The Anatomy of Bob Marley's Legend Album

Categories: Reggae

Bob Marley's Legend compilation has come to define the reggae singer's career, but is that a good thing?
Look no further for proof of Bob Marley's legacy than the vast number of bands influenced by his work and the multitude of Marley posters that adorn dorm-room walls. More than 30 years after his death in 1981, Bob Marley and the Wailers touch people of all ages. Mostly because of the mind-boggling success of his greatest hits album, Legend, which his label released posthumously in 1984.

Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers is the best-selling reggae album of all time. Yet the 14 tracks represent a slender, if satisfying, slice of the Marley pie. That is, Legend's portrait of the complex Jamaican singer is incomplete; Marley's musical accomplishments go far beyond the songs on this record.

See Also: How Bob Marley Was Sold to the Suburbs

Just what is the role of greatest hits collections? Only legendary artists get them. Many are released either post-death or post-breakup. Even fewer transcend the albums from which they are collected. But some come to define an artist. Take, for example, Jimi Hendrix. The Ultimate Experience, which contains 20 of Jimi's best songs and for many is the beginning and end of their Hendrix fandom. The Best of the Doors bears a similar burden -- to be the end-all source of stature for anyone wishing to have a perfunctory knowledge of music history. Queen's Greatest Hits is much of the same.

(Of course, the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975, is one of the best-selling albums of all time. But no one really attacks the album as unrepresentative of the Eagles' musical legacy since few are invested in the Eagles' musical legacy. Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Freddie Mercury were legendary rock stars who inspired cult followings and fervored late-night discussion about what it all meant. Eagles songs make great karaoke.)

Greatest hits albums typically don't satisfy serious music fans, usually for two reasons: One is that such records reflect popularity rather than quality. The other is, why bother?

Greatest hits albums that are no more than mixtapes of the best songs an artist has written basically are worthless to diehard fans, which is why so many releases include b-sides or live versions -- little extras to convince serious listeners that the compilation is worth their dollars. If you ignore the diehards and the compulsive record collectors, you ignore a sizable chunk of the record-buying populace.

The first argument is more difficult to define. After all, it is understandably difficult to condense a lifetime of artistic output (in Marley's case, 12 or 13 studio albums, depending on how you count) into a single representative disc. So should we really fault greatest hits records for serving as anything more than a gateway to the artist's complete catalog?

The problem arises when a compilation album, after its release, becomes the most popular album that an artist released, and Legend falls into this category. Legend certainly is a collection of great songs, but its tracklist (based on the original 1984 tracklist, not the deluxe edition released in the early 2000s) skews heavily toward the end of Marley's career, skims the middle, and ignores the beginning. The album also chooses to focus on the "One Love" Marley, the Marley who preached compassion for his fellow man while almost ignoring the political Marley, who was about curing social injustices and helping the poor.

The tracks of Legend are as follows: "Is This Love," "No Woman, No Cry," "Could You Be Loved," "Three Little Birds," "Buffalo Soldier," "Get Up, Stand Up," "Stir It Up," "One Love/People Get Ready," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Waiting in Vain," "Redemption Song," "Satisfy My Soul," "Exodus," and "Jamming."

These songs come mostly from Marley's stint with Island Records, which is not surprising, since Island released Legend. But Marley's career is much more than that; some consider the records he and the Wailers made with Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry to be their most compelling work. The two albums, Soul Rebels (1970) and African Herbsman (1973), are absent from Legend. Instead, the album contains five tracks from Exodus (1977), the mainstream's consensus pick for greatest Marley album; two from Uprising (1980); one from the posthumous Confrontation (1983); two from Kaya (1978); two from Burnin' (1973); one from Live (1975), though the particular track, "No Woman, No Cry," comes from the 1974 album Natty Dread; and one from Catch a Fire (1973).

Legend isn't entirely apolitical. "Buffalo Soldier," though cryptic, addresses the cruel tragedy of black slaves brought to America only to later fight against other indigenous peoples victimized by European colonialists, Native Americans.

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Nice work David. There's so much more to this legend than "Legend".

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