Ska never went away, but there's more widespread interest for the genre right now than there has been in a while. Nostalgia tends to move in 20-ish year cycles and it's been about two decades since ska's last peak in popularity died down, enough time has passed for the unfair stigma to fade away, and the anti-racism aspect of ska hits hard after four years of having Trump as a president. But it's not just timing; there's an increasingly strong network of bands working hard to show that ska is alive and well, and those bands are making really good music in the process. Ska's roots are of course in Jamaica, but at this point it's a massive global phenomenon, with thriving ska scenes in the US, the UK, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and beyond. Most of the best current ska bands strongly embrace the DIY aspect that predated the genre's major label boom in America; they put the politics back at the forefront of the music, rallying not just against racism but also against sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry; and they show a strong appreciation for the entire history of ska, from its roots in 1950s/60s Jamaica, to the UK's 2 Tone movement in the '70s/'80s, to the emergence of ska-punk in the US in the '90s. Today's best ska bands don't approach the genre as a series of waves, but as one constantly-evolving style of music that still has more room to evolve and move forward.
A ton of good ska and ska-punk records came out in 2020, and I'm not claiming this list is a "best of" (and it admittedly leans US/UK-centric), but if you're looking for a solid batch of great ska albums and EPs that came out this year, I highly recommend the 18 on this list if you haven't heard them already.
Also, none of the music on this list would exist without the massive influence of the legendary Toots Hibbert, who sadly passed away this year. Toots was one of the original ska pioneers and is widely credited with injecting soul into the genre, and his impact is still felt today, not just on ska and reggae but on tons of musicians across several styles of music. Toots also released a new album this year, which we wrote about in our list of reggae albums from 2020. Rest in peace, Toots.
Read on for the list, unranked and in no particular order, followed by a list of of singles by artists who didn't release albums (and hopefully will in 2021). As big of a year that 2020 was for ska, 2021 already seems poised to be an even bigger one.
Albums & EPs
Ska Against Racism
Bad Time Records / Asian Man Records / Ska Punk Daily
In 1998, Mike Park put on the Ska Against Racism tour with the goal of bringing back the anti-racist politics of ska at the height of the genre's mainstream success in America. "I felt like [ska] was becoming so manufactured as this fun wacky circus music and the original politics were gone from the 2 tone movement," Mike told us earlier this year. "The whole 2 tone idea is black and white equality. Did kids even know that?" Now, 22 years later and with the help of Bad Time Records and Ska Punk Daily, the Ska Against Racism name was revived for a new 28-song compilation featuring some of the bands from the original tour (Less Than Jake, Mustard Plug, Five Iron Frenzy, and MU330) alongside other veterans (Tim Armstrong/Jesse Michaels, The Suicide Machines, The Chinkees, Hepcat, Buck O' Nine, Left Alone, Big D and the Kids Table, etc) and a slew of newer bands who are keeping ska alive today (Kill Lincoln, We Are The Union, JER, Catbite, The Best of the Worst, Omnigone, The Skints, The Interrupters, Half Past Two, Bite Me Bambi, etc). It not only connects the established veterans with the new guard and functions as a who's who of the current ska scene, it's also a mission statement for today's ska scene and a declaration of the values that these bands stand for. "Mike [Park] wanted to bring [the politics] back for his generation, and I feel like now we need to make that statement again," Mike Sosinski from Bad Time Records/Kill Lincoln told us. "It's almost like a waypoint that people can look to in time and be like, alright, ska in this generation, this is where we're at, and it's no longer just anti-racism, it's anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-sexism, it's just acceptance of everything but hate."
The compilation will benefit The Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Alpha Institute, The Conscious Kid, and Black Girls Code in perpetuity, and the anti-racist, anti-bigotry message lies not just in the benefit aspect but also in a lot of these songs. From covers of classic anti-racist ska anthems that remain depressingly still relevant today (Kill Lincoln doing Skankin' Pickle's "David Duke Is Running For President," The Doped Up Dollies doing The Specials' "Racist Friend") to newly-written protest songs (JER's "Breaking News! Local Punk Denies Existence of Systematic Racism," The Best of the Worst's "Illusion of Choice," Omnigone's "Swallow Poison," Mustard Plug's "Unite and Fight," etc), the message of Ska Against Racism goes much deeper than just the album title. And with so many genuinely great songs that are exclusive to this comp, Ska Against Racism is just as essential as the albums by all the bands featured. Comps aren't as popular in the streaming era as they were in the CD, cassette, and vinyl eras, but Ska Against Racism is poised to become one of those scene-defining comps like Mike Park curations Misfits of Ska and Plea For Peace were two decades ago.
Purchase Ska Against Racism for $1 or more at Bandcamp.
Kill Lincoln - Can't Complain
Bad Time Records
A lot of bands try to recreate the sounds of '90s ska-punk, but few get it as right as Kill Lincoln. They lie somewhere in between The Suicide Machines' ska/hardcore crossover and Less Than Jake's euphoric pop hooks, and their new album Can't Complain sounds as fresh in 2020 as Destruction by Definition and Losing Streak did in 1996. (And like Destruction by Definition has a ska cover of Minor Threat, Can't Complain has one of Paint It Black's "Womb Envy," a song that's actually slightly older now than "I Don't Wanna Hear It" was when TSM covered it.) If you're a longtime ska-punk fan, Can't Complain will fill you with warm feelings of nostalgia, but this album succeeds because it goes beyond reminding you of your favorite '90 bands. Kill Lincoln don't approach ska-punk as a faded trend that needs reviving; they approach it as a valid genre of music with something to say right now. And on Can't Complain, Kill Lincoln use their fast-paced, adrenaline-rush-inducing songs to address the state of the world in 2020. It's fun, exhilarating music, but don't ever mistake the bright hooks for a lack of purpose.