Album of The Week: The Best of Trojan Rock Steady, Vol. 1

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Listen to “The Best of Trojan Rock Steady” by scrolling down (opens in Spotify)

If you live in a snowy place, like I do, let me make a suggestion: listen to more Jamaican music this winter. It’s an island with a wonderfully rhythmic and diverse musical past, and nothing kicks winter blues faster than music from a place many of us identify with eternal summer.

I understand if you’re a little gun-shy on Jamaican music—if you feel like you just can’t hear a Bob Marley song again without flashing back to college. But reducing an entire nation’s musical output to one (admittedly pivotal) figure would be like only listening to Elvis when you wanted to hear some American music. There’s a heck of a lot more out there, and if you had the time and the cash, you could happily spend a lifetime diving thorough musty stacks of 45s in some Kingston record store to discover it all. (And by “you” in that preceding sentence, I do, of course, mean “me.)

That’s why Trojan Record’s “Best of” series is so great: these discs provide a crash course in part of Jamaica’s musical history. Each album generally centers around a particular theme or genre, and provides a great diving board to help you plunge into a different sound.

The Best of Trojan Rock Steady vol. 1 is my favorite so far. Rock steady was a musical precursor to reggae popular in the mid 1960s. It was a little less frenetic than the ska music that preceded it, and a lot of reggae artists, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, played rocksteady before they began to develop reggae. What this means is that you have a familiar rhythmic structure, but with enough differences to draw your ears in: exquisite vocal harmonies, great horn lines, and more than a pinch of Motown influence.

Most of the names on here aren’t ones you’ve likely heard before, but it hardly matters. The performances are uniformly excellent and singularly quirky, from The Ethiopians’ subtle sound effects on “Train to Skaville”—produced by the singers themselves—to the mindlessly catchy hook of The Jamaicans’ “Ba Ba Boom.”

Of all the gems on the album, Phyllis Dillon’s song “Perfidia” sparkles brighter than the rest. Not only is it the only track on the album with a woman singing lead, but it’s also written in an almost absurdly poetic, refined register: the refrain is “Oh perfidious one, goodbye.” Listen to the way the expected major chord progression skews minor at 0:28, the way Dillon says “sock it to me, baby” just before the break. What about that weird spoken bridge? Bob Marley can’t top that.

Besides the perpetual motion of the upstroked guitar parts, these recordings all share this great analog warmth. They sound earthy and a little dusty, sort of squishy and fuzzy. You can hear the limits of mid-60s Jamaican recording technology, and I love that. This is a collection that oozes atmosphere.

I think there’s so much here to listen to, and it’s a refreshing change from Legend or whatever other Bob Marley album you automatically reach for. The album will help steer you in the right direction if you want more of this sort of thing—Desmond Dekker and Lee “Scratch” Perry are both essential names that you may have missed in the shadow of Marley.

But the sun’s out now, so crank up the heat and slap on some tanning oil: summer’s here to stay.

 

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Song of the Week: “54-46 Was My Number,” Toots and the Maytals


Click here to listen to “54-46 Was My Number,” by Toots and the Maytals

Jamaica is well known for a couple things, among them rum and reggae. Some types of rum that are known worldwide, like Appleton Estate or Myers’s. They’re justifiably famous products, but a little predictable.

Then there’s the other stuff—kept under the counter or dripping from a still in the hills. It doesn’t have the same kind of name brand recognition, but if you’re getting a little bored with Appleton or Myers’s, it can be just the thing to spice your night up. Funkier, dirtier, a little more complex.

As with rum, so with reggae. Bob Marley is Appleton Estate—omnipresent and rightfully respected. Toots Hibbert and his band the Maytals is Wray and Nephew White, a type of overproof rum that is popular in Jamaica but doesn’t have the same type of appeal elsewhere. It’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.

“54-46 Was My Number” hits like a double shot. Hibbert starts with a soul-style phrasing on the opening line, which has a touch of gospel theater about it. When the band comes in with the archetypical steady, thumping rhythm, they sound rawer and a little more primal than Marley and the Wailers, particularly Hibbert’s vocal, which owes more to Otis Redding than anyone else. The squelchy, reverb-heavy guitar and late ‘60s organ sound (is that the riff from “Palisades Park” played in half-time at 2:30?) also give it more variety than the typical listener might expect from a reggae song.

More than any other genre except perhaps for funk, reggae is all about tuning into a groove and then riding it through. It’s not always dedicated to Dylanesque imagery or blistering guitar solos so much as a constant smooshing of a primal rhythmic button. Toots and the Maytals do this very well. The breaks, “give it to me…one time” and so on, might seem gimmicky, but they’re stop-time technique. You don’t really appreciate the rhythm until it’s snatched away from you. And Hibbert’s scatting over the last half of the track could read like filler, but it’s oddly compelling. His vocal improvisations further emphasize the offbeat, creating the organic pulse that’s so essential to reggae.

There’s a lot more nooks and crannies to explore in reggae—and a lot more interesting artists to sample. There’s nothing wrong with Bob Marley, but if he’s the only name you know, you’ll miss out on some seriously good stuff. So while there’s a time and a place for your Appleton Estate, or God forbid, Captain Morgan, never be afraid to ask for what the locals are drinking. You’ll be happy you did.