became his night nurse in his time of need. It’s unclear if this was a specific woman or a general thought about romantic partners.
Police & Thieves – Junior Murvin
As you can probably tell by the title, ‘Police & Thieves’ is a song about injustice in the legal system in Jamaica. The song was written and sung by falsetto singer Junior Murvin in 1976. The song was originally about his own experiences, but the song was later mainly linked to the riots in London’s Notting Hill Carnival. “Police and thieves in the street, scaring the nation.” It’s really no wonder why the song became so powerful and an anthem for so many.
Related: Listen to more songs about cops.
007 (Shanty Town) – Desmond Dekker & The Aces
Across the world, there are impoverished housing areas known as “shanty towns.” Jamaican band Desmond Dekker and the Aces released this song of that name as a single in 1983 after Dekker watched news coverage of a student demonstration against the government’s plans to close the public beach in favor of an industrial complex. The song title comes from the location (“Four Shore Road and down to Shanty Town”). The rocksteady song has a much chiller vibe than the message, but that’s one of the uniquely distinctive things about reggae music.
Related: Head over to our list of The Harder They Come songs.
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley and the Wailers
Maybe one of the most well-known lines in reggae history comes from this song by Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Don’t worry ’bout a thing, ’cause everything little thing is gonna be alright.” The uplifting song was inspired by the message Marley received from the three little birds that frequented his porch, thus giving the song its title. The song came to him after an assassination attempt on his life for his support of Prime Minister Michael Manley.
Related: This song features on our playlist of 70’s songs.
Rivers of Babylon – The Melodians
Some of the lyrics from ‘Rivers of Babylon’ come from Psalm chapters 19 and 137 of the Bible. The psalm was written during the Jewish exile in Babylon, a familiar story for many people of Jamaica. The song became an anthem for the Rastafarian movement for that reason. Babylon is the term in the Rastafari faith that refers to oppressive and unjust governmental systems. The specific phrase in the song, “by the rivers of Babylon,” refers directly to the repression of the people in Jamaica and their longing for freedom.
Related: Float away with more songs about the river.
War Ina Babylon – Max Romeo and The Upsetters
‘War Ina Babylon’ is a Rastafarian faith political song from Max Romeo and the Upsetters. The song was a political solidarity statement with the innocent civilians harmed by the inter-party upheaval in the 1976 election in Jamaica. The term “Babylon” from Old Testament scriptures in the setting of Rastafari directly calls out unjust political powers. “War ina Babylon, tribal war ina Babylon.” Many of the lyrics are not in English—but rather a combination of Iyaric and English. You may not understand all the words, but you’ll get the gist if you listen.
Israelites – Desmond Dekker & The Aces
As you scroll through the list, you’ll see a lot of Old Testament references and parallels. The reason is the Rastafarian faith that formally began in the 1930s ties together Christianity, mysticism, and pan-African political consciousness. ‘Israelites’ by Desmond Dekker and the Aces is partially birthed out of this and Decker’s inspiration comparing modern-day work to ancient slavery. “You get up in the morning, and you slaving for bread.”
No, No, No – Dawn Penn
Recorded originally by Dawn Penn in 1967, ‘No, No No,’ or ‘You Don’t Love Me,’ was based on a 1960 song by Willie Cobbs of the same name. She wrote the lyrics for the song when she was dealing with a painful breakup. She has rereleased the song a few times, including for her album of the same name in 1994. “No, no, no. You don’t love me, yes, I know now. ‘Cause, you left me, baby, and I got no place to go now.”
Related: Cheer up with more positive songs.
Legalize It – Peter Tosh
‘Legalize It’ is a political protest in the face of the many injustices served by problematic laws around the legal system’s view of certain substances. The song lists the many nicknames for the illegal substance and why the singer believes it should be legalized. The song references the intense hypocrisy of the system, with judges and lawyers, police officers, and others “using” exactly what they say no one else may. The song is more than just a legal protest song—it’s against the colonialism that has victimized people for far too long.
Related: Feel inspired by our playlist of protest songs.
The Tide is High – The Paragons
‘The Tide is High’ is a rocksteady song from 1967, performed by the Paragons. The song is a bit more “pop” than many other reggae songs, with its unique combination of reggae rhythms, an almost rockabilly guitar, and violins. The song became popular in 1980 when the American band Blondie covered it. Holt, the lead singer of the Paragons, wrote the song, a love song, noting that he’s willing to wait out the “high tide” to get his partner back. “I’m not the kind of man who gives up like that.”
Related: Check out more songs about tides.
Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
From one of the original reggae artists, Jimmy Cliff, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ is another unique reggae song that breaks some of the musical boundaries out of what we typically think of reggae and moves into an almost Motown fusion with early rock, complete with the tight harmonics in the backing vocals and the bluesy guitar. The song is probably more technically reggae because of the artist than the sound.
How Could I Leave? – Dennis Brown
‘How Could I Leave?’ by Dennis Brown has a “classic” reggae beat with some record scratch-type sounds and unique sound effects to help make the song a truly unique piece in the genre. As you listen to the rhythm section, you’ll hear several unique instruments, including Jamaican rhythm toys. The song itself is a love song, asking, “How could I leave? Promise you won’t leave me. Promise you won’t hurt me. I don’t know what I’d do.”
Satta Massagana – The Abyssinians
The Abyssinians released ‘Satta Massagana,’ a roots reggae album and song by the same name, in 1976. The album is considered the strongest recording of their career. Interestingly enough, the song has been adopted by some Rastafarian faith groups as a hymn, which you can easily hear in the lyrics. “The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords sit upon his throne, and He rules us all.” The title translates from the Amharic language as “He Gave Praise.”
Better Must Come – Delroy Wilson
Originally released in 1971 by Delroy Wilson, ‘Better Must Come’ was one of the greatest songs of one of the most beloved singers of the early reggae music era. Wilson was born in the infamous Trench Town, a slum of Kingston, Jamaica, and was considered the first child star, having signed his first musical contract at age 13. The song is one many of us can relate to at some point in our lives. “Everything I try to do seems to go wrong. It seems I have done something wrong. But they’re trying to keep me down.” It’s no wonder the song resonates so clearly for many of the folks of Kingston even now.
Pressure Drop – Toots and the Maytals
Originally recorded in 1969, ‘Pressure Drop’ from the album Monkey Man is a repetitive but highly danceable song. The song was written by Toots of Toots and the Maytals and recorded by the group as they felt the immense pressure of making a living. Like so many other songs across all genres, the song is ultimately a song against the music industry and the injustices of the powerful having the ability to manipulate and harm others.
Blackheart Man – Bunny Wailer
Opening with a sweet-sounding, ethereal flute, ‘Blackheart Man’ quickly shifts to a steady reggae beat. The hit reggae song is about the Blackheart Man, a “serious” fable according to Bunny Wailer, the song’s writer. The Blackheart Man was a long-lasting legend of a scary spirit man who would tempt away people and then steal their hearts. Wailer said he wrote the song (and album of the same name) about his experiences as a youth under this legend.
Book of Rules – The Heptones
The Jamaican band, The Heptones, recorded ‘Book of Rules’ multiple times over the years, altering the arrangements and the lyrics. Some versions have the verse, “Look where the rain is falling from the sky,” while others don’t. The song was based on the poem by R.L. Sharpe, “A Bag of Tools,” to which they added this lyric. “Just like common people like you and me, we’ll be builders for eternity. Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mask, and the book of rules.”
Slavery Days – Burning Spear
The title of this song holds nothing back. ‘Slavery Days’ by Burning Spear is a hard-hitting song asking listeners to recall the days of slavery in protest of the ongoing racism and oppression still experienced by the Jamaican people. “Do you remember the days of slavery? An’ they beat us, an’ they worked us so hard, an’ they used us, ’til they refuse us.” The steady beat and counter-melody components impact the repetitive nature of the lyrics and the instrumentals, keeping it uniquely fresh and emotionally impactful as you listen.
In the Light – Horace Andy
The lyrics from ‘In the Light’ are a soft reminder of the importance of knowing where we come from while also being a protest song by Horace Andy (born Horace Hinds). “When I was a little child, I didn’t know my culture. I didn’t know my foreparents were from Africa.” The song parallels the people’s early history of Jamaica, specifically the roots of the Rastafarian faith found in ancient Israel and Egypt, adding even more depth to the line about African foreparents.
Related: See our list of the best songs about light.
Congoman – The Congos
You can’t miss the roots of this song by The Congos, ‘Congoman,’ on the album Heart of the Congos. The musical duo, accompanied by other vocalists and instrumentalists as backing, combines English phrases with African language phrases (presumably Congolese). “Out of Africa comes the Congoman” occasionally repeats, with “We come with our culture to enlighten the world.” The song has a bit heavier emphasis on the African musical roots than the more contemporary reggae rhythms, heavily relying on African drums and Congolese-style harmonies.
Cherry Oh Baby – Eric Donaldson
A classic reggae song with an organ, what sounds possibly like a calliope, and some additional instruments you might not typically hear in a reggae song, ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ is a fun, upbeat love song, asking the woman to see the singer is in love with her. The song was originally released in 1971 by the writer Eric Donaldson, though later it was covered by the Rolling Stones on their album Black and Blue.
Fussing and Fighting – Bob Marley and The Wailers
A distinctly Rastafarian faith song, ‘Fussing and Fighting’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers asks why the world is so chaotic. Ultimately, the song is calling for peace between people. “We should really love each other in peace and harmony. Instead, we’re fussing and fighting.” The prayer song cries out, inviting all listeners to examine themselves and shed violence for peace. And though it’s a lesser-known song from Marley, its message seems to be a clear presentation of his beliefs.
Related: Feel at ease with the best songs about world peace.
Train to Skaville – The Ethiopians
The very title ‘Train to Skaville’ recalls the musical roots from which reggae music was birthed: ska. The simple lyrics seem almost silly on the surface, except if you catch the one line towards the end, “free man free.” The song is a unique invitation to peace, harmony, and freedom. The song was recorded by one of Jamaica’s best-loved harmony groups, The Ethiopians. They were incredibly influential in the development of early reggae and rocksteady music.
Harder They Come – Jimmy Cliff
The overall message of the song ‘The Harder They Come’ is that you can survive—and succeed—no matter how hard life might be. The song was written by Jimmy Cliff and used in the Jamaican film of the same name, starring Cliff as a young kid from the country, coming to town to try to make it big as a gangster. But, ultimately, “falling,” as the line says.
Related: Believe in yourself with these strong songs.
Natty Don’t Fear – U-Roy
U-Roy (born Ewart Beckford) was also known as the Originator and Hugh Roy. His career started as a DJ, ultimately working with King Tubby, who invented dub music. U-Roy became a big celebrity in Jamaica thanks to his connection to King Tubby and the dub music scene. The song ‘Natty Don’t Fear’ followed U-Roy’s successful first album, Dread in a Babylon. The song is a bit of a love song for Natty and U-Roy as they swing their way around Jamaica.
Marcus Garvey – Burning Spear
‘Marcus Garvey’ is a song about a Jamaican activist by the same name. The song asks why people seem to forget those who’ve come before, fighting for justice and righteousness. “No one remember Marcus Garvey.” The song lists many other people from history—John the Baptist, William Gordon, Norman Washington Manley—and asks why hatred remains in the world instead of the much-needed harmony and justice.
Sufferer’s Psalm – I Roy & The Impact All Stars
I-Roy, born Roy Samuel Reid, was a Jamaican DJ who partially derived his name from U-Roy. The song ‘Sufferer’s Psalm’ by I-Roy is one of his harder-hitting songs. Many of his others incorporate a bit of humor and even nursery rhymes, but this song is a bit more Old Testament, with references to Jonah, hunger, and corruption. The protest song cries out again injustice, hunger, and oppression.
Related: Here are the best songs about social justice.
Black Woman – Judy Mowatt
One of the few well-known women musicians in reggae, Judy Mowatt isn’t afraid to speak out the truth against gender bias. ‘Black Woman’ comes from her debut album with the same title, released in 1979 in Jamaica. The song was a tribute to the Mothers of past times, a source of pride and strength for black women of her time and forward. Mowatt was actually the first woman reggae musician to produce a solo album.
Monkey Man – Toots and the Maytals
Released in 1969 by Toots and the Maytals, considered a ska and reggae band—blending the two perfectly in this song!—’Monkey Man’ became a popular song with later artists for covers. The song is about a woman choosing a different man over the group’s lead singer (Toots). Interestingly, Australian singer Kylie Minogue covered the song with The Wiggles as a fundraiser for UNICEF in 2009. Some other well-known artists who’ve covered the song include Amy Winehouse and the Japanese experimental rock band Melt-Banana.
Related: You’ll love our list of monkeys songs.
I Can See Clearly Now – Johnny Nash
“I can see clearly now; the rain is gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared.” The song is about looking to a hopeful future, even if just in this moment. The song suggests a theme of hope and courage for those who’ve faced deeply challenging adversity. The song is the first reggae song to hit number 100 on the Hot 100.
Related: Sing along with the easiest karaoke songs.
Don’t Worry Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin
‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ is one of those reggae songs that pretty much all of us have heard at some point. The Acapella song is a unique piece in the world of reggae, with all the percussion being entirely vocal. The song is a peppy, upbeat little song without the often politically charged undercurrents of much of the genre. Instead, the writer, Bobby McFerrin, seems just to want to spread the simple message that life doesn’t have to get you down. The title really says it all.
Related: Brighten your day with these classic happy songs.