Last week while reading Unburnable, I felt some nostalgia for my Bob Marley days. When I was a kid between the ages of maybe 14 and 16, I was obsessed with Bob Marley, Reggae music and Rastafarian culture — though unlike Bill Clinton, the reason I didn’t inhale was because I wasn’t smoking.
Over time, I kind of lost my Bob Marley enthusiasm for a series of reasons. I even wrote a tongue-and-cheek criticism, for the sake of argument, about white people who assume the Rasta look. It was amazing to see how many people fell for the trap and responded angrily. Every once in a while I still put on some of my old Reggae albums by artists like Burning Spear, Joe Higgs, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jacob Miller, Ijahman Levi, and others that I had lived off of in my adolecence.
And whenever I revisit Bob Marley, I am always more than impressed by the depth his music. All of his music can be summed up by the lines from “Trench Town Rock” that reads, “one good thing about music is that when it hurts you feel no pain.”
While Unburnable reminded me of my Bob Marley years, I decided that it was probably time to refresh my Bob Marley music collection onto more modern media. Back in the day — in that no-man’s land between vinyl and CDs — I had practically my entire Reggae collection on cassette tape. For the past few years, I have gone through the process of buying only my favorite Reggae albums and transforming them into electronic format. It’s amazing to see how much easier it is to find the classic Reggae CDs today than it was back in the mid 80s. I even had to convert a few obscure Joe Higgs’ albums from cassette and vinyl into eletronic format because they were out of print. I just may be the only person around who has digital copies of Unity is Power and Triumph.
But with Bob Marley CDs, I could pretty much ask friends for a copy of their copies. I then went onto All Music to check out the “official” list of Bob Marley recordings. For me, the “official” or even important recordings are the ones that he did for Island records during his lifetime (with the sole exception of the posthumous Confrontation), and these are the ones that I am most interested in obtaining.
I was very interested to read that All Music and I had very different impressions on what were his top albums. I suppose that some of my preferences probably have to do with the order in which I purchased each album and the circumstances at the time.
For example, in retrospect Confrontation (put together with unfinished loose ends) is definitely not his signature piece, but was the first Bob Marley album that I ever got my hands on. As a matter of fact, the first song “Chant Down Babylon” would have been the first Bob Marley song that I had ever heard. Therefore, Confrontation will always have a special place in my personal Reggae history.
According to All Music, Natty Dread is one of Bob’s best albums. For me, it was one of his weakest Island recordings. Yes, it has some of his most important works, but the performances of those works, especially “No Woman No Cry” are far superior on Live! — which I think is his all around strongest album.
Another album that receives top reviews is Exodus, but Exodus was always for me Bob’s desperate appeal to the disco/pop American audience. The album did produce the majority of the standard Bob Marley hits that would later appear on Legend, but I could never understand what was so great about summing up Bob Marley’s music career with a bunch of love songs and dance hits.
My favorite albums were by far the aforementioned Live!, Burnin’, Rastaman Vibration, and Survival — in retrospect, his most militant works. It’s incredible for me to see how Survival receives such a low rating by All Music or even Rastaman Vibration. I can only imagine how All Music felt about Jeremiah Wright’s sermons.
Overall, though, I think there was something that I had loved in each album. Here are is the list of his Island recordings with my favorite songs from each:
- Catch a Fire: Concrete Jungle, Slave Driver, 400 Years, and Stop that Train.
- Burnin’: Get Up Stand Up, Burnin’ and Lootin’, Small Axe, and Rastaman Chant
- Natty Dread: Them Belly Full (But we hungry), Lively Up Yourself
- Live!: Trench Town Rock, No Woman No Cry
- Rastaman Vibration: Johnny Was, Crazy Baldhead, Who the Cap Fit, War, and Rat Race.
- Exodus: Waiting in Vain and Three Little Birds
- Kaya: Running Away, Sun is Shining, and Time Will Tell
- Babylon by Bus: None in particualr
- Survival: Babylon System, Africa Unite, One Drop, and Ride Natty Ride
- Uprising: Bad Card and Redemption Song
- Confrontation: Chant Down Babylon, Blackman Redemption, Trench Town, Stiff Necked Fools, and I Know.
Now whenever I go back and listen to Bob Marley’s music — what feels like three or four lifetimes ago — most of the lyrics are worn-out clichés or out-of-context Biblical verses, but nevertheless, they still sound powerful, moving and alive. That’s Bob’s eternal appeal.