I've always loved Jamaican music, but unfortunately I've never really known what to buy or where to even start. Ask most people and they will probably direct you to Bob Marley "Legend" - not much help, since everyone already has that. After several years of research I've found a whole world of Jamaican music outside of "Legend", most of which sounds nothing like the Marley of the mid-to-late-seventies. This guide is the result of that research.
Note: Although a lot of great Jamaican music was recorded in the '80s and '90s, the classic cuts - the foundations of the art form - were recorded during the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, this guide will concentrate on those years exclusively.
Ska and Rocksteady
Derrick Morgan: Moon Hop: Best of the Early Years 1960-69. (1960 - 1969). Morgan was one of the founding fathers of ska and a mega-star in his time. This is an excellent collection of his early recordings with legendary producers Duke Reid, Leslie Kong and Prince Buster.
Prince Buster: Prince Buster - Fabulous - Greatest Hits + 6. (1962 - 1969). Ska and Prince Buster are as synonymous as reggae and Bob Marley. Prince Buster came on the scene in the early '60s with a score of hits that rocked the ska world to its foundations.
Desmond Dekker: Rude Boy Ska. (1963 - 1971). The music Dekker recorded with Leslie Kong between 1963 and 1971 represents some of the era's best ska and rocksteady. Dekker charted higher on the international charts than any other Jamaican artist during this time.
Justin Hinds and the Dominoes: Ska Uprising and Peace & Love. (1963 - 1975). Justin Hinds is one of my two favorite Jamaican artists. Between 1963 and 1972 he recorded hundreds of singles with Duke Reid and every one is heaven-sent. These two collections are, to me, as essential as air and sunshine. Thanks Trojan! Release more! (2 x OOP)
The Ethiopians: Train to Skaville: Anthology 1966-1975. (1966 - 1975). The Ethiopians came on the scene at the beginning of the rocksteady era and quickly became one of the best groups in Jamaica. From 1966 to 1975 they could do no wrong. A must.
The Pioneers: Best Of: Longshot Kick De Bucket. (1967 - 1972). Simply a great rocksteady trio from the golden age. Just about every song is great, "Long Shot Kick De Bucket" being an out-and-out classic. Get it mon.
Jimmy Cliff: Jimmy Cliff. (1969 - 1970). If Jimmy Cliff can't put you in a good mood, you've got serious problems. Here's 25 tracks from his prime that will leave you with a perma-smile.
The Maytals: Monkey Man/From the Roots. (1969 - 1970). The Maytals were at their peak in 1969 and 1970 when they recorded with Leslie Kong. "Funky Kingston" is their most popular album, but to my ears, this is their best.
Junior Byles: Beat Down Babylon. (1971 - 1972). The 1970s belonged to Lee Perry. Period. Junior Byles recorded with Perry, aka The Upsetter, at the dawn of the decade. Crucial riddims here.
Jacob Miller: Who Say Jah No Dread. (1974 - 1975). A legendary recording session with Augustus Pablo - six indelible cuts, plus six dub versions mixed by King Tubby. Classic roots.
Burning Spear: Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey/Garvey's Ghost. (1975). An extremely important album in the roots movement, "Marcus Garvey" is also one of the most popular albums to come out of Jamaica, and for good reason.
Abyssinians: Satta Massagana. (1976). For the hardcore Rasta, The Abyssinians' debut is a must. You want roots? They'll give you roots right down to the core.
The Heptones: Party Time. (1976). The Black Ark was Lee Perry's recording studio during the mid-to-late-seventies. The music produced at the Ark is like from another world. Prime example.
The Meditations: 'Message From the Meditations'. (1976). Contains three tracks recorded with Perry at the Black Ark, plus seven others that are pretty great as well. (OOP)
Mighty Diamonds: Right Time. (1976). This is one of my favorite albums. If you want to start a roots collection, make this one of your first purchases. I have to admit the album cover is kinda cheesy, but the sounds are amazing.
Lee Perry: Roast Fish & Cornbread. (1976). Perry's best solo outing, and another of my all-time favorites. If you want Perry and nothing but Perry, get your hands on this. Yep, he's my favorite Jamaican artist.
Max Romeo: War Ina Babylon. (1976). Another monumental production from the Black Ark. What more can I say 'cept that Perry is a mad genius. Max Romeo never sounded better. (OOP)
Lee "Scratch" Perry: Arkology. (1976 - 1979). The best tracks from the days of the Black Ark condensed into a three CD set. A great place to start for those who want to get familiar with The Upsetter.
The Congos: Heart of the Congos. (1977). Out of all the amazing things that came out of the Black Ark, this album may just top them all. Perry was picking up tracks from the extra-terrestrial squad.
Bob Marley and the Wailers: Exodus. (1977). Rasta revolution reached its peak with "Exodus", the most hit-laden of Bob Marley's albums.
Junior Murvin: Police & Thieves. (1977). You guessed it, another Lee Perry production. Awesome, as they pretty much all are. Great title track. (OOP)
Peter Tosh: Equal Rights. (1977). Peter Tosh almost stole the reggae throne from Bob Marley with this one. Better than "Legalize It", in my opinion.
Dr. Alimantado: Best Dressed Chicken in Town. (1978). This album is a dub masterpiece, though most people are unaware it exists. Lee Perry engineers a few tracks, along with King Tubby and Scientist. Irie mon.
Culture: Two Sevens Clash. (1978). A wonderfully complex and enlightening album, "Two Sevens Clash" may be the pinnacle achievement of the roots era. A must have.
The Gladiators: Trench Town Mix Up. (1978). Just another extremely worthwhile album from the roots era. You will be happy with this one. Killer.
Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music. (1958 - 1993). This box set is possibly the most important collection of Jamaican music ever released. Every track is essential, and it's an incredible collection of music as well. You may not want to make it your first purchase - it's rather expensive - but at some point you need to own it.
Deep Ska. (1962 - 1967). Strictly Duke Reid productions, "Deep Ska" is a great place to start if you're looking to explore the genre. Consistently awesome tracks.
The Harder They Come. (1967 - 1972). After of course Bob Marley, most people with a fleeting interest in reggae choose this album to add to their collection. It really may be the best soundtrack in existence. Every song is a 10.
20 Reggae Classics 1. (1967 - 1976). Some overlap with the aforementioned soundtrack, but nevertheless one of the best Jamaican music compilations on the market.