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There was such a wide range of music released this year, so we don't claim that this list is necessarily the "best of," but here are 15 reggae albums from 2020 that we strongly recommend hearing if you haven't already, followed by a list of singles by artists who didn't release albums (and hopefully will in 2021).
Protoje is one of the original leaders of the reggae revival, and he remains one of the most prolific. A lot of his peers are on their first or second full-length album; he's on his fifth, and it sounds just as fresh and inspired as anything he's done in the past. If you want proof that new and exciting things are happening within reggae right now, look no further than this album's opening track "Switch It Up," which sees Protoje teaming up with the genre's brightest new star, Koffee. It's a hypnotic, infectious, endlessly replayable song, and I don't know (or care) what genre you would call it. It's sorta reggae, sorta dancehall, but mostly it sounds like something totally new. It's the best song on In Search Of Lost Time, but the hits don't stop coming. Protoje trades lines with dancehall auto-tunester Popcaan on the equally hard-to-pin-down "Like Royalty," he fuses reggae with soul/R&B on "Same So" and the Lila Iké-featuring "In Bloom," he half-raps on songs like "Deliverance" and the Wiz Khalifa-featuring "A Vibe," and he goes full psychedelia on the trippy ode to marijuana, "Weed & Ting." He sounds like a natural throughout the whole album, and as he expertly blurs the lines between genre, he never forgets the importance of a good hook. These songs just do not leave your head.
Popcaan has emerged as dancehall's biggest current crossover star, thanks in no small part to Drake, who released this album on his OVO Sound label and guests on two tracks. Drake's involvement has undoubtedly attracted new fans to Fixtape, but the bulk of the credit goes to Popcaan, who has crafted a collection of songs that honor his Jamaican roots and can appeal to Drake fans at the same time. Alongside Drake are guests both from Jamaican music (Jada Kingdom, Tommy Lee Sparta, Masicka, Stylo G, Dane Ray, Frahcess One) and mainstream US/Canada hip hop (PARTYNEXTDOOR, Preme, French Montana), and Fixtape masterfully weaves together elements of both cultures. There are extremes -- like the Nineteen85-produced, Drake & PARTYNEXTDOOR-featuring "Twist & Turn," which not surprisingly became a US pop radio staple, and the Masicka and Tommy Lee Sparta-featuring "Unda Dirt," which sounds like it came from the depths of Jamaican dancehall -- but Fixtape can't be judged by one song and it's best listened to as a whole. (It makes sense that, in addition to being released as a 19-song album on streaming services, it's also available as one continuous 90-minute mix on Soundcloud.) If Popcaan's crossover success makes you not want to listen, Fixtape reminds you that he truly earned it. Fame or not, this is some of the strongest music released this year.
Kingston, Jamaica's Kabaka Pyramid has spent the past decade solidifying himself at the forefront of the reggae revival alongside artists like Chronixx and Protoje (both of whom he frequently collaborates with), and he's had a very busy 2020, having dropped a string of great singles including "Babylon Fallin," "Trample Dem," and "Nice Up The Dance" (a rework of Michigan and Smiley's 1979 classic), all of which appear on his new 27-song, hour-long mix Immaculate, made with Federation Sound's Max Glazer. It's Kabaka's first full-length release since his 2018 debut album Kontraband and first mixtape since 2016's Major Lazer-presented Accurate, and it features Damian Marley (on a sequel to Kontraband's title track), Dre Island, Runkus, Royal Blu, Medisun, Pressure Busspipe, Jane Macgizmo, DJ Premier, and more. Like on past releases, Kabaka proves to be a great singer and songwriter who can combine the delivery and lyricism of hip hop with the rhythms and melodies of reggae, and he continues to write music that's both socially conscious and fun to listen to. Throughout Immaculate, Kabaka takes on the current political climate, white supremacy, coronavirus, child abuse, and other serious issues, but it also includes a lighter side and messages of hope. It's all expertly sequenced together by Max Glazer like a classic DJ mix with no gaps between songs, and it remains fiery and hypnotic from start to finish.
Dre Island has been dropping singles for nearly a decade and he's long been associated with the same reggae revival as Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, etc, but it wasn't until 2020 that he got around to releasing a full-length album. It was worth the wait; it's one of the year's best. The 17-track deluxe edition opens with an introduction track that samples a 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech and parts of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film The Great Dictator, setting the stage for this politically-fueled album, and Dre keeps that going right away on the album's first proper song, "Kingdom," where he sings about fighting for equal rights and justice over ominous, modern hip hop production. It's one of many dark, explicitly political moments on this album (the police siren-aided "Never Run Dry," talk of disease and immigration rights on the Chronixx-featuring "Days of Stone," the cries of "shots rang out on repeat" on "My City," Wyclef Jean rapping about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on "Justice"), but Now I Rise also has uplifting, hopeful songs, like the Popcaan-featuring "We Pray" and the Jesse Royal-featuring "Be Okay." It's as musically diverse as it is lyrically powerful, with elements of reggae, dancehall, hip hop, R&B, synthpop, and more. It sounds entirely modern, closer to OVO than to Studio One, and there's so much going on that it has no trouble holding your attention for 17 tracks.
Keznamdi and his sister Kelissa are the children of reggae veterans Errol McDouglas aka Makaya Chakula and Kerida Scott aka Goldilocks, and both have been establishing notable careers of their own as well. This year, Keznamdi followed up his early singles/EPs with his first proper full-length, and it very much delivers on the anticipation he's been building up since his first EP in 2013 (and includes some new recordings of slightly older songs). He proves to have mastered an array of styles, from live-band traditional reggae ("Skyline Drive," "Morning Comes," "Chillumpeng") to contemporary electronic pop ("Queen of the Ghetto," "City Lock") and plenty of the in-between. The album also flirts with jazz ("State of Emergency"), soul ("So Right"), and more, it features some great guest appearances (Chronixx, Mortimer), and it's loaded with powerful messages. Whether Keznamdi is comparing presidents to nazis on "Justice" or tackling poverty and violence on "State of Emergency," these songs hit hard.
Cross-pollination between genres, cultures, and continents continues to become more and more common in today's mainstream music, and just by turning on the radio, you can hear the influence of Jamaican music on artists from all around the world. With his first full-length album, Spanish Town, Jamaica singer Govana embraces not just his hometown but the whole Black musical diaspora, making for an album that's as much a dancehall/reggae record as it is Afrobeats, US hip hop, UK hip hop, and R&B. Govana had already proven himself as a great singles artist -- and some of his best songs from the past couple years re-appear on HAMANTS -- but now he's a great album artist too, capable of holding your attention for an entire album with almost no filler. Guest appearances come from Protoje, Dre Island, and Tarrus Riley, all of whom are stylistically different than Govana but fit snugly within this album's musical world. It's a glossy, pop-friendly album, but it's also stuffed with powerful messages, like on the standout "Mental Slavery": "Nobody cares about human rights/Dem only care about Instagram views and likes."
Protoje, Chronixx, Jah9, and others helped kick off the reggae revival about a decade ago, but Koffee breathed new life into it when she hit the scene with her 2019 EP Rapture, a record that blended reggae, dancehall, and hip hop and really raised the bar for everyone. "Koffee has changed what it means to be reggae or dancehall," Protoje said. "She is why everybody is confused as to what to call stuff." She continued to live up to that description on her two fantastic 2020 singles, "Pressure" and "Lockdown." As you might've guessed from their titles, both songs reflect the chaos of 2020, but there's a timeless element to them too. Even if and when things are hopefully less hectic in the future, I think we can count on these songs to hold up. 2b1af7f3a8