People started talking all kinds of mumbo-jumbo about Bob Marley almost before he was cold in the ground, but before he was a conveniently agreed-upon symbol for vague ideas about good times and world peace, he was an uncommonly sharp writer of deceptively simple pop songs. What was more, he had, in his voice and singing style, a rare gift for getting his songs across. It was pure craft masquerading as effortless ease, the sort of personal quality in the voice that only comes around once in a great while -- the young Marvin Gaye had it, as did Jackson Browne. It makes for pop songs whose power deepens as they age.
These early singles are frankly stunning documents, imagining pop music as a tightly enclosed space within which the possibilities for play are literally infinite. Like all great dance bands, the bands on The Complete Upsetter Singles (initially the Upsetters, then the Wailers) are unbelievably tight; Marley's voice, meanwhile, combines the sure touch of an artist with the youthful vigor of somebody whose central desire in life is to make really great records. The tunes themselves take their cues mainly from doo-wop, varying moods smoothly not only from song to song but often from verse to chorus within a single number; the opener, "My Cup," features one of the saddest minor shifts known to man (on the phrase "now that I/realize"), made sadder by the joyous major heights from which it drops.
The pop-candy brilliance of the songs and the sweet urgency of their delivery would be reason enough to recommend The Complete Upsetter Singles, but the second disc, comprising the singles' B-sides, seals the deal. Although a prominent hip-hop producer has recently claimed to have "invented the remix," Lee "Scratch" Perry, producer of all the early Bob Marley records (along with literally scores of others from the period), actually has grounds on which to base such a claim. Faced with the need to give a single a B-side but not wanting to squander another potential A-side, he'd mess around with the bass or put the drums through an echo chamber, dropping out most or all of the vocals. The result, of course, was an entirely new and inestimably important genre -- dub -- whose salad days are here heard in all their raw, thrilling glory: playfully experimental, magnificently bass-heavy and deeply psychedelic. Taken together, these two discs make for one of the most pleasant unexpected pleasures of the year.