Catch a Fire (Tuff Gong/Island, 1973)
Burnin' (Tuff Gong/Island, 1973)
Natty Dread (Tuff Gong/Island, 1974)
Live! (Tuff Gong/Island, 1975)
Rastaman Vibration (Tuff Gong/Island, 1976)
Exodus (Tuff Gong/Island, 1977)
Kaya (Tuff Gong/Island, 1978)
Babylon by Bus (Tuff Gong/Island, 1978)
Survival (Tuff Gong/Island, 1979)
Uprising (Tuff Gong/Island, 1980)
Confrontation (Tuff Gong/Island, 1983)
Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers (Tuff Gong/Island, 1984)
Rebel Music (Tuff Gong/Island, 1986)
Talkin' Blues (Tuff Gong, 1991)
One Love: Bob Marley and the Wailers at Studio One (Heartbeat, 1991)
Songs of Freedom (Tuff Gong/Island, 1992; Tuff Gong/Island, 1999)
V.1: Simmer Down at Studio One (Heartbeat, 1994)
V.2: The Wailing Wailers at Studio One (Heartbeat, 1994)
Natural Mystic (Tuff Gong/Island, 1995; Tuff Gong/Island, 2001)
Destiny: Rare Ska Sides From Studio One (Heartbeat, 1999)
Wailers and Friends: Top Hits Sung by the Legends of Jamaican Ska (Heartbeat, 1999)
Climb the Ladder (Heartbeat, 2000)
One Love: The Very Best of Bob Marley & the Wailers (Tuff Gong/Island, 2001)
Greatest Hits at Studio One (Heartbeat, 2003)
Africa Unite: The Singles Collection (Island/Tuff Gong, 2005)
If he had recorded nothing but Catch a Fire, Bob Marley would still be known as the person who introduced reggae music to millions of Americans. But more than just a cultural ambassador, Robert Nesta Marley was a fabulously talented songwriter who could mix protest music and undeniable pop as skillfully as Bob Dylan; even before Marley's death at age 36, he was becoming a true culture hero—the first major rock artist to come out of a Third World country. 30 years on, his record songs sound as fresh as ever. For newcomers, the best place to hear what Marley is all about is either the best-of compilation Legend, which has sold more than 10 million copies since 1984, or Africa Unite: The Singles Collection, which has 11 of Legend's tracks, plus remixes and rarities.
Although Marley is best known for the string of memorable albums he recorded during the Seventies, the original Wailers—Marley, Peter Tosh, and Neville "Bunny Wailer" Livingston—were a leading Jamaican vocal trio in the Sixties, cutting R&B-flavored sides with distinctive island rhythms. The development of the Wailers into a self-contained band mirrors the evolution of reggae itself; gradually, the group shook off the singles-minded approach of the early Jamaican studios and forged an expansive new groove from established local styles like ska, mento, and bluebeat. Emerging as a fiery topical songwriter and spiritually compelling frontman, Marley led the Wailers to international acclaim with the release of two startling albums in 1973. With stalwart bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett and drummer Carlton Barrett pumping out incendiary "riddims" behind the Wailers' smoky harmonies, Catch a Fire is a blazing debut. "Concrete Jungle" and "Slave Driver" crackle with streetwise immediacy, while "Kinky Reggae" and "Stir It Up" (a pop hit for Johnny Nash in '73) revel in the music's vast capacity for good-time skanking. "Stop That Train" and "400 Years," both written by Peter Tosh, indicate the original Wailers weren't strictly a one-man show. Burnin' glows even hotter; "Get Up, Stand Up" backs its activist message with an itchy, motivating beat. "I Shot the Sheriff" (covered by Eric Clapton in 1974) and "Small Axe" show Marley's verbal and melodic skills growing by leaps and bounds; he expertly blends personal testimony with political philosophy to make enduring points about institutionalized racism.
Tosh and Livingston left for solo careers after that album and were effectively replaced by the "I-Threes" trio: Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley (Mrs. Bob), and Judy Mowatt. Natty Dread captures the refurbished Wailers at an ambitious peak. "No Woman, No Cry" features Marley's most soulful vocal performance; while avoiding crippling despair, "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (Three o'Clock Roadblock)" articulate the anger of the oppressed and downtrodden; the title track and "So Jah Seh" posit the tangled web of Rastafarian belief without slipping totally into the cosmos. Live! documents a thrilling, tight-as-a-drum 1975 London performance of highlights from the first three albums. On Rastaman Vibration, Marley starts to fall back on pat formulas and ganja-stoked rhetoric. But the grimly prophetic "War" and the deceptively feel-good "Positive Vibration" stand out on an album that holds up to repeated listening (and dancing).
Marley opted for a lighter touch on Exodus and Kaya, adding lead guitars to the bass-defined reggae pocket. These two albums don't command the same attention as the earlier ones, but either effort will grow on a committed fan. Babylon by Bus is probably Marley's flattest and least-inspiring effort; this live set isn't bad, but the loose readings of Wailers classics can't compare to the marvelously succinct Live! Marley ups the political ante on the impassioned Survival: "Wake Up and Live" and "Ride Natty Ride" recast familiar messages in fresh musical surroundings, while "Zimbabwe" and "Africa Unite" confidently extend the Wailers' sphere of influence.
If Marley hadn't been fatally stricken with cancer in 1980, Uprising would most likely have ushered in a productive new decade for the world reggae ruler. The final Wailers album deftly summarizes Marley's revolutionary career: "Coming in From the Cold" strikes a measured note of hope; "Real Situation" acknowledges reasons for hopelessness; "Could You Be Loved" incorporates a winning taste of commercial funk; and "Redemption Song" closes the album with a heart-stopping acoustic plea.
Posthumous Marley releases have maintained a fairly high standard of quality. The Heartbeat issues cover Marley and the Wailers' early days at Studio One, when ska, which had emerged as Jamaica's homegrown interpretation of stateside rock & roll, ruled the West Indian nation's airwaves. Greatest Hits at Studio One skanks dancehall gems like "Simmer Down"; V.1 and V.2 survey the group's formative years; and Wailers and Friends easy-rocks with the legendary Skatalites. Confrontation includes rare tracks and outtakes, most notably the minor hit "Buffalo Soldier." Rebel Music and Natural Mystic collect some of the Wailers' most overtly radical statements in listenable agit-pop broadsides. Talkin' Blues mixes live versions and outtakes from their prime mid-Seventies period with telling interview snippets. One Love needlessly updates Legend, an indomitable greatest-hits set; as deep as this sterling single-disc album sounds, it barely scratches the surface. Songs of Freedom remedies this. From rock-steady crooner to dreadlocked Rasta, this four-disc box set is a fitting testament to Marley's transformative career.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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