Monday, July 17, 2017

Five Reggae Records

Reggae music was creeping into America in the early seventies with singles by Jimmy Cliff and Paul Simon, and the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. Reggae broke out of Jamaica onto American ears big time in 1974 with Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot The Sheriff. The golden age of reggae music in America starts there, and ends in less than ten years with Marley's untimely death in 1981. The early eighties UK punks were big fans, and reggae mixed with punk from multiple UK sources in the eighties. And of course reggae music continues today, but my own interest in the style is decidedly not contemporary. My time with reggae was its seventies heyday.

I don't listen to reggae music all that often anymore, and when I thought of writing this blog entry, I went back to reconsider my favorites and reaffirm my belief in this short list as worthy contenders. These aren't "the best" reggae records ever made, not the least because I haven't kept up with the genre very well, but they are very very good examples of reggae classics from the seventies. The hardest part of compiling this list was choosing one Bob Marley record. So here's what I usually think of as my favorite reggae records:

Peter Tosh Equal Rights 1977. I wrote this one up before. I stand behind my opinion of it as the best reggae record ever. Great songs, delivered in Tosh's sumptuous baritone, and some of the best playing and arranging in the genre. And the recording is excellent. Eight perfect, politically charged song bombs. Classic.

Bunny Wailer Blackheart Man 1976. While Bunny Wailer never was as successful commercially as Tosh, they both made records every bit as good as Marley's after they left the Wailers. Tosh had a string of solid albums, while Bunny is mostly known for this gem, his solo debut. The songs, oh the songs. The title track, Fighting Against Convictions, Rasta Man, Armagedon, This Train, and especially Reincarnated Souls are all magnificent examples of the form. A rare classic that wasn't heard by enough reggae fans.

Burning Spear Marcus Garvey 1975. Winston Rodney, lead singer and primary songwriter for Burning Spear, has a fine, if somewhat nasal voice, and fills his singing with undeterred conviction. The music is roots reggae, the players (from Soul Syndicate and The Wailers) are top notch and the grooves are deep. The political message of Garvey (a Rastafari prophet and black activist leader) is a mixed message at best these days, and a difficult political stance to rationalize, but his activist work on behalf of blacks in the early twentieth century was heartfelt even if his aims seem out of place today. The record is filled with political and social concerns.

The Heptones Night Food 1976. Let's have some fun, and why not. In contrast to the political nature of much reggae, The Heptones were essentially a party band. They did covers of Motown and other soul classics, and they wrote some great ones themselves. Leroy Sibbles is a soulful crooner every bit as talented as Toots Hibbert. This was their Island records debut, and they rerecorded several classics from earlier Jamaican releases. This is "smooth reggae", dance music with the reggae vibe. A few songs (I Got The Handle and Fatty Fatty) are a bit misogynistic, so you've been warned, but so much here (Country Boy, Book Of Rules, Mama Say, Love Won't Come Easy, In The Groove) is just plain perfect soulful reggae that it is irresistible.

Bob Marley and the Wailers Kaya 1978. There's probably a better choice for "best" Bob Marley record, but I've always been fond of Kaya. On the heels of the politically charged Exodus 1977, Marley was criticized for his love and pot message, and his less angry approach. But the political is not entirely ignored, and can be heard in Crisis and the lovely Time Will Tell. The record contains great songs delivered in a laid back style, and Easy Skanking, Kaya, Is This Love, Satisfy My Soul, and Sun Is Shining are all stellar. I could have just as easily gone with Exodus, or even the original Wailers Catch A Fire 1973. Both of those are solid, as is pretty much all of Marley's seventies output.

Honorable mention goes to Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston 1973, the The Harder They Come 1972 soundtrack, and Black Uhuru Red 1981.