This list was originally published March 28th, 2014. It’s being republished in honor of what would have been Bob Marley’s 75th birthday, February 6th, 2020.
In the 1981 Rolling Stone obituary, Bob Marley biographer Timothy White wrote, “The pervasive image of Bob Marley is that of a gleeful Rasta with a croissant-sized spliff clenched in his teeth, stoned silly and without a care in the world. But, in fact, he was a man with deep religious and political sentiments who rose from destitution to become one of the most influential music figures in the last 20 years.”
Make that 50. Marley’s stature and influence as a singer, songwriter, and international pop-culture prophet have only grown since those words were written. He is a cornerstone of 21st-century music, covered by countless singers, sampled and quoted by just as many hip-hop acts whose artistic DNA is shaped profoundly by the Jamaican music Marley defined. His artistic fearlessness and social commitment remain an inspiration to activists, musical and otherwise. His songs of freedom have become universal hymns.
“Marley sang about tyranny and anger, about brutality and apocalypse, in enticing tones, not dissonant ones,” Mikal Gilmore wrote in 2005. “His melodies take up a resonance in our minds, in our lives, and that can provide admission to the songs’ meanings… He was the master of mellifluent insurgency.”
Those melodies sing on. Here are their stories.
Hear most of Bob Marley’s 50 Greatest Songs on Spotify.