It is not easy choosing the best Bob Marley albums. In a catalogue of thirteen studio albums and four live concert recordings, there isn’t a weak link in the reggae chain.
Jamaican star Bob Marley was a prolific songwriter and he was also highly critical of his own music. There is a huge catalogue of unreleased Bob Marley material compared to the amount of contained in the official releases, according to some sources.
Perhaps this high standard is what makes every one of Marley’s albums so strong.
Three Bob Marley albums do manage to stand out in a collection of truly stellar music. Each album here represents a particular stage of Marley’s development as an artist, social thinker, and performer.
In 1978, Bob Marley and the Wailers* had released five studio albums with Island Records: Catch a Fire, Burnin, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration and Exodus.
Often political and highly energetic, these first five albums paved the way for the philosophical and mellow album Kaya.
Kaya is probably the most thoughtful and introspective of Marley’s albums and it is also, somehow, the most positive. A quick run down of the song titles clearly shows just how uplifting this album is: “Satisfy My Soul”; “Kaya”; “Sun Is Shining”; “Is This Love”; “Easy Skanking.”
It may sound odd to suggest that certain Marley albums were more or less positive than others. The author of “Three Little Birds” put forward a consistently uplifting message of love, social justice and brotherhood. But the Jamaican star that rose from poverty to prominence was often compelled to voice the opinions of the embittered and embattled poor. It’s not easy to write a positive song about hungry, powerless people.
Kaya is a lucky collection regarding the subject matter of the album’s songs. There are tracks about ardent love and ganja and songs about wisdom and understanding.
The Live album is filled with some of the best available versions of Bob Marley’s most memorable and anthemic songs. “No Woman, No Cry” is recorded here and it is this Live version that appears on the Legend, the first and most successful (greatest hits) compilation of Marley’s music.
“Get Up, Stand Up”, “Them Belly Full”, and “Burnin’ and Lootin'” each appear on Live in extended and rousing form.
Recorded during a 1975 world tour, Live may represent the high point of the Bob Marley & the Wailers era. Marley’s fame was vast but still growing in 1975 and his music emphasized hopeful rebellion against oppression and systemic poverty.
Later Marley’s lyrics would remain rebellious but would take on an edge of cynicism that is not yet apparent during the Live tour.
A very strong and poetic album, Exodus shows the beginnings of a harder lyrical tone in Marley, a bitterness that would grow and reach fruition with Uprising, where Marley sang of cultural and nuclear apocalypse, saying in “Real Situation” that it was too late and there “ain’t no use, nobody can stop them now.”
“War”, “Heathen”, “So Much Things to Say”, and “Guiltiness” constitute the darker side of the album which also boasts some of the classic, sweeter Marley songs, “Three Little Birds”, “Jamming”, “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
What connects the songs on Exodus is the level of emotion in each one. Where Kaya offers several philosophical and reserved tracks, Exodus presents a collection of songs that reject reservation. This album makes no compromises. Whether writing about love or justice, Marley reaches deep down on these songs, expressing a passion in Exodus to match the poetry of Kaya.
The lyricism and passion of Exodus, coupled with the twin messages of social justice and unity helped this album on its way to being selected as Time Magazine’s greatest album of the 20th century.
*The first Island recordings of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Catch a Fire and Burning’ were released as a “Wailers” albums. Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston/Wailer would soon move away from Marley and pursue solo projects.
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