Music

Bob Marley and the Wailers: Legend (30th Anniversary Edition)

Legend presents Bob Marley at his most unthreatening, and most anodyne. And that was intentional.


Bob Marley and the Wailers

Legend (30th Anniversary Edition)

Label: Island / Tuff Gong
US Release Date: 2014-07-01
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Was there really any good reason to release Legend yet again other than someone's need to rake in more cash from the best-selling reggae album ever? Is Rita Marley's bank account not sufficiently plush these days? It can't be that Island/Tuff Gong believed they needed to keep Bob Marley's memory alive 33 years after his death. Legend Remixed came out in 2013; a re-mastered version of the album, first released in 1984, was issued in 2002.

The ostensible reason for the latest re-release is technological. The new "deluxe" version is a "combo set" comprising a CD and a Blu-ray pure audio disk. For the latter, producer Bob Clearmountain mixed the original tapes in 5.1 (five speakers plus subwoofer, as opposed to stereo's two speakers), resulting in a more textured sound with less compression and greater depth. The sound quality is indeed superior to a standard compact disk and vastly superior to the MP3 format. But so what? Most music consumers don't buy disks nowadays, and not only younger ones. As countless frustrated audiophiles have complained, it makes more sense to improve the quality of downloadable files (as Neil Young is doing with his PonoMusic project) and the poor quality of earbud and iPod sound.

So what does the buyer get with Legend (30th Anniversary Edition) besides better sound? Two outtakes, of "Easy Skanking" and "Punky Reggae Party", neither one a must-have, and the original version of "No Woman, No Cry", from the Natty Dread album. And the combo set is packaged with a 28-page booklet with photos, liner notes and the musings of Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder about Marley's greatness. If you need this ephemera, then go right ahead.

But the interesting story about Legend has nothing to do with remixes or deluxe packaging. Critics have noted that the album, originally released three years after Marley's death, presents him at his most unthreatening, and most anodyne. And that was intentional. Chris Kornelis, in a recent article in the Houston Press, reported that two years after Marley died Island Records chief Chris Blackwell hired Dave Robinson, a co-founder of Stiff Records, to put together a collection of Marley's songs. Robinson, in reviewing the sales figures of Marley's albums, was surprised to discover that the king of reggae didn't move millions of units of what the industry calls "product". He had respectable sales, in the high hundred-thousands, but not superstar figures.

Robinson, says Kornelis, "believed he could sell a million copies of the [proposed compilation] album, but to do it, he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs, but Marley himself."

"My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view", Robinson says, "was to sell him to the white world."

Robinson "had a hunch that suburban record buyers were uneasy with Marley's image -- that of a perpetually stoned, politically driven iconoclast associated with violence. And so he commissioned a London-based researcher named Gary Trueman to conduct focus groups with white suburban record buyers in England."

The focus groups told Robinson that the scary Rasta revolution stuff turned off Caucasian consumers. So, with a few exceptions, Legend focuses on Marley's most upbeat, tuneful and least-political material. The album has the maddeningly chirpy "Three Little Birds" (the Target department store chain uses a bit of it in their latest back-to-school ads), "One Love" (repurposed by the Jamaica Tourist Board as an advertising jingle), "Is This Love?" and "Waiting in Vain". But not "Revolution", "Them Bellyful (But We Hungry)", "Slave Driver", "Rebel Music", and certainly not "Burnin' and Lootin'".

Robinson's strategy certainly paid off. Legend has sold better than any other reggae album, with more than 15 million copies sold in the U.S. and more than 27 million worldwide. Chris Kornelis reports sales of about 250,000 units annually in the United States alone.

Bob Marley was never just a radical spokesperson for the dispossessed, in Jamaica and worldwide. His formative influences were American R&B and soul music, and he had always written sweet and tender love songs. Legend does offer some of the best. But the compilation is so skewed towards romance that it presents a distorted view of this still-influential and beloved artist.

Instead of shelling out for yet another release of Legend, fans who know Marley only from that collection would do well to check out Catch a Fire, Burnin', Natty Dread, Survival and Uprising. Those spikier, angrier albums give a fuller aural portrait of the former Kingston slum dweller who had much more to offer the world than easy skankin'.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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