A common complaint from the most ardent non-supporters of reggae music is that it all sounds the same. I've heard the same from those who don't listen to the blues, with similar gripes from those who don't like country music and heavy metal.
You could argue that the sound and structure of most singer-songwriters from Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to the beloved John Prine, stick to a certain sound and formula most of the time, but fans of those artists wouldn't dare say all of their music sounds the same and that's because it doesn't. And neither does reggae or blues music.
It's all about what you're willing to hear.
The world lost the last founding member of the Original Wailers this week, Bunny Wailer, who along with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley created some of the greatest music of any genre. But Wailer, real name, Neville Livingston's crowning achievement is his 1976 solo debut, "Blackheart Man."
This record feels joyful and spiritual and oozes with rhythms and island vibes one expects from a reggae classic. But Wailer's songs run deep. They are powerful and autobiographical, whether talking about his arrest for cannibas on "Fighting Against Conviction" or the apocalypse in "Amagideon (Armagedon)," Wailer pulls no punches.
"Blackheart Man" is to reggae music what Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" is to folk music. It is the "Sgt. Pepper" and "Pet Sounds" of the genre. I love what Rick Anderson of All Music had to say about the title track:
"But the song that pulls you into Bunny Wailer's magical web of mystical Rastafarianism is the first one, in which Wailer recalls being warned by his mother to avoid Rastas ("even the lions fear him") and then describes his eventual conversion, all in a tone of infinite gentleness and sadness at the hardhearted blindness of Babylon."
Not all reggae music is worth your time. There might be a few too many pop covers given a reggae feel that should be quickly tossed on a junk heap. But just as the blues has sub-genres--acoustic blues, folk blues, country blues, etc., reggae offers the same variety from ska, dancehall, dub, rock steady and bluebeat. Once you let yourself in, your love of the music will allow you to hear the difference from the very first notes.
"Blackheart Man" is a masterpiece of reggae music and sits comfortably in my reggae Top Ten. If you asked me, "Where should I start?," the late master Bunny Wailer's "Blackheart Man" would be one of the first albums I'd suggest. So, if you're interested, begin today to celebrate Bunny Wailer's legacy.