[Editor's Note: Best Album Ever is a column where critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they got into them.]
When I was in fourth grade my family lived in a small apartment a block from the ocean in Hermosa Beach. At night we kept the windows open and I would often fall asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing softly onshore. One night, however, some music from the living room kept me up, and the next morning my mother showed me the CD case: Bob Marley and The Wailer's Legend. She told me that Marley was a man from Jamaica who wanted everyone to be kinder to each other. From then on she played Legend for me every night while I fell asleep.
Legend is a compilation album released in 1984, three years after Marley's death and six years before my birth. Every one of its 14 songs has become a standard, from “Three Little Birds” to “Redemption Song.”
It is probably Marley's best-known work, spending 992 weeks on the Billboard charts, a run only bested by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon. Legend brilliantly combined the pop and reggae elements of Marley's catalog, introducing him to a wider audience, including my young self.
But, really, the album is built around one core principle: love.
Listening to Legend laying in bed let me know, in a clear and concrete way that also filtered into my dreams, that my mother loved me. That sense of love made me accountable to her. It made me want to do good for her.
I needed that. By middle school I was hanging around kids who used the surf shops on the Hermosa Pier as Bowery-esque flophouses. We got older pier-rats to buy us 40s of malt liquor; we got kicked out the junior lifeguard program; we coughed through our first cigarettes. The pier's soundtrack was Black Flag and the Descendants. The only reggae in the mix was Sublime's cover of “Smoke Two Joints,” which everyone thought was by Marley but is actually by The Toyes.
But the sense of responsibility I felt toward my mother kept my youthful shenanigans from snowballing into real trouble. Many of these boyhood cohorts of mine became alcoholics and drug addicts. While visiting Hermosa Beach this summer, one of them bagged my groceries. His face was gaunt and sallow, the cheeks sucked in where teeth should have filled them out. We barely made eye contact.
I'm not suggesting this boy's mother didn't love him — I'm just saying my accountability toward mine pushed me through high school, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and now to Columbia University in New York where I am completing a master's degree.
Recently, my mother has begun playing Legend again at bedtime. But now it is for my four sisters who have been adopted from China…
The tradition was rekindled when Quinn, at 13 the oldest of the bunch, asked my mother to play the song she listened to while waiting for her to come home from her orphanage in Guangzhou, China. It was “Waiting in Vain.”
The politics of Chinese adoption are complicated and mired in bureaucratic fog, but the situation boils down to this: in 1980 their famous “one-child policy” was implemented. The law restricts a large amount of citizens to a single child.
Traditional Chinese family structures prefer males — sons carry on the family name and have a greater ability to provide for parents in old age. If people can only have a single child, many want it to be a son. As a result, orphanages overflow with baby girls and there are between 40 and 50 million “missing women” in China.
The one child policy turned 33 years old on September 25th — three decades of infanticide, forced abortions, and abandonment.
My family was lucky enough to find four of China's “lost daughters.” Amy and Quinn are in middle school, obsessed with Taylor Swift and when they will be allowed to get an iPhone. Kerry is 6: a motormouth sprite who reminds me of Dickens' Artful Dodger. Ting — whose name is Lacey though I've never once heard anyone call her that — draws books full of wild doodles. She has mild autism, likely a result of the baby formula she drank as an infant in the orphanage, which contained melamine, an active ingredient in paints and plastics.
My mother says she thinks Legend's cool rhythms help soothe Amy's night terrors, help calm Ting's spastic limbs when they twist in the night. Sleep is the realm of subconscious memories, and I imagine my sisters have some difficult ones. An album like Legend, filled with simple and universal themes of love and optimism, is the kind of record that can translate through time and families and become an inheritance.
I thought about ending this piece by opining that the part in “No Woman, No Cry” where Marley almost sobs “everything's gonna be all right” over and over is the greatest bridge in music and that those words remind us of some abstract eternal truth. But that is not the case — everything is not going to be “all right.” Everything is going to be very, very complicated. Life is going to be full of disease and loneliness and addiction and the first girl you ever loved leaving you. But with an album like Legend on our turn tables, we can be reminded of the other side of the coin, and we can endure these trials with a stoicism and grace that those we love expect from us.
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