bob marley & the wailers - legend (album cover)Like most people my age, I was introduced to reggae through Bob Marley’s outstanding 1984 compilation Legend, which was released shortly after his death in 1981. Legend has become one of the most important compilation albums in the history of popular music, serving as the entrance point to an entire genre of music for more than ten million Americans. Legend has become the highest-selling reggae album of all time, and by far at that. None of the albums that Bob Marley released during his lifetime sold even one million copies here in the United States, and yet somehow Marley has become this enormous icon. His music has transcended generations with remarkable ease, and it’s not hard to explain why: Bob Marley is reggae music.

the wailers - catch a fire (album cover)I am hard-pressed to think of another figure in popular music who has a hold on an entire genre of music the way he does. If you hear a reggae song by someone else, you instantly compare it to Bob Marley. It’s really kind of unfair, but it’s the way it is. And while Legend is still to this day the definitive reggae album, I outlawed compilations when I started making this list some time ago now. I had been meaning to listen to Marley’s studio work for a while, so I bought his major albums — Catch a Fire and Burnin’ from 1973, Natty Dread from 1974, and Exodus from 1977 — pretty cheaply on iTunes. But then I thought about the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” on Legend and thought, “Maybe I should get that album, too.”

bob marley & the wailers - natty dread (album cover)And that’s how I bought Live! I listened through his studio albums, and while I liked them, they didn’t quite leave the impression I wanted. Maybe I just need more time with them. But I immediately connected with Live!, which was recorded on July 18, 1974 at the Lyceum Theatre in London while Bob Marley & The Wailers were touring behind Natty Dread. The Lyceum only holds about 2,000 people, but it seems like the entire city is listening in throughout the show. The way Marley hysterically yells out “Rastafari! Almighty God!” amidst the gigantic roar of applause at the end of “Lively Up Yourself” is nothing short of magical. It’s a really raucous crowd, and it’s one of those shows that captures lightning in a bottle. It’s an accident, really, when these kinds of zeitgeists happen. Amazing art becomes hysterically popular, and no one can control it.

The music industry is all about control. They like to be able to just “produce” successful music sell it like a cup of yogurt at a grocery store. But every so often, something comes along out of left field and resonates with people and the industry can’t explain it. (Though they happily make more of it, it should be noted.) Typically, what happens is a new generation emerges looking for their own music. The grunge explosion was probably the last time that happened, over twenty years ago now. To some extent, you could see that coming, since grunge bands had recently signed with major labels and R.E.M. had been doing a great job of popularizing alternative music for several years. Alternative was certainly on the uptick when Nirvana exploded. But reggae? That’s a much different story.

the harder they come (soundtrack cover)Unlike grunge, jazz or rock & roll, reggae is a Jamaican form of music, and the rest of the world was introduced to it through a movie called The Harder They Come in 1972. The film featured a soundtrack of great reggae songs, including “Pressure Drop” by the Maytals and “Many Rivers to Cross” and the title track by Jimmy Cliff. The soundtrack was released in the United States in early 1973, the Wailers’ Catch a Fire was released two months later, and the rest is history. Reggae soon became popular all over the world, but in the ’70s it took a lot longer for something like that to happen, and as a result none of Marley’s records sold all that well until he died. The music industry didn’t become an international hit-making machine until the ’80s, so it’s no surprise that when Legend was released in 1984, it sold quite well.