Burning Spear

Chant Down Babylon: The Island Anthology

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Major label rivalry makes it unlikely that Burning Spear will ever receive a proper career retrospective set. Burning Spear signed to Island Records in 1976, debuting with the legendary Marcus Garvey album, accompanied by its dub companion Garvey's Ghost. Four new albums followed before Spear departing Island for the U.K. EMI label in 1980. A decade later, Burning Spear returned to Island for two new albums before their relationship again soured. (The situation is even more complex in the U.S., where Spear releases have been split among the Island, Heartbeat, and Slash labels.) The result of all these label relocations makes for a rather odd anthology indeed, which inevitably omits Spears' entire 1980s output, five albums in all, including the Grammy-nominated trio of Resistance, People of the World, and Mistress Music. Obviously, post-1992 material is also missing, including anything from the Grammy-winning Calling Rastafari. That's what you don't get. What you do get is a double album of some of Spear's most seminal work. The five albums released between 1975 and 1980 are all considered masterpieces, comprising a roots series that remains unparalleled. Of course, the fifth, Hail H.I.M., was not an Island release, but you do get selections from the other four. Of Babylon's 35 tracks, 20 are culled from Marcus Garvey, Man in the Hills, Dry & Heavy, and Social Living, the first four albums in this seminal set. Others also date from this period: a track from Garvey's Ghost; "Man in the Hill"'s B-side, "Cultivation"; "Jah No Dead," Spear's contribution to the Rockers soundtrack; "The Lion," taken from 1977's Live album; a previously unreleased "Jordan River," recorded live around the same time; and a non-album track culled from 1979's Harder Than the Rest compilation. The remainder are pulled from Spear's early-'90s albums, the Grammy-nominated Mek We Dweet and Jah Kingdom. The latter album included Spear's contribution to the Grateful Dead tribute album, Dedicated, a simmering "Estimated Prophet," which also appears here. Only the most persnickety fan could complain about Babylon's selections, which boast all of these albums' strongest songs. However, the musical leap between tracks five and six on disc two, which chronologically jumps a decade, remains disconcerting, but there's no avoiding it, bar squeezing the early material onto disc one. So, while not a definitive career compilation, this anthology is probably the best fans can hope for.

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