15 Great Reggae Albums of 2020
In 2011, Jamaican writer and activist Dutty Bookman coined the phrase "reggae revival" to describe artists like Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal, and others who tended to favor live band instrumentation, a socially conscious message, and a return to the Jamaican music that predated the pop-dancehall explosion of the 2000s. Almost a decade later, the reggae revival movement continues to grow, and at this point, it feels like an injustice to call it a "revival." These artists aren't looking backwards; most of them are finding new and exciting ways to fuse reggae, dancehall, hip hop, R&B, soul, and other styles of music, and coming out with music that feels fresh and forward-thinking. When you listen to the best reggae of 2020, you can of course trace a lot of it back to the heydays of Sly & Robbie or Lee "Scratch" Perry or The Wailers, but it also sounds like entirely new music, separate from anything that happened in the past. Reggae is a genre that's alive and well; some of the most uniquely appealing music happening right now is coming from within reggae.
There was such a wide range of music released this year, so we don't claim that this list is necessarily the "best of," but here are 15 reggae albums from 2020 that we strongly recommend hearing if you haven't already, followed by a list of singles by artists who didn't release albums (and hopefully will in 2021).
Read on for the list, in no particular order...
Albums & EPs
Protoje - In Search Of Lost Time
Protoje is one of the original leaders of the reggae revival, and he remains one of the most prolific. A lot of his peers are on their first or second full-length album; he's on his fifth, and it sounds just as fresh and inspired as anything he's done in the past. If you want proof that new and exciting things are happening within reggae right now, look no further than this album's opening track "Switch It Up," which sees Protoje teaming up with the genre's brightest new star, Koffee. It's a hypnotic, infectious, endlessly replayable song, and I don't know (or care) what genre you would call it. It's sorta reggae, sorta dancehall, but mostly it sounds like something totally new. It's the best song on In Search Of Lost Time, but the hits don't stop coming. Protoje trades lines with dancehall auto-tunester Popcaan on the equally hard-to-pin-down "Like Royalty," he fuses reggae with soul/R&B on "Same So" and the Lila Iké-featuring "In Bloom," he half-raps on songs like "Deliverance" and the Wiz Khalifa-featuring "A Vibe," and he goes full psychedelia on the trippy ode to marijuana, "Weed & Ting." He sounds like a natural throughout the whole album, and as he expertly blurs the lines between genre, he never forgets the importance of a good hook. These songs just do not leave your head.
Jah9 - Note To Self
VP Music Group
Jah9's 2013 debut New Name was one of the first classics of the reggae revival, and like Protoje, she never stops moving forward. Note To Self sucks you in right away with two heavy, dubby bangers, "Heaven (Ready Fi Di Feeling)" and "Ma'at (Each Man)," and once you're sucked in, Jah9 takes you on a journey that gets better and better every time. The ethereal, soulful sounds of the Chronixx-featuring title track aren't as immediate as the first two songs, but they slowly sneak into your head and prove to have real staying power. The flirtations with psychedelic neo-soul on "Field Trip" and "Hey You" make it clear why Jah9 (deservingly) gets compared to Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. "New Race (A Way)" is chiller than the bangers at the beginning of the album, but its undeniable chorus and guest verse by UK rapper Akala should've made it a global crossover hit. Much of the album veers minor-key or melancholic, but Jah9 also knows how to work in some (no pun intended) feel-good stuff, like on "Feel Good 'The Pinch'" and "You and I" (ft. Pressure Busspipe), which find her offering up warm, sunny-day reggae singalongs without ever seeming too lighthearted. It takes a great artist with a strong vision to write a nearly-hour-long album that constantly changes shape but never loses focus, and Jah9 is very much that artist.
Popcaan - Fixtape
OVO Sound / Warner
Popcaan has emerged as dancehall's biggest current crossover star, thanks in no small part to Drake, who released this album on his OVO Sound label and guests on two tracks. Drake's involvement has undoubtedly attracted new fans to Fixtape, but the bulk of the credit goes to Popcaan, who has crafted a collection of songs that honor his Jamaican roots and can appeal to Drake fans at the same time. Alongside Drake are guests both from Jamaican music (Jada Kingdom, Tommy Lee Sparta, Masicka, Stylo G, Dane Ray, Frahcess One) and mainstream US/Canada hip hop (PARTYNEXTDOOR, Preme, French Montana), and Fixtape masterfully weaves together elements of both cultures. There are extremes -- like the Nineteen85-produced, Drake & PARTYNEXTDOOR-featuring "Twist & Turn," which not surprisingly became a US pop radio staple, and the Masicka and Tommy Lee Sparta-featuring "Unda Dirt," which sounds like it came from the depths of Jamaican dancehall -- but Fixtape can't be judged by one song and it's best listened to as a whole. (It makes sense that, in addition to being released as a 19-song album on streaming services, it's also available as one continuous 90-minute mix on Soundcloud.) If Popcaan's crossover success makes you not want to listen, Fixtape reminds you that he truly earned it. Fame or not, this is some of the strongest music released this year.
Lila Iké - The ExPerience EP
Lila Iké has been honing her craft by dropping singles for the past few years, and she now arrives fully formed on her debut project, The ExPerience EP, released on Protoje's In.Digg.Nation label. Lila's got soulful, powerhouse pipes, and she covers a ton of musical ground across these seven great songs. She's got the bangers ("Where I'm Coming From," "I Spy"), she's got the ballads ("Forget Me," "Second Chance"), and she's got the songs that prove that she's not content to stay within the confines of traditional reggae. "Stars Align" fuses Jamaican rhythms with the glistening sounds of contemporary American R&B, and the EP's most stunning song, "Solitude," ignores musical and cultural barriers entirely. It's a quiet, organic song that nods at reggae, soul, R&B, and jazz without ever sounding quite like any of those things. The instrumentation is warm and vintage, but the overall sound is totally futuristic.
Sevana - Be Somebody EP
Sevana's been working alongside Protoje since appearing on his 2015 global breakthrough Ancient Future, and her sophomore EP Be Somebody (released on Protoje's In.Digg.Nation label) has her poised to be making a global breakthrough of her own. The six-song set bounces between the contemporary R&B of the title track to the traditional reggae of "Phone A Friend" to the Latin jazz-tinged "Blessed" to the classic soul of "Set Me On Fire," and Sevana ties it all together with her soaring voice. She sounds a little like self-titled/Lemonade era Beyonce, and I think anyone who likes the Queen Bey should give Sevana a shot too. They may seem like they come from different worlds, but their music is coming from a very similar place. It's artists like Sevana that remind you that putting up borders between genres and countries only hinders the art. This EP is some of the best reggae and some of the best R&B of 2020, and that's a very cool thing.
Skip Marley - Higher Place EP
The Marley family has been birthing new reggae stars for decades, and it keeps working because each Marley truly brings something different to the table. The latest new star to emerge is Bob's 24-year-old grandson Skip, whose debut EP Higher Place would be one of the year's best reggae records regardless of what Skip's last name is. A posthumous recording of Bob is used on the title track, and Skip's uncle Damian aids the dubby standout "That's Not True" -- not to mention American rap and R&B stars Rick Ross, H.E.R., and Ari Lennox are on this EP -- but Higher Place is Skip's show through and through. The production on most songs is a seamlesss fusion of reggae guitar and trap beats, and Skip proves to be a great singer and songwriter on every track. He doesn't necessarily sound like his grandfather or his uncles or anyone else in particular, and he's come out with a batch of songs that already feel like classics. These songs get stuck in your head after just a few listens, and they quickly start to feel like you've known them forever.
Toots & The Maytals - Got To Be Tough
We wouldn't be talking about any of the music on this list if it weren't for the massive influence of Toots Hibbert. As the leader of the Maytals, Toots was one of the original pioneers of ska and widely credited for injecting soul into the genre, and he was one of the artists who helped transition ska into rocksteady, and rocksteady into reggae. In fact, it's Toots' 1968 song "Do the Reggay" that many people consider to have coined the name of the genre. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Toots released some of the greatest ska/rocksteady/reggae music ever recorded, and he proved to be a true lifer, who kept recording and performing for decade after decade. 2020 saw the release of his first album in ten years, and tragically, Toots passed away just two weeks after its release. (Just look at all the artists who paid tribute to see how far and wide Toots' influence spread.) Got To Be Tough may not become a canonical classic like Sweet And Dandy, Funky Kingston, and In The Dark, but it'll always serve to remind you that Toots remained a master through the very end. His voice grizzled a bit with age, but remained just as soulful and powerful, and -- with help from the legendary Sly Dunbar on drums and Ringo Starr's son (and Trojan Jamaica co-founder) Zak Starkey on guitar -- Toots came out with one last batch of great songs. Toots captures the vibe of his classic reggae era on the title track, revisits his ska roots on "Having A Party," rocks out on "Freedom Train," and turns Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" into a darker, psych-soul-tinged song with help from Bob's son Ziggy (and Zak's father Ringo). It is truly impossible to overstate Toots' influence on not just Jamaican music but music in general. We'll miss him forever, and we'll be forever grateful for how energized he sounded on this one last offering.
Kabaka Pyramid x Federation Sound - Immaculate
Kingston, Jamaica's Kabaka Pyramid has spent the past decade solidifying himself at the forefront of the reggae revival alongside artists like Chronixx and Protoje (both of whom he frequently collaborates with), and he's had a very busy 2020, having dropped a string of great singles including "Babylon Fallin," "Trample Dem," and "Nice Up The Dance" (a rework of Michigan and Smiley's 1979 classic), all of which appear on his new 27-song, hour-long mix Immaculate, made with Federation Sound's Max Glazer. It's Kabaka's first full-length release since his 2018 debut album Kontraband and first mixtape since 2016's Major Lazer-presented Accurate, and it features Damian Marley (on a sequel to Kontraband's title track), Dre Island, Runkus, Royal Blu, Medisun, Pressure Busspipe, Jane Macgizmo, DJ Premier, and more. Like on past releases, Kabaka proves to be a great singer and songwriter who can combine the delivery and lyricism of hip hop with the rhythms and melodies of reggae, and he continues to write music that's both socially conscious and fun to listen to. Throughout Immaculate, Kabaka takes on the current political climate, white supremacy, coronavirus, child abuse, and other serious issues, but it also includes a lighter side and messages of hope. It's all expertly sequenced together by Max Glazer like a classic DJ mix with no gaps between songs, and it remains fiery and hypnotic from start to finish.
Buju Banton - Upside Down 2020
Dancehall icon Buju Banton made a big comeback this year with Upside Down 2020, his first new album in a decade, following a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges. Parts of the album were written while Buju was incarcerated and some songs directly take on the criminal justice system, which made this an album that hit especially hard in a year that has seen calls for police and prison reform on a more mainstream level than ever. It's an urgent, timely protest album, and it also sounds as musically inspired as Buju ever has. The album starts out on a familiar note with two cover songs (the "Lamb of God" hymn and the Stephen Marley-featuring "Yes Mi Friend," which reworks "Duppy Conqueror" by Stephen's father Bob), and the original material manages to sound just as familiar. Some of these songs already feel like classics, like "Blessed," which has been remixed like 10 times this year, and even the less omnipresent songs continue to hold up. Saying Buju sounds refreshed is an understatement; this is some of his hungriest and most politically fired-up work yet.
Dre Island - Now I Rise (Deluxe Edition)
Dre Island Music/Kingston Hills/DubShot
Dre Island has been dropping singles for nearly a decade and he's long been associated with the same reggae revival as Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, etc, but it wasn't until 2020 that he got around to releasing a full-length album. It was worth the wait; it's one of the year's best. The 17-track deluxe edition opens with an introduction track that samples a 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech and parts of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film The Great Dictator, setting the stage for this politically-fueled album, and Dre keeps that going right away on the album's first proper song, "Kingdom," where he sings about fighting for equal rights and justice over ominous, modern hip hop production. It's one of many dark, explicitly political moments on this album (the police siren-aided "Never Run Dry," talk of disease and immigration rights on the Chronixx-featuring "Days of Stone," the cries of "shots rang out on repeat" on "My City," Wyclef Jean rapping about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on "Justice"), but Now I Rise also has uplifting, hopeful songs, like the Popcaan-featuring "We Pray" and the Jesse Royal-featuring "Be Okay." It's as musically diverse as it is lyrically powerful, with elements of reggae, dancehall, hip hop, R&B, synthpop, and more. It sounds entirely modern, closer to OVO than to Studio One, and there's so much going on that it has no trouble holding your attention for 17 tracks.
Keznamdi - Bloodline
Keznamdi and his sister Kelissa are the children of reggae veterans Errol McDouglas aka Makaya Chakula and Kerida Scott aka Goldilocks, and both have been establishing notable careers of their own as well. This year, Keznamdi followed up his early singles/EPs with his first proper full-length, and it very much delivers on the anticipation he's been building up since his first EP in 2013 (and includes some new recordings of slightly older songs). He proves to have mastered an array of styles, from live-band traditional reggae ("Skyline Drive," "Morning Comes," "Chillumpeng") to contemporary electronic pop ("Queen of the Ghetto," "City Lock") and plenty of the in-between. The album also flirts with jazz ("State of Emergency"), soul ("So Right"), and more, it features some great guest appearances (Chronixx, Mortimer), and it's loaded with powerful messages. Whether Keznamdi is comparing presidents to nazis on "Justice" or tackling poverty and violence on "State of Emergency," these songs hit hard.
Tarrus Riley - Healing
JukeBoxx Productions/Zojak World Wide
Crooner Tarrus Riley hadn't released an album since 2014's Love Situation, but -- inspired in part by the pandemic -- he returned this year with his first album in six years and it finds him in fine form. He recorded the album after the pandemic hit, which affected both his recording process (he had to adjust to work around Jamaica's early curfews) and his lyrics, as you can hear on the title track, which is directly about quarantining, and on "Great Equalizer," which is about how the playing field often gets evened during a tragedy. "Not all of it is inspired by COVID-19," Tarrus told the Jamaica Observer, before adding, "This project is about life itself: a soundtrack for our lives now, and maybe what is to be our lives." There's a smooth, hopeful vibe to much of the album, as you may expect from a record called Healing, but a darker side comes through too, like on the political "Babylon Warfare" and on Tarrus' version of hiss father Jimmy Riley's "Poor Immigrants." It's also largely an organic, more traditional sounding album, but successfully dips its toes into modern pop territory on "Lighter," which features a hook from rising dancehall crossover star Shenseea. It's an outlier on the album, but it’s a great pop song (and a great way of bringing in some new listeners). We could all use a little more healing power in our lives.
Govana - Humans and Monsters Are Not the Same
Raheef Muzik Group
Cross-pollination between genres, cultures, and continents continues to become more and more common in today's mainstream music, and just by turning on the radio, you can hear the influence of Jamaican music on artists from all around the world. With his first full-length album, Spanish Town, Jamaica singer Govana embraces not just his hometown but the whole Black musical diaspora, making for an album that's as much a dancehall/reggae record as it is Afrobeats, US hip hop, UK hip hop, and R&B. Govana had already proven himself as a great singles artist -- and some of his best songs from the past couple years re-appear on HAMANTS -- but now he's a great album artist too, capable of holding your attention for an entire album with almost no filler. Guest appearances come from Protoje, Dre Island, and Tarrus Riley, all of whom are stylistically different than Govana but fit snugly within this album's musical world. It's a glossy, pop-friendly album, but it's also stuffed with powerful messages, like on the standout "Mental Slavery": "Nobody cares about human rights/Dem only care about Instagram views and likes."
Liam Bailey - Ekundayo
Big Crown Records
Six years after his major label debut, UK artist Liam Bailey linked up with independent US soul label Big Crown Records, whose co-founder Leon Michels produced Liam's most accomplished album yet, Ekundayo. Like Leon is known for doing with vintage soul, he helps Liam tap into the sounds of early reggae with an astonishing amount of authenticity, but Ekundayo is not just a retro album. It connects '70s reggae and soul, '80s dancehall, contemporary hip hop and R&B, and more, and it continues to establish Liam as an artist with a voice of his own. It's rawer and more melancholic than his major label material, and this vibe not only suits Liam more comfortably, but it makes him stand out more amongst his peers too. A lot of great reggae came out this year; not much of it sounded quite like Ekundayo.
The Wailers - One World
The legendary Wailers returned this year with their first album in 26 years... but who exactly are The Wailers in 2020? Well, they're mainly children and grandchildren of the original Wailers, but the band's lineup has gradually shifted over the years and many of the musicians on this album learned everything they know directly from the originals. The band is now led by Aston Barrett Jr., son of longtime Wailers bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, who's been in the band since 2009 and says his father "trained [him] hard" for the position. Bob Marley's children Cedella and Julian sing on the album, as does Cedella's son Skip, who's two years younger than the last Wailers album, but who very much proved himself this year with Higher Place (see above). At this point, The Wailers are like a cross between a sports franchise and a dynasty, but don't get too caught up in the name; the music on this album speaks for itself. A few songs fall kinda flat ("Good Time" is just a little too happy-go-lucky), but more often than not, this is a very solid reggae album from a cast of musicians who learned from the best.
Chronixx - "Dela Move," "Same Prayer" & "Cool As The Breeze/Friday"
Chronixx was set to follow 2017's Chronology with his highly anticipated new album Dela Splash this year, but it got pushed to 2021. Still, Chronixx managed to put three of the album's singles out this year, and each one raised the bar of anticipation even higher. "Dela Move" is one of the best songs he's ever released, a fusion of hip hop beats, jazz flute, and psychedelia, and topped off with an undeniable hook. The other two singles -- "Same Prayer" (ft. Kabaka Pyramid) and "Cool As The Breeze/Friday" -- are less trippy, but still futuristic, genre-blurring takes on reggae and equally loaded with great hooks. Chronixx was already one of the finest modern reggae artists going into 2020; leaving it, that feels like an understatement.
Koffee - "Pressure" & "Lockdown"
Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, and others helped kick off the reggae revival about a decade ago, but Koffee breathed new life into it when she hit the scene with her 2019 EP Rapture, a record that blended reggae, dancehall, and hip hop and really raised the bar for everyone. "Koffee has changed what it means to be reggae or dancehall," Protoje said. "She is why everybody is confused as to what to call stuff." She continued to live up to that description on her two fantastic 2020 singles, "Pressure" and "Lockdown." As you might've guessed from their titles, both songs reflect the chaos of 2020, but there's a timeless element to them too. Even if and when things are hopefully less hectic in the future, I think we can count on these songs to hold up.
Jesse Royal - "Natty Pablo"
While we await Jesse Royal's followup to his excellent 2017 debut album Lily of da Valley, he stays busy with guest appearances (like on the aforementioned Dre Island album) and singles, like 2020's stunning "Natty Pablo." Over a heavy, dubby backdrop, Jesse sing-raps about the stereotypes that all Rastafarians are criminals. "The reality is that many Rasta have helped steer people in the right way with what they have received from Creation, helping in the advancement of the nation," Jesse says. "It has nothing to do with illegalities or physical warfare."
Jaz Elise - "Fresh & Clean" (Remix ft. Govana)
Jaz Elise turned a lot of heads with her J.L.L.-produced 2019 single "Fresh & Clean," including Protoje's, who tapped her to appear on Rock & Groove Riddim alongside Lila Iké, Sevana, and Naomi Cowan, and who just recently signed her to his In.Digg.Nation label. Her first single for the label is a new remix of "Fresh & Clean" with a new verse from dancehall star Govana, and this remix breathes new life into an already-great song. That hook remains undeniable, and Govana's verses fit right in.
Leno Banton - "Brown Sugar"
Leno Banton (son of Burro Banton, who Buju Banton took his stage surname from) has been on the rise for the past few years, thanks to an appealing sound that crosses over into contemporary hip hop without abandoning the feel of reggae and dancehall. His latest release is the single "Brown Sugar," which lyrically is a love/sex jam but which has a dark, hypnotic vibe that stops it from it ever seeming sappy.
Ras-I - "Kingman Ting"
Ras-I has been on the rise since releasing his debut album Tsojourna (which features Jesse Royal on a song) in 2019, but compared to the smooth reggae/soul vibes of most of that album, Ras-I goes in a mored jagged direction on his 2020 single "Kingman Ting." Produced with Koastal Kings, it's a minor-key song with rattling polyrhythms, sharp horn stabs, and a fired-up delivery from Ras-I. Who knows what direction he'll go in from here, but "Kingman Ting" has us very excited to find out.
Zuggu Dan - "Bush Master"
There's nothing like a good, dubby weed anthem, and that's exactly what this is. Zuggu Dan doesn't have much music out yet (just one other single from 2018 and some guest appearances), but if he's got more where "Bush Master" came from up his sleeves, we're ready to hear it.
Listen or subscribe to a playlist of some of our favorite reggae songs of 2020: