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The 51 Best Reggae Songs (& Our Reggae Music Playlist)


The 51 Best Reggae Songs | Featuring Johnny Nash, Ziggy Marley, the not-so vain Bob Marley, and more!

Today, we will explore the genre of music known as Reggae, which originated in Jamaica during the late 1960s. (Yes, it is about time we covered this iconic genre)


Reggae music is characterized by its distinctive rhythm and beat, which typically features a strong accent on the off-beat, known as the 'skank'.


Reggae evolved out of earlier musical styles such as ska and rocksteady, offering a slower tempo and emphasizing lyrical content that often delves into social and political commentary.


You'll find that reggae songs are deeply linked with the Rastafari movement, its culture, and spiritual beliefs, which influence the music's themes of love, humanity, and justice.


Whether you are a seasoned listener or new to the genre, reggae invites you to experience its rich soundscape and the messages woven within its rhythms.

Without further ado, let's dive into the world of Reggae!

 

Table of Contents:

 

History of Reggae

Reggae, originating in Jamaica, is a genre deeply entrenched in social and political commentary. Its steady rhythmic patterns and distinctive offbeat accents have made it an influential voice with global reach.


Origins and Development

Reggae originated in the late 1960s as an evolution of earlier Jamaican musical styles like ska and rocksteady. The term "reggae" first appeared in the song "Do the Reggae" by Toots and the Maytals in 1968.


Reggae gained popularity with artists like Bob Marley & The Wailers, whose albums, such as "Catch a Fire" and "Burnin'," brought reggae to an international audience.


Instrumentation in reggae traditionally includes drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and the "riddim" section, which provides the genre's foundational rhythms.

  • Key Artists:

  • Bob Marley & The Wailers

  • Peter Tosh

  • Bunny Wailer


Global Expansion

By the 1970s, reggae's popularity had spread worldwide, influencing and merging with other genres. Artists like Jimmy Cliff in the film "The Harder They Come" contributed to reggae's international appeal.


In the United Kingdom, reggae intermingled with punk, leading to the creation of genres like dub and lovers rock. As reggae continued to evolve, its themes of resistance, empowerment, and spirituality encouraged unity and social change across diverse audiences.


  • Notable Contributions to Global Music:

  • "The Harder They Come" film soundtrack

  • UK's punk and dub scenes

  • The emergence of reggae festivals and awards


Musical Characteristics

When you listen to reggae music, you'll immediately notice its distinctive rhythmic structure, the melodic flow, and the specific instrumentation that gives it its characteristic sound.


Rhythm and Beat

The rhythm in reggae is often slower than in other genres, giving it a laid-back feel.


At its core, you'll find a steppers or one-drop rhythm.


In the steppers rhythm, the bass drum hits on every quarter beat of the bar, which can be heard in tracks like "Exodus" by Bob Marley.


Conversely, the one-drop rhythm emphasizes the second and fourth beat in each bar and typically does not play the first and third beats. This might sound like an absence, but it creates a unique, relaxed groove exemplified in "No Woman, No Cry."


Melody and Harmony

Reggae melodies and harmonies are often simple and repetitive, making them easily recognizable and singable. The harmonies may employ minor keys and incorporate bluesy sounds.


This simplicity helps to enhance the impact of the lyrical content, which is an essential aspect of reggae music.


Melodically, reggae songs often use a call-and-response pattern between the singer and the chorus. This method can be observed in Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come."


Instrumentation

The typical instrumentation you'll hear in reggae includes:

  • Drums: A standard drum kit including snare, toms, bass drum, hi-hats, and cymbals. Sometimes you may find additional percussion such as bongos or tambourines.

  • Bass: The electric bass often carries the melody with its rhythmic and melodic lines.

  • Guitars: Both rhythm and lead guitars, where the rhythm guitar usually plays on the off-beat or “chuck.”

  • Keyboard: Pianos, organs, and synthesizers are commonly used for chords and melodies.

  • Horn section: Saxophones, trumpets, and trombones are sometimes included for harmonic accents.


This ensemble combines to create the driving, rhythmic music that is uniquely reggae.


Our Playlist of Reggae Music

To listen to the collection of our favorite reggae songs, click here!



Otherwise, read on to learn more all about the best reggae songs!


Reviewing 10 of the Best Reggae Songs

The reggae song birds - bob marley is performed live similar to the official music video, one of the greatest reggae songs
  1. One Love / People Get Ready by Bob Marley & The Wailers stands out for its powerful message of unity and love. Adapted from Curtis Mayfield, it has become a global anthem.

  2. J Boog brings a fresh energy to reggae with Let's Do It Again. This track laced with a smooth and infectious melody will instantly hook you with its rhythmic charm.

  3. Night Nurse is a standout by Gregory Isaacs. Known for his sultry voice, Isaacs' serenade about love and devotion underpins the quiet storm of reggae love ballads.

  4. Gyptian offers the smooth Hold You - Hold Yuh, a song that mixes reggae with a touch of dancehall. It highlights the versatility within the genre and its ability to blend with other styles.

  5. The catchy tune Bad Boys by Inner Circle became synonymous with law enforcement, popularized by the television show 'Cops'. Its iconic riff is instantly recognizable and an essential part of reggae history.

  6. UB40's rendition of Red Red Wine takes a Neil Diamond classic and infuses it with a distinct reggae feel. It's a perfect example of reggae's influence and the successful adaptation of songs from other genres.

  7. With a heavy baseline and distinctive sound, Come Around by Collie Buddz is a track that you can't help but move to, encapsulating the head-bobbing essence of reggae rhythm.

  8. Barrington Levy's Here I Come is a classic with an upbeat tempo and optimistic lyrics. It's a feel-good song that encapsulates the spirit of reggae.

  9. Bam Bam by Sister Nancy is one of the most sampled reggae records of all time. Its iconic chorus and bold rhythm make it a timeless piece.

  10. Lastly, Chase The Devil by Max Romeo is notable for its prophetic lyrics and haunting melody. It's been sampled and remixed numerous times, underlining its lasting impact on the music industry.


Iconic Reggae Artists

Reggae music boasts a legacy of remarkable artists who have shaped the genre's unique sound and message. You will discover the impact of key figures who left an indelible mark on reggae.


The reggae song birds - bob marley is performed live similar to the official music video, one of the greatest reggae songs

Bob Marley

As an icon of reggae, Bob Marley brought international acclaim to the genre. His profound lyrics and melodic rhythm encapsulate the spirit of reggae. Albums like "Exodus" and "Natty Dread" became definitive works, spreading messages of love, unity, and social resistance.


Peter Tosh

Peter Tosh, originally a member of the Wailers alongside Bob Marley, emerged as a revolutionary voice in reggae with a militant edge. Tosh's album "Equal Rights" showcased his commitment to social justice and his advocacy for the legalization of cannabis, becoming a Rastafarian anthem.


Burning Spear

Burning Spear, known as one of the most powerful roots reggae artists, has woven Rastafarian history into the fabric of his music. His seminal album, "Marcus Garvey," pays homage to the Black Nationalist leader and remains a cornerstone of the genre, elevating the consciousness of his listeners.


Influential Reggae Albums

When you explore the world of reggae, certain albums shine as foundational pillars of the genre.


"Catch a Fire" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973) ignited international attention with tracks like "Stir It Up" and "Concrete Jungle."


Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" (1976) pushed boundaries, while "Two Sevens Clash" by Culture (1977) offered social commentary through powerful lyrics.


Essential Albums to Experience

  • Bob Marley and the Wailers

  • Catch a Fire (1973)

  • Exodus (1977): Includes "One Love," "Jamming"

  • Legend (1984): A compilation of hits like "No Woman, No Cry"

  • Peter Tosh

  • Legalize It (1976): Title track became an anthem for cannabis advocacy

  • Culture

  • Two Sevens Clash (1977): Regarded for its historical and cultural impact


You may also appreciate Burning Spear for their album "Marcus Garvey" (1975), named after the black nationalist, which includes the song "Slavery Days."

The impact was significant as it invoked a sense of heritage and resistance.


Other noteworthy albums that have shaped the genre:

  1. Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come (1972) – Soundtrack for the movie of the same name includes "You Can Get It If You Really Want."

  2. Black Uhuru: Red (1981) – Expresses political issues and personal struggles.

  3. Toots and the Maytals: Funky Kingston (1973) – Melds reggae with soul and gospel, featuring "Pressure Drop."


Each album serves not just as entertainment but as a historical document, capturing the essence of the cultural and sociopolitical milieu of the time.


Find the rocksteady song, the redemption song, or any reggae song from a self-titled debut album with our playlist finder!

Reggae Subgenres

Reggae music, as you know it, is not a monolith; it has evolved and branched into several distinct subgenres. Each carries the ethos of reggae but in unique forms that resonate with diverse audiences.


Roots Reggae

Roots Reggae emerged in the 1970s as the direct descendant of traditional reggae music. It's characterized by spiritual and social themes, profound bass lines, and the steady rhythm guitar. You'll find Bob Marley as a staple reference for this subgenre.


Dancehall

Dancehall started in the late 1970s, evolving from reggae with a greater emphasis on the beat and spoken or rhythmically declaimed vocals.


As the name suggests, it's tailored for the dance scene with energetic rhythms and bold, up-tempo beats. Dancehall often includes deejays, such as Yellowman, who are not only DJs in the traditional sense but also vocal artists that toast over tracks.


Dub

Dub is a unique reggae subgenre focusing on instrumental remixes of existing recordings. It emphasizes drum and bass, with the original vocals either completely removed or significantly reduced.


Echos and reverb effects are heavily utilized to create an immersive soundscape. Pioneers like King Tubby transformed reggae production through their innovative dub techniques.


Reggae in Popular Culture

Reggae music, with its distinctive beat and socially conscious lyrics, has permeated various aspects of popular culture, from cinema to fashion.


Cinema and Media

In cinema, reggae music often serves as a cultural backdrop to films showcasing Caribbean life or themes of resistance and community.


Films like The Harder They Come (1972) and Rockers (1978) not only brought reggae to international audiences but also portrayed the genre's gritty reality and vitality in Jamaican culture.


On television, reggae soundtracks and themes are frequently found in shows set in tropical locales, underpinning scenes with its rhythmic groove.


Fashion and Lifestyle

Reggae's influence on fashion can be seen in the adoption of Rastafarian colors—red, green, and gold—across various clothing lines, from streetwear to high-fashion brands. These colors often symbolize the ties to African heritage expressed in reggae music.


Moreover, the relaxed and natural aesthetic associated with reggae culture has inspired trends such as dreadlocks, crochet hats, and earth-toned clothing that convey a laid-back lifestyle.


Reggae Festivals and Events

Reggae, celebrated for its soulful vibes, reaches its peak energy when experienced live. Numerous festivals around the world showcase the genre, giving you the chance to immerse yourself in the rhythms and messages of reggae music.


Annual Reggae Festivals:

  • Rototom Sunsplash - Spain: Embrace the European reggae scene.

  • Reggae Sun Ska - France: One of the country's biggest music events.

  • Rebel Salute - Jamaica: A more traditional, roots-centered experience.

  • Reggae Sumfest - Jamaica: Feel the heartbeat of reggae in its birthplace.


During these events, you will hear classic tunes like Bob Marley's "One Love," Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," and Peter Tosh's "Legalize It." These songs are often part of the essential playlists that create the authentic reggae festival atmosphere.

Festival

Location

Notable Artists

Rototom Sunsplash

Spain

International lineup

Reggae Sun Ska

France

European and Jamaican

Rebel Salute

Jamaica

Roots reggae focus

Reggae Sumfest

Jamaica

Popular reggae stars

Remember to check the festival schedules, as many events span multiple days and feature various activities, such as dance workshops, cultural talks, and craft markets. Diving into the festival experience provides a deeper understanding and appreciation of the reggae culture.


Reggae's Impact on Music

Reggae music has not only garnished a global audience but has also profoundly influenced various other musical styles and facilitated numerous artistic collaborations.


Influence on Other Genres

Your appreciation for different music genres might already include elements borrowed from reggae. Hip-hop and rap owe much to reggae, as pioneers like Kool Herc brought the Jamaican practice of toasting—which involves speaking or chanting over a rhythm or beat—to New York City, fueling the hip-hop movement.


The offbeat rhythms and staccato chords characteristic of reggae can be found in rock, especially with bands like The Police.


In pop music, reggae's laid-back rhythm and melodic baselines have been integrated into hits by megastars like Rihanna. You might have noticed syncopated reggae rhythms providing the backbone to songs like her track "Work." Meanwhile, in punk, bands such as The Clash adopted the rebellious spirit and cultural messages of reggae, fusing them with the high-energy, fast-paced punk sound.


  • Hip-Hop/Rap

  • Origin: Jamaican toasting

  • Impact: Informed the development of rapping and DJ culture

  • Rock

  • Example: The Police

  • Influence: Reggae beats and syncopated baselines

  • Pop

  • Artists: Rihanna

  • Adoption: Melodic and rhythmic elements

  • Punk

  • Bands: The Clash

  • Fusion: Themes of rebellion and social commentary


Collaborations and Crossovers

Over the years, the genre has seen unexpected combinations where reggae artists have collaborated with musicians from other genres, creating unique fusions.


One notable example is the collaboration between Bob Marley & The Wailers with Eric Clapton, whose cover of "I Shot the Sheriff" brought reggae to a wider rock audience.


Contemporary reggae artists like Sean Paul frequently feature on tracks with pop and hip-hop artists, expanding reggae's reach and influence. For instance, his collaboration with Beyoncé on the song "Baby Boy" seamlessly blends pop and dancehall, a subgenre of reggae.


  • Collaborations

  • Classic: Bob Marley & The Wailers with Eric Clapton

  • Outcome: Rock audiences exposed to reggae

  • Modern: Sean Paul with Beyoncé

  • Result: Dancehall-infused pop hits


In Conclusion

We hope you enjoy this exploration of the reggae genre, from exploring reggae influences, uncovering the reggae style, and showcasing the greatest reggae songs.


From Birds of a Feather - Johnny Nash, to Sheriff - Bob Marley, each reggae song has a unique style despite the similar vibe and instrumental techniques.


Therefore, we hope you explore our playlist of the best reggae songs. Click here to listen now!


Otherwise, until next Monday, fellow music fans!


Frequently Asked Questions

Reggae is a genre rich in history and distinct in sound. Below you'll find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about reggae music.


What are the defining characteristics of reggae music?

Reggae music is characterized by its rhythmic emphasis on the off-beat, often referred to as the skank. This rhythm is typically slower than that of ska and rocksteady, giving it a laid-back feel. Bass and drums play a prominent role, often contributing to the genre's heavy and persistent groove.


Who is considered the pioneer of reggae music?

Bob Marley is frequently cited as the pioneer of reggae music. Though there were other important figures and groups in the early development of reggae, such as Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, Marley's music and his band, the Wailers, played a crucial role in popularizing reggae on a global scale.


How has reggae music evolved throughout its history?

Reggae music has gone through various transformations since its origins in the 1960s. It evolved from earlier Jamaican genres like ska and rocksteady, and over time, it has branched into several subgenres such as roots reggae, dub, lovers rock, and dancehall, each with its own unique elements and innovators.


What types of instruments are commonly used in reggae music?

The ensemble in reggae typically includes drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and sometimes horns like the saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. The guitar often plays on the off-beat chords, and bass lines are heavily emphasized. In the studio, effects such as reverb and delay are commonly used to create a distinctive ambiance.


How does reggae music differ from other genres?

Reggae differs from other music genres primarily in its rhythmic structure, built around the off-beat or the skank. Its tempo is generally slower than genres like rock and its approach to production and bass lines is more pronounced than in funk or soul, making the rhythm section a crucial aspect of the sound.


What impact has reggae music had on global culture?

Reggae music has had a profound impact on global culture, influencing music, fashion, and sociopolitical movements. Internationally, its sound has been co-opted into different genres and has played a huge role in raising awareness about issues such as social justice and unity, partly due to the efforts of artists like Bob Marley.

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