The 20 Best Ska Bands Of All Time
Ska music was created in Jamaica in the late 1950s and popularized worldwide in the following decades. Today, it continues to be a beloved niche genre, characterized by its fast, offbeat tempo and walking bass lines. The genre also inspired the creation of reggae in the late ’60s.
In our article “What is Ska Music“, you can learn more about the origin and history of Ska music. Below, I’ve listed the 20 best ska bands of all time, from The Specials to The Aggrolites.
- 1. The Specials
- 2. Madness
- 3. The Skatalites
- 4. Toots & the Maytals
- 5. Less Than Jake
- 6. The Aquabats
- 7. The Toasters
- 8. Reel Big Fish
- 9. Bad Manners
- 10. The Untouchables
- 11. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
- 12. The English Beat
- 13. The Slackers
- 14. Sublime
- 15. Ska-P
- 16. Streetlight Manifesto
- 17. We Are the Union
- 18. Operation Ivy
- 19. Fishbone
- 20. The Aggrolites
1. The Specials
The members of The Specials grew up in the United Kingdom and were strongly influenced by 2-tone Jamaican music and punk rock. By combining the two styles in a fun, danceable, and politically-conscious package, they managed to become one of the most acclaimed ska groups of all time.
Still active, this Coventry band fuses traditional ska rhythms and instrumentation with a punk-rock attitude and powerful counter-culture lyrics. Their infectious energy, smart songs, and memorable hooks set them apart in the ska-music scene.
Once led by the charismatic Cathal “Chas Smash” Smith, Madness is an English ska band that spent more than 200 weeks on the UK Singles Chart in the ’80s. Following a six-year hiatus, they got back together in 1992 and haven’t stopped playing and releasing records ever since.
One of the many British groups to come out of the 2-tone revival in the ’60s, Madness is arguably one of the most commercially-successful ska bands of all time. Their long career is emblematic of the popularity and longevity of ska music. “One Step Beyond…,” released in 1979, is still their most influential studio album even though it was their debut album.
3. The Skatalites
Yes, ska music is an international phenomenon. But would it even exist if it wasn’t for the legendary Skatalites? Apart from Lester Sterling, all nine founding members of The Skatalites have passed away, but the Jamaican group continues to exist. By now, it’s such an iconic institution that it’s hard to imagine the Jamaican music scene without them!
The Skatalites are the OGs, ska music in its purest form, driven by a frenetic upright bass and a very talented horn section. The godfathers of ska, they also influenced other forms of Jamaican music, and have even served as the backing band of Bob Marley.
4. Toots & the Maytals
The late Toots & the Maytals frontman Toots Hibbert is considered to be one of Jamaica’s ultimate reggae kings. However, he spent most of his career exploring the energetic and vibrant rhythms of ska. Like Ska itself, Toots and his flawless backing band were fast, dynamic, and always ready to get a party started.
Frederick “Toots” Hibbert died in 2020, but Toots & the Maytals continued to perform live. Credited with using the word “reggae” in a song for the first time, they’re one of the most influential music groups in the history of Jamaican music that started all the way in the early 1960s.
5. Less Than Jake
Formed in 1992 in Gainesville, Florida, Less Than Jake is one of the most successful American ska bands ever. Pretty much like their British counterparts, American ska groups were strongly influenced by punk music. Still active, Less Than Jake is no exception.
In Less Than Jake’s songs, the traditional rhythms of ska are combined with pop-punk vocals resembling bands such as Blink 182 and Green Day. While all the singable catchiness of pop-punk is there, the guys at Less Than Jake are also true to the core values of ska, including the walking bass line and the ever-present horn section.
6. The Aquabats
What makes The Aquabats so unique is their great sense of humor. Formed in 1994 in California and led by the actor-musician MC Bat Commander, The Aquabats are probably the best example of comedic ska music. All ska music is entertaining, but these guys take it to the next level!
The Aquabats are special because they dress in costumes, they tell funny stories through their songs, and they understand that, in the end, ska is all about having fun! If you want to dance and have a laugh at the same time, The Aquabats is the perfect band for you.
7. The Toasters
It’s hard to believe that The Toasters, perhaps the most traditional ska band in the United States, were formed in New York City out of all places. While based in the Big Apple, they’re as Jamaican as it gets. With almost no punk-rock influences in their sound, they’re closer to The Skatalites than to any of their American counterparts.
The Toasters have been active since 1981 with no hiatuses but with many formation changes (you can check the full list of members here). Who could’ve guessed that such high-quality Jamaican music would be produced in the heart of Manhattan?
8. Reel Big Fish
The history of Reel Big Fish is, in a way, the history of ska music in the United States. A vibrant and catchy ska punk group, Reel Big Fish was mainstream-famous in the ’90s before becoming mostly a cult third-wave ska band and eventually rejecting to sign a new contract with their major record label.
Led by founding member Aaron Barrett, Reel Big Fish no longer plays on the radio but continues to be among the favorite live bands of American ska-music fans. Even though they went from hit to niche, they continue to reel in big fish!
9. Bad Manners
The Bad Manners lead vocalist Buster Bloodvessel is arguably one of the most famous ska personalities in the United Kingdom, and his band is among the country’s best, in line with Madness and The Specials. They were part of the 2-tone revival craze of the ’80s and have been active since 1976.
Even though the music of Bad Manners isn’t always set in a punk beat, there’s no denying that their carefree attitude and live-stage shenanigans are as “god-save-the-queen” as it gets. For a man over 60, Buster’s energy is still astounding.
10. The Untouchables
Often deemed to be the first ska band in the United States, the Californian music group The Untouchables was innovative from the very start. There’s a Jamaican ska feel to their music, yes, but they have nonetheless kept most of their “Americanness.”
If you’re looking for a perfect blend between ska and soul music, The Untouchables is the right band for you. Their work is a melting pot of influences, ranging from New Orleans jazz and surf rock to ’70s funk music. Maybe for that reason, they have an eclectic fanbase, with everything from punks, mods, and surfers to rockabilly fans.
11. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Disbanded in January 2022 (hopefully not forever), The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were an iconic ska punk from Boston credited with creating the skacore sonority. When they first started, in the ’80s, they combines elements from ska music with hardcore punk vocals and instrumentation to set themselves apart from all other bands.
Even though they landed some hit singles in their heyday, including, most notably, “The Impression That I Get“, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are now mainly beloved by a loyal, niche fanbase.
12. The English Beat
There are so many things going on in the songs of The English Beat that’s not exactly accurate to call them a ska group. Even though they were formed in Birmingham in the late ’70s, in the wake of the 2-tone craze, their music fuses everything from Latin grooves and soul to reggae and punk rock.
To put it simply, The English Beat is a party-on British band with plenty of ska influences. When they first appeared, they embodied the counterculture spirit of late ’70s England, characterized by high unemployment and social turbulence.
13. The Slackers
If you have ever wondered about what a Paul Simon ska band would sound like, you need to check out the music of The Slackers. Just like The Toasters, they were born in the cosmopolitan urban center of Manhattan. However, they do incorporate the spirit of the city in their unique brand of carefree ska music.
Active since 1991, The Slackers rely heavily on Vic Riggiero’s talent to come up with great lyrics, often focusing on pressing social issues. His singing style is remarkable too, drawing influences from greats such as Bob Dylan and the aforementioned Paul Simon.
Sublime was active between 1988 and 1996 but left us with a timeless collection of brilliant ska songs. Inspired by the alt-rock acts that topped the charts in the early ’90s, this Long Beach, California group had a uniquely artsy approach to the rhythms of ska and pioneered the reggae rock subgenre in the United States.
To this day, the world is still looking for a ska band that sounds like Sublime did. Less party-on than some of the other groups on the list, they were mainly praised for their songwriting ability.
Ska music was (and still is) huge in Jamaica, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, bands like the Spanish ska punk act Ska-P are living proof that ska is a bonafide global phenomenon. The best-known Spanish-speaking ska group in the world, Ska-P was born in 1994 in Madrid and is still active today.
Extremely socially aware, Ska-P is all about political intervention. An icon of the Spanish punk underground movement, Ska-P focuses on topics such as marijuana legalization and animal rights.
16. Streetlight Manifesto
Streetlight Manifesto was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in one of America’s most ethnically diverse commercial hubs. The group was founded in 2002 and helped to rehash a genre that, at the time, seemed to be stuck in the past. If now there’s hope for the future of ska music, Streetlight Manifesto is to blame.
Led by the talented Tomas Kanolky, Streetlight Manifesto is known for its ultrafast brand of ska and remarkable technical prowess. With a horn section that makes any big-band jazz fan proud and some of the punkiest vocal lines in the genre, Streetlight Manifesto is undoubtedly one of the best ska bands of the 2000s.
17. We Are the Union
The Michigan ska punk group We Are the Union sounds like a ska band but looks nothing like one. Influenced by emo, We Are the Union was formed in 2005 and came onto the American music scene like a breath of fresh air.
We Are the Union is arguably the first example of a ska band that seamlessly combines the grooves of the Jamaican genre (horn section included) with indie rock and alternative rock influences. If you think ska music isn’t cool, We Are the Union is here to prove you wrong!
18. Operation Ivy
Operation Ivy was an American ska punk band that existed between 1987 and 1989. So, why has such a short-lived Californian music group made the list? Well, they’re the men behind the seminal record “Energy,” perhaps one of the most acclaimed LPs in the history of the ska-punk subgenre.
What puts Operation Ivy on the map is its commitment to punk rock. Even though the ska is all there, Operation Ivy is faster, more explosive, and more dynamic than most of its counterparts. It’s impossible not to dance to their iconic tunes.
Pretty much like their bandleader, singer/saxophonist Angelo Moore, Fishbone is an all-in-one ska group that knows how to put on an entertaining live performance. Their influences come from all over, but it’s their showmanship (not just their music) that makes them one of the best ska bands of all time.
They have been around since 1979 without a single hiatus and have released seven acclaimed studio albums. Pioneers of the funk metal subgenre, Fishbone has a bright sense of humor but an equally-important social awareness.
20. The Aggrolites
In the early ‘2000s, Los Angeles was a great ska-music hub. The Aggrolites were among the best bands to come out of the city during that period. Still active, The Aggrolites’ career is like a masterclass on how to make accessible reggae/ska-inspired songs with an edge.
While they don’t rely much on a horn section, they do count on the talent of the founding member Roger Rivas, one of ska’s top keyboardists. Their latest album, “Reggae Now!,” was released in 2019.
Other Notable Mentions
Naturally, we couldn’t include every great Ska band on this list. So, in that spirit, there are a few honorable mentions that should also be noted. Firstly, there is Goldfinger. Originally a third-wave ska band with numerous hit songs that spiked the genre such as “Superman”, “Here in Your Bedroom”, and “Mind’s Eye”. Naturally, as time goes on, the band has drifted more toward punk rock nowadays.
Moving on, I have to mention Skankin’ Pickle. This was a classic ska band that didn’t last a decade but had a good run in the meantime. Their debut album “Skafunkrastapunk” (one of the coolest album names you’ll see) stirred the pot and they went on to record more and leave their mark on the genre.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Bob Marley and the Wailers. I left this for last and in the notable mentions because most will not put them in with other ska bands but rather with reggae and rocksteady groups. However, they are considered a Jamaican ska band, led by the ever-great guitarist and singer Bob Marley. Their most popular albums were “Exodus”, “Natty Dread”, and “Uprising”.
From The Specials to The Aggrolites, ska has had its fair share of influential bands, artists, and musicians. The Jamaican-born music genre is still praised today and highly respected among an electrifying fanbase. The above bands are by far the most successful and influential ones that have and still exist.