LOUDER FEATURES: Albums to get you into the Ska Revival
If there's one musical genre that’s often unfairly maligned, it is Ska.
Taking root in South America and even predating reggae, the style was characterised by an optimistic blend of jazz and calypso, the celebratory sound – at this point led by acts like Derrick Morgan and The Skatallites – sound tracking Jamaica gaining independence from Britain in 1962.
Not long after though, Ska would carve out its own place in the mainstream as 2-tone emerged in the United Kingdom in the 70’s becoming popularised by acts like Madness, The Specials and the Selecter. Far from abandoning its revolutionary roots, this wave focussed on radical unity at a time when racial tensions were high, becoming popular among working class youth and Indian immigrants.
From this moment onwards Ska exploded, with countries from Japan to Russia birthing acts. Perhaps the most notable progression at this time was American Ska and the birth of Ska punk, pioneered by acts like Operation Ivy and Fishbone, and later adopted by acts from Reel Big Fish to Less Than Jake. Since then the genre has gone on to garner something of a negative reputation. All too often it’s been laughed about as a forgettable footnote in musical history.
That is, until recently. Defenders of ska feel vindicated, for the conversation around the genre is beginning to shift again and people are starting to remember the genre in a positive light. This piece will highlight some of this writer’s favourite acts and albums that have had a part to play in the burgeoning fourth wave of ska. Listening to these has convinced me that the genre is a brilliant and varied part of music and worthy of a resurgence. I hope they do the same for you.
The Interrupters – Fight the Good Fight (2018)
I had to mention these, right? Arguably no one has done more to defend Ska’s name in recent years than Aimee ‘interrupter’ Allen and brothers Jesse, Justin and Kevin Bivona. Many have rightfully praised the retro yet revitalised sound of ‘She’s Kerosene’ and ‘Title Holder’ yet there’s so much more to this album. The band refer to their songs as ‘unity’ music. ‘Got Each Other’ – which features the recognisable vocals of Tim Armstrong from Rancid – feels like a rallying cry for people of different backgrounds to come together and find their true family. Every song seems like an anthem for overcoming life’s punches with a smile on your face and a song in your heart – a message which is particularly relevant to their frontwoman who used to have her music confiscated by an abusive stepfather, which she would respond to by singing her favourite Joan Jet songs at the top of her lungs.
Regardless of topic, these musicians perform with a sense of determination. ‘Leap of Faith’ is dark, feeling like the soundtrack to a simmering rebellion against a vicious oppressor. ‘Broken World’ is a candid admission that the challenges we face can be overcome love, friendship and wisdom as a foundation, while ‘Rumours and Gossip’ is a call for respect and kindness complete with scathing in the intro. If you are curious about the state of Ska today, this album is essential listening.
Sonic Boom Six – Arcade Perfect (2007):
Part of the reason Ska gets a negative reputation, might be due to the fact that the genres falsely perceived to be one-note. Nothing could be further from the truth – case in point, Sonic Boom Six. I’ll be honest, hearing these initially was enough to make me avoid them for a long time. They were too zany for fifteen-year-old me to comprehend.
Then, by chance I happened to see them at Merthyr Rock festival, which rapidly changed my mind, so much so that I quickly snapped up a ticket for one of their shows! I can see why this band would be an acquired taste. However, 'Arcade Perfect' arguably shows them at their most distinguished, while still being intriguing. Moments like ‘Sound of a revolution’, ‘Meanwhile Back in the Real World’ and ‘Ya Basta!’ display a revolutionary zeal yet are still enthused enough to remain worthy contenders for genre defining tracks. What's more, while this band won’t be a great entry point into enjoying ska for everyone, if your musical tastes are deeply inspired by pop or hip-hop I would definitely recommend these. Check out this record and try and see them live if you can!
Dubioza kolektiv – Happy Machine (2015):
While Ska is already a niche genre, there are few bands like Dubioza kolektiv. Assigning a genre to this Bosnian act feels cheap, such is the extent of their experimentation. From the opening moments of ‘All Equal’ you are met with a combination of oriental music, hip hop and reggae that confounds the listener in the most enchanting way possible. Another aspect which sets these musicians apart – as spelled out in ‘Free .Mp3 (The Pirate Bay Song)’ - is their explicit encouraging of fans to download their music for free.
The music industry isn’t the only source of their woes though. Tracks like ‘No Escape’ take on racist stereotypes, while moments like ‘One More Time’ and ‘Riot Fire’ – the later featuring Benji Webbe of Skindred – ask vital questions who truly gets the rights and freedoms often professed to be the cornerstones of ‘civilised’ societies. “This is not a free world, it’s just a free market. Red blood on the floor, became a red carpet” stands as just one example of their lyrical cleverness. ‘Happy Machine’ is also incredibly memorable, despite the myriad of odd, esoteric and ambitious experiments which wind their way throughout! And let’s be honest, considering this band give away their music at zero cost, there’s little reason not to explore their wonderful - if a little weird! - discography!
Abraskadabra – Make Yourself at Home (2021):
Pop punk’s foundation has always been the ability to combine powerful melodies with tales of heartbreak and overcoming hardship – in that sense Ska is a perfect companion genre. I could have gone with any number of acts who have worked to put the combination into practice, yet I went with Brazilian band Abraskadabra as they are not only one of the most promising up and coming bands but have proven incredibly adept at fusing the genres. From opener ‘Bunkers’ to closer ‘Making a Scene’, these tracks radiate energy.
Don’t let the ska punk band name fool you into thinking that there’s no depth behind these songs though as the majority of the album focuses on pandemic living, social isolation and anxiety, with ‘Set Us Free’ being one example of a powerful ska punk anthem that uses the current political climate in Brazil as a catalyst for a rallying cry against injustice. This is certainly the type of record that will inspire you to dance as well as to act in the name of dignity and respect for humans everywhere!
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra – Paradise Has NO BORDER (2017):
Ska is certainly no joke to this long running Japanese act. Across ‘Paradise Has NO BORDER’ they combine the sound with Rock n’ Roll, Gospel, Dance, Jazz, Punk and any other genres that take their fancy, each presented with an insane sense of technical prowess. This album contains several songs sung in Spanish, one in English, and the rest are in Japanese or instrumental. In creating this work they collaborated with Latin acts Los Autenticos Decadentes from Argentina and Inspector from Mexico. Practically all interpretations of Ska are represented with ‘Samuri Dreamers’ and ‘Girl on Saxophone’ being great odes to traditional and 2-tone Ska. This is alongside sections of brightly optimistic pop like ‘Routine Melodies Reprise’, elements of Latin and afro-Caribbean music as on ‘Believer’, and bombastic big band numbers like ‘Skankin’ Rollin’.
Indeed, through combining such a wide variety of styles from different cultures they excellently capture the records theme of common humanity. This band have firmly allied themselves on the right side of history, and positioned themselves as one of the acts on the cutting edge of innovation and reinvention. What better proof do you need that Ska deserves a place in popular music?
We Are the Union – Ordinary Life (2021):
This Michigan-formed act have created one of my favourite albums of the year. ‘Ordinary Life’ see’s We Are the Union refining their sound and in doing so creating their greatest work to date. Poignantly, the record explores lead vocalist Reade Wolcott’s experience of coming out as a transgender woman, capturing themes of personal growth and endless change. The endearing charm of anthems like ‘Morbid Obsessions’, ‘Boys Will Be Girls’ or the title track is that they explore concepts of self-identity and overcoming adversity with a sense of optimism, while being confident enough in their wordplay to lend these topics the seriousness they deserve.
Whether it’s the odes to being hopelessly lost in one’s own thoughts - ‘Broken Brain’ - the brilliantly expressive anthems about overcoming anxiety - ‘Big River’, ‘December’ – or the homages to youthful innocence like ‘Make It Easy’, this is a record for anyone who’s ever felt out of place or wanted to escape. With the listener and our musicians feeling empowered, this album proudly declares in its final few moments “like a swing set in the sea, we are anything but ordinary”
Call Me Malcom – Me, Myself and Something Else (2020):
We begin with a parody news bulletin – ‘flooding is rife in the Pacific Ocean as scientists discover it is entirely underwater /could you be at risk? / and experts cannot conclusively prove that all music ever made is not the work the terrorists." It’s a fantastic precursor to an album that leans into the jovial side of Ska, while retaining that element of positivity even in the face of apocalyptic devastation.
This band may find fans among those who need proof that Ska can be commanding and forceful. Anthems like ‘Wake up the Monster Said’ and ‘I Bet they’re Asleep in New York’ pair their horn sections with frenetic rhythms and a roaring guitar presence. More than that, moments in the vain of ‘Also, Spiders’ or ‘I Met All the Beats In Your Thoughts’ use the traditional instrumentation in a way that’s eerily vaudevillian so the listener feels taken on a journey into the heart of a ghostly carnival where the hallmarks of fun and frivolity surround, despite the very real sense that there’s something sinister lurking beneath the surface. This is carried on ‘Me, Myself and Something Else’ through stunning instrumentation, an affluence of melody and perfect pacing, making for an arresting listening experience, that moves from humorous to brooding within the blink of an eye.
Jeff Rosenstock – Ska Dream (2021):
Rosenstock is a pioneering force in punk rock, continuously on the forefront of musical shifts within the genre. Indeed the current Ska revival is in small part down to his song ‘Rainbow’ from the 2016 album ‘Worry’. This led to him being continuously asked to stand up for Ska and eventually to him re-recording his album No Dream as a Ska record. For what it’s worth, I prefer this to the punk version of this album. ‘NO TIME TO SKANK’ is insanely danceable while ‘SKrAm’ is a subdued number which culminates in an oddly satisfying rap verse – “don’t you wanna run, smack a politician up the backside of their cranium, throw the racists in a rocket, blast their ass into the sun, mega guillotine, we ‘bout to redistribute income”.
Although this experiment is funny, this is far from a gimmick. Just look at the way ‘Horn Line’ brings in traditional elements, progressively quickening before bursting into an electronic section that’s reminiscent of the Dub-reggae scene, almost as if to explore the different movements of this genre in one song. ‘P i c k i t u p’ and ‘Leave It in the Ska’ even bring in elements of jazz, funk and jive, making for an ever more captivating listen. Vitally, this album is great not just because it’s tongue-in-cheek, but because its songs are catchy, its performances passionate and its lyrics thoughtful. It’s one of those records that acts as “proof that the world aint fucked and we aint just doomed to the truth”.
Big D and the Kids Table – Stomp/Stroll (2013):
These are practically an institution in the new-wave of Ska at this point. Their double album from 2013 is one of their most exemplary experiments to date, with ‘Stomp’ proving a bringing the signature rakishness of Ska punk to the forefront, while ‘Stroll’ continues to develop the unique sound Bid D and the Kids Table have been developing over two decades. Whether you prefer the wild and youthful chaos ushered in by songs like ‘Stepping Out’ or ‘Social Muckary’ from the former or the clever flirtations with hip hop, pop and funk on works such as ‘Put It in a Song’ or ‘Tell me Why’ from the later, this is still an intriguing listen.
Admittedly, it’s a long one. Refreshingly however, there’s enough variety across and within both discs to make for an insatiably fun listening experience. For that reason, far from being pretentious or self-absorbed, this album brilliantly showcases ska in many of its embodiments and styles – the most impressive thing being the records ability to do each with conviction and believability!
Catbite – Nice One (2021):
If I may make a point about the number of recent albums on this list – this writer is getting into Ska at a time when a fourth wave of Ska appears to be coming into bloom. It’s incredibly exciting and features a lot of small artists who deserve our support. Case in point – Catbite. Crediting influences from The Specials to Elvis Costello, there’s an enthusiastic retro flair to this acts sound, which brings together a rock n’ roll swagger with a raucous punk aesthetic. From the high-tempo and anti-misogynist anthem of ‘Not Ur Baby’, to the beautifully melodic and layered ‘Bad Influence’, there’s so much to admire on this debut project.
Although its production is decidedly rough, this complements more than harms their homages. ‘TV Screen Beauty Queen’ and ‘Lipstick Lines’ are the type of songs that can be skanked, moshed or jived to, with these musicians making each aspect of their sound work with a brilliant command of rhythm and appreciation for the influences that allows these tunes to come across as genuine odes to the classics, while adding a wildness that makes them uniquely discernible and distinct as Catbite songs! Again, you can criticise Ska for apparently all sounding the same or for being too self-contained. However, its acts like this who prove the genre can be just as diverse as any!