5 Return of Django – The Upsetters
The only reggae song on this list sans words, Return of Django is a major hit of reggae house band “The Upsetters”. Featuring Gladstone Anderson, Alva Lewis, Glen Adams, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, and Carlton Barrett (the last two went onto be Wailers), The Upsetters were guaranteed talent. Return of Django is one of their triumphs, charting #5 on UK Singles in November 1969. Return of Django is two minutes and thirty-one seconds of pure, ecstatic, reggae joy. Each musician is the king of his domain, and together they create such melody that you can’t help but mellow out and feel at peace. Without knowing The Upsetters, and appreciating the beauty of Return of Django, you can’t call yourself a true reggae fan.
4 Tear it Up — Potato 5 (Ft. Laurel Aitken)
Leaning towards the ska-influenced side of Reggae, Potato 5 were one of the great mix-raced bands to exist during the 2-Tone era of Reggae in England. Featuring Laurel Aitken, undeniably one of the reggae greats, Tear it Up is a perfect newer Reggae song (and by new, we mean the mid-80s). While you can’t quite understand what they’re saying, the general message of the song remains. Whatever it means for you to “Tear it Up” – you should do it. In the case of this song, the main message is to tear up injustice, intolerance, and apartheid. Again, espousing the classic morals of reggae music, Tear it Up is a beautiful three minutes and thirty four seconds of pure, soulful, and danceable reggae.
3 Madness — Prince Buster
Prince Buster is aptly named: regarded as one of the most influential musicians in reggae and rocksteady, he continues to be an inspiration to all in the genre. Most notably, Prince Buster is responsible for inspiring reggae/ska band“Madness”, who pay homage to him in their hit “The Prince” (oh what a tangled web we weave). Madness is one of those undeniably danceable songs. The characteristic reggae horns are toe-tappingly good, and Buster’s soft Jamaican twang accentuates the playfulness of the lyrics. There’s a soul in the song that permeates through you when you listen. As soon as you know the words, or think you know them at least, you can’t help but sing along to “madness, madness, I call it gladness/If this is madness, then I know I’m filled with gladness” I mean, there is no way to stop yourself from grinning ear to ear when you listen to a line like that.
2 Wonderful World, Beautiful People — Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff deserves the title of King of Reggae. In fact, he has it, as the only musician to hold the Order of Merit – the highest honor granted by the Jamaican government for achievement in the arts and sciences. So while every college freshman wants to seem hip and groovy by playing Bob Marley (who deserves much respect of course), they’ve sort of missed the boat. With a plethora of amazing songs, such as Vietnam, The Harder They Come, and Many Rivers to Cross, it was hard to pick just one for this list. In the end I chose Wonderful World, Beautiful People for the simple fact that it is always relevant to our society. There is always something worth striving to make better, always someone you can do good for, and if we all stopped to do precisely that, the world would be even more wonderful than it already is. Jimmy Cliff’s velvety voice is in full force, with classic reggae harmonizing – an audible representation of the message in the song. Espousing the classic ideals of reggae (love, peace, and unity), Wonderful World, Beautiful People is an unexpected tearjerker.
1 54-46 (That’s My Number) — Toots and the Maytals
Toots and the Maytals are one of the most prolific and talented reggae acts to grace this earth. 54-46 (That’s My Number) is perhaps one of their most distinctive and emotionally evocative songs. Toots’ individual, powerful wail grabs your attention at the first five seconds. Now that you’re focused, the heavy, classic reggae bass-beat moves slow and soulful through the meandering lyrics, which detail Toots’ time spent in jail on marijuana charges. His unique vocal style makes it feel like you’re sitting in a small café, smoking a spliff, listening to him recount his story. Your body will sway as the dulcet tones pour from the speakers with each perfect melodious guitar riff. It’s the kind of song you could listen to over and over again without ever getting bored. Its beauty is inherent in its perfect simplicity. Used aptly in the opening credits of Shane Meadows’ “This is England”, 54-46 (That’s My Number) has cultural weight beyond your average reggae fan.
These five songs are all intrinsic to the canon of reggae music. A genre overshadowed by pop culture merchandizing (how many Bob Marley shirts exist in comparison to Toots and the Maytals tees?) these songs are often left by the wayside in our collective understanding of reggae. Without them, though, one cannot understand the genre. Its beauty is based so wholly on the idea of collaboration and unity that to be a true reggae fan, one should acquaint oneself with these five songs – I guarantee you’ll fall in love with them. How could you not? After all, it’s the soul of reggae.