Various Artists

Essential Ska: Original Ska Anthems

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Ska seems to undergo a revival every decade or so, but you still can't beat the originals, and although dozens of ska collections have been released over the years, this three-disc set from Britain is a keeper. What's most laudable about it, perhaps, is that it doesn't regurgitate the obvious -- or even go about its programming in an obvious manner. Some of the tracks here are seriously obscure, and while others are familiar hits, they're not necessarily the ones that turn up on every other ska box purporting to be "essential." The hottest material here, not surprisingly, stems from the mid- to late '60s, as ska truly came into its own and before it transmuted into reggae. Although there are selections from as far back as the early '60s and as late as the '70s, it's those classic-era tracks, likethe Ethiopians' rocksteady blueprint "Train to Skaville," Dandy Livingstone's original "Rudy, A Message to You" (later covered superbly by the Specials) and Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp" that define the best of ska. The compilers chose to divide the set into three thematic segments -- "Guns, Girls and Rude Boys," "All Aboard for Skaville Junction" and "Reggae Hits the Jackpot" -- rather than go chronologically, and although the lines between those themes might sometimes seem blurred, the programming makes for a charged, provocative listen. The third disc is the least potent, focusing on the ska experience as interpreted via the ears of British youth in the late '60s, and the first, brimming with the R&B-inflected newness with which early ska flowed, is the most electrified. But overall it's a well-curated anthology that manages to approach the music in a fresh way.