If anything is certain in the everything-is-subject-to-debate world of pop music, it’sthat Bob Marley is reggae music’s greatest figure. The late singer’s commentary and passion influenced everyone from the Clash and U2 to Rage Against the Machine.
It’s a tribute to Marley’s ability to connect with new generations of listeners that his “Legend,” a 14-song best-of album, has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and has spent 12 years on Billboard magazine’s catalog chart, which measures current sales of pre-1999 releases.
For those wanting to dig deeper into Marley’s body of work, however, the Universal Music Group has just re-released his first five Island/Tuff Gong albums, complete with one or more bonus tracks per album and upgraded sound quality.
In addition, Universal has re-released what may be the single most inviting reggae album ever: the soundtrack to the 1972 film “The Harder They Come.” Marley, who died of cancer in 1981, isn’t featured on the album, but you will find terrific tracks by such reggae-related artists as Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals and Desmond Dekker.
The soundtrack and three of the five Marley albums receive top scores in the From the Vaults grading system. Essential albums are works that deserve a place in a comprehensive pop library. The “for collectors” rating is for those mostly suited to hard-core collectors of a particular artist or style. The “also available” category is simply an acknowledgment of routine or lesser releases.
Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Burnin’ ” (Island/Tuff Gong). Under the leadership of founder Chris Blackwell, Island Records was a remarkable showcase for valuable talent--it’s the label that gave us U2, Steve Winwood and PJ Harvey. But Marley’s breakthrough in the ‘70s may stand as Island’s biggest contribution to the international pop landscape because of the difficulty in finding an audience for Marley and reggae at a time when U.S. pop fans weren’t all that open to “foreign” sounds.
Blackwell’s strategy was to present Marley as a rock star, not someone who was relegated to the world music or reggae bins in record shops. He was helped by critics who championed the Jamaican star’s work as a mix of the commentary of Bob Dylan and the stage energy of Mick Jagger.
Some Jamaican records had become hits in the U.S. over the years, but the music on Marley’s first Island release, “Catch a Fire,” seemed almost revolutionary in its combination of the sensual reggae sound and aggressive social commentary. Today, however, the performances on the 1973 album seem too restrained and the production touches cluttered when measured against Marley’s more striking later studio work and his often electrifying stage shows.
Where I understand how Marley devotees could call the album essential, I’d drop it to the “for collectors” category.
But “Burnin’,” the second Island/Tuff Gong release, does demand a spot on the essential list because the album (also from 1973) better approaches the passion and craft that I’ve always associated with Marley. It opens with one of his signature tunes, “Get Up, Stand Up” and includes “I Shot the Sheriff,” which was later a hit for Eric Clapton.
Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Natty Dread” (Island/Tuff Gong). While credited to Marley & the Wailers, this 1974 release was really the first of Marley’s solo albums because his talented cohorts in the Wailers--Peter Tosh, who wrote “Stop That Train,” and Bunny Wailer--had both left the group to pursue solo careers. Although Marley is usually praised for his songwriting, social crusades and charismatic presence, he also was a remarkably affecting singer. His version of “No Woman, No Cry” here is one of his most soulful vocals.
Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Live!” (Island/Tuff Gong). Taken from two London concerts in 1975, this gem--featuring some of Marley’s most invigorating tunes--is one of the great live albums ever, a collection that ranks with James Brown at the Apollo and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. If you want just one of the five reissues, this might be it.
Various artists, “The Harder They Come” soundtrack (Island). This 1972 film about a reggae star and political martyr is one of the half-dozen most absorbing pop-rock films ever, and the soundtrack is equally captivating. Among the musical highlights: Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” and Cliff’s rendition of the title tune.
Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Catch a Fire” (Island/Tuff Gong). See “Burnin’ ” above.
Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Rastaman Vibration” (Island/Tuff Gong). This 1976 collection was Marley’s commercial breakthrough in the U.S., reaching No. 8 on the pop chart, but that had more to do with timing than with the music itself. By the time this album hit the stores, rock critics, radio programmers and even active rock fans had worked up so much enthusiasm for Marley that the forces all came together in support of this recording. It’s certainly respectable, but not up to the level of his best work.
Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com