First, a little history. Bob Marley recorded his first song as a solo artist way back in 1962, and his band The Wailers had the first of many local Jamaican hits in 1964. There's no shortage of Marley/Wailers material from the '60s, which included a partnership with legendary producer/mad genius Lee Perry, the best of which can be heard on African Herbsman and Soul Revolution. However, the band didn't become an international force until signing with Island Records head honcho Chris Blackwell, who steered (largely due to marketing reasons) the band towards a more rock oriented direction. Catch A Fire, the first worldwide release by The Wailers (later rechristened Bob Marley & The Wailers), shows a reggae band in peak form. Sure, Marley was clearly the band’s leader, writing and singing lead on most of the songs, but tough Peter Tosh and sweet voiced Neville Livingstone lend impeccable harmonies, while Tosh takes over the lead vocals for two soulful songs that he also wrote, the confrontational “400 Years” and the groovy “Stop That Train” (both actually remakes from earlier releases). The Barrett brothers (Carlton on drums and Aston on bass), who the band had "stolen" from Perry, provide the sinuous rhythms that give even the lesser tracks here a seductive power, and most of these songs feature lazily rolling beats, some funky elastic bass, and atmospheric keyboards beside Marley’s personal and (primarily) political declarations. “Concrete Jungle” also weighs in with a lashing guitar solo, helping the “where is the love to be found?” lyrics reach an impressively oppressive intensity. Somewhat controversially, the guitar here and elsewhere on the album was supplied by an American session musician (Wayne Perkins in this case) at Blackwell's behest, as the savvy producer wanted the band to appeal to a rock audience. However, given that Marley himself gave these guitar parts his very own hearty thumbs up, and they sound damn good, I don't see what the problem is. Anyway, though “Baby We’ve Got A Date” and “Kinky Reggae” (lyric: “she had brown sugar, all over her booga-wooga”) are loose, lighter numbers that provide fun respites from the surrounding seriousness, the desperate sounding album closers “No More Trouble” and “Midnight Ravers” return to the more ominous tone that most of this album has. Meanwhile, the ghostly “Slave Driver” notes that “today they say we are free, only to be chained in poverty,” and this is typical of the type of rebellious lyrical themes that populate Marley's most militant album. “Stir It Up” is the album’s most fondly remembered song (in large part because it's the only song that appears on Legend), a soulful classic that's deliciously slow and sensuous, with some nifty extended guitar (Roger Lewis) and clavinet (John "Rabbit" Bundrick) soloing. Other personal favorites from an extremely consistent set list include "Concrete Jungle," "Slave Driver," "Stop That Train," and "Midnight Ravers." Those of you who would complain that the album is "too repetitive" should show me a reggae album that isn't, and besides, the band's great grooves, enjoyable melodies, compelling lyrics, and superlative singing more than makes up for any shortcomings. All in all, Catch A Fire was a landmark release that introduced a major "new" force into the world of music, and it still stands as a superb album statement by a great band whose leader would later conquer the world.
Burnin’ (Island/Tuff Gong ‘73) Rating: A
If anything, this supremely confident album actually improved and expanded upon the classic Catch A Fire. Unfortunately, Burnin' was the last Wailers album to feature Tosh and Livingstone, both of whom would go onto solo careers (the latter as Bunny Wailer) amid dissatisfaction with Marley’s increasing dominance within the band. Fittingly, the band's harmonies are exemplary throughout, almost as if the group wanted to go out together on a high. The music is first rate as well, as their spiritual harmonies effortlessly interweave around earthy, simply swaying grooves that accentuate the group’s gift for melody. Earl "Wire" Lindo joins the band on keyboards, lending a richness of sound to many of these songs, several of which are classics ("Get Up, Stand Up" and "I Shot The Sheriff" were the Legendary cuts here) and three of which ("Put It On," "Small Axe," and "Duppy Conqueror") were remakes of older songs. “Get Up, Stand Up," a Tosh/Marley co-composition, defiantly begins the proceedings with a sparse yet powerful call to arms, yet this rebel rousing anthem is followed by a song that is almost its polar opposite, "Hallelujah Time," a joyous spiritual sung by Wailer that demonstrates the band's debt to The Impressions. The album's next song is the justifiably famous "I Shot The Sheriff," which features a great Marley vocal and female backing vocals, which would become increasingly prominent in Marley's music. The militant mood continues with the slower paced "Burnin' and Lootin'," which has a moody, head bobbin' groove and an overall message that sometimes force is necessary. Marley was a pacifist at heart, however, and the mood of the album upswings on the next several songs, which form my favorite part of the album. "Put It On" is a lighter, extremely catchy number on which Marley extols the upbeat messages of his Rastafarian religion (a common theme throughout his music), and though "Small Axe" is again about the oppressed rising up against authority, its bright keyboards, catchy melody, and buoyant harmonies are what matter most. Wailer then sings another impressive Impressions-flavored track, "Pass It On," which has a singable melody and a spirit of generosity that, when coupled together, forms the very definition of "feel good music." And though the last three songs (“Duppy Conqueror,” Tosh's "One Foundation," and “Rasta Man Chant”) are slightly less impressive, the band's brilliant, often-chanted harmonies make them go down easy anyway, and by then this album's classic status had already been assured. After all, it features a deft mix of hard-hitting, militant politics along with mellower, more upbeat spiritual proclamations, yet the album still holds together as a whole very well. Their excellence would not go unrewarded, either, as Eric Clapton’s cover version of "I Shot The Sheriff" would soon go all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts. The popularity of reggae would soon explode, led by its leading light, Bob Marley, whose skyrocketing career trajectory would resume unimpeded despite the unfortunate departure of his two talented comrades.
Natty Dread (Island/Tuff Gong ’74) Rating: A-
Perhaps I overstated things at the end of the last review, as Marley was still only a hip cult artist when Natty Dread was released; superstardom would actually arrive a little later. Anyway, Marley's first solo album sees the I-Threes (wife Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt) replacing Tosh and Wailer, while Al Anderson's economical guitar playing provided a welcome new addition, and Bernard "Touter" Harvey replaced Lindo (who still plays on some songs) as a full-time Wailer. Yes, this album is still credited to Bob Marley & The Wailers, which is actually fitting when you consider that the Barrett brothers were still in the fold, and they immediately make their presence felt, bringing a fat bottom end to "Lively Up Yourself," which expertly showcases the strengths of each new band member. Unsurprisingly, this is yet another resurrected golden oldie (par for the course, one of three on the album, the others being "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Bend Down Low"), and again it's a good one (gotta love its simple yet effective message: "don't be no drag"), though it seems like a mere warm up compared to "No Woman, No Cry," arguably Marley's most famous and greatest song. A soulful ballad with a beautiful Marley vocal, the song is also notable for its early usage of a drum machine, while "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" is a prime example of the album's loose, laid back (yet funky) feel, as well as Marley's ability to search for the positive ("forget your troubles and dance, forget your sorrow and dance") even when delivering a searing political rant. "Rebel Music (3 O'clock Road Block)" is certainly aptly titled, with a heavy dosage of Marley's falsetto and the I-Threes, yet this overly long and sometimes shrill sounding song drags a bit, while "So Jah Seh" is another example of how the middle of the album (in contrast to Burnin') is often more about atmosphere and mood than memorable melodies. The song is also yet another overt reference to his Rastafarian religion, as Marley continues to mix political and religious message songs. The title track is another song likely to lively up yourself, again with essential support from the I-Threes, but that song and the slight yet singable "Bend Down Low" show how Marley is often content to coast by on repetitive chants. Still, these songs are always listenable and enjoyable, and the album ends with a couple of excellent, underrated entries. Both "Talkin' Blues" (regrettable line: "feel like bombing a church, now that you know that the preacher is lying") and "Revolution" take on the establishment and ruffled quite a few feathers, but then again that's what rebel songs are supposed to do, and Marley's were more likely to jump start a party than serve as a lightning rod for any real revolution, anyway. That said, Natty Dread is slightly less incendiary than the two previous albums, but perhaps that's due to the departures of Tosh and Wailer, both of whom are missed; as good as the I-Threes are, they can't match the original Wailers in the harmony department. Still, for all its flaws (mostly a less than heavenly mid-section) this was another really good album, one of his very best, in fact. Note: Oddly enough, not a single song here made it onto his Legend compilation, though perhaps that's because its three best songs had already appeared on his Live! album.
Live! (Island/Tuff Gong ’75) Rating: A
This legendary live album was as raw, exciting, and flat-out good as Bob Marley & The Wailers ever got. Live! showcases what an extraordinary performer and singer Bob Marley was, as well as showing off the strengths of his stellar, Barrett brothers-led backing band. The intimate setting of London's now defunct Lyceum Theatre (the album is also known as Live At The Lyceum) is where Bob confidently presented seven classic reggae songs, three apiece from Burnin' and Natty Dread, as well as "Trenchtown Rock," an upbeat sing along party song on which Bob urges to "hit me with music." Looser arrangements and a spontaneous spirit of improvisation mark most of these song versions, most of which I prefer to the originals. Certainly this is the definitive version of “No Woman, No Cry” (in fact, it annihilates the still-great studio version), beginning with Harvey's celestial church organ. The elongated song builds beautifully, spurred on by an impassioned vocal from Bob, audience participation from a crowd who are clearly into it, a typically tasteful Anderson guitar solo, and a shouted mantra ("everything is gonna be all right") that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This song also shows Bob's ability to transcend musical barriers, as this isn't a reggae song at all but instead fits the classic soul mode, being one of the very best ballads ever in the process (in fact, it's the rare song that's so great it actually gives me the chills). Anyway, the rest of the track list smartly showcases Marley's harder-edged side, which is better suited for a live audience, yet again these message songs could kick start any party (aside from "Burnin' and Lootin'," which is even more bluesy and intense than the original). Plus, it’s neat to hear the I-Threes (actually the I-Twos, as Mowatt declined to tour) on some of the earlier Wailers tracks, while powerful political protests like “Them Bully Full (But We Hungry)” and “Get Up, Stand Up” were tailor made for the stage, where Marley and co. put in hot performances. Perhaps one could quibble about the occasionally imperfect sound quality and some botched notes here and there (this is a true live album, with no "fixing" in the studio), and some prefer the more succinct studio versions of these songs. While we’re at it, a running time of 37 minutes is pretty cheap for a live album, but since I've never heard the versions of "Slave Driver," "Three O' Clock Roadblock," "Kinky Reggae," "Natty Dread," and "Stir It Up" that were also performed at the gig from which this album was recorded, I can't complain about being shortchanged. Besides, what is here is truly great, as Live! does exactly what it sets out to do: it presents familiar songs but casts them in a new light (reggae or not, these songs rock), while also giving a glimpse of what it might have been like to have been there. Those who were there were very lucky.
Rastaman Vibration (Island/Tuff Gong ’76) Rating: B
After such consistent high quality, I suppose a slight slip up was inevitable. After two fiery albums, a laid back yet funky party platter, and a fun, hard rocking live album, Rastaman Vibration was an altogether different affair. Darker and considerably less inviting than previous albums, this is Marley's most Rasta-obsessed album yet, but the music lacks the energy we've come to expect, as Marley and his equally sluggish comrades instead deliver a sparse, somewhat dub heavy album that has a stoned ambiance. For example, "Positive Vibration" and "Roots, Rock, Reggae" are awfully plodding attempts at anthems, though they certainly are catchy enough (especially the latter), while resurrected oldies such as "Cry To Me" and "Night Shift" seem fairly perfunctory this time, almost as if Marley was filling up space. Actually, "Crazy Baldhead" is recast from a previous Wailers song as well (many of the verses come from 1967's "Freedom Song"), and "Who The Cap Fit" is another remake but much better, while "Want More" and "War" both boast a riveting intensity. The latter song, which forms music around a speech from Emperor Haile Selassie to the United Nations in 1968, is especially striking, and is as prescient today as the day it was released, as is "Rat Race," another downcast political meditation that could've been written yesterday. So, as you can see there are some good songs here ("Johnny Was" is another strong song that sees Bob in storyteller mode, with sympathetic support from the I-Threes), which isn't surprising coming from one of the most consistently great artists of the '70s. Still, this is only an average Bob Marley album, as too many songs simply come and go, many adopting slow, downtrodden grooves over which Bob chants as the I-Threes chime in. Yet such are their vocal talents, and such is the resourcefulness of his still formidable backing band (despite some at times dated synth sounds), that all of these songs are at least listenable and are generally enjoyable. Like pizza and sex, even average Bob Marley is still pretty darn good, but those searching for Marley at his magical best should look elsewhere. Note: Unsurprisingly, not a single song from Rastaman Vibration was selected for Legend, which presents Marley at his most accessible.
Exodus (Island/Tuff Gong ’77) Rating: A
After arduous bouts of touring, Bob returned home to Jamaica, only to be greeted with an attack on his life that he fortunately survived. Perhaps Bob had become too "dangerously influential" to some people, but Bob wasn't taking any chances, so he relocated to London to record the aptly titled Exodus, his most famous and commercially successful album. This album really plays like an LP (as opposed to a compact disc), as its two sides are markedly different from one another. The album starts by easing into "Natural Mystic," which is all about its repetitive but hypnotic throb, though it has some cool jamming on saxophone and guitar as well, the latter supplied by Junior Marvin, who ably replaces the great Al Anderson. An anomaly on side one, "So Much Things To Say" is a catchy, brightly upbeat sing along song, and a very underrated one at that, but things get darker on the low-key funk of "Guiltiness," where Bob takes on the "big fish who always try to eat down the small fish," and the tough, intense "The Heathen," whose chanted mantras call for yet another revolution against the status quo. These songs show that Marley wasn't backing down, despite the recent events, and some more stellar Marvin guitar at the end of the song provides the perfect lead in to the title track, a rare Marley epic that clocks in at a whopping 7:38. An impressive mix of reggae and funk rhythms, this is one song that sounds important, and it also provides an example of this album's increased use of well placed horns, which help the song achieve an undeniable momentum despite its repetitive indulgences (some might call this - and "The Heathen," for that matter - chants rather than songs). Anyway, after that fitting curtain closer to side one, side two is considerably different, as Marley does away with much of the politics for a more personal approach. The music is mellower and more accessible as well, with four of the five tracks being acknowledged classics. "Jamming" is the first Bob Marley song I ever heard, and small wonder I was soon smitten with his music, as it has a gloriously groovy, low-key vibe that all but oozes sex appeal. If anything, the timeless ballad “Waiting In Vain” is even better, featuring a wonderfully understated and emotional Marley vocal (I especially love its "I don't wanna, I don't wanna, I don't wanna wait in vain" outro) along with an effortlessly laid back groove. In fact, it's probably one of my five favorite Marley songs, and "Turn Your Lights Down Low" is another pretty ballad that reveals a real vulnerability, even if it kinda gets lost amid such stellar company (this one deserves to be famous whereas the surrounding songs on side two all are famous). Amazingly, despite the recent brush with death that forced his exodus from Jamaica, rather than wallow in bitterness Bob goes the other route, jubilantly embracing life on the album’s final two songs, “Three Little Birds” and “One Love/People Get Ready.” Two of the catchiest sing alongs in the Marley catalogue, if these ridiculously upbeat songs, both of which boast a naive charm, don’t put you in a good mood then you probably should seek counseling for clinical depression; they’re that undeniable. So there you have it, a well-sequenced 10-song album that delivers a potent mix of protest songs along with lovely, reflective love songs and even a couple of upbeat, keep the faith (i.e. "it'll be all right") anthems. My quibbles about this album are minor in that the first side could probably use a few more hooks and the second side a greater sense of gravity. Still, this is a great album (five of its songs are on Legend for good reason) that's probably Bob Marley's late period peak.
Kaya (Island/Tuff Gong ’78) Rating: B+
A cancerous toe that required surgery limited Marley's studio time, so most of these songs (including three more remakes) came from the Exodus sessions. Unsurprisingly, Kaya continues the lighter mood of that album's second side. The first two songs, "Easy Skanking" and "Kaya," immediately present one of the albums primary themes (the pleasures of smoking dope, or "kaya") with easy going melodies and slight yet singable choruses (in fact, I've been humming the former song all day). "Is This Love" presents another theme (love, obviously) and is the albums standout track. In fact, this is the song that my wife and I used as the music for the picture montage in our wedding video, as it's one of those universal ballads (despite its obvious sentimentality) that only Marley and very few others can pull off. The intensity temporarily ratchets up on the sparse, intense (and ironically titled) "Sun Is Shining" before the horn heavy "Satisfy My Soul" then kicks in. With help from the even-more-prominent-than-usual I-Threes, this is another deservedly Legendary track (along with "Is This Love") that exemplifies this albums spiritual bent (lines like "give Jah all the thanks and praises" present another primary theme). Anyway, without running through every song here, suffice it to say that the album's strength is in its consistency, as it never gets too low even though it rarely rises especially high. In fact, the sing songy chants of "She's Gone" (all 2:25 of it) and "Misty Morning" (on which the I-Threes absolutely steal the show) are likely to be forgotten as soon as they're over, but that's ok, because above all else this album has a real vibe going for it. Actually, all of his albums do, but most of his other albums have great songs as well, whereas with this one the vibe is the primary attraction. That vibe is easy on the ears and eminently pleasurable if somewhat forgettable, though "Time Will Tell" (love the guitars on that one) is another obvious highlight later covered by The Black Crowes. As far a cry from the militant Wailers as could possibly be, Kaya showcases another, less serious side of Bob's artistry, possibly because he had grown tired of grandiose expectations and the prophet-like pull he had on people. Still, this enjoyable album should definitely be part of any Bob Marley collection, and I myself find that I play this pleasant diversion more than many of his more serious artistic statements.
Uprising (Island/Tuff Gong ’80) Rating: A-
After two years that saw the release of a live album (Babylon By Bus) and a studio album (Survival), Uprising became the last album that Bob Marley released during his lifetime, as he tragically succumbed to cancer at the young age of 36. Recorded during the same sessions as Survival (which also produced songs for the posthumously released Confrontation, which contained one of his most famous songs in "Buffalo Soldier"), Uprising has an added resonance because of the circumstances surrounding it, but it would receive a high recommendation from me regardless. Though the catchy mid-tempo dance riddims on display here are even more similar sounding than usual, an impressive overall groove carries the record (turning a negative into a positive), which is boosted by some of Marley’s best lyrics. Starting with the funky, upbeat “Coming In From The Cold,” which contains some of the catchiest male backing chants since The Wailers, things turn darker on “Real Situation” (“well it seems like total destruction, the only solution”), at least from a lyrical standpoint, because the music is again simple and brightly upbeat if not quite as good. "Bad Card" ("I want to disturb my neighbor (author's note: not to borrow sugar) 'cause I'm feeling all right") and “We And Dem” (“we no know how we and them a-go work this out”) are similarly themed, but neither are standouts from a musical standpoint, unlike "Work," which memorably ends side one on a tough, militant tone. An intense, moody atmosphere then marks "Zion Train," one of several songs that is all about its slow skank and chanted vocals, while Marley's impassioned vocals (one of his very best, I'd say) on "Pimper's Paradise" are as memorable as its seedy storyline. Finishing with a flourish, “Could You Be Loved,” a significant hit single, is simply one of Marley’s best and catchiest dance anthems, while “Forever Loving Jah” again addresses a major Marley theme, aided by another slow skank and supported (as always) by the I-Threes and his ever-funky backing band, which includes Junior Marvin and Al Anderson in addition to the other usual suspects. Last but certainly not least, the soulful “Redemption Song” closes out the album (and at the time, Marley’s career) on a high by modestly declaring: “all I ever had is songs of freedom, won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?” This brilliant folk ballad, featuring Bob and his lone acoustic guitar, was arguably his greatest song yet (primary competition: the live version of "No Woman No Cry"), making his death all the more tragic since he obviously had so many more great songs - and messages - to give (as Wyclef Jean put it: ""Redemption Song" transcends time. It will mean the same thing in the year 3014"). Fortunately, millions of people have since helped sing Bob Marley & The Wailers' songs of freedom and love (of Jah, ganja, and most importantly, life itself), and Uprising saw the gifted young man exiting the world’s grand stage while still in fine form.
Legend (Island/Tuff Gong ‘84) Rating: A+
Bob Marley’s most consistently fun album, the aptly titled Legend is simply a dazzling 14-track collection of the most hummable hits by reggae’s greatest artist, making it nothing less than both the greatest reggae album of all-time and a model “greatest hits” set. Superlatively sequenced, with one song naturally flowing into the next, this is both a collection for hardcore fans (if only because it's better than any playlist that you're likely to ever make) and the uninitiated. Perhaps some small quibbles could be mustered, such as the fact that there are more songs from Exodus (5) than his first five Island/Tuff Gong albums combined (4), but that just makes those other albums that much more essential on their own, and besides all of the songs from Exodus are undeniably excellent. Those who would complain that this collection shortchanges the harder-edged, more militant side of Marley in favor of his more accessible, less threatening side have a point as well, but they can be appeased by simply checking out this album's companion collection, Rebel Music (Island/Tuff Gong '86). You certainly won't hear me complain about this album, which is probably among my top ten favorite albums of all-time and which I've listened to literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times (it helps that my wife feels equally strongly about it). In fact, I've actually heard this album played in the strangest of places, including on vacation in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and even Italy. Is there a more universally loved artist worldwide than Bob Marley? That's hard to imagine, and this is the one album that every home seems to have, the one essential Marley album to own if you're only going to own one (but why in the world would you stop here?). As a final anecdote, when I visited the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, I saw a movie about the artists inducted. As the inductees appeared one at a time, some had more of a presence than others, and Bob Marley was among a select few who actually gave me goose bumps, just by being Bob Marley. He had that aura, was indeed a true legend, and never was his all-inclusive musical strengths more apparent than on this legendary compilation, a desert island disc that will immediately bring a smile to the face and put a bounce in the step of everyone around.
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