Pitchfork just released a list dubbed „The 50 Best Dancehall Songs of All Time“. The title alone is quite a statement. Add the fact that Pitchfork is probably the most relevant music site on the internet, and it turns into an event. Thus, another post in English.
Let me be very clear: Edwin „STATS“ Houghton, who is the list’s lead curator, did a pretty great job in compiling it. It’s a testament to Pitchforks great respect for music that they assembled a notable team of knowledgeable dancehall experts to chime in. Contributions were made by, among others, Walshy Fire, Max Glazer and Beth Lesser. So yeah, it would be absolutely acceptable to look at it, think ‚nice list, well done!‘, post it to your Facebook feed and forget about it. But honestly: That’s also rather boring. Also, it’s unfair to the authors! If you publish this kind of list, you really want to stir things up and create some discussion. Trust me, I’ve been there.
So, let’s give them what they asked for and nitpick Pitchfork’s 50 Best Dancehall Songs of All Time list apart.
Alas 1, there really isn’t a song on the list that makes me go: „Huh?! That’s an obvious mistake!“. Well, except the number two song on the list: Murder she wrote by Chaka Demus & Pliers. I mean, I do get it. It’s probably the universally played dancehall tune. It’s played on the odd hiphop-but-also-some-dancehall(-so-you-can-actually-dance-for-a-second-instead-of-nodding-your-head-all-the-time)-party and any other kind of party – much to the delight of any crowd. So I suppose it’s fair to have the tune on that list. Particularly on a general interest site like Pitchfork. But honestly, if you are a true fan of the genre, chances are you really can’t stand the tune anymore in 2017. For my part, I’m dun with it. Cross it off!
And if you don’t agree, watch the video below. And read the description. It summarizes it all perfectly:
„This is a salsa that I did. The song is off of the „Save the Last Dance“ soundtrack.„
After sparking some controversy to begin with, allow me a drier, general remark: I think the authors could have been more precise about the process and rules they used to create the list. I’d particularly like to know the criteria a song had to fit in order to qualify. There are hardly any tunes by new school artists on the list: Vybz Kartel, Sean Paul, Ele and Cham are the only artists from one generation ago who made the cut. Except for tweener Gyptian, the current generation (Popcaan, Alkaline, Konshens etc.) is missing entirely. I have no beef with that. Regular readers are aware I consider staying power a relevant criteria myself. It’s perfectly fine with me if you want a song to have stood the test of time in order to make the list. Yet, that’s a fact worth mentioning! Anyway, I’ll regard that as the implicit rule and not use any tunes newer than 2010 in my suggestions below.
Since we already mentioned Vybz and Sean Paul, let’s stay there for a second. Both have to be on that list for sure. However, it’s somewhat excessive they get a combined 10% of the available spots. Vybz has three and Sean two songs on the list. I understand the thinking: They are two of the biggest stars dancehall has seen. But when talking about a genre with 40 years of history, 50 spots suddenly aren’t a lot! Also, a best songs list isn’t the same as a most successful songs list. On the latter we would have to award them way more spots than on the former. From me, they only get one spot each.
The Missing Who-is-who
This highlights one of the key challenges you face when creating such a list 2: There are many deserving talents but you only have a limited number of spots. You know what that reminds me of? The All Star voting (I’m a NBA guy but I suppose it applies to all sports). And what’s the most fun conversation to have, once the results are out? Snubs!
As you expect from such a list, some folks who should have made it didn’t. When identifying the snubs, I first looked for artists which ought to be on there. Just then did I either pick the song from their catalog or – in case that’s up for debate – a selection of possible candidates. While I realize the list is about best songs, coming up with the selection is as much about the artists which should be featured as about the specific song. You are certainly free to disagree but that’s my approach.
- Ninjaman (Murder Dem)
- Red Rat (Tight Up Skirt)
- Cocoa Tea (Young Lover)
- Cutty Ranks (Limb By Limb)
- Spragga Benz (Backshot, Analogy or Good Day)
- T.O.K. (If you don’t want to feature Chi Chi Man [understandably so], Money to Burn, She’s Hot or Gyal You a Lead are all viable candidates)
- Shaggy (Oh Carolina, Boombastic [for cultural impact purposes] or Wasn’t Me)
Songs we need to talk about
Next, let’s talk about some missing songs from artists that made the list. Therefore, we either need to replace tunes or grant an extra entry. Let’s start with three swaps.
My first one won’t go down well with some people I suppose: I’ll replace Shabba’s Dem Bow. I know, I know. The song definitely deserves to be on the list. It was a massive tune. As STATS mentions in the text: people in the Dominican Republic even named an entire effing genre after it. It fully qualifies as a classic. So, I’m not arguing it’s a bad pick and definitely not a bad tune. But Shabba’s catalog is deep and one particular highlight is missing. And since he already has two spots, he can’t have a third one. Thus Dem Bow needs to bend over and make room for Ting-a-Ling.
It simply is the badder tune. Particularly when judging from today’s response ina di dancehall. Ting-a-Ling still sets any place on fire. Dem Bow, on the other hand, is more like this particular red wine from the small, beloved winery that, anytime you open it for your friends, will cause the wine-lovers among them to knowingly nod to you, while the others just slurp it like any other beverage you served them all night. It’s not necessarily fair to the wine but at least you learn which friends you should visit the next time you crave something fun to drink.
The next tune I replace is Ele’s Pon De River Pon De Bank. Yet another case where I understand the reasoning behind the pick: It’s likely the Energy God’s biggest hit and a pretty great tune indeed. It had a massive video. I myself went crazy on the dancefloor whenever it played. So yep, there is a pretty solid argument to be made. Yet, I don’t think it’s the best Ele song. I think there are several better – though less popular – choices. I’d go for Genie Dance but Bun It and Egyptian Dance also rank hire on my Ele hit list. 3
Beenie Man has two tunes on the list which is only right. Still, King of the Dancehall needs to be on there. Since even the (nowadays disputed) king can’t have three spots, we need to get rid of either Who Am I or Girls Dem Sugar (ft. Mya). I’ll make the outrageous move and x out Who Am I. Stay with me for a second. The song is certainly a seminal Beenie hit and probably his trademark song. But, musically speaking, it’s also way closer to KotD than to Girls Dem Sugar: both a straight dancehall tunes. And from today’s perspective KotD is simply the better one. On the flipside, Girls Dem Sugar showcases the popy, singery side of Bennie which should be on the list. Plus, it’s also the song that originated the very catch phrases which define Who Am I. 4
Speaking of Beenie Man. Bounty Killer is underrepresented on the list. He might not be everybody’s cup of tea but he is one of the genre’s GOATs. It’s frankly not justifiable that he has only one tune on the list. Beenie, Sean Paul, Lady Saw and others have two, Vybz even three songs on there. Bounty’s catalog offers several great options: Badman kill fi fun, Eyes A Bleed (RZA Remix), Down in the Ghetto, or Mystery all come to mind. You’ll learn about my final choice in a second. But before we go there, a quick summary of the edits we made so far in this section:
Dem Bow <> Ting-a-Ling
Pon De River <> Genie Dance
Who Am I <> King of the Dancehall
Making Room for the Additions
Alright. That’s it for what’s missing. If you did the math along the way, you are aware that we are well beyond 50 tunes by now. So let’s get to the hardest part: crossing stuff off.
I already mentioned that I’d cross off Murder She Wrote as well as reduce Kartel and Sean Paul to one song each (pick your favorite, I’m actually dispassionate). So, we are at 46 tunes in total. But we need to make room for eight. Here’s the full list of additions, including my final picks whenever I mentioned several options before:
- Ninjaman – Murder Dem
- Red Rat – Tight Up Skirt
- Cocoa Tea – Young Lover
- Cutty Ranks – Limb By Limb
- Spragga Benz – Backshot? Analogy? Bait?
- T.O.K. – Money to Burn
- Shaggy – Oh Carolina
- Bounty Killer – Badman Kill Fi Fun 5
So, we need to get rid of 4 more tunes. Ouch! Some cases are simpler than others though:
- Sasha – Dat Sexy Body (alright but whatever)
- Gyptian – Hold Yuh (I really like the tune. But is it one of the best ever? Nah!)
Okay, still two to go.
The next tune we have to see off is Rich Girl. It certainly has pop cultural significance and is a great poster child for our genre. Also, it’s not one of the best 50 dancehall tunes of all time. As an aside: I’m feeling somewhat bad for already crossing of the second tune by a female. But I can make some of my guilt up by pointing you to the Female Artists Only Show we recorded a while ago. So, bye bye Rich Girl.
When picking the last tune to cross off the list I was tempted to exploit a mistake. When going through the Pitchfork list for this piece, I used their Spotify playlist. I suppose a poor but sloppy intern compiled it. Why? Whereas all YouTube links point to the intended tune, there are 2.5 wrong versions on playlist. One of those is the average-at-best One Blood Junior Reid by Junior Reid. Obviously that’s supposed to be the awesome One Blood by Junior Reid – but isn’t. So, wouldn’t it be simple to… Nah, that would kinda suck, wouldn’t it?!
Alright then. Those things don’t come easy to me anyway, so let’s keep the pain to a minimum. The last tune I have to dismiss is Mud Up by Super Cat. It might almost be a sin to cross off a song by the Don Dada. But Mud Up is simply not that great. Plus, Super Cat still has another cut on the list and I take further comfort in the fact that the list of new entrants includes some legends formerly missing. So there we go.
That’s it. We made room for our additions and fixed some issues. At this point you might ask for an updated list. Alas, I have to inform you that you won’t get it. For one, copying it would ethically at least rank as ‚a stretch‘. Secondly, if I did do it, I would certainly re-rank it. But I avoid ranking music whenever I can. I think shortlisting is difficult enough. Coming up with a definitive order is, for my taste, too arbitrary, determined by daily mood and thus an emotionally intense, painstaking exercise to no meaningful end [footnote]Except excellent clickbait of course. But as they say: You can’t have your cake and eat it. A shame!.
So, I’ll leave it at that. Of course, you might disagree with my edits to the Pitchfork list – by all means go ahead and let us know! Hell, even I have at least half a dozen other things I could reasonably go on and argue about. But I’m aware that perfection is to be aspired, never achieved. Also, we are well beyond the 2000 words mark. So I’ll leave further improvements and criticism to you. The comments are opened!
Update 03.03.2017: Since the list as well as our edits have sparked some interesting discussions around the internet, I created a Storify to aggregate it all: