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OPINION: Amateur Album Reviews: 'The Harder They Come'

The best reggae album you’ve never heard

The album cover art for “The Harder They Come” shown on Jan. 15, 2023. A set of headphones and a dongle is required for this old sound to reach new listeners. // Photo by Eli Voorhies

I was probably 10 years old. I zigzagged through the metal poles and balconies of a play structure, evading my dad in a game of tag. Jimmy Cliff’s sweet, melodic voice pumped in my ears through an iPod. 

My younger brother – about to be caught, and in a moment of desperation – threw himself from the top of a twisting green slide, nearly 15 feet off the ground. He crumpled on the woodchips below. 

I learned two things that day: my brother was willing to do anything to not get tagged and, more importantly, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” is one fine piece of music.

Before I dive into this fantastic album, I want to walk you through the format of this series. 

This quarter, I will be reviewing 20th-century albums that, in their heyday, had a cultural impact. I will touch on the histories of the albums and decide whether they have stood the test of time. 

What makes me qualified to tell you whether an album is good or not? I work part-time at a record store. Anything else? Nope, that’s really all I’ve got. 

Last fall, I put my first record player together. Naturally, the first record I bought was “The Harder They Come.” 

Since the times of my brother taking great leaps of faith – he later fell 20 feet from a ski chairlift – this soundtrack has had a hold on me like no other. 

The Harder They Come” hit international theaters in 1972. The semi-autobiographical movie stars Cliff as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a country boy who arrives in Kingston, Jamaica determined to be a musician. 

The Jamaican-produced film took the Western world by storm. In one United States theater, it ran for 26 consecutive weeks. In another, it ran for 80, according to the New York Times. 

The film illustrated the beauty and hardships of life in the Jamaican shantytowns of the ‘70s. 

Ivan’s boldness and desire to make it in the slums puts him down a path of no return, one where he goes on a cop-killing spree, becomes a major player in Kingston’s marijuana trade and falls hard in a Tony Montana-esque shootout.

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In this scene, a photographer shoots images of Ivan and every camera flash matches the beat of the song “007 (Shanty Town)" by Desmond Dekker. If you want any lessons in fashion, look no further than Ivan, whose outfits ramp up faster than his rise to rebel fame. // Photo from “The Harder They Come”

The movie falls short in its story-telling skills, as the transitions between scenes are wildly abrupt and confusing. 

In one scene, Ivan, clad only in underwear, runs from the police across the roofs of a shantytown. He stumbles upon an old man and flashes a mischievous smile at the camera. 

In the next scene, the old man is stripped to his underwear, his wife yelling at him for cheating. Trust me, it takes a second to figure out where the stranger’s clothes went. 

The movie is mechanically bad, yet ridiculously entertaining and wholly deserving of the attention it received because it shared the wonderful genre of reggae with the rest of the world. 

The soundtrack peaked at No. 140 on the Billboard 200, an unprecedented achievement for reggae music. “The Harder They Come” includes songs by a roster of reggae gods from the 1960s. Among them are Desmond Dekker, Toots and The Maytals and, of course, Jimmy Cliff. 

At the time, Bob Marley was only popular in Jamaica, according to That is, until the release of “The Harder They Come” inspired an appetite in viewers – especially those in the United States – that could only be satisfied by more reggae music. 

Half a year after the movie’s U.S. release, Bob Marley and The Wailers set out on their first tour of America  and the United Kingdom, headlining for Bruce Springsteen. 

“The Harder They Come” is a perfect mix of upbeat jams like “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and calm, contemplative grooves like “Sitting Here in Limbo.” 

And then there is “Johnny Too Bad” by The Slickers . If you want to feel anything like the well-dressed, ganja-slinging, doesn’t-take-no-for-answer main character of the movie, then listen to this song. 

A complaint I sometimes have with albums, even great ones like Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and every Bob Dylan record, is that the tracks can blend together. But “The Harder They Come” keeps it fresh with a diversity of artists – six of them in total – and sounds.

My favorite song off the record has to be “Draw Your Brakes” by Scotty for its funky beat that makes me want to do nothing but hit the gas. 

This soundtrack is just what you need to boogie through these slow winter months.

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Ivan rides on the back of his Rasta friend Pedro’s bike, zooming toward the marijuana farm. The tap-your-foot tune of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” accents their trip. // Photo from “The Harder They Come”

While it’s hard to find any gripes with this album, it seems to be making its last appearances in the spotlight.

John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, a movie released in 2000, said he wants Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” to play at his funeral – something I can get on board with. 

There was a Broadway remake of “The Harder They Come”  in 2023, though it didn’t get much traction, running only for a month.

Finally, the soundtrack made it onto two of “Rolling Stone” magazine’s sprawling top 500 album lists, which are determined by readers. It placed 122nd in 2012 and dropped down to 174th in 2020. 

The rankings mostly reflect the tastes of millennials, Gen X and baby boomers, based on Rolling Stone's 2023 Media Kit. Predictably and tragically, the album will plummet further as younger generations' tastes come into play. 

Sometimes I swear I can hear “The Harder They Come” taking its last gasps of air – though maybe that’s just my roommate humming the title track because it's been stuck in her head since we watched the movie last week. 

Next time you queue UB40’s “Red Red Wine” or when you go watch the new Bob Marley movie, just remember – none of it could have happened without “The Harder They Come.”


Album’s influence: 10/10 gold doubloons. Gold doubloons are my unit of measurement because gold stars are overrated. This album spread reggae around the world, paving the way for other reggae artists. 

Longevity: 2/5 spotlights. Spotlights are my unit of measurement for longevity. The higher the rating, the more time the album has spent in the spotlight. While this is a very celebrated album and entered pop culture a few times in the 21st century, it has largely not caught on with the younger generation.

Eli Voorhies

Eli Voorhies (he/him) is the opinions editor this quarter. Previously, he was a city life reporter and editor. In his free time, he climbs, photographs and spends more time messing around than working at Legendary Vinyl Records. You can reach him at 

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