author at Reggae Steady Ska, saxophonist at Some Ska Band
Say what you will about 2020, but it was a great year for ska. Every month saw killer new releases from old favorites and genre-expanding debuts from up-and-comers. Picking a top 20 would be tough. Picking just five? Impossible. But the great privilege of writing for Reggae-Steady-Ska comes with great responsibility.
Lists like this are subjective, this one more so than most. My ska addiction is in the Skatalites vein. There were plenty of exceptional releases that are on the harder side (e.g. Kill Lincoln, The Inevitables, Suicide Machines, Catbite and the amazing Bite Me Bambi) but it’s the ska-jazz sound that I love the most. Not apologizing, just explaining why my Top 5 are more alike than different.
Attractors – Love Bombs (Jump Up Records) My first two picks are almost interchangeable, but since this album is all originals, it rises to the top. It’s a who’s-who album (23 credited musicians) and there’s not a less-than-great track to be found. Standouts include One Upper and Grinding Work Fuck, as well as the album’s two dubs. Needledrop anywhere on this 9-tracker and you’ll be smiling like 2020 never happened.
Jah Jazz Orchestra – Introducing (Brixton Records) In a better world, Introducing would also find itself among the top jazz releases for the year. This 9-piece French/Swiss band brings world-class musicianship and deep ska/reggae sensibilities to each song they cover. Of course I loved the two Roland Alfonso tunes (King Solomon and Ska La Parisienne) but it was their version of Dizzy Gilespie’s Manteca (renamed Manteska) that had what hair I have left standing. A classic album from a new powerhouse.
The Players Band – Skamörgåsbord The truest-named release of the year since it perfectly captures what you’ll find on this wide-ranging double album. From the traditional island-vibe of Wet Noodle to the pulse-pounding oompf of their cover of Sledgehammer, the power-pop, name-checking Player’s Anthem to the beer-soaked Get In The Van featuring the Pietasters Stephen Jackson, from their take on Liquidator, to the four Victor Rice dubs on side four, it’s a musical smörgåsbord with something tasty for everyone. I could have saved time by simply listing the musicians involved since it would have told you it had to be a great album. (Victor Rice’s Drink was on my Top 5 shortlist but since he’s here I’ll consider him covered.)
Alpheus – The Victory (Liquidator Music) My love of this album is probably influenced by the number of hours I spent this summer on my patio, cold drink in hand, this album of ska, rocksteady and early reggae playing loud enough to be enjoyed by all my neighbors. As it should be. Songs like Gonna Be Good, The Road Ahead and We Are The People kept my spirits high during the chaotic runup to the US presidential elections, wrapped snugly in Alpheus’ deep, soulful voice. The only thing missing from this step back in time was the crackle and hiss of my record player. Which means I have to buy the vinyl.
The Juks – Way Back (J-Beat Records) Some albums are for dancing, some for singing along and some, like this melodic masterpiece, are for lying back, eyes closed, contemplating your place in the universe. The opening track, Rolling On, hints to the semi-psychedelic trip you’re about to embark on, and playing the back-to-back tracks Where Could I Go But To You? and When I Woke…(I was Still in South London) on repeat loop is a fine way to spend many a Covid-unemployed day. At least it worked for me. The only outlier in this escapist soundscape is Gerry Baldy, true dance number that might have been better served as a standalone single. Still, a fantastic album in every sense of the word.
Charles Benoit is a prolific writer for Reggae Steady Ska and “described by friends as way too obsessed with Ska”. With Some Ska Band, he is on saxophone. Check their debut album: “It’s Going Down.” (2018)