Reggae had its humble origins in Jamaica’s streets. It garnered global acclaim as a symbol of rebellion, love, and spirituality. It has also become a vessel of expression for countless artists, as you will see from our list below.
Throughout the years, these artists have used reggae to tell their stories, spread awareness of issues, or simply make feel-good music to chill out to.
In this curated list, we explore 31 of the best reggae songs of all time, from classics that defined the genre to chart-topping hits that made reggae a global sensation. Let’s start!
1. “Legalize It” By Peter Tosh
First, we have “Legalize It” by reggae legend Peter Tosh. He was one of the founding members of the iconic reggae band The Wailers. It’s no wonder that Tosh created a historically significant song as part of his debut solo album.
“Legalize It” is a passionate and politically charged anthem advocating for the legalization of marijuana, not only for its recreational use but also for its potential medical benefits.
While the song didn’t rank on the music charts that well, it became an anthem for the pro-marijuana movement, both in Jamaica and internationally. Its significant cultural impact has made it one of the most iconic songs, not just in the reggae genre but in the music industry as a whole.
2. “Israelites” By Desmond Dekker And The Aces
Despite some of the lyrics being sung in Jamaican Creole, “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker And The Aces is the first reggae song that topped the UK Singles Reggae chart and made it to the top nine of the US Billboard Hot 100.
It also topped the charts in various other countries, including Germany and Netherlands. The song’s success helped pave the way for the global popularity of reggae music and laid the groundwork for future reggae and ska artists.
Beyond its chart performance, “Israelites” is a socially conscious anthem that sheds light on the grim realities of poverty in Jamaica. The term “Israelites” is used metaphorically to represent the marginalized and downtrodden individuals who face hardships in their daily lives.
3. “Redemption Song” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
Another culturally significant reggae song is Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Redemption Song.” One thing stands out from this song. This is a stripped-down acoustic arrangement featuring just Marley’s voice and a guitar. This amplifies the lyrics’ raw emotion and sincerity.
Some of the lyrics are taken from Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s speech, “The Work That Has Been Done.” It serves as a spiritual ode to the struggles endured in search of freedom.
It is an incredibly powerful song that revolves around the themes of liberation, self-determination, and resilience. The song also pays homage to the struggles of those who have fought for equality and justice throughout history, which continues to be relevant in today’s world.
4. “Three Little Birds” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
Our next track is considered one of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ most popular songs. “Three Little Birds” is often mistakenly referred to as “Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright” because of its infectious chorus.
The song is an ode to hope, resilience, and trusting the process no matter what. Marley’s signature message of “Don’t worry about a thing; every little thing gonna be all right” resonates with many as they try to find solace in difficult times.
Because of its positive message and catchy beat, the song has been covered by many artists over the years. These include pop rock band Maroon 5, Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander, and British child singer Connie Talbot.
5. “Marcus Garvey” By Burning Spear
The title track of Burning Spear’s third album, “Marcus Garvey,” pays homage to the Jamaican political leader and activist of the same name. Because of the political messages in his music, Burning Spear has been called the “conscience of reggae.”
This song is more than just a tribute to Garvey: it’s also a rallying cry for black empowerment and pride. Burning Spear’s song captures the essence of Marcus Garvey’s teachings and the spirit of his activism.
The song has been covered by many music artists, such as Tarrus Riley and Sinead O’Connor. However, the original version is still one of the most powerful and inspiring tracks in reggae history.
6. “Do The Reggay” By Toots And The Maytals
The 1968 song “Do The Reggay” by Toots and the Maytals is often credited with coining the term “reggae.” It opened doors for the genre to transcend geographic and cultural boundaries, reaching audiences far beyond the shores of Jamaica.
Before the song came out, the term “reggay” wasn’t established within the musical lexicon. Instead, it referred to a passing dance fad in Jamaica. The song’s popularity, however, catapulted the term to international recognition and even led to the creation of its own subgenre.
While the song’s lyrics don’t delve into deep or complex themes, the act of dancing and coming together to enjoy music is central to its message. It reflects the carefree and festive spirit often associated with the reggae music scene of that era.
7. “I Can See Clearly Now” By Johnny Nash
American singer Johnny Nash is the first non-Jamaican singer to popularize reggae music. His hit single “I Can See Clearly Now” topped both the Cash Box and Billboard Hot 100 charts, as well as charts in countries like South Africa and Canada.
The song’s central message is of overcoming obstacles and embracing a brighter future. This resonates deeply with the themes often found in reggae music. We’re talking about resilience, unity, and positivity.
The incorporation of reggae elements in “I Can See Clearly Now” marked a notable shift in popular music. The song’s fusion of reggae with other musical styles helped break down cultural barriers and broaden the appeal of reggae beyond its traditional roots.
8. “No Woman, No Cry” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
Another memorable song by Bob Marley and the Wailers is “No Woman, No Cry.” The title is often misconstrued as being dismissive of women’s importance or emotions. However, the song is a message of reassurance and empathy from a man to a woman, offering comfort and solace.
The song is believed to be inspired by Marley’s experiences growing up in Trench Town, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica. His powerful storytelling creates a compelling narrative that invites listeners to connect with the struggles and triumphs of the people he describes.
The live version of “No Woman, No Cry” in 1975 is particularly famous and has become the definitive rendition for many fans. This version also reached the top 40 rank of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list by Rolling Stone.
9. “Buffalo Soldier” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
One of Bob Marley’s popular songs is “Buffalo Soldier,” released two years after his death. It is a socially relevant song filled with imagery of Native American buffalo soldiers of the 19th century.
In the song, Marley references the historical struggles and injustices faced by the Native American soldiers. The lyrics emphasize the resilience and strength of his people despite their plight.
The song’s themes of resilience, struggle, and the fight for justice aligned seamlessly with Marley’s broader body of work. Its release after his death allowed audiences to continue to connect with his ideas and messages, even in his absence.
10. “Blackheart Man” By Bunny Wailer
One of the founding members of the reggae band The Wailers is Bunny Wailer. He recorded his solo album Blackheart Man in 1976. The title track, “Blackheart Man,” is notable for its profound and socially conscious lyrics.
In Jamaican folklore, Blackheart Man refers to the fabled man who is seen as an outcast. He is often associated with dark and mysterious powers. Wailer used this character to explore themes of social injustice and the struggles faced by marginalized individuals in Jamaican society.
The six-minute roots reggae song has since become an enduring classic. This is highly regarded by journalists as one of the greatest reggae songs of all time.
11. “Rivers Of Babylon” By The Melodians
A Rastafari song with Biblical roots is what you’ll find in The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon.” It drew inspiration from the scripts of Psalms 19 and 137. These verses express the longing of the Jewish people for Jerusalem during their Babylonian exile.
The term “Babylon” in the Rastafarian context also refers to any oppressive political system. Because of its potential for inciting political sensitivities, the song was banned for a time in Jamaica.
In pop culture, “Rivers of Babylon” has been featured in various films, television shows, and commercials, such as the 1972 movie The Harder They Come, contributing to its enduring popularity.
12. “Bam Bam” By Sister Nancy
Our next song is considered a classic in the reggae genre. Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” features a sample from the “Stalag 17” riddim. This is a popular instrumental track that has been used by various artists in the reggae and hip-hop communities.
In a male-dominated music genre, Sister Nancy’s success with “Bam Bam” marked a significant milestone for women in reggae. It sparked a movement that led to the rise of more women taking center stage in the reggae scene.
The song’s impact goes beyond its initial release. “Bam Bam” has been sampled, covered, and remixed by numerous artists in various genres. This includes Chris Brown’s “Bomb,” Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” and Jay-Z’s “Bam.”
13. “Pass The Dutchie” By Musical Youth
A cover of the Jamaican song “Pass The Kouchie,” Musical Youth’s family-friendly version of the song in 1982 transformed the track into a global sensation. “Pass The Dutchie” topped the charts in 10 countries, and it also made the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Musical Youth had to make some changes to the original song to make it more palatable for a wider audience. They substituted the Jamaican slang for cannabis pipe (“kouchie”) with “Dutchie” and revised the lyrics. The song cover is an example of how reggae can go beyond its initial purpose and still keep the essence of its original sound.
It was also one of the first songs to bring reggae into mainstream music. Its success has paved the way for other successful reggae acts and songs to find their place on the global stage.
14. “I Shot The Sheriff” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
In 1973, The Wailers released the album Burnin’. It featured “I Shot the Sheriff,” an anthem of social injustice. Bob Marley himself penned the song.
“I Shot the Sheriff” is often interpreted as a metaphorical representation of the struggles against authority and injustice. Jamaica, like many other countries, was grappling with issues of inequality, poverty, and police brutality during the 1970s.
The lyrics of the song, coupled with Marley’s use of reggae and his powerful vocal delivery, serve to convey a message of resistance and hope. The song has since gone on to be covered by artists such as Eric Clapton, further immortalizing its legacy.
15. “Pressure Drop” By Toots And The Maytals
The iconic song “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals is about karmic justice and revenge. Toots Herbert, the songwriter, mentioned in an interview that the title was inspired by the phrase “The pressure’s going to drop on you.”
“Pressure Drop” was released in 1970 and quickly became a staple in the reggae genre, not just in Jamaica but worldwide. In fact, it is considered the band’s breakthrough song that launched their career to an international audience. It reached the top 50 of the UK, Swedish, and Australian charts.
The song’s commercial success has led to several prominent artists covering the song, including English rock band The Clash and English singer Robert Palmer.
16. “Many Rivers To Cross” By Jimmy Cliff
Going to a more mellow take on reggae, “Many Rivers to Cross” is a song penned by Jamaican rocksteady and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff when he was 25. The song reflects his struggles breaking through the reggae music scene when he was younger.
Despite the hardships, Cliff was able to endure and find massive success with this song. It reached #37 on the UK Singles Chart and #80 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
“Many Rivers to Cross” has been performed by many prominent artists as well. There’s English reggae pop band UB40, Scottish singer Annie Lennox, and English rock band Eric Burdon & the Animals.
17. “Could You Be Loved” By Bob Marley And The Wailers
Up next is the laidback track “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. This is among the last songs of their final studio album, Uprising. It carries the message of love and positivity and is considered an anthem for social and political change.
The lyrics of “Could You Be Loved” give a nod to one of the lines of Marley’s 1962 single “Judge Not.” This further drives the point of the song’s message of acceptance.
The song was a commercial success, reaching the top 10 of international charts. In addition, it peaked at #6 on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play. English singer Joe Crocker made a cover of the song in 1997, as well as Marley’s own children, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, in 2000.
18. “Satta Massagana” By The Abyssinians
Regarded as a classic in the roots reggae genre, The Abyssinians’ “Satta Massagana” was an instant hit when the band debuted.
The song is known for its spiritually charged lyrics, which draw its influence from the Amharic phrase that roughly translates to “He gave praise.” The song also features both English and Amharic languages, giving it more cultural depth.
“Satta Massagana” is not only a commercial hit but is also used as a spiritual hymn by several Rastafarian groups. The song’s influence has even extended beyond the reggae genre, inspiring a wide range of covers from multiple artists.
19. “Silly Games” By Janet Kay
Among the pioneers of the reggae subgenre lovers rock is Janet Kay. She is one of the few female English-Jamaican reggae artists who have had a tremendous impact on reggae history. Her 1979 single “Silly Games” was an instant hit in the UK and is considered one of the definitive songs of lovers of rock.
The song’s success paved the way for more recognition of lovers of rock as a distinct genre within the broader reggae landscape.
Additionally, the song’s popularity signaled a pivotal moment for reggae. This is mainly because it infused its exotic rhythm with a more soulful and romantic sound. This also marked a departure from the traditional, more politically and socially driven themes of many reggae songs.
20. “Police And Thieves” By Junior Murvin
Characterized by Junior Murvin’s distinct falsetto voice, “Police and Thieves” is a reggae song that delves around themes of police brutality and civil unrest in 1970s Jamaica.
Because of the song’s social commentary, it quickly became an international hit. It was even used as a riot anthem during the mid-1970s in the UK. English punk rock band The Clash covered the song, adding their “punk reggae” flair to it.
The song’s revolutionary message, coupled with its catchy rhythm, led to its lasting impact on both the music scene and the broader cultural landscape. Over the years, it became a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry for marginalized communities around the world.
21. “Red Red Wine” By UB40
Originally written and recorded by Neil Diamond, “Red Red Wine” was popularized by the British reggae band UB40 in 1983. With the new fusion of reggae and pop, UB40’s version added more appeal to the soft-rock song.
The song topped the charts in multiple countries, including the US, UK, South Africa, and Ireland. Its success introduced a new generation to reggae music and helped usher in a new era of pop-reggae fusion.
Other artists covered “Red Red Wine” over the years. But it was UB40’s unique approach to the original tune that set it apart from other renditions. In an interview, Diamond said that UB40’s version is his preferred choice among all the covers.
22. “The Harder They Come” By Jimmy Cliff
In the 1972 Jamaican crime movie The Harder They Come, reggae singer, Jimmy Cliff starred as the main character. He also penned one of the singles of the soundtrack album, “The Harder They Come.”
The song’s lyrics and themes speak to the struggles and hardships faced by marginalized individuals, particularly in the context of Jamaica’s socio-economic challenges. Cliff’s powerful vocal delivery is one of the song’s most memorable elements, as it conveys a range of emotions, including hope and defiance.
The song has been covered and reinterpreted by numerous artists over subsequent decades. It continues to be celebrated for its meaningful lyrics and infectious musicality.
23. “Hold Me Tight” By Johnny Nash
Chart-topper hit “Hold Me Tight” was written by American rocksteady and reggae singer Johnny Nash. The song topped the Canadian charts upon its release in 1968 and peaked at #5 on the UK Singles Chart. Billboard also ranked the song #37 on its Top 100 Singles list.
“Hold Me Tight” is a love song that blends reggae with R&B and classic rock. It also brought reggae music to the American mainstream. It marked Nash’s transition from pop music to reggae and was one of the few pioneering reggae songs recorded by a non-Jamaican artist.
This marked a significant shift in the global music landscape as more artists began to embrace the genre and incorporate its distinct rhythms and vibes into their work.
24. “Sweat (A La La La La Long)” By Inner Circle
One of the most memorable beach-party anthems in the early ’90s is “Sweat (A La La La La Long).” This reggae fusion song is by the Jamaican group Inner Circle, also known as The Bad Boys of Reggae.
“Sweat (A La La La La Long)” achieved global recognition and topped charts in numerous countries, including Zimbabwe, Germany, Switzerland, and Israel. Its popularity in countries that don’t have a direct connection to Jamaica is testimony to the growing influence of reggae music around the world.
The song’s success can be attributed to its universal appeal. Its cheerful and upbeat melody, combined with the reggae groove, makes it a track that transcends cultural boundaries and brings people together on the dancefloor.
25. “Baby I Love Your Way” By Big Mountain
The live version of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” was already a success upon its release in 1976. However, it gained significant popularity with Big Mountain’s reggae version in the early 1990s.
The song’s reggae-infused arrangement and laid-back vibe transformed it into a tropical, feel-good anthem. It reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the top five in several countries, including the UK, Canada, and Australia.
The song was also featured in the 1994 rom-com film Reality Bites. This added to the song’s cultural impact and made it into a defining track of the 1990s pop culture landscape.
26. “The Tide Is High” By The Paragons
You might associate “The Tide is High” with the rock band Blondie and the girl group Atomic Kitten, both of which popularized the song. But not known to many, the track was originally a rocksteady song by The Paragons.
Released in 1967, “The Tide is High” stands as one of the pioneering rocksteady tracks that played a crucial role in shaping the evolution of reggae. The song reflects the transitional phase in Jamaican music, where artists were experimenting with a slower tempo that eventually gave birth to the distinct reggae sound.
The song’s influence on the reggae genre can be traced through its rhythmic patterns, which laid the groundwork for the distinctive “one drop” beat that defines reggae. “One Drop” is a rhythm style that emphasizes the downbeat and omits the upbeats, creating a laid-back groove that is unique to reggae music.
27. “Night Nurse” By Gregory Isaacs
Up next is a song that gives a nod to the universal feeling of seeking solace and healing amidst pain. Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse” gained significant radio play in the early 1980s and was a dance club hit.
The song’s medical theme also caught the attention of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, who incorporated it into their TV and radio advertisements. This unique crossover between music and commercial appeal underscored the song’s far-reaching influence, crossing cultural boundaries.
In 1997, the song was covered by Sly and Robbie, a Jamaican musical duo, alongside English pop band Simply Red. In spite of the more recent version’s popularity, Isaacs’ version remains the more beloved.
28. “Boombastic” By Shaggy
Another reggae song that was used in a commercial is Shaggy’s “Boombastic.” It received worldwide acclaim after it was featured in clothing company Levi’s ads. Otherwise known as “Mr. Boombastic,” the song fused reggae and pop and was released in 1995.
The lyrics of “Boombastic” are filled with wordplay and clever rhymes. The term “boombastic” itself is a playful slang term that Shaggy uses to describe something impressive, fantastic, or extraordinary.
Because of the song’s creativity and appeal, it quickly rose to the top of the charts, eventually being certified Platinum for its success. Shaggy also won a Grammy award for Best Reggae Album in 1996 due to this song’s popularity.
29. “Get Busy” By Sean Paul
The 2003 dancehall-reggae track “Get Busy” by Jamaican singer Sean Paul offers a modern spin on reggae. The song is a fusion of the unmistakable Caribbean sound with an electrifying “club party” atmosphere.
Upon its release, “Get Busy” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three impressive weeks. The song was also a hit in several countries, topping the charts in Hungary, the Netherlands, and Italy, among many others.
One of the notable elements of “Get Busy” is its usage of the Diwali handclap riddim. This provides the perfect foundation for the song’s fusion of reggae and dancehall. This blend of traditional and contemporary elements led to dozens of remixes being released over the years.
30. “Oh Carolina” By Shaggy
Another entry by Shaggy is “Oh Carolina.” This is a reinterpretation of the 1960 ska song by the Jamaican group Folkes Brothers. Shaggy’s 1993 version, fused with his signature reggae flair, breathed new life into “Oh Carolina” and brought it to new heights.
Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” topped the UK Singles chart. It also earned commercial success in many other countries, including the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. The song successfully crossed over to American alternative rock radio.
“Oh Carolina,” however, faced legal dispute in 1994 following its release due to a copyright infringement case. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, and “Oh Carolina” continued its reign as Shaggy’s most successful single to date.
31. “Welcome To Jamrock” By Damian Marley
Lastly, we have Bob Marley’s own son, Damian Marley, with his song “Welcome to Jamrock.” Fusing hip-hop into reggae, ska, and dancehall, the song offers a fresh take on Marley’s legacy.
True to its reggae roots, the song revolves around themes of political corruption and poverty-related crime. However, it also provides a counterpoint to the negative aspects of Jamaican life — a sense of pride in one’s roots.
Released in 2005, “Welcome to Jamrock” was a critical and commercial success. It earned Marley two Grammy awards for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance. The song also reached #18 on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks.
Summing Up Our List Of Reggae Songs
So that wraps it up! We hope this list has given you some new vibes to add to your party mix or chill out on a summer day.
From classic reggae anthems by Bob Marley to a more foreign twist on reggae, such as UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” and down to more modern reggae hits like Sean Paul and Damian Marley’s songs, this list has something to offer to everyone.
If we missed a popular reggae song, please let us know. Whether it be traditional, modern, or a mix of both, we would like to learn more about what makes a song special for you!