417. ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, by Althea & Donna

Into 1978 we go then… 1977 was a bit of a slog – a year that started off slowly, with an interminable easy-listening winter and spring, but that had a fair few classics buried in the middle. You just had to be patient. What will the penultimate year of the decade serve up?

Uptown Top Ranking, by Althea & Donna (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1978

First of all, there’s a bit of reggae to beat the January blues! It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, this one. It’s a riff, a vibe, a mood that chugs along. Beach bar music. Which isn’t to say it’s bland, or best suited for the background. Not at all. The bass-line is superbly monotonous. The vocals are at once hypnotic and yet indecipherable.

It’s not rap; but it’s not singing, not really. And the lyrics are delivered in an uncompromisingly thick Jamaican patois, that to your average British listener must have sounded like a completely foreign language. See me in me heels an’ ting, Dem check, Say we hip an’ ting… (I googled the lyrics…) Love is all I bring, Inna me khaki suit an’ ting… Althea and Donna are dressed to impress, dancing, cruising around in their ‘Benz’. Basically, they are The Shit. They are ‘uptown top ranking’, a Jamaican phrase for flaunting it in the city.

The one bit I could get without any help was the refrain: Na pop no style, I strictly roots… The girls haven’t forgotten where they came from, no matter how much they are blinging. They’re still Jennies from the Block (as Jennifer Lopez would tell us many years later…) But forget J-Lo, this record sounds incredibly modern, extremely fresh. I’m getting… Rihanna. She should come back with a cover of this…

Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were seventeen and eighteen respectively when they released this, their only hit. And they really do sound like too-cool-for-school teenagers as they deliver their lines, which were apparently ad-libbed. In my head, I can see them painting their nails, applying lipstick, and looking impossibly young and stylish. Listening to this record – this forty-three year old disc – is making me feel very middle-aged.

It’s not just the singers, in fact. Everything about this song feels and sounds modern. There’re the ad-libs, for a start. And then there’s the fact that it’s based around a sample from a 1967 song, ‘I’m Still in Love’. And the fact that ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is an answer record, in response to a similarly braggadocio-filled track called ‘Three Piece Suit’, by Trinity, which also used the same rhythm. We are just in 1978, honest. I haven’t skipped thirty years by accident!

Althea and Donna didn’t bother with anything as basic as having a follow-up hit. They are one-hit wonders, baby. But what a hit, waking up the sleepy post-Christmas charts with a glimpse of downtown Kingston. I think it’s putting the word ‘Uptown’ in the title that does it. I can think of three ‘Uptown’ #1s, including this one, and they’re all great pop songs.



15 thoughts on “417. ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, by Althea & Donna

  1. Fab record still, and I like the idea of Rihanna rebooting it for a new generation – or at least Rihanna of a decade ago, she’s prob feeling too “middle-aged” too these days 🙂 I love reggae/ska, always have from the moment I heard My Boy Lollipop aged 6 and Hold Me Tight aged 10, israelites aged 11 and everything from then onwards too. I still buy reggae in 2021 (Chronixx is good, UB40 are still going – albeit in 2 brotherly-feud versions). So this joyous track is every bit as fun now as then. a couple of years ago I got invited to a 60th birthday disco which was predominantly families of Windrush generation (all but 4) and the music was total fabness, I knew the words to most of the 60’s/70’s reggae/soul choices and sang along with a drink in my hand wishing I could hear this stuff in clubs! It might be old-fashioned these more Club/Pop/Grime/Drill-filled days but I hate the idea its dying out as a genre…

    We need a revival!

    • I think I just showed my age there, thinking of Rihanna as young and current (though it will be interesting to see how she does if/when she comes back…)

      I would have said I wasn’t so keen on reggae before doing this blog, but I seem to enjoy every reggae hit that comes along. Maybe I’ve been converted!

      • yes it’s surprising how time flies in pop music – 6 years since she had a big hit and 8 years since she had a great record, not far off a decade since she was a big name in the pop world. I’m sure she’s planning a comeback but her actual album due in 2019 was a reggae album and is on “indefinite hiatus” so the signs aren’t good for a reggae revival. I’m guessing the record label thought reggae was too niche so she’s sticking to movies right now to stuff ’em.

  2. I never heard this before at all. Why didn’t they try a follow up? I know it’s like catching lightning in a bottle but still.

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