Ska has its roots in 1950s Jamaica as a synthesis of calypso, jazz, and rhythm and blues. This upbeat music featured walking bass lines and horn arrangements that permeated Jamaican popular music throughout the 50s and 60s. Its influence in modern Jamaican music still persists today. This new genre made its way across the Atlantic Ocean in the 70s spawning ska’s “second wave” with popular bands like the Specials and Madness. By the 1980s, ska started to become popular in the United States and reached its height of popularity in the 1990s in ska’s “third wave.”
And thus, here is a humble list of the best ska bands from this rude boy. It is open to interpretation. Some great bands have been left off, and certainly some other great bands have been left undiscovered. But, these bands were the most played in my tape deck, they had most spins in my Discman, and their tracks had the most plays on my iPod. Therefore, it is fitting that these ten bands make it into my top ten list of the best ska bands of all time.
10. The Specials
This is the only “second wave” ska band to make it onto this list. Many of the other second wave bands did not quite have the refined sound of the Specials, or maybe my personal tastes are just not refined enough for the other bands on the Two-Tone label. Songs like “A Message To You Rudy” and “Nite Club” would forever be ska classics. The Specials first formed in 1979 but have been performing on and off throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. They are still professionally performing and recording music.
9. Spring Heeled Jack USA
Originally formed in 1991 as a third-wave ska band, Spring Heeled Jack USA had a powerful horn section with catchy guitar riffs. They released two major EPs, the most popular of which was titled Songs From Suburbia. The band broke up in 2000 with the intention of playing an occasional reunion show. Unfortunately, this would never come to fruition as one of the original band members passed away in 2002. The remnants of Spring Heeled Jack are now members of even more popular ska bands such as Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
8. Edna’s Goldfish
After only four years of recording and touring, Edna’s Goldfish decided to call it quits in 2000, but they certainly made a small mark in the world of ska. Their album “The Elements Of Transition” showcased some powerful sing-along choruses like that featured in “Veronica Sawyer,” which would later be covered by Reel Big Fish. After their breakup, a few former band members joined in new music projects, but they have since all made their way back to obscurity.
7. Jefferies Fan Club
Jefferies Fan Club was yet another ska band with its roots in southern California. They were active for five years, released three full-length original albums, and endlessly toured the United States. JFC had a very distinctive, happy tone to their music and never strayed too far from their original sound. Old members of Jefferies Fan Club went on to play in Reel Big Fish, Five Iron Frenzy, and the Forces of Evil.
6. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
The Bosstones achieved more commercial success than just about any ska band in the 90s with their smash hit “That’s The Impression That I Get.” To this day, that single still finds its way into sports areas everywhere. But the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were more than just a one hit wonder that most people believe—they originally formed in 1983 and has gone on to record eight full-length albums. The Bosstones are extremely popular in their hometown of Boston, but they also draw large crowds across the US. “Where Did You Go?” is one of their classic songs, but they have continued to release great work including the entire “A Jackknife To A Swan” album released in 2002.
5. The OC Supertones
The Supertones were a Christian ska band in the same vein as Five Iron Frenzy. The Supertones’ use of the ska genre stretched from slow-paced reggae tunes to powerful rock and rap combinations. The resulting sound was eclectic to say the least, but they never completely left their talented horn section and ska roots.
The Supertones are now broken up, but over the course of their 10 year music career, they released seven full length albums. Their third and fourth albums, Supertones Strike Back and Chase The Sun, garnered the most commercial success as they made their way to the second place on the contemporary Christian music charts.
4. Less Than Jake
Hailing from the other side of the US in Gainsville, Florida, Less Than Jake has been one of the most popular ska/punk bands since the mid-90s. They have released eight full-length albums, the most popular of which being Anthem, which was released in 2003. Less Than Jake successfully bridges the gap between ska, punk, grunge, and metal into one harmonious mix of music.
3. Reel Big Fish
Originally formed in 1992, Reel Big Fish has been one of the most commercially successful and well-known third wave ska bands of all-time. Their most well-known song, “Sell Out,” received ample playing time on mainstream radio stations and was one of the few hit songs that led to the popularity of the ska genre in the mid to late 90s. Front man and guitarist Aaron Barrett is the only original member still with the band after almost twenty years of music. Barrett stands as probably the best guitarist to ever come from the ska genre and regularly plays mind-numbingly fast and complex solos in Reel Big Fish’s songs.
After years of struggles with major record labels, Reel Big Fish has still managed to release seven full-length albums. Although they may be considered an “old” band, RBF still puts on a great stage show as it tirelessly performs throughout the country and the world.
2. The Pietasters
The Pietasters helped ignite the ska scene in the Northeastern United States after the smashing success of other area bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. For over twenty years, the Pietasters have mastered simple melodies and sing-along choruses and many upbeat songs. Almost every song released by this band is either about beer or girls—they like to keep it simple. But, despite this seeming lack of depth, the Pietasters will keep ska lovers coming back again and again. Their fourth album, Willis, garnered this band the most success with the party anthem “Out All Night,” but the Pietasters are most well loved for much of their early work and especially for their live-performances.
1. The Hippos
That’s right. The Hippos. My number one favorite ska band of all-time, and my number one favorite band of all-time. I bought their first full-length album “Forget The World” on a whim. The internet was not all that it is today, and I could not sample their music beforehand. I could not have been more surprised. That album has probably gotten more plays than any CD that I own. Some of the tracks are a little rough around the edges, but the powerful punk rock guitar mixed with a great horn section made this a ska/punk album to beat all ska/punk albums.
They later went on to release “Heads Are Gonna Roll” on Interscope Records, their first and only major label record. In “Heads,” the Hippos gradually moved away from the ska label and heavily favored the synthesizer. The horn section was still present, and ska was still alive and well in the Hippos. “Head Are Gonna Roll” was another one of the most played albums ever to reach my CD player. The band then broke up but not before recording one final album. It would never reach the prestige of their other two records and was a complete removal from the world of ska.