Bob Marley’s 10 Best Albums

By Sergio Ariza

Rarely has a particular style had such a defining figure as reggae with Robert Nesta Marley, or simply Bob Marley. But the fact is that the singer, along with the Wailers, was already there shortly after the genre began, making ska in 1962, evolving to rocksteady in the mid 60's and, finally, being one of those who defined reggae at the end of that decade. It was also Marley who made the genre known outside of Jamaica, becoming the first big ‘Third World’ star in the 1970s. His influence and popularity has only increased since his death on May 11, 1981, 40 years ago. From Guitars Exchange we want to pay tribute to him through 10 essential albums of his incomparable career. 

Soul Rebels (1970)

For those who only know Marley through Legend, it is worth remembering that he had been recording since 1962, and since 1963 he was part of the Wailers, a full-fledged group, along with his friends Bunny 'Wailer' Livingstone and Peter Tosh - although at the beginning they were a sextet. The group had already recorded an album in 1965, as The Wailing Wailers, but this was the first to be released outside Jamaica. It was produced by another key figure in the genre, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, who gave it his particular touch, eliminating horns and loaning out his studio band, The Upsetters, which included two fundamental characters in the history of Bob Marley, the brothers Carlton and Ashton Barrett, who would end up being the rhythmic base of the band until Marley's death. The album opens with the wonderful Soul Rebel, a collaboration between Marley and Perry, and contains other great songs like It's Allright and Rebel's Hop, a song in which they fuse their adored Curtis Mayfield (the Wailers always had the Impressions as references), with the Temptations' Cloud 9. Of course, the ace in the hole is Peter Tosh who delivers No Sympathy and one of his great classics 400 Years, which appeared again on later albums.


Soul Revolution/African Herbsman (1971)

Also produced by Perry one could say that Soul Revolution is the band's first masterpiece; it is unadulterated reggae full of Marley's signature classics like Don't Rock My Boat, which is none other than the original version of Satisfy My Soul, Put it On, Duppy Conqueror, the original (and superior) version of Kaya or Sun Is Shining, all together with his incredible version of Ritchie Havens' African Herbman that gave title to a compilation (with the same songs as here, plus some singles of the time) to be released by Perry, once Marley and the Wailers became stars.


Catch a Fire (1973)

The Wailers signed to Island Records in 1973, Bob Marley and his guys were 10 years into their career and had four albums behind them, and Marley wanted to sell in the West. As they were virtually unknown outside of Jamaica, it was this album and its tour that made them a household name, although you can't call it a success either, but it was also the first step towards them splitting up when Chris Blackwell decided to put the focus on their leader, Bob Marley, and leave the rest of the trio to one side. The band had recorded an album with 11 songs representative of their career in 1972, they had recovered old tracks like Stir It Up, originally recorded in 1967, Concrete Jungle, recorded in 1971, and Tosh's 400 Years and passed them to Blackwell to make a new mix and add something else, also cut two of their songs. As can be seen on this wonderful album, the Wailers were much more than Marley's band, with two great songs like 400 Years and Stop That Train, written by Tosh, and himself and Bunny Wailer performing some incredible vocal harmonies on such wonders as Slave Driver, Baby We've Got A Date (Rock it baby), Concrete Jungle and Stir It Up. The latter two are two of my favorite songs in Marley's career. Both songs also serve to show two of his facets - the more political and revolutionary, and his side as a great love song write - as well as being the ones where the wonderful Les Paul Custom by Muscle Shoals (and almost Rolling Stone) session musician Wayne Perkins, who Blackwell brought in, with Marley's approval, to appeal to the white rock audience.


Burnin' (1973)

This was the last album recorded by the original Wailers, Marley, Tosh and Livingstone, before the latter two jumped ship to embark on successful solo careers. Mind you, the farewell was in style, the album opened with one of the best songs in their history, the feisty Get Up Stand Up, composed and sung by Marley and Tosh, and also contained another absolute Marley classic, I Shot the Sheriff, which
Eric Clapton sent to number one in the charts the following year, and on which Marley debuted his famous '70s Les Paul Special. There was also a new ration of rescued songs, Duppy Conqueror, Put It On and Small Axe, plus a couple of good Livingstone tracks, Hallelujah Time and Pass it On, awarded to his wife, Jean Watt.


Natty Dread (1974)

This album is one of the most important in Marley's discography, it is the first after the departure of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and it is also the first one in which he replaces their backing vocals for the I Threes, the female trio in which his wife Rita was a member. It is also the album that contains his most remembered song, No Woman No Cry, whose live version the following year would make him a star in the ‘First World’. Speaking of No Woman No Cry and Natty Dread in general, the credits say a lot about the person Marley was. Despite having written all the songs on the album, he decided to sign the songs with the names of friends and family so that they would benefit from the royalties. In the case of No Woman No Cry, it was for his childhood friend Vincent Ford, of whom Marley said that if it hadn't been for him, he would have starved to death as a child. Of course, Natty Dread is much more than his most famous song, being the best album of his career along with Catch A Fire. There are absolutely fundamental songs here, despite being an album totally forgotten in the well-known Legend. This is a pity because it contains such monuments such as Lively Up Yourself, the defiant and political Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), Talkin' Blues and Revolution, or the calmer and more seductive cuts like the title track and Bend Down Low, another song repurposed from his 60's singles.


Live! (1975)

Recorded in July 1975 at the Lyceum Theatre in London this is the album that features the version everyone knows of No Woman No Cry, with the audience's response singing along from the very beginning and Al Anderson's heartfelt solo on his Stratocaster. But, again, the album goes far beyond that mythical moment, it opens in style with Marley exclaiming "one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain" - with a great version of his 1971 single Trenchtown Rock - and is completed with six wonderful reinterpretations of songs from Burnin' and Natty Dread, three from each album. This is a key work to demonstrate the power of this line-up, with Marley as the absolute leader, the Barrett brothers giving a class as rhythm section, the I Threes providing the wonderful backing vocals and Anderson bridging R&B and rock with his guitar.


Exodus (1977)

The title of the album, Exodus, has a very simple explanation, this is the album of Bob Marley's exile, the work he recorded in London, after the assassination attempt he suffered in Jamaica, and which ended up establishing him as the greatest star to emerge from the ‘Third World’ in history. Divided in two parts, the first more political and religious, and the second focused on sex and love relationships, it is one of the most soulful and funk albums of Marley's career, with the bass of Aston "Family Man" Barrett in the foreground. The first part is a real treat, moving from the slow tones of Natural Mystic to the lush So Much Things To Say and then to the darker tones of Guiltiness and The Heathen, to end with the simmering funk of the title track. But it is the second part that is the most remembered, with four of its five songs (Jamming, Waiting In Vain, with a great solo by Junior Marvin on the Strat, Three Little Birds and a new version of One Love/People Get Geady, one of his first hits, originally recorded in 1965, with which he pays homage to one of his idols, Curtis Mayfield) being part of the mythical compilation Legend (one of the best-selling albums in history) and the fifth, the wonderful and delicate love song Turn Your Lights Down Low, dedicated to Cindy Breakspeare, his partner at the time who had just been named Miss World.
>>Read our entire jukebox dedicated to Exodus


Kaya (1978)

The incredible level of Exodus is explained by this album which is nothing more than a collection of songs recorded in the same sessions as that one but which didn't make the cut. It is Marley's least politically committed album, also the artist's most relaxed, revolving around love and marijuana. Easy Skanking sets the tone of the album, which is followed by the new version of the title track and the immortal Is This Love, one of the biggest hits of his career, two other songs with new versions, Sun Is Shining and Satisfy My Soul, in its definitive version, close an excellent first side. The second part is not at the same level but continues with the good vibes that pervade the whole album.


Uprising (1980)

This is the last album he saw released during his lifetime before cancer killed him. Uprising is a remarkable farewell that contains what is the most moving song of his entire career, Redemption Song, recorded with the sole accompaniment of his Ovation Adamas in the best folk tradition. When he composed the song he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would end his life, so it is his epitaph in song form. Invoking his adored Marcus Garvey in the lyrics, Marley says goodbye by giving us a moving hymn: "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? Cause all I've ever had redemption songs" Additionally, Could You Be Loved, the funkiest thing he recorded, the addictive Coming in From The Cold and the remarkable Forever Loving Jah also appear here.


Songs of Freedom (1992)

As I explained at the beginning, Legend only tells a part of the mythical figure and all those interested in Marley should be clear that the most complete compilation of his career is this four-disk marvel that appeared in 1962 and takes us from the times of ska, with the unstoppable Simmer Down, to the farewell with Redemption Song, without forgetting the original versions of songs like One Love/People Get Ready, Put It On, Stir It Up, Sun Is Shining and Duppy Conqueror, and essential singles like Soul Shake Down Party, Mr. Brown and Guava Jelly, up to his best known tracks like Get Up, Stand Up, No Woman No Cry, Jamming and Is This Love, but also with wonderful songs from that era that didn't make it onto Legend like Concrete Jungle, Lively Up Yourself, Africa Unite and Forever Loving Jah. If you want a truly comprehensive look at Marley's enormous career, this is the best gateway.