Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bob Marley & the Wailers

  • Natty Dread [Island, 1975] A
  • Rastaman Vibration [Island, 1976] B+
  • Live! [Island, 1976] A-
  • Exodus [Island, 1977] B+
  • Kaya [Island, 1978] A-
  • Babylon By Bus [Island, 1978] B-
  • Survival [Island, 1979] B
  • Uprising [Island, 1980] A-
  • Confrontation [Island, 1983] B+
  • Legend [Island, 1984] A
  • One Love [Heartbeat, 1991] ***
  • Talkin' Blues [Tuff Gong, 1991] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Natty Dread [Island, 1975]
You'd figure the loss of vocal and songwriting input from Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston would be crippling, and reggae melodies being what they are that's the way I heard it at first. But the I-Threes pitch in like comrades rather than backup (can the Blackberries or the Sweet Inspirations claim the same?), and while the material has thinned out slightly I'm sure there are guys in Kingston who would kill for Marley's rejects. "No Woman, No Cry," a masterpiece on the order of "Trench Town Rock" or "I Shot the Sheriff," encourages him to bend and burr his sharp timbre until it's lyrical and incisive both at once. Lyrical and incisive--that's the combo. A

Rastaman Vibration [Island, 1976]
If side one makes it seem that reggae has turned into the rasta word for boogie--even to a Trenchtown tragedy recited with all the toughness of an imprecation against litter--the unimpassioned sweetness of most of side two sounds like a function of reflective distance, assured in its hard-won calm. Some of it's even better. The Haile Selassie speech recreated here as "War" is stump statesmanship renewed by a believer, and if the screams that open the second side don't curdle the corpuscles of the baldheads who are being screamed at, then dread is gone from the world. B+

Live! [Island, 1976]
The rushed tempos take their toll in aura: "Trenchtown Rock" can be far more precise, painful, and ecstatic; like most live albums this relies on obvious material. But the material is also choice, unlike most live albums it's graced by distinct sound and economical arrangements, and the tempos force both singer and the band into moments of wild, unexpected intensity. I used to think Natty Dread's "No Woman, No Cry" was definitive. A-

Exodus [Island, 1977]
As with so many black artists from this country, Marley's latest lyrics seem a little perfunctory, mixing vague politics of dubious depth with hackneyed romantic sentiments of dubious depth, and so what? Marley is not obliged to devote himself to propaganda. As with so many black artists from this country, the music is primary here, a message appropriate to his condition is conveyed by the unrushed rhythms and the way the sopranos share equally with the instruments and the new wariness of his phrasing and dynamics. Some of the cuts are flat, but if the O'Jays were to put five or six good ones on an LP--including two as striking as "Jamming" and "So Much Things To Say"--we'd call it solid and enjoyable at least. That's what this is. B+

Kaya [Island, 1978]
If this is MOR, it's MOR like good Steely Dan--MOR with a difference. Marley has sung with more apparent passion, it's true, but never more subtly, and his control of the shift in conception that began with Exodus is now absolute. He hasn't abandoned his apocalyptic vision--just found a day-to-day context for it, that's all. A-

Babylon By Bus [Island, 1978]
Here's another one of those live doubles I'd love to love--because I still think they're a great band when it's customary to put them down, and because the night I caught was magnificent. But I prefer the studio versions of every one of these songs (including "Punky Reggae Party," available as an import single). In other words, here's another one of those live doubles. B-

Survival [Island, 1979]
It's great in theory that Marley is once again singing about oppression rather than escape, but in practice the album's most powerful political statement is the diagram of the slave ship on the cover and inner sleeve. There's a world of difference between songs of experience like "No Woman, No Cry" and songs of generalization like "So Much Trouble." And it's a difference that Marley and his musicians are too damn sophisticated to make the most of. B

Uprising [Island, 1980]
With Tosh and Bunny departed, he rose to power as a bandleader rather than a songster, writing well enough while he mastered groove and sound and interplay. Except for "Jamming," a title that sums up the period perfectly, nothing since his solo-with-band debut Natty Dread has had the instant-classic immediacy of two very different offerings here: the dancy pop shot "Could You Be Loved" and the spirit anthem "Redemption Song." "Real Situation" ("It seems like total destruction/ The only solution") and "We and Dem" (need dey say more?) are apocalyptic enough to scare the bejezus out of Babylonian well-wishers, "Coming in From the Cold" and "Forever Loving Jah" mellow enough to hold out hope. Pray for him. Pray for all of us. A-

Confrontation [Island, 1983]
There are no major songs among these lovingly selected outtakes, and on side two the material drags as low as the forced, synth-drenched "I Know." But even that one has a bridge typical of the songcraft that set Marley apart from his brethren, and on every track his vivacious attention to detail jumps out when you listen up. Inspirational Verse: "Oh Lord, give me a session not another version." B+

Legend [Island, 1984]
This painstaking package captures everything that made Marley an international hero--his mystical militance, his sex appeal, his lithe, transported singing and sharp, surprising rhythms. And oh yes, his popcraft, which places him in the pantheon between James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Though he had a genius for fashioning uncommon little themes out of everyday chords, he was no tunesmith--"No Woman No Cry" and "Redemption Song" could be said to have full-fledged melody lines, but from "Is This Love" to "Jamming", most of these gems are hooky chants. Which given his sharp, surprising rhythms only makes them catchier--play either seven-cut side twice before bedtime and you won't know where to start humming next morning. A

One Love [Heartbeat, 1991]
1963-66 Studio One ska/rocksteady--gems you'll play again amid curiosities you'll be glad you heard once ("Who Feels It Knows It," "Bend Down Low," "Hooligan," "Let Him Go") ***

Talkin' Blues [Tuff Gong, 1991]
With Joe Higgs standing in for Babylon-shy Bunny Livingston, the seven songs they recorded before an audience of half a dozen at the KSAN studios one morning in 1973--maddeningly interspersed with separately tracked bits of a 1975 interview that make a CD you can program a must--isn't just the best live Wailers I've ever heard, but the best Wailers I've ever heard. The ensemble--which by the time of 1976's Live! will substitute the dutifully beautiful I-Threes for his male mates and adjust the instrumentals to arena scale--is at a supple, subliminal peak of interactive intimacy and intensity. The previously unreleased "Am-A-Do" plus three later outtakes are a letdown only by comparison. A-

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