The sounds of Jamaica: a sound system analysis

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Per capita, Jamaica puts out more music than any other place on the planet, and the island's distinctive rhythms have made its music one of the country's biggest exports, even though that sunny-sounding pop music is frequently outspoken and political.

The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence, and it has meant a host of commemorative releases, including this one, a massive eight-disc set from Island Records, the label that has arguably done more than any other to bring Jamaican music to the attention of the rest of the world.

Tracks are arranged pretty randomly, apparently to mirror the way DJs at one of the island's famed dancehall sound systems would program a night's music, but in truth, there doesn't really seem to be much rhyme or reason to what follows what here, which is a minor irritation. The music itself is glorious, with signature tracks from Bob Marley, Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Beenie Man, Jimmy Cliff, Buju Banton, Burning Spear, Justin Hinds, Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Heptones, Gregory Isaacs, the Uniques, the Mighty Diamonds, the Paragons, and seemingly every Jamaican singer or group ever to enter a Kingston studio, and one can't help but feel that a sequence arranged chronologically, working through mento to ska to rocksteady to reggae to dub to lovers rock to dancehall and beyond, might better tell the story.

The set also includes a book that is essentially a condensed version of Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music, originally published in 2001. Most fans of Jamaican music and reggae will already be familiar with the book, and the songs, too, for that matter, since nothing collected here is terribly obscure. In the end, it's the music that carries things, though, and through 120 tracks, it never really falters. Jamaica has been onto something for a long time and the proof is here.

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