If the music of Byron Lee and his band sounds hokey to you, then you're missing the point. Granted, this is Jamaican music at its most tourist-friendly: Lee has always followed the trends rather than set them, which means that he and his band learned to play ska in the early 1960s, when that music was peaking in popularity, then moved with the times into rocksteady, then reggae, and then soca (with occasional forays into mento and salsa as well). His band, which he led while playing bass, has always been distinguished by professionalism above all, and often by a slightly overweening slickness. But there are worse things than professionalism in pop music, and this generous compilation (which surveys nearly 50 years' worth of work) finds Lee and his crew making some genius recordings, along with a few examples of pure, synthesized dreck. The instrumentals tend to sound a bit generic, while the vocal tracks mostly shine: there are brilliant performances here by the underappreciated early reggae singer Eric "Monty" Morris
(who provides most of the highlight tracks on disc one), calypso legend the Mighty Sparrow
, and even Toots & the Maytals
(check out this version of the classic "Bam Bam"). Even some of the dreck is fun: Lee's version of "Moon River" will be an ironic hit at any party, while the exceptionally shlock "Elizabeth Serenade" might be useful as a hint to your guests that it's time to go home. At his best, though, Byron Lee led one of the tightest and smoothest bands through some of the greatest songs and rhythms to come out of Jamaica, and if he did so in a listener-friendly way, well, good for him. (That said, feel free to skip over his tight and smooth version of Bob Marley'
s "Redemption Song.")