Motown is, without a doubt, the greatest record label in American history. It was never even close to the largest. Certainly, it was not the most profitable. If there even could be an award for most ethical record company, Motown sadly would not be its recipient. And in terms of total number of great songs ever released, the significantly longer histories and rosters of big labels would likely put several of them out on top. But for overall quality, Motown remains the undisputed champion.
Other record labels, making far more money, would have nonetheless killed for Motown’s hit-per-single rate. They similarly would have signed a contract with the devil for the efficiency of their assembly line approach. And any assembly line boss would surely marvel at the diverse and high quality output that Motown maintained for several years running while putting on a public face that never broke a sweat.
Readers here will know me much better as a Beatles fanatic, but over the past few years I’ve developed into a bonafide Motown junkie. What started as an impulse $6 purchase of the Big Chill soundtrack became a large box set compilation, and quickly morphed into a significant and growing collection of original Motown records and rarities sets.
A quick google search of the best Motown songs will show that most wouldn’t dare try to narrow down Motown’s enormous output into a mere 5 tracks. But we’ve set a precedent around here, and I’m willing to take up the challenge — at least, with a few caveats. The choices here are limited to singles, which isn’t too much of a restriction, since cream at Motown far more than often than not rose to the top. These are not my favorite Motown songs, either — indeed, only two of the five (#1 and #5) are my favorite song by the artist in question — but the best and most representative, in terms of both quality and status. With great apologies to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s brilliant early 70s output, I’m also restricting my choices to Motown’s glory days, ending with their move away from Detroit in 1971. Similarly (though differently), I further restrict my selections to those songs which all represent that elusive and difficult to define, yet instantly recognizable, Motown Sound. The goal here is not to create a list of the five greatest songs ever released on one of the many Motown record labels, but to list the top five Motown Records™.
Though it was entirely unintentional when debating and creating this list in my head over several weeks, I couldn’t be more pleased or find it more fitting that, including the bonus track, each of Motown’s greatest years from 1963 to 1968 are represented here. Each of Motown’s greatest and most prolific songwriters/producers, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, also sees their way onto this list at least once. And most, though not all, of Motown’s most legendary acts are also represented.
1. The Tracks of My Tears
VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (minus Claudette), dressed in white suits, lip sync their song The Tracks of My Tears on the set of a television show. The Tracks of My Tears lyrics.
Rightly labeled the King of Motown, Smokey Robinson was many things. One of the greatest vocalists to ever grace the label’s record grooves, their first superstar songwriter and producer, and easily their most elegant lyricist. In this track, the Miracles’ greatest and most celebrated, Smokey gives us his most vivid and haunting image: a person whose face has been scarred from crying too many tears. Everything about this track is exquisite perfection. From Marv Tarplin’s melancholy opening guitar riff; to the Miracles’ dazzling harmonies, with my favorite Miracle Claudette Rogers Robinson (not shown in the video) shining at the top; to Smokey’s delicate, quietly pained lead vocal; to the tasteful, subtle orchestration. As the music and Miracles’ vocals collectively swell for “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you,” you can rest assured that Motown never did it any better, and neither did anyone else.
2. I Heard It Through the Grapevine
VIDEO: Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard It Through The Grapevine plays over photograph of the artist. I Heard It Through The Grapevine lyrics.
The King of Motown aptly followed by the Prince, Marvin Gaye’s brooding, anguished rendition of I Heard It Through the Grapevine is one of the greatest songs to ever hit airwaves. Under Norman Whitfield’s demanding direction, the Funk Brothers — the house band who played on all of Motown’s Detroit recordings — laid down one of their most solid tracks. Johnny Griffith’s mesmerizing piano sets the mood, as Jack Ashford’s tambourine sends chills up the spine, and all three of Motown’s regular drummers hold down the groove. Marvin’s heavily emotional vocal performance is career-defining and set the stage for all of his best work in the coming years. This song is addictive — one listen is never enough. Try it yourself, and see if it doesn’t work its way into every corner of your mind and body.
3. My Girl
VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Temptations, dressed in matching suits, performing to their track My Girl in front of an audience. My Girl lyrics.
It may not be my favorite recording by my favorite musical group, but it is quite arguably Motown’s best-known song. Without a doubt, it is flawless. Smokey Robinson wrote an irrepressible hit and classic, and in David Ruffin he found a voice who could deliver it like no other. My personal favorite singer, Ruffin would continue on from this, his first Temptations single as a lead vocalist, to become the powerhouse of the group as long as he lasted, switching to a far grittier and more distinctive vocal style along the way. Combined with James Jamerson’s instantly recognizable bass line and Robbie White’s signature guitar part — a hook which he wrote on the spot in the recording session, and without which we would have had a completely different song — the Tempts soar on their signature tune from first note to last. Be sure to check out Motown’s best movers strutting their stuff in the clip.
4. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
VIDEO: A color clip of Marvin Gaye, dressed in a black suit, and Tammi Terrell, in a green dress, miming to their song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Tammi stands on a platform to be eye-level with Marvin, and the two flirt throughout. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough lyrics.
While Marvin Gaye is today recognized as one of the greatest talents soul music ever produced, Tammi Terrell’s legacy is frequently forgotten entirely. But Gaye and Terrell were nonetheless the greatest duet partnership in pop music history; their records are absolutely without peer. Word from her friends has Tammi vowing, before recording the song with an already highly-established Marvin, “I’m gonna make this motherfucker sing.” True to her word, she never let Marvin outshine her, and that confidence absolutely comes through on the finished track, as does the duo’s sparkling natural chemistry. Written by Motown’s brand new songwriters Ashford and Simpson, this song kickstarted both their career and a long string of hits for Marvin and Tammi until her untimely death from cancer in 1970. Youthful, vivacious, flirty, and endlessly romantic, this track is pure Motown.
5. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave
VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas dance and lip sync to their song Heat Wave in front of a crowd of dancing teenagers. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave lyrics.
Appropriately titled, Heat Wave is one of the hottest tracks you’ll ever have the privilege of hearing. A true band record, the Funk Brothers really get to strut their stuff here. And so do Martha and the Vandellas, who were in my estimation Motown’s greatest female vocal group. While the Vandellas do their regular job of expertly holding down things in the back, Martha Reeves delivers the lead vocal of a lifetime. Her exuberant, unabashedly lustful performance is a portrait of purely joyful female sexuality that remains rare even to this day. The track is infectious, with Richard “Pistol” Allen’s relentless drumbeat (perhaps his best) instantly sending you to your feet and Martha’s voice throwing your head back to sing along. This song is not only Martha and the Vandellas’ finest, but one of Motown’s finest, too.
Bonus Track: You Can’t Hurry Love
VIDEO: The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love plays over an image of the group. You Can’t Hurry Love lyrics.
Some will swear on all that’s holy that Baby Love is the definitive Supremes track. Meanwhile, others will fight you tooth and nail for recognition of Stop! In The Name of Love. But for my money, You Can’t Hurry Love is Motown’s most famous group’s most perfect recording. It’s easily the most pop recording on this list, but the Supremes were easily Motown’s most pop-oriented group. In any case, long before I could have told you Diana Ross’ name, I loved this song with all my heart. Once this track starts, it doesn’t let up until the very end. The transitions are lightning fast, and they’re hook after hook. Diana’s girlish vocal style is a perfect fit for the naive, hopeful lyrics. Meanwhile, the interplay between James Jamerson’s bass and Benny Benjamin’s drums is pure ecstasy, and sounds a little bit like magic. Holland-Dozier-Holland outdid even themselves.
In the coming weeks, I’m planning a more comprehensive series that takes Motown year by year and chronicles both the ways their sound changed over the course of a decade and the work of a whole lot of the performers who couldn’t fit onto this list. In the meantime, what would you call Motown’s greatest tracks?