From its Jamaican origins with acts like Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals and Millie Small (of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ fame) through to the more recent rumbles of the genre, Ska has existed as a fun, bouncy if occasionally politically charged musical entity. While the genre’s leading acts vary wildly in quality, style and background, one thing that ties them all together is a walking bassline accented with rhythms on the upbeat. Injections of punk, pop, metal, and hip-hop would be added to the formula throughout its five decade history to create some seriously interesting yet uplifting music. So, for your skanking pleasure, here are the Top 20 Ska Songs.
All My Best Friends Are Metalheads LESS THAN JAKE
Hello Rockview (1997)
Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello, as well as being in the most consistent band of ska’s third wave, started the Fuelled By Ramen label which houses Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, Paramore and others. The opening audio clip from the almighty ‘All My Best Friends Are Metalheads’ is from a Victor Lundberg speech called “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son”, but most ska fans know it only as a cue to prepare for the ensuing pogoing, skanking carnage.
The Impression That I Get THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES
Let’s Face It (1997)
Appearances in films Chasing Amy, Father’s Day and Digimon: The Movie, as well as the Nintendo game Donkey Konga, made The Bosstones’ anthem, about one’s potential for dealing with tragedy, ubiquitous in the late 90s. Despite potential overkill the song remains an evergreen classic, continuing to resonate with the new generation: the song itself was certified Gold in 2014 from digital sales.
Spiderwebs NO DOUBT
Tragic Kingdom (1995)
1995’s Tragic Kingdom was the album that brought third wave ska to the public consciousness. If one were to argue that No Doubt were the Blondie of ska, ‘Spiderwebs’ is their ‘Hangin’ on the Telephone’ – the difference being that No Doubt wrote ‘Spiderwebs’ themselves, and Gwen Stefani is the one being pestered by unwanted callers and not the other way around. Synced perfectly with the contemporaneous Riot Grrl, Girl-power and third wave of feminism movements, ‘Spiderwebs’ showed that times were a-changing.
Trendy REEL BIG FISH
Turn Off the Radio (1996)
“Everyone’s doing the fish”. By 1996 a new-wave of poser ska bands had emerged in the wake of No Doubt and Sublime’s success. Reel Big Fish were in the right position at the right time to call out these scenesters with their day-glo yet viciously sarcastic Turn Off the Radio album. The “One of us” chorus chant, start-stop structure and post-song mutterings of “asshole, asshole” gains ‘Trendy’ a place in this list just above the equally awesome ‘Sellout’. Be sure to check out the turbo-charged version that opens RBF’s monster Our Live Album Is Better Than Your Live Album.
Time Bomb RANCID
…And Out Come The Wolves (1995)
Rancid were one of the mid-nineties bands that brought punk and mohawks to MTV, but this their biggest hit utilised the genre-mashing abilities of their most obvious influence, The Clash, to create a fleet-footed ska-punk floor-filler. Another Rancid-written ska punk song worth tracking down is their collaboration with the Stubborn All-Stars, ‘I Wanna Riot’, on the Beavis and Butthead Do America Soundtrack.
Sound System OPERATION IVY
Operation Ivy (1989)
Before Rancid, singer Tim Armstrong was a member of the Bay Area ska-punk band Operation Ivy, a huge influence on the burgeoning third wave ska scene. OP hit harder and heavier than their 2 Tone forefathers, but in songs like the barnstorming ‘Sound System’ they were still hugely skankable.
Too Much Too Young (Live) THE SPECIALS A.K.A.
Too Much Too Young EP (1980)
Between 1978-1981 were the initial throes of second-wave ska. Mostly released on Coventry’s 2 Tone label, a micro-community of musicians rallied around the idea of merging 1960’s Jamician ska with British punk rock energy and socio-political conscience. The Kings of 2 Tone were The Specials, who managed to gain two UK number one singles within their lifespan. The first is possibly the only live EP to gain the position, the title-track an ultra-energetic concise reworking of the seven minute studio version, controversial on release due to its references to contraception.
One Step Beyond MADNESS
One Step Beyond… (1979)
Madness are for many the first and last name in ska, which is not surprising considering how many hits the band had during the 80s. ‘Our House’. ‘House of Fun’. ‘Baggy Trousers’. ‘Embarrassment’. ‘It Must Be Love’. While many of these songs moved beyond the genre’s conventions, settling for a more traditional pop sound, the first track on their first album is as good as British ska gets.
Three Minute Hero THE SELECTER
Too Much Pressure (1980)
With a name coming from the Jamaican word for DJ and with a racially diverse line-up, The Selecter were, along with The Specials, the other truly great bands on the 2 Tone label. The most striking of the elements employed by The Selecter were the rude girl vocal style of Pauline Black and the ever-present driving rhythm of Desmond Brown’s Hammond organ. This, an inspirational anthem for becoming a pop-star to escape the rat race, is their key moment.
Mirror In The Bathroom THE BEAT
I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)
Mixing new-wave cool with the burgeoning 2 Tone movement, the band, known as The English Beat in the USA, had a clutch of hits in the early eighties. ‘Mirror in the Bathroom”s tale of cocaine hell with its claustrophobic production, stabs of horns and rocksteady beat became the band’s biggest hit in the UK, while across the Atlantic they would become better known for new-wave standard ‘Save It For Later’.
My Boy Lollipop MILLIE SMALL
Arguably the first internationally successful Ska song, Millie Small’s megahit takes the already well-known 50’s doo-wop tune (formerly named ‘My Boy Lollypop’ with a ‘y’) and enthuses it with equal parts shuffle, ska and bluebeat. The song itself is an obvious and, surely at the time, explicit allusion to oral sex played off with the vocal’s playful innocence. Without ‘My Boy Lollipop’, this list would not exist.
Date Rape SUBLIME
40oz. to Freedom (1992)
Before becoming the favourite band of stoner fratboys the world over, Sublime were an oddity, a band slightly ahead of their time. While their lazy Californian acoustic jams like ‘Santeria’ or the Lady Madonna-aping ‘What I Got’ slipped into reggae or hip-hop territory, occasionally Sublime would write a proto-ska punk banger. That’s what they did with the decency-skirting ‘Date Rape’, for better or worse influencing every ska band since.
With a horns sections featuring members of Reel Big Fish and No Doubt, Goldfinger’s ‘Superman’ is probably best known for its inclusion on the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game soundtrack. The song itself is the most positive song about not being in control of one’s situation and life, and showing pure joy in the face of endless negativity. Post-Goldfinger, singer John Feldman has become a pop-punk legend, having produced records by The Used, Story of the Year, We Are The In Crowd, Panic! at the Disco as well as the upcoming Blink-182 record.
The World is New SAVE FERRIS
It Means Everything (1997)
Save Ferris, unfairly compared to No Doubt, had enough of their own style to sets themselves apart from that other female-lead ska band, as shown on their debut, It Means Everything. As well as being known for their truly great ‘Come On Eileen’ cover, Save Ferris were the band that play the prom in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, an attempt for Hollywood to jump on the latest trend, albeit a couple of years too late.
So Let’s Go Nowhere THE ARROGANT SONS OF BITCHES
The Arrogant Sons of Bitches! (2003)
Famed for their sheer energy and delightfully quirky moniker, The Arrogant Sons of Bitches! (or ASOB) released a couple of acclaimed albums, self-released in the mid-2000s, before splitting. Singer Jeff Rosenstock later formed the schizophrenic Bomb the Music Industry, as well as starting a solo career which spawned last year’s awesome We Cool? album. Despite this, ASOB will always be remembered for the dangerously peppy ‘So Let’s Go Nowhere’.
Here’s To Life STREETLIGHT MANIFESTO
Everything Goes Numb (2003)
A recurring theme throughout Streetlight Manifesto’s music is “living life while you can”, which is probably best shown in their debut album’s multi-part masterpiece ‘Here’s To Life’. The band themselves would have become the leading light of the ska fourth wave, but by 2003 ska was out of vogue. Maybe because of the genre no longer being fashionable, post-2000 there are few bands creating ska or music in general as exciting or life-affirming as the Manifesto.
Ska Wars CAPDOWN
Civil Disobedients (2000)
While their US counterparts bypassed the socio-political themes that ska bands like The Specials, The Selecter and even Operation Ivy stood for, the UK’s 00s ska punk bands re-introduced that element into their music, Milton Keynes’ Capdown name being a contraction of Capitalist Downfall (Capdown is obviously less of a mouthful). Their 2000 banger ‘Ska Wars’ slays with a nagging saxophone signature, riotous bassline and MC style hype-up vocals.
Piggy In The Middle SONIC BOOM SIX
The Ruff Guide to Genre-Terrorism (2006)
A perfect collision of off-kilter rhythms, metal, horns, rapping, multiculturalism and drum n’ bass experimentation. On paper Manchester’s Sonic Boom Six (or SB6 if you’re into the whole brevity thing) sounds a mess, but I assure you they know what they are doing. The introductory police noise complaint skit is pretty much perfect, especially as the agitated knocking metamorphoses into the frantic staccato opening beat.
Anger Management RANDOM HAND
Random Hand’s harder edged version of UK ska could be a direction that the genre moves into the coming decade. While the band had been around since 2002, ‘Anger Management’ was their debut single, which combines the band’s earlier socio-political themes with their more recent personal output. Its horn-inflected almost-metal breakdown especially is killer.
Under The Sea SUBURBAN LEGENDS
Day Job (2012)
Cover versions are nothing new within the ska scene, notable examples are Save Ferris’ ‘Come On Eileen’, Reel Big Fish’s ‘Take On Me’ and Less Than Jake’s Greased EP. Like all these classics Suburban Legends take the already outrageously fun source material and injects it with horn-filled infectiousness. Disney never sounded so damn danceable.
The full playlist is available on Spotify.