Bob Marley may be the face of reggae, but it was Jimmy Cliff who first helped bring that sound to the world as the star of the 1972 crime drama The Harder They Come. (To this day, its soundtrack regularly ranks as an all-time great with music critics and dorm-room aficionados alike.) Though he's released some 30 albums since, Cliff, 64, has been absent since 2004's Black Magic. Now he's returned with a new album, Rebirth (out now), and a new muse: producer Tim Armstrong of Berkeley, Calif., punk heroes Rancid.
The pair were introduced by an even more legendary punk, the late Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who counted both as collaborators and friends before his death in 2002. ''The last studio recording Joe did was on Black Magic,'' Cliff recalls. ''When we met, everything flowed so easily it reminded me of those old, authentic times.''
Intent on recapturing that kind of vibe, Cliff decided to make Rebirth a continuation of his landmark 1970 album Wonderful World, Beautiful People. With Armstrong there to keep the arrangements uncluttered, Cliff builds towers of groove around his wise-man narratives, mixing songs about economic instability (''World Upside Down'') and gun violence (''Bang'') with a handful of melodic larks. There's also a cover of the Clash's reggae-inflected 1979 classic ''Guns of Brixton,'' whose original lyrics referenced Cliff's character in The Harder They Come, bringing the entire history of modern reggae from Marley through punk, across a revival and back again full circle. But don't call it an ending: ''The concept of the way people live and say, 'You're 64, you're 71, you should be doing this or that,''' says Cliff, ''I don't live by that. That's what keeps the fire in me.''
Best Tracks: Reggae Music • Guns of Brixton • Bang