The natural step for any devoted listener to Bob Marley's brilliant Songs of Freedom
box set is to learn more about reggae in general, and this four-CD set presents a panoramic view of Jamaica's greatest pop cultural contribution. As with any collection, connoisseurs can quibble with the selections, but the fact is that no four-CD compilation can exhaust this Caribbean island's prodigious output over the past four decades. With its mix of standards and rarities, the Reggae Box
is a valuable Rosetta Stone for neophytes and will point them in many directions, from the jazzy ska of Don Drummond to the buoyant blue-beat pop of Millie Small, from the lean rock steady of Desmond Dekker to the JB-styled funk of Dave & Ansel Collins and the overt Rasta consciousness of the Abyssinians -- and that's just the first disc. Each side explores, more or less chronologically, the successive mutations of Jamaican pop, from ska to rock steady to reggae to rockers, dub, and dancehall styles. The presentation plays to the collection's biggest strength as a reference work. It's impossible to say that any one U-Roy track, for example, is his finest, or even most influential, but it's easy to see that the DJ's chatter in the midst of a set of roots reggae is hinting at developments yet to come. Likewise, the computer rhythms of the Wayne Smith classic "Under Me Sleng Teng" set a precedent for the harder electronic sounds of dancehall that dominate the final disc. Speaking of dancehall, Jamaica's famously fickle audiences make choosing "current" material something of a joke -- like mercury, it's too fast to actually get a grip on. Thus the fourth disc is a hodgepodge of post-reggae directions, from the Rasta drum 'n' bass of Brooklyn's Dr. Israel to the dancehall crossover smashes "Murder She Wrote" and "Flex" to the roots revivalists Morgan Heritage and Rasta DJs Sizzla and Anthony B. With a smart booklet of three essays to make sense of it all, this set certainly delivers the "routes" of its title.