Although it doesn’t boast the largest landmass or the most significant population, Jamaica is a powerhouse in many ways. The small island, about the same size as Florida, has had a considerable impact on music genres, popular culture, sports, and trending fashion.
However, reggae and Bob Marley are Jamaica’s most popular and well-known exports. Bob Marley gave reggae to the world. His gift, along with several other influential contributing reggae artists, is why reggae has been found so appealing by so many different people.
Let’s dig deep and take a look at ten of the greatest reggae tunes, from classic reggae ditties from years past to recent reggae hits.
What is Reggae?
Reggae’s roots, which arose from political turmoil in postwar Jamaica, are a melding of different musical eras and styles, accompanied by a call for unity and hope. It evolved from traditional Jamaican musical styles such as ska and rocksteady. It was strongly connected with Rastafarianism, a religious movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s.
Reggae has a unique vocal style and harmonies coupled with an undeniably specific rhythm, meter, and tempo. Now that you’ve learned a little about the reggae genre let’s get to the real deal!
Top Ten Best Reggae Songs
1. One Love/People Get Ready by Bob Marley
It’s only fitting that we start off the list with Bob Marley. Apart from being a great human being and an angel to humankind, Bob Marley was also the undisputed ‘King of Reggae.’
You can’t talk about reggae without mentioning the legendary Bob Marley. It was challenging to pick just one song from his laundry list of hits.
Bob Marley preached love and understanding. His resounding message can be heard in the majority of his hits, including Three Little Birds. His ultimate work of peace and love is, however, One Love. Bob Marley recorded One Love three different times: the first two times with the Wailers and finally, in 1977, as the piece we all know and love, with extra-musical influence from Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready.
One Love was recently recognized by the BBC (British Broadcasting Channel) as the “Song of the Millenium.”
2. Three Little Birds by Bob Marley
It comes as no surprise that another one of Bob Marley’s songs makes twice the list.
The single is a part of their highly popular album Exodus. There has been a lot of controversy over the inspiration behind this song.
Marley’s close friend later admitted that Bob Marley was a highly observant man and often derived inspiration from his songs from nature, life, and surroundings. It makes sense because ‘Three Little Birds’ was written according to Marley’s specific song style.
It is said that three birds would regularly sit outside Bob Marley’s window, and he observed them keenly. He realized how the birds were close to nature. They would wake and sleep by the rising and setting of the sun, sing beautiful melodies without a care in the world because they knew life would be okay in the end.
Marley wanted humans to learn the same lesson from three little birds. Sometimes you have to do your best and leave the rest to nature as the birds do. It works out just right in the end.
The song was a major hit in the West, especially the U.K. Moreover, it is certified double platinum and topped at number 17 on the charts.
3. Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals
This group is on that that isn’t duly credited with the active role they played in the evolution and growth of reggae, Toots and the Maytals.
A native Jamaican band, the group began their career in the 1960s, where they made a name for themselves in the genres of rocksteady and ska (the precursor genres to reggae).
Toots and The Maytals played an instrumental role in popularizing reggae music. Also, lead singer Toots Hibbert has been regarded as a founding father of reggae, just like the more recognizable Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley.
In 1970, Pressure Drop, a song about karmic retribution, was released by Toots and the Maytals.
4. The Tide is High by The Paragons
The song sounds similar to Blondie’s 1980 hit and Atomic Kitten’s 2002 ‘The Tide is High.’ Right?
The truth is, the original came out in 1966, long before the song got famous due to Blondie’s cover. Since then, many bands have made covers on it, which peaked the charts throughout the years.
‘The Tide is High’ is a classic reggae song and has become more well-known since Blondie’s released the song in a reggae style. This made reggae even more popular all over the world.
5. Bam Bam by Sister Nancy
Who hasn’t heard this classic song by Sister Nancy? Even BBC has called it a “well-known reggae anthem.”
‘Bam Bam’ was released in 1987 as a part of Sister Nancy’s album ‘One, Two.’ The song proved to be so popular that it has been sampled multiple times. Even singers like Kanye West and JayZ sampled it in their own songs.
The song makes an appearance at number 454 on Rolling Stone’s list of ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’.
6. I Shot the Sheriff by Bob Marley and the Wailers
The fact that Bob Marley dominated this entire genre for years is justification enough that another of Bob Marley’s songs deserves a place here.
The song came out in 1975 and was a bit different from Marley’s usual themes. Instead of peace, he talked about justice and gave imperceptible political remarks.
The song was another of Marley’s many hits and certified silver in the U.K.
7. Hold Me Tight by Johnny Nash
‘Hold Me Tight’ by Johnny Nash walked so ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ could run.
This song kickstarted Johnny Nash’s celebrated career in the music industry.
The track was from his album of the name, ‘Hold Me Tight,’ and it was a commercial success. It peaked at number 6 in the U.K. singles chart and 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
It ranked at number 37 on the Billboards Top 100 singles of 1968.
8. A Place Called Africa by Junior Byles
‘A Place Called Africa’ was written by Junior Byles in 1971 when the political situation in Jamaica was not good.
‘King Chubby,’ as he was called, questioned his family on why they lived in a terrible situation in Jamaica when they were actually of African descent and could lead a better life there.
This single is proof that most singers write the best song when their creativity stems from personal experiences.
Junior Byles fought an internal war with himself over the years before the song came out. The song was a major hit in the reggae world. It proved popular to the audience because they could relate to the song’s heartfelt agony.
9. Talk About Love by Pat Kelly
‘Talk About Love is a noteworthy song in the sense that it came out in the year 2000.
Kelly released many songs in the 60s and 70s when reggae culture was at its peak, but his top hit came out in 2000 when reggae music had reduced in its popularity.
This song has deep meaning despite its upbeat classical music. It talks about humanity’s hypocrisy and how people promote love when, in reality, they are power-hungry and fight behind the scenes.
10. How Could I Leave by Dennis Brown
Dennis Brown was given the title of the Crown Prince of reggae from the legendary Bob Marley himself, and there’s no higher praise than that.
The single was a part of his album titled ‘Montego Bay’ in 1992.
Brown was something of a child prodigy when he was discovered in the early years of 1970, and he released many reggae songs over the years, which proved what a wonderful and talented singer he was.
11. Redemption Song by Bob Marley
It’s only fitting that we also sign off the list with the King of reggae.
Marley recorded this song when he was at the end of his tragically short life. He left the world with this song before he could pass, which contains powerful messages of freedom and independence.
The song came out in 1980 but is still used as a powerful motivator by activists around the world.
12. Satta Massagana by The Abyssinians
Another monumental Rastafarian anthem, Satta Massagana (Give Thanks in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language), is an integral part of the roots reggae doctrine and is occasionally used as a hymn in Rastafarian services.
The song was first recorded in 1969 but was not released until 1976 after being rejected by several labels. The song has a classic old-school reggae feel with vocal harmonies surrounding the minor melody and a slow, strongly back-beated rhythm peppered by dirty, dirge-y horns.
This song is perhaps more influential on Jamaican artists than international artists. However, it still holds a place on our coveted list.
13. I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash
Johnny Nash, an American-born singer-songwriter, was a great admirer of the reggae scene. Nash collaborated with and forged lifelong friendships with many Jamaican reggae artists.
In 1972, Nash debuted the hit, I Can See Clearly Now, which rose to the top spot on the United States Billboard Charts, securing the piece a coveted gold certification.
Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now played a significant role in bringing reggae to the height of mainstream popularity. Other artists frequently cover the cheery, upbeat song, including Jamaican native Jimmy Cliff.
14. Legalize It by Peter Tosh
As if the title doesn’t give it away, this reggae classic is a flat-out, no-bones-about-it, pro-marijuana song. The song was a manifesto advocating for the legalization of medical and religious use of marijuana in Jamaica. In an ironic twist of fate, smoking marijuana, which Jamaican Rastafarians consider a sacrament, is illegal on the island.
Legalize It, an emblem of marijuana legalization is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs to come out of reggae.
15. Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear
Rastafarians regard Pan-Africanist author and speaker Marcus Garvey as a significant visionary, a prophet even. In fact, they believe it was Garvey who predicted the rebirth of the messiah.
This song, which focuses on Garvey’s foretellings as viewed and interpreted by Rastas, is one of Burning Spear’s most everlasting, featuring his trademark heartfelt vocals and remarkable horns.
16. Cherry Oh Baby by Eric Donaldson
This timeless classic of unanswered love has been covered by numerous artists, from Sound Sensation to the Rolling Stones. Still, nothing compares to Eric Donaldson’s surging tenor coupled with that infamous organ riff. Although it never really hit the charts outside of Jamaica, it was a huge hit on the island and, in 1971, won the coveted and highly regarded Jamaican Song Festival Competition.
17. Many Rivers To Cross by Jimmy Cliff
At just 21, Jimmy Cliff penned his classic hit, Many Rivers To Cross, in 1969. It was re-released as part of the soundtrack to the hit movie The Harder They Come in 1972.
Following the film’s release, Many Rivers to Cross found fame as a global sensation. He remarked that the song was written as a response to Cliff’s endless efforts to become an artist once he moved to the United Kingdom from Jamaica.
The beautiful, organ-filled, gospel-tinged song has gone on to become one of the most renowned reggae songs ever recorded.
18. Blessed by Buju Banton
Blessed has the kind of rhythm and vibe that makes you want to get up and dance. It follows the story of oppressed people who are no longer slaves to what society tells them.
Before his extended break, Buju Banton was Jamaica’s most popular star, and he remains so today. With his head near to the people, he is an excellent ambassador for reintroducing reggae to the rest of the world.
The upbeat, lively song is an urgent and impassioned reminder of the importance of instilling hope in the minds of oppressed people. Many people’s hearts and minds are touched by the feel-good reggae song, which serves as a reminder of hope in a time of despair.
19. Welcome To Jamrock by Damian Marley
Marley’s Welcome To Jamrock addresses a variety of issues in Jamaica. Jamrock’s (a slang term for Jamaica) harsh reality includes political corruption, violent crime, and never-ending poverty.
His lyrics reflect his father Bob Marley’s legacy of inspiring oppressed people to stand and fight together.
Bonus Track: Cool As The Breeze/Friday by Chronixx
As our last notable mention, Chronixx’s Cool As The Breeze/Friday is a love letter to Kingston, Jamaica, and is as refreshing as a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. The song has a light, airy vibe coupled with a strong hip-hop beat that will have you up and swaying.
Though some critics accuse reggae of sounding alike, we believe the legendary reggae genre is vast in its depth and variety. Given that reggae was developed in a mere decade on a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea, the genre’s reach and complexity are amazingly impressive.
Nonetheless, the reggae era produced some extraordinary songs — popular, impactful, or simply dance-worthy — and these ten (well, eleven) are just as relevant to the listener and exciting today as they were the day they were launched.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.