I've been fitfully putting together my own "25 (or whatever) essential reggae" list, that maddeningly reductive pastime familiar to compulsive record collectors. But that's only indirectly why i'm writing you today. i took a look at the muzikifan site to consider how a novice at jamaican music might fare following your accumulated suggestions, unsystematic as your intentions might have been when you issued them. well, i think they would do very well. over time you have come to mention most of the essential artists and the most important recordings. but inevitably a few items came to mind that i thought could round your collection out, so i'm writing in case you want to consider adding them to your list.

You do know my predelictions: i'm actually dealing here only with roots reggae, a slippery concept that has something to do with the way rastafarianism met with popular music during a very specific time in jamaica's history. but i've had a realization that that three visionaries who most exemplify this tendency have overlapping musical imaginations. who i have in mind are burning spear, and yabby you, and augustus pablo. in addition to using invented names, all three write largely in minor keys, invoking an exoticism that might suggest africa without having much to do with actual african music; more a fantasy of africa. they make chants conceived from the beginning for the stretching and repetition of dub arrangements; these are artists who inhabit a dub universe. all three became idiosyncratic producers, extending their vision into instrumentals as well as satellite artists and disciples. So, here's a shout-out of some of their key available recordings.

JESUS DREAD 1972-1977 (Blood & Fire, BAFCD 021; 2 Discs)

You reviewed Blood & Fire's recent rerelease of YYs third album Deliver Me From My Enemies in December 2006; this collection is put together from the rest of his oeuvre, expanded in classic Steve Barrow fashion with dubs, instrumentals, and dj versions (as many as six tracks in a row repeating a riddim!) I used to think this was Barrow's masterpiece but after a decade of listening I no longer think so, I'll admit the sequencing sometimes wanders and sags. The shortcomings have to do with the eccentricities of YY's output though: there are perhaps too many devout variants of pop tunes or protestant hymns sung in the YY's wobbling quaver, which King Tubby dubs or transcendent jazz-like extended instrumentals alchemize. Still, extraordinary productions are scattered throughout like raisins in a plum pudding. Just give up and swim in this unique dub ocean.

CREATION REBEL, the Original Classic Recordings From Studio One (Heartbeat 11661-7664-2)

Presumably muzikifan readers need no introduction to this artist; his Marcus Garvey for Island made him an international star decades ago, and other more recent recordings are reviewed elsewhere on this site. Perhaps it's sentimental of me but I always remember the original Studio One LPs when considering his music; they finally came out on this CD in 2006. The Studio One house band is inimitably sophisticated and the conceptions are fresh and powerful; furthermore, a few items only appear in this context. Get it.

SPEAR BURNING/BURNING SPEAR: Burning Spear Productions 1975-1979 (Pressure Sounds 33)

If that's not enough for you, and it isn't, a collection of releases from the period when Winston Rodney first struck out on his own as a producer, characterized by advanced dub technique and lovely instrumental work. Here are "discomixes" (12" versions), limited release variants and a handsome and authoritative booklet. I consider this the best of his later material.

ORIGINAL ROCKERS (Shanachie 44008)

Now, to round out my trinity, to the late Augustus Pablo, the often awkward melodica player whose elusive genius manifested in the overall atmosphere of his mostly instrumental productions. His sound is called "Far East," so in accordance with my theory any imagined musical allusion to Africa is expressly denied; it's just generally exotic. His productions have a consistency and a seriousness that is invaluable; like the foregoing, his work transcends the debasing mass nature of pop music. Nevertheless his discographic quality is uneven; let me just suggest that most of the classic output is available on Shanachie; safer to avoid later releases. I assume that anyone getting as far as this site knows King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown (Shanachie 1007), so I'm suggesting this recording, which has a few vocals mixed in with the instrumentals, as a supplement; this is one I never get tired of.

I listen to a lot of my recordings in my car these days, and what with stop-and-go errands, jumpy traffic, and so forth I have developed an enhanced appreciation for various-artists compilations -- the mix tape, essentially. I would think those who are loading up their iPods, once they tire of the random shuffle feature, might come to appreciate the craft of sequencing as well. I want here to call attention to three fine compilations that have survived the test of lengthy and intense rotation in my car's CD player.

In my opinion the great Studio One, label of the founding recording studio of Jamaica's unique national music, occupies a position comparable in terms of personality and quality to the one Blue Note records holds in jazz. For decades Heartbeat Records has been reissuing the Studio One catalogue in the US with the packaging and recording quality it deserves, usually concentrating their releases on a single artist or a classic album. They have some various-artist compilations but I find most of them uninspired, overdone selections lined up in an often soporific and sometimes jarring order. Here is where the British Soul Jazz label, that transmutes the catalogue into thematic collections, might appear to fill a need.

Problem is, I find the Soul Jazz compilations to be uneven, and at import prices prohibitively expensive to experiment with. Many of the one I have contain worthwhile material marred by selection and arrangement decisions that keep me from playing them often. However, the three listed below hold my confidence all the way through, and taken together might form that elusive anthology that can bear frequent repeat playing.


A representation of the label's main guy singers, and the closest to a greatest hits collection here. One song per singer, but not the obvious choices. There are seventeen cuts, from Burning Spear to Johnny Osborne to the Ethiopian, with particularly haunting contributions from Joe Higgs, Freddy McKay and John Holt. The focus, sincerity and sheer class Coxone Dodd insisted upon informs every track. It's not perfect -- Freddie McGregor's ten-minute rendering of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" can seem endless -- but ultimately there's nothing, really nothing to turn off.


The house bands, starting with the immortal Skatalites, were the foundation of the label's excellence, and presiding musical geniuses such as bassist/Heptone Leroy Sibbles and organist Jackie Mittoo originated the thundering bass lines and infectious instrumental hooks that are an equal complement to the top lines in classic Jamaican music. This is my favorite one-disc overview of a varied topic, ranging from ska raveups to organ jazz, dozens of classics. And yes Alastair, there's a "Peanut Vendor."


"Roots" here doesn't necessarily mean folky, grounation-style primitive; it merely means the lyrics allude to Rastafarian themes, which virtually all Jamaican music of any type did during this period. This collection uncovers lesser known Studio One gems (for instance Devon Russell's "Jah Hold the Key" and the spooky, shiveringly transcendent "Sleeping Trees" by the Saints), interspersed with righteous instrumentals for atmosphere. They only got this right the second time; Roots 1 doesn't get off the ground, and I found some selections on Roots 3 so annoying I sold it back immediately. (Scorcher 2 doesn't stand up to the standards I'm holding these collections to either.) Big respect to the selecters -- when they're on the case.