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Top 10 Ska Bands

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Brandon William Peach. Originating in the late 1950s in Jamaica, ska music became a popular genre by adding jazz and R&B to Caribbean sounds. Its history is usually divided into 3 periods, the first wave during the 1960s in Jamaica, the second wave of the 1970s with the English 2 Tone ska revival and the third wave of the 1980s to the 1990s that arose in the United States. With this in mind, counts down our picks for the top 10 ska bands of all time, making sure to pick at least 3 bands per wave.

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Script written by Brandon William Peach.

Take some Jamaican vibes, add jazz, a dash of R&B and some attitude, and this is what you got. Welcome to, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 ska bands of all time.

#10 – Sublime

No discussion of third-wave ska would be complete without mentioning Sublime. The Long Beach ska-punk pioneers rose to prominence in the early-‘90s with a genre-bending sound that merged influences from reggae to hip-hop. The band’s self-titled record was their most successful, but it was only released after the 1996 overdose death of singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell, meaning their accomplishment was bittersweet.

#9 – The Beat

No other band captured two-tone ska’s Jamaican influence in quite the same way. Also known as The English Beat to avoid confusion with a similarly-named American group, they gained popularity in the early-‘80s with memorable singles like “Mirror in the Bathroom.” With reggae-esque lyrical and musical themes, frontmen Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger offered hope to the United Kingdom during a period of social unrest and high unemployment.

#8 – Madness

At the height of the two-tone revival, this catchy band from Camden Town, England burst onto the scene with the bright guitars, groovy bass lines, and vibrant horns that would be adopted by many groups that followed. Their anger and politically-minded humor won over many and influenced more, and even today Madness is still going strong.

#7 – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Third-wave ska needed a jolt to make it to the American mainstream, and that jolt is exactly what The Mighty Mighty Bosstones provided. Thanks to their 1997 record Let’s Face It, and the hit single “The Impression That I Get,” the genre exploded. But commercial success didn’t come easy: before they pioneered the ska-core subgenre, the band had been releasing albums and touring since the late-‘80s.

#6 – The Wailers

It’s a near certainty that ska wouldn’t exist in the same form today without the legendary Wailers, led by a young Bob Marley. Songs rooted in political action like “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Simmer Down” became mainstays of the genre, as did the characteristic strumming pattern on the guitar’s upper strings, countering a thumping bass line. Even decades later, The Wailers’ music continues to define the genre.

#5 – Toots and the Maytals

Yet another pioneer of ska’s original wave of popularity, Toots and the Maytals were renowned for their strong vocal harmonies led by frontman and guitarist Toots Hibbert. The group’s popularity in England helped pave the way for second-wave ska in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when underground British artists began modifying their distinctively reggae sound. Their song “Pressure Drop” introduced the genre to fans outside Jamaica.

#4 – Operation Ivy

It’s appropriate that they’re named after a series of nuclear tests – after all, the explosion of the ska-punk genre owes much to this California four-piece. The band existed for only two years and released just one album, only to break up months later. Nevertheless, punk bands like Green Day and ska groups like Sublime have cited Op Ivy as a defining influence in the sounds they adopted.

#3 – The Toasters

As one of the first successful third-wave bands in America, The Toasters offered a fresh take on first wave and two-tone traditions, borrowing the Wailers’ guitar tone, Madness’ horn section, and the aesthetic of the underground British movement. The result was a poppy, rhythmic sound, with clever lyrics and delightfully catchy tunes – a recipe adopted by other bands like Less Than Jake and The Planet Smashers.

#2 – The Specials

For two-tone ska with punk-rock aggression and political themes, there’s no one like The Specials. These Brits popularized some of ska’s defining features, from tonic suits to radical social commentary. But, unlike many ska groups, success was not elusive: The Specials generated seven hit singles between 1979-1981, and later were instrumental in publicizing Nelson Mandela’s plight. After splitting to pursue political activism, the group reunited in the late-2000s to recreate their danceable sound.

#1 – The Skatalites

Ska melds various genres and traditions, but its inception can be traced to one band: The Skatalites were true originals, blending jazz, rock-and-roll, R&B, and calypso influences to form something new. Besides producing music and backing other Jamaican acts, the group mentored young artists like The Wailers. The result was a pervasive sound that travelled from Jamaica to leave an impact on the rest of the globe that is heard even today.

With upbeat rhythms and distinctive instrumentation, it’s no wonder ska music has enjoyed widespread popularity since its invention in Jamaica a half-century ago. Which of your favorite ska bands have we missed? For more top 10s, be sure to subscribe to

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