Originating in Jamaica in the late 1960s, reggae is a genre of music popular just about everywhere in the world.
While the term ‘reggae’ itself is often used to describe most Jamaican dance music, the actual definition of reggae music is much more cemented than that.
Although very diverse, reggae denotes a very particular music style. It incorporates elements and draws influence from various genres, including blues, jazz, calypso, African folk, and even mento.
For those not familiar with mento – this is a subgenre of Jamaican folk which predates traditional reggae and ska music as we know it. Acoustic guitars, banjos, hand drums and rhumba boxes are the most common instruments typically associated with mento music.
Reggae music is deeply linked to Rastafari culture and is one of the most distinctive musical genres, along with sister genres, ska and rocksteady.
Whittling the best of reggae down to just 10 songs is no easy task, but we’ve had a go – and yes, there are many more classics we couldn’t quite fit in this list.
We could be here all day – but in no particular order, here are our picks for the 10 best reggae songs of all time.
Toots and the Maytals – Pressure Drop
Recorded in 1969 and released in 1970, Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals is a certified classic.
After appearing on the group’s 1970 album, Monkey Man, the song helped propel their popularity outside of their native Jamaica. In 1972, it featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘The Harder They Come’; a film often considered to have introduced reggae to ‘the rest of the world’.
Toots and the Maytals formed in the early 1960s and built a reputation for having strong, well-blended vocals throughout their music. At the time, the group’s frontman, Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, boasted a soulful vocal style that saw him compared to the legendary Otis Redding – often labelled one of the greatest singers in music history.
In 2004, Pressure Drop was ranked number 453 in the 500 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone. Old-school gamers may also recognise the tune from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was also released in 2004.
Lyrically, the song is about revenge in the form of karma, according to a Guardian interview with the late, great Hibbert in 2016.
Many an artist has covered Pressure Drop over the years – The Specials, Keith Richards, and The Clash, to name just a few.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits Toots and the Maytals in the etymology of the word ‘reggae’. Their 1968 single ‘Do the Reggay’ was the first time the word had ever been used in a song, thus introducing it to the world.
UB40 – Red Red Wine
The original Red Red Wine was recorded and performed by American singer Neil Diamond in 1967, but it’s UB40’s ‘80s cover that makes the cut for our list of the best reggae songs of all time.
The Birmingham band’s cover went to number one in the UK charts and achieved transatlantic success across the pond, too. After its release, UB40’s Red Red Wine also went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Though the original Red Red Wine was an acoustic ballad, UB40’s version features a lighter, more reggae-style sound, which helped to broaden the song’s appeal to a wider audience.
In terms of lyrics, the song is written from the perspective of a person that uses red wine to get through tough moments. UB40 also added a verse that opened with “Red Red wine; you make me feel so fine, you keep me rocking all of the time”, which was sung by the late Astro.
Although the song has been covered multiple times, writer Neil Diamond said that UB40’s version is one of his favourites. Even he himself began to play the covered version instead of the original.
Bob Marley – One Love
How could we talk about reggae without shining a light on Bob Marley? The answer is – we couldn’t.
The man was and is an icon. In truth, he probably deserves an article completely dedicated to him. Not many could argue that some of the best reggae songs of all time were written and performed by Marley.
However, One Love makes the cut for this list due to its political relevance and cultural impact at the time it was written and today.
One Love was written amid the turmoil of the 1976 Jamaican elections. At the previous elections in 1972, Marley had been a big supporter of elected prime minister Michael Manley. However, four years later, Jamaica had become an entirely different place. It was now a very divided nation, with political-fuelled violence commonplace.
Marley’s main idea behind ‘One Love’ was simple: everyone should stop fighting and become ‘one’. There is, however, a deeper meaning attached to some of the song’s lyrics.
Oppression, evil-doings and sin are talked about during the song, although these somewhat darker subjects are often overlooked in favour of the joyous, upbeat chorus.
In One Love, Marley truly mastered the art of creating a piece of music that was as angry as it was peaceful. A classic in every sense of the word.
Jimmy Cliff – Many Rivers To Cross
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than Many Rivers To Cross is that Jimmy Cliff was only 21 years old when he wrote and recorded it.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and since its first release in 1969, Many Rivers To Cross has been covered by a plethora of artists – and not just reggae artists either. The likes of Cher, Annie Lennox and even John Lennon all recorded versions of Cliff’s classic.
Cliff first started writing songs when he was still at school in Jamaica before moving to the UK to try and ‘make it’.
However, things weren’t going quite as planned for Cliff over on British shores, but in true musician style, he used his frustration to inspire his work.
From here, Many Rivers To Cross was born as a way for Cliff to document his experiences in the UK.
In the line “Wandering I am lost, as I travel along the White Cliffs of Dover”, Cliff recalls the various times he would cross the channel to France in search of ‘something’.
Though a difficult period for Cliff, from it, came one of his best-known songs.
Many Rivers To Cross has a real gospel feel, thanks to Cliff’s use of an organ and backing vocalists. Rolling Stone ranked it number 325 in its 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list.
Sister Nancy – Bam Bam
Though you may not know it by name and artist, you’ve definitely heard Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam. And if you haven’t, then you’ve probably been living on Mars.
Inspired by Toots and the Maytals’ 1966 song of the same name, Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam is a true classic, and in 2016, was described by Billboard as “a strong contender for the most sampled reggae song of all time.”
Reggae music fans will know that ‘Bam Bam’ is a popular phrase used throughout the genre, and although Sister Nancy can’t be credited with first coining it (that particular title, of course, goes to Toots and the Maytals), she can certainly be given credit for its longevity in the scene.
The catchy, almost hypnotic nature of ‘Bam Bam’ later saw it transcend reggae and find its place elsewhere in music, in subsequent Jamaican genres like dancehall and beyond.
For more than 30 years, Sister Nancy did not receive any royalties for the number of times Bam Bam was used commercially. She decided to seek legal advice and was subsequently awarded ten years’ compensation and obtained 50% of the future rights to Bam Bam.
In more recent years, artists such as Kanye West, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are among those to have sampled Sister Nancy in their work.
Peter Tosh – Legalize It
Legalize It was the title track on Peter Tosh’s debut solo album after leaving the Wailers – the group Tosh had co-created alongside Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer in the early ‘60s.
As the song’s name would suggest, Tosh wrote Legalize It to push for the legalisation of cannabis in Jamaica, particularly for medicinal purposes. It was also written in response to what Tosh described as his own repeated ‘victimisation’ by Jamaican police for his use of marijuana.
Such was the controversy surrounding the lyrics and overall standpoint of the song, it was banned following its first release in Jamaica in 1975.
However, further attempts to ‘suppress’ the song, and Tosh as an artist, failed, fast-tracking its writer towards international recognition and stardom.
The complete album, Legalize It, was included in ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’, released in 2005.
Burning Spear – Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey is the potent title track from Winston Rodney (better known as Burning Spear)’s third album of the same name.
Both the song and album, which many describe as the greatest reggae album ever made, are named after Jamaican National Hero and prophet of the Rastafari movement, Marcus Garvey.
Despite there being no doubt whatsoever that Rodney is the main man, the song Marcus Garvey is, in fact, a three-piece vocal ensemble, with Rupert Wellington and Delroy Hines also featuring on it.
Though Garvey died in 1940, long before the birth of reggae, his influence on the genre is unquestionable. Burning Spear is an example of just one artist to reference Garvey in their work.
In 1999, the album Marcus Garvey was listed in The Rough Guide: Reggae: 100 Essential CDs. And with a title track like that, few can argue its place.
Bob Marley – Three Little Birds
Surely you didn’t think we were only going to mention Bob Marley once?
Following its release, Three Little Birds cemented its place in the UK top 20, peaking at number 17 – but, interestingly, many fans still (wrongly, of course) think that the song is called ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’ or ‘Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright’. This is thanks to the repeated phrases in the famous chorus.
The lyrics to Three Little Birds are said to be partly inspired by the birds that used to fly near Marley’s home at 56 Hope Road and sit on the wall.
However, three female singers from the reggae group I Threes, who regularly performed with Marley on stage, claimed the three little birds was a reference to them.
All we can say is that, as a songwriter, Marley was known to ‘observe life’ and pen things inspired by what he saw around him. So, we’ll leave it up to you to decide…
UB40 – Food For Thought
Taken from UB40’s 1980 debut album, Signing Off, Food For Thought was also the first single released by the iconic British reggae group.
Said to be partly inspired by the massacre of Kampuchea (a state which existed from 1975 to 1979 in what is now Cambodia), the song is a lament on third-world poverty and a calling-out of governments and world leaders for their failings in relieving such afflictions.
Lyrically, Food For Thought is often regarded as a Christmas song, given its reference to the ‘hypocrisy’ of Christmas. To back this up, UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell said that the original idea for Food For Thought was an “anti-Christmas song about hypocrisy”.
The band’s trumpeter, Astro, also told Uncut magazine that: “The song was basically about the hypocrisy of celebrating Christmas in the west. We’re eating and drinking more than we need. There’s so much surplus food, while millions of Africans were dying of hunger due to famine and third-world poverty. It was shocking. Politicians putting politics before people, leaving them to rely on charitable institutions. This was pre-Band-Aid.”
Recorded in a Birmingham bedsit, Food For Thought later became the first single to reach the UK top ten (peaking at number four) without having the backing of a major record company.
Desmond Dekker – Israelites
Desmond Dekker wrote Israelites after overhearing a couple arguing about money while out walking in the park.
Dekker claimed the woman was saying that she needed money, to which her partner replied, saying that his job did not pay him enough. Dekker related to this and began to sing the line ‘You get up in the morning, and you’re slaving for bread’ to himself.
According to Dekker, by the time he got home from his walk, he had the complete lyrics for the song written in his head.
Throughout large parts of the 1960s, Jamaican Rastafarians were often marginalised, with many tempted into leading lives of crime. Lyrics in Israelites such as ‘I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde’ show that as well as being musically catchy, the song was also a subversive statement.
Israelites was originally released in Jamaica as ‘Poor Me Israelites’, and to this day, remains the best-known Jamaican reggae track to make the Hot 100 top ten in the US.
Upon its release, and despite the fact few could even understand the lyrics, the song topped the charts in several countries in 1969.
Give it a listen if you haven’t before – it’s guaranteed to get you moving.
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