Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jammed with tracks you know so well they have nothing left to tell you, juxtaposing individual styles that deserve their own showcases, top-heavy with catalogue from the label that released it, no species of boxed set is more consumer-unfriendly than the multi-artist genre overview. So I played Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (Mango) almost idly, as something that would go down easy during family time--and decided four cassettes later that it had miraculously defeated all the above caveats.

I've heard as much reggae as any non-Jamaican non-collector, yet I didn't know at least half these 95 songs. The chronological sequencing of a producer-dominated, rhythm-based canon helps it billow forward in a seductive flow. And while Island, Mango's parent company, has been reggae's most powerful label, compiler Steve Barrow doesn't shortchange such crucial rival producer-entrepreneurs as Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd, Joe Gibbs, and Gussie Clarke.

From My Boy Lollipop to Israelites to No Woman No Cry to Oh Carolina, the world classics are rendered more surprising by little-known gems like Easy Snappin' and Uptown Top Ranking and Under My Sleng Teng. Legends who've never come close to crossing over--Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, U-Roy, Junior Delgado--are represented by the songs that made people revere them. The dancehall disc is the most varied and beguiling promo for that often irritating subgenre ever devised. This is history. And this is also fun.

Fast Cuts: The Best of Ace Records--The R&B Hits (Rock 'n' Roll/Scotti Brothers) is only a New Orleans label compilation, but Allen Toussaint himself didn't produce music more insouciant than Ace's Huey Smith and Johnny Vincent. Black Uhuru's Liberation: The Island Anthology (Mango) does stick to the second-greatest Jamaican "cultural" group's Island period, but that was some period.

Playboy, Nov. 1993

Oct. 1993 Dec. 1993