Bob Marley’s 30 greatest songs – ranked!

Bob Marley’s 30 greatest songs – ranked!

As Tuff Gong releases a limited edition series of Marley albums, we pick the greatest work of reggae’s biggest star.

30. Rude Boy (1965)

The ska-era Wailers launch themselves into the 60s Jamaican vogue for singles either praising or condemning the violent Kingston “rude boy” youth cult. Tellingly, given the socio-political songs that lay ahead of him, Marley focuses on the deprived circumstances that birthed the phenomenon: “Want it want it – can’t get it, get it get it – no want it.”

29. Selassie Is the Chapel (1968)

Selassie Is the Chapel is like nothing else Marley recorded, in effect a doo-wop song given a Rastafarian twist. It is set to a lo-fi backing consisting of noticeably out-of-tune guitar and drums, which only serves to make the Wailers’ high harmonies more powerful. It’s both faintly creepy and fabulous.

28. Punky Reggae Party (1977)

Marley was not initially convinced by punk, but eventually recognised the denizens of the Roxy as kindred spirits – “rejected by society” – and threw in his lot on the exuberant Punky Reggae Party, which namechecks the Clash and the Damned and promises “no boring old farts will be there” at the titular event.

27. Natural Mystic (1977)

There’s something genuinely thrilling about the way Exodus’s opening track slowly creeps into view – it takes a full 30 seconds to fade in – and something chilling about its mood, the lyrical references to Revelation and insistence that “many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die”.

26. Concrete Jungle (1973)

Producer Chris Blackwell might have sweetened their sound for white ears, but you could never accuse the Wailers themselves of sugaring their message. Exhibit A: Catch a Fire opener Concrete Jungle’s powerfully bleak reportage, allegedly written not about Kingston’s ghettoes, but Marley’s mid-60s stay in the US.

The Wailers in London in 1973 ... (from left) Peter Tosh, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Bob Marley, Earl Lindo, Carlton Barrett and Bunny Wailer.

The Wailers in London in 1973 … (from left) Peter Tosh, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Bob Marley, Earl Lindo, Carlton Barrett and Bunny Wailer.

25. Could You Be Loved? (1980)

The Wailers were always musically open-minded – in the 60s they covered everything from Bacharach and David to the Archies’ Sugar Sugar, while 1971’s Lick Samba dabbled in Latin-American music. Could You Be Loved?, meanwhile, allied Marley’s sharp pop instinct to disco, with backing vocalists the I-Threes on particularly fine form.

24. Caution (1971)

Marley’s pre-Island discography can be baffling – umpteen releases, umpteen labels – but the 00s box sets Fy-ah Fy-ah, Man to Man and Grooving Kingston 12 do a good job of sorting through it, revealing gems such as Caution: an odd, tremulous lead guitar, eerie harmonies on the chorus and a winning refrain of “hit me from the top, you crazy mother-funky”.

23. Johnny Was (1976)

Marley’s great musical inspiration was Curtis Mayfield – the young Wailers even copied the Impressions’ poses in photos. It’s tempting to call Johnny Was his answer to Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead: an empathic examination of an accidental death (“from a stray bullet”) that nevertheless has wider implications, the lushness of the harmonies at odds with the lyrics.

Impressions pose ... the Wailers in 1964.

Impressions pose … the Wailers in 1964.

22. Smile Jamaica (1976)

Smile Jamaica was the theme song for the Kingston concert that almost got Marley killed – he was shot by gunmen two days before the gig. It’s tempting to suggest the track itself is oddly prescient: despite the title, there’s something brooding and overcast about its sound, as if Marley didn’t quite have faith in the sentiment the lyrics were supposed to be espousing.

21. Freedom Time (1966)

Recorded at the first Wailers session following Marley’s return to Jamaica from his mid-60s sojourn in America, Freedom Time is audibly influenced by the music he heard in the US – there’s a distinct hint of the Impressions’ civil rights anthem People Get Ready about the lyric – and a total delight: piano-led rocksteady with a beautiful descending melody.

20. War (1976)

As stark and potent as late 70s Marley got, War dispenses with standard verse-chorus structure and any semblance of lyrical poetry. The music exists as an austere backdrop for words taken from a Haile Selassie speech: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.”

19. One Love/People Get Ready (1977)

Marley recorded several versions of One Love – it began life as a ska track in 1965 – but the version on Exodus, interpolated with People Get Ready, is definitive. Its contemporary role as jolly soundtrack to umpteen Jamaican tourist ads overlooks the fire and brimstone aspect of the lyrics.

18. Small Axe (1973)

Usually taken as a metaphorical song about colonialism, there seems every chance that the defiant Small Axe was, at heart, actually about the Wailers’ perennially volatile relationship with the Jamaican music industry. The re-recording on Burnin’ beats the Lee Perry original – slightly slower, with lovely backing vocals courtesy of Peter Tosh.

Bob Marley on stage in Chicago in 1979.

Bob Marley on stage in Chicago in 1979.

17. Soul Rebel (1970)

Of all the tracks the Wailers cut with Perry in the early 70s, the title track of their December 1970 album feels the most forward-looking. It would be a brilliant song however it was produced, but its bass-heavy sound makes it feel like something from far later in the decade.

16. Top Rankin’ (1979)

His 1979 LP Survival was Marley’s most politically militant statement, its preoccupation with pan-Africanism reflected not just in the lyrics of Top Rankin’ (“They don’t want to see us unite … all they want us to do is keep killing one another”) but its sound: the horns carry more than a hint of Fela Kuti about them.

15. Sun Is Shining (1971)

Marley frequently reworked old material during the 70s, but the version of Sun Is Shining (a song apparently inspired by Eleanor Rigby, of all things) on 1978’s Kaya is dwarfed by the 1971 version produced by Perry: minimal, bass-heavy, gloomier-sounding than the lyric suggests, with Tosh’s melodica snaking around Marley’s voice.

14. Jamming (1977)

Jamming is Marley at his most genial and pop-facing, but the music that underpins the charming tune is surprisingly tough. Check out the instrumental and dub versions appended to the deluxe edition of Exodus for proof of what a fantastic rhythm section the Wailers boasted.

Marley in Ibiza in 1980.

Marley in Ibiza in 1980. Photograph:

13. Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) (1974)

After the departure of Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley came out swinging on 1974’s Natty Dread. Any fears the Wailers might be diminished were dispelled by the simmering tension of Them Belly Full, its invocation to “forget your troubles and dance” tempered by its ominous warning: “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”

12. Duppy Conqueror (1970)

Co-written by Perry, Duppy Conqueror’s Louie Louie-esque groove seems to commemorate producer Joe Higgs’s unique method of curing the Wailers’ stage fright by making them rehearse in graveyards. “If you’re not afraid fe sing fe duppy [ghosts],” explained Wailer, “the audience can’t frighten you.” The high, shivering vocal interjections add a suitably uncanny ambience.

11. Lively Up Yourself (1974)

Natty Dread’s opening track is a reggae equivalent of Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: a chest-out espousal of the genre’s virtues that seems aimed, as much as at anyone, at the white audience Island Records was trying to bring to Marley. The incredible audience-assisted version on 1975’s Live! feels like a mutual explosion of glee.

10. Exodus (1977)

A lot of Exodus tended to the mellow, but the strength of its title track comes from a relentless urgency. Exodus is built around a riff that stays the same for the best part of eight minutes. Its final 60 seconds are the nearest the 70s Wailers albums got to dub.

9. Slave Driver (1973)

Slave Driver and Tosh’s superb 400 Years are the toughest moments on Catch a Fire. “Every time I hear a crack of a whip, my blood runs cold,” sings Marley, capturing the song’s emotional temperature. For all its rage, it is icy too – with a sense of certainty that “the table is turned” and its targets are in hell.

8. Turn Your Lights Down Low (1977)

Leaving aside the intriguing question of how Marley got his wife, Rita, to sing backing vocals on a song about his mistress Cindy Breakspeare, Turn Your Lights Down Low is an exquisite love song. Hovering somewhere between reggae and a soul ballad, its melody is gorgeous, while the slide guitar and – yes – the backing vocals are beautifully done.

7. I Shot the Sheriff (1973)

Eric Clapton’s hit cover drew greater attention to Marley as a songwriter, but its slick funk isn’t a patch on the Wailers’ cop-baiting original, lacking its falsetto vocals, reedy organ line and the terrific breakdown with its echoing vocal – “If I am guilty I must pay!” – and funk-inspired clavinet.

Bob Marley backstage before a show at the Stadio San Siro, in Milan in June 1980.

Bob Marley backstage before a show at the Stadio San Siro, in Milan in June 1980. Photograph: Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd./Reuters

6. Is This Love? (1978)

Kaya is by some distance the least well-regarded of Marley’s 70s albums, a lightweight filling sandwiched between hit-packed Exodus and the fiery Survival, but its big hit is irresistible, evidence of one of Marley’s less exalted skills, as a masterful pop craftsman piling one fantastic melodic hook on top of the other.

5. Trenchtown Rock (1971)

Blessed with one of the all-time great opening lines – “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” – the original Perry-produced Trenchtown Rock was one of 24 singles the Wailers released in 1971. Its elated shout-out to the Kingston neighbourhood that gave birth to reggae stayed in Marley’s live set for the rest of his career.

4. Redemption Song (1980)

Rita has suggested Marley knew he was dying when he recorded Uprising; certainly, its closing track provided his musical epitaph. There’s a full band version of Redemption Song, but it has none of the acoustic take’s raw impact. Closer to folk than reggae, alternately brooding and exultant, it remains moving despite its subsequent omnipresence.

3. Stir It Up (1973)

Gorgeous evidence both of the debt the Wailers owed American soul music and that Blackwell’s controversial decision to overdub Catch a Fire’s tracks using UK and US session musicians yielded dividends. John Bundrick’s synth is a perfect addition to the stunning, airy harmonies, augmenting the song’s heavy-lidded, blissful, post-coital mood.

2. Get Up Stand Up (1973)

As with John Lennon, canonisation has done Marley few favours. Rather than the benign patron saint of potheads and beach bars represented by the trite but wildly popular Three Little Birds, it’s better to remember him as the co-author of Get Up Stand Up, a militant, righteously pissed off call to arms that has lost none of its urgency.

1. No Woman No Cry (1975)

People who saw the Wailers’ 1975 shows at the Lyceum in London talk about them in awed terms: the subsequent live album suggests they’re right. The studio version of No Woman No Cry is fine, but the live take – longer, slower, sadder, the drum machine replaced by Carlton Barrett’s astonishing playing – elevates the song. It’s a raw recording by modern standards (a bum note of feedback rings out at 1min 47sec), but from the moment the audience take up the chorus’s refrain before the band do, it feels luminous and utterly magical, the intensity of its emotional twists and turns – from melancholy nostalgia to optimism – potentiated.

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