As the penultimate month of the year comes to a close, it’s time to start reflecting on the past year in music and culture. This month, Billboard unveiled the 2023 Year-End charts across genres, including five rankings celebrating the year in reggae. Greatest hits sets from Bob Marley, Shaggy and Sean Paul ranked as the first, second and third biggest reggae albums of the year, respectively, while 2023 breakout star Byron Messia made an appearance in the top 10 with his No Love album (No. 8). Messia also made an appearance on the 2023 Year-End Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart thanks to his Burna Boy-assisted “Talibans II” (No. 26).
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Although our general focus has shifted to previewing the new year and reflecting on the current one, 2023 is far from over. To close out the year, Messia, Teejay, Shenseea, Jada Kingdom, Ding Dong and Nadg will perform at Hot 97’s Winter Jam on Dec. 30. There’s still one month to go before that concert, so let’s take some time to sort through the best November releases across reggae, dancehall, soca and their cousin genres and scenes.
Naturally, Billboard’s monthly Reggae/Dancehall Fresh Picks column will not cover every last track, but our Spotify playlist — which is linked below — will expand on the 10 highlighted songs. So, without any further ado:
Freshest Find: Duane Stephenson, “Golden Nights (in December)”
On the day after Thanksgiving, VP records dropped a holiday covers album titled Reggae Christmas Classics. Among the selections — which include a cover of “This Christmas” bv Christopher Martin and a Thriller U rendition of “Feliz Navidad” — is Duane Stephenson’s original track “Golden Nights (In December).” Built around a jazzy intro that launches into a blissful rocksteady groove, Stephenson’s honeyed voice croons about the irreplaceability of his lover on the coldest December nights. “If you’re not here with me in December/ There are no golden nights to remember/ If you’re not here with me in December/ Such a lonely, it’s a lonely time of year,” he coos.
Farmer Nappy, “How ah Livin”
Relentless optimism and hope in the face of a world that seems hellbent on snuffing the light out of nearly every part of life is not just welcome, it’s vital. That’s part of why soca continues to resonate after so many decades, and it’s also the driving force behind Farmer Nappy’s “How ah Livin.” With joyous percussion sourcing accents from the ebullient background horns, “How ah Livin” is a purposeful reclamation of joy. “How ah livin’?/ Better than them!/ How I lookin’?/ Better than them!” Nappy sing-chants.
Chronic Law & Ireland Boss, “Still Dark”
Alongside “Talibans” and “Drift,” Ireland Boss and Malie Donn’s “V6” was another summer dancehall hit that dominated the year. After letting that track enjoy months of success, Ireland Boss has unveiled the latest take on his V6 riddim with some help from Chronic Law. “We nah love talk, yeah we popular fi dark/ Them ya gun ah go fi blood like Dracula mi dawg/ When we ah go ah school, have mi ratchet and mi dark/ Know mi and mi matic affi charge,” Chronic spits over the slinky, laid-back instrumental, opting for an approach that brings the riddim closer to the gun chune lane than the sexually charged braggadocio of the original.
Gbmnutron & Jus Jay King, “When Last”
Let’s face it: life has been different since the pandemic no matter how hard a “return to normal” is pushed. With “When Last,” Gbmnutron and Jus Jay King hold space for the feeling of longing for the fetes and parties of years past, infusing both the instrumental and lead vocal with an unmistakable dash of wistful nostalgia. “When last you been to a party?/ Plenty women looking so nice, we must be in paradise/ When last you had a time to remember?/ It’s only bumper to fender, and the drinks cyah done. big up di bartender,” he sings.
Protoje & Zion I Kings, “Jah Deliver Me”
A delectable slice of more traditional reggae stylings, “Jah Deliver Me” is housed on In Search of Zion a remix album based by Zion I Kings based on Protoje’s 2020 release In Search of Lost Time. In the verses, the two-time Grammy nominee employs a hip-hop-influenced cadence, while the chorus finds him opting for a more legato, melodic approach in his singing. A solemn, introspective track, “Jah Deliver Me” is the perfect soundtrack for the darker moments of the winter months; “I hold my order, give my praises/ Oh, Jah, deliver me through these days/ Sometimes really hard to go and face this/ Oh, this life can truly be amazing,” he sings over hopeful brass.
DSL, “I’m High”
A dancehall and reggae artist hailing from Ghana, DSL balances atmospheric guitar-tinged arrangements with a languid vocal delivery to embody the greened-out energy of the aptly titled “I’m High.” “Who are these people doing much good to we/ Why do you want to spoil my melody/ So what do you want from me/ The herb is my remedy,” he explains. It’s a simple song, but DSL creates an incredibly immersive sonic space through the attention he pays to the relationship between his rasp-accented vocal and the saccharine female voice in the background.
Darryl Gervais & Fryktion, “Over & Over (Cyah Stop It)”
On this gospel-indebted selection from Fryktion’s The Rub-a-Dub Project EP, Darryl Gervais sings praises to the Most High over an instrumental pulls equally from modern reggae and soca. “It ain’t nothing that you can do to stop my blessings come through/ Yuh cyah stop it, no, yuh cyah block it,” Gervais proclaims. He delivers his lyrics with the gravity of a person who is unshaken in their face, completely wrapped in their trust in the Lord. Between a catchy melody and that irresistible hook, “Over & Over” achieves the perfect balance of being both a universal anthem of praise and a personal moment of thanks.
Ding Dong, “Rebel”
Dance is, of course, one of the key cornerstones on dancehall, so it’s no surprise that Ding Dong’s new single celebrates Christina Nelson, also known as Dancing Rebel, one of the most popular Jamaican dancers and choreographers in the world. Already complete with a dance combination courtesy of Nelson, “Rebel” rests on Ding Dong’s commanding voice and engaging ad-libs to morph into what could very well be the next viral dance track from the dancehall scene.
Lyrikal, XplicitMevon & N.M.G. Music, “Fetin’ Mayor”
XplicitMevon and N.M.G. Music’s resurgence riddim is one of the best riddims of the year, and everyone from Ricardo Drue to Preedy delivered electrifying takes on the accompanying Resurgence Riddim EP. Lyrikal’s version, however, reigns supreme: His magnetic voice booms across the track as proclaims himself mayor of “the nation/ the fetin’ congregation/ the party population.” He cheekily expresses his selflessness in making sure that everyone, not just himself, is having the time of their lives at whatever function they’re at. While the rest of the world is slowing down as winter takes over, Lyrikal is square in the middle of the dancefloor, beckoning us to join.
Viking Ding Dong, “Harder”
In addition to the Resurgence Riddim EP, November also gifted us the Saying Something Riddim EP. With “Harder,” Viking Ding Dong delivers an anthem of resilience and gratitude. “Life hard but we harder!/ Life hard, but we harder!/ But we haffi give thanks to di Father,” he declares over the thumping percussion and cheerful guitar strums. Obviously we’re in a season of thanks, and Viking Ding Dong doesn’t take that lightly as he skates across the track with sanctimonious reverence.
Bonus Pick: Samory I feat. Lila Iké, “Outside”
Over thumping, militant drums and a thumping bassline, Samory I and Lila Iké flex their vocal chemistry across “Outside,” an ode humility, perseverance, and faith. Lila’s dulcet timbre rings throughout her voice, providing a gorgeous contrast to Samory I’s soulful tone. When those rock-tinged guitars kick in, however, “Outside” evolves into something different: a genre-smattering love letter to the different sounds styles of the Black diaspora that find a common thread in their musical displays of Black tenacity. “Jah Jah we call upon your name/ Pray you lantern all our days/ When it gets dark, we know you’ll always make a way,” Lila croons. Existing while Black is a task that demands a certain level indefatigability, and the community that can be sourced through that is the backbone of “Outside.”