Ska has become really popular during three points in history, but it always seems to wear out its welcome fairly quickly. Blame the lack of subtlety built into this fast-paced, brass-powered, offbeat dance music. Born in ‘60s Jamaica, where top-rank jazz players flipped American R&B rhythms to create a jubilant soundtrack to national independence, ska ruled Kingston’s dance halls until the music got too hot—literally. According to legend, a heatwave in the summer of ‘66 was responsible for ska’s transformation into the slower rocksteady, which in turn begat reggae.
Ska might have become a footnote had it not been for the generation of British punks who championed the music during the 2 Tone era of the late-‘70s. With their punk take on vintage Jamaican sounds, groups like The Specials and The Selecter used ska’s frantic rhythms to fuel songs about racism, unemployment and other issues facing England. That punky take on vintage Jamaican sounds inspired American bands like No Doubt and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who became the face of ska’s third wave in the ‘90s.
As the music enjoyed its brief mainstream American moment, some listeners just couldn’t stomach all the trombones and checkered outfits. Ska is definitely prone to goofiness (and at its worst can sound like demented circus music), but whether served up old-school Caribbean style or spliced with other genres, it can also be vital music. So, here are 10 ska albums that’ll have haters skanking in spite of themselves.
With their 1979 debut, The Specials defined the U.K. cultural movement known as 2 Tone. That was also the name of the record label founded by the band’s keyboardist and musical mastermind, Jerry Dammers, and the company’s monochromatic aesthetic spoke to the multiracial nature of the music. 2 Tone was about black and white kids coming together and finding common ground amid England’s simmering racial tensions. Produced by Elvis Costello, The Specials combines the brittle, nervy energy of punk with the offbeat rhythms of ska and reggae. Guitars and organs abound, with trombone only showing up on a handful of songs. Up front, viciously monotone singer Terry Hall takes on racism (“It Doesn’t Make It Alright”), scene politics (“Nite Club”) and nightmares of domesticity (“Too Much Too Young”). Many of the tracks, including the hit “A Message to You Rudy,” were covers of ‘60s ska faves, so curious fans knew where to go next.
Officially a 2 Tone band for just one single (1979’s “Tears of a Clown”) and nominally part of the movement thereafter, The English Beat offered a colorful alternative to the stark politicism of The Specials. On its 1980 debut, the Birmingham band gives a jagged rock edge to its guitarwork and emphasizes the hyperactive bass-and-drum fidgeting heard on hits “Twist and Crawl” and “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Those things—plus Saxa’s reverb-heavy saxophone lines and the soul-pop vocals of frontmen Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger—made The English Beat natural U.S. crossovers during the New Wave era. For as fun and poppy as they were, Wakeling and the gang never shied away from politics. Check out “Stand Down Margaret,” an anti-Thatcher anthem Elvis Costello saw fit to cover.
Another great thing about 2 Tone: It wasn’t strictly a boys club. While the label’s only all-girl group, The Bodysnatchers, never followed their handful of killer singles with a proper full-length, the female-fronted Selecter made two albums before taking a break in 1981. The first, 1980’s Too Much Pressure, is raw and punchy—like The Specials with lesser songwriting. For their follow-up, 1981’s Celebrate the Bullet, singer Pauline Black and her band experimented with new textures. “Bombscare,” a song about living in times of terrorism, and the title track, an uneasy plea for peace over violent retribution, helped create a spooky New Wave feel. 2 Tone was always supposed to sound a little bleak and foreboding—even when the guitars were shocking you onto the dance floor—and Black had just the icy soulfulness to highlight the contradiction.
Like The Specials before them, Operation Ivy played ska in a way that made sense for their particular peer group. Because these were East Bay street punks in the late ‘80s, there’s not a whole lot of Jamaica left in their frantic herky-jerk sound. And outside of the sax on “Bad Town,” there are no horns to be found on this 27-track compilation. Only about half the songs even qualify as ska, but on tunes like “Take Warning” and “Unity,” their signature anthem, Tim Armstrong’s up-stroked guitars slice like box-cutters over Matt Freeman’s restless bass and Dave Mello’s pounding drums. Hollering over the mix is singer Jesse Michaels, a thoughtful agitator with a poet’s touch. The band only lasted from 1987 to 1989—after which time Armstrong and Freeman formed Rancid—but it was long enough to influence every American ska-punk band that followed.
While American third-wave ska wasn’t as racially diverse as 2 Tone—the bands and fans were largely white—it was fairly gender inclusive. Two of the era’s most commercially successful acts, No Doubt and Save Ferris, featured female frontwomen, and fellow California group Dance Hall Crashers boasted not one, but two ladies at the helm. Before ditching their horn section and signing with a major for a run of ‘90s records, the Crashers cut a couple-dozen relentlessly peppy tunes for the seminal American ska indie Moon Records. They’re collected here on The Old Record: 1989-1992, a collection best summed by the titles of “Keep on Running” and “Java Junkie.” The closing “DHC” is the closest the Crashers get to politics—which is to say not close at all. “Work, war, and crime can’t walk a straight line,” the ladies sing. “Out on the dance floor everything’s gonna be alright.”
Anyone who thinks ska is just for suburban skater kids and band geeks really needs to check out The Slackers. This New York City collective blends its ska with R&B, soul and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll…not to mention the smooth Jamaican sounds of rocksteady, roots reggae and dub. They took a few years to find their identity, but after solidifying the core of their lineup with 1997’s excellent Redlight, the Slackers made their masterpiece the following year, The Question. The bulk of the tunes were written by singer and organist Vic Ruggiero, who dispenses hard-won wisdom on the soulful groover “Knowing” and pines for civil liberties on “Yes It’s True,” which you’d swear is about a woman. Its depth meets danceability from some of the finest songwriters the genre has ever known.
Any serious conversation about ska must come back to The Skatalites, the group of Jamaican session aces who basically invented the genre in the early ‘60s. Because it was a singles-driven market—and because the crew often backed marquee vocalists—it’s hard to pinpoint one essential studio album from back in the day. Also, those dusty Studio One recordings may turn off some modern listeners. For these reasons, it’s not too sacrilegious to suggest beginning with 1994’s Hi-Bop Ska. This 30th anniversary set features surviving members Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso on sax, Lloyd Brevett on bass and Lloyd Knibb on drums, plus some modern jazz greats and other guests. Whether remaking originals like “Guns of Navarone” and “Man in the Street” or vibing with reggae icon Frederick “Toots” Hibbert on his “Split Personality,” the latter-day Skatalites offer nimble, vibrant, jazzy performances that rightfully earned them their first Grammy nomination. Fans of this swanky dinner-party version of the Skatalites will find lots of hotter, grittier music to enjoy.
From The Skatalites, it’s an easy jump to L.A. stalwarts Hepcat, who could’ve made this list with any one of their ‘90s or ‘00s trad-ska touchstones. But not everyone likes their ska snazzy and soulful. Some prefer a little punk-rock crunch, and for that, there’s no better SoCal band than Voodoo Glow Skulls. Anyone can do ska verses with overdriven choruses—founding VGS brothers Frank, Eddie, and Jorge Casillas weld hardcore punk to old-school ska like maniac mechanics creating the world’s sickest lowrider. It’s all there on their 1993 debut, Who Is, This Is?, which rolls Latino street culture into the speediest ska tunes you’ve ever heard. Hearing the horn players keep from passing out on “Insubordination” and “Dogpile” is really quite inspirational.
Released in 1996, this left-field pick is another example of an American ska-rock band doing something different. Hailing from Baltimore, The Smooths specialized in fast, danceable, brass-fueled hits with huge emotive (perhaps even emo) choruses. If you can get past Tom Gilhuley’s faux-patois vocals on the verses, highlight “Enemy” offers a pretty astute criticism of the those reaching high school and college in the Clinton years: “You’ve got no one to fight, no anomaly / This generation doesn’t know its enemy.” There are similar gut punches on “Tout Seul” and “Letter After J,” which goes, “I’ve come to blows with self-esteem / they’re battles that have dragged me across the field.” Alas, The Smooths only fought the good fight for one more album, 1998’s No Brakes, which they promoted on that year’s Warped Tour. The third wave could’ve used more true originals like this.
Just when it seems ska has mingled with every other sound known to man, a gang of maverick Spaniards brings surf rock and Spaghetti Western music to the party. This 2014 instrumental album isn’t a front-to-back ska record—many of the songs venture into reggae, dub and even European “yé-yé”—but for those who really crave a fresh take on Jamaican music, Ghost Cowboys is perfect. Amid the originals, there are covers of songs by John Holt, Pixies and even Chris Isaak. (“Wicked Dub” is a righteously wicked version of “Wicked Game.”) The highlight is Le Grand Miercoles’ take on The Clash’s classic “Straight to Hell.” Even without words, they capture the sadness of the tune, though hopefulness creeps in via some sampled Joe Strummer radio dialogue at the end. “People can change anything,” the late punk icon says, urging us to recognize each other’s humanity. “Without people, you’re nothing.”