20 Great Ska & Ska-Punk Albums from 2021
When we did our 2020 ska recap, I said that 2021 seemed poised to be an even bigger year for ska than 2020 was, and wow did that turn out to be an understatement. This year gave us three great new books on ska, comebacks from several major ska bands, and a vastly increased interest in ska's newer generation. Jeff Rosenstock's return to ska left a big impact, and We Are The Union released perhaps the most significant American ska album since the third wave died down. Whether you call it New Tone or fourth wave or whatever, ska is alive and well and moving forward. It's not a nostalgia thing, it's not back from the dead. It's timeless, still-relevant music, and it had a fantastic year.
As a way of recapping ska in 2021, we've put together a list of 20 great ska albums released this year, from re-activated legends to prolific lifers to the genre's exciting new generation. Some of these albums also appeared on our list of the 50 best punk albums of 2021, but many of them only appear here. And even if you're thinking "twenty great ska albums came out in 2021?", we're still missing plenty (and the list is admittedly US-centric) so if your favorite ska album of the year isn't here, leave it in the comments. Maybe we just haven't heard it yet.
Read on for the list, in no particular order...
We Are The Union - Ordinary Life
Bad Time Records
Ska is inherently fun, upbeat music, but it's also music with a long history of fighting injustice, and Ordinary Life brings all of these ideas flying into the future. It's singer Reade Wolcott's first album since coming out as a trans woman, and the album tells her coming out story. It's most explicit on "Boys Will Be Girls," a protest anthem that points a middle finger at transphobia, but Ordinary Life is less often protest music in the traditional sense, and more in the sense that Reade is being entirely open with herself -- whether it's to discuss gender dysphoria, mental health struggles, or romantic anxiety -- regardless of what anyone else would say or think. It's a deeply personal album, but Reade sings about her life in a way where you can project your own struggles onto her songs. If you're going through any of the stuff Reade sings about on this album, Ordinary Life feels like a place to find solace when the rest of the world isn't. It's also just as forward-thinking musically as it is lyrically. Ordinary Life can accurately be called a "ska-punk" album, but it doesn't sound like anything that came out during the genre's '90s boom. It mixes a variety of different styles of ska with the sounds of today's indie-punk, emo, and DIY bands. If you're not sure about ska, but you're into bands like PUP, Charly Bliss, and Illuminati Hotties, you'll probably find that Ordinary Life feels more familiar than you might think. Artists (including We Are The Union member Jeremy Hunter aka Skatune Network) have been chipping at the wall between ska and indie/punk/emo for a few years now, and Ordinary Life just might be the album to finally knock the whole thing down.
Catbite - Nice One
Bad Time Records
For such a long-running, multi-faceted genre like ska, it's understandable that the fanbase often splits into different factions of people who prefer certain subgenres or eras or regions. The walls between those factions deserve to be broken down, and if there's one album that really broke down those walls this year, it's Catbite's Nice One. The Philly band's sophomore LP bridges the gap between traditional Jamaican ska and rocksteady, 2 Tone, and third wave ska-punk without ever fitting too neatly into any of those categories. They also infuse their ska with the gritty swagger of garage rock, the infectious melodies of power pop, the modest production of the current DIY scene, and -- on the album's cover of Selena's "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" -- Latin pop, as a way of honoring singer Brittany Luna's Latinx heritage and also as a way of bridging the gap between the Spanish-language ska scene in Mexico, Southern Los Angeles, and South America with the English-language ska scene that has historically dominated the US mainstream. This album is all about bridging gaps, and it does so with some of the catchiest songs released in 2021 by any band. Regardless of what kind of ska you like, or if you even like ska at all, you can't deny how sticky these hooks are.
Flying Raccoon Suit - Afterglow
Flying Raccoon Suit have releases dating back to 2012, but Afterglow feels like their grand introduction. It solidifies FRS as one of the most inventive bands in the current ska scene, mixing ska with punk, metal, hardcore, indie rock, jazz, surf rock, Klezmer, and more, and with two lead singers (Jessica Jeansonne and Andrew Heaton), they cover almost as much musical ground vocally as they do instrumentally. Even with all that going on, Flying Raccoon Suit never bite off more than they can chew and they always come out with catchy, accessible songs. Sometimes they sound like they could've been the biggest band of 1997 ("Red Herring"), but more often than not, they're pushing ska forward, proving that the genre still has so much more to say.
Joystick - I Can't Take It Anymore
There was a lot of interesting stuff happening within ska in 2021, but if you want an album that just offers up fast, adrenaline-rush-inducing ska-punk in the vein of bands like Assorted Jelly Beans and Link 80, you can't do much better than I Can't Take It Anymore. The New Orleans ska-punk band's fourth album (and first to be co-released by Bad Time Records) is their best-produced, most musically dynamic, and most lyrically personal yet. It sounds like a fun, bright record, but underneath the catchy exterior are songs that deal with addiction and making powerful changes within your community. It's a reminder that music can be deep and serious and still be fun as hell to listen to.
The Best of the Worst - Better Medicine
Bad Time Records
The Best of the Worst frequently get compared to Folly -- a fellow NJ band who fused ska and metalcore -- but, as great as Folly were, the truth is that Better Medicine takes that fusion way further than Folly ever did. On this album, they do more of everything. The ska parts are more ska, the metalcore parts are more metalcore, and they throw in a lot of other stuff too. When Jason Selvaggio and Joe Scala trade vocals, they're heavy and throat-shredding, but when Liz Fackelman comes in, TBOTW sound like an indie-emo band. They've got everything from floor-shaking breakdowns to downstrummed punk choruses to clean ska upstrokes to rich horn arrangements, and it all comes together a lot more seamlessly than it might sound on paper. Better Medicine feels like a revitalization for the ska-core genre, and there wasn't much else in 2021 that sounded like it.
Jeff Rosenstock - SKA DREAM
NO DREAM was our favorite punk album of 2020, so, needless to say, when Jeff put out an entirely ska version of the album, we were bound to be into it. The idea started out as sort of a joke, but once Jeff and his band (and like a zillion impressive collaborators) actually got started on the project, they ended up taking it very seriously. Still, not even Jeff could have predicted the impact the album would leave. It wasn't received as a joke at all; it actually helped kickstart the mass interest in the current ska scene. And it makes sense that it did -- who better to kick down the walls between ska and indie rock/punk/etc than Jeff Rosenstock? It's been 15 years since Jeff's former band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches released one of the greatest ska-punk albums of all time, and as a solo artist, he's become one of the most acclaimed indie-punk acts around. And with ska credentials like his, it's no surprise that SKA DREAM was a genuinely great album, just as endlessly listenable as NO DREAM but with a totally different spin on the songs. SKA DREAM and NO DREAM remind you how superficial it is to "hate ska." When the songwriting is this good, it doesn't really matter whether it's upstrokes or downstrokes.
Pick this up on white vinyl as part of a reduced-price bundle with the new Abraskadabra album on gold vinyl here.
The Bruce Lee Band - Division in the Heartland
Between Skankin' Pickle, The Chinkees, The Bruce Lee Band, and Asian Man/Dill Records, Mike Park has been one of the most crucial figures in ska and ska-punk for decades, and the music he's been putting out with the latest iteration of The Bruce Lee Band is truly some of his best yet. The band's current lineup -- which includes Jeff Rosenstock, Dan Potthast (MU330), and Kevin Higuchi -- is even better than BLB's '90s and 2000s lineups, and they've developed a warmer, cleaner sound than most third wave ska-punk bands that sets them apart and makes them sound more timeless than ever. And, as the title suggests, Division in the Heartland is an outwardly political EP that looks at racism, fascism, hate, greed, and other threats to American society. (It also features one song where Jeff Rosenstock sings in Korean.) Mike Park has been making political music since day one, but given the climate of the last couple years, it's cathartic to hear him getting even more explicit than ever.
The Filthy Radicals - The Fine Line Between Real & Insane EP
Toronto ska-punks The Filthy Radicals' first release for the legendary Stomp Records is their best-sounding release yet, with bigger, cleaner production, tighter musicianship, and more addictive hooks than ever before. They channel the same gritty yet catchy sound that bands like Operation Ivy, Choking Victim, and Against All Authority pioneered decades ago, and they breathe new life into it. If you're holding your breath for Op Ivy to reunite, let it out and listen to this EP.
Abraskadabra - Make Yourself At Home
Bad Time Records
Brazil's Abraskadabra have been around since 2003, but they only started breaking through in the US with their 2018 album Welcome, and its followup Make Yourself At Home has left an even bigger dent in the States thanks to Abraskadabra teaming up with US ska-punk label of the moment, Bad Time Records. They were raised on a steady diet of '90s ska-punk, skate punk, and melodic hardcore, and they come out sounding like the best '90s Fat Wreck Chords band you never heard. And though Make Yourself At Home sounds fun on the surface, it's filled with political critique that looks at the situation in Brazil and the country's corrupt president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been widely criticized for the way he has dealt with Covid-19 precautions and vaccines. The music may sound nostalgic, but the message couldn't be more timely.
Voodoo Glow Skulls - Livin' the Apocalypse
Dr. Strange/Go Loco
Losing a longtime lead singer is usually a bad sign for a band, but in the Voodoo Glow Skulls' case, it resulted in their best album in years. Livin' the Apocalypse is their first album with Death by Stereo's Efrem Schulz, who replaced founding vocalist Frank Casillas in 2017, and it's some of the most fiery, purposeful music this band has ever put out. They totally capture the same ska-core vibe that they helped pioneer on their classic '90s albums, and even though Efrem has a way different tone than Frank, the band's shouted gang vocals, horn lines, and heavy guitar riffs sound as distinct on this album as they did on Firme. And as you may guess from song titles like "Make America Skank Again," "Generation Genocide," "The Karen Song," "Suburban Zombies," "Unity Song," and "Rise Up," the concerns on this album are entirely current. And Voodoo Glow Skulls' political and social critiques are as sharp and effective as the music itself.
Big D and the Kids Table - Do Your Art
Big D and the Kids Table are ska-punk lifers who put out their classic debut on Asian Man in 1999, just as ska's third wave was starting to die down, and once it did, Big D kept it going and kept progressing. They weren't as prolific in the past decade as they were in the 2000s, but this year they returned with their first proper album in eight years, Do Your Art, and they reminded everyone that they're just as sharp as they were in their prime. Big D's version of ska-punk never really sounded like the stereotypical kind that was popular in the '90s -- the punk came through in the speed and the attitude but the music tended to embrace ska's traditions more than American pop punk -- and that's still the case on this late-career triumph. And with warm, modern production by Matt Appleton (who's been in Reel Big Fish for a decade and worked with countless other bands), Do Your Art sounds as ripe as the bands in ska's newest generation.
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra - SKA=ALMIGHTY
Over 30 years into their career, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra are not slowing down, and there's still virtually no other band that sounds like them. On their latest LP, SKA=ALMIGHTY, they offer up an approach to ska that goes from blistering punk to real deal jazz and makes room for so much in between, including swing, Latin music, various styles of dance music, and more. It may sound like a lot to take in, but it really isn't. SKA=ALMIGHTY is some of the sharpest, tightest, catchiest music released in any genre this year. And it's not so much that it makes disparate styles of music work together, it's more that it emphasizes the lines between these genres that have already been drawn. Early ska was inspired by both jazz and rock & roll, jazz also led to swing, rock led to punk, ska infiltrated punk, ska led to dub which informed most dance music, and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra made an album in 2021 that acknowledges all of these histories.
Five Iron Frenzy - Until This Shakes Apart
A great comeback can't just pick up where a band left off, it has to push them forward too, and that's exactly what Five Iron Frenzy's first album in seven years does. The Denver ska-punk vets never actually sounded like this in the '90s; it's a sharper, darker, harder-hitting album than even their most classic work. And its blunt, direct lyricism is a direct response to the injustice that's come to the forefront of American culture in recent years. The songs take on immigration, gun laws, the Trump administration, and more, and they do not mince words. And though Five Iron Frenzy have long identified as a Christian band, that doesn't mean they're okay with the conservatives who use Christianity as an excuse for bigotry. "If you vote to stop abortions, damn the pregnant girls and orphans/Blame your decline on the LGBTQ," they sneer on "While Supplies Last," and there's no question who they're speaking to.
Andy B & the World - The First One
Back in the early 2010s, Andy Baker was playing in underrated UK ska-punk band Upbeat Allstars (whose 2012 LP Wake Up! got its first-ever Us release on the Ska Punk International label this year), and this year, he teamed up with literally 171 other musicians from around the world for his new project: Andy B & the World. The album features contributions from members of Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, The Slackers, RX Bandits, The Toasters, Skatune Network, Call Me Malcolm, Bite Me Bambi, Random Hand, Faintest Idea, Abraskadabra, Los Skagaleros, and many others, and it resulted in something that sounds just as cool in execution as it does on paper. It's a ska-punk meets folk-punk album with a big, communal vibe and a ton of different vocalists, and with contributors coming from multiple different countries, it really breaks down the barriers between ska's different regional sounds. Ska is already one big melting pot; this album takes that even further.
Culture Shock - Mandemic
Dick Lucas is a living legend. Between his anarcho-punk band Subhumans and his ska-punk bands Culture Shock and Citizen Fish, he's been making vicious, purposeful music for four decades and he has not lost his touch one bit. 2019 brought the first Subhumans album in 12 years, and this year brought Mandemic, the first Culture Shock album since the band's 2016 reunion LP Attention Span and its followup 2018 EP The Humanity Show. Dick's bands have always been explicitly political, and as you'd guess from the title of Mandemic, this one responds to the world we've been living in for the past two years. But "Mandemic" isn't just a silly play on words; the title track references the current pandemic as a way of reminding people that human greed has been the cause of destruction for society and the planet long before anyone was diagnosed with COVID-19. "It's like nature snapped and has revenge coincidental/When the earth is run and ruined by the rich and mental," Dick spits. "When complacency in the face of greed becomes systemic/Time to wake the world up to its own pandemic." That's just one song, but the whole album finds Dick looking at the world around him, getting pissed off at everything he sees, and shouting about it in a way that feels both wise and punk as fuck. And as he does, the rest of the band provides timeless, upbeat ska-punk (and one dub song) that even the most cynical, jaded person would get up and dance to.
Corrupt Vision - These Hands of Mine
Orange County's Corrupt Vision share their name with a Leftover Crack song, and that should give you an idea of the type of raw, aggressive, political ska-core this band makes. They're prolific, with a handful of EPs/splits/singles/demos to their name, but These Hands of Mine is the first full-length they've put out in their five-year-long career, and it's a great one. The lyrics flip a middle finger to police brutality, white nationalism, and other diseases to American society, and the venomous screams are matched by crudely produced instrumentals that owe as much to ska as they do to whiplash-inducing hardcore.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - When God Was Great
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones not only helped invent ska-punk as we know it, they also helped invent longevity within ska-punk. More than probably any other band, the Bosstones stuck to their guns when ska-punk was at it least fashionable, maintained a diehard fanbase, and maintained a level of admiration and respect from both within and outside of the ska community. On their 11th album, and first with fellow ska-punk pioneer Tim Armstrong (who co-produced the album and released it on his Hellcat label), the Bosstones continue to stay as true to themselves as ever. It's not as overall strong an album as the band's most loved classics, and it does have its low points (the band drew criticism for the way they handled discussing George Floyd's death on "The Killing of Georgie"), but when this LP is at its best, it offers up that trademark Bosstones charm that no one's ever been able to replicate. And in a year where people were waving their ska flags more proudly than they had in decades, the Bosstones got in on the celebration with "The Final Parade," an eight minute celebration of ska featuring members of over 20 ska and punk bands, including The Specials, Rancid, Fishbone, The Suicide Machines, Less Than Jake, The Interrupters, The Toasters, Big D and the Kids Table, and more.
Bim Skala Bim - Sonic Tonic
The Specialized Project
Before The Mighty Mighty Bosstones brought Boston ska to the masses, the city birthed another great ska band who never got as much widespread credit as they deserved, Bim Skala Bim. They had more of a traditional sound than the Bosstones, but the Bosstones probably would've sounded a lot different without them, and ska-punk as we know it would sound a lot different without the Bosstones, so the impact of Bim Skala Bim on the last three decades of ska music is truly crucial. Their "Boston Blue Beat" sound pulled from 2 Tone, reggae, calypso, rock, and more, and it's in fine form on Sonic Tonic, their first album in eight years. They have the majority of their classic '80s/'90s lineup intact, and they also made the album with contributions from Dave Hillyard (The Slackers), Chris Rhodes (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) Nick Welsh (aka King Hammond), Ken Stewart (The Skatalites) and Steve Cracknell (The Dub Pistols). Like on their classic albums, the vibe is overtly retro, often hearkening back to the late '60s/early '70s ska/rocksteady/reggae era, but Bim Skala Bim still know how to make it sound so timeless. The musicianship is as tight as ever, and the hooks on this album are some of the catchiest and most memorable of any ska album released this year.
Half Past Two - Half Past Two
"Someone on the internet thought they were making fun of us and called us 'bubblegum ska' and it’s honestly the best description I’ve ever heard of our band," said guitarist/backing vocalist Max Beckman, and it really does perfectly describe Half Past Two. There's a definite punk influence on their new self-titled LP (and on "Big Energy," a definite hair metal influence), but more often than not, this record is bright, sugary, all-caps POP. If you've ever wished No Doubt's ska early days and the radio-friendly hits of their later careers would collide, Half Past Two just might be the perfect thing. Lead singer Tara Hahn has the clear, powerful pipes and the knack for welcoming melodies needed to write hit songs, and if ska was as popular today as it was in 1997, I wouldn't be surprised if Half Past Two did indeed have a hit. If you like a little sugar in your ska, no other band this year made it this sweet.
Left Alone - Checkers & Plaid
Following a series of albums on Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records, LA ska-punk vets Left Alone returned with their first LP in seven years, Checkers & Plaid, released on frontman Elvis Cortez's own Smelvis Records. As longtime Tim Armstrong associates, comparisons to Rancid have always been warranted, and that's just as true of the 2-Tone-meets-street-punk songs on Checkers & Plaid as it was on Left Alone's early releases, but Left Alone continue to put their own spin on that sound, and they continue to write super catchy songs that feel timeless on first listen. Checkers & Plaid is a little more relaxed than Left Alone's gritty early records, but the spirit and hunger is still there.
V/A - The Shape of Ska Punk To Come: Volume 2
Sgt. Scag & Hans Gruber and the Die Hards - Sgt. Scagnetti vs Hans Gruber and the Die Hards
HEY-SMITH - Back To Basics EP
Mayson's Party - Mayson's Party EP
SKALAPPER - Local Sound EP
Mr. Kingpin - Introducing... Mr. Kingpin
Girls Go Ska - Frente al Mar
Kmoy - The Precure Album
Kill Lincoln / Less Than Jake - Wavebreaker #1