With its warm rhythms and distinctive sonic textures, reggae is one of those genres that just sounds better on vinyl. And of course, the enjoyment of vinyl records necessitates a top quality turntable.
Here’s a list — in no particular order — of 10 reggae LPs you have to hear on vinyl.
Bob Marley and The Wailers are arguably the most well-known reggae artists of all time. The deluxe version of their 1984 album Legend (released three years after Marley’s death) includes many of the beloved singer’s biggest hits: “No Woman, No Cry,” “Three Little Birds,” “Could You Be Loved” and “Is This Love,” to name just a few, with the shimmering guitars and Marley’s buttery voice sounding even more crisp when you listen on vinyl.
Singer Jimmy Cliff not only starred in the hit 1972 crime film The Harder They Come, he also performed the title track as well as three other songs. The rest of the soundtrack was rounded out with contributions from other popular Jamaican artists of the time, including Toots and the Maytals, The Melodians, The Slickers, DJ Scotty and Desmond Dekker — in other words, a veritable Who’s Who of reggae. The vinyl release of this pivotal work is a great way for those new to reggae music to immerse themselves in the genre.
This album marked a seminal moment for reggae on the world stage, popularizing the genre for the masses. The recording revealed what life was truly like in Jamaica in the early 1970s — both the ups and the downs — and showed that the residents of the tiny island nation chose to celebrate life, no matter what they came up against. One of the album’s standout tracks is “Pressure Drop,” a song about karmic justice — the idea that if you wrong someone, then karma will find its way to you.
Burning Spears’ Marcus Garvey, is another groundbreaking work in reggae music … and a political statement as well. It was named after the legendary Jamaican political activist of the early 20th century, a man who aimed to unify and connect the African diaspora throughout the world. The opening title track is a sobering testament to Garvey, with the guitars and horns almost melancholic as they lament over why the activist has been forgotten — an injustice that the rest of the album serves to rectify by memorializing his legacy and roots.
Unusually, this fourth studio album from the UK group UB40 was a collection of cover songs, including Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” all done in a reggae style — a tactic that gave the genre another global boost. In fact, UB40 first heard “Red Red Wine” through reggae singer Tony Tribe, and not Diamond. Their version earned the group their first No. 1 single, so if you want to hear the real deal, be sure to check out the 45 RPM vinyl release.
Yabby You may not be a household name, but he was another pioneer in reggae. Born Vivian Jackson, he earned his nickname with the title song for this 1975 album, where he sings “Be-you, yabby-yabby-you” repeatedly — a haunting turn of phrase that eventually transforms into a lo-fi chant. Yabby turned to a music career after leaving his family at the age of 12, only to suffer a bout of malnutrition that left him disabled in his late teens and unable to work. Conquering Lion was the result, a project that authentically reflected his day-to-day struggles in Jamaica.
Exodus has a much more relaxed sound than Bob Marley and The Wailer’s previous work, relying on themes of religion, politics and sex to tell a story. Recorded in London, England following an assassination attempt on Marley’s life in 1976, this is the album that brought international success to the beloved Jamaican singer/songwriter — not least because it includes a number of his biggest hits, such as the effervescent “Jamming” and “Three Little Birds,” with the latter featuring the catchy “every little thing is gonna be all right” lyric that Marley is perhaps most famous for.
As the name suggests, this 2012 collaboration between reggae veteran Jimmy Cliff and Tim Armstrong, frontman for the punk band Rancid, is meant to be a reawakening of the genre. Sure, there are moments when the pair brazenly combine traditional reggae rhythms with rock — on The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Rancid’s “Ruby Soho,” for example — but there are other moments when Jimmy intuits the textures and styles of his peers like The Wailers and The Sensations. Perhaps the album’s most classic reggae track is “One More,” in which Cliff reflects on what he has to give in this life.
Bob Marley’s youngest son Damian carried the torch for his father by stepping into a music career — albeit one with a unique spin — that continued to give a voice to the Jamaican people. Still active today, his take on reggae is a bit more upbeat than his father’s, and rife with hip-hop influences. Welcome to Jamrock, released in 2005, laid the foundation for what has become to be known as reggae fusion. The title track provides a good example of the marriage of the two genres, with Damian’s half-sung, half-spoken vocals flowing in and around a backing track comprised of staccato guitar and sparse drums, anchored by a heavy bass.
Five years later, Damian would collaborate with rapper Nas on Distant Relatives, an album that provided further proof of the younger Marley’s comfort level with hip-hop. It also served to further break the mold on what reggae could be, as the two artists — both of Garvey’s African diaspora — connect in a musical conversation about the discrimination and hardships of their people. The standout song “Patience” is a reminder for us to do just that — a weighty track that sees Damian and Nas urging their listeners to exhibit patience and spread truth.