Beyond 'Legend': 25 Classic Album Cuts From Bob Marley's Catalog

Bob Marley
Adrian Boot/Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd.

In the backyard of Bob’s home and Wailers, Tuff Gong HQ at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. 1979.

There’s little that can be said about Bob Marley that hasn’t already: he’s a cultural icon, a global ambassador for peace and "One Love," and one of the most recognizable figures, even beyond music, around the globe.

And when it comes to that music, the entry point for most fans is Legend, the 1984 greatest-hits compilation that is one of the most successful albums released in the history of recorded music.

But for all of Legend’s iconic songs -- which applies pretty much to its entire track list -- the compilation tends to gloss over much of the message that Marley was sending throughout his lifetime in his Island Records discography, which is the reason he’s so revered as a champion for the downtrodden the world over. Here are one writer’s selections -- agonizingly pared down, with many great tracks not included -- of the 25 best Bob Marley songs that you won’t find on Legend’s track list.

"Slave Driver"
The second track on the first Wailers album for Island, "Slave Driver" is straightforward and to the point in its messaging and rhythm, setting the tone and blueprint for what would come over the next decade. This is a good place to acknowledge that just about every Marley album cut is worthy of this list -- "Concrete Jungle," the album’s opener, showcases the group’s raw power, for instance -- but this is the first selection for how it displays the near-perfect way that the voices of Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh blend together in their harmonies. Light and dark, heavy and easy, all at once.

"400 Years"
A Peter Tosh showcase, both written and sung, the song is another that showcases the trio’s vocal work together -- particularly the soaring harmonies after Tosh pleads to "make a move" -- amid a particularly heavy subject. It’s the formula that the Wailers, and especially Tosh, would eventually perfect over the first few albums.

"Kinky Reggae"
A good storytelling song from the original Wailers. This one is just good fun all around.

"No More Trouble"
This is a great early example of the musicianship of the Wailers, and how the different layers and textures of the group could add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. The opening section, with its underlying organ and piano and haunting vocals give off an ominous vibe, before the reggae-rhythm of the guitar kicks it into a traveling groove. But it’s Aston "Family Man" Barrett’s bass that really stands out, with its adventurous lines giving the song a different dimension. Lyrically it’s almost cliche, but the emotion in Bob’s voice saves it from that fate. And it’s a killer groove live.

"Burnin’ and Lootin’"
There are several Marley songs that are more iconic live than in the studio -- "No Woman, No Cry" being the obvious example -- and "Burnin’ and Lootin’," despite lending the Burnin’ album its title, has to be among them. The way the bass and organ mesh is much more devastating when given the space to breathe of a live stage setting, and makes the song that much heavier than it ever could be in the studio. Lyrically, it’s a call to smash the systems of power -- a theme that is omnipresent across his catalog.

"Small Axe"
There are a few songs that are more compelling musically (the traditional "Rasta Man Chant" comes to mind) on Burnin’ than "Small Axe," but this is a concept that echoes through several Marley songs throughout the years -- that the big tree can be cut down by the small axe, that there’s nothing that can stop the people from rising up and overcoming their oppressor if the situation is right. For that reason alone it belongs on this list.

"Duppy Conqueror"
About as classic a 1-4-5 progression as it gets, there’s not much that’s especially groundbreaking or revolutionary about this track. But there’s something to be said for simplicity, and the carefree feel of hook -- "Yes me friend / Them say we free again" -- is the audio form of hanging out with your best friends on a Saturday afternoon in the summer with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Man, that sounds nice right about now, doesn’t it? (Stay for the kind of hilarious bird sounds.)

"Them Belly Full"
Maybe one of Bob’s most important songs, given its message about poverty and hunger and the class pressures and anger that arise from it. Another classic Marley bait-and-switch: you could easily listen to this song and walk away singing to yourself, "We’re gonna dance to Jah music, dance," rather than absorbing the fact that he’s talking about the conditions that spark talk of revolution against the rich.

"Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)"
It’s hard to talk about "Them Belly Full" without talking about "Rebel Music," so often are they paired together — and not just on the Natty Dread album, but in live sets, too. "Rebel Music," with its wailing harmonica and pseudo-falsetto, is a little more on the nose than the other, and is a more adventurous musical composition, too; Natty Dread is full of fantastic bass lines, as "Lively Up Yourself" can attest. But these two tracks might as well be attached at the hip.

"Roots, Rock, Reggae"
A throwback to the classic form, as the title might imply, but with a little snarling electric guitar thrown in for good measure. Sometimes there doesn’t need to be a message any deeper than celebrating the genesis.

"Johnny Was"
Of course, Marley can never be fully separated from reggae, but every now and then he would branch out into different styles. And "Johnny Was" is just a good, old-fashioned soul song, with Bob and the I-Threes -- made up of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths -- lamenting the life of a good man shot down in the streets. It also has some of Bob’s most adventurous singing as he ad-libs around the lyrics, showcasing how much he’d picked up from his early years covering American and British hits for Jamaican audiences before he settled on his own sound.

"Who The Cap Fit"
There is certainly an interesting juxtaposition to this song musically; the opening organ chords and lackadaisical guitar chording seem almost dissonant with the shift that takes place in the chorus, which, especially live, gets aggressive quickly. It’s one of those Marley songs that is so potent in its bare-bones essentials, but seems a little bit too glitzy on the record given its subject matter, as if it was maybe overthought in the studio. Strip it to its core and it’s one of Bob’s best.

"War"
It’s easy to dig the song’s groove, with its horns, casual rhythm and cutting hook -- "Everywhere is war" -- and miss exactly what Marley is saying throughout. It’s not lyrics, per se, so much as it is an almost word-for-word recitation of a speech Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie delivered to the United Nations in 1963, and the verses therefore serve as almost a warning -- until things get better, the pressure will not let up. In a live setting the track becomes almost apocalyptic, a show-stopper for sure.

"Natural Mystic"
From the way the song initially fades in to how Marley’s vocals seem almost distant and the lead guitar somewhere in the reverb-soaked background, "Natural Mystic" creeps up on you in a way that mists its potency. And that’s what makes it so great -- you’re already deeply invested in its vibe and feel before you realize he’s talking about troubles so universal they may as well be about any number of situations.

"So Much Things To Say"
I was going back and forth between including "Guiltiness" or "The Heathen" here before I realized that "So Much Things To Say" was not on Legend. It’s probably his most famous song not the be included on the album, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t -- maybe the references to Jesus Christ and Marcus Garvey were too much amid the love and light of the rest of the track list. But this song is without a doubt a top-five Wailers track of all time, and a top-two personal favorite of mine.

"Turn Your Lights Down Low"
How is this song not on Legend??????? Marley wrote plenty about love, but never really like this. An iconic ballad.

"Easy Skanking"
Stoners, unite! An easy-going classic that kicks off Marley’s lightest, but also among many most beloved, album, Kaya, it’s an iconic Marley track if only for the opening line, "Excuse me while I light my spliff / Good God, I gotta take a lift / From reality I just can’t drift / That’s why I’m stayin’ with this riff / Take it easy." Breezy and beautiful.

"Kaya"
And, of course, Marley’s tribute to weed itself, for which Kaya is a nickname and the namesake of an album. It’s a simple song, but another earworm that can be impossible to shake. There was some pushback against the Wailers when this album was released, given its decidedly less-revolutionary rhetorical, but there are some gorgeous tracks regardless, and "Kaya" is one.

"Time Will Tell"
Of all the gems in Marley’s deeper catalog, "Time Will Tell" arguably shines the brightest. Again, it’s a simple song, reliant on Marley’s vocal that is at once assured and almost fragile, and it’s in that juxtaposition that so much emotion is expressed. It also has no better endorsement than that of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who signed Bob and the Wailers in the early '70s, who has called "Time Will Tell" his favorite Marley song -- and he would know.

"So Much Trouble In The World"
I’ll let Cedella Marley take this one. "That song is more relevant now than it was when he actually did it," she told Billboard in April 2020. "That’s all on him. It’s not one of daddy’s most popular songs, but I think going through this pandemic it’s become one of those songs that people are kind of singing to themselves, you know? And then if you listen to the lyrics -- 'All we have to do is give a little' -- that’s basically what we really have to do as we go through this. I think this has brought us all closer together as human beings, where we see that we’re so much alike."

"Top Rankin"
Tempting to include "Africa Unite" given its symbolism and message of hope, but "Top Rankin" is grittier and more real, not to mention more straightforward in its message: "They don't want to see us unite / All they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting / They don't want to see us live together / All they want us to do is keep on killing one another." Plus, the chorus is fraught with emotion, showcasing Bob’s vocals in a way most aren’t used to hearing.

"Coming In From The Cold"
The first track off the final album released during Marley’s lifetime, "Coming In From The Cold" is a classic Marley creation -- an upbeat melody and groove with an instantly-memorable hook that also asks, "Would you let the system make you kill your brother man?"

"Chant Down Babylon"
The concept of Babylon, which runs through Marley’s entire catalog, represents the system of oppression that exists to keep the poor in their place and the wealthy and privileged in positions of power. So what better way to break the system than through music -- and, more specifically, through reggae music? Its melody catches the mind immediately, leading to a thesis statement of sorts: "Reggae music / Chant down Babylon."

"Blackman Redemption"
A feel-good groove underscores this earworm, which will also get stuck in your head for its second-verse introduction of the popular Jamaican phrase "Cool runnings," nearly a decade before the Jamaican bobsled team made history at the Olympics and were immortalized in the 1993 John Candy classic film.

"Trenchtown Rock"
Tough to peg as a deep cut since its opening lyric -- "One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain" -- is such an iconic Marley quote. But it also never wound up on any of his studio albums, existing largely through live versions like Live! and Live at the Roxy. As a show opener it’s a hell of a statement, and its groove is irresistible -- plus, that opening line.

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