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Compilation Recommendations

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In no particular order
o Bob Marley - Songs Of Freedom
If you can only afford a single disc, or if your interest in Bob Marley is relatively casual, you'll do fine with the Legend compilation. But for anyone with a serious interest, this box is a treasure trove and should be considered an essential purchase. Much of the material is previously released, of course, but there are some spectacular rarities and previously unissued versions, among them an excellent dub mix of "One Drop," several newly-released live performances and alternate takes. The lavish packaging (especially on the original limited-edition box set) and extensive liner notes are an added bonus.
Tuff Gong 4 CD Set buy
o Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music
This is one of the most comprehensive reggae compilations ever put together, an amazingly thorough project that takes the listener from the days of ska (with such gems as the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" and Laurel Aitken's swinging "Boogie in My Bones") through the classic ska sound of the early Wailers and Desmond Dekker, then through the rock steady period with such beloved classics as Ken Boothe's "Everything I Own" and Eric Donaldson's "Cherry Oh Baby"; discs 2 and 3 give a fairly exhaustive account of the roots and rockers periods, and disc 4 covers the dancehall scene from Yellowman through Shaggy, whose version of "Oh Carolina" brings the whole program full circle. This set would be a worthy purchase for individual reggae lovers and music libraries alike.
Mango 4 CD Set buy
o Harder They Come Soundtrack
For many Americans in the 1970s, the film "The Harder They Come" was their first introduction to Jamaican culture, and Jimmy Cliff's title song was one of the first reggae songs they heard. It remains an excellent introduction to the state of the art in reggae circa 1972, with several classic performances by Cliff and equally strong contributions from Desmond Dekker (the rock steady classic "007 (Shanty Town)"), Toots Hibbert ("Sweet and Dandy") and the Melodians ("Rivers of Babylon").
Mango CCD 9202 buy
o Heartbeat Greatest Hits Volumes 1-9
In the early 1990s the Heartbeat label began a ten-disc reissue series that lacked somewhat in beauty of packaging, but made up for it in both price (roughly $10 list per title) and quality. The albums reissued were all various-artist compilations, most of them focused on specific producers; they included the excellent rock steady overview Clancy Eccles Presents His Reggae Revue (Volume 8), Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson: The Mighty Two (Volume 10) and, perhaps best of all, a collection from Gregory Isaacs' African Museum label entitled African Museum Selection (Volume 1). You have to do a little bit of research to figure out which titles you're getting, but it's worth the effort, and if you're flying blind you can confidently start with just about any one in the series.
Heartbeat Records HBEA3601-3609 buy
o Trojan Box Set Series
The Trojan label has taken its share of lumps from reggae fans -- it has developed a fairly well-earned reputation for questionable sound quality and some have accused it of dodgy business practices (though we at Jammin' Reggae Archives certainly make no such accusations). But there's no questioning the depth and quality of its vault, as this long series of budget-priced 3-disc sets attests. All are worth owning, but particular highlights include the astonishingly fine Rare Groove Box Set (which features great recordings by such little-known artists as Simplicity People and the Jay Boys) and the Rastafari Box Set, which stands as a true monument of conscious reggae and includes great contributions from Cornell Campbell, Johnnie Clarke and Don Carlos, among many others. If you're feeling especially flush, you can buy all ten box sets in a big gold-embossed box for just under $200..
Trojan Records 16 Boxes 3 CDs each box buy
o Rockers Original Soundtrack
This is not only one of the best reggae soudntrack albums of all time -- it's also, arguably, one of the three or four best reggae compilations ever. As the title might suggest, it focuses fairly specifically on one school of reggae, the explicitly political and rather stern "rockers" style that came to the forefront in the late 1970s. The examples provided here are archetypal: Junior Byles' very dread "Fade Away," Burning Spear's "Jah No Dead" and, of course, the Bunny Wailer classic that identified the whole subgenre at the time: "Rockers." An absolute must for fans of roots and culture.
Mango 162-539 587-2 buy
o Groove Yard
For a truly comprehensive overview of the exceptional Mango/Island reggae catalog, the flour-disc Tougher Than Tough set is well worth the money. But if you want a budget-priced sampler that draws from the same deep well, start out with this little gem. It includes classic roots-and-culture tracks from just about everyone who matters in reggae history: Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, the Heptones and Steel Pulse all put in appearances, as does Jacob Miller with the very dread "Tenement Yard." The only strange entry is the charming but incongruous "Moni Mambo" by Zairean soukous star Ray Lema, which is tacked onto the end of the program.
Mango buy
o Revolutionary Sounds Box Set
This budget-priced four-disc boxed set is actually simply a repackaging of four Shanachie discs that are also available separately: The Power of the Trinity, By the Rivers of Babylon, In the Red Zone and Revolutionary Sounds. Altogether, these four discs offer a really very fine overview of the golden era of roots reggae, from the mid-1970s to around 1981. There are obvious song choices like Burning Spear's "Slavery Days" and the Abyssinians' "Satta Massagana," but there are also such worthy obscurities as "Running from Jamaica" by the Meditations and "Revolutionary Dream" by Pablo Moses. In the Red Zone is an all-dub program and is mostly quite good, though there are better dub introductions out there. This box offers excellent value for money.
Shanachie Records 4 CD Set buy
o Natty Rebel Roots
In the early 1990s, Virgin Records began reissuing titles from its long-neglected Front Line imprint, on which had been released a long string of excellent albums by such top-notch artists as Johnny Clarke, I Roy, Prince Far I and Culture. The CD reissue series was a goldmine for reggae lovers, especially in the U.S. Natty Rebel Roots is a sampler of tracks from the series, and offers such delicacies as a 12" mix of Dr. Alimantado's "Slavery Let I Go," the sanctified "Jah Kingdom Come" by the Twinkle Brothers, and Altheas & Donna's charming "Up Town Top Ranking." A great place to start exploring the wonderful Front Line catalog.
Virgin Frontline CDFL 9013 buy
o Strictly The Best 18
VP's justly celebrated Strictly the Best series provides a pretty consistent highlight in the annual roster of reggae releases, and this volume is one of the best among them. It includes dancehall and modern roots sounds from such legendary artists as Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor and Israel Vibration, as well as an unusual combination track featuring Marcia Griffiths and Mikey Spice. The always inspirational Everton Blender checks in with the very nice "Lift Up Your Head," and there's a fun reggae version of the pop-soul chestnut "Penny Lover" as well. Very nice.
VP Records VPCD 1490 buy
o Duke Reid's Treasure Chest
The rock steady period of the mid-to-late 1960s was a magical time in reggae history, when the music was still primarily pop-oriented but was beginning to be infiltrated by the Rastafarian influence that would soon take over and hold sway throughout the 1970s and 80s. The rock steady rhythm itself is distinctive, characterized by a more elastic groove than either the galloping backbeats of ska or the slower, smokier groove of classic roots reggae. No producer of the period was more prolific or widely admired than Duke Reid, and this excellent two-disc set offers a great overview of the best of his work, including tracks by the Melodians, the Techniques, Alton Ellis and many others.
Heartbeat Records CD HB 95/96 buy
o Respect To Studio One
You could hardly ask for a better introduction to late rock steady and early reggae than this two-disc collection of classic tracks from Coxsone Dodds' Studio One label. This set is absolutely jam-packed with essential tracks, from early recordings by the Skatalites and classic harmony groups like the Termites and the Viceroys to deep roots material by Burning Spear and the criminally underappreciated Willie Williams. This album is especially valuable in its demonstration of the stylistic progression in Jamaican pop music from ska to rock steady to reggae; it could practically be used as a textbook in reggae history. Highly recommended.
Heartbeat Records CD HB 181/182 buy
o Lee "Scratch" Perry - Arkology
If you can only afford one Lee "Scratch" Perry box set (and Jah help us, there are lots and lots to choose from), this is the one. Because it focuses on the period during which Perry was operating out of his infamous Black Ark studio, because it includes singles and dub versions by such top-ranking singers as Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, the Heptones and the Congos, and because it features extensive photos and liner notes (including a copy of the letter Scratch wrote to the Prime Minister of Japan, protesting Paul McCartney's arrest on charges of ganja possession), it provides perhaps the best single overview of Scratch at his most influential, creative and musically consistent. If you only want a one-disc overview, go for the "Reggae Greats" compilation. But this box can be confidently recommended to anyone who has already come to love the Upsetter's strange and wonderful art.
Island Jamaica CRNCD 6/524 379-2 buy

Capsule reviews written by Rick Anderson, former guitarist and bass player with the almost-legendary Utah ska band Swim Herschel Swim. He reviews reggae and other musical genres for the All-Music Guide and the Reno News & Review, among other publications. He has contributed liner notes to reggae releases on the Music Club label, and is training his children to recognize the difference between rockers and one-drop rhythms. He lives in Sparks, Nevada and can be reached at rickand@unr.edu.
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