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Ska & Rocksteady - Released February 1, 2019 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

In the midst of a punk explosion in the late ‘70s, the UK experienced a ska revival led by Madness and, most notably, The Specials. Originally from Coventry, the multicultural gang originally led by Jerry Dammers is now reviving the syncopated rhythms of Jamaican rocksteady and its derivative, ska. In the heart of a grey Thatcherian England, it seemed that their strict dress code (pork pie hats, black suits and chequered patterns) was mandatory to fully appreciate their singles A Message To You Rudy (a cover of Dandy Livingstone), Too Much Too Young or Gangsters, as well as their two albums, Specials in 1979 and More Specials in 1980. Going by the name of The Special AKA, they published the equally essential album In The Studio With in 1984, which topped the charts thanks to their hit song (Free) Nelson Mandela... In the middle of Winter 2019, the Specials broke their (very) long silence with Encore. However, Jerry Dammers – the author of their greatest songs - and Neville Staple are no longer in the group! Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter are certainly present but for purists, wouldn’t The Specials without Jerry Dammers be like... The Rolling Stones without Keith Richards? With the help of guitarist Steve Cradock (from Ocean Colour Scene), drummer Kenrick Rowe and pianist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, these 2019 Specials look great. Their ska style crosses soul with vintage disco (with a beautiful cover of Black Skinned Blue-Eyed Boys by The Equals) and they certainly don’t forget to comment on the socio-political climate just as they did at the start. As a bonus, we find eleven live tracks (with all the hits from the golden era!), recorded in Paris at the Bataclan on November 30, 2014, and in London at the Troxy on November 16, 2016. A rather successful comeback. © Marc Zisman/Qobuz

Ska & Rocksteady - Released March 1, 2017 | Sanctuary Records

Though the sound quality is less than perfect, this 1979 live EP perfectly captures the raw energy of the band in its prime. The title track was the band's first number one hit in the U.K. ~ Chris Woodstra

Ska & Rocksteady - Released March 23, 2018 | Geffen

If they ever made a movie called "The British 2-Tone Band that Wouldn't Die," it would star the Specials. Almost twenty years after helping to usher in the first of several post-punk ska revivals, and after numerous lineup changes and hiatuses, the Specials are still out there preaching the same gospel. It's a rewrite of the ska sound of 1960s Jamaica, with heavy doses of punk and the British music-hall tradition. So if you're suspecting that the sound isn't exactly fresh, you're right -- if 2-Tone was something of a rehash when the Specials debuted in 1979, imagine how dated a revival of a rehash sounds. But just because it's dated doesn't mean it's no fun -- "Call Me Names" and "No Big Deal" are just as charming as anything the band wrote under the leadership of Jerry Dammers back in the day, and "Running Away" is a fun rewrite of "Monkey Man," the Toots Hibbert classic. There are three hidden tracks at the end of the disc: all are live versions of old Specials chestnuts ("Rat Race," "Concrete Jungle" and "Gangsters"). The problem is, those live versions just remind you of how much fresher this stuff sounded twenty years ago. ~ Rick Anderson

Ska & Rocksteady - Released February 1, 2019 | UMC (Universal Music Catalogue)

The Specials didn't end their golden age cleanly and they didn't reunite smoothly, either. Lynval Golding, Horace Panter and Neville Staple brought the group back in 1996 and that incarnation lasted for five years before being put on ice, but their revival was overshadowed by the 2008 reunion that featured vocalist Terry Hall as well as Roddy Radiation and John Bradbury from the group's golden days. This reunion stuck around for a decade, gradually losing members until only Hall, Golding and Panter were left, augmented by Ocean Colour Scene/Paul Weller guitarist Steve Cradock. This is the lineup who recorded Encore, a new studio album that arrives roughly ten years after the initial reunion, 18 years after Conquering Ruler, which was the last album released by the Specials, and a whopping 39 years after More Specials, which was the last time Hall made an album with the band. Hall's return to the fold is to be celebrated, but it's hard not to notice the absence of Jerry Dammers, the band's chief songwriter and keyboardist who left behind music for activism upon the dissolution of Special AKA in 1984. Although the Specials push social commentary to the forefront on Encore -- there is an ode to Black Lives Matter, a swipe against the second amendment, and the old Fun Boy Three tune "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)" has been recast as an anthem for the era of Brexit and Trump -- they're not spending much time on constructing songs, or even hooks. Everything on Encore is amiable but not especially defined: they play with the ease of a group who has made their living on the road, but they lack urgency, even when they're singing about hot-button issues. Despite this lack of fire, Encore is a definite step up from the covers albums the Specials made surrounding Y2K: they feel like a band with a purpose, even if they're not making an especially big deal about it. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine


The Specials in the magazine
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