As expansive as the title is, “Reggae Golden Jubilee” does not do justice for just how culturally rich this new box set it is. Spread over four CDs, with an accompanying 64-page booklet rife with photos and commentary, the lavish set is the equivalent of a college course on the past 50 years of Jamaican popular music. Curated by Edward Seaga, a former prime minister of Jamaica who was born in Boston, educated at Harvard, and also used to be a record producer, the set uses 100 recordings to trace the chronology of the island’s music. Ska gives way to rocksteady and reggae and then to dub, dancehall, and deejay. (Released on VP Records, the box set is available only as a physical product.)
Seaga’s track-by-track commentary is fascinating, both scholarly and thorough in its credits (for songwriter, performer, producer, original Jamaican release date, publisher). He gives historical context for the music’s evolution and ends up covering a lot of ground. The first disc opens with Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Snapping” from 1959, and the fourth concludes with songs from 2009. (Yes, that means Shaggy’s “Boombastic” made the cut.)
Familiar figures — from Jimmy Cliff to Bob Marley & the Wailers to Marcia Griffiths — are included alongside lesser-known artists worth discovering. The earliest recordings present a country in love with foreign sounds before developing its own identity. Millie Small’s version of “My Boy Lollipop” was nearly a carbon copy of the 1956 original by American singer Barbie Gaye.
Timed to the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain, “Reggae Golden Jubilee” is essential listening to understand how the island blossomed after that milestone.