The more a recording artist truly deserves to be called great, the less likely it is that a "greatest hits" collection will do his or her work justice. It may be that the scope of the artist's work presents the difficulty -- after all, what 20 songs could possibly sum up all that is worth hearing of Bob Dylan or James Brown? Or the problem may be the need to concentrate on hits, which can mean ignoring excellent but commercially unsuccessful work. Sometimes, it's as simple as presenting strong long works in truncated singles versions. Far too often, what purport to be greatest hits are neither.
All of which makes "Legend," the best of the late Bob Marley and the Wailers, a near-miraculous compilation. It manages the feat with a mere 14 performances -- by not trying to be inclusive, or even completely representative. Instead it simply goes for quality.
In essence, "Legend" was put together less as history than as a sort of ultimate Wailers' album, selecting great songs from the output of nearly a decade. The big hits -- "I Shot the Sheriff," "Is This Love," "Stir it Up," "Exodus" -- are here, of course, but so are such tellingly underrated examples of Marley's genius as the poignant acoustic ballad "Redemption Song." Through it all, it's easy to hear the combination of strength, wit and melodic invention that made Marley such an important pop music figure.
That isn't all you hear, though. Thanks to remixes by Eric Thorngren, the presence and precision of the Wailers' rhythm section are placed in focus through the likes of "Jamming," "Exodus," "Buffalo Soldier" and "No Woman No Cry." This additional punch elevates the music, so that its impact is as immediate and compelling as the best of Marley's writing. BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS -- "Legend" (Island 90169); the Wailers and the I-Threes are appearing Sunday at the Wax Museum.