As Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is to jazz, Bob Marley & the Wailers' 1984 collection Legend is the album that defines reggae for millions of American fans. Not because it's the greatest reggae album ever, or even the best Marley disc, but because the diamond-certified Legend is accessible to pop listeners who otherwise struggle with the genre.
It's not hard to hear why. The album represents only the second half of Marley's career, excluding the singles he made with the Wailers from 1964 to 1971. Beginning in 1972 with the group's (and reggae's) first proper album, Catch a Fire, there was a conscious attempt to capture an audience that extended far beyond Jamaica.
Marley had the charisma to pull it off, as well as the knack for recording songs that made his political, religious, and personal visions resonate, confirmed when two of Legend's tracks became American pop hits for Johnny Nash ("Stir It Up") and Eric Clapton ("I Shot the Sheriff"). After the latter topped the charts interest in Marley grew in the States along with appreciation of anthems both defiant ("Get Up, Stand Up") and touching ("No Woman No Cry"). The eight-minute "Exodus" with its lurching groove, funky horns and electronic flourishes even became a Top-20 R & B hit.
The two Legend cuts from Marley's last album, Uprising, suggest a couple directions he could have gone in in the Eighties - club music (maybe even dancehall?) in "Could You Be Loved", or as a singer-songwriter in the striking acoustic ballad "Redemtion Song."
Marley was just 36 when he died of cancer in 1981, so who knows how much more classic songs he had in him. But the ones collected on Legend are irresistible enough that the album should attract new listeners for the next thirty years.