The year 2016 has been the best of times and the worst of times for lovers of reggae music. You could hardly turn on the radio without hearing a half-hour block of dancehall-style tracks, all too often classified under misbegotten names like “tropical house” and “Caribbean bass.” With both Justin Bieber and Rihanna briefly sporting dreadlocks and Drake publicly referring to himself as “the don,” it would be difficult for longtime fans of the musicnot to catch feelings this year.
While Jamaican artists like Sean Paul and producers like Stephen McGregor and Supa Dups continued to make their mark on the pop charts (not to mention the massive Sister Nancy sample on Kanye West’s “Famous”), many outstanding albums by reggae and dancehall artists have received far less attention and airplay than they might have. Not that any of that really matters to the hardcore reggae faithful — this has always been a self-sustaining scene that dances to its own riddims. You may tune in if you wish, but if not then it’s your loss.
Consider this list a crib sheet to catch you up on everything you missed while tropical house flooded the airwaves.
10. Rebelution, Falling Into Place
With the release of their sixth studio album, the four-piece band Rebelution lay their claim as America’s leading reggae ensemble. Former classmates at the University of California Santa Barbara, singer/guitarist Eric Rachmany, keyboardist Rory Carey, bassist Marley D. Williams, and Wesley Finley were brought together by their mutual love of Jamaican sounds and developed their own brand of sunny rock-infused roots music that’s built them a loyal fanbase that knows every word of their lyrics by heart. (Just check their recent DVD Live at Red Rocks for evidence.)
Eschewing faux patois and dreadlocks, Rebelution makes American listeners feel comfortable in their own skin while dancing to the crooked beat, and with the Easy Star Records release Falling Into Place they’ve delivered an album that’s palatable to reggae purists while remaining true to their vision. Jamaican star Protoje guests on the herb anthem “Inhale Exhale,” while “Upper Hand” explores the complex power dynamics of a romantic relationship. The band has never sounded tighter — twelve years of steady gigging will do that — and Rachmany’s vocals have never rung out with greater confidence. “No doubt gonna lay my claim,” he sings. “You put in work and just wait/ Let it all unfold, straight from the soul.” Listen and learn.
9. Beenie Man, Unstoppable
A true Jamaican superstar, Beenie Man rose from the West Kingston ghetto of Waterhouse to represent dancehall on the worldwide stage. He’s done it all, from acting in movies to battling longtime rival Bounty Killer for street supremacy, and collaborating with everybody from Janet Jackson and The Neptunes to Future Fambo. On his first full album in a decade, the man who declared himself King of the Dancehall back in 2004 demonstrates that both his lyrical game and his swag remain razor sharp. With production by Major Lazer, Tony Kelly and Don Corleone, and guest appearances by Akon, Sizzla, and even Bounty Killer, Beenie’s 20th album takes its place in a catalog unrivaled by any other dancehall artist. Why do you think he called it Unstoppable?
8. Mr. Vegas, This Is Dancehall
Year in and year out, Mr. Vegas has proven himself to be one of Jamaica’s most consistent hitmakers — from “Heads High” to “Pull Up” to “Bruk It Down” he’s created song after song that shot round the world without the benefit of major-label promotion. This year he became Jamaica’s most outspoken critic of the appropriation of dancehall sounds by international artists, waging a media campaign against “Drake the fake” so effective that @ChampagnePapi felt compelled to respond with — what else? — a subliminal Instagram post.
Vegas also dropped an album this year on his own MV Music label, blazing the fire on culture vultures with tracks like “Real Dancehall.” Over a new lick of the riddim from Super Cat’s “Ghetto Red Hot” he declares “If a neva dancehall, there woulda be no hip hop / Now dem waan take it ’way and take wi fi idiot.” Tracks like “Stopper Wine” and “Dancehall Dab” — a yardstyle take on the ATL dance — keep the focus squarely on the Kingston streets. Vegas has stated that this will be his final dancehall release, and that he’ll now become a gospel artist. With any luck that will not prove true. If that’s true this is a fitting coda to a remarkable career.
7. Stephen “Ragga” Marley, Revelation Part 2: The Fruit of Life
As the title suggests, Stephen Marley’s second studio album Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life dug deep into his family’s mighty musical legacy, featuring collabs with brothers Ziggy and Damian and covers of Wailers classics like “Pale Moonlight” and “Selassie Is The Chapel.” A sultry collaboration with Canadian-Caribbean R&B singer Melanie Fiona, “No Cigarette Smoking,” was as far afield as he ventured stylistically. As one of the tracks suggested, he ran a “Tight Ship.” Five years later Bob Marley’s second son has delivered the second chapter of the two-part project, and as promised The Fruit of Life comes as a revelation. “We gave them the root, now it’s just the next side of the coin,” he says. “Jamaica me grow and — yes me born in Delaware, but as a producer, Yo, me ah make something different.”
Embracing a wide variety of sounds and styles, the new album showcases the singer/songwriter/producer’s restless creativity and consummate versatility. The love song “So Strong” calls to mind Memphis soul from the from Stax era, with Ragga and Shaggy trading heartfelt DJ verses. The Waka Flocka-featuring “Scars on My Feet” explores the links between Niyabinghi and trap rhythms. Spaghetti Western guitar ratchets up the tension as Jr. Reid and dead prez burn on “Babylon.” Ragga flips a Curtis Mayfield sample on the remix for “The Lion Roars,” a soaring track that features Rick Ross and Ky-Mani Marley spitting bars.
Throughout all the experimentation reggae sounds abound: from “Ghetto Boy,” featuring Bounty Killer and Mad Cobra, to “Rockstone” featuring Sizzla and Capleton. The uplifting “Revelation Party” finds Ragga linking with foundation reggae band Inner Circle, as his big sister Cedella provides harmonies and his son Jo Mersa delivers a dancehall-style verse. Sometimes the guest list on this 24-track set can be disorienting, as with “When She Dances” featuring Pitbull and Iggy Azalea — the sort of collab Stephen didn’t have to include, except perhaps to make a point. “I refuse to be put into any category,” he says. “I do have my roots, and that is the beginning of my story… But at the same time me grow all over the earth, and I am inspired by everything.”
6. J Boog, Wash House Ting
The Samoan-American singer born Jerry Afemata grew up in Compton, surrounded by G-funk-era hip hop, R&B, hard rock, and reggae. “That was the music you could turn up in the house and not be yelled at by the parents,” he recalls. His older brothers passed down cassette tapes that exposed him to classics by Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Tenor Saw, Aswad, and UB40. “It was always roots,” he says. “It was always lovers.” Upon relocating to Hawaii, Boog linked with Wash House productions and established himself as the Aloha state’s premiere reggae singer: His breakout hit “Let’s Do It Again” grew so popular it was eventually covered by Pia Mia, Chris Brown & Tyga.
While his five-song EP Rose Petals was recently nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category, that was merely a prelude to J Boog’s outstanding third album. Although Wash House Ting omits two tracks from the EP — solid collabs with Stephen Marley and Snoop Dogg — the 14-track album stands as his strongest work to date, picking up where 2011’s Backyard Boogie left off. With a rough yet sweet vocal tone reminiscent of Beres Hammond, Boog’s soulful sound shines whether on tender tracks like “Sweet Love” or the hard-edged “Raggamuffin” featuring Gramps Morgan and Buju Banton.
5. Raging Fyah, Everlasting
Ten years ago — just as dancehall’s Gaza vs. Gully wars were heating up — three graduates of Kingston, Jamaica’s Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (keyboardist Demar Gayle, drummer Anthony Watson, and bassist Delroy “Pele” Hamilton) joined forces to do something rather strange: start a reggae band. At the time, traditional roots reggae was not exactly the fashionable thing in Jamaica, although folks around the world were steady rocking to the one-drop beat. Bringing in lead singer Conroy Willis and guitarist Cortland “Gizmo” White, they became Raging Fyah, and set about rekindling the flame first set by groups like Burning Spear, Inner Circle, and The Wailers — but which had nearly flickered out in their homeland.
Their fourth album Everlasting, released this past May on the Dub Rockers imprint, was nominated for a Reggae Grammy, making them the only Jamaican band to be so honored this year. Featuring collaborations with J Boog, Jesse Royal, and Busy Signal, the album is an all-killer no-filler affair, straight-ahead roots rock from top to toe. On “Dash Wata” they employ a playful double-entendre, offering to give their lover “di son or di daughter.” The song “Raggamuffin” plays like a mission statement: “Roots rock reggae still a chant down Rome.” Let the fire keep burning.
4. Various Artists, We Remember Dennis Brown
If Bob Marley is reggae’s undisputed King, Dennis Brown is the Crown Prince — a former child star who never stopped singing until his untimely death in 1999 at age 42. This double-disc tribute album features 30 of his best-loved songs as interpreted by a wide range of vocalists, from foundation reggae stars Freddie McGregor (who collaborated with Brown on the 1985 track “Raggamuffin”) and Maxi Priest (who was mentored by Brown early in his career) to next-generation artists Mykal Rose and Sanchez all the way up to current hitmakers Jah Cure, Gyptian, Christopher Martin, Romain Virgo, and Jah9.
Raging Fyah does justice to Brown’s “Milk & Honey” while The Green from Oahu, Hawaii lend a rock edge to their version of “The Promised Land” (originally recorded by Brown backed by North London’s Aswad rhythm section). Elsewhere New Zealand’s own Katchafire tackle “If I Had The World” with a glossy vocal arrangement that does nothing to diminish the song’s feeling, and U.K.–born singer Marsha Ambrosius (of Floetry fame) turns in an immaculate rendition of “Have You Ever Been In Love.” While the six-minute posse cut featuring rootsy dancehall artists Iba Mahr, Jesse Royal, Chronixx, Keznamdi, Exco Levi, Kelissa, Jahmiel, Kabaka Pyramid & Rockaz Elements might have benefitted from some judicious editing, the whole project works because Dennis Brown was not only a great singer but also a brilliant songwriter, whose compositions will never die.
3. Alkaline, New Level Unlocked
Alkaline’s name was inspired by disposable batteries — which, of course, have both a positive and a negative side. His penchant for unnecessary antics — the infamous “eyeball tattoos” that were later revealed to be contact lenses, the skin bleaching and blonde dreads — was clearly informed by his deep if unstated admiration for Vybz Kartel, as were his Auto-Tune melodies and extremely explicit lyrical content.
Nevertheless, Alkaline is a supremely gifted writer who’s developed his own style, characterized by rapid-fire off-kilter cadences and an unhinged emotional vulnerability that the Worldboss would never countenance. There is no question that songs like “One More Time” and “Told U I Was Right” would rock mainstream listeners if they were only given a chance. In order to truly unlock a new level, Alkaline will have to get out of his own way and focus on making worldwide hits rather than getting distracted by local one-upsmanship. But until then this album, executive produced by DJ Frass, will stand as a powerful statement from a young icon on the rise.
2. Jah9, 9
After building up a vibe on Kingston’s underground poetry scene, Janine Cunningham began setting her words to music, catching the ear of esteemed producers Don Corleon, Beres Hammond, and Rory “Stone Love” Gilligan. Her 2013 debut album, New Name, was well-received for its incisive lyrics and heavy one-drop rhythms. This year’s follow-up, the nine-track album 9, released on the numerologically significant date of September 9, 2016 (2+0+1+6=9) represents a quantum leap forward.
Inspired by the fearless truth-telling of Nina Simone, and projecting the ethereal aura of early Erykah Badu, Jah9 sings and chants lyrics of fury (“Unafraid”) and of healing (“Humble Mi”). During live shows the certified yoga instructor will sometimes direct her audiences to breathe deeply and focus their prana so as to plug into the musical energy. While her “reggae revival” brethren Chronixx and Protoje have achieved greater notoriety, neither has outdone her artistic ambition or spiritual vision. Skeptics may dismiss her mystical bent as gimmickry, but there is no denying that she remains — as the album’s closer states — ”the greatest threat to the status quo.”
1. Vybz Kartel, King of the Dancehall
“So all my time just gone?” asks Vybz Kartel at the start of the tenth track on his thirteenth album, King of the Dancehall. “All these years — them waste it. If me rob every watch inna the jewelry store, me can’t get back the time.” That’s the closest the artist born Adidja Azim Palmer comes to addressing the five years (and counting) that he’s spent behind bars on his new album King of the Dancehall.
But to be honest, he hasn’t exactly wasted his time. Produced by TJ Records, KOTDis a powerful body of work, displaying all aspects of Kartel’s artistry and backing up its bold titular boast. With hits like “Fever” and “Western Union” running the streets, Kartel remains Jamaica’s most lethal and uncensorable lyricist. Putting aside all speculation as to how these records came to be, there is no question that Kartel’s self-coronation is well deserved — his only serious rivals for the crown are a former protege (Popcaan) and a former superfan (see No. 3). Even as he prepares to appeal his murder convictions, the reign of the “World Boss” shows no signs of stopping.