Saturday, July 12, 2008

Seven Essential Ska Albums (and the only ones really worth owning)

I love old ska. I first got into ska in the summer of 1987, when I went to the Manteca water slides with the Manresa Junior Lifeguards, and older JGs Shanae Machetti and Allison Moore played the English Beat’s “Mirror In the Bathroom” at our campsite. Slowly, through my older sister and her friends, I got exposed to the second wave British acts like the Specials and the Selector, and some Desmond Dekker stuff. I got really into ska my sophomore year of college, listening to bands like Operation Ivy, more Two Tone stuff, and local bands like Sacto’s Daisy Spot and Filibuster. My best friend Jaime was dating a (Philipino) skinhead in the mid-nineties, and hanging out with some of the Sacto skins, and through them I got exposed to more old ska and reggae, including Lee Perry’s “Chicken Scratch.” Lee Perry is better known for his reggae and dub stuff, but “Chicken Scratch” is an essential early ska album. I just picked up a remastered reissue from Heartbeat, and it still sounds wonderfully scratchy, just like old vinyl should. Ska was basically Jamaicans attempts at American R&B, and it has all the charm of old soul albums with the extra kick of that ska rhythm. Some of the tracks even sound like jump blues. (I recently learned, by the way, that ska is meant to be pronounced “skya,” and refers to the sound of the guitar. Just thought I’d mention.)

Listening to Chicken Scratch got me thinking about other ska albums, and so I’ve compiled a list of essential ska albums that no collection should be without. Because of ska’s limited range, this list is also the ONLY ska albums you need to own.

1. Chicken Scratch

2. Rockin’ Steady – the Best of Desmond Dekker. This came out in 1992 on Rhino. There is another greatest hits package floating around with two discs, which is an awful lot of Desmond Dekker. Either package is worth it for “That Woman,” “the Israelites,” “Honor Your Mother,” and “007” which is available on pretty much any early reggae collection.

3. The Harder They Come Soundtrack – Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals…a lot of the great early reggae/ska is here. This was America’s real introduction to reggae.

4. The 2 Tone Story. The two-cd 2Tone singles collection. 2 Tone was the label that led Britain’s second wave of ska, in which punks and first-generation West Indian immigrants banded fused the energy with punk with the speed and angst of punk, creating some pretty great music. All the great British bands are here, including Madness, the Selector, the Specials, the Beat, and the Bodysnatchers. The second cd is mostly neo-mod and new wave stuff that is pretty inessential.

5 & 6. While you’re at it, you might as well pick up the Specials self-titled first album, and the Selector’s “Too Much Pressure.” Both bands have greatest-hits collections that are more readily available and collect the few gems from their second albums, but you might as well just go for their debuts.

7. Finally, you should get Operation Ivy’s self titled album on Hellcat, which I believe is a rerelease of their Lookout! Records discography. At the very least, it has their Energy! disc and is only missing a few tracks. Op Ivy were a late-80s punk/ska band, and one of the best to do that mix well. Their later incarnation Rancid had some ok songs as well, but Op Ivy are really the way to go if you want an American 3rd wave band. The one issue with Op Ivy is that they inspired leagues of imitators, none of whom were as good, and most of whom sucked.

Ska, like punk, is one of those genres which offers diminishing returns, so an artists second disc is worse than their first, and the third and fourth iterations of the genre have none of the wheat of the original and all of the chaff. That’s why Let’s Go Bowling, Skanking Pickle, and every other Bay Area ska band from the mid nineties is omitted from this list. They just aren’t worth your time, and these seven albums should be all you need, ska-wise. Neither is any of the bands’ later output. Anything that the British groups put out after 1984 isn’t worth your hard-earned money. (That same rule holds true for early 80s hardcore as well, by the way.)

Ska eventually morphed into reggae (at least in my version of the universe – let me know if you disagree), and there is a lot of great early reggae out there. If you are still jonesing for that ska beat, and can deal with a little mellowness, check out any of Trojan Records collections of early reggae. There is some good stuff in their vaults, and most of it ended up being covered by the British second wave bands.

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