Few musical icons are as ubiquitous as Bob Marley. With his band The Wailers, he transcended genre and even music to become a figurehead of rebellion and unity. Before the singer’s sad death in 1981 at the hand of skin cancer, Marley crafted a career that not only shone with the talent of a musician beyond his years but the message of hope, love and peace that had been so readily forgotten.
So well travelled is the image and the iconography of Bob Marley, that it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know everything about him. Thinking that, thanks to knowing the bars to ‘Three Little Birds’ off by heart, you can write off an immense back catalogue with a genre-labelling snort of derision. However, whether you’re a reggae fan or otherwise, as we pick through Marley’s canon of work, we can see that his value stretches far beyond being the go-to poster of college dorm rooms looking to upset their parents.
Forming the Wailers in the early 1960s, alongside Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley flirted with the sounds of the day to create a brand new proposition. Toying with the ska skiffle that littered their hometown of Kingston Jamaica, the trio embarked on creating songs that not only got people on the dancefloor but encouraged them to unite in society too.
By the end of the ’60s and with a brand new decade approaching, Marley and the band had focused their sound into something more unique. A hybrid of traditional reggae with the knowing lyricism of a rebel rock sound, the singer had found a niche that nobody could muscle him out of. By the time the ’70s truly arrived, Marley and his band were becoming worldwide sensations as their polished reggae sound provided respite for a world in flux.
Marley always challenged himself and his audience creatively throughout his comparatively short career. He made records that demanded attention, records that were political or destined for a party. He made music that would make your soul shake, and your mind reverberates with his simple but appealing philosophies on life. His outlook on life made him a cultural hero deeply mourned when he died in 1981.
Below, we’re looking back at Bob Marley’s studio albums and ranking them in order of greatness, from worst to best.
Ranking Bob Marley’s albums worst to best:
13. Confrontation (1983)
Released two years after Marley passed away in 1981, the posthumous collection of song fragments and studio session scraps was never likely to match up against Marley’s previous work.
Instead, what we get is an album full of ‘what ifs’. Not only are the songs a collection of leftover tracks from his recording sessions over the previous years but a view into what was next for Marley. Of course, there’s also the very worthy addition of ‘Buffalo Soldier’ which makes the LP worthwhile in itself.
12. The Best of The Wailers (1971)
No, it’s not a greatest hits record. Perhaps as a nod to their growing self-belief, The Wailers released The Best of The Wailers back in 1971 which collected the work from their sessions before they caught up with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
The album came after The Wailers had just notched up two successful albums after working with Perry as a producer. Looking to cash-in on their success, they pulled together this record and sent it into the airwaves. It pales in comparison to their early work but still speaks highly of all involved.
11. The Wailing Wailers (1965)
The debut album of the growing trio The Wailers is, as has been the case for the list so far, a collection of songs pulled together rather than a sturdy session of songs. As such, the album lacks any real direction and instead shows the promise at hand rather than the refined talent.
There are some strange song choices on the record too, with a cover of ‘What’s New Pussy Cat?’ feeling particularly out of place. There is, however, a rarely heard version of Marley’s seminal hit ‘One Love’, which would be reignited for his 1977 album Exodus — more on that later. But, if you’re looking for a reggae album, you won’t find it here, this record is pure ska.
10. Soul Rebels (1970)
The Wailers didn’t really start cooking with gas until they met Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry back in 1970. Together they produced at least two classic albums of which 1970’s Soul Rebel is one. The sparse production provides a little bit of extra texture for Marley and the band’s universal sound.
The LP marked Marley and the Wailers out as voices of a new generation. Soul Rebels comes close to confirming everything that was lying in wait for Marley. It’s a style and a sound that they would perfect, cultivate and share with everyone they could.
9. Survival (1979)
By 1979, the Bob Marley hype train had well and truly left the station. Marley’s message of love and unity was beginning to take hold across the UK and slowly across the US. Britain, especially, had found a voice worth following in Marley and were keen to adopt him as their new cultural icon, least of all down to his connection with London.
Following Kaya, an album that was more about the vibe than anything else, Marley made a statement with Survival. His most obviously political record includes powerful tracks like ‘Africa Unite’ and ‘Ambush in the Night’. Marley returned to Jamaica following his Big Smoke exile and realising the home truths that awaited there.
8. Rastaman Vibration (1976)
With rock music as the rebel du jour’s choice, Marley turned his attention to adding his own rock stylings to reggae sonics. It was a shrewd move that showed Marley wasn’t only a prophetic messenger of love; he was also a businessman.
The album would become Marley’s only top ten record, as well as giving him his only charting single with ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’. It shows that while Marley was widely adored in all the right places, he still struggled to reach a mainstream audience while he was alive. There’s an understated power to Rastaman Vibration that suggests Marley was far more astute than many give him credit for.
7. Uprising (1980)
The last studio album Bob Marley ever created is always likely to hang heavily over his career. While Survival was one of Marley’s most political albums, Uprising sees the singer reaching out to God in his most obviously spiritual LP.
It’s not all gospel jams though. Instead, this album aligns almost perfectly with the values of Rastafarianism. Built out of the love of God as well as funky jams, the album settled and solidified Marley’s reputation. The LP ends with ‘Redemption Song’ a worthy end to any album. It’s the most beautiful way to finish a career.
6. Kaya (1978)
Nine months after Exodus, the album that arguably launched Marley’s career into the stratosphere, the group returned with 1978s seminal album about weed and sex; Kaya. The previous record included a heady mix of political message and love songs, but this record goes straight to the after-party.
Marley reduced his strong sound in favour of something a little lighter. Laid-back jams became the key sonic instruction, and Marley was the best at doing it all with authenticity. ‘Is It Love’ is the standout song of the record, and it fits the theme as one would hope. If you’re looking for the easiest introduction to why Marley is an icon, then this is the album to revisit.
5. Soul Revolution (1971)
The second album The Wailers made with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is arguably the moment they leapt up a few notches. It saw the band begin to assert themselves as the reggae-rock revolution leaders. It’s still raw and emotive sound, but Perry is continuing to refine their talent here, and it shows.
It’s a genuinely beguiling concoction of ska, reggae and rock ‘n’ roll that acts as the perfect introduction to Marley and the band. The record features some of Marley’s first real footsteps into songwriting too, including songs like ‘Kaya’, ‘Lively Up Yourself’ and ‘Trench Town Rock’ which all shine.
4. Burnin’ (1973)
1973 saw two albums from Bob Marley and The Wailers — this is the final one from that year, and it is positively brimming with beauty and bouncing rhythm. The album saw a switch in stance as The Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers following the singer’s growing dominance over their creative output.
To confirm his switch from singer to the leader of the group, the album included songs like ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ which, to this day, act as landmark moments in music. By the release of this record, Bob Marley had become the unanointed king of reggae and, judging by the record; he seems more than happy to take the throne.
3. Natty Dread (1974)
After ditching Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer’s original comforts and choosing to go out on his own, he released his 1974 album Natty Dread to critical acclaim. The album is one of Marley’s most robust, compiled with the songs that showcased he was always destined to break out on his own.
1971 single ‘Lively Up Yourself’ was backed up by ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ and ‘Rebel Music’ as well as the anthemic ‘No Woman, No Cry’. The song is a perfect example of Marley’s writing — not only is it soulful and emotive but its bounces in all the right ways and can convince any naysayer that reggae is more than worth its weight.
2. Catch a Fire (1973)
This was the album that sent Bob Marley and the Wailers into the stratosphere. While the songs were all composed by the group, label head and the album’s producer Chris Blackwell took it upon himself to have the instrumental overdubbed by western musicians. It made the album more palatable for that audience and therefore skyrocketed the band towards fame.
A groundbreaking record, the LP is one of the most pertinent moments of the entire decade. Though many Marley albums are imbued with a higher quality of songs, this record is a holistic introduction to everything great about Bob Marley. Rich, textured and always authentic, Catch a Fire is near-perfection.
1. Exodus (1977)
After an assassination attempt was made on Marley at his home in Kingston, he escaped the clutches of death and headed to London for respite. While he was there, the singer began writing his most triumphant album, Exodus. It’s certainly the most famous album he ever did, and there’s a good reason for that — it is by far his best.
Some of the singer’s best songs can be found on the record too, ‘Waiting in Vain,’ ‘Jamming,’ ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘One Love’ all make an appearance. It’s an album that screams of Marley’s quality both in the studio and with the pen. The singer proved on Exodus that he was a superstar in waiting.
It’s a landmark record that deserves its place at the top of the pile.