September 25, 2023

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Best Motown Songs: Supremes, Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson

In 1959, an aspiring songwriter and record producer named Berry Gordy Jr. borrowed $800 to start his own record label in Detroit. Good investment. Within a year, Motown had its first million-selling record, with the Miracles’ “Shop Around.” By 1969, the label would place dozens of records in the Billboard Top 10 as it reshaped the sound of pop music for a generation, thanks to its somewhat contradictory mix of assembly-line consistency and individual artistic brilliance, integrationist upward mobility and black self-assertion, fierce competition and familial camaraderie. “I was so happy whenever I got a hit record on one of the artists,” said Smokey Robinson, the label’s greatest songwriting genius. “Because they were my brothers and sisters.”

After defining “the sound of young America” with the mid-Sixties pop elegance of Mary Wells, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations, and the girl-group glory of the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas, the label’s two most visionary artists, Gaye and Stevie Wonder, pushed against Gordy’s dictatorial rule to create adventurous, socially conscious landmark Seventies albums like What’s Going On and Innervisions, which expanded Motown’s scope while staying true to its core hitmaking values. Motown stars like Robinson, the Commodores, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson kept churning out great music through the funk, disco, and easy-listening eras, and hitmakers like Rick James, Lionel Richie, DeBarge, and Boyz II Me kept the label all over the radio in the slick Eighties and into the Nineties.

Getting down to a list of the 100 Greatest Motown Songs wasn’t easy. This year is the 60th anniversary of Motown’s first Number One hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” by the Marvelettes, and yet the joy and power of this music hasn’t diminished even a tiny bit. Even if you’ve heard them a million times or come across them in a dozen movie soundtracks, classics like “My Girl,” “Come See About Me,” or “The Tracks of My Tears” still sound almost impossibly fresh, just as the radical spirit of “What’s Going On” or “Living for the City” resonates perfectly in our present political moment. And amid all the hits, there are still lesser-known gems to be discovered.