You can't have Yin without Yang, you can't have darkness without light, and you can't have reggae without Bob Marley. In our eyes, Marley is the genre of reggae, or at least he was throughout the 70s when he lived and thrived. One of the greatest musical pioneers of all time, Marley cultivated the genre of reggae with love, experimentation, and timeless lyrics. His career has been having a slight renaissance in 2022 thanks to an upcoming biopic, a West End musical, and a touring exhibition all centered around his life. But Marley's always been the epitome of cool, and his fusing of reggae, ska, and rocksteady, as well as his distinctive vocal and songwriting style, keep us warm even in the chilliest of physical or mental conditions.
Born in Nine Mile, Jamaica, Marley began his musical career in 1963, after forming the Teenagers with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. They eventually became the Wailers, and the group released its debut studio album The Wailing Wailers in 1965, which included the single "One Love," a reworking of "People Get Ready." The song was popular worldwide, and established the group as a rising figure in reggae. The Wailers released eleven more studio albums, and after signing to Island Records the band's name became Bob Marley and the Wailers. Once The Wailers dipped out in 1974, Marley carried on touring and singing under the group name.
Marley is known for defining reggae records such as Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, and Uprising. His 1984 greatest hits album Legend became the best-selling reggae album of all time. Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling music artists ever, with estimated sales of more than 75 million records worldwide. He was posthumously honored by Jamaica soon after his death with a designated Order of Merit by his nation. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his other achievements include a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame.
So with all of that said, here's our Top 10 list of best hits by the man, the myth, the legend, Bob Marley. We hope our picks get you jammin'!
10. "Get Up, Stand Up"
"Exodus" is a personal favorite of ours (although Bob's Rainbow Theatre 1977 live performance is FAR BETTER than the official recording of the song), and "War" is a criminally underrated track in his discography. But if we had to pick Marley's quintessential even-tempoed "revolution" song, it would be "Get Up, Stand Up." It's solid, strong, and lyrically powerful. It feels like a direct call to action, like Marley is really speaking to you.
Written in response to the social and political unrest in Jamaica, “Get Up, Stand Up” is a plea to stand up for the voiceless and those denied basic human rights. Its impact has endured long past its origins to the point that it was adopted by the human-rights nonprofit Amnesty International as its official anthem. Our favorite line in this important song has to be, "We're sick and tired of your ism and schism game." Good stuff.
9. "Redemption Song"
Marley takes a break from the usual Reggae riff raff with this slower, acoustic track. “Redemption Song” is the final song on Bob Marley & the Wailers' ninth and final album made when Marley was alive - Uprising. It is a deeply contemplative and personal song that evoked the sound and style of Bob Dylan. Marley had already recorded a version of this freedom hymn with his band when Island Records chief Chris Blackwell suggested he try it as an acoustic-style folk tune. Nonetheless, an alternate version with a full reggae band arrangement was eventually released as a bonus track on the 2001 reissue of Uprising and the compilation One Love: The Very Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers.
The unique "Redemption Song" is considered one of Marley’s seminal works. At the time of publication, it's currently ranked at #42 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Some key lyrics derived from a speech given by the Pan-Africanist orator Marcus Garvey, and the message of this song deals with emancipation of the mind. It's an antidote to slavery, both mental and physical. As the final track on his final album, “Redemption Song” is Marley's epitaph.
8. "One Love / People Get Ready"
This chipper tune is all about social unity. One of The Wailers' oldest songs, the recorded version of "One Love / People Get Ready" is a remake of the original ska version by the same band (except that version has Bob, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer). Like some of the songs on Marley’s follow-up to Exodus – which had several songs that were remakes of their soul revolution version – Marley decided to remake "One Love" due to its popularity. It’s worth noting the original song is simply called "One Love," because copyright laws in Jamaica at the time were nonexistent.
Anyway, "One Love / People Get Ready" has endured as a standout in Marley's catalogue thanks to its simplistic-yet-important message and laid-back instrumentation. Listening to this song always makes us feel alright!
7. "Stir It Up"
A reggae classic with some psychedlic influences, "Stir It Up" is a romantic ballad that was composed by Marley for his wife, Rita, in 1967. While the general consensus is that "Stir It Up" is mainly about strengthing a relationship and making love, some interpret the track to be an ode to smoking marijuana. It is certainly possible, given "Stir It Up's" subtly trippy production and the lines, "I'll blaze your fire" and "cool me down, baby, when I'm hot."
Bob built the verses of "Stir It Up" around lover’s rock: a romantic reggae dancing style and genre. While love songs had been an important part of reggae since the late 1960s, the style was given a greater focus and a name in London in the mid-1970s. Thanks to Bob being one of the first to tackle lover's rock in a song, "Stir It Up" is considered the first Marley-written song to be successful outside Jamaica.
Go to any surf shop, seafood spot, or taco place with a Caribbean influence, and you're bound to hear this classic playing overhead. We love "Jamming" for how smooth it feels. The title is a double entendre. It's based off the verb jammin' (jamming), and it's a Jamic (English Patois vernacular of Jamaica) expression, meaning "to dance and have a good time." So the song is both about hanging out and "jammin'" with friends, as well as dancing and being a part of a musical jam session.
Furthermore, "Jamming" contains the line "No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won't bow," which is interesting considering its connotation with refusing materialism, as well as Marley's own brush with death when he was almost assassinated in 1976. (Marley was shot by intruders but was not killed. "Jamming" was recorded the following year.) With the lyrics "Jah seated in Mount Zion," this bop clearly references Mount Zion. Although it's less in an Israelite sense and more in a Rastafarian way that refers to Ethiopia, which the religion proclaims is the birthplace of humankind. Rastafarians believe that Jah promised them ‘Zion’: a Utopian place of unity, peace, and freedom.
5. "Buffalo Soldier"
For context, “buffalo soldiers” was the nickname Native Americans reportedly gave to Black soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments during the so-called Indian Wars. The term eventually applied to all regiments in the U.S. Army that segregated African Americans (until Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order). In the song, Marley uses the buffalo soldiers' fight as a symbol of Black resistance and identity. He also touches upon the cruel irony of deploying one subjected people to remove another.
Written by Bob Marley and Noel G. “King Sporty” William in 1980, “Buffalo Soldier” was released posthumously as a single from Confrontation, the first LP released after Marley’s untimely death in 1981. Although the song brings to light the sufferings of the buffalo soldiers, it also comments on the happy-go-lucky nature of the warriors. The upbeat reggae sound, combined with singing ‘woy yoy yoy’ concretes an almost sarcastic tone, full of euphemism. Simply put, it's lightheartedly badass.
4. "I Shot the Sheriff"
In "I Shot the Sheriff", Marley tells a story from the point of view of a narrator who admits to having killed the local sheriff, but claims to be falsely accused of having killed the deputy. The outlaw-like song was first released in 1973 on The Wailers' album Burnin'. On the song's lyrics, Marley explained, "I want to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead...but it’s the same idea: justice."
"I Shot the Sheriff" provided Eric Clapton with a #1 hit in America, as he covered it in 1974 – just one year after the original was released. The success then drew attention to Marley's extraordinary songwriting talents, making the original "I Shot the Sheriff" more popular. (Because c'mon...Eric Clapton's cool, but we all know Marley did this better!) The versions of this song from Live! and Talkin' Blues were recorded from an extraordinary two-night engagement in 1975 at the Lyceum Ballroom in London; the version on Talkin' Blues is taken from the first night.
3. "Three Little Birds"
Perhaps Marley's most well-known hit, "Three Little Birds" is the brightest, most optimistic, and most cheery reggae song ever written. It tells the story of Marley encountering three little birds by his windowsill who sing to him in order to lift his spirits. Marley did actually encounter canary birds by the windowsill at his home on Hope Road, and used the experience to craft this song.
The three birds may be a reference to the I Threes: a woman Jamaican singing group. It was composed of Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, and Bob’s own wife Rita Marley. They were originally just Bob’s backup band, but each became accomplished reggae solo artists and social activists. In true spiritual Bob Marley fashion, the "rising sun" described in the song may also be a double entendre for the rising Son of God. In this reading, the three little birds would represent the presence of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Sporting one of the most famous choruses in music history, “Three Little Birds” promotes positivity in the face of adversity. Though simple in nature, the repeated lines make the message clearer and clearer to listeners who may be feeling down. You can't help but think that "every little thing is gonna be alright" after listening to "Three Little Birds."
2. "Could You Be Loved"
Another Uprising masterpiece, "Could You Be Loved" is one of Marley's swankiest, smoothest, and stirring pieces that was created while he was battling cancer. It was released in 1980 as the first single from Uprising, and was written in 1979 on an airplane while The Wailers were experimenting on guitar. With it's hopping sounds and wavy intro, the soulful song is considered by many reggae fans to be disco influenced, and by extension influencing the dancehall genre.
In the middle of the song, background singers quote a verse from Bob Marley's first single "Judge Not": "The road of life is rocky; And you may stumble too. So while you point your fingers, someone else is judging you." Unique instruments used on the original record of this song include the acoustic piano, the Hohner clavinet, an organ, and the Brazilian cuíca. "Could You be Loved" was successful on the charts in Europe, peaking within the top 10 in Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK.
Today, "Could You Be Loved" is another Marley song included on Rolling Stones' 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list (#363). We think it's because of its poignant lyrics. The line, "Could you be loved and be love?" begs an important question: can you be the love of the world and still receive love from others?
1. "No Woman, No Cry"
Finally, we end our list with Marley's most enduring anthem. And it's an anthem for a plethora of reasons. First, it was written as a call to a woman in Bob's life to be positive and not worry about the bad. It has since become a piece of hope for all women – specifically Black women – to stay strong in the face of trying times.
Second, one of Bob's childhood friends, Vincent Ford, is credited as a songwriter. Vincent ran a soup kitchen in Jamaica and the royalties from the ballad helped him keep the kitchen running – so "No Woman No Cry" did a lot of good. Third, "No Woman No Cry" was Marley's first international hit when it was released on Natty Dread in 1975. Therefore, it is celebrated as a song that catapulted Marley into superstardom after all his hard work over the years.
The single version of the track and the version which featured in his greatest hits album Legend was recorded live at the Lyceum in London and included on the album Live! That specific recording of "No Woman, No Cry" currently ranks at #140 and at one point was #37 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It has been covered multiple times, most famously by The Fugees and musical activist Nina Simone. Why is "No Woman, No Cry" #1 in our eyes? Because it's a beautiful, beloved track that showed just how much Marley cared about others, and a passionate reminder that no matter how bad an environment may be, you can always find some good.
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