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50 Best Reggae Songs of All Time (Top Reggae Hits)

December 11, 2023
best reggae songs

I’ve selected the best reggae songs of all time, a collection that embodies the rich rhythms, soulful vibes, and cultural depth of this influential music genre.

This article is a journey through the iconic tracks that have shaped the world of reggae and continue to inspire listeners globally.

Table of Contents

Top reggae songs of all time

  • “One Love” by Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • “The Tide Is High” by The Paragons
  • “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh
  • “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy
  • “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • “Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash
  • “Now We Found Love” by Third World
  • “I Shot The Sheriff” by Bob Marley And The Wailers
  • “Many Rivers To Cross” by Jimmy Cliff
  • “Mr. Boombastic” by Shaggy

1. “One Love” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

This Jamaican ska song by Bob Marley’s original group The Wailers became one of Marley’s biggest hits.

The chorus of “One Love” talks about peace on Earth, with Marley also warning of deep punishments for those who cause pain and suffering.

This is the hit that put Marley on the map as the face of reggae, reaching number one in the UK and being featured in popular films and advertisements.

2. “The Tide Is High” by The Paragons

“The Tide Is High” was written by John Holt and originally recorded by the Paragons, of which he was a member.

The song was incredibly popular in Jamaica as well as in the UK, with cover versions being released in 1980 and 2002 by Blondie and Atomic Kitten respectively.

The Paragon’s version is authentically reggae, making this a classic hit that will be loved throughout history.

3. “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh

The song was written in response to Tosh’s ongoing victimization by the Jamaican police and as a political song pushing for the legalization of cannabis, making it still relevant today.

In ‘77 Tosh backed his point, saying “We are the victims of Rasclot circumstances. Victimization, colonialism, gonna lead to bloodbath”.

The title track was banned when released in Jamaica in 1975, but attempts to suppress the song only catapulted Tosh to international fame.

4. “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy

This popular reggae song by Jamaican dancehall artist Sister Nancy was inspired by a 1966 song of the same name.

The phrase “bam bam” was introduced into the music scene first in 1966 and has deeply established roots in reggae and Jamaican culture.

It’s hard to believe that for 32 years, Sister Nancy did not receive any royalties for this hit!

She ended up with 50% of the rights, so it all worked out.

5. “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

“Three Little Birds” is a loved classic, and source of inspiration for the lyrics remains disputed. 

Tony Gilbert, a friend of Marley, elaborated, “Bob got inspired by a lot of things around him, he observed life. I remember the three little birds…who would come by the windowsill at Hope Road.”

However, I Threes member Marcia Griffiths remarked “After the song was written, Bob would always refer to us as the Three Little Birds.”

6. “Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash

“Hold Me Tight” was featured on Johnny Nash’s 1968 album ‘Hold Me Tight’ and was arranged by Arthur Jenkins.

Not only did Nash perform this song to perfection, he also co-produced it alongside Jenkins!

This is widely thought to be the hit that put Nash on the map, soaring to the top 10 in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

7. “Now We Found Love” by Third World

“Now That We Found Love” was originally recorded by American R&B/soul vocal group The O’Jays in 1973.

In ‘78 the song became a reggae-disco hit by the band Third World.

Their version hit number 10 in the UK and, in the US, number 9 on the Hot Soul Singles chart, catapulting them to worldwide fame.

The reggae aimed to promote love, acceptance, and equality, something we can all get behind!

8. “I Shot The Sheriff” by Bob Marley And The Wailers

Marley explained his intention for this top reggae song: “I want to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead… but it’s the same idea: justice.”

In 2012, his former girlfriend claimed that the lyrics, “Every time I plant a seed / He said, ‘Kill it before it grows'” are actually about Marley being opposed to her use of birth control pills. Interesting!

9. “Many Rivers To Cross” by Jimmy Cliff

Cliff was aged 21 when he wrote and recorded this ‘69 hit.

He said: “When I came to the UK, I was still in my teens. I came full of vigor: I’m going to make it, I’m going to be up there with the Beatles and the Stones. And it wasn’t really going like that … I was struggling with work, life, my identity, I couldn’t find my place; frustration fueled the song.”

10. “Mr. Boombastic” by Shaggy

After being used in an ad for Levi’s, this reggae song achieved success in many countries, including Ireland, UK, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia, where it topped the singles charts. 

AllMusic editor David Jeffries viewed the song as “pivotal”, and John Kilgo from The Network Forty declared it a “reggae/rap masterpiece”.

Possibly Shaggy’s most famous song, it has been used extensively in pop culture and will remain loved for decades!

11. “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

The song has a truly meaningful backstory.

According to Rita Marley, “…he was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent … in this song.”

It urges listeners to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” because “None but ourselves can free our minds.”, lines which were taken from a speech given by Marcus Garvey atl in Nova Scotia during 1937.

12. “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin

This great reggae song was first recorded by the falsetto singer Junior Murvin in 1976, and has been covered by many artists since.

The song, about gang war and police brutality, quickly became a big hit in Jamaica and was even named ‘Reggae Single of the Year’ by Black Echoes.

The song became an anthem in the UK in 1976 as the Notting Hill Carnival erupted into a riot, turning it into a political hit.

13. “Oh Carolina” by Shaggy

This hit is thought by many to be one of the top reggae songs of all time, and rightly so!

“Oh Carolina” became an international hit following its appearance in the ‘93 film Sliver.

It spent two weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart in 1993; the first of four for Shaggy. 

The return of reggae music to mainstream popularity in the UK is owed to this song – thank you, Shaggy!

14. “Blackheart Man” by Bunny Wailer

This classic reggae song was released in 1976 and listeners instantly fell in love with its meaningful lyrics.

The song explains what it was like to grow up in Jamaica, where Wailer and others were told to avoid the Rastafarian’s because of their beliefs. 

He reflects on the situation and speaks on how he now identifies with some of these beliefs.

The song is a poetic masterpiece, remaining one of the best reggae songs ever.

15. “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

The live version of this top reggae song ranked No. 37 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is one of Marley’s many successes.

Although Marley is believed to have written the song – the lyrics mention Georgie making cornmeal porridge (Marley’s favorite dish and a Jamaican staple) – a songwriter credit was given to Vincent Ford, a friend of Marley’s who ran a soup kitchen in Trenchtown, Jamaica, where Marley grew up. 

16. “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & The Aces

Sung in Jamaican English and written by Dekker for his group, some of the song’s lyrics were not readily understood by many British and American listeners.

Despite this, the single was the first UK reggae #1 and among the first to reach the US top ten.

It has been described as a “timeless masterpiece that knew no boundaries”.

17. “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

Stir It Up” was the first Marley written song to be successful outside Jamaica and put him on the international map.

Despite being released back in 1973 it is still a hit song, loved by many regardless of their music genre of choice.

This reggae song is the sixth track from Bob Marley’s best selling album “Catch A Fire”.

It’s often coined an ‘Evergreen song’ because it never gets old!

18. “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals

This hit helped launch the band’s career outside Jamaica, with a great critical reception.

Songwriter Frederick “Toots” Hibbert said:

“It’s a song about revenge, but in the form of karma: If you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you. The title was a phrase I used to say. If someone done me wrong, rather than fight them like a warrior, I’d say: ‘The pressure’s going to drop on you.'”

19. “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff

This reggae song was first recorded for the soundtrack of the 1972 movie of the same name, in which it is supposed to have been written by the film’s main character.

In 1969, singer Jimmy Cliff met film director Perry Henzell, who wanted to make a film about a musician who turned to crime.

When the actual recording of the track was filmed for the movie, Cliff wrote the melody and improvised the lyrics. Impressive!

20. “54-56 That’s My Number” by Toots and the Maytals

This influential reggae song has been covered repeatedly and the titles of several hits include “54-46” in their title.

The lyrics describe Toots’ time in prison after he was arrested for possession of marijuana.

However, it later transpired that he had been set up by a promoter!

It was a rocky road but, without the injustice of Toots Hibbert’s arrest, this song may never have been.

21. “Montego Bay” by Freddie Notes and The Rudies

“Montego Bay” wasco-written and performed by Bobby Bloom about the city in Jamaica of the same name.

The song was a top 10 hit for Bloom in 1970, internationally.

Freddie Notes and The Rudies covered this successful reggae song in the same year, reaching number 45 in the UK top 100.

Both the original and the cover feature Jamaican instruments in a calypso style, creating an authentic reggae sound that we love!

22. “Here I Come” by Dennis Brown

This great reggae song from Brown’s album ‘Wolf & Leopards’, which marks his transformation from child star to full Rastaman, was produced by Winston “Niney” Holness. 

“Here I Come” was written by Dennis Brown when he was in his twenties, with Holness singing harmony vocals and Lee “Scratch” Perry co-producing.

Bob Marley himself cited Brown as his favorite singer, naming him “The Crown Prince of Reggae”, and he has since proved influential on future reggae artists.

23. “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

“Get Up, Stand Up” is considered another of Marley’s greatest songs, named as his greatest hit by Rolling Stone.

He wrote the song while touring Haiti, deeply moved by its poverty.

The song was the last song Marley ever performed on stage, on 23 September 1980 at the Stanley Theater, Pennsylvania.

Recently, a musical of the same name as the song has been created which is up for four Olivier award nominations.

24. “Everything I Own” by Ken Booth

This reggae song was written by David Gates and was originally recorded by soft rock band Bread in 1972.

Jamaican artist Ken Boothe covered it in ‘74 after hearing Andy Williams’ version.

The recording was picked by Trojan Records for release in the UK, where it reached No. 1 in the Singles charts.

Despite the song being a major success, Trojan went bankrupt in 1975, leaving Boothe unable to receive royalties.

25. “Night Nurse” by Gregory Isaacs

Chris Goldfinger (BBC Radio 1) chose this reggae song as one of his favorites in 1996 (released in 1982), adding, “Gregory has a unique voice and singing style. I love the lyrics. Gregory is always my all-time favorite.”

Magazine ‘Music & Media’ also said, “Although the production is very much a state of the art high tech job, they have managed to retain the rootsy feel that made the original so great in the first place.”

26. “Vietnam” by Jimmy Cliff

In 1970 the reggae song “Vietnam” became popular throughout most of the world, gaining recognition even outside of the reggae community. 

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan called “Vietnam” the best protest song he had ever heard!

The reggae hit was included on his ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ album.

This lyrics recount the story of a soldier filled with false hope of survival in Vietnam, thus bringing a sense of patriotism to the song.

27. “Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians

This 1970 reggae song is based on a biblical hymn following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

It is one of a few songs whose lyrics come directly from the Bible, making it incredibly unique and meaningful.

The song was initially banned by the Jamaican government but they eventually lifted the ban and, after that, it took only three weeks to become a number-one hit in the Jamaican charts.

28. “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

This reggae song was released 1983, when it became one of Marley’s best-known songs.

The song references the black US cavalry regiments, known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, that fought in the American Indian Wars after 1866.

Marley claimed their fight to be a fight for survival, recording the song as a symbol of black resistance.

“[The] socio-political theme, steady rhythmic stream and strong but sweet vocals re-emphasize what Marley’s magic was all about.” – Cash Box

29. “Red Red Wine” by UB40

The lyrics, written by Neil Diamond, are that of a person who finds that drinking red wine is the only way to forget his sorrows.

UB40 recorded their cover in 1983, which was a number one hit in the UK, reaching one million sales.

Neil Diamond said that this is one of his favorite covers of his song; he frequently performed the song live using UB40’s reggae arrangement rather than that of the original version.

30. “Jamming” by Bob Marley and The Wailers

Bob Marley’s wife, Rita Marley, performed this reggae song during the tribute concert “Marley Magic: Live In Central Park At Summerstage”.

Marley’s children Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers often perform the song, which notably contains the line “No bullet can stop us now”,  during their concerts.

On December 3rd, 1976, Bob Marley himself was shot by unknown gunmen who had broken into his home.

 Thankfully, he recovered fully and shortly afterwards!

31. “Two Sevens Clash” by Culture

Singer Joseph Hill said that this reggae song, culture’s most influential record, was based on a prediction by Marcus Garvey, who said there would be chaos on the 7th of July 1977 (when the “sevens” met).

With its apocalyptic message, the song created a stir and many Jamaican businesses and schools closed for the day.

The song appears on the debut album of the same name, recorded with producer Joe Gibbs in 1976.

32. “Armagideon Time” by Willie Williams

“Armagideon Time” is a hit reggae song by famous Jamaican artist Willie Williams.

The single was re-released in 1980 and 1982 as a title track to Williams’ second album of the same name.

The song has been used extensively in popular culture, featuring in the 1999 Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and appearing in the 2004 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the fictional reggae radio station.

33. “007 Shanty Town” by Desmond Dekker and The Aces

The title and lyrics refer to the imagery of classic films such as the James Bond series and Ocean’s 11.

Dekker had the idea for the song after watching news coverage of a student demonstration against government plans to build an industrial complex on land close to the beach, which ended in violence.

The song also deals with a ‘rude boy’ who, after being released from prison, continues to commit crime.

34. “Loving Pauper” by Dobby Dobson

Ralph Dobson OD (1942 – 2020) was a Jamaican reggae singer and producer, nicknamed “The Loving Pauper” after one of his best known songs.

In 1959 Dobson went on record with Charles Josephs as part of the duo Chuck and Dobby, before becoming a solo artist in the 1960s.

He later moved on to work as a member of both The Virtues and The Sheiks and recorded “Loving Pauper”, which quickly became his signature tune.

35. “Rocksteady” by Alton Ellis

Rocksteady is a music genre that originated from Jamaica in 1966 as a successor of ska and a precursor to reggae.

The term rocksteady comes from a popular dance style mentioned in the Alton Ellis song of the same name.

Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the popularity that reggae music has today.

Alton Ellis is often said to be the father of rocksteady for this hit!

36. “Do the Reggay” by Toots and The Maytals

This was the first popular song to use the word “reggae” and defined the developing genre by giving it its name.

At that time, “reggay” was the name of a dance in Jamaica, but soon led to the style of music that developed from it.

Toots claimed in an interview that he took the word from a slang term for a person who is a little scruffy or not well kept.

37. “One Blood” by Junior Reid

“One Blood” is sampled in The Game’s hit “It’s Okay (One Blood)”, which features Junior Reid himself.

Released in 2006, the song was written by The Game and Junior Reid, and it was produced by D-Roc, and Reefa.

Several lines in the song stirred controversy as to who the lines were aimed at: “You 38 and you still rapping, ugh”, was aimed at Jay-Z, and they also took a diss at snap music!

38. “Iron Lion Zion” by Bob Marley

This hit reggae song’s lyrics are related to Rastafarian beliefs – Zion, “the promised land”, is referring to Ethiopia.

The lion in the song is the Lion of Judah on the old royal Ethiopian flag, and represents Haile Selassie (the former Ethiopian emperor) who Rastafarians regard as their Messiah.

Alan Jones of Music Week called it a “Marley masterpiece”, adding it as “a hugely commercial, lightly dubbed and joyous reminder of his talent”, and we agree!

39. “Pass the Kouchie” by The Mighty Diamonds

This 1981 reggae song is based around Rastafarian use of cannabis.

When the song was released, it was condemned by the Prime Minister of Jamaica (Edward Seaga) for endorsing the use of illegal cannabis.

The government of Jamaica banned it from being played as part of a drive against “kouchie culture”.

Despite this, the song became a top seller in Jamaican music shops and held that position for several weeks.

40. “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley

“Welcome to Jamrock” was released in 2005 as the lead single from Damian Marley’s album of the same name.

The song addresses issues such as crime, poverty and political corruption as part of the harsh reality of “Jamrock”, Marley’s personification of Jamaica.

Damian Marley carries on the legacy of his father (Bob Marley) before him, who aimed to inspire Jamaicans to stand together and beat corruption and oppression.

41. “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle

“Bad Boys” is a 1987 reggae song by the band Inner Circle, which gained worldwide popularity.

It is well known as the opening theme to the American TV show Cops and the theme song of the Bad Boys movie franchise, the latter being named after the song.

The song was selected as the theme song for Cops because a field producer for the show happened to be a fan of Inner Circle!

42. “Electric Boogie” by Marcia Griffiths

This reggae song, also known as the “Electric Slide”, is a dance song originally recorded in 1976 by Bunny Wailer.

The most successful recording was Griffiths’ recording was released in 1983 and, while this version did not catch on internationally, a remixed version featured on her album Carousel performed successfully.

It is associated with the “Electric Slide” line dance and has since become a staple when it comes to weddings and other celebrations!

43. “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash

It achieved success in the US and the UK in 1972, also reaching number one in Canada and South Africa.

A cover recorded by Jimmy Cliff for the motion picture soundtrack of Cool Runnings also peaked at number 18 in the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1993.

The song’s style heavily relies on reggae influences, as Nash had earlier collaborated with Bob Marley and his approach drew strongly from Marley’s reggae style.

44. “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze

“Here Comes the Hotstepper” was co-written and recorded by Jamaican dancehall artist Ini Kamoze.

It is known for its chorus, inspired by the Wilson Pickett cover of “Land of 1000 Dances”.

The reggae song was a top-10 hit in 14 different countries, and is Kamoze’s biggest success to date.

The single was awarded with a gold record in France and Germany, and a platinum record in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US.

45. “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus and Pliers

This reggae song soon became a staple for weddings, among other events, and has been called one of the best and most important dancehall tracks of all time.

The song is about death in the views of many in Jamaican culture, regarding abortion, as revealed in the third verse.

The song title came from the detective series Murder, She Wrote which was a TV show Pliers used to watch and was a fan of.

46. “Police in Helicopter” by John Holt

This reggae song was written in response to the United States pressuring Jamaica to burn their herb fields, making it a political hit.

It also aimed to help reduce the amount of marijuana being smuggled into the United States: “We don’t trouble your banana, we don’t trouble your corn, we don’t trouble you pimento, we don’t trouble you at all.”

47. “No Letting Go” by Wayne Wonder

This reggae song remains Wonder’s most successful single to date:

“I actually gave him [Steven Marsden] my first two door Civic. I signed over the title to him and everything, and he gave me my most successful hit.”

According to Wayne Wonder, the song is about a girl that he once knew, although her name is not mentioned.

48. “Better Must Come” by Delroy Wilson

Released in 1971, this song helped Delroy Wilson become one of the best-beloved vocalists in the history of reggae.

Born in the infamous Trench Town, Wilson is regarded as Jamaica’s first child star, having signed a contract with future Studio One founder, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, at the age of thirteen.

Wilson was blessed with a strong range and expressive tone, making him a natural for recording.

49. “One in 10” by UB40

After the massive success of “Red, Red Wine”, UB40 are often viewed as more a pop-band than a true reggae band.

“One In 10” is a 1981 reggae song which examines how everyone suffers, and the ignorance towards this suffering.

It sits firmly in the reggae genre and is almost a political hit, loved by the people of Jamaica and the rest of the world.

50. “The West” by Althea and Donna

This great reggae song insists the West will receive just punishment for the crime of slavery, making it an influential serious reggae hit.

This song sits in the “political reggae” genre, and we love it!

Best Reggae Songs – Final Thoughts

Now you’ve completed my list of the 50 best reggae songs, and have gained some reggae experience in the process.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small history lesson and have found some songs that you love, whether that may be serious reggae, dancehall reggae, or otherwise!

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Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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