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Ska is a category misunderstood by many. This is especially true amongst people from my generation (millennials) who grew up when “Third Wave Ska” filled the airwaves. For example, one co-worker of a similar age described it as, “Like emo, but with flutes and stuff.” Before moving on, let us try to put Ska and its third wave in a less confusing light.
Ska was a precursor to the more understood genre of Reggae. Ska was born of Caribbean musicians, in the 1950s, looking to combine American Jazz and R&B with traditional Caribbean genres of Calypso and Mento. It is associated with prominent horn sections, offbeat guitar rhythms, and a constant (walking) heavy bassline.
The second wave of Ska in the 70s and 80s was characterized by mixed-race groups who sought to combine Ska sound with the New Wave (Post Punk) and Punk music that was taking the UK by storm. Many famous UK bands that many associate with being Punk/Post Punk flirted with this Second Wave sound (The Clash, The Police, etc). This was how Ska became associated with Punk. This association increased with the Third Wave Ska scene.
Third Wave Ska started in the late 1980s and was prominent in popular music/culture by the mid-1990s. Third Wave Ska sunk Punk even more into the genre. It was faster, louder, and more aggressive then the waves that preceded it. The elements of Ska were still there, but it sounded almost nothing like the genre at its advent. This is a simplistic and non-complete explanation of the evolution of Ska. My hope is that it will help you to look at Third Wave Ska in a different light.
Being that we are all vinyl addicts, I will now move on to this article’s true purpose: Third Wave Ska albums that sorely need to be issued/re-issued on vinyl. Being that many of these bands were most prominent during the cassette/CD/mp3 era, it is often difficult to find many on vinyl.
Additionally, much like the Psych/Garage band craze of the 60s, the overwhelming influx of bands led to some incredibly talented artists being forgotten. The combination has led to tons of amazing albums that have no vinyl press or were pressed in small numbers (making them difficult to find). I have chosen four albums to discuss in this light (although I could probably make a never-ending list).
Losing Streak – Less Than Jake
We will start with this mid-90s masterpiece by one of the titans of Third Wave Ska. Losing Streak was Less Than Jake’s second album. While Pezcore was an admiral debut and a great album in its own right, their stride was really hit on Losing Streak. The horn section became less of an afterthought on Losing Streak. More of the melodies center around the tight and intricate horn parts that Less Than Jake became famous for. Additionally, more songs featured the classic back and forth singing between Demakes and Lima. The sound of Losing Streak was what began to set Less Than Jake apart from their contemporaries. Losing Streak has been pressed twice, both times in limited quantities. Once shortly after the album debuted, as a picture disc. In 2016, Less Than Jake celebrated the 20th anniversary of this album with a tour, playing the whole album in order. For this tour, they released a special repress of the album. I saw them on that tour and it was amazing. I will always regret not grabbing the album at the merch table. Hopefully, one day this album will get a wide press, the album is a staple I believe everyone should have in their collection.
We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy – Reel Big Fish
Reel Big Fish is another titan of the Third Wave Ska movement, along with the aforementioned Less Than Jake. I will admit I love all the albums and quite a few have never been pressed to vinyl. Amongst those that have never been pressed, We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy stands out as a unique offering. The album is an overlooked jewel that flopped commercially and was not actively promoted by their label (Jive Records dropped them soon after). For those not familiar with Reel Big Fish, they are sarcastic/pessimistic in the most fun and catchy way possible. This element is turned up to ten to on We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy, and it really works. Many of the songs have to do with their disillusionment with the music industry with such songs as “Don’t Start a Band,” “Turn off the Radio,” “One Hit Wonderful,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Last Show.” Discouragement and pessimism in regards to life in general with songs such as “Drinkin,” “The Fire,” and “The Joke’s on Me.” And yes, they also cover romance and relationships with as much cynical enthusiasm as possible with such songs as “A-W-E-S-O-M-E,” “The Bad Guy,” and “Your Guts (I Hate ‘Em).” Not to mention the three outstanding covers (what Third Wave Ska album is complete without a killer cover). “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” (Morrissey) is probably one of my favorite covers of all time (every “Hahahaha” is drenched with as much gloomy contempt as possible). Hopefully one day this album will be available on wax.
Screams, Dreams, and Custard Creams – The Hotknives
There is a good chance you have not heard of The Hotknives and that needs to change! The Hotknives are a UK based “2 Tone Revival” band who helped bridge the gap between Second and Third Wave Ska. They have a unique sound that relies on harmonicas and keyboard as much as it does horns. They manage to sound quaintly British and still have a Punk edge, and to sound catchy in a soulful Rocksteady way, yet retain a new wave sensibility. The Hotknives have an interesting release history. They started as a band in 1982 yet didn’t release an album until 1988. Then, their first two releases were both recorded live, and their first studio album didn’t come out until 1990. There was one more studio album between their first formal one and Screams, Dreams, and Custard Creams (2000). Then, a decade after the aforementioned album, they released one more studio album (About Time in 2010). They have not had another release since, but are still together and actively touring. Honestly, all their albums are wonderful and any one of them could be picked for this list. However, Screams, Dreams, and Custard Creams is a favorite and has only been pressed twice (both in a limited fashion).
The Elements of Transition – Edna’s Goldfish
I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Edna’s Goldfish until Reel Big Fish came out with an album of covers in 2009. They covered the song “Veronica Sawyer” (which was a modest hit for Edna’s Goldfish and appears on The Elements of Transition). It was one of my favorite songs on the Reel Big Fish album, and the only song I had never heard the original version of. When I finally investigated Edna’s Goldfish’s catalog, I was pleasantly surprised. They had two amazing albums released in the late 90s (on the legendary Moon Ska Records) of catchy, poppy Ska-Punk. The songs were well-written, super tight, and something I found myself constantly coming back to. When I went to search for their stuff on vinyl, I found that Before You Knew Better…(their first album) had been pressed in Germany when it originally came out. It was pressed again in 2012 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. However, their second album, Elements of Transition, was only put out on CD and was never reissued on any physical format. It seems odd as the albums both came out on the same label, and their only modest hit was on Elements of Transition. Maybe one day they will start another Kickstarter campaign, and we will get their second album on vinyl.
Interested in checking out some Third Wave Ska? Check out the playlist below:
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Mix-Tapes & Memories, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/mix-tapes-memories-archives/
2 thoughts on “Third Wave Ska and What We Need On Vinyl”
As a child of the 2nd wave of SKA, and from the UK, was very much into the Specials, The Beat etc, don’t much about the Third Wave Ska, but something I like to look into more. Thanks for the heads up.
Thanks for reading! So glad the article inspired you to want to listen to some Third Wave Ska! Our columnist Joe is extremely passionate about ska music and it means a lot to him to get this feedback. Thanks again!