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Thursday, 22 January 2009


Depending on which media outlets you pay attention to, there's a very good chance that you'll have noticed that it's the 50th birthday of what is probably the greatest record label ever - the immortal Motown.

As far as I can think, no other label has ever gone so far beyond being just an outlet for artists and instead had such a defined output that it's now talked about as a musical genre in its own right. I've seen many a press release and feature talking about a new artist having a "motown sound".

So when this was brought to my attention, it was love at first sight...

This, my friends, is a boxset called Motown: The Complete No. 1's. It's a ten disc box set of all of the Motown #1s since their first in 1960 (Shop Around by The Miracles) - that's some 202 songs in all. As well as coming with a booklet the size of, well, a book it also, as you can tell, comes in a replica of the Detroit HQ, known as Hitsville, USA. All for £55 from Amazon.

Because it's #1s there are a couple of my favourite Motown tracks missing, such as Smokey Robinson's Tracks Of My Tears and The Commodores' Brick House, but it would be churlish to complain about anything on this collection. The quality is startling, and for me the main surprise was how good discs 9 & 10 are - it's all in chronological order, so the last two CDs are full of Boyz II Men and Lionel Richie with the odd Shanice and Erykah Badu thrown in. Sure, those names don't have the same resonance as the Marvins, Stevies and Dianas, but they stand up pretty well compared to a lot of other music.

So anyway, I couldn't do this without doing a little countdown of my Top 25 Motown #1s. But before you get to the list, it's worth remembering that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Motown was about lots more than its artists, so big, big props to Berry Gordy Jr, Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, Holland, Dozier & Holland and The Funk Brothers for the astounding things they did to make this the best label in popular music history. Here are my picks...

25. Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On (1973)
Just as Motown was (and had been) getting more politicized, Marvin drops this ode to sweet, sweet lovin'. The lyrics aren't as overtly sexual as has often been suggested but it's still the best song about love and sex ever.
Best Bit: 0.01 One of the most seductive guitar intros ever committed to tape.

24. Lionel Richie - All Night Long (All Night) (1983)
Lionel turns up the African influences on this smooth early 80s hit, even down to his accent and the tribal drums at the beginning.
Best Bit: 2.41 The horns pipe up and lead into African vocals that have been sung out loud in a mumble at parties ever since.

23. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell - You're All I Need To Get By (1968)
One of the all time great duets, this also deserves credit for being the base of one of the greatest hip hop love songs ever, from Method Man and Mary J. Blige.
Best Bit: 0.42 Marvin and Tammi stop trading lines and sing the stirring chorus together.

22. Stevie Wonder - Higher Ground (1973)
Being a child of late 80s metal, this was one of the first Motown tracks I knew properly, courtesy of the cover by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Glad to say I know the original just as well these days.
Best Bit: 0.01 One of many classic Stevie organ intros from the 70s.

21. The Commodores - Easy (1977)
Another Motown hit covered by a metal act, this was done by Faith No More, but the original is still supreme. "Easy like Sunday morning" is a stroke of lyrical genius, though Lionel Richie obviously never had a paper-round at the weekend.
Best Bit: 2.47 The guitar solo starts off with that much imitated but never bettered "ooh" from Richie.

20. Michael Jackson - Rockin' Robin (1972)
After buying a double cassette 'megamix' of Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 from Carrefour when I was about 9, their songs have been very close to my heart since. This is the one about the funkiest red breast out there.
Best Bit: 2.18 Bizarrely, the drum break is made better by the "twiddly twiddly tweets" over the top.

19. Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) (1971)
A supremely cool track from the era-defining album What's Going On (more of which later), this is the older soul cousin of Grandmaster Flash's The Message.
Best Bit: 4.11 After a spot of freestyle vocals Marvin hits us with one of his hair-raising cat-like howls.

18. The Jackson 5 - ABC (1969)
Almost nursery rhyme-esque in its simplicity this is the very definition of a song that will stay in your head all day long.
Best Bit: 0.48 One of the older Jacksons sings "come on and let me love you just a little bit" in a stupendous falsetto.

17. The Supremes - Baby Love (1964)
This is such a sweet song that's almost impossible not to fall in love with Diana Ross while listening.
Best Bit: 0.06 The first "ooh" of the track tells you all you need to know about how sweet the next two and a half minutes will be.

16. Stevie Wonder - Superstition (1973)
After the recent Stevie tour of the UK this seems to have thankfully replaced I Just Called To Say I Love You as the song he's best known for. At least that should be the case.
Best Bit: 0.10 It's that Stevie organ again.

15. Diana Ross - I'm Coming Out (1980)
A proper feel good song, this was a Ross response to disco where she seemed to embrace the flourishing dance scene but still sound thoroughly Motown.
Best Bit: 0.11 A captivating bit of drum teasing starts - it lasts for all of the 52 second intro before settling into the groove.

14. The Temptations - Papa Was A Rollin' Stone (1972)
This version was itself a cover of another Motown band's original (The Undisputed Truth) but The Temptations really made it their own with their 12 minute sprawling, smoky funk classic.
Best Bit: 1.55 The vocals set the scene with the iconic opening line of "it was the 3rd of September".

13. Gladys Knight & The Pips - I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1967)
This funky version is for me a more satisfying track than Marvin Gaye's better known hit. Writer and Motown stalwart Norman Whitfield had this song recorded by four Motown artists, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and The Isley Brothers being the other two, but they were never released as singles, failing to voted in during the Motown weekly Friday singles meetings.
Best Bit: 0.08 The groove settles and Gladys shakes it down.

12. Stevie Wonder - Uptight (Everything's Alright) (1965)
Remarkably, Stevie Wonder was only 15 when this was a hit, and even that was two years after his first hit (Fingertips Part 2).
Best Bit: 0.07 That first blast of horns is rousing stuff indeed.

11. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - The Tears Of A Clown (1970)
Robinson deals with similar material as he did on Tracks Of My Tears five years earlier, but the public obviously preferred this more upbeat take as this was a big hit for them. Its harpsichord-esque melody is genuinely original.
Best Bit: 0.08 Another great Motown intro gives way to one of The Funk Brothers' most driving performances.

10. The Jackson 5 - I Want You Back (1969)
This, like many Jackson 5 tracks, is so multi-layered, thanks to a brilliant talented backing band and Michael and his much under-rated brothers.
Best Bit: 0.01 That piano slide is still such a recognisable intro, making the listener almost literally tumble into the track.

9. The Jackson 5 - Mama's Pearl (1971)
This might surprise people as my favourite of the Jackson hits, but it's such a timeless track, and doesn't have any sense of novelty that sometimes lingers over a couple of their other big hits. It's a beautiful thing.
Best Bit: 0.38 Michael's soaring vocals in the chorus remain some of his best.

8. The Four Tops - Reach Out I'll Be There (1966)
Passion has probably never been so accurately relayed on song as it has here. Levi Stubbs' vocals are strong enough as it is but with the other Tops behind him this is about as emotive as pop gets.
Best Bit: 0.16 It has to be when the vocals kick in, with the primal growl of the backing vocals really setting up the power of the next three minutes.

7. Diana Ross - Ain't No Mountain High Enough (1970)
This is really two songs in one, with the first half running the risk of being a little too floaty to engage, but then when the second half kicks in, you realise that the sudden blast of power comes in part from that extended intro.
Best Bit: 2.28 The big band steps up and Diana Ross lets rip to turn this low-key ballad into a storming proclamation of love.

6. Stevie Wonder - I Wish (1977)
Granted, it's hard not to sing Wild Wild West when you listen to this, but do your best. As is often the case, the organ is the key here and Stevie's never been funkier than on I Wish.
Best Bit: 1.11 It's the horn stabs that give this chorus its drama and excitement.

5. The Four Tops - I Can't Help Myself (1965)
Want to feel good? Then just stick this track on. Unless you've just been dumped, in which case the Four Tops ode to unconditional devotion is probably not for you. Again, The Funk Brothers deserve a lot of the credit here.
Best Bit: 1.43 The music drops off to just a cymbal and the piano so that the guys can show off their gorgeous vocals.

4. Stevie Wonder - For Once In My Life (1968)
Another truly feelgood song, brimming with optimism at new-found love and all the excitement that that brings with it.
Best Bit: 1.28 Stevie's other ace up his sleeve is the harmonica, and his solo here is a wonderful listen.

3. Marvin Gaye - Got To Give It Up (Part 1) (1977)
One of the best party songs ever, Marvin is on full-on funk-mode. I genuinely don't think I've ever not played this at a party where I've been in charge of the music.
Best Bit: 0.19 Marvin's falsetto. F.U.N.K.Y.

2. The Supremes - You Can't Hurry Love (1966)
Even when I was young I thought that this song sounded a bit better than Phil Collins' usual fare, and this original would be why. I find this track almost hypnotic in its ability to just make me stop what I'm doing and listen, and I'm not really sure what it is exactly about it that does that. Phil Collins probably.
Best Bit: 1.56 The Supremes shout "wait!" and put the breaks on the rhythm section to remind us just how good the bass and drums sound on their own.

1. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (1971)
One of the greatest songs of any genre, never mind just Motown. Marvin's ability to articulate the harsh realities of early 70s American life (war, poverty, injustice) in such a charismatic manner are surely the key to this song's enduring appeal. A worthy winner of my best of the Motown box, if you ask me.
Best Bit: 0.08 Is it a clarinet? I'm not sure, but if only all protest songs sounded this good then there probably wouldn't be any problems left in the world. Sublime in every way.

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