Don’t you just love those up-tempo beats, walking basslines, horns blowing, guitars skanking, and of course, those oh-so catchy vocals? There’s no sound quite like ska. and it sometimes feels like the genre has been around forever.
During the late 1950s, Duke Reid and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd brought the first sound systems to Jamaica, and with local artists covering American R&B records, ska music was born. But if I were to ask you, “who are the top 15 ska bands?” who would you pick? “There’s just far too many to choose from” you might grumble! Well never fear, because we’ve done the hard work for you.
In a genre-spanning more than 60 years, with three major waves of international popularity, there’s no shortage of great ska bands to choose from. Here are our top picks.
1. The Skatalites
The Skatalites are credited with being one of the most important bands to have ever come out of Jamaica and pre-date both ska and reggae music. They were pioneers in Jamaican music and led the way for a host of other ska and reggae artists, first in Jamaica, and then around the world.
Expert Tip: The Skatalites were formed in the 1950s, and still, receive the love and adoration of an army of fans. Their early jazz-infused sound can be heard in all-time classics such as Occupation and Alley Cat Ska.
2. The Specials
Formed during the second wave of Ska in the late 1970s. The Specials are internationally acclaimed, and legendary on the ska scene. Despite having over 30 members of the band through various incarnations, the Specials’ unmistakable sound has become a ska staple, and they have cemented themselves as one of the most important ska bands of all time.
From upbeat bouncers like A Message to you Rudy, to the more brooding and barren reggae-infused Ghost Town. The Specials have kept audiences skanking for over 40 years.
3. Prince Buster
The unmistakable horns and swinging drums that made Prince Buster one of the true progenitors of the ska sound are still reverberating through the scene today. With the recent resurgence of the classic ska song, Madness. Prince Buster may have departed from this world, but his musical legacy certainly lives on.
Cecil Bustamente Campbell (AKA Prince Buster) was responsible for essential ska records such as One Step Beyond and All My Loving.
4. Toots and the Maytals
Possibly one of the most loved individuals to ever grace the Jamaican music scene, “Frederick Toots” Hibbert and the Maytals are a musical institution. From their inception in the early 1960s. The Maytals were closely linked with other ska bands of the day including Prince Buster, Byron Lee, and The Wailers.
The inimitable jump-up ska sound of Toots and the Maytals could be no better defined, than in their 1969 classic, Pressure Drop.
5. The Selecter
The Selecter is another act to come out of the second wave of ska bands in the early 1980s. Originally formed in 1979. The Selecter were a fundamental part of the second wave of ska, and although their original line-up only lasted until 1981, they are considered one of the most important ska bands to date.
The Selecter was responsible for classic ska records such as Three Minute Hero and On My Radio.
6. Byron Lee and The Dragonaires
One of the forebears of the genre Byron Lee and the Dragonaires were bringing their unique brand of ska to the world for over 60 years. Originally formed by the eponymous Lee and his friend Carl Brady in 1950, the band was literally at the forefront of ska and reggae music.
Over the decades they operated. Byron Lee and the Dragonaires collaborated with Toots and the Maytals on classic ska anthems such as 54 – 46 and Bam Bam.
7. Desmond Dekker
The self-titled “King of Ska” Desmond Dekker is without a doubt one of the most important names in the genre. Known for his time with The Aces. Dekker paved the way for Jamaican artists to engage with international audiences.
Expert Tip: Dekker was responsible for ska classics such as 007 (Shanty Town) and of course King of Ska, but there was perhaps no greater success than his 1968, reggae-leaning, Israelites
8. Derrick Morgan
Another progenitor of the genre, Derrick Morgan has also been called “King of Ska”. Morgan was one of the original artists to create early ska records with Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodds, releasing Lover Boy in 1959, and Leave Earth in 1961. Morgan’s classic ska sound was characterized by his background as a deacon’s son.
You can hear gospel influences in the vocal harmonies and lyrics of all-time favorites such as I Want to go Home, and his soulful ska sound still stands as one of the cornerstones of the genre.
9. Jimmy Cliff
Known more for his rocksteady and soulful reggae of the 1970s. Jimmy Cliff is another artist rooted in ska. Before the world came to know James Chambers as Jimmy Cliff, thanks to the international success of 1972’s The Harder They Come. Cliff was making ska as far back as the early 1960s.
His first hit single in Jamaica Hurricane Hatty was produced when Cliff was 14 years old. The swing-style beat, driving skank, and melodic horns, coupled with Cliff’s soulful vocal, give the song that original ska sound. Cliff had more success with ska songs such as King of Kings.
10. Bob Marley and the Wailers
Yes, that Bob Marley and the Wailers. Known for sending Reggae music into the proverbial stratosphere. Bob Marley and the Wailers were once a ska band. Their 1963 single Simmer Down is a classic ska song and was a hit in Jamaica in 1964. With follow-up releases such as Trenchtown Rock and Nice Time, the band grew from their ska foundations and became the reggae legends they are known to be today.
Named after Prince Buster’s iconic ska song Madness became a huge success in the 1980s. They paid further homage to Prince Buster with famous covers of The Prince and of course. One Step Beyond is a classic up-tempo track with an incredible sax lead and an unforgettable melody.
Expert Tip: Madness was responsible for making ska more accessible to audiences, with pop favorites such as Baggy Trousers and Our House.
12. Lee “Scratch” Perry
Known around the world for his multi-colored dreads and incredible services to dub reggae. Lee “Scratch” Perry is an institution of Jamaican music. From the late 1950s, Lee Perry (real name Rainford Hugh Perry) was involved with Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One.
Perry worked with the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers and The Skatalites, before releasing his own brand of soulful ska in the early 1960s. Perry went on to work with a host of artists and bands in a life-long career that ended in 2021 when Perry passed on.
13. Bad Manners
The howling vocals of Buster Bloodvessel are unmistakable, and the clean melodic horns over the distinctive ska beat gave Bad Manners their characteristic Two-Tone sound. Hailing from London, The UK in the late 1970s. Bad Manners were instrumental in the resurgence of ska music in the 1980s.
Their hit songs such as Ne Ne Na Na Na Na Nu Nu and their ska version of 1960s Rock n’ Roll classics. Woolly Bully propelled Bad Manners into pop stardom.
14. The Pioneers
The Pioneers date back to 1962 when Jamaica gained her independence from the UK. Despite releasing a number of singles over the next five years, the group did not fare well and split up in 1967. The band quickly reformed, albeit with a change to their line-up and after working with Lee “Scratch” Perry on the classic ska song “Long Shot Kick De Bucket”. The Pioneers became an international sensation.
15. The Toasters
The Toasters came along during the second wave of ska in the 1980s. Formed in New York, The Toasters brought an original, up-tempo rock element into their songs, like their contemporary Two-Tone artists in the UK. The Toasters remain active to this day nearly 40 years on from their first release, Beat Up in 1984.
That concludes our Top 15 ska bands of all time. Who did we miss? Well, there is a multitude of great ska bands out there, and we are always discovering new and exciting acts from the first wave in the 1950s to the present day.
The fact is that ska was an essential part of the growth of music around the world. Ska took Jamaican music internationally and evolved it into reggae. Both musical styles were influential in punk, which transformed rock music and gave birth to grunge. We could go on, but you see how influential ska music has been over the past 60 years.
With audiences today seeking musical roots, there is no better place to look than ska. We hope this article will encourage you to check out some facts you might not have heard before, and possibly return to some of your old favorites.