Reggae compilations are a dime a dozen. Yet, with the arrival of a new two-disc set covering an early and pivotal six-year period of Jamaican vocalist Barrington Levy’s career, there are good reasons to pay attention. After all, it comes courtesy of VP Records and their spot-on Reggae Anthology series. Plus, if any label is going to do it right nowadays, it’s the Chin family.
Still, an arduous task awaited them. 1979 to 1984 was arguably Levy’s most prolific period, during which the Jamaican vocalist established a name for himself as one of the top vocalists in the game, offering up a mountain of singles and over nine full-length albums. Working primarily with Henry “Junjo” Lawes and his studio band the Roots Radics (along with a number of other top producers in Prince Jammy and Scientist) at the famed Channel One, Levy’s popularity sky-rocketed. And even as the Jamaican scene began to move away from the heavily political and culture themes of roots reggae, Levy adapted, releasing a number dancehall hits with producers Alvin Ranglin, Jah Screw and Sly and Robbie.
Much of this is covered in VP’s two-disc compilation of Levy, Sweet Reggae Music. The opening track “Collie Weed,” the single that put Levy (who was still a teen when recorded) on the map, sets the mood off perfectly. The excellent, Rasta-heavy “A Yeh We Deh,” with its rapping drums makes an appearance along with deeply religious cuts “Look Youthman,” Crucifixion” and the emotive “Hammer,” showcasing some of the best dancehall-ready spiritual scorchers coming out of Jamaica at the time. Elsewhere Sweet Reggae Music touches on Levy’s lighter moments with the lovers rock of “Wedding Ring,” “My Women,” the sexy “Sister Carol” and the ridiculously amusing tales of “21 Girls Salute.”
The compilation is also sure to showcase Levy’s pending transition into ragga and the crossover tendencies that he would ably demonstrate in the '90s. Closing the second disc are the massive hits of “Here I Come” and “Under Mi Sensi,” which spotlight an almost entirely different artist. Levy’s changes with the trends seamlessly, dropping his now signature dancehall ad-libs as he keeps in step with the upbeat, stuttering beat. The inclusion of such tracks at the tail end of the compilation only add more fodder for why Levy is one of the most intriguing and versatile vocalist to ever come out of Jamaica.
While Sweet Reggae Music does a good job at including the critical hits of this period in Levy’s career while simultaneously putting on display his musical adaptability, some tracks are surprisingly absent. The dubby single “Eventide Fire A Disaster” featuring General Echo, which chronicles one of the worst tragedies in modern Jamaican history, finds Levy at possibly his most effectual and is sorely missed. The upbeat anthem hit “Reggae Music” from the excellent Shaolin Temple LP also fails to be included. There is none of his work from the often overlooked 1984 collaborative release with then-up and coming soulful dancehall star Frankie Paul.
These are mostly minor quips, though. Largely Sweet Reggae Music does an excellent job showing off one of best Jamaican vocalists from the last 30+ years. For whatever reason, while Levy has found popularity, he’s never been put on the level of such reggae heavyweights as Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown or Burning Spear. This latest compilation from VP Records makes a solid case that he should be.