64 Essential Ska Albums from 1964 to Present
Ska is one of the longest-running styles of popular music, and it has a rich history, one that spans over half a century, six continents, and countless examples of cultural exchange. It was born in Jamaica in the 1950s as a mix of American rock and roll, R&B, and jazz with a style of Jamaican folk music known as mento, and it started to gain popularity in other countries in the 1960s, with the success of Millie Small's ska cover of "My Boy Lollipop" in 1964, the ska showcase at New York City's World's Fair that same year, and the influence on international superstars like The Beatles, who pulled influence from ska on the middle 8 of 1964's "I Call Your Name" and had a ska-infused hit with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" in 1968. (If you don't believe me, there's an interview with John Lennon where he talks about the influence of ska.)
Ska was characterized by its emphasis on the upbeat (if you're counting "one and two and three and four" along to a ska song, the emphasis is on the "and"), and this became a constant in popular Jamaican music, as ska slowed down by the late 1960s and morphed into rocksteady, before slowing down even further and morphing into reggae. Most of the big-name reggae pioneers -- like Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley & The Wailers -- started out playing ska.
Reggae eventually took over as the dominant form of popular Jamaican music, and it gained much more attention internationally than ska ever had. For a moment in the 1970s, it seemed possible that ska would become a footnote. But in the late '70s, Jamaicans who had immigrated to the UK began introducing white punk and new wave musicians to their favorite '60s ska records, and the 2 Tone ska movement ensued (named after 2 Tone Records, which was founded in 1979 by The Specials' Jerry Dammers). 2 Tone -- which included bands like The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, The Beat, Bad Manners, and The Bodysnatchers covering '60s ska classics and writing their own material in that style -- was a multi-racial movement that came during a time of racial tension and a growing right-wing presence in British government, and the bands had strong anti-racist, political messages that preached racial unity. 2 Tone never got as big in America as it did in the UK, but those bands did tour and have some success in the States, inspiring U.S. bands to crop up throughout the 1980s with their own, distinctly American take on ska.
As ska slowly grew in the U.S. throughout the 1980s, it began mixing with the American punk scene, and eventually ska-punk entered the American mainstream in the 1990s, with hit songs by bands like Rancid, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Sublime, Reel Big Fish, and Less Than Jake. This surge in popularity became known as the third wave of ska (with early Jamaican ska considered the first wave and 2 Tone the second), but the description implied that ska is something that came and went, rather than something that was constantly evolving, whether or not the radio was playing it.
America and Britain weren't the only countries birthing their own ska movements throughout the 1980s and 1990s; the genre also took off all across Europe, as well as in Japan, Australia, and especially Mexico and other Latin American countries. Even as the U.S. "third wave" died down, the genre's popularity in Latin America never waned.
In the U.S., ska had fallen in popularity by the mid 2000s, and if you weren't looking for it, it might've seemed like it disappeared entirely by the end of that decade. But the genre was still flourishing in the underground, and it would finally bubble back up in the late 2010s thanks to a few key factors: The Interrupters scored an unlikely hit in 2018, Jeff Rosenstock (formerly of ska bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!) earned steadily increasing acclaim and popularity as a solo artist, Jeremy Hunter began turning non-ska fans onto ska with their fast-growing ska covers project Skatune Network, and Kill Lincoln guitarist/vocalist Mike Sosinski launched Bad Time Records, a DIY ska label that finally put many of the best post-third wave ska and ska-punk bands in the same place.
The timing is also right for ska to have a comeback in the U.S. The people who loved it in the '90s are at the right age to get nostalgic, and the current wave of hungry new music fans are too young to remember when ska was a four-letter word. Its political, anti-racist roots are also back in the forefront and they're growing. 2020 brought the Ska Against Racism compilation from Bad Time Records, Ska Punk Daily, and Asian Man Records (the iconic DIY label whose Mike Park put on the original Ska Against Racism tour in 1998), and this time it's not just against racism. "It's anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-sexism, it's just acceptance of everything but hate," said Sosinski.
"[The Trump] administration has everything to do with the revitalization of ska," Dominic Minix of Bad Operation (who coined the term "New Tone" to describe this new movement) said in 2020. "People are hurting and want change. Ska is a joyous retaliation."
In a 2021 interview, We Are The Union's Reade Wolcott also suggested that the genre's growing queer presence is no small part of its recent comeback. "Ska is an inherently fun sounding style of music, but there's also space for tons of emotional depth if you're willing to look for it. What better music could there possibly be to have a surge of queer folks taking interest?"
With ska gaining mainstream traction Stateside once again, it felt like the perfect time to make a list of essential albums from throughout the genre's history. The list includes 64 albums from 1964 to present, with albums released during each of the past seven decades by artists from all over the world. We're calling it "essential" and not "best-of," because we wanted it to be a conversation starter, not an argument starter. 64 is a very small amount of albums for a genre this long-running and widespread, and we unfortunately had to leave off tons of albums we love (but we did include some more in a list of honorable mentions at the bottom). We also kept it to one album per artist, though many of these artists have released several essential albums. We made the list as comprehensive as we could, but the idea is that this list could be a starting point for anyone looking to explore the rich history of ska, not the end-all, be-all.
To make the list, we polled BV staffers, as well as other writers, musicians, and record label owners, including In Defense of Ska author Aaron Carnes and the aforementioned Jeremy Hunter, both of whom also contributed to the blurbs for the albums. We aimed to come out with a list that represents the massive diversity of the genre, and the fact that it doesn't come and go in waves; it's always evolving.
Along with the publication of this list, we were able to stock vinyl copies of some of these albums in the ska section of our online record store, which we're always updating with new releases, reissues and represses of classics, and more.
Read on for our picks, and let us know your favorite ska albums in the comments...
I have a friend that will pull out Toots and the Maytals for anybody that insists they absolutely hate ska music. You can understand why. Toots Hibbert is an absolute master. He coined the term “reggay,” and released arguably one of the best reggae albums ever made, Funky Kingston. But The Maytals' first full-length, Never Grow Old, shows the group playing fantastic ska songs. The harmonies are great, and the performances by The Skatalites, who back them, are incredible. Recorded at the legendary Studio One with Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, who co-wrote most of the tunes, it’s truly a great glimpse into the ska era as it was happening when they recorded the tracks between 1962-1963. You can hear the influences of American R&B, gospel, and doo-wop that factored heavily into the songwriting. It’s hard to imagine that Toots was only 19 at the time of these recordings, but approaching the music with such incredible maturity, and singing with great control. You can already tell at this age that Toots was one of the greatest Jamaican vocalists of all time. [Aaron Carnes]
Prince Buster’s influence on Ska cannot be overstated. In the early years, he was one of a handful of people that ran a sound system in Jamaica, bringing music directly to the people. Prince Buster also recorded and released his music as well. He’s got a lot of great tunes floating out there. The Specials semi-covered his tune “Al Capone” (making it their first single, “Gangsters.”) There are several other 2 Tone covers: “One Step Beyond” and “Madness” by Madness for instance. If you’re wanting to dig into Prince Buster’s catalog, but not grab one of his many greatest hits collection, Prince Buster’s second LP, Fly Flying Ska, is a truly great collection of songs, and featured many great guest performances, including The Skatalites, The Maytals, Millie Small, and Owen Gray. The grooves on these songs hit hard, and will forever be remembered as some of the greatest examples of the ska beat. Prince Buster is such a legend, even Madness honored him in an early track, “The Prince.” Few people will ever be able to say they had an impact on music the way he did. [A.C.]
Because so much early ska was a singles game, compilations are the best introduction to many of the genre's pioneers. Justin Hinds & the Dominoes didn't get around to releasing a full-length album until 1976's Jezebel, at which point they had already made the transition from ska to rocksteady to reggae, but the 2005 comp Carry Go Bring Come: The Anthology collects a handful of the early Hinds singles that defined ska as we know it. The biggest and most influential of them is the 1964 protest song "Carry Go Bring Come," which was a number one hit in Jamaica and later famously covered by The Selecter on their 1980 debut album Too Much Pressure. Its upbeat rhythm is pure ska; not only did it help lay the groundwork for the genre in the '60s, it still sounds timeless and relevant today. It's the standout track (and namesake) of this comp, but it's not the only gem. "Over the River" and "Corner Stone," which were recorded with The Skatalites and paired on a 45 for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle Records in 1964, are just as definitively ska, and just as rhythmically and melodically infectious. The 1964 "King Samuel" / "Jordan River" 45, recorded with Drumbago and Baba Brooks, is a little darker and less exuberant, but no less of a pioneering ska triumph. For some songs, like "Carry Go Bring Come" and the 1965 fan favorite "Botheration," the comp includes both the original ska version and the reworked reggae versions that Hinds put out in the early '70s. It features his excellent 1967 single "Here I Stand" / "No Good Rudie," which teetered on the verge between ska and rocksteady, as well as rocksteady classics like 1967's "On A Saturday Night" / "Save A Bread" and reggae classics like 1972's "Mighty Redeemer" and 1975's "Sinners" / "If It's Love You Need." Hinds influenced and shaped reggae and rocksteady as much as he did with ska, and this comp is a fine document of the way that Hinds helped shape the evolution of Jamaican music, from the early days of ska to the international explosion of reggae. [A.S.]
A lot of 2 Tone fan faves were covers of first-wave ska songs, including one of The Specials' first and biggest hits, "A Message To You, Rudy." It was a retitled but otherwise faithful rework of Dandy Livingstone's 1967 single "Rudy, A Message To You," and The Specials' cover even featured the iconic horn line performed by the same trombonist who played on Dandy's version: Rico Rodriguez. (Both Dandy and the Cuban-born Rico Rodriguez had relocated from Kingston, Jamaica to the UK before starting their music careers.) The Specials brought their own flavor to the song, and both versions are essential, but theirs being more successful just goes to show you how much time and place ties into success. Dandy's original is just as immediate, and in a just world, would've already been a hit. And "Rudy, A Message To You" isn't the only instance of a 2 Tone band scoring a hit with a Dandy Livingstone cover. His 1967 rocksteady song "People Do Rocksteady" was sped up by The Bodysnatchers and retitled "Let's Do Rock Steady" for a 1980 hit single and inclusion on the 1981 Dance Craze soundtrack.
"People Do Rock Steady" was featured on Dandy's first full-length, 1967's Rocksteady With Dandy, at which point he -- like most early ska musicians, and as the album title implies -- had transitioned from ska to rocksteady. His biggest song, 1972's "Suzanne Beware of the Devil," didn't come until he had transitioned to reggae. He only really released singles during the original ska era (like 1964's "What A Life," another highlight of this best-of), and though a lot of the songs on this comp lean reggae and rocksteady, it's still an "essential ska album" because it's a fine showcase of an artist that you can't talk about ska without mentioning. [A.S.]
In the ’70s, the world got to know Bob Marley and the Wailers, as they were quickly becoming the biggest name internationally associated with reggae. But before this, it was just The Wailers, and it was a group that featured Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer. They started out playing ska music. Their debut record, The Wailing Wailers, is one of the best LPs of that era. The album features recordings made between 1964-1965 at the legendary Studio One with Coxsone Dodd, with The Soul Brothers as their backing band. The group’s track “Rude Boy” became a popular song in Jamaica at the time. But it’s the closing track “Simmer Down,” which topped the charts, that is perhaps the group’s best-known song from their ska era. It’s an interesting tune pleading with the Rude Boys in Jamaica to calm down and tone the violence down—there was a lot of crime in Kingston at the time. It’s also a supremely catchy song with one of the best horn lines ever written. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones covered it and released it on their Ska-core, The Devil and More EP. It was a popular favorite in their live set for obvious reasons. [A.C.]
Laurel Aitken is often referred to as the godfather of ska. His 1958 single “Boogie in My Bones” was one of the first things Chris Blackwell produced, and one of the first ska songs ever released in the UK. Laurel went back and forth to Jamaica and the UK. He released several singles, which is how he earned the nickname. He was also one of the first Jamaican artists to build an audience among British skinheads and played to the audience with several skinhead-themed tracks, like “Skinhead Train” and “Skinhead Invasion.” A great collection of Laurel’s early ska tracks is Ska With Laurel, with some swinging ska tracks like “Madame Sorosie” and “We Shall Overcome.” Laurel was also one of the hardest working musicians in ska and continued in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. During the 2 Tone ska revival, he even scored a minor hit, “Rudi Got Married.” And of course, he played to many of the newer, younger, ska audiences that were hungry for this genre of music that he’d mastered. He was happy to oblige. [A.C.]
When you dive into the history of the genre, you can not skip over the name Desmond Dekker. Being a pioneer of ska, rocksteady, and reggae, he is regarded as one of many legends not only in ska, but in Jamaican music as a whole. The soulful, danceable 007 Shanty Town locks into a true traditional ska and roots reggae groove at a sweet mid tempo, giving it a much closer identity with its parent genres like Calypso and rhythm & blues, rather than the idea of current ska, making it a staple anyone diving into the genre should give a listen to. [Jeremy Hunter]
The lines between ska, rocksteady, and reggae were blurry in the late 1960s, and you can argue about which one most accurately describes The Pioneers' 1969 album Long Shot, but I'd say that ska energy is still there. And even into the '70s, The Pioneers -- who gained popularity in the UK and eventually moved there from Kingston -- were favorites of the 2 Tone bands. Three of the big four released well-known covers (The Beat did "Jackpot" from 1968's Greetings From The Pioneers, The Specials did "Long Shot Kick De Bucket" from this album, and The Selecter did "Time Hard" from 1972's I Believe In Love). And the album that first gained The Pioneers a big UK following was Long Shot. The album was produced by Leslie Kong and released in the UK by Trojan Records, following the band's split with producer Joe Gibbs and his Amalgamated label, and its success was fueled by its lead single and opening track "Long Shot Kick De Bucket," a sequel to the band's Lee "Scratch" Perry-assisted 1968 single "Long Shot." "Long Shot Kick De Bucket" is one of the best and most enduring songs to come from the early ska/rocksteady/reggae era, but it didn't overshadow the rest of Long Shot. The Pioneers weren't stuck in the singles market; they had made a great album. Every song has a fiery rhythm, the production is immaculate, and the album's got a barrage of sticky hooks wrapped in The Pioneers' sweetly sung three-part harmonies. [A.S.]
Like The Pioneers, Derrick Morgan kept the ska energy going into the rocksteady/reggae era, and his excellent 1970 album Moon Hop probably counts as a classic of all three genres. Its title track became a popular skinhead anthem, with a ska-infused rhythm so contagious and hard-hitting that you can still picture a crowd of kids skanking to it 50 years later. It's the centerpiece of the Moon Hop album, but it's not the album's only source of energy: opener "A Night At The Hop," "Man Pon Moon," "Give Me Lovin'," and closer "Telephone" are just as tirelessly upbeat as the title track, and the slower reggae and rocksteady songs are no less addictive. Like Toots Hibbert, Derrick Morgan was a student of American soul and R&B, and that came through in his voice and melodies, which contrasted the hard, choppy rhythms with smooth sweetness. When Derrick applied that to a set of songs as strong and filler-less as he did on Moon Hop, it made for an album you can dance and sing to from start to finish. [A.S.]
In the early ’70s, few Americans knew anything about ska, rocksteady, or reggae. That changed with the release of the cult film The Harder They Come. The movie was the first full-length film shot in Jamaica with a Jamaican director and a full Jamaican cast. And it offered a realistic glimpse into what life was like there—not the sanitized tourist version that most non-Jamaican were getting. The film, which starred reggae/ska legend Jimmy Cliff, is partially a glimpse into the corrupt Jamaican recording industry and partially based on the true story of Jamaican outlaw Rhyging. The music is a phenomenal collection of ’60s and early ’70s tunes by Desmond Dekker, Toots & The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and other talented artists. The soundtrack and film didn’t hit a major audience, but it did reach into the tendrils of the hip college kids and opened a door for reggae in the states. The audience for reggae built slowly over the ’70s, finally exploding in the mid-'80s when Bob Marley’s Legend was released. If it wasn’t for The Harder They Come soundtrack, who knows if reggae would have ever made its way to the US. The songs all still hold up incredibly well. [A.C.]
Led by Jerry Dammers, who also ran the influential 2 Tone Records, The Specials were the idealization of what the label promised: a racially mixed, socially conscious group that made you dance and then made you think. Bringing a punk energy and a decidedly late-'70s post-punk point of view to '60s-style ska, The Specials were an instant sensation, launching the genre's second wave, a resurgence that never totally receded. For better or worse, pretty much every Western ska band since is indebted to them. Known for electric, sweaty shows where the band went bananas while singer Terry Hall was dramatically stoic in the eye of the storm, The Specials' biggest hurdle was trying to figure out how to capture lightning in a bottle on record. Producer Elvis Costello smartly stays out of the way of the band, recording things as live as possible and the album crackles with energy. (One notable exception: the sluggish, six-minute version of "Too Much, Too Young," which in live single form had gone to #1; the U.S. pressing of the album replaces it with a much faster two-minute version.) Prince Buster's influence is all over the record, with "Gangsters" (The Specials' debut single) and "Stupid Marriage" and "Too Hot" all based on his songs, and elsewhere they cover classics by Toots Hibbert ("Monkey Man"), Clement Seymour ("You're Wondering Now") and Danny Livingstone ("A Message to You, Rudy"). But Dammers and company rework the lyrics that, along with their original songs ("Too Much, Too Young," "Concrete Jungle," "Nite Klub"), painted a bleak outlook for British youth, faced with rampant unemployment, urban decay, and the proliferation of fascist organizations like the National Front. The Beat may have released "Stand Down Margaret," but The Specials were a flying V at everything Thatcher stood for -- traditional British values, "Keep Calm and Carry On," the pressure to get married, have kids, and take a soulless job where you spend every evening after work in the pub. The Specials didn't have all the answers and the album isn't perfect (the album does not paint women in the most favorable light), but it hoped for a world of unity where the status quo is rejected and everyone can come together on the dancefloor. [Bill Pearis]
Pick up the 40th anniversary 2xLP edition of The Specials' self-titled album.
Despite what acclaimed rockologist Ronald Thomas Clontle claims, Madness did not "invent" ska. But they were pretty damn good at it, and made it their own. To that end, the London band also didn't stay ska for very long, quickly developing their own distinctive "nutty" sound that incorporated working class Music Hall traditions, giddy "fun fair" music, '50s rock n' roll and R&B, and '60s groups like the Kinks. It was a style that kept them at the top of the UK charts for most of the '80s. You can debate as to whether their fantastic 1979 debut is the best Madness album, but it is definitely their most ska album, including Prince Buster tribute "The Prince" (their debut single, released for 2 Tone) and covers of his songs "Madness" (which gave them their name) and "One Step Beyond," a song whose video brought them to America via constant MTV play. But the original songs were just as good, with tracks like "My Girl," "Night Boat to Cairo," and "Bed & Breakfast Man" - great examples of their vivid, nostalgic lyrical style and melodic, pop-savvy style. [B.P.]
The Selecter is a staple band for ska, and one of the leaders of the crucial 2 Tone movement. Being one of the faces of this era, The Selecter’s debut album solidified them as a legendary one. The record reimagines many traditional ska and reggae tracks, and features a few originals. With Pauline Black fronting the band, this record/band was something special, mixing the punk rock attitude and new wave sound with the ska sound. During a time of hardship, this record wasn’t only the debut of a fresh sound for the genre, but the band/movement itself stood for a symbol of unity and solidarity amongst the people, cementing it at legendary status. [J.H.]
Pick up the 40th anniversary 2xLP edition of 'Too Much Pressure,' which comes with a bonus 7".
The 2 Tone scene is remarkable not just for the quality of the artists on the label but also for the diversity of the roster. Though everything fell generally under the ska umbrella, none of the bands on the label sounded alike. Birmingham's The Beat (known as The English Beat in North America) drew as much inspiration from dub, nervy post-punk, disco, African "high life," and jangly '60s groups as they did Prince Buster. Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steel brought driving energy, drummer Everett Morton had a unique syncopated style, singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling came armed with pop hooks, and co-lead vocalist Ranking Roger's toasting style brought a sound system flow and joyous energy to their sound. Adding immeasurable ska bonafides was Saxa, who played on '60s records by Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and others, and whose smooth style gave The Beat their sultry edge. The band's debut album, released on their own Go-Feet imprint, has all of their early classics: the sweaty, tension-filled "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Twist and Crawl," the politically charged "Stand Down Margaret," the near Byrdsy "Best Friend," and their cover of Andy Williams' "Can't Get Used to Losing You." The U.S. edition is even better, adding both sides of their 2 Tone debut single, including their essential, transformative cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" and the pure joy that is "Ranking Full Stop." The Beat never made the same album twice, and as good as Wha'ppen and Special Beat Service are, they never quite matched the magic of I Just Can't Stop It. [B.P.]
Bad Manners were an early British ska band that never released anything on the 2 Tone label. They do however get lumped in with the category of “2 Tone ska.” Even if they weren’t technically 2 Tone ska, they were featured on the film Dance Craze, so we can justifiably call them an honorary 2 Tone band. Of these groups, Bad Manners were the only ones that continued into the late ’80s still playing ska. So, for a lot of American bands that formed later, Bad Manners was the only band from that era they could see live (briefly as Buster's Allstars), at least until the inevitable ’90s reunions started happening. Bad Manners were certainly the silliest of the 2 Tone bands, and perhaps you could see their impact on the direction many US ska-punk bands went in the '90s. Bad Manners’ early albums were great and peppered with songs that would be popular favorites in their live set for years to come. But the record that was the strongest overall was their third record, Gosh It’s… Bad Manners, which contains the hit “Walking in the Sunshine,” as well as their fun cover of “Can Can,” which is sure to make even the grumpiest curmudgeon hop on the dance floor and start to dance like a zany clown. [A.C.]
When people talk about the emergence of ska-punk, the conversation tends to quickly turn to Operation Ivy, who are often credited with fusing punk and 2 Tone ska. The music that Op Ivy and contemporaries like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones made got referred to as "third wave ska," but what the "wave" narrative misses is that ska didn't disappear after 2 Tone and re-emerge with Op Ivy. Just like the alternative rock and pop punk booms came after a decade of punk and alt-rock bands thrived in the '80s underground, there was a whole network of post-2 Tone, pre-third wave ska bands who were pushing the genre forward up until it exploded in the '90s. One of those bands was Berkeley, California's The Uptones, whose influence on their neighbors Operation Ivy (and post-Op Ivy band Rancid) is undeniable. You don't need to look very hard to see and hear it. The Uptones' signature early '80s single "Get Out Of My Way" sounds like it could be a '90s Rancid song, and you bet your ass Rancid were fans of that song; they covered it on their debut album. Rancid also enlisted in the help of The Uptones' Eric Dinn to co-write "The 11th Hour" on their breakthrough album ...And Out Come the Wolves, and that's The Uptones' Paul Jackson playing the iconic organ solo on "Time Bomb." (The members of The Uptones discuss the Rancid connection in Marc Wasserman's fantastic new book Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.) And if you listen to the beginning of The Uptones' live album The Uptones Live!! 924 Gilman -- recorded at a 1989 reunion show -- you can hear Tim Armstrong introducing the band.
"Get Out Of My Way" was not only a catchy, ahead-of-its-time song with a memorable one-line hook that you can sing along to on first listen, it also had a strong social/political message that stayed true to ska's activist roots. (And because of the aggression in the titular lyric, that message was apparently lost on some of the band's less progressive fans.) Their other big early '80s song "Out To Sea" -- which took shots at nazis, the KKK, and the military -- followed suit. Those songs both appear on their essential compilation Get Out Of My Way: The Early Recordings, alongside other singles from the era and their 1984 debut EP KUSA. The Uptones weren't quite ska-punk in the way that Op Ivy and Rancid were, but they did take obvious influence from punk's simplicity and attitude. They also stood out from their ska peers by frequently defying the genre. The Uptones were also briefly associated with R.E.M., and there's a strong jangle pop vibe coming through on "KUSA." They also dabbled in dub, new wave, jazz, and more, and all of that comes across on this essential comp. Get Out Of My Way documents the period with original lead singer Erik Rader, but even after Erik's departure, The Uptones released one more great EP without him, 1986's Outback. They're really due for a comprehensive discography compilation, but until then, Get Out Of My Way suffices as a near-perfect snapshot of this under-appreciated band in their prime. [A.S.]
LA’s The Untouchables got a raw deal. They should have been a huge hit-making band during the ’80s. They had everything you could ever want: 2-Tone-inspired ska songs, sweet poppy reggae jams, and upbeat Northern soul. And besides that, they drove around LA on the coolest scooters and dressed in their snappiest suits. A segment of LA’s teenagers followed them wherever they went. The Untouchables did eventually sign to Stiff Records, which led to a relationship with MCA in the US, but that album, Wild Child, ended up a bit overproduced and missed some of the group’s raw energy. However, the group’s early releases are fantastic. Their “Twist N Shake/Dance Beat” and “Tropical Bird/The General” singles are both top-notch ’80s ska. And those singles were followed by the short and sweet Live And Let Dance EP. It contains several of the group’s best-known tracks. Soul tune “Free Yourself” got heavy rotation on MTV, and reggae song “What’s Gone Wrong” should have been their breakout hit. UB40 offered to buy the track from the group, but The Untouchables said, ‘No thanks.” Issues with Stiff Records dissolving and then MCA not being particularly interested in or even understanding how to market The Untouchables stagnated the momentum they’d been building, which is unfortunate. They were one of LA’s finest. [A.C.]
If you want to talk about the blueprint of American ska, you can not leave out the name Fishbone. A band who was incredibly ahead of their time, they helped shape a lot of American music, including the American ska sound. Serving as influence for bands such as No Doubt, Sublime, Reel Big Fish, Blue Meanies, Mustard Plug, Skankin' Pickle, and so many more, Fishbone’s handful of ska songs never miss. Their debut EP of the same name lays it down hard. Mixing together the high energy of funk, metal, punk, and many more genres, these few songs drove the 2 Tone ska beat to a level nobody had seen before at the time. [J.H.]
When you talk about bands that bridged the gap between 2 Tone and the third wave, there might not be any band who did so as literally as The Toasters. Band leader Robert "Bucket" Hingley was born and raised in the UK, where he experienced 2 Tone firsthand, before moving to NYC's Lower East Side in 1980 and bringing ska with him. There wasn't much of a ska scene in the L.E.S., but The Toasters helped create one in tandem with the city's hardcore scene. They rehearsed at 171-A where the Bad Brains lived, they frequented the same clubs as the hardcore bands like A7, and while hardcore had Sunday matinees at CBGB, The Toasters and their pals had ska Saturdays at the same legendary venue. It didn't take long for The Toasters to transcend their local scene and become a national phenomenon, and they also helped foster the American ska boom by launching one of the genre's most important record labels, Moon Ska Records. There have been several different incarnations of The Toasters over the years, and they've released a handful of essential albums, but for this list we're going with the album that started it all, their 1987 debut LP Skaboom!. (And at this point, we recommend going with the expanded edition that also includes their 1985 debut EP Recriminations, which was produced by power pop icon Joe Jackson, who used a pseudonym for legal reasons.) Ska has long been a very regional genre, and if you want to hear New York City ska, look no further than "East Side Beat." It's basically a rallying cry for the city's ska scene, and it still sounds potent today. That song comes later in the album, but it doesn't take that long to realize the power of Skaboom!. "Talk Is Cheap" / "Pool Shark" is one of the finest one-two punch openings in the history of ska, and it remains on that high level for the entirety of the record. Skaboom! exudes New York toughness, but it also possesses a rich understanding of ska's history in both Jamaica and the UK, right down to the vocals, where Bucket's appealing British accent is contrasted by The Unity 2's toasting. The album captured the Lower East Side's dark, drug-fueled underside, and like a lot of good ska, it's carefree and fun at times and socially conscious at others. Skaboom! and the Recriminations EP really set the tone for so much of the popular American ska that would come in its wake, and even after spawning countless followers, it still sounds unmatched. [A.S.]
While 2 Tone did have ties to the UK's punk scene, the subgenre of "ska-punk" as we know it largely started in America. Still, the UK did have its own merging of ska and punk going on in the '80s and '90s, thanks in large part to Dick Lucas, frontman of the anarcho-punk band Subhumans who went on to inject ska into his music with Culture Shock and later with Citizen Fish. Lucas' anarcho-ska-punk would prove to be highly influential on bands like Leftover Crack (who Citizen Fish would release a split with in 2007), and his music is so timeless and trend-averse that his '80s records and his 2010s records possess a similar power, and all exist outside of the ska-punk zeitgeist. It's not easy to pick one, but you can't go wrong with Culture Shock's 1988 sophomore album Onwards and Upwards. With sharper production than the band's 1986 debut LP Go Wild, it's the first of many classic Culture Shock/Citizen Fish records that truly sounds like it could've been released yesterday. It came one year before the debut albums by Operation Ivy and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and it predicted the sound of '90s ska-punk as much as either of those albums did, though in a distinctly British way, and it's even more fiercely political than some of the biggest 2 Tone bands. Culture Shock really forged their own path. [A.S.]
Ska-punk often gets accused of being too lighthearted or jovial, but Operation Ivy's genuinely badass Energy is the genre's first true classic album, and there's nothing lighthearted or jovial about it. Just in case you're unfamiliar, Energy is the first and only album Op Ivy released before breaking up, and though the band only existed for two years, their legacy still hasn't stopped growing. Tim "Lint" Armstrong and Matt Freeman went on to get very famous in Rancid, Op Ivy's former Lookout! Records labelmates Green Day have since brought their well-known cover of Op Ivy's "Knowledge" to hundreds of thousands of people who never stepped foot inside 924 Gilman, and Op Ivy's influence has lived on through approximately every single ska-punk band ever. And over 30 years later, Energy sounds as fresh as ever. It bridged the gap between the gritty hardcore of the early '80s and all the massive pop punk and ska-punk bands of the '90s, and it retains the unique ability of being accessible to fans of both camps. Singer Jesse Michaels (later of Common Rider and then the severely underrated Classics of Love) sounds like he's singing with nails in his throat, the recording quality is rough as sandpaper, and the DGAF attitude is as reflected in the no-bullshit lyrics as it is in the overall sound of the record. In the words of Drake, it ain't about who did it first, it's about who did it right. But sometimes, as in the case of Operation Ivy, those people are one and the same. [A.S.]
Fresno-based Let’s Go Bowling was one of the hardest-working ska bands in the ’90s. They were also a nice bridge between the British 2 Tone sound and the American punk-ska bands, with nice even grooves, high energy songs, and blasting horn lines. Let’s Go Bowling also had the distinct element of bringing in fantastic Barbershop level vocal harmonies. And yet at the same time, they were quite adept at performing killer ska instrumentals, like “Rude 69” and “Hare Tonic.” A few of the members were some of the earliest Americans to play ska with their group Kyber Rifles. Out of that band, Let’s Go Bowling was formed in 1986. Their first official full-length, Music To Bowl By, is a classic American ska record, with a ton of amazing songs, like the previously mentioned instrumentals, as well as “Pin Stripe Suit” and “L.G.B.” It’s not the greatest produced album, but it captures the group’s energy, bounce, horn players, and incredible ability to pull off vocal harmonies in a song. (Seriously, someone start a Let’s Go Bowling acapella tribute band). After that, the group never released a bad album, but they never quite topped Music To Bowl By. [A.C.]
Back in my early to mid-'90s ska-loving Boston skinhead phase, I was way more into the bands whose sound was influenced by Jamaican ska, R&B, and soul as opposed to the frenetic ska punk of the day. I preferred skanking in place to moshing and long instrumental songs with big horn sections swapping solos. For me, it didn’t get any better than Long Island ska titans The Scofflaws. Their covers-heavy self-titled debut album, which, incidentally, came out when I was still a mullet-haired death metal addict in 1991, is, from beginning to end, a celebration of the roots of ska and soul while also being a representation of what was happening within the third wave. Their original tunes such as "Daniel Ortega," "Paul Getty," and "Ali-Ska-Ba" stood solidly shoulder to shoulder with their covers of songs by Henry Mancini, Earl Bostic, Elmer Bernstein, and James Holloway. And their cover of the Pee Wee’s Big Adventure theme by Danny Elfman always whipped the clubs into a frenzy. Alongside bands like Skavoovie and the Epitones and The Allstonians, The Scofflaws created a sound that is timeless and never sounds dated. [Jeff Bergstrom]
Bim Skala Bim is hands down the most overlooked band in the history of ska’s third wave. Since 1983, they have bucked ska trends and avoided clichés and gimmicks to remain one of the most musically gifted and sonically fresh acts in the business. In a world of skinny ties, three piece suits, pork pie hats, Doc Martens, suspenders, mohawks, and bomber jackets, Bim have spent their time cultivating a unique sound as opposed to cultivating a memorable shtick. Perhaps it’s due to their adherence to craft as opposed to image that they’ve never been as synonymous with Boston ska as their contemporaries the Bosstones. And that’s a shame because, if you ask me, Bim is the better band. With 12 fantastic studio albums under their belt, choosing their "signature" album is no easy task. But I have to go with 1991's Bones. It’s the first album I bought of theirs after seeing them for the first time in 1992 at the Cape Cod Melody Tent with The 360s, The Neighborhoods, and more and it’s an album I listen to constantly almost 30 years later. Bones shows how well Bim pays attention to elements of reggae, calypso, and Latin music and combines them into a signature third wave sound without ever tip-toeing into punk. This is prime Boston Blue Beat with cleanly mixed drums, percussion, keyboard, guitar, bass and vocals. Everything is articulate. Perhaps nowhere on the album is this exemplified more than in the track "In Our Midst." And they managed to make a cover of Pink Floyd’s "Brain Damage" that really works. They just reinterpreted it into the context of their own sound and man is it ever a success. There is no chaos on this album. There is no grime or aggression. Nothing is rushed. It is a standout album played by phenomenal musicians. And if you can’t see them live, get yourself a copy of Live at The Paradise. [J.B.]
As Op Ivy were helping kick the ska-punk boom off on the West Coast, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were doing the same thing on the opposite side of the country with their 1989 debut album Devil's Night Out. But while Op Ivy quickly broke up, the Bosstones kinda became the Bad Religion of ska-punk, lifers who helped create the genre, helped bring it to the mainstream, and stayed consistent as new generations of bands came and went. I mean, Dicky Barrett sang on The '59 Sound. These guys are in it for life.
Devil's Night Out helped usher in the ska-punk genre, and a few years later the Bosstones would be among the bands bringing it to the masses, thanks to their cameo in Clueless and their 1997 mainstream breakthrough Let's Face It (and its big single "the Impression That I Get"). But right smack in the middle of those things came their 1993 major label debut Don't Know How to Party, which found the sweet spot between their punk (and metal) roots and the radio-friendly band they'd become. And, for my money, it's their best record. It's home to "Someday I Suppose," which they play during their Clueless cameo and which proved they had as many pop songwriting chops in their arsenal as punk and metal riffs. It's not just as good a pop song as the Bosstones' later, higher-charting singles; it's better. And it's not alone on Don't Know How to Party. The title track and "Almost Anything Goes" proved the pop smarts of "Someday I Suppose" were no fluke, and hinted at the big breakthrough the band would soon have. At the same time, the Headbanger's Ball-worthy "Last Dead Mouse" and the thrashy "A Man Without" keep Don't Know How to Party separate from the tamer bands that the Bosstones influenced. Not to mention, Bad Brains' Darryl Jenifer guests on this record, so it's got punk cred just for that. It's the best of both worlds. [A.S.]
Pick up a vinyl copy of 'Don't Know How to Party.
Mustard Plug would get lumped in with the mainstream ska-pop-punk boom when they signed to pop punk label Hopeless Records and released the great Evildoers Beware! in 1997, as ska's popularity was hitting its peak, but they had predated a lot of the ska-punk hitmakers, and there was always more to them than just ska-punk. Released on Moon Ska Records in 1993, Mustard Plug's sophomore album Big Daddy Multitude did have punk in its DNA, but much of it recalled the chiller, cleaner sounds of 2 Tone and the early third wave American ska bands. The rhythms are crisp and kinetic, the warm horn lines wrap around you like an old sweater, and singers Dave Kirchgessner and Colin Clive display a unique chemistry that separated Mustard Plug from their peers. There's no denying that Big Daddy Multitude has a goofy side at times, but if you listen a little more closely, there's a deeper, more serious side to Mustard Plug as well. Ska is a place to have fun, and it's also a place to express raw emotion, and this album did both. [A.S.]
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are not only one of Argentina’s best bands, but they are also one of the country’s most beloved. They’ve worked with Fishbone, Celia Cruz, Debbie Harry, Ruben Blades, and Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. As the band have progressed, they’ve become an eclectic blend of Latin music, ska, funk, reggae, and jazz, but in their early days, they leaned heavily into a fabuloso kinetic ska sound. They wrote several amazing ska songs in their early years, which started back in 1985. Most of their early records are good, with some great songs. In 1993, the band, apparently aware of this, pulled their best tunes from their catalog, a few unreleased ones, and even re-recorded a few, and released the whole thing as the Vasos Vacios record. It’s like a best-of record, but even better. The newly recorded “El Matador” became a smash hit on MTV Latino. Every song is a classic. It’s a great starting point for the group and just a great stand-alone album. The title track, featuring Celia Cruz, is a fantastic jam. [A.C.]
Before Dance Hall Crashers were on MTV, before they were featured on the Angus soundtrack, they were a poppy horn-driven ska band, albeit, still one with fast tempos and punk elements. The Dance Hall Crashers began as one of the many projects Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman started between Operation Ivy and Rancid, though neither were in the group for very long. After some more lineup changes, the group was locked into a solid ska sound with Karina Deniké and Elyse Rogers sharing vocal duties, often creating sublime vocal harmonies. They released one album in 1990 and broke up. After playing a few highly successful reunion shows, the band reformed, though this time without a horn section and a slightly heavier sound. Moon Records released their entire body of early work, originally called 1989-1992, later reissued by Fat Wreck Chord’s Honest Don’s label and titled The Old Record. As great as the next version of Dance Hall Crashers were, the early tracks were absolutely incredible early American ska tracks, like the infectious, saccharin-y bittersweet “He Wants Me Back,” or their hyper catchy, unofficial theme song “DHC.” [A.C.]
Skankin’ Pickle easily makes this list with their third album Sing Along with Skankin’ Pickle. This album was released in 1994 on Dill Records, a label started by Skankin’ Pickle’s Mike Park, a.k.a. Bruce Lee, and which lasted from 1989 - 1998 (at which point he turned his attention fully to his other label, Asian Man Records). This album came out when ska’s third wave was on fire and the scene worldwide was absolutely saturated with bands and tiny independent ska labels. With that saturation came a lot of forgettable, generic, same-y acts, which is why this album in particular shines. Although the production quality of this album feels a bit anemic to my now-44-year-old ears, back in the day the record showcased Skankin’ Pickle’s blazingly eccentric West Coast style. They seamlessly blended the influences of punk, hardcore, 2 Tone era ska, and even straight up rock to create a frenetic sound that stood up alongside acts like Mr. Bungle, The Bosstones and The Queers (all of whom they shared bills with during their career) and more. They even squeezed in a phenomenal cover of "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors which, if I am being honest, was just begging to be covered by a band like this (and Skankin' Pickle were surely taking a dig at the casual racism of the original). This was an album where, when you heard it, you immediately thought “I have to see this band live if it kills me.” And, man, live, they were absolutely insanely fun. At this point in my life I simply do not revisit much of the old ska punk of the third wave, but every now and then I throw this sucker on and remember my previous life as a skinhead dancing alongside other skins, rude boys and rude girls, sweating, stage diving, wheezing, and driving home with a ringing in my ears that exists to this day. [J.B.]
Any “Top Ska” list that omits Mephiskapheles is a false list. Meph was formed in New York City in 1990 after New York hardcore band The Shaved Pigs split up and guitarist Brendan Tween (brother of Alex Tween of The Forms) and his roommate Mikal Reich decided to start a ska band. But they added something to ska that no one had done before: Satan. Coming at ska from a metal background, the invocation of Satan was a hook I could not ignore. And although satanic ska may sound gimmick-y, Meph truly were one of the most far out third wave ska bands in the business and MAN were they good. Although they had sonic similarities to many of their third wave brethren, Meph was grittier and eviler, and their live shows had a touch of aggression not often found at ska shows thanks to frontman Andre A. Worrell aka The Nubian Nightmare. So while you have classic sounding ska songs like "Bad John," "Satanic Debri" and "Sabo," Worrell always added an undercurrent of menace both to the records and to the live experience. Meph was a one of a kind act in a scene absolutely muddied with sameness.They were the right band at the right time and couldn’t have hatched anywhere but New York City. [J.B.]
The Skatalites are the blueprint for the ska genre. Being one of the pioneers, they helped set the stage for the sound of the genre. When this album came out in the '90s, many people had been very familiar with the ska-punk sound, but forgot (or never knew) about the genre's roots in Jamaica, where artists like The Skatalites mixed Afro-Caribbean rhythms with the harmonic structure of American jazz and rhythm & blues.
Hi-Bop Ska celebrated the 30th anniversary of the band’s formation, and featured then-new recordings of some of their greatest hits of the time. Featuring notable jazz musicians such as Steve Turre, Monty Alexander, and David Murray, this record is a perfect example of the the true versatility of the genre most don’t consider, from the danceable Caribbean rhythms to the level of jazz musicianship amongst each performer. [J.H.]
In their early days, when Blue Meanies relocated to Chicago, they didn’t consider themselves a ska band. Their contemporaries were the crazy punk bands in the Chicago scene, who saw the Meanies manic energy as just a different version of what they were doing. It wasn’t until the Blue Meanies started venturing out of Chicago that they joined the ska scene. Ska bands in other Midwest cities embraced them as part of the scene, possibly because they had horns and occasional upbeats. The ska elements in their early records were usually in the vein of Mr. Bungle, who by the way also had some ska songs on their first record. The Blue Meanies' first album, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye is fantastic and shows the group fully formed. It’s possibly one of the scariest sounding ska records of all time. The Blue Meanies were even scarier live. When lead singer Billy Spunke grabbed his megahorn to sing, it felt terrifying, maybe because he didn’t exactly smile on stage, and the band behind him sounded like they were performing the death march of doom. Oddly the band got some tours with mainstream ska bands like Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish, and eventually signed to a major. But they never outdid themselves with those early tracks like “Acceleration 5000,” “Grandma Shampoo” and “It Doesn’t Matter.” [A.C.]
Presumably taking notes from Fishbone and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Southern California's Voodoo Glow Skulls threw a little metal riffage into their ska-punk formula, but much more so than either of those bands, they were also tied to mile-a-minute hardcore. A lot of bands earn the "ska-core" tag due to vocals, but more than most, Voodoo Glow Skulls' rhythm section earn it too. Between their heart-racing speed and Frank Casillas' burly bark, they're one of the loudest, fastest bands on this list. They're also -- as they began fully embracing on their 1995 sophomore LP and Epitaph debut Firme, which was released in both English and Spanish -- true to their Latin, Mexican, and Spanish roots, and it remains important that they brought that to a genre that was dominated by white people. Firme perfected the sound that Voodoo Glow Skulls would continue to hone for the rest of their career, and as good as some of their later stuff is, Firme remains some of their freshest sounding material. Ska-punk could often be light and breezy, but Firme is dark, heavy, and claustrophobic. It's a record that spends the bulk of its time jackhammering away at your eardrums, and somehow - thanks in part to Voodoo Glow Skulls' inventive horn/guitar interplay and Frank's percussive vocal runs -- it sneaks a whole bunch of addictive melodies into your brain too. [A.S.]
No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom helped bring ska to the mainstream when it exploded in late 1995, and though it's No Doubt's best record and one of the best records of the 1990s in general, it's also the album where No Doubt began departing from ska. The 2 Tone-loving band's ska influences were far more prominent on their first two albums, and they sounded best on their sophomore album The Beacon Street Collection, released just about six months before Tragic Kingdom. No Doubt's 1992 self-tilted debut wasn't a big hit, so their label Interscope Records became less invested in the band, leaving No Doubt to build their own studio, and record and release this album themselves. A more aggressive album than their debut, the songs mixed 2 Tone ska with punk and grunge, and Gwen Stefani became the star we now know her as in the process. Their radio-rock side was getting more accessible, but their ska side was still rivaling the ska underground, with rich horn lines and sharp rhythms that proved No Doubt were a real-deal ska band. The album is full of great ska and ska-infused songs, including its singles "Squeal" and "Doghouse," but its very best ska song is "Total Hate '95," a collaboration with Bradley Nowell of Sublime and released before either band had a charting single. Beacon Street ended up taking off, its success convinced Interscope to put their weight behind Tragic Kingdom, and the rest is history. But as big as No Doubt and Gwen Stefani ended up getting, the heavily ska-infused Beacon Street Collection remains a gem unlike anything else they've released. [A.S.]
Browse our selection of No Doubt vinyl.
Don’t tell anyone on the West Coast I said this, but East Coast ska was a little bit cooler. The bands tended to have more jazz, 2 Tone, and traditional influences. And they knew how to dress right. One of the best was The Pietasters from Washington D.C. Their second album (and first on New York record label Moon Records), Oolooloo, is a pure gem. Upbeat ska with R&B, soul, and classic rock elements. It’s extra cool too because there’s an ease to the performances that makes it sound like the group is barely trying to get those delicious grooves going. Oolooloo’s only real downside is the lo-fi recording, which hampers showcasing just how strong the band members were as players—something you could see when you saw them live. The record is even a little bit on the “relaxed” side, which isn’t a descriptor often used for ska. But the tracks are still great for getting a good groove going, highlighting the jazzy, Dixieland style horn lines and R&B elements of the group’s tunes. The group also adds a jovial ska rendition of The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song,” which is a banger of a dance track. [A.C.]
Like the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Detroit's Suicide Machines made ska-punk that leaned punk and hardcore, but instead of going thick, dark, and heavy, TSM favored the tinnier sounds of early hardcore. Their 1996 debut album Destruction by Definition ends with a ska cover of Minor Threat's "I Don't Wanna Hear It," which is both an awesome cover and a good metaphor for what the original songs sound like. The Suicide Machines started hitting even harder over time, eventually building up to the more beastly sounds of their George W. Bush-era album War Profiteering Is Killing Us All, but Destruction by Definition is the album that started it all, it's classic Suicide Machines, and it's also the sound they returned to on their 2020 comeback album, so if you gotta go with just one, this is always the one. This record is great because it's got the intimidatingly cool punk side that a lot of ska-punk lacks, but it also fully embraces just the right amount of the cheerier side that makes ska-punk so fun. It's got it all -- the bright melodies, the gang vocals, the horns, the organs, the skank-inducing rhythms -- but it's also got roaring screams, razor-sharp power chords, and mosh-inducing rhythms too. It's less a fusion of ska and hardcore and more a record that flips between ska and hardcore at the drop of a hat, without ever losing focus. These guys embraced a ton of familiar sounds but always managed to stand out from the pack, and they wrote songs with real lasting power. [A.S.]
Beneath the silly band name, goofy mascot, and inexplicable obsession with Pez lies a lifer band with an arsenal of great songs, many of which make up their still-awesome 1996 album, Losing Streak. Losing Streak was Less Than Jake's sophomore album and Capitol Records debut (following their debut album Pezcore, released a year earlier on Mike Park's pre-Asian Man Records label Dill Records, and featuring re-recordings of two songs from that album), and it remains their most seminal album. They tightened up their sound from the promising Pezcore but had not yet gone in the more polished-sounding direction as some of their later albums, and it's the perfect middle ground. As much as they were obviously ska, LTJ were also just a great skate punk band, and the raw but sharp-sounding Losing Streak is as good a skate punk record as '90s classics like Punk In Drublic or Dude Ranch. Like those records, Losing Streak is scrappy and distorted and zips by at laser speed, but it's also full of great pop songs. With two lead vocalists (Chris DeMakes and Roger Lima) who have insane chemistry and can trade lines, call and respond, overlap with each other, and harmonize, Losing Streak is packed to the gills with a kind of rich melodic work that you don't always hear in snotty punk rock. They're also great storytellers, and -- hailing from from the same Gainesville Rock City that birthed Against Me!, Hot Water Music, and The Fest -- LTJ had a sense of small town boredom and apathy that really came alive in their songs. Not saying it's Shakespeare or anything, but the imagery in the lyrics is as vivid as the melodies are catchy. Listening to Losing Streak feels like peering into a world of drug deals, liquor stores, and fights on street corners, all told by a protagonist that's drunk on self-doubt. [A.S.]
Browse our selection of Less Than Jake vinyl.
When it comes to American ska, most want to believe it was all infused with pop punk, but many bands played a wide rage of the genre. Hepcat held it down on the West Coast, playing the smooth soul-infused traditional ska-jazz sound. Right On Time is a phenomenal record front to back, filled with catchy melodies, solid jazz chops on the instrumental songs, and irresistible grooves from the rhythm section. [J.H.]
Drummer Joey Bustos’ opening fill on “Verbal Kint” will mess with your mind if you ever try to replicate it. And then the double-time section that comes later in the song is ungodly fast, while somehow managing to have a bouncy groove. Link 80 first got attention as tough East Bay punks that were crazy good on their instruments despite still being in high school. Oh, and their singer, Nick Traina, was romance novelist Danielle Steel’s son. That fact was a hurdle in the punk scene, one that they got over quickly. Nick was one of the most charismatic ska singers at the time and was so genuine and downright punk rock, you immediately forgot that his mom lived in a San Francisco mansion. By the time Link 80 went in the studio to record their debut full length—they convinced Mike Park of Asian Man Records to release a full length, not just a 7”—it was clear they were bringing some unique influences to the table: loose ska, street punk, and Madball style hardcore. At the time, bands weren’t really doing that. The group was more punk than ska, yet with their incredible horn section and Bustos’ crazy good drumming, they still appealed to a lot of ska kids and would go on to influence bands that came after them even if Link 80 are rarely mentioned in the canon of great '90s ska-punk bands. [A.C.]
Before Brendan Kelly formed The Lawrence Arms and Dan Andriano joined Alkaline Trio (and before they met back up in The Falcon), they both played in the short-lived Chicago ska-punk band Slapstick, who released one album (1995's Lookit!) on Dill Records and two EPs, and who had six songs recorded for an aborted sophomore album before calling it quits in 1996. Those six songs and all their others ended up on this self-titled compilation, released the year after Slapstick broke up, and this comp offers more than just a look at two famous musicians' early band. It's one of the best ska-punk records of the '90s, period. Slapstick's lineup also included trombone player Peter Anna (who went on to play in Less Than Jake from 1998 to 2001), and you can retroactively describe them as sounding like "The Lawrence Arms meets Less Than Jake" and not be too far off the mark. Brendan Kelly's iconic rasp was already fully developed in Slapstick, which gave them an edge that was closer to Op Ivy and the Bosstones than the shinier ska bands that were emerging by the mid/late '90s, but their knack for major key melodies and triumphant horn lines (especially on the six newer songs) made them just as catchy as any of the more popular bands of the era. Obviously Brendan Kelly and Dan Andriano both went on to have very fine careers, but if Slapstick never broke up, I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up getting a lot bigger. Brendan's songwriting was already as strong in this earlier, more underrated band as it was on the much more widely-loved Lawrence Arms classics that were soon to come. [A.S.]
Just months after East Brunswick, NJ's Catch 22 released their 1998 debut album Keasbey Nights (on Victory Records, a label then primarily known for metalcore), frontman Tomas Kalnoky and bassist Josh Ansley left the band, soon to be followed by trombonist James Egan. Catch 22 started shuffling around their lineup, and eventually Tomas, Josh, and James formed Streetlight Manifesto (who re-recorded their own version of Keasbey Nights in 2006). Both bands went on to do worthwhile stuff, but nothing ever captured the magic of the original, eternally great Keasbey Nights. At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, this album is like the true heir to Operation Ivy's throne. Like that band, Keasbey Nights sounds thin and scratchy and rough around the edges, but it's perfect the way it is. And like Op Ivy, Keasbey Nights shows off a true love and understanding of ska, while also sticking to a true punk mentality. The bands on this list all found various ways to bring ska and punk together; Keasbey Nights fused them to the point where the lines between them ceased to exist.
The rhythms were rooted in ska more often than not, but the speed was full-on punk. Keasbey Nights is such a fast record that it has several songs where it sounds like Tomas and his bandmates can hardly finish their sentences, but everything always sounds intentional and under control. It's dizzying to try to keep up with them, but the opposite of inaccessible. Tomas packs an insane amount of hooks into these songs; I don't even know if the album technically has a "single" but it feels like a greatest hits. Nearly every track on Keasbey Nights is a stone-cold ska-punk classic, and the album flows brilliantly and never suffers from filler. Sometimes liking ska-punk requires you to embrace a little cheese or a little '90s datedness, but there's nothing cheesy or dated about this near-perfect record. [A.S.]
Since leaving Skankin’ Pickle, saxophonist/singer Mike Park started several side projects, including a handful of records under his own name. (Check out his kids' album, Smile. It’s really good!) But the two projects that persisted are The Bruce Lee Band and The Chinkees. And of every release he’s put out, The Chinkees debut album, The Chinkees Are Coming, is the best. Mike started the project as a way to comment on anti-Asian hate, something he’d experienced and tried to explain to his non-Asian friends, only to see them react with shock. The name of the band was an unsettling starting point—reclaim a slur. For the album, he took the rhythm section of the recently broken-up Slapstick. You can really hear Slapstick’s influence on tracks like “Not Your Pet” and “You Don’t Know.” The group was marketed as an all-Asian American ska-punk band, so once Park started booking gigs, he assembled an all Asian group, which included a young Steve Choi, who would eventually join RX Bandits. Subsequent releases featured this lineup on the recordings. And they’re all great, including a 2020 EP, which is only Choi and Park. But the energy of the first Chinkees record, especially with the driving organ lines, is just incredible. [A.C.]
Santa Cruz’s Slow Gherkin found a way to funnel teen angst into ska music and keep it decidedly poetic. Lead singer James Rickman crooned “Fourteen years of cynicism, boredom and anxiety/Fourteen years of thinking that my teachers were all dead against me” on “Slaughterhouse” off their first album Double Happiness. For their follow-up album, Shed Some Skin, the group broadened their punk-ska sound and incorporated new wave melodies, indie rock swagger, and mind-melting Fugazi breakdowns. Leading up to Shed Some Skin, they were on the road quite a bit. Oingo Boingo’s John Avila (who also produced Reel Big Fish’s first two major label releases) heard the album and wanted to work with the group. The group delayed getting him some new demos, and perhaps because they didn’t take his advice about shortening their songs, that connection didn’t go anywhere. Even though Slow Gherkin had incredible pop sensibilities, a lot of their weaknesses were also their strengths. And perhaps their epic jams, gigantic horn section, and Rickman’s gravelly voice were exactly what never needed to change, even if that kept them in the cult category. Shed Some Skin is truly a unique late ’90s record that deserves more attention. [A.C.]
The best Rancid album is 1995's ...And Out Come the Wolves -- home to ska-punk classics like "Time Bomb" and "Old Friend" -- but the most ska Rancid album is Life Won't Wait, so that's the one that makes this list. Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman helped create third wave/ska-punk as we know it in Operation Ivy, but Life Won't Wait was a love letter to first-wave ska, reggae, rocksteady, 2 Tone, and just about every other type of music that was somewhere in Rancid's DNA. The album featured veteran Jamaican reggae musician Buju Banton alongside members of The Specials, The Slackers, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and more (it also featured members of Green Day, Agnostic Front, and the Ramones), and it saw Rancid utilizing organ, steel drums, horns, blues harmonica, and more to create the most real-deal ska songs of their career. Songs like the title track and "Wrongful Suspicion" are much more in the "traditional" ska realm than Rancid's ska-punk hits, but Rancid are so punk to their core than even the parts recorded in Jamaica are dripping in the sweat of 924 Gilman. It's also not even accurate to just describe Life Won't Wait as Rancid's traditional ska/reggae album; songs like "Bloodclot" and "1998" are among the best punk songs in their discography and the lyrics of "Wrongful Suspicion" shout out a slew of hardcore and punk (and ska) bands that Rancid love. It's by far the most unique and ambitious album that Rancid ever made and one of the most unique and ambitious albums to come out of ska-punk in general. [A.S.]
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Around the same time The Suicide Machines were mixing punk, ska, hardcore, and politics in the Midwest, Against All Authority were doing a similar thing down in Florida. With fierce DIY ethos, raw recording quality, and aggressively political lyrics, their sound had roots in Culture Shock's anarcho-ska-punk as well as in the American hardcore scene, and AAA knew how to make it their own. Their vibe and energy was more punk than ska, but their ska parts were the real deal; they understood how to utilize upstrokes and horns just as much as they understood how to make whiplash-inducing punk, and they were masters at combining the two. On All Fall Down -- their sophomore album and first for Hopeless Records -- they said "fuck you" to politicians and societal injustices in blunt and uncompromising ways, and they got their message across with songs that were genuinely catchy. [A.S.]
Following in the footsteps of Operation Ivy and Catch 22, Big D and the Kids Table seemed to want to make ska-punk that was as fast as possible and overstuff their lyrics with as many syllables as possible, and in the case of Big D, they had two lead vocalists to make things even wordier. (There was clearly some hip hop influence in there too.) They'd perfected the approach by the time of their debut album Good Luck, released in 1999 on Asian Man Records, which struck the ska scene like a bolt of lightning as some were already ready to declare the genre dead. The production is scrappy but the playing is insanely tight, and worked into these raw, fast songs are some of the catchiest melodies to come out of '90s ska. Even with ska getting oversaturated by 1999, Good Luck was able to stand out as a fresh new take on the genre. And as the genre disappeared from the mainstream in the 2000s, Big D stuck to their guns and became lifers, releasing a slew of worthy albums even when ska was at its least fashionable. [A.S.]
As mentioned earlier when talking about Culture Shock, their anarcho-punk/ska blend was a clear influence on bands like NYC's Leftover Crack, who post-Culture Shock band Citizen Fish eventually released a split with in 2007. But before Stza formed Leftover Crack, he was a member of Choking Victim, who released their sole album No Gods, No Managers on Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records in 1999, after they had already broken up. There were other ska bands who favored a raw, dark, punk aesthetic, but Choking Victim lived and breathed it. They led their career with uncompromising politics, they literally lived in a squat house, and their music sounded as grimy as the poverty-stricken 1990s Lower East Side that informed it. Once you know their story and their ethos, it's not too surprising to learn that No Gods, No Managers is the aural equivalent of sticking a middle finger up at the government, society, capitalism, and the music industry, but what's sort of surprising is how tuneful Choking Victim's songs are. No Gods, No Managers isn't just about the message and the image; Choking Victim put just as much care into coming up with really good melodies, even if sometimes they sing those melodies like they've got gravel in their throats. [A.S.]
Ska didn’t get as big in Canada as it did in the US. But they had their great bands, like Chris Murray’s rock ‘n’ roll infused ska band King Apparatus. We can’t forget Montreal’s The Planet Smashers, an absolutely fun, lighthearted, and party-ready ska band, one of Canada’s biggest all-time ska bands. And in 1994, guitarist/lead singer Matt Collyer (along with Jordan Swift of The Kingpins) started Stomp Records, which has released a lot of great records in the past few decades. Planet Smashers’ third full-length, Life of The Party, is a wonderful release. Peppy mid-tempo brass-filled 2 Tone ska grooves that always leaned on the fun side of the ska spectrum. Kind of like Let’s Go Bowling with less vocal harmonies and a bit more of a joyous celebration. And in addition to their splendid pop-oriented tunes, they showed off their chops with some great jazzy, horn-solo-filled instrumentals, like “Trouble in Engineering.” The horn arrangements are a highlight on this record even on songs with vocals. Simple, bright, and ever permeating the music. This album catches the group at their prime, with Chris Murray producing. Truly there was—is—no ska band in Canada that compares to The Planet Smashers in terms of reach, popularity, and influence. Great stuff by a band that never took themselves seriously. [A.C.]
Ska is incredibly popular in Mexico. One of the biggest ska groups, Panteon Rococo, is one of the biggest bands in Mexico of any genre. Their mixture of ska, pop, rock, and Latin music hits all the right buttons. But before Panteon Rococo were huge pop stars, they were disenfranchised kids from the outskirts of Mexico City. And their experiences of witnessing violence and injustices are a theme that runs through their music. Party tunes with a serious message. When they started back in the ’90s, ska was an underground genre of music. The only person interested in putting out ska in Mexico was Pepe Lobo, a guy who would sell these tapes at his stand at the El Chopo flea market. (He’s still there!) He released Panteon’s raw first very raw tape, Toloache Pa’Mi Negra. Their follow-up and first full length, A La Izquierda de la Tierra, jumped to a more prominent label, but the grit and raw production stayed intact. There are some killer high energy jams, like the anthemic sing-along “La Dosis Perfecta” with its perfectly dragged-out opening line (“Hoy…te…vas!”) and its powerhouse chorus that will have you shaking your fist at the sky in pure joy. The song was a huge hit in Mexico, but they were never a one-hit-wonder. In 2019 they sold out 2 nights—40,000 tickets—at Arena Ciudad de Mexico in just 8 days. True legends. [A.C.]
In the mid-'90s, Orange County’s infamous pop-punk ska scene was big and included several young bands, like one called The Pharmaceutical Bandits. A few years later, the band changed a lot. For one thing, they were now known as RX Bandits. The first album they released under this name, Halfway Between Here and There, branched outside of the OC ska sound a bit. But on their next album, the aptly titled Progress, it was almost a whole different band. Members were changing, including the inclusion of the brilliant guitarist wizard Steve Choi, who’d previously played in The Chinkees, Slow Gherkin, and The Blockheads. Technically, Steve played on the Progress demos, not the actual album. He joined full-time after Progress. But his contribution is felt on the album. The group incorporated prog, math, and post-hardcore elements. And they managed to mix it with ska. Not every song has upbeats, but there are hints of the genre throughout, with the horns blasted on different accents in the music. The more overt ska tracks are still unusual and create a compelling, bizarre groove that was unlike anything being done at the time. Some fans didn’t like the direction, but overall RX Bandits set themselves up as a creative force and were able to have longevity in their career in a way many of their contemporaries weren’t. And for a moment, as more people started to get what the group was doing, it seemed a prog-ska movement was inevitable. That didn’t happen, and eventually, RX Bandits became less ska. But this record stands out as a true gem in this transitional period. [A.C.]
Ska may have been labeled as dead in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t the case. Several bands continued and saw growth in their fanbase. In 2001, NPR brought The Slackers in their studio and featured the group’s fourth record, Wasted Days. This was a great time for the band. Though they formed in the early ’90s, they didn’t get wrapped up in the mid-'90s mainstream ska boom. The reason was likely because they stuck closer to the Jamaican elements and didn’t use punk as a significant influence. But Wasted Days was also an important moment for the band perfecting their sound. They mixed elements like rock ‘n’ roll and soul, and other interesting surprises, like an intoxicating slide guitar on “Dave’s Friend,” showing that ska can mix with country rock and still rule. The grooves on Wasted Days are infectious, bouncing between old ska, rocksteady, and skinhead reggae; laid back and done with class. But it’s the songwriting that takes center stage on this record. Recently, the band got accolades from The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon who tweeted that The Slacker’s lead singer Vic Ruggiero is “one of the greatest songwriters and lyricists of our time.” I think this Brian Fallon guy knows what he’s talking about! [A.C.]
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If you want to talk about criminally underrated third wave ska, most can agree that MU330 was one that just barely missed that wave. Not only does Ultra Panic keep the energy up with 17 upbeat tracks, but it also hits hard lyrically. The tracks express lots of frustrations with every day occurrences that probably shouldn’t be every day occurrences, whether it be people expressing racist rhetoric with songs like “Raw Fish”, so called “friends” basing their humor off being an edgelord with songs like “Tell Another One,” or the fact that a white supremacist organization can legally have a highway named after them with “KKK Highway.” The record gives a strong tongue-in-cheek “everything is fine” vibe as the world burns around them. Nearly 20 years later, the messages of this record have (sadly) only gotten more relatable. [J.H.]
Ska can be mixed with almost any kind of music, and in the case of NJ's Folly, they figured out how to mix it with dramatic 2000s post-hardcore and metalcore. With a sound that was too aggressive for much of the ska community and too ska for much of the hardcore community, Folly were understandably niche, but if your record collection had Poison The Well and Catch 22, Folly seemed like a dream come true. They were not only crazy enough to attempt this odd concoction of genres, they were also good enough to pull it off. The songs on their 2004 debut album Insanity Later -- released on the primarily emo label Triple Crown Records -- segues so seamlessly between heavy post-hardcore and clean upbeat ska that you almost don't even notice it happening. It could've come off like a gimmick in a lesser band's hands, but Folly made it sound natural, and it resulted in one of the most unique albums to come out of the 2000s punk scene. And even if Folly never got huge, they did leave an impact. It's hard to imagine fellow NJ ska-core band The Best of the Worst sounding the way they do without Folly's influence. [A.S.]
Before Jeff Rosenstock became an acclaimed solo artist and before he led the ska/punk/indie/pop/etc collective Bomb the Music Industry, he fronted the ska-punk band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches. ASOB was already starting to fizzle out by the mid-2000s, and Jeff had begun dedicating his time to BTMI, but they eventually managed to finally finish and release one last album, Three Cheers for Disappointment, which had been in the making for about five years. And thank god they finally finished it, because it's one of the best albums Jeff ever made. If you're someone who got into Jeff Rosenstock more recently through his solo work and you're wondering where else in his huge back catalog to start exploring, this album wouldn't be a bad place to start. As more of a punk record than most of Bomb the Music Industry's stuff, it's more similar to his current solo work than some of the BTMI records are. And as far as high-speed ska-punk goes, ASOB mastered it as well as Op Ivy, The Suicide Machines, Catch 22, or any of the other greats in this style. Like those bands, it's undeniably and unapologetically ska, but it's very much a punk and sometimes even hardcore record. Like Catch 22, ASOB always seem to be playing faster than they should be, but always sound impossibly tight. Like Op Ivy and The Suicide Machines, there are times ASOB are pulling directly from early '80s hardcore, but they always make it work within the context of fun, catchy, upbeat ska songs. And Jeff Rosenstock may have only recently started to get critical acclaim for his lyrical wit, infectious melodies, and explosive delivery, but he had all of that in spades as far back as this record. Its reputation might've been hindered by how long it took to release (2006 wasn't a very good year to put out a ska record), but most who hear it agree: it rivals just about anything from ska-punk's '90s heyday. [A.S.]
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The American mainstream had turned its back on ska by the mid 2000s, but there were still true believers who stuck with the genre during that time, and some of the best ska music ever released came out during that era. Connecticut's Flaming Tsunamis started out as a straight-up ska-punk band, but by the time of their 2006 sophomore album Fear Everything, they were blending ska-punk with metalcore, progressive rock, jazz, and a sense of art-scene discordance. It's a truly genre-less record, and it's as heavy as it is catchy as it is chaotic. It's all a little ridiculous, but it still manages to feel like an incredibly focused record, and a purposeful one too. Underneath all the sonic fury are some incisive social/political messages. [A.S.]
Ska-punk was alive and well on Long Island in the late 2000s, and it wasn't just because of Bomb the Music Industry. The Fad (who were close with Bomb and shared a couple members) were some of the LI punk scene's biggest ska cheerleaders, and also one of its best bands. Led by the powerful singer/songwriter Jimmy Doyle, The Fad owed as much to ska as they did to their hometown's storied punk and hardcore scene, and that resulted in Kill Punk Rock Stars, an album with fast-paced, throat-shredding rippers alongside upbeat ska songs. They cited both Gorilla Biscuits and The Specials as reference points for that sound, and this album was truly deserving of both comparisons. It stood out at a time when ska was entirely out of fashion, and it holds up today as one of the genre's crown jewels. [A.S.]
Holding it down since the late '80s, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra are one of the most solid bands in the genre. From traditional ska to ska-core, they are masters on any style of ska they play. Any of their records can count as masterpieces in their own right, but I believe Walkin’ is something special.
This record truly captures so many incredible qualities of the genre. From the opening track’s reimagining of Miles Davis' "Walkin’," to the chaotic (in the best way possible) cover of Charles Mingus’ "Boogie Stop Shuffle," to the feel-good track "All Good Ska Is One," featuring Angelo Moore of Fishbone, this record keeps the energy up, the musicianship untouched, and is an incredible time front-to-back. [J.H.]
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that Austrian band Russkaja is the first group to ever mix ska, guttural metal, traditional Russian music, and klezmer in a single song. And that is pretty much what the group does all the time. They refer to their style as “Russian Turbo Polka Metal,” which is fairly accurate, though I prefer they use the word ska in there. It’s hard to choose the best album by the group—they’re all good—but if I have to, I’m going with 2013’s Energia!. The title track is a demented ska-metal-folk tune that earns their weird genre description, especially with the scatterbrain chorus. (And be sure to check out the song’s Russian propaganda-style music video for the song.) The group formed in 2005, and have been going strong ever since, and seem to have many more years ahead of them and were signed appropriately to metal label Napalm Records for this release. It’s some of the most fun music, but with plenty of hyper-focused politics as well, sung in a variety of languages; they speak as many tongues as they play musical genres. [A.C.]
Any person slightly versed in the genre knows the name Mike Park. A DIY legend of ska, punk, and indie, he’s famously known for his label Asian Man Records, as well as his bands Skankin' Pickle, The Chinkees, and The Bruce Lee Band. Having originally started as his songs accompanied by different bands, The Bruce Lee Band's lineup settled during their 2010s comeback with other ska legends such as Kevin Higuchi, Jeff Rosenstock, and Dan Potthast. His 2014 LP is in my honest opinion the perfect representation of a third wave ska record; upbeat and high in energy, while relaying an important message. The record reflects the state of the world, asking why the world has gone down such an ugly path, but ensuring that we will get through this one way or another. [J.H.]
Ska had been gone from the American mainstream for so long when, unexpectedly, The Interrupters scored an actual alternative radio hit in 2018 with "She's Kerosene." (It made them the first female-fronted ska band with an alternative radio hit since No Doubt.) The Interrupters had a leg up on the competition -- their records are produced and co-written by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, and released on his Hellcat label -- but still, Rancid themselves hadn't even had a big song in 15 years at this point. The Interrupters were obviously doing something right, and what they were doing was writing ska-punk so catchy that you couldn't deny it, no matter how cynical you were about their industry connections and no matter how much you thought you hate ska. "She's Kerosene" was released as the lead single of The Interrupters' third album Fight the Good Fight, and it's a serious earworm, but every song on that album is this catchy. It's a concise 12 tracks with no filler, and any given song sounds like it could be a single. (The non-ska punk anthem "Gave You Everything" got pretty big too.) The Interrupters are a little more pop than most of today's ska bands, but their success has played a major role in the renewed interest in the genre. And they've got a hell of a good record to back that success up. [A.S.]
It's impossible to talk about the renewed interest in American ska without talking about Bad Time Records, the DIY label launched by Kill Lincoln's Mike Sosinski that has been shining a much-needed light on the U.S. ska scene since 2018. The label started out by repressing records by Kill Lincoln and their friends in We Are The Union, but BTR's first original release was the 2019 self-titled debut LP by Philly's Catbite, which is one of the finest ska debuts in recent memory. Catbite primarily pull from influences that predate '90s ska-punk, like 2 Tone, rocksteady, power pop, and The Clash, but they wrap it in an indie rock-friendly exterior that fits right in with the modern Philly indie-punk DIY scene that they hail from. They arrived fully formed on this album, an all-killer collection of eight songs that already feel like classics (and that are very versatile; Catbite later released an alt-country version and a hardcore/punk version of the album). The future looks very bright for Catbite -- their new sophomore album Nice One is at least as good as the self-titled -- but no matter how far they end up going, it should never be forgotten that they had already mastered ska on LP1. [A.S.]
In addition to leading the charge for the current American ska resurgence with his label Bad Time Records, Mike Sosinski sings and plays guitar in one of the best ska-punk bands of the past decade, Kill Lincoln. They'd been on a steady rise throughout the 2010s, and their third album Can't Complain is by far their best yet. The album fuses Less Than Jake's addictive ska-pop-punk hooks with The Suicide Machines' rougher ska/hardcore, and it sounds as fresh in the 2020s as those bands did in the 1990s. It's an album that has the power to induce nostalgia in longtime fans and also win over new ones. Kill Lincoln's core influences may be '90s bands, but they make music that feels urgent and vital right now and the perspective in their songs is clearly a reaction to the modern world. Talking about it in terms of a "revival" feels short-sighted; this is one of the best ska-punk albums, period. [A.S.]
In early 2020, New Orleans 5-piece ska band Bad Operation planned to play their first show ever. Thanks to a pandemic, that show never happened. They used this unexpected downtime to record the best ska record of 2020, as well as shoot several cool B&W music videos for some of its songs. Bad Operation’s music takes a gritty approach to the 2 Tone sound and mixes it with elements of soul and indie rock, weaved with politically fervent and bluntly personal lyrics. It was a refreshing album made by ska veterans who date back to the mid-2000s, having played in New Orleans groups like Fatter Than Albert and Angry Banana before eventually moving on to different genres, as ska musicians often do. But unlike a lot of other musicians, the members of Bad Operation returned to ska, and they brought everything they’d learned with them. For starters, they devoted some of their indie-rock energy into how they recorded the album, giving it touches it needed to go beyond simply representing a band’s live sound—they had no live sound at that point—and taking full advantage of the studio to craft the album as they imagined it. [A.C.]
The New Tone ska movement (coined by Bad Operation) has been bubbling up for the past few years, and its first true breakthrough album just might be We Are The Union's Ordinary Life. The band released their debut LP way back in 2007, but they reinvented themselves with 2018's Self Care, an album that grappled with mental health issues over some of the catchiest ska-punk songs in recent memory, and was WATU's first album with Jeremy Hunter (JER, Skatune Network) in the band. Ordinary Life takes the new direction of Self Care even further, and it's also an album that marks a milestone in vocalist Reade Wolcott's life; it's the first WATU album since Reade publicly came out as a trans woman, and the songs on this album tell her story. The album also has mental health songs and love songs, and -- to quote Reade -- what she "really tried to do was to frame the trans experience and frame dysphoria alongside things that are maybe more relatable to the general public." It worked; Ordinary Life nails a balance between being deeply personal and universally relatable, and it's also home to some of the best music WATU have ever written. It's a ska album, but the production and songwriting owes a lot to modern indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, and Charly Bliss, all of whom Reade cites as influences. Its sound is proof that ska doesn't have to be a nostalgia thing, and it doesn't have to exist outside of today's musical zeitgeist. Ordinary Life finds We Are The Union pushing forward, and making ska music that fits right in with the current alternative landscape. [A.S.]